Speaking Tips from a Lecture on the Brains of Fruit Flies

Have you ever wondered how a fruit fly thinks? Maybe not! But chances are that you’ve wondered about your own brain.

I attended a Janelia Farms “Dialogue of Discovery” called Taking Action: How Small Brains Make Big Choices. The scientist, Gwyneth Card, PhD, gave a dynamic presentation describing her research on the thought process of fruit flies: investigating how individual neurons lead to the fly’s specific movements to escape a predator.

Dr. Card said: We are trying to reverse engineer the brain. I liked that phrase. I like big subjects brought down to something small enough to investigate. The phrase “reverse-engineer” helpfully orients the exploration: even though the fruit fly brain is tiny, the scientist still stands behind/underneath it. To my mind, understanding always comes from “standing under” with an attitude of curiosity and exploration and respect. (In my life, this describes scripture study.)

The numbers tell us why neuroscientists start with fruit flies. Fruit fly brains have 300,000 neurons, compared to the 86 billion neurons in human brains. Dr. Card showed helpful pictures of the difference between these two figures: the population of Anchorage, Alaska vs. the population of 12 earths.

Context is key to signal interpretation. Dr. Card showed a picture of a man holding a cat by the tail, and also a large knife, all of which are covered by a great gush of red liquid, presumably blood. The brain has to determine what just happened. A pot full of a tomato-based dinner and a curious cat may provide an unexpected answer. It is the job of the brain to make these connections and assessments, almost instantly.

Dr. Card backed up to describe the work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) which sought to answer the question: When a horse is running are all four legs ever off the ground at once? (I remember studying that in high school, did you?) To answer that question, Muybridge invented a way to take a series of photos in quick succession.

Today the standard for fruit fly investigation is 6,000 frames per second. The scientist is able to introduce a shadowy object (to mimic a predator) and film the result. The scientist can then determine the precise actions a fly takes in evasion.

Dr. Card showed a fabulous clip of a man jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. The man’s body followed the same basic sequence as the fruit fly: freeze, adjust posture, shift body weight, jump.

There were some lighthearted moments, such as a “Fly Pez” which dispenses the fruit flies one at a time. Fun to see the contraptions that scientific exploration requires. Can you imagine what ingenuity they take to build? Another sophisticated piece of equipment can head-fix the fly in order to insert an electrode into the brain. This allows neuronal activity to be matched to specific behaviors.

It was enjoyable to watch an energetic speaker, who made excellent use of visuals. As a preacher/speaker, here are a couple observations:

1) The speaker’s sense of curiosity was contagious.

2) The speaker’s fondness for her tiny subjects was evident, proving once again that intimate study inevitably leads to a certain respect for the subject matter.

3) The speaker’s efforts to make immediate applications to her audience’s life kept attention, even as the complex layers of the subject matter multiplied for a full hour.

4) At the end, the speaker went out of her way to laud her research team, not only showing their names but also their faces, which speaks volumes about her leadership.

(Other Dialogues of Discovery notes here and here and here.)

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Free Wi-Fi in Church: Three Uses

Many restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. In fact, people often expect it. Wi-Fi is used for more than surfing the Internet while people eat. This article lists some applications:

~ ordering (by touchscreen)

~ digital menus (on iPads)

~ real-time reviews (social media)

There can be a downside. In some restaurants people are too preoccupied to order their food properly!

But it got me thinking. How might churches make use of free Wi-Fi during worship?

~ responding to the preacher’s questions (by touchscreen)

~ digital hymnals or liturgy (on iPads)

~ real-time tweets, reviews, and invitations for upcoming events (social media)

What might be the downsides? (and would they be Twitter-able?)

Posted in Church: Leadership, Church: Transforming, Things I Wonder About | Tagged , | 1 Comment

1001 Worshipping Communities, “By Zombies”

If you are following the story about the missteps at the PCUSA’s 1001 Worshipping Communities, you may want to read A word of regret and hope from Linda Valentine. Linda is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

I have no knowledge beyond what’s in the letter and I have respect for Linda Valentine. I do believe this is a learning curve for our denomination as we try to do church differently.

On a purely linguistic level, I wish the letter-writer had omitted a single sentence: “Mistakes were made.” That is just a lousy sentence. It sounds like obfuscation even if it isn’t — because it’s in passive voice. Here’s a way to tell if a sentence is in passive voice: You can add the phrase “By Zombies” at the end and it makes sense.

Not that zombies made the mistakes, of course. People did.

Posted in Church: Leadership, Church: Transforming | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Three Tips for Writing Memoir

Are you writing a memoir?

Last weekend I attended an event for writers at the “First Fridays” in Leesburg, VA, sponsored by the Bethesda Writer’s Center. The speaker was Hilary Black, who works for National Geographic. She talked about writing narrative nonfiction. Here are a few nuggets from that event, which I have rephrased a bit and applied specifically to memoir-writing:

1. Know why your subject matters to you:

If you want the topic to matter to others, you need to know exactly what about it matters to you. Is there a conflict or emotion you want to work out? Be as specific as possible. The story won’t be compelling to anyone else unless it’s compelling to you. It helps to write a thesis statement, just for yourself.

2. Be ready to “go there”:

Are you ready and willing to delve into the past experience that is the substance of the memoir? You cannot hint at what happened, or “write around it” which may be tempting if the experience was painful. Let’s face it: Writing a memoir about a painful topic is a painful process! If you want to do it, prepare yourself to plunge into this aspect.

3. Implement a 3-part structure:

1. Conflict          2. Work through conflict        3. New understanding of conflict

It seems obvious, but every work needs a beginning, middle and end. And the best lens for memoir writing is that universal lens — conflict — so use this to structure your work.

What about these rings true for you?

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1001 Worshipping Communities: Missteps

Every institution needs an interested but detached observer. Today (Nov 7) the Presbyterian Outlook, which is that eye upon the PCUSA, published a story titled Investigation finds four PCUSA employees committed ethics violations. I encourage you to read the article in full. Kudos to Leslie Scanlon for her reporting.

The story focuses on the creation of an entity to handle funds for 1001 Worshipping Communities, an initiative begun in 2012 for the purpose of making it easier to birth new worshipping bodies. As a pastor who desires to see more churches, and healthier churches, I applaud this initiative. The gospel of Jesus Christ can spread in a myriad of ways, both traditional and non-traditional. New bodies are perhaps the best way to make new disciples. Yes, “1001” is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Presbyterian.

The article doesn’t suggest that any denominational employee intended malfeasance. Rather, they bungled. Nevertheless, it’s my understanding that in the corporate world, some of these persons would be out of a job. Some people would argue that the church is different; the system should be more merciful. What is your opinion?

I confess that I am a bit jaded about the fiscal/legal ignorance of well-meaning people. That ignorance negatively impacts the church’s ability to conduct business, both in reality, and by diminished reputation. It’s an unfortunate fact that in recent years my presbytery has wasted huge amounts of money through poor fiscal choices that boxed us into corners. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. But having good intentions does not offset the reality of poor preparation and lack of savvy.

My lens is that of a small-church pastor. (Rock Creek Presbyterian, Tallula, IL 1993-1999 and Poolesville Presbyterian, Poolesville, MD 2002-2011). Both of those churches did unexpected things and even took financial risks. They are still in existence. Many such churches have closed down. I understand how “close to the bone” many churches operate. Perhaps that is one reason that mismanagement in church bureaucracy is particularly galling to me. I can’t help but think how much good small congregations can do with even a few thousand dollars.

It is/was one of my theological tenets that the church is a mission outpost and should therefore operate at the edge of its resources. I certainly don’t mind when church leadership (both clergy and lay) takes risks. Often that is the faithful path. I do mind when church leadership tries to play in a corporate world and simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. Those kinds of missteps damage the reputation of the Body of Christ. That damage should concern all of us.

I’m glad that this misstep is not being ignored or hushed up. Hopefully 1001 Worshipping Communities will be back on its feet, and the lessons learned will work to the good.

I intend to hold my denomination in prayer with special vigor this weekend. I invite you to do the same, whether that’s the PCUSA or some other body.

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Self-Storage & Church Space

Chances are your church needs an income stream. Chances are it also needs to let go of something. What’s the connection?

America is good at holding onto things. According to an industry sourceThere is 7.3 sq.ft. of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation; thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.

That’s a lot of storage space! But have you driven back roads lately? Self-storage units are everywhere. Towns that are too small to support a gas station, and lack even one new home, have a brand-spanking-new storage enterprise. Interesting!

What does this mean for the church? For one thing, maybe churches with dwindling Sunday School attendance could retool their classroom space as rental storage units. After all, we’re talking premium climate-controlled space that is probably under-utilized.

The church classrooms built in the 1950s and 60s are no longer teeming with children. In a sense, they are a vestige of another time. Do we dare admit that this space is obsolete? If so, how poetic that this space should be converted to house the obsolete items that people cannot bring themselves to discard.

Brooks Palmer, the Clutter-Buster, calls storage unit fees “alimony” for the stuff we can no longer live with. I like that. It strikes me that churches are often willing to pay “alimony” for models of ministry that they can no longer live with.

I am kidding. In a way. But I do think we church leaders need to do some rethinking about our space, our space usage, and what it is that people need. Many things become obsolete, except for the gospel. How does our space usage advance that message? What do we need to be willing to let go of?

Chances are that most storage units are full of items that people need to let go.

Chances are that churches are full of ideas we need to let go.

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Warehouse into Worship: Transforming Space

On Sunday Doug and I visited a Greek Orthodox church. We sought a change of pace and wanted to participate in a worship tradition that is sacrament-based rather than word-based.

Our local Greek Orthodox Parish meets in warehouse space in a business park. We arrived a few minutes early since it was Fall Back Sunday. I expected to see concrete floors, cement block walls, and utilitarian lighting, all of which would lend a temporary, contemporary vibe to the worship space. Perhaps some coffee-sipping band leaders would be completing their last-minute setup.

Instead, we walked into a traditional nave with icons all around and liturgical chanting already underway. The clergy wore beautiful vestments and there was a full complement of robed altar boys. The liturgy was chanted and sung by a number of voices, including a mixed choir, all without accompaniment. We sat in traditional wood pews equipped with kneelers. We followed the liturgy in bound books from a pew rack, Greek on the left hand  and English on the right. Incense filled the sanctuary.

The transformation of the warehouse space into sacred space was so successful that I was there for more than 30 minutes before it occurred to me to look around to see how they accomplished this feat. Then I studied the details.

The cement block walls had been painted a deep blue, and archways built over those walls. These archways were painted a soft yellow, and white plate rails held many large icons. Ornate hooks held oil lamps in front of the central icons. Shimmering cloths adorned the altar and lectern. Everything felt fresh and immaculate.

Check out the picture on the parish’s website. I didn’t take pictures. I wanted to be less tourist and more pilgrim.

The Orthodox call their worship the Divine Liturgy. The portion leading up to the Eucharist lasted a full hour and congregants dribbled in this entire hour. The gospel reading was from Luke 16, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. After the reading there was a pause in the liturgy. An offering was received. Then the cleric stood in the middle to deliver a sermon. It happened to be Stewardship Sunday, and this part of the service felt very familiar. In fact, I think I may have preached the same sermon: an exhortation to give Time, Talents and Treasure, all three, for all are valuable. He also made a point of welcoming the gifts of children, and used a bit of humor.

After the sermon the congregation lined up to go forward to receive the sacrament, and Doug and I ducked out. The bulletin made clear that the Eucharist was intended only for the Orthodox. If you’ve read the first chapter of my book, you may remember that I don’t like to be excluded from the sacrament!

Still, I was grateful for the chance to worship with my Orthodox sisters and brothers on this day. I especially appreciated the chance to soak in their sacred space, warehouse turned to worship.

Has any worship space surprised or delighted you recently? I’d love to hear about it. I sometimes worry that contemporary Christianity’s drift into very casual worship environments can at times starve the senses. I appreciate order and beauty.

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Is He Hitting On Me? A Clergywoman & Bereaved Guy

RevGalBlogPalsClergywomen face unique challenges. Today’s “Ask the Matriarch” column at RevGalBlogPals addresses a question about enforcing boundaries with a person who is hurting:

Dear Matriarchs,
What’s a gal chaplain to do? I work in hospice and I try hard to be professional and do my job well. What does one do when a bereaved male claims he has “felt a connection” and asks where you “do services” or looks at you very intently in the eye and says he gets “lonely”. So far I’m just taking the professional route and ignoring the hint. Should I call him out and name it in regards to me, risking breaking the “connection” or trust? Or just continue the professional, empathic way? Does “compassionate, pastoral, good listener” equate with “possible hookup” to these guys? I am solidly married with kids and love my work.

Many Matriarchs responded, including me.

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Hold Up. Really.

Here’s another reason to do all your banking online. Just now I went to the bank to deposit a few checks — at the PNC on Hwy 7 in Sterling — and came home with the chore undone.

As I approached the bank I glimpsed some flashing blue lights in the front, so I took a shortcut and went around back. There were electrical trucks back there, so I assumed the power was off and the cops were directing traffic. I parked my car at a little distance and walked across the parking lot toward the bank. That’s when I noticed a deputy with his gun drawn, an M-16. He barked at me: “Ma’am, get back.”

Turns out there was a robbery going on at the Wells Fargo, right next door to the PNC. As I watched, people in business wear came out one at a time, their hands over their heads. There were six or so Sheriff’s deputies in their brown uniforms with bulletproof vests. Another couple of guys in full SWAT uniforms. A helicopter was hovering overhead.

I watched another Sheriff’s car pull up. A deputy got out, pulled his Kevlar over his head and grabbed a clipboard. I suppose there’s a lot of paperwork with this kind of thing.

A few minutes later, another guy dressed all in black pulled on black gloves as he walked toward the back entrance, very purposefully. Every few minutes one of the Sheriff’s deputies ran a loop around the parking lot with his gun drawn.

I talked to another woman in front of the Dunkin Donuts. She said: “How does somebody think they can rob a bank in this day and age?”

I said: “No kidding. You have to rob a bank from the inside, not this way.”

She sighed and said, “Well, all I know is, my husband really wanted a donut.”

Posted in Conversations with Strangers | 6 Comments

Stop. This Picture Needs a Haiku.

fall leaves and Stop sign

Here’s a picture of fall leaves and a Stop sign, from Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan.

This photo seems to beg for a haiku, doesn’t it? I invite you to write one and leave it in the comments! A haiku is 3 lines which don’t rhyme: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables.

Posted in Haiku, Things I Wonder About, Travel: Ontario & Michigan | Tagged , | 7 Comments