This month 158 years ago, Abraham Lincoln gave his first Inaugural Address. By then, seven states had seceded from the Union and his goal in his first message to the American people as their President was to be both conciliatory and firm — the Union could not be divided. He concluded his address with the words:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Long before our family moved to the United States, I was struck by that final phrase of Lincoln’s address: “the better angels of our nature.” To see positive change in our world, in our communities, our families, we need to pay attention to that which is positive and life-giving in the human character.
We have to remember, though, that just as there are “better angels of our nature,” there are also “lesser angels” of our nature. We have the capacity for compassion, but we also have the capacity for indifference. We have the capacity for forgiveness and for resentment. We can build bridges and we can burn them, we can heal and and we can hurt. We have to very intentionally choose the path of compassion and forgiveness and healing, and of all those things carried in that phrase “the better angels of our nature.”
Neurologists talk about a process called Myelination. Myelin is the stuff that allows signals to move through nerves in our brains. The more myelin around a nerve, the easier the signal moves. As we repeat a behavior, the myelin thickens around the nerves needed to carry out that behavior. In other words, the more we do something, the easier it is to do it, because we strengthen the neural pathways that allow us to get it done. That’s why repetition is so important in learning.
The process of myelination doesn’t only work for learning physical skills, it also works on the way we think. If we choose to be negative in life, we are strengthening those pathways in our brains, and we easily drift towards that negativity as we respond to our world. The same is true for positive thoughts. The more that we intentionally choose to look at the glass as half full, to be grateful for the things we have in life, to give people the benefit of the doubt, the more that way of thinking becomes our default setting. More succinctly, the 20th century Serbian monk Elder Thaddeus said:
Our thoughts determine our lives.
In the concluding chapter of his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Let’s pay attention to St. Paul’s choice of the word “meditate” — think intentionally, mindfully about noble and godly things, because the more we think about them, the more they become our default setting.
A couple of weeks ago, when Protodeacon Michael was preaching, he said that we can either choose to reflect the glory of God in us or to obscure it. Noble and godly thoughts yield noble and godly behaviors. Godly behaviors form godly habits. Godly habits yield a godly character. And a godly character radiates the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Today, on the First Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the restoration of the use of sacred images, icons, in worship and prayer. This happened in the year 843, and it was the conclusion of a dispute that lasted for a century and a half. Imagery had adorned the walls of churches since the earliest centuries of Christianity, even ancient synagogues were covered in images of Old Testament stories and people. But the classical Christian theology of images doesn’t begin with paintings on walls, it begins in Genesis 1, when God makes us in his image and likeness.
Every one of us is a living icon of the living God; that means that every one of us is an iconographer. However, our medium is not paint and gold leaf; we work in words, thoughts and deeds. Every day we are faced with a choice. We can either create something out of our lives that looks like Edvard Munch’s work “The Scream” in all its anxious despondency, or something that bears the image of Christ in all his glory.
Neurologists have also discovered that the brain is much more adaptive than we think. Myelination happens in young and old brains alike (you can teach an old dog new tricks). In his grace and mercy, our Creator has made sure that it is never too late for us to begin creating something profoundly beautiful out of our lives. That beauty begins with what we choose to make a habit of filling our minds with.
“Whatever things are true and noble, whatever things are just and pure, whatever things are lovely and of good report—meditate on these things.”
Excerpt from a sermon delivered at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Fort Wayne, IN, Sunday, march 17, 2019.