Welcoming the Youngest Part of You

Rev. Jonathan Mitchell

Wayfarers Chapel

Rancho Palos Verdes, California

May 4, 2008

Isaiah 65:17-18

Mark 2:21-22

If you had asked me in Junior High School what I was going to be when I grew up, I would not have said "Swedenborgian minister," I would have said "research scientist." And I had a special interest in biology. Even to this day I am fascinated by new developments in science and try to keep up with them.

Science has a way of changing its mind about things. For a long time it was believed that we are born with all the brain cells that we will ever have. Our neurons may grow new connections, to be sure, and existing connections can get stronger or weaker as we learn, but the total number can only decline. Or so it was thought.

Well, good news! I just found out couple of months ago that science has changed its mind about that one in recent years. Every morning we wake up with brand new brain cells!

It has taken a while for the new way of thinking to sink in. But as it does, it is influencing the way I look at my day-to-day life. If there is a brand new part of me born every morning, what kind of world do I want to welcome the youngest part of me into? To what use shall I put these new brain cells? Should I welcome them into my fears and worries? Should I recruit the new brain cells into preserving resentments and other bad memories? Should I reinforce my stuckness and unproductive ways? Well, I guess those are silly rhetorical questions, for the answer is, "Of course not!"

The words of Jesus come to mind here:

No one sews a peice of unshrunk colth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins. [Mark 2:21-22 NRSV]

Let us then incorporate our newest braincells into the newest parts of our lives.

Just consider for a moment what we do when we are welcoming a new-born child into our lives. Certainly the youngest part of ourselves deserves the same care and attention. When we are welcoming a newborn into our lives we make our homes safe, and we arrange for a rich and stimulating environment. It is interesting in this regard to look at why it took science took so long to realize that the brain regenerates itself. In part it was the all too human tendency, individually and collectively, to get into mental ruts and to stop questioning what we have long assumed to be true. Another big part of it seems to be that they were studying caged laboratory animals. Stress and environmental impoverishment are known to inhibit neural regeneration. Thus they weren't able to observe it laboratory animals.

To me, this suggests that if I want to have plenty of new brain cells to work with, I want to reduce unneeded stress in my life and to seek out the stimulation of learning new things. And if I have new brain cells every morning, I want to recruit them into my passions, my enthusiasms, into those parts of my life that are the most vital and growing.

From a spiritual point of view, the idea that there is something about us that is ever young, ever brand new, is well, if you'll forgive me, nothing new. One of my long-time favorite quotes from the fourteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart reads:

Understand that my soul is as young as when it was first created. Indeed, it is younger! And understand that it would not suprise me if it were younger tomorrow than it is today.

We wake up with brand new brain cells every morning! I guess science is catching up with what spirituality knew all along.

I am going to share with you a word and a concept that is very dear to Swedenborgians. That word is "regeneration." The word re-generation, if you break it up, implies being generated again. A Swedenborgian would say that we are all embarked on a life-long journey of spiritual growth. God is re-creating us; we are gradually developing into something new. Regeneration is spiritual rebirth, the born-again experience, viewed as a life-long process, rather than as a one-time event. It starts in this life and continues into the next.

We lose brain cells and we grow new ones. That suggests to me that we can regenerate, and that while regeneration is a spiritual process, it has a neurological correlate. We can let some parts of ourselves go and acquire new ones. Some of us were joking last week at coffee hour about pin-point strokes. Wouldn't it be great if we could choose which parts of our brains to lose? Personally I wouldn't mind losing anxiety and inhibition. That's meant in the spirit of joking, of course. An actual stroke would be no laughing matter. And it certainly would not be good to have no fear and no inhibition. But I do wonder at times if I wasn't born with more anxiety and inhibition than I really needed. If I lose and gain brain cells might I not over time have less and less anxiety, and more and more relaxed cheerfulness wired into my brain? Well, I guess that is a question for science to answer, but I'm hopeful.

The best news about all those new brain cells is that it confirms the spiritual idea that we can grow into something new and different. With a enough dedication and persistence we can gradually become a very different person from what we were before. We are not captives of our past, we are not captives of our environment. We gradually grow into the people our Creator would have us be.

Let us listen again to our reading from Isaiah:

For I am about to create a new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight. [65:17-18 NRSV]

In the Swedenborgian tradition we read these prophesies in terms of symbolic archetypes. The 'heavens' stand for the spiritual realm, and the 'earth' for the material realm. In the context of today's service, it is tempting to see the new heavens and the new earth as a new spirit incarnated in a new a brain. "The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." A certain selective forgetting can be a gift. Those memories that serve no useful or vital purpose for the world that is coming are to be let go of. Note the phrases "I am creating" and "I am about to create." God's act of creation is ongoing, and hasn't stopped yet. The New Jerusalem for Swedenborgians is the age that is coming, a coming together of the world's relgions to serve the peoples of the world, and a moving from external forms to inner meaning. When that world comes it will be a joy and delight, and we can help that day come as we open our hearts and minds to the Divine Love and Wisdom.

May Holy One bless us all we continue to grow ever younger in spirit. Amen.

Notes and links

The inspiration for this sermon came from reading Proust Was a Neruoscientist by Jonah Lehrer. The discussion of neurogenesis, or new brain cells, is found in chapter 2, pp. 38-43. This is a great book for anyone who, like me, looks forward to a reintegration of science and the arts. If you are interested in more on the interconnections of science and culture you might enjoy Jonah's blog, The Frontal Cortex and Seed Magazine.

The quotation from Meister Eckhart can be found in Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation, Introduction and Commentary by Matthew Fox, p. 127. For a considerable stretch of time on my spiritual journey, this was THE BOOK. Unfortunately, the last time I checked the online bookstores, it was out of print.