Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Urgency of Strategic Breaks

From my book A Time for Yes, this post integrates lessons I've learned from various human sciences on what helps us to perform at our peak. Surprisingly, it's taking breaks.
Mondrian's "Rhythm of Black Lines"

Grooving—that’s life at its best. That’s what musicians—and especially drummers—describe as that moment when you’re feeling the rhythm so deeply that you’re almost obligated to stay in it. Not too fast, nor too slow. You’re “in the groove.” It’s the result of hearing the yeses, testing them, and then finding the right rhythm of yes and no, of notes and spaces. 
When Leonardo da Vinci was working on The Last Supper, he would without warning take a break.  The prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie was not amused and entreated Leonardo with tiresome persistence to complete the work.  The prior complained to the Duke who questioned Leonardo about his working habits. Leonardo, we are told, persuaded the duke that “the greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.”
Some like to describe this optimal state of life as balance. And that description works ok, if it implies the right mixture of activities that promote the good life. The problem with balance—or “the balanced life”—is that it sounds as if living well is to find some equipoise between equal parts of two different things, like relaxation and work.
I prefer describing life at its best as rhythm. It’s dynamic. Balance remains essentially a vision of things staying there on a scale. Balance is a teeter-totter that’s horizontal to the earth. It just stands there. A great rhythm, on the other hand, has movement and dynamism. It integrates a variety of different inputs. A little bass drum here. Some snare drum there, mixing with a thumping bass and a spiced with a shaker, a tambourine, or some conga. 
The key then is good rhythm among all the calls in life. Conversely, it’s not really work/life “balance” because I’m saying that all these three major areas—life, work, and love—need to play off one another to create a rhythmic beauty.
Rhythm—and this is the most important part and the one that’s often missed—has that expert relationship between sound and silence. To keep making noise is just that: noise. But a good rhythm has notes and spaces, and that’s what makes it work. And even more than work, that’s what makes it interesting and sometimes scintillating.  
Life is like that too. We live our best when there’s intense engagement in what we love, what we say yes to, and then points of rest.
The Bible also describes these moments of refreshing, of returning to God. One of my favorite verses finds its way into the prophecies of Isaiah:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;In quietness and trust shall be your strength.
This prophecy came to the people of Israel at a time of great social stress. They needed to hear about the rhythm of working hard and of returning to God. Tellingly, they did not because the next line reads, “But you refused” (Isaiah 30:15, NRSV). 
We need to listen to the call to return and rest. And this rest and return make the rhythm of yes and no.
Let me describe how that worked for me when I was a kid, when the importance of rhythm founds its way in sports. And there I learned that sometimes the best lessons—the ones you need to remember—happen at age 10.
I was down four games to five in the third set at my junior tennis match. I knew I had to perform at my peak. My opponent was bigger and stronger. (My December birthday always put me as the youngest in my age bracket.) At that moment, when I hit the forehand down the line, it needed to be winner. Not just something safe. It had to be special, something that would be sure to take the point. So I was nervous. Even at that age, I’d lost matches where I got too stressed, too uptight and anxious, and I’d missed key shots when I really needed to make them. I knew the feeling of losing that last game. Match and tournament over. Loss to Cootsona. Time to pack up and go home.
I realize that some of us have a tendency to play it overly safe. Maybe we like our breaks a little too much. We need to learn to engage in our yeses just a little more. But I’m assuming that those interested in this book are geared toward optimal performance. More often than not we just keep working harder and harder. We refuse to take a break. We assume more work and more activity is better. The result is usually not more efficiency. Rather, we find ourselves overstressed and making bad decisions.
It turns out that the key for me at that moment in that critical match was actually two minutes of not playing. Before serving at 4-5, I took a short, but necessary rest when my opponent and I switched sides. To gain some energy, I ate a few caramels my mother had carried in her pockets (the ‘70s equivalent of Power Bars). As best I could at age 10, I focused my attention—not on not losing, but on winning. My opponent was back on the court way before I was. But I waited until I felt ready to return to the game.
At 4-5, I served strategically and not wildly. I took the game. At 5-5, my confidence increased and my opponent’s began to waver. Then returning serve, I started to make shots with more freedom and less fear. I was becoming steadier. It got to 6-5. Time to change sides again. Everything in me wanted to rush to the next game—knowing that if I took it, this three-hour match would be over. Instead, as we switched sides, I paused again.
By the time I served at 6-5, my nerves were calmer. I was in the Zone. Even when I lost two points, I still found myself serving at 40-30. Match point. The serve pinned my opponent in the corner, and he hit a weak backhand. I put it away. Match to Cootsona. On to the quarter finals.
I won the match, and I’m sure the brief respite had everything to do with it. I followed my shaky start with my best work.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a tight business climate, where it’s all pressure all the time. We can make the mistake of not taking that break at a critical moment. The match in front of us is urgent, but there is nothing more urgent than strategic breaks. Because when we rest, we can go deep. And we need to dig down when the match gets tough. It’s at the depths that we find creativity and innovation. When we want a new insight on the pitch we’re about to make, the speech we want to write, or managing that challenging employee, we need to move into the deeper functions of our brain. When we are constantly pushing ourselves, it’s simply impossible to do our best work.
Harvard Professor Herbert Benson has called these moments in everyday life “breakouts.” I’ve called it “saying yes to no.” Using research from brain mapping, Benson describes that up to a point, stress helps us think and act better. Beyond that, however, it simply frustrates us. If you keep pushing yourself when you’re at a dead end, your “primitive brain” (the deep core that drives basic functions and raw emotions) goes berserk. That’s when we feel fearful, frustrated, and forgetful.
At moments of key stress where we know we need to perform, but can’t, it’s time to change pace. Breathe deeply. Beat a drum. Walk around the block. Listen to Switchfoot or Mozart. There are countless possibilities, but the key is to do something completely different. Then the stress function is relieved and creativity emerges. Function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies suggest that deep meditation and creative activity lead to “coherence”—a synchronizing of the logical left brain with the intuitive right brain.
In a tight market when we’re tempted to keep working and in the process simply get more stressed, let’s learn when not to work, to say yes to NO.
Now, interestingly enough, two former specialists in coaching tennis, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz, have taken their lessons from athletics and brought them to bear on life and particularly the maintenance of energy. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, they conclude that “managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.” 
Loehr and Schwarz discovered—as I did at age ten—that the best tennis players were the ones who used their breaks between games and even the time between points, most effectively. 
They also emphasized that personal energy is multidimensional. And they outlined four areas:
  1. Physical energy is the fundamental source of fuel for life and for igniting other energies.
  2. Emotional energy means access to pleasant and positive emotions: self-confidence, self-control, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness
  3. Mental energy involves realistic optimism, mental preparation, visualization, and creativity.
  4. Spiritual energy is connection to deeply held values and a purpose that go beyond self-interest.
Interestingly, Loehr and Schwarz emphasize the need for “positive rituals” to keep this energy management. Positive energy rituals support effective energy management. For example, there are barriers to good energy management: Negative habits that block, distort, waste, diminish, deplete and contaminate stored energy. The solution? To establish strategic positive energy rituals that insure sufficient capacity in all dimensions. 
Examples can be reasonably prosaic. You like to move your body? Take that walk around the block and grab a cup of coffee. In Say Yes to No, I recommend a daily sabbath, where we take 30 minutes a day to do something we love. Loehr and Scwarz found that our energy cycles run in about 90-120 minute intervals, and so at the end of each of those, we need to take mini-breaks. The key here is to put that in your schedule—to set in your iPhone and to know when your break is going to come.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Usefulness of Independence

Another excerpt from Mere Science and Christian Faith (here in less than two months)...

We know that God is not ultimately demonstrable through natural science. God’s fingers, as it were, won’t poke through a laboratory experiment. In fact, since I advocate for dual causation (which I’ll explain in a another post), I believe we want to keep a measure of independence between faith and science. As nice as many pastors are, scientist don’t need them in the lab sprinkling holy water on their experiments or providing 24/7 spiritual encouragement.

Though I advocate for the integration of science and faith, independence has a place. If God is going to work in the natural world, he will often do so through natural means. (Though obviously a miracle like the resurrection is a direct act of God without natural causes.) One tried-and-true way to understand this is dual causation (see my footnote).

We can speak of an event through two means—God’s and the world’s. For example, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, 
“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (Exodus 14:21). 
Did God or nature do it? Yes—both are necessary to describe the event. 

Similarly, consider 
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
When God knits us together in our mother’s womb, that divine work also occurs through natural processes. This is a useful and necessary perspective. We should not use science to prove God’s existence, and there is no uniquely Christian way to bring water to the boiling point or to map the human genome.

Footnote: For a philosophical approach to this question, see Ric Machuga, Three Theological Mistakes: How to Correct Enlightenment Assumptions About God, Miracles, and Free Will (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), esp. 93-99, and “The Hows of Science and the Whys of Philosophy: Why Final Causes Are Still Necessary,” in In Defense of the Soul: What It Means to Be Human (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), 57-63.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

A Brief Meditation on Religion and Science in the United States (excerpt from a manuscript)

I'm currently working on a book about the past, present, and future of religion and science in the United States. The manuscript is due December 1. I thought I'd provide a peek into the book's current state.

America has always had a dialectical relationship with science and religion, that is to say, with rationality and order, as well as feeling and conversion. And since I begin this study with European settlements in the West and the East, it is even anachronistic to speak of “America” or “the United States.” Nonetheless, a dialectical—and sometimes contentious—relationship exists between these two forces, which of course, continues to the present day.

To use the scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s categories, as Americans, we are often poised between “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction” (Science and the Modern World, 181). From this citation, it sounds perhaps that religion is solely emotional. Whitehead does later comment in the chapter devoted to “Religion and Science” (from which this quote emerges) that 
“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.” A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-2.
That is to say, religion seeks to put us in connection with a broader Reality behind the reality we see. It is not simply an emotion, but an intuition of Something or Someone greater than we are.
Some might say that science and religion sets up the contrast between “head” and “heart.” That idea is somewhat distorting—since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in the brain—and yet that contrast begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit together. The eminent historian of American religion Claude Welch labels the three main threads in the eighteenth century “pietism, rationalism, and romanticism” (Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century I:22). In my view the former and latter are both cut from similar human cloth where Romanticism is often a secularized religion, and rationalism is the thread of science in our culture.
If we imagine science (or rationality) on one pole and religion (or feeling) on the another, some have fully given themselves to one pole or its other; many tend toward one as a major, and the other as a minor theme; and some have been able to bring the two together, or at least hold them in a dialectical tension. 
The story I’m telling to bring us to the present, and then the future, of religion in the United States, is one in which no generation ever arrives at fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate. 
If I am convinced that we have done best as a country when we have held both religion and science together, it’s related to my conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination. My intent in this book, however, is primarily to observe not to promote. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Excerpt: The Science of Christmas Future (A Redux)

Even though the numbers are decreasing link, most Americans (56%, to be exact) will
celebrate Christmas this year in a church congregation. And right in the midst of those worship services, they’ll hear about (1) a virgin giving birth to a baby (2) lying in a feeding trough (or manger), and that this birth (3) receives an angelic announcement and (4) visitation by “wise men” or magi who have traveled hundreds of miles, guided by a heavenly light (more on this in a moment).

If hearing about this four-part Christmas story hasn’t just become routine, it should register us as some fairly unusual stuff. Or maybe it strikes me that way because Christmas arrives just after I’ve finished teaching my college course on science and religion. And maybe that’s why I pose this question:

In an increasingly technological and scientific world, is the Christmas story unbelievable? Put another way, Is there a science of Christmas future?
For the rest of this post, see my blog on the Huffington Post:

Sunday, December 17, 2017

God's Blessings, the Incarnation, and Our Gratitude: A Dialogue

The question: If in the Incarnation of Christ we have received the fulness of “grace and truth” (John 1:14), how should we respond and what should our gratitude look like?

In discussing the science of gratitude through the work of U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons a few nights ago, my friend Bill and I were engaged in a spirited debate about the nature of gratitude, especially as we look at the greatest gift of all this season, the birth of Jesus Christ. I thought some of that discussion is worth posting here. My comments below will serve mainly as foils for Bill’s reflections. 

(And, in order to get this posted by Monday--which is my pattern--you're seeing this in a form that's still a bit rough-hewn. So I reserve the right to make a few edits this week to help clarify our meaning. Still I think the essence of our discussion/debate is here.)

Feel free to comment on how you see the answer to this question.

Bill:  It’s become popular to reduce gratitude to an emotion, but I resist that idea. While I agree there are emotions associated with it, it is much more than a feeling. My emotional responses have a lot to do with my chemical or hormonal levels at the moment. Identifying gratitude as an emotion overlooks that an actual debt is incurred. The debt is real, despite the giver waving it off. Gifts create bonds that we actually feel some reciprocation is necessary. It’s misused as a common sales technique to manipulate someone to reciprocate by buying a product. The emotions that go along with gratitude are those associated with relationships involved. Gratitude does not exist outside of a relationship.

I’ve been excited in seeing that the biblical word for gratitude or thanksgiving (eucharist) literally means “to return good grace.”  Returning grace is not a payment for something received, but is an expression of love. When we recognize ways our value has been elevated, we return grace by doing something to elevate the value of the other. “Thank-you” is not properly an expression of gratitude. It is a “place-holder” expression that says, “I am ‘thinking’ of you…” (which is the literal meaning of “thanks”). It is like a yet un-cashed “I.O.U. It says, “I will remember this debt of kindness in some future encounter.” 

Greg: Bill, this implies that somehow gratitude necessitates something that we received. I want to challenge the idea that gratitude always meant I personally benefited. It often does, but if that’s the only definition, then gratitude is always selfish. And what the Spirit leads us toward is serving others and moving beyond our interests alone: “Look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others,” as Paul write sin Philippians 2: 4. And there are even more mundane examples. We can experience gratitude when something good happens for a friend. “Hey, I’m thankful you won a car at the Almond Bowl football raffle” (which really did happen to a friend of mine).

Bill: I find your example challenging. It does give me something to think about. However, I would ask, “Why chose the word grateful?" The word “gratitude” itself contains a form of the word grace and it implies that you have received grace.

Greg: We must be careful of taking the roots of words too seriously, sometimes words do in fact mean what their roots imply, other times the meaning has meandered through the centuries. To note the ways that words change, C. S. Lewis, for example, points out in Mere Christianity that gentleman had nothing originally to do with kindness or propriety, but simply that you were in a particular social class. To be more precise, originally, a gentleman was a man of the lowest rank of the English gentry, standing below an esquire and above a yeoman. But the word has morphed. And the little roots of “gentle” and “man” don’t really help much either. 

Bill: While this is true, words change meaning, it is also true that the etymology of words frequently point to important distinctions in reality… distinctions we can point to and identify. These distinctions are lost, forgotten, or obscured when we reduce the meaning of a word. If we begin to use the word “gratitude” as a synonym for “glad,” then we have in effect lost the word. 

As C.S. Lewis has also pointed out, there is a tendency for a culture to reduce all words to synonyms for “good” and “bad.” This is also one of my concerns in focusing on gratitude as an emotion. It has the effect of reducing it to an “emoji.”  It is reduced to a subjective experience to be studied by psychology. Gratitude is an excellent word to describe the response to receiving grace. It means we didn’t deserve or even ask for it, but we have personally benefited. 

A second consideration to be addressed in your example is this: Who are you grateful to? The consensus of those in our group, and the papers we had read together [from the work of Emmons and texts he edited], seemed to agree that gratitude was personal and intentional response to gift that was both intentional and personal. Who are you grateful to for this benefit? If emotions “move us” toward some action (as the word and research implies), what did his gratitude move you to do.

Greg: Yes, gratitude implies indebtedness. And when we think of the Incarnation during this month, the grandeur of that gift leads us to sense indebtedness to God—and that is reflected in the biblical texts. But there is this higher way our relationship with God that Jesus points to when he refers to his disciples as “friends” (John 15:15). Simply put, friends aren’t just debtors. Even more, Paul’s deepest conviction—expressed passionately in Galatians—is that we are free for Christ (not, of course, free from doing what’s right). Faith receives grace freely, apart from works. I'm concerned that to feel the burden of reciprocity twists grace into a form of works that nullified the grace given. We can never pay back what God has done in Christ, and to act as if we could is to live in a form of slavery God never intends.

Bill: While grace is freely given and cannot be earned, nor can it in any way be repaid… the act of grace has indebted me to another in that the value of my life has been increased at their expense. Even though they do this freely, without expectation of a return, the moral register of the recipient usually recognizes the debt of gratitude. While this debt can be ignored, in most cases, if it is brought to our attention, we respond with expressions of gratitude. We could imagine an exaggerated example of ingratitude… someone accepting gifts as if they were a right “because grace doesn’t expect anything in return anyway.” The exaggeration makes the point that we have an innate sense of the injustice in such a response. I'm not suggesting your advocating such a response… only that such a response could be a logical extension of what you seem to be proposing. I believe your initial instinct is correct, that grace is not a burden, but frees us. And it is important to guard against turning grace into manipulations. I believe what I’m saying addresses that.

I want to repeat, our indebtedness has nothing to do with what the other person expects in return. It has to do with the recognition of the moral law of justice, and what is rightfully ours to take at the expense of another. In other words, justice demands a return of some sort (and this has been the philosophical conundrum Aristotle talked about), but it cannot be a return that nullifies the grace in the gift. You can’t buy the gift. The justice required is when receiving grace, is a return of grace. A return of grace means you owe a debt of “gratitude.” This is expressed by doing something to elevate the value of the giver. This is not a payment or response to the gift, but to the giver. For grace is really not in the gift, but a gift of grace is really an extension of the persons themselves. Grace is always personal, intentional and relational and therefore gratitude must be so also. This is why Paul identifies ingratitude (in Romans 1:21) as the sin that darkens the mind to God.

Practicing gratitude (which we read in Emmons's work) are really practices of awareness. As we become aware of our connections to others through gracious acts, it should evoke the experience of being loved… which is why it has health benefits. But to be actively aware of, and to take advantage of, the love of another without intent of reciprocating that love will be self-limiting… for it is a form of injustice. It disregards the personal nature of the gift… that the gift is a form of the persons themselves. Any disregarding or demeaning of a person is an injustice… and ingratitude can be a form of injustice.

Greg: As you begin to talk about the practical form of gratitude, I think our perspectives are really close. The word ingrate is still, in my vocabulary, a sign of moral weakness, even sin. It would be hard to find a more fundamental theological statement about our life in response to God than James 1:17: "Every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." 

Bill: Yes, to ignore the debt of gratitude is equal to the mistake of trying to “re-pay” a gift given. Both actions nullify to person as a giver. They both focus on the nature of the gift and their relationship to the gift rather than the giver. Grace is the essence of relational bonds. You must “return grace” for “grace.” This must also be something that is not earned, but gives value TO the giver... rather than merely giving something of value to the giver. This is “grace for grace.”

Sex is an example of the exercise of grace and the return of grace (gratitude). If the sexual union becomes an exchange for money or reward for work, it is profaned by the denial of its true nature. Its nature is to bond a relationship in love and care. Despite claims of “free-love,” and the proclamation of “no strings attached,” there are always “strings” that will have a profound effect on everyone involved. The strings are real, not because the grace isn’t freely given, but because grace is always costly to the giver... and it directly affects our identity and value... and it undergirds our connection with the rest of the world. But this kind of binding is the nature of love. It frees us by securing us.

When grace is not returned, there is a breach in the relationship. Gratitude can never be selfish, because it is the recognition and care for these relational bonds. The danger of manipulation comes when we don’t recognize that grace and gratitude does not begin or end with us. We are not the source of the grace… for we all have received and can extend grace only to the extent we recognize we have received grace. We channel the grace we have been given. We are stewards of the grace of God. We should be grateful for every steward and show our appreciation… but our true debts are to the one who bestowed the grace first. Gratitude is what creates community, for it is a binding exchange that involves a long chain relationships that begin and end with God. The Apostle Paul’s solution to avoid manipulation is interesting. In a thank you letter to the Philippians he is careful to never actually say “thank you” to them. He chooses instead to say, “I thank God for you….” Gratitude, if it is not to be manipulative or diminished, is always in some way, a recognition of the grace of God.