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Open: Into the Light

There’s a particular area of psychology that has always been really interesting to me. I love research about cognitive bias. I suppose I’m just interested in the ways our normal human thinking gets us off track. Cognitive bias is the fancy word for errors in thinking that cause us to misinterpret information we receive. Let me give you a few examples from The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.[1] One of these cognitive biases is the “illusion of memory.” The illusion of memory reflects a reality borne out by many research studies- humans don’t have very good memories. Our memories are not like video recordings stored away; rather they are pieces and snatches of information copied and pasted together to form a whole other thing. It’s why you and your siblings can tell completely different versions of the same story from your childhood, and why eyewitness accounts are not generally very trustworthy.

Another cognitive bias is the illusion of potential. This bias causes us to think that we are deeply capable of an untold number of things, if only we knew how. Do you remember about 20 years ago how everyone believed that if you listened to classical music, you would become smarter? A study, later sensationalized by the media, purported findings that listening to Mozart for 10 minutes could boost your IQ up to 9 points- a pretty tremendous jump, really. “Finally!” all we would-be geniuses thought, “finally something has come along to help me tap into the brilliance I’ve known I was capable of!” and off everyone went to buy classical music CDs. Of course, no study has ever come close to replicating those results and…we’re all 9 points lower on an IQ test than we think we should be. The illusion of potential is why we look at paintings or see a builder’s work and think “I could do that if I took the time to learn how.”

A third cognitive bias, and one especially relevant for our text today, is the illusion of attention. It’s a point well proved by a study that you can participate in online even now.[2] Imagine two teams of basketball players, one team in black shirts and one team in white shirts. Both teams have a ball and they’re passing the ball to players on their team. You’re told to count the number of passes, both bounce passes and aerial passes of the team in white shirts. “33” you may say, or “34.” But the number of passes isn’t really the point. “Did you see the person in a gorilla suit walk into the frame, stop in the middle, and dance for a little while before walking back out?” Pretty consistently, about 50% of us would say no. We failed to notice a giant gorilla right in the middle of the thing we were watching so very closely. It was invisible to me the first time I did it, but after you see, you really can’t unsee it. The video, the experience becomes about the gorilla, much more than it is about the basketball players. Everything has changed.

So, when I read the story of the disciples walking home to Emmaus, I think about the Invisible Gorilla study. The story begins in verse 13 where two disciples (whom church tradition has long considered to be a married couple) are making the 7-mile trek to Emmaus from Jerusalem. As they walk to the village, they’re talking about everything that happened when Jesus appears to them. They do not, however, recognize Jesus. And they talk to him about Jesus, telling the story of his own life and death. “We had hoped,” they say, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But now his body is missing, and no one knows what to believe. And then Jesus takes over the story, telling them the bigger story, helping them to see God’s story of salvation that began long ago. After their two-hour long walk is over, they invite their fellow traveler to stay with them. The sun was setting, and it was too late to go farther. They share a meal with the mysterious stranger, and when he takes the bread, he blesses it and gives it to them, and their eyes are opened. They can see, suddenly, for the first time, what had been in front of them all along. They can see the Invisible Gorilla, Jesus. He vanishes though, and they set out again, this time in the dark for another 7-mile walk back to Jerusalem (and remember: new life emerges in the dark!).

We have no way of knowing, of course, why the two disciples didn’t recognize Jesus. The text simply says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing them.” But I wonder, perhaps if it wasn’t their brains keeping their eyes from recognizing them. Their brains were telling them Jesus was dead, that their grief was all encompassing, that their heavy hearts need to mourn by telling this stranger all of the hard things they were contemplating. Lost in the dashed hopes that Jesus was ushering in a new era of political, social, and religious freedom, lost in the swirl of passing pain and grief, they couldn’t see what was right in front of them- the resurrected Jesus.

And I wonder, how often we miss Jesus in our own lives. How often we get lost in our emotions, in our experiences, distracted by our tasks and we fail to see Jesus right in front of us, right in our midst. How often does our inattentiveness cause us to look right through God’s hope, grace, faithfulness?

The story doesn’t end with Jesus’ vanishing though. When these two disciples return, they go to the rest of the disciples, the 11 plus more, who are gathered, and they tell them about their experience. And again, Jesus appears. “Peace be with you,” he says. The assembly is petrified, scared to death, believing they are seeing a ghost. That makes perfect sense, really. None of us have ever experienced someone who has been dead for three days coming back to life. We know way more ghost stories than resurrection stories. But maybe, just maybe, this is a case of the illusion of cause, a cognitive bias that causes us to draw wrong conclusions about cause and effect. Jesus told them, many times, that he would suffer and die, and be raised again. They didn’t understand what it meant, of course, but he did tell them.

And Jesus continues, telling them to look at his body, to touch him and feel his flesh and bones. He even eats. Maybe because he’s hungry, but maybe to prove that he is human. And their very natural understanding of cause and effect- the dead man reappearing must be a ghost- is proven wrong. Something else has happened here; something that they will never unsee and can never forget. Resurrection is possible. Jesus is God made manifest in our presence. Everything has changed.

And then Jesus begins teaching. He reminds them of all the things he told them when he was alive. Luke 24:45 says that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” We know that these very people, these faithful disciples and Jesus’ companions had long been hearing him teach. They were mostly very faithful Jewish people who had studied hard, who knew scripture, who debated and learned. But in this moment, Jesus gives us a window into another cognitive bias- the illusion of knowledge. This cognitive bias is when we believe that we know more than we do. And goodness knows we all like to think we know more than we do! You may have experienced this in the form of “fake it ‘til you make it.” You may also know someone who is the personification of the Dunning-Kruger Effect which says that the people who know the least about something are often the ones who believe they know the most (and are often quick to tell you how much they know). Most true subject area experts will be quick to tell you how much they don’t know, how much more there is to learn. The disciples probably thought they understood everything, but Jesus opens their minds to true understanding, and it isn’t what they thought. They didn’t know everything there is to know. Everything has changed.

Here's the thing about cognitive biases, and the thing about resurrection- it changes everything. It can’t be undone or unseen. You can’t step into the light of resurrection and then ignore it. A butterfly can’t emerge from its chrysalis and then change its mind. There is before and after.

There’s another cognitive bias that I think is really important for us to understand. This one comes from psychologist Woo-Kyoung Ahn in her book Thinking 101. Ahn is a professor at Yale University, and one of her techniques for teaching this cognitive bias is this- she shows a 6 second segment of the K-Pop band BTS dancing in a music video. The class watches the video ten or more times, including a slowed down version. “Okay,” she says, “your turn.” Volunteers come forward, sure that they can replicate the 6-second dance routine. It’s easy, right? And they’ve seen it so many times. Every single class, every single semester, the cocky volunteers embarrass themselves as they flail around for the longest six seconds of their lives.[3] This is the illusion of fluency. This is also why 93% of American drivers believe they have above-average driving skills.[4]

I think living the resurrection life is harder than it looks. We wish that it was as easy as following your favorite recipe or learning to change a tire. We want the easy step-by-step pattern to living like Jesus. We want a book that’s 10 Easy Steps to Being a Great Christian. But of course, no such book exists. It’s not easy, living with dogged hope, living with faith when the end of the story is uncertain, living with courage when everything feels really hard, living with love when everything around us feels completely unloving. It isn’t easy but is simple. It is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, doing the next right thing, carrying on though the way be treacherous. Discipleship, in the words of Eugene Peterson is “a long faithfulness in the same direction.” Simple, not easy.

The decision to open up into the light, to live the resurrection life, changes you. As the old hymn says “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” Like the butterfly emerging, there can only be forward motion. And like the butterfly, every step is about transformation. Pastor and author Bruce Epperly writes, “resurrection moved the cells as well as the soul of Jesus, and the cells and souls of his followers.”[5] I don’t think we are any different, really.

The word we translate as “repent” is the Greek word metanoia. And what it really means is “change your mind”. Change your mind, change your thinking, let go of what you think you know, let go of the cognitive biases that cloud your thinking. Let go of your assumptions and all the things that hold you back. Change your mind. Of course, metanoia is from the same root word as metamorphosis- it’s all about letting grace do it’s work of changing us. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 we read that we “are being transformed into the [image of God’s glory] from one degree of glory to another.” We are experiencing transformation, our own metamorphosis. Friends, let God transform you, open into God’s light. No going back.

[1] Chabris, C. and Simons, D. The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us (2010), New York: Crown. [2] The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us [3] Ahn, W. Thinking 101: How to Reason Better to Live Better (2022) New York: Flatiron Books, p. 8. [4] Ibid. [5] Let’s Go for a Walk: Reflections on The Road to Emmaus | Bruce Epperly (patheos.com)




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