Weekly Bible Devotional
“Finding God in the Waves: Teach Us, Neuroscience, to Pray”
September 11, 2022
Scripture: Matthew 6:1-8
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Notes on the Text:
According to our text for this week, Jesus knew about the temptations of using prayer to get what we want, whether from society or from God. In order to appreciate what Jesus was trying to say, we have to remember the practice of patronage or beneficence in the ancient Roman and Jewish worlds. A great resource about this is the work of Bruce Winter in his book Seek the Welfare of the City. At the time of Jesus, public works, public buildings, public baths, city festivals, feasts, and games were done by wealthy individuals. So the people of the ancient cities would praise the benefactors in public with great praise that would show their appreciation. Even the emperor of the Roman Empire was part of this practice, giving of his own wealth in order to show off his power and generosity.
Against this backdrop, we can appreciate what Jesus was saying to the people. Jesus was trying to say that God is not our heavenly benefactor who needs praise and adoration in order to bestow favors. The human systems of power and esteem have no place in the Kingdom of God. God was the opposite of that kind of system. Prayer was to be about a transformative relationship with God that turns our world of fear and anger upside down and eventually heals us from our fears. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus proclaimed a vision where doing God’s work in the world is the motivation without the rewards that appeal to our egos and social systems that oppress and abuse the needy.
The main remedy which Jesus offers to the social ills of the systems of domination and benefaction in our world is the practice of spirituality in secret. This is not about being modest in prayer or not talking about one’s faith in public. It is about really connecting with God. Only when we learn to surrender are we able to allow God into our brains and into our lives to heal them. Jesus’ actions and teachings followed the same pattern. He did not seek social status or power according to the ways of the empires of his time. In fact, he was willing to face death instead of using the means of violence and control to spread his message.
In a way the instructions about giving, prayer, and fasting echo Jesus’ own experience of spiritual formation in the wilderness! When he was being tempted by the devil, he had to face the same pressures of power, control, security, and the need for survival. He resisted these temptations because his mission as an agent of the Kingdom of God was to show the futility of the values of domination of the other kingdoms. The followers of Jesus are invited to follow in his footsteps to let go of the social pressures to find happiness in security, control, success, and power.
This week we are looking at prayer and how science can help us get deeper into our prayer by showing us that contemplative prayer has a definite positive effect on us. Meditative prayer where one learns to surrender to God in prayer instead of asserting one’s will and desires can be very transformative. According to science cited by Mike McHargue in his book, Finding God in the Waves, studies show that people who meditate have, “increased activity in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for attention and focus…[and] experience reduced activity in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex…the part of our brain that keeps track of our immediate surroundings and sense of physical presence…religious people with consistent prayer practice basically shut down their parietal lobe during prayer. This reduced activity can create the sensation that one is leaving this reality and connecting with something greater and less physical…research shows that meditation is one of the best things you can do for your brain –right up there with reading and physical exercise. Neuroscientist have found that people who pray regularly have thicker gray matter in their prefrontal cortex (that’s your brain’s CEO, responsible for focus and willpower) and their anterior cingulate cortex (the part of your brain responsible for compassion and empathy)…This also reduces the responsiveness of the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear and anger)…Meditation lowers your blood pressure and helps you feel less stressed.” People who practice contemplative prayer know the difference in themselves and know how their prayer life leads them away from demanding things from God to seeing God being with them in all of life’s circumstances.
What does contemplative prayer look like for us today? Here are some suggestions from Mike McHargue:
- Talk to God: This is the easiest and most accessible. Reflect on the idea that God loves you and delights in time spent with you. Then talk to God as you would talk to a close friend…The most important part here is to focus on God’s love.
- Basic Meditation/Focus on Compassion: The goal in compassionate meditation is to relax, become aware, and then focus on a mantra (a calming word or phrase) or an image of peace or compassion. The former could be as simple as “All is well” or “God” or “Love”; the latter could be a field of flowers in bloom or the face of someone you love…If doing this with your eyes closed is too difficult, I’ve often found that it helps to fix my gaze on a lit candle and imagine that the candle is the warmth of God’s love.
- Centering Prayer: In centering prayer, you sit in silent contemplation. There is no goal, no insight to receive, just stillness in the presence of God. Start by relaxing and focusing your attention on your breath. Think of each breath as a gift, nourishing you, sustaining you, and requiring no effort to receive. Rest your attention on your breath without trying to control it in any way. If any thoughts or feelings (or sensations) enter your mind, simply notice them and then return your attention to your breath…If you find it difficult to maintain focus in this exercise, scientists have found that adding small, intentional movements or vocalizations can help quiet the mind…Research shows that it can take weeks to get the knack of a centering prayer practice, but once the knack comes, it’s one of the surest ways to feel God’s presence.
- Prayer with Scripture/Lectio Divina: The ancient practice of Lectio Divina (or “Divine Reading”) can help by offering the benefits of meditation in a more externally structured practice…Begin by selecting a Scripture passage. Not anything too long –one “scene” in a narrative book or one chapter in Psalms will do. A scene in the Gospels where Jesus interacts with someone works well, too. Next, read the passage three times. On the first pass, listen for any words or phrases that resonate with you. Don’t overthink this…On the second pass, read with those words and phrases already in mind. What do you feel? How does the Scripture relate to your life circumstances?…On the third reading, think about what action you might take in regard to that situation, as guided by the Scripture. Some ask, “What is God inviting me to do?”
- Terra Divina: The goal of this prayer is to get to know nature as your kin and to let God speak to you through nature. Take time to be in nature letting your attention be caught by something wild. Then spend time pondering the part of nature that is trying to speak to you. Without rushing, allow whatever has caught your attention to carry your prayers, feelings, and yearnings. The last piece of the prayer is to allow the encounter to help you enjoy the sacred presence of God.
- Don’t Judge: Let go of any self-judgment –you literally can’t fail at prayer.
- Relax: Take time to breathe slowly and deeply and let go of distractions during prayer.
- Be Aware: Prayer is most powerful when it expands our awareness.
- Practice Intent: Start with an intention that leads to focus on God’s love and grace.
Fr. Richard Rohr writes the following to help us see the importance of our secret work with God. “St. John of the Cross taught that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness, because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery /transformation /God /grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process. No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying. God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics. That is perhaps why the best word for God is actually Mystery. We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace. When we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues.”
Prayer by Frederick Buechner:
Lord, catch me off guard today.
Surprise me with some moment of
beauty or pain.
So that at least for the moment
I may be startled into seeing that you
are here in all your splendor,
Always and everywhere,
Within this life I breathe. Amen.