Skip navigation

Part 1 – Pastor Ray’s sermon on November 8

In 1990, psychologist Dr. Paul MacLean wrote a popular book called “The Triune Brain in Evolution.” In it, he described his theory that the human brain functioned on three levels that had developed over evolutionary history. The deepest (oldest) part of the core brain he called the “R-Complex” or “Reptilian” brain. This part of the brain is completely focused on survival and propagation of the species, and regulates behavior around a bunch of F-words: food, fight or flight, freezing up, and fornication. According to MacLean, the most developed part of our brain – the neo-cortex that controls reasoning and creative thinking – usually can control the reptilian brain, but there are circumstances that can literally shut down the higher brain functions so that we react impulsively out of the core. While much of MacLean’s theory is no longer accepted by neuroscientists, it remains a popular concept. It feels true.

We have all experienced moments when we feel threatened and we react. This year, we’ve witnessed people with reptilian brains at work. Maybe you have experienced being controlled by your own inner lizard. I’ve witnessed it when I see the empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle of Target. We’ve seen it in the threats against peaceful protesters. We’ve seen it in the rise of conspiracy theories. We felt it as election results dragged on and on and on. And honestly, I feel it rising in me even now. Even though the election has been called in Joe Biden’s favor, and even though he has declared victory and delivered an inspiring message of reassurance that we have turned the corner, and even though I have the same sense of relief that so many others feel, I also feel a nagging dread about what might happen next. I know that wounded animals are extremely dangerous. Bad things can still happen. My mind and body are still on high alert. The lizard brain in me is strong.

Dr. MacLean had one thing right. Human beings behave – often irrationally – due to external triggers. And one of the biggest triggers is uncertainty. Our “survival instinct” kicks into over-drive. We begin to “live by fear.” Fear is a powerful, controlling emotion. Fear is a necessary emotion for our survival, but when it becomes the dominant force in our lives, it is counter-productive to the very survival we crave. Fear drives us toward the things that diminish fullness of life – the abundant life that Jesus came to give us.

For instance, fear drives us into protectionism. Fear motivates us to build walls around ourselves (or our nation). Fear motivates us to buy guns and ammo in record levels. In fact, I just learned that there is a shortage of ammunition! Fear motivates us to view those around us with suspicion and mistrust. They are our competition and we live convinced that they will take away what is rightfully ours.

Fear also drives us into selfishness and greed. The parable Jesus told of the farmer is a story of greed. The farmer has too much and decides that the only thing to do is to build bigger barns to hold it all. We think, “what a greedy farmer!”, but I also think that fear is beneath the surface. People hoard because they are afraid that they will not have enough for themselves. Hoarding is a reptilian response to uncertainty and vulnerability.

Finally, fear drives us into forgetfulness and despair. How quickly fear erases the memories of God’s faithfulness and the gospel story of God’s salvation and replaces it with reliance upon the self and upon the resources of security the world proposes.

In a popular phrase, when we live in fear, we do not “live into our best selves.” At the end of the day, fear drives us from the things that lead to life: community, empathy, compassion, and generosity.

I have never seen the movie “How To Train Your Dragon,” but the title seems like an appropriate phrase for how we should approach our reptilian brain.

It’s unclear if we can retrain our lizard self, but we can restrain it. It is said that #16, President Abraham Lincoln, had a nasty temper, but it rarely was seen. When he wanted to tell someone off, he would write a letter to the person, pouring out all of his anger through his pen. He called them his “hot letters.” He would then put the unsigned letter in a drawer in his desk. Lincoln would return to the letter several days later and read it to decide if it should be sent. Most of the letters were never sent. He burned them instead. We could all learn something from Lincoln. How much harm we could avoid, if we stopped tweeting or posting our first reaction to everything that triggered us. How much more civil we would be if we filtered our words and thoughts through the filter of our faith. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.” When the reptilian brain reacts, we need to take those thoughts captive and hold them so they cannot destroy relationships and community.

A second way that we can restrain the lizard is to do the exact opposite of what it tells us to do. This is the Jesus way. Jesus taught us to not return evil for evil, and to bless those who curse us. So Instead of saying “Screw You!” we say, “God Bless You!” So, when your lizard brain says “don’t trust people that are different from you,” you can choose to listen to their story and learn about them. When your lizard brain says, “build a wall,” you can choose to break one down. When your lizard brain says, “Hoard,” you can choose to give some of our resources to others. When your lizard brain says, “I won, sucker!” you can choose silence. When your lizard brain says, “Hold that grudge,” you can choose to remember your own need for grace. When your lizard brains says, “protect yourself,” you can choose trust in God’s protection and love.

We can restrain the reptilian reactions triggered by fear with acts of love that come from faith. When we do this, we show that we have passed from death to life and that we are led by the Spirit of God. It is counter-intuitive, but every act of empathy, compassion and generosity will actually create the community that will sustain us and lead us into the fullness of life. What is dominating you? Fear or faith.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: