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Neural Paths And The Church

I'm writing this blog post from the public library in Olympia, WA. I came here to help my daughter get settled temporarily as she begins a 6-week practicum. I'm not even sure I know what a practicum is, but it's necessary for her master's degree. In any case, the two-hour drive to Olympia and its reversal back to Vancouver are a blur for me. I've traveled the I-5 corridor north and south more times than I can count.

I'm sure you've had the same experience as me: driving a stretch of road without even noticing it, running on autopilot. It's been a long time since I was a new driver; the task is automatic now.

That's the way it is with skills, habits and routines. We get good at them and they no longer require conscious effort. That frees up our mental capacity to focus on new and different challenges.

Brain research makes clear what's going on biologically: as we do things repeatedly, we actually lay down expedited paths of neurons that allow many things to bypass our conscious thinking processes. Those pathways are essential to our functioning in the world, or we'd be overwhelmed having to carefully think out all the things we do.

Those expedited paths also make it hard to do something differently. Our brain wants to default to the automated response. We have to choose not to follow the old routine, a fair and often frustrating effort in itself, and learn a new one, another fair and frustrating effort. It's work. But it is possible. Physiologically, our brain begins to wire a new neural path and the old path decays. Eventually, the new path can become our default pattern, our new routine.

A group of Messiah women meets each Monday morning in the fellowship hall for prayer and fellowship. They often have good food as well. About a year ago these women made a choice: they would follow Messiah to the more modern language of the Lord's Prayer. All of them had been using the traditional language for many decades. Their neural pathways for it were deep. But as a group, they decided to learn the newer language, to use it every week in their gathering. They had it printed on slips of paper and taped it to the back of their name cards. Every week when the Lord's Prayer came they'd grab their name cards and read. (For some it has now become a new habit and they no longer need their cards, and some still do, but they all continue with the new language.)

Let's be honest: their lives would be easier if they could just continue reciting the traditional Lord's Prayer. But the newer form of the prayer is designed to be more accessible to people who don't have years of church experience, and these women of Messiah chose to make that a priority.

The Church is God's instrument of action in the world. It impacts its member's lives, both through the comfort in difficulty and challenge in complacency. If faithful it also brings ministry and mission into the world, God's hands and feet. It can reveal God's presence to those who don't yet recognize it.

The women of Monday morning prioritized learning the new language, not really knowing who it might tangibly impact, but believing it mattered that they try. Much of faith is like that: we don't know God's end game, but we see a chance to participate and we do, trusting the outcome to God. God will be asking more of that from us. I'm grateful to these women for modeling a faithful response.

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