Friday, April 8, 2016

Book Review: Brain on Fire by Suzannah Catalan

Brain on Fire by Suzannah Cahalan

This book provides an amazing window into the agonies of mental illness. While the book focuses on a certain type of mental illness, you’ll also learn about others. After reading this book you’ll have a greater appreciation for all who struggle with mental illness.

My Notes (I apologize for the randomness of these notes. These are just a few things that I found interesting.)

S’s problems began with two red bumps on her arm that she thought must have been bed-bug bites. From there the paranoia began to grow and grow until she began to have zombie like features.

Different Types of Seizures:  Zombie like moves, staring episodes, foggy consciousness, repetitive mouth or body movements. Long-term effects can be cognitive defects and death.

S. was drooling and smacking her lips. It seemed like she was sleeping with her eyes open.

Dr. Najar was the first doctor to really understand what was happening with S. He grew up in Damascus, Syria.

Dr. Najar gave her the clock test. He told her to draw a circle and then add the numbers for each hour. S. drew the circle, but when she wrote the numbers they were all on one side of the circle. Dr. Najar took this test to show that the problem was only in one side of her brain.

Anti-NMDA-REceptor Encephalitis
NMDA Receptors are vital for learning and behavior. They are mostly in the hippocampus and the frontal lobes. They either excite a neuron to fire or supress it. Antibodies were attaching to the surface of the neurons preventing them from sending chemical signals. Decrease NMDA Receptors by 40% and you get psychosis. By 70% you have catatonia. Catatonia is the height of the disease. If untreated, it can progress to breathing failure, coma and sometimes death. For 70% the disease begins like flu - headaches, nausea, etc. After two-weeks psychiatric issues begin - insomnia, anxiety, fear, grandiose delusions, hyper religiosity, and paranoia. 75% have seizures. Language and memory deficits arise. Autonomic issues develope such as too low or too high of a heart rate. 50% it is started by an ovarian tumor called a terratoma. In the other 50% the cause is never discovered. The terratoma was discovered by a German doctor in the 1800s. Terraton=monster in Greek. These tumors have hair, teeth, bone, even eyes, limbs and brain tissue. They are found in the reproductive organs and head.

Treatment: Steriods, Plasmapheresis (to remove the antibodies), IV IG.
Drugs: Prednezone (sp?) and Adivan (to treat catatonia), Geodone (psychosis), Trileptitol (seizures), Labetilol (high blood pressure), Nexium (acid reflux), Colase (constipation)

S went to college in St. Louis (I think Wash U.)

Deborah was a roomate diagnosed with colon cancer. She was very heavy. The nurses liked her. When she found out she had cancer, the nurses prayed with her. Over and over again Deborah said, “God is good. God is good.” When they all left, S said to Deborah, “God is good.” At one of the most intense times when it seemed possible that S would never be cured, her father went to a church to pray. These are the only two references in the book to seeking God’s help. However, at least they did cry out to God when all seemed to be lost.

The brain can create new neurons - process called neurogenesis. Our brains are like a computer that can create new hardware. This is also called neuroplasticity.

As S was improving she planned her day noting every little thing she did such as “walk to town” or “read the papers.” This was important because it showed that the frontal lobe was starting to repair itself.

The hippocampus tags a memory with context. The amygdala provides the emotion (fear, excitement, pain). When a thought is stamped by the amygdala with high emotional value, it’s more likely to be preserved. This is called encoding and consolidation. When any part of this is compromised, the memory may not be formed. (This is an important thing for teachers to consider. If we simply dole out information, it may not be remembered. We need to try to give the information in ways that might create stronger memories. I try to tag my teaching with life-stories that I hope make an emotional impact.)

Dr. Loftus studied memory problems. Scientists discovered that when memories are recalled they are sometimes remade and can be distorted. A memory can be distorted by one person, and that distortion can be shared and spread to others.

In the last part of the book she wondered about how people in the past were treated who had this disease. The disease has been diagnosed in children. She noted that the symptoms of the disease were similar to the the symptoms that were displayed by the character in the book The Exorcist.

S. thinks that Dr. Najar might be on the verge of breaking the barrier between immunology, neurology and psychiatry.

S. contacted one of her first doctors (a neurologist) who thought that her problems were due to alcohol abuse. When she told him about the disease, he indicated that he had never heard of it. Yet it had been widely circulated in every major medical journal and in the New York Times (This shows one of the great problems in the medical field - doctors who learn a lot in medical school but who stop learning later in their practice. This is also a big problem among clergy and probably only most any profession.) She notes that he saw 35 people a day. He had to do this to maintain the bottom line. She said it is a bad system. (However neurologists have very high salaries. They should be higher due to the higher skill level and training required. But could part of the problem also be their desire to make more and more money at the expense of lower quality medical care?)

Book Review: Spark, by John J. Ratey

This book explains the brain chemistry behind something most people have always known: exercise makes us feel better. But Ratey goes on to show how exercise can help us learn and fight against mental problems such as depression and anxiety. One of the most important premises of the book is that there is a relationship between movement and brain development and brain health. 

Here are some notes that I took:

Chapter One

In Naperville, Illinois. a high school began focusing on fitness more than sports. Students wore heart rate monitors when they exercised. There was a noticable improvement in learning.

Study from Virginia Tech showed that more time for study did not increase grades. Chap 1

The brain can be built up. It has a “plasticity.” Exercise fosters this quality. 

Thoughts and behavior are controlled by the interactions of the neurons. The brain is not “hard-wired.” Rather it is constantly being rewired.

Synapse – junction between brain cells. An electrical signal shoots down the axon (outgoing branch). A chemical neuro transmitter carries the signal across the gap. The dentrite receives the chemical signal and turns the signal back into electricity. If the electrical charge is high enough, it will fire a signal along its axon to another neuron. Eighty percent of signals are carried out by two neuro transmitters. Glutamate stirs up activity. Gama Amino Buteric Acid (GABA) clamps down on activity. When neurons fire together often, they become bound together. 

The following neuro-transmitters control brain activity.

Seratonin – The policeman of the brain, influences mood and aggressiveness. Seretonin drugs (Prozac) help control runaway brain activity such as depression or obsessive compulsiveness.

Norepinephrine – Controls attention, perception, motivation, arousal,

Dopamine – Learns rewards, satisfaction, attention, and movement. Ridelin affects dopamine

Most drugs work with one or more of these neuro-transmitters.

Exercise elevates serotonin and dopamine. Exercise balances neuro-transmitters. Keeping your brain in balance can change your life.

Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor BDNF – a neuro-trophin, actually builds the brain infrastructure. It nourishes neurons like fertilizer.
When we hear a new word, a group of neurons fire and “bind” together. The more that same group fires and interacts, the more bound the group becomes. This is what causes us to remember the word.

Synaptic Plasticity – BDNF sprinkled on neurons in a petri dish automatically sprouted new dendrons. BDNF also helps with the over all function of the neuron. It also works against natural cell death. It is a crucial biological link between thought, emotions and movement.

Sea Squirt – simple spinal cord and brain. After it is born it swims around until it finally attaches to something. When it does this, it eats its brain. It lives the rest of its life much more like a plant. Rodolpho Lenas says: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”

Hippocampus – serves as a way station that bundles up a series of neuron connections related to something we have learned. When we learn a new word the prefrontal cortex lights up as well as the hippocampus.

Article in Nature – exercise increases BDNF. 

Carl Cottman: exercise sparks the molecule BDNF that affects learning. Chap 2

BDNF molecules increased in mice that exercise. Chap 2

BDNF helps neurons to sprout new branches which helped with learning. Chap 2

A Harvard study showed that less sensory stimulation reduced the brain. A cat with one eye sewn shut also showed a reduction in part of its brain. Chap 2

We were told that brain cells do not grow back. But this is not true. Advanced imaging tools showed this in cancer patients. Chap 2

Exercise does three things: 1. Improves alertness, attention and motivation , 2. Encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, essential for learning new information, 3. It stimulates production of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.

Blood flow goes away from the brain during intense exercise. It flows back after exercise, and that is a good time for learning.

Exercise produces healthier, bushier and more connected neurons throughout the brain. Chap 2

Running rats were compared to rats who were required to do acrobatic maneuvers (running on a rail, etc.). The acrobatic rats had a 35% increase of BDNF in the cerebellum. 
The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections.

When our brain creates complex synaptic connections, they can be coopted for learning. A student who learns piano will find it easier to learn mathematics because the prefrontal cortex uses the synaptic connections created during the effort to learn piano to learn mathematics. Chap 2

This applies to yoga, ballet and things like that. Chap 2 

Stress is a threat to the body’s equilibrium. Getting out of a chair is stressful. Every thing we do when we move, learn, etc. is a form of stress. The emotions that we feel when we have stress due to a job loss, for example, are the result of many neurons firing. The difference is a matter of degree. Chap 2

Exercise controls the emotional feelings of stress. Neurons get broken down and built up just like muscles. Stressing them makes them more resilient. Stress and recovery. Chap 2

In limited doses, stress causes brain cells to over compensate. Neuro scientists call this Stress Innoculation. Challenges allow us to strive and grow and learn. Stress is a necessity. Chap 2

The amygdala assigns intensity to incoming information. Any strong emotional state can stimulate the amygdala. The emigdyla connects to many parts of the brain. The emigdyla triggers hormones such as adrenelin. The amygdala can also tell the brain to remember certain sensory experiences. Because of this we can actually set off the stress response simply by imagining a stressful situation. We can think ourselves into a frenzy. But mind affects the body. But the body can also affect the mind. Chap 2

Stress Response: Epinephrine causes the body to focus and increases blood pressure. Endorphins are released to blunt pain. Less important biological functions stop. The digestive system shuts down. The mouth stops producing syliva. The bladder muscles relax (causing you to pee your pants?) Your muscles and your brain get stiff. All this causes us to freeze. Chap 2

Norepinephrine and dopamine also causes us to focus. This is why these drugs are used to help students who can’t focus. Epinephrine causes the production of glucose which is the fuel for the brain. Cortisal also causes the production of glucose. It also triggers the process by which used energy is replaced by stimulating the production of fat. This is why marathon runners sometimes have a little belly fat despite all their training. Chap 2
Procrastination leads to stress. Stress unleashes the stress response which includes norepinephrine and dopamine to cause us to focus. After this they can sit down and do the work. 

Chapter Three

Paleolithic Rhythm: As hunter/gatherers we had periods of intense stress.
Our output of energy per unit of body mass is less than 38% of our Stone Age anscestors. (How would he know this?) Even if we eat the number of calories the government recommends and exercise 30 minutes a day, we would expend half the energy for which our genes are encoded (We are designed to burn more energy.). Paleolithic man walked 5-10 miles on an average day. There is a mismatch between our lifestyle and our genes. Chap 3

We watch too much news. This heaps on the stress. But we think we can handle it. Then we try to relieve it with food or alcohol. Chap 3

Stressful events trigger stress responses that include the production of glucose. This is why we are often hungry when stressed. Chap 3

Isolating rats increased stress hormones. It is stressful to be shunned or isolated. Adding physical activity causes us to become more socially active. It boosts our social lives. Chap 3

Mice and rats that were fed less lived up to 40% longer than others. 

Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor - BDNF - is a big focus of brain scientists. Exercise increases this growth factor and others. Chap 3

Antioxidants often have toxins. They induce a little stress. Broccoli does this. Broccoli does not have enough antioxidants to have a positive effect. The toxins cause mild stress which challenges the cells by producing unwanted waste. Chap 3

2004. Joshua B Folks. Univ of Southern Mississippi. Students with anxiety were put into two groups. One group did mild exercise. The other did more demanding exercise. Rigorous showed more benefit. The theory is that we become more comfortable with a higher heart rate and respiration rate and do not consider it noxious. Chap 3

Anxiety is fear. Fear is the memory of danger. The amygdala tags sense experiences associated with danger and burns them into memory. But the prefrontal cortex tells the amygdala to back off. If this doesn't happen, we can become overwhelmed by too many “fears.” Chap 3

Classical musicians sometimes take beta blockers to keep them from sweating and becoming too tense. chap 3

Chapter Four

For many years doctors thought that exercise made anxiety worse. However many studies showed the opposite. Andreus Brooks showed that people with anxiety improved with exercise that was gradually increased. They did as well as another group that took clomipramine. The author recommends both. This is particularly important with children. Kids with anxiety are more likely to develop depression later in life. He also recommended exercising with another person. This affects serotonin. Rigorous exercise for at least 15 minutes per day. Exercise may not be able to replace medication. The more you engage with the world, the more you can cope with the anxiety. Talk therapy is also important. Chap 4

Depression is identified by a psychological test and then trial and error with drugs. What is the biological cause of depression? Monoamine neuro transmitters: norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin. Monoamine Hypothesis: Depression is caused by a deficit in these three neuro transmitters. 

Wiki: norepinephrine
The general function of norepinephrine is to mobilize the brain and body for action. Norepinephrine release is lowest during sleep, rises during wakefulness, and reaches much higher levels during situations of stress or danger, in the so-called fight-or-flight response. In the brain, norepinephrine increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention; it also increases restlessness and anxiety. In the rest of the body, norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood pressure, triggers the release of glucose from energy stores, increases blood flow to skeletal muscle, reduces blood flow to the gastrointestinal system, and promotes voiding of the bladder and large intestine.

The author was doing research on the medicinal approach. He saw an article from Norway about treating depression with exercise. In the 1970s there was running craze. Running increased endorphins. These are stress hormones that helps ignore pain. However endorphins produced by exercise cannot pass into the brain. But there some endorphins that are produced in the brain. Chap 4

Mind, brain and body all work together. Chap 4

Study of 8,000 beginning in 1965 showed that those who exercise had less depression. Dutch and Finnish studies showed similar results. There is an inverse relationship between exercise and depression. Chap 4

Prozac was one of the first drugs known to affect Seratonin. Chap 4

Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). It prevented recycling of Seratonin. It squelched negativity and boosted self esteem. It doesn't work for everyone. Side affects: Lack of sex desire. Muzzling sexual desire can affect our overall passion for life. It can be difficult to withdraw from them. Chap 4

Exercise elevates levels of Norepinephrine. It wakes up the brain. It boosts Dopamine which improves mood and feelings of wellness. It jumps stars the attention system. Seratonin is affected by exercise and affects mood, self-control and self-esteem. It affects the hipocampus and learning. Chap 4

SMILE - Standard, Medical, Intervention, and Long-term Exercise Study 1999 James Bloomenthal - Exercise pitted against Certyline (Zoloft) Three Groups: 1. Used Zoloft 2. Exercised 3. Did Both. 

The exercise group did walking or jogging at 75% of their maximum heart rate for 30 minutes with 10 minute warmup and 10 minute cooldown three times a week. Results: All three groups showed a drop in depression. Conclusion: Exercise is as effective as medication. 

One third of depressed people achieve full remission with anti-depressants. One third feel better but have problems with fatigue. They have the shadows of depression. Chap 4

Norepinephrine, Dopamine, and Seratonin are neurotrasmitters. They can only do so much if the actual structure (good connections) of the neurons is decreased. Depression has shown to decrease neuron developement and adaptation in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Depression affects learning at the cellular level. 

2005, Genome Biology, Alexandar Nikolesku see depression as a survival instinct. In an environment void of hope, the body conserves resources. Keep still and stay out of harm’s way. 

Chapter Five

The best kind of behavioral therapy is just to do something, go outside, go for a walk, do something. Exercise reprograms the prefrontal cortex. 

Even people who have a negative attitude toward exercise report a positive feeling immediately after exercise. 

It is good to exercise that in a setting that promotes social interaction. 

Medruca Trivetti and Andrea Dunn - Five Groups - Calories burned per body weight per week - At the end of three months the group that did high intensity exercise (1400 calories/week in 3-5 sessions or 8cal/lb) cut their depression in half. The low exercise group that burned 560 calories/week or 3 cal/lb showed results that were only a little better than those who did no exercise. 

Public health recommendation for exercise level is 30 minutes per day at moderate intensity. 

Multiply your body weight by 8 to figure out how many calories you need to burn a week (3-6 workouts) to be in the high intensity category.

Victims of depression often have sleep disturbance… Sleep inertia… Either trouble getting going or stopping. The key is to get moving and to do it everyday. 

Omega 3 Supplements are proven to help depression. 

Loosen up brainlock and go take a walk.

Move the body and the brain will have to follow. Trick the brain into coming out of hibernation.

Chapter Six - Hyperactivity

ADHD - First defined in the Third Edition of the DSM of 1980.
Hyperactivity is found more often in boys.
These kids need to be moving. They tend to do well in sports.
In adults it can show up in road rage. They often struggle with impatience. Inattention or distractability is the constant in ADHD.

Movement and attention share overlapping pathways.

2006 Arthur Kramer University of Illinois, MRI scans showed that walking 3 days a week for six months increased the volume of the prefrontal cortex in older adults. Also improvement in working memory.

Exercise increases levels of norepinephrine and dopamine. 

The best approach is to exercise in the morning, and then to take the medication an hour later. Exercise can lower the amount of medication needed. 

Arrange your day to keep things focused. Try to keep moving the ball forward rather than allowing it to ricochet off the walls. 

Many ADHD people are using coaches to help them with this.

Chapter Seven - Addiction

Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%. Cocaine sends dopamine skyrocketing 300-800% beyond normal levels. It’s not just about pleasure. Dopamine is the key factor in the reward system. Dopamine is involved in wanting but not in liking. One of the functions of the prefrontal cortex is to decide between risk and reward. Cocaine is known to diminish the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal corex is not fully developed until in the twenties. Drug use before than can leave a person with an under developed prefrontal cortex.

Chased By Mobsters Out of East St. Louis - 1937

I was taking communion to an older couple in our congregation yesterday. I always love to hear their stories from the past. Stories like the one below remind me that while things change, there are a lot of things that just stay the same.

L. became a taxi driver in Collinsville at the age of 17 in 1937. It was illegal to be a taxi driver at that age, but if you went to the right man and paid your two dollars nobody cared.

One evening a couple of Collinsville businessmen were getting sloshed downtown. They called for a cab to go to East St. Louis "to see the ladies." L. said that at that time East St. Louis was the "capital" for "ladies of the night." It was already late when he took them, and while he was waiting in his 1936 Ford he fell asleep.

His slumber was interrupted by the two men who had come running to the car, jumped in the back seat and hit the floor boards shouting, "Get going! Get going!" L. was still drowsy and not sure what was going on. Just then he saw a Cadillac turning the corner and heading toward them. He floored the '36 Ford realizing that this might be some of Buster Wortman's* men or maybe Al Capone's.

The Cadillac was slowing gaining on the '36 Ford as they made their way through Fairmont City. It wasn't looking good for L. until they hit the bluff at Collinsville. Apparently the smaller '36 Ford could handle the hill a little better and began to pull away. With the businessmen still cowering in the back seat, the frightened seventeen year old drove directly to the Collinsville police station and laid on the horn. L. told the police officers what happened and they began to circle around the area looking for the Cadillac. Not finding the vehicle, everyone decided that they must have given up.

Things are different today, but not that much. Sin and evil are still with us and always will be.

* You can still see Buster Wortman's old house with the moat around it in the south part of Collinsville today.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Letter to All Boys About Pornography

The Possible Pitfalls of Pornography  (The Art of Manliness)

Dear Boys,

All men are affected by pornography in some way or another. 

When I was in the sixth grade, my mom and dad sat me down on the couch and showed me a Playboy magazine. They wanted me to be aware that these kinds of things existed, but that I should avoid them. What I didn't tell them was that the kid who lived next door, had boxes of those magazines and that I had seen a few of them already.

In junior high one of my classmates cut the pictures out of pornographic magazines and sold them at school. Little pictures were 25 cents and big pictures were a dollar. He made quite a bit of money. Back then it wasn't easy to get a hold of pornography. Today that has changed.

Please check out the link above. I don't think "The Art of Manliness" is a Christian organization, so the author uses biological reasons to avoid pornography. One of the main problems is that scientists are realizing that pornography can actually change our brains. 

No matter what, I know that the forgiveness of God is the most important thing to heal our minds and bodies from whatever trouble we might have gotten into. I stressed this verse in my confirmation classes. I don't know if you remember it, but it is one of my favorites:  

"Such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6.11).

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Rising Tide of Evil

I mentioned in my adult Bible study last Sunday that we are witnessing a rising tide of evil. I pointed them to an article in the Huffington Post that lists the mass murders occurring between 2009-2013.

This week we've had two massacres in Oklahoma and Louisiana.  The week before it was four Marines in Chattanooga and five females in California. In June it was nine killed in South Carolina. It's getting hard to keep up with all the carnage, and worse, we're being desensitized to it.

Many people try blame the massacres on lax gun control laws. But we've had semi-automatic weapons for years. That cannot be the main cause of this problem. Others blame it on mental health problems. But that also raises important questions: Are mental disorders on the increase? Did we have as many mentally disturbed people twenty five or fifty years ago? Suicide rates have actually declined since the 1950s.

There is an explanation which many do not want to hear: The problem is the problem of evil, and evil is on the rise.

Without a doubt there is another statistic that coincides with the rise of mass murders and that is the rising tide of unbelief in our country. In 2012 the Pew Research Poll shocked us by showing a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who used to be Christians but no longer identify as such. Is there a correlation between the two? Probably, but true correlations are difficult to lock down.     Correlation or no correlation, there is something very bad happening.

The really sad thing is that our culture doesn't even want to consider the possibility of a correlation. That's because in the culture of unbelief there can be no such thing as evil. Try debating with an atheist, and you'll soon find that out. If they admit the existence of evil, they would have to admit to the existence of the spiritual. This is something they cannot tolerate.

Will America consider the possibility that there might indeed be a rising tide of evil? Will you? What can be done about it?

I spoke about this in my Reformation sermon on October 28, 2012. In that sermon I pointed out that the world has witnessed rising tides of unbelief and evil before. God has given us a response, and that is the response of the Gospel. The only thing that can stand up to evil is the truth of God's Law and Gospel. God help us to hold to it ourselves, and God help us to proclaim it to the world around us.

I have proclaimed the good news of righteousness
In the great assembly;
Indeed, I do not restrain my lips,
O Lord, You Yourself know.

I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart;
I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation;
I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth
From the great assembly.

Do not withhold Your tender mercies from me, O Lord;
Let Your lovingkindness and Your truth continually preserve me.

For innumerable evils have surrounded me;
My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up;
They are more than the hairs of my head;
Therefore my heart fails me.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me
Psalm 40.9-13

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Psalm 121 God Is Always Watching

Sermon from Evening Prayer, Wednesday, July 1, 2015, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois

1. I will lift up my eyes to the hills—

From whence comes my help?
2.  My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
3.  He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4.  Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5.  The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6.  The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
7.  The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8.  The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

This is a beautiful psalm that has been a great source of strength and inspiration for many Christians. Next to Psalm 23 it is probably one of the most memorized psalms. Parts of this psalm have been enshrined in both the liturgies for baptism and funerals. The psalm easily applies to almost any part of the journey of life.

There are a few interesting things about this psalm. First, is is part of a group of psalms called the Psalms of Ascents (Psalms 120-134) that were probably sung by Israelites as they made their annual trips to Jerusalem for worship. Jerusalem is truly a city built on a hill therefore you always "go up to Jerusalem" no matter which direction you take to get there. 

This psalm may have been a "farewell liturgy" sung by those who were leaving for Jerusalem and by those who were not traveling (perhaps because of their weakness or other needs to stay home). The first two verses are in the first person, "I will lift of my eyes..." But beginning in the third verse the psalm switches to the third person, "He will not allow your foot to be moved..."  

Luther was interested in third verse. Regarding the thought that God is not paying attention, he wrote that this psalm teaches us... "that we should remain steadfast in faith and await God’s help and protection. Because even though it appears that God is sleeping or snoring...this is certainly not so, despite the way we feel and think. He is surely awake and watching over us."

The sixth verse has always interested people: "The sun shall not strike you by day or the moon by night."  Charles Schultz wrote a Charlie Brown cartoon about this:

The most important part of the psalm is the repetition of the word "keep" or "preserve." Notice that in the New King James Version above three times it is translated "keep" and three times it is translated "preserve." The word shamar in Hebrew means "to keep attentive watch" as in Psalm 127.1 "Unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain." 

I would especially like to tie this thought in with last Sunday's sermon on Mark 5.36, Jesus' words to Jairus: "Don't be afraid; only believe." I pointed out that those who doubt God often complain: "Why doesn't God get rid of all the evil in the world?" But their question should really be rephrased: "Why doesn't God get rid of all the evil in the world right now?" There's a difference. The historical record shows that God has gotten rid of evil many times and that He is always doing this. Jesus healed many people to show the ultimate goal of His forgiveness. All of us know there are times in life when God has saved us. I remember a particular incident in my life when I was racing with my bicycle against a small scooter that was carrying my dad and another man. Gradually the scooter pulled away, but in my zeal to stay with it, I ran right through a stop sign and was horrified to hear screeching tires.  I had come so close to death except that the driver was alert and saw me in the nick of time. Or, rather, God was alert and watching over me and guided that driver to see me and to slam on the brakes. 

Psalm 121 is a good psalm for us to sing often. It is a constant comfort and reminder to us that God is always watching, protecting and preserving. 

See also:  Matthew 10.29-31; Philippians 4.7; 1 Thessalonians 4.23; 2 Thessalonians 3.3; 2 Timothy 4.18; Jude 1.1

Sermon: "Do We Trust God or Trash Him?" Mark 5.21-43" Print and Audio  June 28, 2015

Here is a hymn based on Psalm 121. It was in The Lutheran Hymnal #538 "Now the Shades of Night Are Past" Tune: Vienna

Now the shades of night are gone,
Now the morning light is come.
Lord, may we be Thine today;
Drive the shades of sin away.

Fill our souls with heav’nly light,
Banish doubt and cleanse our sight.
In Thy service, Lord, today
Help us labor, help us pray.

Keep our haughty passions bound,
Save us from our foes around;
Going out and coming in,
Keep us safe from ev’ry sin.

When our work of life is past,
Oh, receive us then at last!
Night of sin will be no more
When we reach the heav’nly shore.

According to The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, this hymn was written by a Mohican Indian named Sampson Occom (Occum, Ockum) in 1770. It was first published in the Congregational Collection, Hartford, 1799.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

Devotions: The Irony of "Jesus" Barabbas

Barabbas. He was the man Pilate offered to the crowds in the hope of setting Jesus free since it was the custom to set one political prisoner free during the Passover. But it didn't work. The crowds had already been stirred up to call for Jesus' crucifixion.

Ever since I was a little boy I sensed the irony of this. Samuel Crossman, in his beautiful hymn "My Song is Love Unknown," captured it with these words:

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The prince of life they slay.
Yet cheerful He
To suff’ring goes
That He His foes
From thence might free.

There is, however, more to the irony. The New International Version tells us that Barabbas' name was actually "Jesus Barabbas." A lot of translations leave out "Jesus" from Barabbas' name because there is a little debate about it in the ancient manuscripts. 

More than twenty ancient manuscripts of Matthew have the words "Jesus Barabbas." But Origen, one of the greatest Bible scholars who ever lived, argued that this must have been a mistake. In his commentary he said, "“in the whole range of the scriptures we know that no one who is a sinner [is called] Jesus.”*  But great Bible scholars aren't always right. Origen didn't want the name of "Jesus" sullied by allowing it to stand for a criminal. But I think that is exactly what God wanted. 

If it is true that they both have the same first name, we can see all the more clearly how Jesus came to take our place on the cross.  St. Peter said, 

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3.18).  

Paul said, 

"For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5.21). 

Jesus did allow His name to be sullied. He allowed His entire being to be showered with our sin when He went convicted and condemned to the cross. When you feel guilty, worthless and weighed down by sin, remember who became a substitute for you.

Prayer: God of Grace, I give You my thanks and praise when I remember how Jesus stood in my place to be condemned. Help me to remember that, though undeserving, I have been set free from the condemnation of my sin. I am forgiven. I am free. In Jesus' name, Amen. 

*Metzger, Bruce M. "A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament"