God has given us minds – minds which need constant renewal and growth in line with the gospel (Rom. 12:2, 1 Cor.14;20 ) so that we see our world and ourselves in line with truth. Using them well is an act worshipful obedience (Rom.12:10), and using them badly is an act of idolatrous rebellion (Rom. 1:18-32).
So let’s treat that seriously. Physically our adult brains weigh around 1.5 kg (3lb), which is about 2% of your body weight. Your frontal cortex, which is responsible for almost everything you are aware of as you’re reading this, contains around 25 billion neurons, interconnected and communicating with the rest of your body, and all that work means that it consumes 20% of all the oxygen you breathe in, needs 20% of your blood flow, and consumes around 20% of your calorie intake.
Putting it that simply makes it obvious that, as an organ of the body, the brain is subject to your general physical condition. I don’t mean that a fit mind necessarily exists in a fit body (that’s obviously untrue), nor that thinking hard burns more calories – the brain is not a muscle. But, if we run low on fuel, our brain suffers from low blood sugar just like anything else. And there are interesting studies suggesting, for instance, that our decision making facilities tire after a period – which is why when you first enter the Duty Free part of the airport you laugh at all the stuff on sale, but 90 minutes later you think that those expensive sunglasses are just the thing. Alternatively , London cab drivers are frequently known to have grown an enlarged hippocampus, from the work of acquiring ‘The Knowledge’ of London streets. Our brains are physical organs. I strongly recommend reading ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’ by Daniel Levity.
So, preachers on Sunday, fuel up. It’s a big day for most of us, with many demands, so keep hydrated (church tea and coffee is probably enough), take a banana and some nuts with you, and keep yourself energised. Your brain needs fuel to work.
But take your eyes off the physical need of the brain, and we can imagine how to describe other needs too.
Our brains need intellectual energy. Do you feed it well? The staple diet is the bible, of course, but do you eat it healthily, balanced across the whole range of material, consuming regularly? Are you connecting ideas, changing your mind? Does your reading of the bible still surprise you, catch you unawares? My thinking was irreversibly changed when I encountered biblical theology, and reading in that area is still an important task for me so that I don’t become over familiar with God’s Word.
Moving out, what else do you read? Pastors, do you still read doctrine, history, ethics? Do you read old as well as new? Do you read to remind yourself as well as acquire new information? I admire people who have one intellectual hero for life: Edwards, Owen, Augustine, Calvin – do you have one? Or, if that is too daunting, could you focus on one person or topic for a season? I recently read my way through Schaeffer, and I’m now bringing myself up to speed on the doctrine of Scripture – is there an equivalent for you?
And what do you read outside your discipline? The business guru Peter Drucker was known for reading deeply outside his field: for a couple of years it might be micro biology, or Aztec history – but something that was superficially unrelated. What happened, of course, was that he made the most stimulating discoveries, but that was not primarily what drove him He wanted to remain curious. Have a project, Keep a reading log. Take a reading week, like Bill Gates.
There’s music, movies, sport and a dozen other areas too – but pay attention to the food, junk food, and intellectual chewing gum that you’re feeding yourself.
Our brains need intellectual work. Pastors have a head start here – we have to prepare at least one spiritually nourishing meal each week, which is intellectually demanding for us. But you know how it goes – after a while we learn to cut corners, take breaks, look good without the work. We become flabby.
So, just on the sermon preparation, are you pushing yourself? How are the languages? How demanding are the commentaries?
How articulate are you even expressing your ideas to the leadership team at church? Can you reduce complex biblical ideas to simple clarity?
And who do you read with whom you disagree? Who are your best non-Christian writers, with whom you grapple, judo style, to practice bringing them down with their own body-weight?
Who is your guide, who leads you into parts of the bookshop you would never go? About five years ago I read Clive James’ ‘Cultural Amnesia’, and my copy was covered in highlighter and pencil as he gave me a list of fascinating authors and thinkers to meet. Each week I try to look at the book review section of the Sunday paper even if I read nothing else. Who is yours?
Then there are other outputs too. One reason I write as well as preach is that I found I was spending a lot of time consuming, yet relatively little time contributing. But for me, clarity comes not so much when I read something, as when I restate, repurpose that information to another end.
When I write I am forced to think for myself, rather than follow someone else’s thoughts. Some books are necessarily demanding to read of course, and they are designed to make us work, but even then the ideas we encounter need to be probed and processed.
Our brains need intellectual rest. That seems to be one of the principal reasons we sleep and dream, as our brains go into different mode and process what we have been encountering. Sleep, I am pleased to say, really is important.
But there are other aspects as well – and they do seem to fit a pattern. Runners talk about going beyond ‘the wall’; artists about drawing on the right side of the brain; anglers, bird-watchers, all share the experience of being so immersed in a task that the brain moves into a different state. The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has pinned this down in the simple word, ‘Flow’ – an all-engrossing experience of focus, clarity and enjoyment that we then emerge from curiously refreshed.
Do you know when you last experienced ‘Flow’?
- Think about the last five books you read. Were they deliberate choices, and if so how did you pick them?
- Do you have a target reading list for this year? Do you keep a reading log?
- Who are your favourite non-Christian authors?
- Who guides you into different parts of the bookshop?
- Where do you contribute as well as consume?
- What are you engaged in when you experience ‘flow’?
- Preachers – do you ‘fuel up’ on Sundays?