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Jul 15 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

July 14, 2019


Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth—
let Israel now say—
Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
Psalm 129

Intro: This short psalm tells a story

It is about a person who was abused as a child
– yet the child became an adult without being defined by abuse
• at least, that’s how the first line reads
◦ but the second line corrects our understanding,
let Israel now say—
◦ the poem is not about a person, but a people
• by creating the perception of one person’s story,
◦ the poet captures Israel’s collective identity
– reading it as the poem of an individual personalizes the psalm for us
• but it also reminds us that we belong to a community
• and we have a shared identity with that community

Reading this Psalm last week, here is what I saw

The scars of Israel’s affliction were like furrows on its back
– like a person whose back is scarred from the lashings of a whip

The plowers plowed upon my back;
they made long their furrows Psalm 129:3

• the graphic word picture takes us back to Israel’s “youth” in Egypt
[The Egyptians] set taskmasters over [Israel] to afflict them with heavy burdens. . . . they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service (Ex. 1:13-14)
• child abuse also leaves scars
◦ sometimes on their bodies
◦ almost always on their brains and nervous systems
– Bessel van der Kolk argues that such scars be recognized as PTSD
(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
• his suggested diagnostic label is “developmental trauma”
• he has also explained this can result from abuse or neglect
– Israel had been traumatized in its youth, but not defined by its trauma
• that is because God intervened
The LORD is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked
Psalm 129:4

My Mom and Dad were not terrible parents, but they were not perfect
– they were my folks, and I love them
• but I am not the person I would have become on their rearing alone
◦ as with Israel, God not intervened
• given the total environment of my youth, I imagine my adult self as:
An obsessive-compulsive germaphobe, torn between grandiose delusions and perceptions of abject failure; self-infatuated yet self loathing; isolated from others and socially incapacitated; perhaps in and out of mental institutions, and most likely dead by my own hand before my fortieth birthday.
– but God cut those cords, which I understand to mean,
• God removed me from the control and influence of my family
• I had to detach myself from my family for several years
◦ because I hated the person I became whenever I was around them

I read the remainder of the psalm as “a prayer of detachment”

May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned backward!
Let them be like the grass on the housetops,
which withers before it grows up,
with which the reaper does not fill his hand
nor the binder of sheaves his arms,
nor do those who pass by say,
“The blessing of the LORD be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the LORD!”
Psalm 129:5-8

In the Hebrew Scriptures, “hate” is as much what a person does,
– as it is how a person acts toward someone else
• love and hate are seen in the way a person treats others
• so the prayer is that those who have hurt Zion would be shamed
◦ that the effect of their deeds would be turned backward
◦ as if erasing the affliction of the past
– the withered grass is an image of the vitality of trauma (or the abusers)
• the prayer is that it would be rendered powerless
◦ that the abuse would no have any effect on Israel
• that no one would pronounce a blessing on the abusers or their abuse
◦ is a request that no energy would be given to the abuse
◦ nor to the memory of it

Interestingly, Psalm 124 is the only other psalm that begins the same way
– using the same word formula
If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—
let Israel now say—“
If it had not been the LORD who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us
(Ps. 124:1-3)
• again, Israel did not suffer the fate others intended for them
◦ because once again God intervened on their behalf
◦ as a result, neither Israel’s identity nor destiny was controlled by others
We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken and we have escaped
(Ps. 124:7)
– these stories of intervention illustrate a truth we can trust
• God makes real and positive changes in our lives

Two important facts about the brain have come to light

The first is referred to as neuroplasticity
– it was once believed that the adult human brain did not change
• that brain development occurred early in life
◦ from conception through late adolescence
• but that the adult brain was fixed and unable to repair itself
– we know now the brain continues to learn and develop into old age
• that it can heal itself to a remarkable degree
• that it can shut off old neural pathways,
◦ and create new pathways (synapses between neurons)
◦ it can even produce new neurons in specific structures

The other big discovery was epigenetics
– the old idea was that children are predestined by inherited genes
• we know that holds true for a number of physical features (eye color)
◦ but it is not true of everything
• for instance, a parent’s mood disorder may go back two generations
◦ a child may carry the same gene, but not manifest the disorder
◦ the gene may predispose the child as a potential outcome,
◦ but it is not absolute that the child will suffer the same mood
– the way that a gene expresses itself can be turned on or off
• whether it is turned on, depends on environmental factors
◦ such as family life and other influences like health and school
Daniel Siegel, “When neurons fire together, the genes in their nuclei—their command control centers—become activated and ‘express’ themselves. Gene expression means that certain proteins are produced. These proteins then enable the synaptic linkages to be constructed anew or to be strengthened.”
• we can intentionally influence the expression of certain genes
◦ we can produce changes in the brain’s “structural connections”
◦ this has been the lesson of the last four weeks
◦ that to “repent” is to rewrite the brain’s owner’s manual

Specific factors that improve progress in changing the brain

Prayer – like the psalm we read, God intervenes
– trusting God has real value in reducing stress and anxiety
In How God Changes the Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman state, “Our neurological findings have shown that different types of meditation and prayer affect different parts of the brain in different ways, and each one appears to have a beneficial effect on our neurological functioning and physical and emotional health.”
• when we trust God, we can envision a new future
• if we can trust so much that we feel the new future,
◦ it transforms our attitude now
◦ we can give thanks today for tomorrow’s blessing
(for instance, notice how Psalm 13 begins,
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
and ends,
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Being – to be aware of your “here and now” experience
– it is a waking up to life
• we can see that a blossom is beautiful, and know it is beautiful
◦ but we can also have a direct encounter with its beauty
◦ and, we can be aware that we are having that encounter
• enter your body:
◦ be aware of external stimuli and internal sensations
• enter your mind — ask, “What am I thinking right now?”
• enter your emotions — ask, “What is my mood right now?”
◦ if you cannot read your feelings, it may help to have a list:
happy, frustrated, relaxed, afraid, safe, uneasy . . .)
▫ labeling your mood helps to objectify it and not identify with it

Seeing – developing a trained eye
– catch your brain when it heads into a downward spiral on autopilot
• know your triggers and catch them in the act
Daniel Siegel, “One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.”

Savoring – make the most of positive experiences
– when something pleasant happens,
• when you receive an insight, an answer to prayer, or unexpected gift
• hold it for a few seconds – give it time to sink in
◦ we want our brains to memorize the feeling
◦ be with it long enough to form or strengthen neural connection

Doing – reinforce neural circuits by acting on your new thought
Jesus did not hand out certificates of discipleship simply because his disciples heard him teach or learned from his example. On the night he taught them about loving and serving others, he told them,
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (Jn. 13:17)
– doing adds new neural connections and keeps the brain healthy
• if you’re good at crossword puzzles, find something else to do
◦ the brain needs new challenges to continue developing
• sit at a piano or keyboard, write a short story
◦ be at peace with being a beginner – being clumsy at first

Integrating – place your effort to change into a total experience
– let the thought in your mind find a corresponding emotion
• notice the sensations the thought and emotion create in the body
• then do something – act out the new thought and emotion
◦ the more your spread an experience throughout the brain,
◦ the more power you give to rewriting its owner’s manual
– at this point the whole process can collapse–IF
• you’re not passionate about the changes your attempting
• passion makes a huge difference in writing change into the brain

Repeating – repetition is how we formed the brain’s current circuits
– practice praying, being, seeing, savoring, doing, integrating
• the more we use those new synapses, stronger the connection
• we become more effective and proficient in our new minds and actions

Conclusion: I want to you to leave with this truth

God’s Spirit, who enables and empowers our new life in Jesus
– will be with you this week – and will energize and help you change

Our prayer:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right Spirit within me
(Ps. 51:10)
God’s answer:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you . . . And I will put my Spirit within you . . . (Eze. 36:26-27)

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