I have a colleague called Chris with whom I correspond on a regular basis by email. More often than not, when I type, “Dear Chris,” what appears on the screen is, “Dear Christ.” It is not the computer. It’s my fingers. I often type the name “Woodburn”, but more often than not, what appears on the screen is “Woodburgh”. The things is, though I type “Chris” often, I type “Christ” much more often. Because my name ends B U R G H, that’s the pattern my fingers instinctively adopt when I start to type B U R. My brain as become hardwired with these patterns of letters.
What I’m talking about is a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. It is not a problem. It is a very good thing. It is how we learn to do many things and get better at them. Take another example. We in St Nicholas Buccleuch are blessed, in Willie, with a very, very good organist indeed. I may be wrong, but I doubt very much if, one day, the infant William Hendry pulled himself onto a piano stool, faced a keyboard for the first time, and then, from his childish fingers, poured perfect performances of Bach Toccatas and Chopin Mazurkas. Rather, I suspect that Willie started with one hand, picking out tunes, gradually adding notes with his other hand and, as the years passed, spent thousands and thousands of hours practicing until the musician whose art and skill we so appreciate was formed. In the process, Willie was literally changing his brain, through repeated actions causing new connections to be formed and strengthened, neural pathways to be made which enable him to do as second nature what those of us who do not have these pathways regard as frankly miraculous.
That we change our brains by practice is well known. And it is not just restricted to motor skills, our ability to control our limbs. Apparently, the new connections and pathways formed when you learn another language help in all sorts of other intellectual ways. In fact, more recent studies have shown that we can change our brains emotionally too. It has been found that the more people complain and find fault, the more negative they are likely to be and the more things they will find to be dissatisfied about. In other words, the more we practice feeling some way, responding in some way, be that by being, for example, disgruntled, or anxious, or fearful, then the better we will be at finding things that displease us, or worry us, or scare us.
The more you think about it, the more sense this makes. The better you get at finding fault, the more convinced you will be that everything is genuinely awful. The more practice you put into worrying, the more sure you will be that everyone and everything around you teeters on the brink of genuine disaster. The more you hone your ability to fear, the more certain you will be that everything is out to get you. But so much of this is because we can and do train our brains to think and respond in certain ways.
Our Old Testament story is an illustration of plasticity. Clay is a highly plastic substance, which can be moulded into an infinite variety of shapes and, when wet, moulded and remoulded infinitely often. Did God actually tell Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house one day, as the Prophet says? Maybe, maybe not. But watching the potter at work, something that probably many then had, and many now have, seen, Jeremiah realised something important. In the hands of God, we are like clay in the hands of a potter. The God who made us can also remake us.
The word of God which came to Jeremiah as he contemplated a potter at work came as a word of warning, but it can and should also come as a word of hope. I have spoken, so far, of learning and training our brains as if these are things we do entirely alone. Of course, they are not. For so much that we seek to learn in life, be that playing the organ, speaking another language, or making a pot, we need a teacher, someone who can show us what to do, correct what we do wrong, and encourage us to practice to get better.
I’ve been speaking too of how we can train ourselves to think negatively. Imagine, though, how it would be if we set about training our brains to think in other ways, creating the neural pathways which lead in other directions. Think about this: if we get better as doing whatever practice, because our brains change to make us more able to do what we do most often, then these things must be true. The more we pray, the more prayerful we will be. The more we practice patience, the more patient we will be. The more we think on God, the more faithful will we will be. The more we practice of giving, the more generous we will be. The more we worship, the closer to God we will be. To a very large extent, we are in control. We can choose how we want to be, how we want to develop. God has made us plastic, able to be reformed, and has given us brains which can develop and change. More than that, he has given us a teacher who can help us develop and change – his son, Jesus Christ.
Today, we are celebrating together the baptism of Robert Anderson. We are baptising him into faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are baptising him into a faith of renewal and transformation. The healing stories which abound in the gospels, such as the one we read a little while ago, are all, at one level, stories of renewal and transformation. We who follow Christ actively seek to change – to become more loving, more faithful, more prayerful, more caring people. We do it under the guidance of the finest teacher we could ever have, God’s son Jesus Christ, and with the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit. And we do it in company with one another, with the encouragement of the community of faith.
Now, I happen to know that wee Robert is a delight. I have it on the best authority. His mother told me. But he’s not yet fully formed. He’s a child at the very start of his life, with endless possibilities before him. As a congregation, we will promise to be with him as he grows and develops. Throughout his life, we promise to help him develop and grow, to develop the neural pathways if you like, the habits of faith, of hope and of love, as we too continue to develop them in ourselves under the everlasting, hopeful, loving guidance of Christ.
Today, this day of baptism, marks for Robert the beginning of his life of Christian discipleship and, although in some senses, he is not really doing anything himself, he is, in another sense, performing his first act of ministry. For he is here, among us, as a reminder of the responsibility which belongs to us all to pass on the faith, not just to him, not just to other children, but to everyone around us. And we do that best by living the faith by faithful living, by accepting gladly that, through our faith, God will change us, always for the better, mentally, spiritually and even physically so that, renewed and transformed, we can witness to one another and to the world. And so, we are moulded and remoulded by God into his people that we might all work with God to change the world and grow his kingdom.