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Amygdala Override

November 25, 2015

“Amygdala Override” Revelation 1:4-20 © 11.22.15 Christ the King B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of nuclei located deep within the brain. It gathers information about dangers from the outside world through the brain’s neural pathways, determines the significance of the stimuli and triggers emotional responses. That could be staying completely still, like all of us have seen a rabbit do when threatened, or it might be running away, once again witnessed in the same animal. Or maybe it will be fighting. The amygdala is also responsible for changes in the inner workings of the body’s organs and glands in situations of danger. Apparently, the amygdala is a very old organ, and it works the same in reptiles, birds, and mammals. Bottom line: it’s the part of the brain that has to do with fear and helping the bird, rabbit, lizard or person survive.1

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that such survival needs are of course our most basic instincts. Physiological necessities like having enough food, air, water, and sleep are the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid. Then comes our need for safety and security, such as having a safe place to stay, steady work to do, and being afforded access to medical care. These basic needs have to be met before we can attend to other needs like building community, romantic relationships, achieving goals, and reaching our full potential.

Our collective and individual amygdalae are likely to be constantly active these days. We no doubt attend to the items on the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy rather more seriously. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut; the downing of a Russian jetliner, also by terrorists; and the videos promising assaults on Washington and New York have us all in a heightened state of anxiety. As someone has said, terrorism thrives on fear (Trevin Wax, “Should we really close the border to refugees? Here’s why fear drives out compassion.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/11/15/should-we-really-close-the-border-to-refugees-heres-why-fear-drives-out-compassion/).

There is no discounting the seriousness of such threats. But, like the poor, fear we have always had with us. Even without terrorists, we would feel insecure and fearful from time to time. The world grows ever more complex, dangerous, and bewildering, even as we try to go about our daily tasks and deal with the challenges of health and relationships that come our way. Who doesn’t worry about Internet security and identity theft, even with those obsessive spam filters and antivirus programs? Or don’t we feel a little antsy when we have to get in our cars and go out on the streets and highways? Or how about when the bills pile up from some unwise spending or from the very necessary expenses we all have but sometimes can’t meet? Then there’s the whole matter of the environment and the kind of world we are creating and leaving for future generations.

For youth and young adults, the fears are legion. Will I fit in? Do I look right? Will I find love? Will I stand out enough? Will I stand out too much? Will I be accepted—by others, by the school I want to go to? What’s the job market going to be like in 5 or 10 or 15 years? For older adults, the anxiety may be about losing independence, having enough to live on, staying alert and active, the manner and place and time of dying. For those in the middle, every day brings something new, depending on your exact stage of life, whether you’re a parent and of what age kids, what you do for a living, and on and on. And maybe there are things that terrify you that I can’t even imagine or that terrify me that you don’t know.

We have all sorts of options. There are always choices, aren’t there, even if they’re bad ones? We can pretend nothing is happening and look at the world through rose-colored lenses. We can withdraw into a cocoon, seldom venturing out or even watching TV or looking at a website lest we see or read something upsetting. We can become more rigid in our thinking or our insistence on order. We can become hateful toward those we believe threaten us. As the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas observed, “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts” (quoted in T. Wax, cited above). We can put up with change and flux in many areas of life, but expect one or two other areas to provide a safe haven and refuge. Maybe we seek that in worship or a relationship with a friend or spouse. We can buy a weapon or two or three or live in a gated community. We can heap up possessions as a hedge against scarcity. To the other extreme, we can embrace the changes and be the trendiest person around, the most techno-savvy, designer-fashion-wearing, social media-using, diversity-loving person on the planet. Or our shell of sanity can simply crack like an egg, and as in the old Eagles song “Hotel California,” we can check out anytime we like, but we can never leave.

We could choose any of these. But then would we be responding in faith? I suspect the author of Revelation would answer “no.” His was a world not unlike ours. There was one great superpower, Rome, that quite often had to overreach its resources trying to deal with terrorism and conflicts in far-flung places. The cities were teeming with people looking for a break or to make a buck however they could. Global trade—at least the globe then known—flourished, and those who were rich and powerful could afford the most exquisite commodities like purple clothing or rich spices, not to mention many slaves to do their bidding.

But there was a downside to the glory, glamour, and glitz of Rome. Those who thought or taught or acted differently than their neighbors, like the Christians, were treated with suspicion. They were spied on, turned in, jailed, even tortured and killed. The cities, so full of promise, were also places of great misery and squalor. And human life was cheap, so there were those who thought nothing of snuffing it out with random violence or as entertainment or degrading it by engaging in promiscuous sex or even selling another as a slave.

The seven churches to whom John wrote were right in the middle of it all. They were in cities along a trade route into the interior of an important Roman province. The congregations were struggling to make it, trying to make sense of their world, listening to this voice, then that one that promised to show the way. There were choices, changes, challenges much like any of us face. And even greater and more dangerous ones.

Did John recommend that his readers and their leaders retreat into a little enclave and not come out until God had destroyed the world or people had done it for him? Did he advise his people to stockpile weapons and food and guard their homes against all intruders? Did he tell them to embrace the culture and go along to get along? Did he say that if they just followed this or that rule they would be OK?

None of the above. His answer, the vision of Revelation, is alternately puzzling, frightening, and comforting. As we know, it has been twisted and abused by fear-mongers and charlatans down through the ages right to our day. But there is one constant throughout all the shifting scenes of strange visions and battlefields and million voice choirs and rival realities. And that is Jesus Christ. He is the one who was, who is, who is to come. He is the Alpha and the Omega, that is, the beginning and the end. He is the one who has triumphed over death, over every ruler. He is the Almighty. He is the one who is present among the churches, walking with his faithful ones through every trial.

John heaps up images that to the ancient eye and ear would make clear the authority and power of Jesus. He wears a long robe, the symbol of the king and the priest. He has a golden sash across his chest, a baldric, the emblem of honor and military decoration. His hair and even his head are pure white, meaning he is the example of purity in the midst of moral challenges and is the source of wisdom for solving knotty problems. The eyes of this exalted Jesus are flames, piercing and passionate. His voice is resonant and soothing, but also powerful. From his mouth comes a sharp sword, which is the word of God he speaks, a word that will defeat the great powers of the world.

And then there is his right hand. Apologies to you left-handed folk, but in the ancient world, the right hand was the hand of power and strength and honor, while the left hand was the instrument of evil and dark magic. And it is in his right hand that Jesus holds the seven stars which are the churches. John means that this one who is, was, is to come takes charge and care of his own. And the prophet also finds the right hand of Christ on him, reassuring him, even as words are spoken that lift him up: “Do not be afraid.” There is the theme of the book. For then. For now.

Do not be afraid. It’s one of the most repeated commands in the Bible, appearing 59 times in those exact words, and 43 times as “Do not fear.” Do not be afraid. Know who it is in whose hand you are held. Do not be afraid. Remember that he has always been and always will be. Do not be afraid. For the one who walks among us has conquered even death. Do not be afraid. Even when all else is chaos, there is one in charge of it all.

As I reflected on this text, it occurred to me that the kind of anxiety we face is rather like riding in a car with a bad driver. You know the sort I mean. Driving with his or her knees while texting and also eating a burrito and slurping a 32 ounce drink. He likes to turn his head and talk to you instead of watching the road. Stop signs mean nothing. Or she goes way too fast or excruciatingly slow. Either way you feel in danger. The gas gauge is on “E,” and you’re headed cross country on a long stretch of lonely highway. But your driver doesn’t seem to notice and won’t stop to fill up.

Can you relate? But what if you and I were “riding with the king”? That’s the name of an obscure B.B. King/Eric Clapton tune, but it’s a pretty good image for Christian life, too. We climb in and let Jesus take us where we need to go, trusting he will get us there, safely, securely. He knows what’s he’s doing; he’s checked everything out and gone ahead to scout the way.

If we want security, the only way we will get it is to give up our dependence on everything we cling to in order to have it. Make plans, yes. Be prudent, certainly. Trust others, of course. But know that ultimately, in the end, you and I cannot and must not depend on bullets, brains or bank accounts. The government, the company, the church won’t keep us safe. We can’t look to our family, our friends or even ourselves. Everything is up for grabs; everything we depend on is transitory. Certainly is elusive. Control is illusory. Only in Christ is there one who is, was, and is to come. Only there is security, freedom from fear, amygdala override.

The ancient rabbis had a favorite term for God. It was “Truth.” In Hebrew, the word for truth, emet, is spelled with the first, middle, and last letters of that alphabet, aleph, mem, tav, a-m-t. So it became a shorthand for saying “was, is, is to come.”

I invite you to embrace the one and only Truth this morning, the one who was, is, and is to come. The King of kings. The Lord of lords. Jesus, who holds you and me in his strong right hand.

1http://biology.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.psycheducation.org/emotion/amygdala.htm

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