June 5 Sermon – Trouble at the Table

Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series – Week 1

1 Corinthians 11:17-26

Late Wednesday afternoon, a man came to our house with a stump grinder. It was amazing to see how quickly he was able to turn all the stumps (big and small) into mulch, dirt and holes in the ground—just around an hour. I can’t imagine having to do this work by ourselves. We are very grateful that somebody invented this particular machine.

Human beings we are geared toward figuring out new and more efficient ways of doing things.

Our friends Bill and Donna Warhover have a large scale vegetable farm just south of Mt. Vernon on Highway 1. We’ve watched them go from grow lights in the basement to putting up a high tunnel to extend the growing season; from weeding with a hoe to having John Kroul lay down lengths of plastic and then straw in their huge veggie beds. They poke holes in the plastic for the plants and the plastic cuts down on the weeds and means they don’t have to water nearly so much. (I might do more vegetable gardening if I had that set up!)

Of course, they don’t have a choice. The more vegetables they want to grow for more and more people, the more efficient they have to be in their practices or they would not be able to keep up.

Our brains do a similar thing.

Consider how much work our brains are constantly doing—receiving an influx of information, scanning to figure out what’s going on, if it’s safe, and if a response is needed.

Because the brain is working so hard all the time, it has streamlined several processes to make them more efficient. People who study brains coined the term “cognitive miser” to describe “our natural tendency to conserve…mental energy by selectively choosing what we’ll pay attention to, using mental shortcuts…and avoiding situations that demand a lot of cognitive resources.”[1]

One of those mental shortcuts is categorization.

Social psychologist Christena Cleveland describes categorizing this way:

“Imagine how much time you would waste each day if you didn’t have a concept for chairs. Every time you encountered any object with four legs and a seat, you would examine it, stare at it and wonder whether you were supposed to walk on it, eat it, fear it or sit on it. This would consume a ridiculous amount of…time.”

Instead, we “categorize all sturdy objects with three or more legs and a seat as chairs…So lots of different varieties of chairs.are all tossed into [our] chair category. Anytime we encounter an object that remotely fits [our] concept of chair, [we] automatically know” what to do with it.[2] Which is a good thing.

Categorization and being cognitive misers are mental processes that are really helpful to us…except when they are NOT. Because we go too far with these processes. In order to conserve mental energy, we avoid any situation that might make us uncomfortable and therefore be cognitively taxing. And our categorization leads us to think in terms of ingroup and outgroup, Us and Them, For Us and Against Us. Social psychologists call this “Group Polarization” and it gets us into a lot of trouble.

Now, you may be wondering, ‘How did Lori get so smart about social psychology?”

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Social Psychologist Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. In it she describes all the cognitive processes (like being a cognitive miser and group polarization) that both help us make sense of the world and work against us when it comes to how we think about others. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

We are seeing the divisions in our country in Technicolor these days, whether we’re talking about politics, religion, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. It turns out we are hardwired to divide the world into Us and Them and our brains work in all kinds of ways to reinforce those divisions.

There has been a kind of relief in understanding the why and how of human beings’ tendency to splinter ourselves in groups, but even more in learning that we CAN overcome these tendencies.

Because I am also the mother of a young reader, Dr. Seuss books are on regular rotation at our house. And it occurred to me that the processes Christena Cleveland describes are at work in many of Dr. Seuss’s stories. They don’t just offer imagination, creativity, and clever rhymes. Many of Dr. Seuss’s stories are sharp social commentary.

Now, the Zax are a better example of being stubborn and single-minded than they are of being cognitive misers and going too far in categorization. However, I can’t resist beginning with the Zax, and that image of them, standing face to face, toe to toe, refusing to budge. It feels like an apt metaphor for the divisions we see all around us. Except that I think more truthfully, we have turned our backs on each other.

Where does the Bible fit into all of this? The more I reflected, the more I recognized how the Bible’s stories and instructions can be what circumvents our human ways that get us in trouble. They offer us a mental framework, a perspective, a way of thinking about ourselves in relation to God and the world that counters our reflexive tendency to divide and circle the wagons.

Last week we talked about how our brains are wired to hold on to negative thoughts rather than positive ones so that we must savor and acknowledge the great things that happen in order to remember them. The Bible offers us a way to overcome the negativity bias, as it repeats the instruction to be grateful over and over, to appreciate the beauty around us, and be thankful for all that we have received.

And what does the Bible have to say about group polarization and categorization gone too far? One “antidote” it gives us is the Lord’s Supper. As we share this meal, we are reminded that Jesus himself is the host and we are invited guests. We are ALL invited guests, including the very people we would not choose or even think about inviting.

In the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that just as it took many grains of wheat to make a single loaf, and individual grapes to make the wine, so at this meal, we who are many are made one. We belong together. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. This meal invites us to be part of something that is far bigger than we are, far outside of our usual thinking.

In Isaiah, the prophet speaks these words for God:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(55:8-9)

I for one am grateful that God’s thoughts are not ours, and that in the God known to us as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit offers us an alternative to the messes we make for ourselves. I look forward to exploring these with you over the next few weeks.

[1] Cleveland, Christena, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. Pp. 44-45

[2] Cleveland, Christena, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. p. 44

 

Summer Sermon Series

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series

Zax

As a kid, Dr. Seuss stories were some of my favorites. His playful, imaginative drawings and use of language were (and are, as a parent) irresistible. But many of his books offer important commentary on human beings and how we treat one another that children of all ages understand. Indeed, although some his stories are over 50 years old, they still feel like fresh commentary on the divisions we see in our world today!

Recently, I’ve been reading Social Psychologist Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. In it she explains the cognitive processes (the way our brains work) that both help us and work against us when it comes to how we think about others. We very naturally divide the world in Us and Them and our brains work in all kinds of ways to reinforce that. But being aware of those cognitive processes is a big help in correcting that automatic “othering.”

The processes Christena Cleveland describes are at work in many of Dr. Seuss’s stories. AND they are also implicit in Jesus’ call to us to change our hearts, minds and lives and follow him and the faith community being like the body of Christ in which everyone is necessary and valued.

Join us this summer as each Sunday we explore what a Dr. Seuss story, social psychology and scripture teach us about being humans, faithfully following in God’s way.

 

God’s Love – No Exceptions

Have you ever met someone and within minutes discovered that you have all sorts of connections and people in common?

This happened to me recently with Ben Thiel who led an Adult Forum with his wife, Mary Vermillion, back in February.

From emails beforehand and conversations that day and after, I learned that we both grew up with parents who were VERY active in the Presbyterian Church. Both of Ben’s parents became Presbyterian ministers while my parents served the church in other ways. Our mothers served on several committees together and even traveled as part of a study delegation to Central America in the 80s. It also turns out that when Ben was a student at Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant he was active in the local Presbyterian church where a close friend of my parents was the pastor. Truly, the world is small and connected and wonderful!

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Ben and feel like we have so much in common. We have both have loved the church since childhood, love talking about how Jesus calls us to live and witness in our lives today, and are concerned about the ways in which our beloved church is a faithful witness to the kingdom of God in the world today—and when it is not.

Part of the challenge, of course, is Christians do not agree on what that faithful witness looks like. One of the most visible and vocal disagreements among Christians right now in around the place of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) persons in the church, society, and public bathrooms.

Ben and I share a similar understanding of what the church’s response to LGBTQ people should be. We were both raised by parents who taught that God loves everyone (no exceptions) and that all have a place in the household of God, particularly the outcast and those called “sinners.”*

However, we recognize that not everyone else shares that perspective. Christians do not have a universal understanding of how to read and interpret the Bible, where to put the emphasis in interpretation, and what it means to love someone else.

Ben has a unique perspective on this “issue” because while he was born a girl, from a very young age he identified as a boy. At the February adult forum, Ben and his wife, Mary, read from the memoir they wrote together. For much of his early life, Ben lived in the uncomfortable tension of his outsides (birth sex = female) not matching his insides (gender identity = male). When puberty came, Ben (then Beth) buried those feelings…until several years into Beth’s and Mary’s relationship, when that cognitive dissonance came back with a vengeance and Beth made the transition to Ben.

What was most impressive to me when listening to Ben that Sunday was no matter how he questioned his own identity, what was never in question was God’s love for him, exactly as he was. (A close second was Mary’s story of how she came to understand that she loved a person and not a particular gender.)

Because I think that message is so important for all of us to hear in our own struggles as well as part of the debate surrounding the rights and “rightness” of transgender people, I asked the Session if we might have Ben share more about his story and the role his faith has played in that in worship one Sunday. They agreed and Ben will be preaching on Sunday, June 19.

While we may not all agree, view or understand human sexuality (in its ever more varied expression) the same way, I hope we can agree that God’s love is bigger than us. Please join us—and invite others, too—to hear Ben’s witness to God’s love for him, no matter what.

Grace and peace to you!

Pastor Lori

PS If you find yourself feeling in any way troubled about this, I hope you will talk to me. I would be very glad to have a conversation with anyone!

 

*Here’s a slightly fuller explanation of my own interpretation of scripture:

All of scripture is best read in light of the whole story. What I see in the biblical story arc is a trajectory towards acceptance for all:

  • Early on, God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be his particular people, but blesses them for the purpose of blessing others. In doing so, God attempts to move people from the tribal, circle the wagons mentality toward an understanding of how we belong to each other.
  • Strangers and foreigners play an important role in critical moments of Israel’s history—for example, Rahab the prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2), Ruth the Moabite shows what loving-kindness looks like (Ruth), Cyrus the king of Persia allows the Jews in exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1).
  • In Matthew 1:1-17, Jesus’ own genealogy includes the names of four women who were either foreigners or women of questionable character. In his ministry, Jesus was always pushing the boundaries of inclusion—for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).
  • The boundary pushing continues in the Acts of the Apostles—for example, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch (condemned by the law as unclean and an abomination) whose faithfulness astounds him (Acts 8:26-40) and Peter receives a vision and an encounter in which God challenges his understanding of what and who is “clean” and “unclean” (Acts 10).

Because of this trajectory, I see God’s invitation to us to constantly question who is “insider” and who is “outsider” and to do everything in our power to break down those barriers.