It happens to all of us.
An old song or movie comes on, and somewhere, out of the depths of your dusty brain, a reflex kicks in. Before you know it, you’re singing words you didn’t know you remembered, or you’re quoting a line right before the actor says it. It’s like muscle memory, hidden deep beneath years of doctor appointments and oil changes, underneath coworker extension numbers and how far Abraham Lincoln was in the line of U.S. Presidents (he was 16th).
It’s startling to remember something you’d forgotten you knew. It comes like an unexpected flash, a glimpse into the mysterious world of the subconscious. Therapists are familiar with the phenomenon when a person accidentally spills into a verbalized assumption they’ve only ever tacitly held.
It’s amazing what our brain soaks up and “learns” even – or especially – when we’re not particularly trying to learn anything at all.
A few years back during a dark night of the soul, I rediscovered this truth. Hymns I’d long forgotten popped up unbidden in my thoughts. Scripture verses I’d forgotten I’d memorized as a child emerged out of nowhere. Prayers I’d learned, spoken by thousands of Christians over centuries, rooted my thoughts when I didn’t have the words.
I was remembering Scripture I’d forgotten I knew. To make domestic allusions, it was like finding pre-prepared dinners tucked in the bottom of the chest freezer; it was like finding a savings account put aside and forgotten; it was like finding just what you needed, right when you needed it.
These gifts of grace were just that: gifts, and grace. Teachers, VBS leaders, pastors, evangelists, my mom – they’d patiently told Bible stories, reviewed memory verses, repeated sermon texts. These were gifts to my soul, and they seeped down into my incredibly flexible, sponge-like little kid and adolescent brain. And they were grace: tokens of truth, strength, clarity, and peace, pointing to who God is, who God says we are, and how we can live on this planet. They were grace: mending broken times, calming troubled thoughts, infusing confusion with direction, sharing Divine love in human lack.
In my early years, when difficulties were relatively minor, by the grace of God and the kindness of many people, my mind was tucked with notes for later. When later came, and I didn’t have the mental energy to flip open my Bible and read for myself, Scripture was already buried deep in my mind, and it sprang up as if it had been waiting for just this moment.
Recently another Wesleyan Accent writer wrote, “Old Dogs, New Tricks: Neuroplasticity and the Renewing of Your Mind.”
Carrie Carter wrote,
Up until the 1970’s, scientists thought that certain functions in a brain were hard-wired. Any changes that occurred were the exception. However, as technology advanced and our ability increased to study areas of the body that were previously a mystery, it was discovered that our brains have the capacity to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.
So are the concepts of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” and neuroplasticity intertwined? I think so, and here’s how:
Paul’s exhortation is clear. After doing a quick word study on “renew,” the word means…exactly that. There are no other substitutions in the Greek for his use of “renew.”
In the culture Paul addressed – a culture fraught with immorality, the celebration of violence, and slavery, that crossed every line – how were these new Christ-followers to actually follow Christ? Up until that point, they knew no different lifestyle. How were they to change such embedded behavioral patterns and thought processes? Why would Paul even ask this of them?
Because Paul knew it could be done. With the help of God’s brilliance in forming the brain with capacities to change, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and years of reconditioning and retraining, Paul himself was transformed by the renewing of his mind and did a 180-degree turn in his way of living.
Wow. Carter gives us hope: those times when we have energy and flexibility to engage deeply with our faith are enormously impactful. You don’t have to have a childhood in which memory verses are soaked up in order for God’s Word to work grace in your life: your brain can still adapt, refashion and reform new pathways and neural impulses that will serve you well, both now and later.
In other words, it’s never too late to reshape your thoughts; it’s never too late to memorize a passage of Scripture; you’re never too old, even if your brain feels flabby and less quick-witted than it used to.
In fact, engaging with Scripture now may be a saving grace later that you can’t imagine.
At one point I worked in a nursing home, where pastors rarely tread. One resident mourned her inability to simply read her own Bible: a stroke had impaired her vision, and she couldn’t turn the thin pages. When I had spare moments I would slip into her room and read to her. She was so hungry for it. I’d ask, “what would you like to hear today?” “Any of it – it’s all good,” she would mumble through her impaired speech. Tears would roll down her cheeks as she heard Scripture read to her.
On a different hallway, I once entered the room of a woman I thought was completely mentally absent. Even though I always tried to assume residents could comprehend more than they were able to communicate, I just knew this woman wasn’t communicating and was slipping into the twilight on the borders of death. But I went anyway and began to read from a Psalm.
Tears rolled down my cheeks in shock as she opened her eyes and spoke the words, long hidden in her brain, along with me. I thought I had chosen a Psalm at random. I tried to talk with her when the Psalm was done, but as soon as it was finished, she receded back into the twilight and said no more.
Have you remembered anything you forgot you knew? Has some long-buried truth emerged after years in the dark at just the right moment? It is grace. It is a gift.
The Word of God for the people of God…
Thanks be to God.