with Chris Nelson
1) Describe your relationship to/experience with church or other Christian communities. If it has changed over time, describe the change.As a kid I would go to church on Easter and Christmas with my Grandpa. It was definitely his community and it was a place we were invited into on those days. In high-school I had some friends that attended church and then it became a place where you could just hang out, on weekdays, not just holidays. After becoming involved in that church Sunday mornings became a time to grow in relationship with the whole congregation, young and old and share that experience of church with each other. Now that we have settled into our church here in Colorado Springs, I see it very much as “the body of Christ” in the way that we all need to bring our gifts and skills to serve and provide a different function of the body. I think this approach has been amplified recently as several families, even families that had been at the church for 20+ years left because the church refused to leave the denomination over the issue of homosexual ordination.
2) How has that relationship/experience affected the way you think about your body and/or your self-image?Honestly not much. I theoretically understand the connection between how we understand the two and I can explain it as such to people but in general the movement goes the other way. How I understand my body and my self image affects the relationship/experience of church. In general I try to take care of my body but don’t always do the best job. In order to combat that I try to develop habits that allow that to happen. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I am not.
3) How has that relationship/experience affected the way you relate to others?It helps me to deal with people that do not think like me or do not have the same skills that I do. Instead of simply writing them off as having nothing to add because they are not “on my team”. I try instead to see how their unique functions might be a part of the body of Christ. Again, all this is theoretically informing how I act and I am by no means saying that I always accomplish this way of thinking.
4) How has that relationship/experience affected your spiritual life?Primarily in understanding that my spiritual life is inextricably tied to the spiritual life of those around me. I can’t go it alone and need others to grow with and also be held accountable by. If I try to go it on my own, then it is all about me and I don’t think that is the ultimate goal of spiritual formation. Slightly relatedly I also establish patterns of taking care of my body (jogging, eating right..) and try to apply those to my spiritual life (serving, attending worship, reading the bible, praying). Like exercise it is much easier to do with other people around you though there are times when going alone is nice too.
5) What word of wisdom or encouragement would you offer other people on a similar journey?Everything is connected. As much as we like to be lone rangers, and as much as our culture shapes us into believing that is the ultimate goal, it goes against the way we are made. Just like your body is messy, so is community, it is not always going to be smooth sailing but if my hearing starts to give me problems the solution is not to cut off my ears, it is to find hearing aids, to support the function that is faltering.
What about you?
Have your own answers to these questions? Why not share them? Email your responses and a recent picture to bodytheologyblog at gmail dot com. You can also post anonymously if you wish.
We’re making our way through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison. Last week, we looked at Part One: The Compassionate God. If you haven’t read last week’s posts, I highly recommend starting there. This week, we’re in Part Two: The Compassionate Life.
As a reminder, last week we learned the definition of compassion (emphasis mine):
To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition. (6)
Part Two: The Compassionate Life
In Part One, we learned that our ability to understand and give compassion is only possible because we have already experienced the compassion of God in our lives and been given the example of compassion in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Now, in Part Two, the authors’ premise is that living a truly compassionate life can only happen through and because of our participation in Christian community:
Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together. (47)
A compassionate life is a life in which fellowship with Christ reveals itself in a new fellowship among those who follow him. (48)
Relationship with Christ is relationship with our brothers and sisters. This is most powerfully expressed by Paul when he calls the Christian community the body of Christ. (49)
This is why body theology is so important. We cannot truly experience the life we are called to experience in God if we are not connected to the community of God. We do not have a holistic body theology if we do not have both the body of CHRIST and the BODY of Christ — participation in the community of God and the action of service in the world.
The authors are very clear as to why we need the community of God in order to live a compassionate life:
As a community we can transcend our individual limitations and become a concrete realization of the self-emptying way of Christ….Left to ourselves, we might easily begin to idolize our particular form or style of ministry and so turn our service into a personal hobby. But when we come together regularly to listen to the word of God and the presence of God in our midst, we stay alert to the guiding voice and move away from the comfortable places to unknown territories. (56)
It’s easy to become comfortable. We are creatures of habit and sameness and whatever-is-easiest, especially those of us living in the First World where materialism and consumer culture define our sense of security and success. But God calls us to a radically counter-cultural paradigm shift that the authors call “voluntary displacement,” the individual choice to move ourselves out of what is comfortable and familiar in order to answer the unique call of God in each of our lives.
When we are willing to make this shift, we are placing ourselves in a position to be compassionate:
Voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings. (62)
We have the most excellent example of voluntary displacement in the person of Jesus Christ, who made the choice to move out of what was comfortable and familiar in order to answer the unique call of God:
The mystery of the incarnation is that God did not remain in the place that we consider proper for God but moved to the condition of a suffering human being…In the life of Jesus, we see how this divine displacement becomes visible in a human story…It is in following our displaced Lord that the Christian community is formed. (62-3)
This is why body theology begins with the incarnation of God. Without the choice God made to become human flesh and live among us, we would have no example to follow and no reason to follow that example. God chose to become like us, to become one of us, to become the same as we are so that we could experience the compassion of God in our individual lives. In the same way, we are called:
Voluntary displacement leads to compassionate living precisely because it moves us from positions of distinction to positions of sameness, from being in special places to being everywhere. (64)
When we’re in the position of sameness and everywhere, competition loses its ability to separate us. When we relate to one another though the compassion of God, we cannot help but live compassionate lives — lives defined by kindness and gentleness to those who get hurt by competition. We no longer have to struggle and fight to keep what we believe is rightfully ours or worry that sharing power might lead to losing what we have worked so hard to gain.
Because body theology begins with the incarnation, it ends with our own voluntary displacement into the lives of others through service as the BODY of Christ in the world. God’s choice and our choices bring our theology full circle and enable us to discover and experience the compassionate call of God in our minds, souls, and bodies — both individually and corporately as the community of God:
Living in the world by hiddenness and compassion unites us because it allows us to discover the world in the center of our being…displacement makes it possible to be in the world without being of it. (68)
This is what Richard Niebuhr would call Christ Transforming Culture. Rather than hiding from the world or fighting against it, we can embrace those around us with compassion and in doing so create space for all of us together to experience the redeeming and transformative power of God.
We’ll continue our journey through Part Two on Wednesday.
What would it look like if church communities sat down every month and had a Kaizen meeting? What if we constantly asked ourselves what God values and how to usher in the kingdom of God?
What would it look like if we not only allowed church plants to be new and different — to behave newly and differently — but also expected it? Go forth and be new wine skins.
What if we viewed church communities as organisms, not as organizations? Living, breathing, growing, changing entities with lifespans and families and personalities and the freedom to try, to surpass, to surprise.
What would that look like?
What if we started by asking what God is already doing and how to join in instead of asking God to sign on to our next big idea? See the new thing springing up and enter in!
What if we refused to programmize, institutionalize, or bureaucratize? What if the church community didn’t need accountants and buildings and budgets? What if we focused more on being available than on being established?
What if “preacher” were not automatically synonymous with “leader?” What if our leadership were flat? What if it were equal?
What would that look like?
What if we worried more about being mobile than being mega?
What if we did not pursue the praise of people but the principles of the kingdom of God?
What if we were innovators and creators and deconstructors and reconstructors and philosophers and activists and lovers and monks and healers?
What if we were loud? What if we were quiet? What if we were brave?
Who would we look like?
This week I reflected on four aspects of body theology that are important to me: gender, sexuality, community, and body image.
This weekend, try reflecting on one aspect of body theology that is important to you. Choose from the list below or make up your own. Share what you reflected on in the comment box below.
- image of God
- incarnation of Christ
- body image
- media literacy
- cultural discernment
- body of Christ
- social justice
- creation care
More than Presbyterian
When I met my husband, I had already graduated from seminary. During one of our early conversations about our faith journeys, he asked me if I was still Presbyterian. I thought about it for a moment, and then I said, “Yes, but I’m more than Presbyterian now.” He thought my answer was funny, and he still kids me about it, but I was serious.
My roots will never stop being Presbyterian. I will never forget where I came from, and I keep the best of my Presbyterian upbringing with me now. But I am also a little Charismatic, a little Episcopalian, a little Vineyard, a little Emerging, a little Non-denominational, a little Buddhist, a little Mystic, a little Catholic, and a little I-don’t-know-what.
I’m in the garden now. My roots are growing down deeper. My leaves are spreading wider. My buds are blooming. I’m adding my rich and unique beauty to the variety of the garden. I am learning to live in harmony with the different plants surrounding me. We are all growing together, and it is only together that we can call ourselves a garden.
Remember when Rachel Held Evans called the Bible a conversation-starter? I think she was right. What kind of garden would we be if we get rid of all the variety and uniqueness and try to make the whole garden look like us? We’d be a garden overtaken by weeds. Weeds put a strangle-hold on their fellow plants and force them to submit to only one expression of plant life. Good gardeners uproot the weeds to allow more space for all the plants to grow freely and fully as they were meant to.
Let’s stop using the Bible to end conversations. Let’s stop using our swords to wound and instill fear. Let’s be conversation-starters. Let’s allow the different voices of scripture, of history, and of today to shape and inform the conversation. One of my seminary professors once defined theology as God-talk. Let’s allow our theology to be a work-in-progress, a work toward discovering together the truth about God and the truth about ourselves because of God.
Boundaries and the space between
I read about a study once where a community member drove by her child’s elementary school and noticed all the kids hanging on the fence at the edges of the playground. Concerned that the fence was holding her child back, she had the school remove it. Immediately, the children’s behavior changed. They began to congregate in the middle of the playground, fearing the insecurity of the edges they once safely explored because the boundaries were gone.
I’m not advocating that we abolish boundaries and play with an anything-goes mentality. We all need boundaries to feel safe and to bravely explore the fullness of the space we have been given. Without any boundaries at all, we would be like the children gathered in the middle, afraid to explore and play in the in-between.
But we won’t know where the boundaries are if we don’t spread ourselves out and grow into the space we’ve been given. Through conversation, we can explore and experience that space together and learn what it really means to be the body of Christ.
I used to be a conversation-ender, but I’m a conversation-starter now. Which one are you? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.
It is impossible to separate the way we feel about ourselves from the way we feel about one another. – Wuellner
We’ve been touring Flora Slosson Wuellner’s Prayer and Our Bodies last week and this week, looking for insights to encourage our pursuit of holistic body theology. Just as body theology is about not only our own bodies but also what we do with them in the world, so Wuellner’s book encourages prayer not only with our own bodies but also with our community body. She writes, “The nurture, inclusiveness, and sensitivity which we try to bring to our own bodies is precisely the same nurture, inclusiveness, and sensitivity we are asked to bring to our community body.”
Chapter 8: The Healing and Renewal of Our Community Body
Being in community with others is hard work. As we learned through our discussion of Bonhoeffer’s ideas about community, prayer with and for one another is one of the best ways to come to love and respect each other. As Wuellner puts it, “The health of a community body depends so utterly on its tenderness and its honor toward all its members.”
A spiritual life, and a body theology, experienced entirely as an individual is deficient. We are not living out our participation in the incarnation of Christ if we are not participating in community:
It is in community that our true faith is revealed and tested. Just as our spirituality must be experienced in our personal bodies, so must it also be experienced in our community bodies. If our spirituality has become merely an individualistic exercise–if our whole self (body, emotions, spirit) is not part of our community context–we have missed the meaning of the incarnational life.
Wuellner acknowledges that it’s easy to overlook the difficult members of our community–the homeless, the disabled, the emotionally dependent: “How often is our politeness merely a way of distancing ourselves from honest encounter? If we learn honesty within our own bodies and hearts, can we at last begin to learn it with one another?”
She describes healthy community as having “not only nurture for its members but also openness towards new members, new ideas, new ways of living. A healthy family is not a closed circle; it reaches beyond itself in interest and concern or its spirit will die.” We cannot be exclusive and be a truly healthy community where “all are equally heard, valued, and nurtured.”
How often are we divided over issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation? How often do we hold grudges against past offenders, despise those who have wounded us (either individually or communally), and refused to be reconciled? Is this what it means to be the body of Christ?
What would it look like if we threw a healing party? Everyone in our community could come with their individual gifts and strengths, and we could celebrate being the body of Christ together. Then, before we leave the “party,” we could pray together for our community to be healed and become whole. Is there any better party favor than healthy community?
We can achieve healthy community, Wuellner suggests, through communal prayer:
Let us in our churches, prayer groups, and personal prayers begin with boldness to explore in depth these new frontiers of prayer for the radical healing of our family bodies, our church bodies, our racial, national, professional bodies.
If you and your community are ready to experience healing and wholeness as the body of Christ, I encourage you to throw a healing party. Begin to pray–individually and communally–for God’s healing to come. Wuellner offers this guidance as we enter into communal prayer:
- God is the healer. We are to be the transmitters, not the generators, of the healing light and energy.
- Face our true feelings about the person or the group or the situation. The feeling itself will never be a block to God’s work of healing if it is faced. We admit what we feel to God and let God do the loving.
- Our prayer is not meant to be either diagnostic or prescriptive. There will be changes, but they are not always what we expected, and they do not always come at the time we expect.