Believe it or not, your body is aware of who you are, what you care about, and how you are doing emotionally and spiritually. Our bodies are part of who we are, and they know us better than we think they do. (If you missed it yesterday, you can read about my experience learning to listen to my body here.)
This week we’re learning together about the connection between our physical and spiritual selves through Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book Prayer and Our Bodies. These posts are not meant to be a book review but a sharing of and engaging with some of her insights as an ordained minister, adjunct professor, and trained spiritual director.
Here is some of what Wuellner has to say about the body throughout her introduction:
Our understanding and awareness of our bodily selves unfold slowly as we grow, learn, and mature within God’s embrace.
This is why the development of a holistic body theology begins with and is constantly being informed by our identity in Christ. This is also why becoming more media literate and culturally discerning is important so we can sift through the messages we receive in search of God’s truth about who we are.
When the body is mentioned in the New Testament, it is often referred to by the Greek word soma, which usually implies the whole human self: body, emotion, intelligence, will.
Because our faith is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, any form of spirituality we claim must also be incarnational, which by definition includes the wholeness of the person. This will profoundly influence our relationship to our communities and our world.
This is why I have added the word “holistic” to my discussions of body theology and have expanded the definition to include not only our physical selves (body image, sexuality) but also how we interact within the community of God (the body of Christ, community) and within our larger local and global context (the body of Christ, service).
…[A]s we grow into a new, transforming relationship with our bodily selves, we will begin spontaneously and naturally to make informed decisions about our habits, lifestyles, and relationships.
I don’t think I could write a better description of the purpose of holistic body theology. We are created to engage with ourselves, with God, and with others through our bodies, not in spite of them.
Chapter 2: Reconciling and Celebrating Our Bodies
In this chapter, Wuellner gently approaches the topic of body image and the need for inner healing. She asks, “What have our bodies done to us that we ignore, dislike, and punish them so?” and suggests that “much unhealed anger, fear, and hurt underlies our dislike and suspicion of our bodily selves. These unresolved, underlying issues affect our engagement in culture (e.g. what and how much we eat and drink, how we identify and treat illness) as well as how we relate to ourselves, one another, and God.
Our bodies were created in unity with our emotions, intelligence and will, Wuellner describes, and being out of touch with our emotions and bodies results in “fragmentation.” Wuellner encourages her readers to “pray for awareness that our disliked bodily parts are part of us and have served us faithfully. We can stop blaming our bodies for our own decisions…. Celebration of even one small part is deeply healing to the whole.”
She suggests that engaging with our bodies in prayer can provide space for us to “learn to listen to the signals of our bodies, honoring them as one of the main ways God speaks to us and by which we can learn much unencountered truth about ourselves and our communities.”
Guided Meditation with the Body
She goes on to offer a guided meditation exercise in which she encourages her readers to
1) think of a part of the body they dislike or are ashamed of and picture it being “touched lovingly” or “gently washed” by Jesus,
2) touch that part of their bodies themselves, “thank it for being a faithful friend in spite of your dislike,” and ask God for healing of the dislike or shame associated with that body part,
3) remember a time their bodies were insulted or criticized by someone else and see themselves as they were at that time (e.g. child, teenager, adult) being comforted by God, and
4) thank their bodies as they are now “for taking the special tasks and challenges of this phase of your life” and allow their bodies to be held by God “as one who is precious to God and valued by God.”
A few friends and I tried this mediation exercise in our sexuality group two or three years ago. Even though it was an uncomfortable approach for some of us at the time, I remember how the night was filled with healing, freedom, and peace as we each acknowledged some shame or emotional hurt related to our bodies and were able to deal with it individually with God in a shared, safe space.
Give Your Body a Valentine
Today, try setting aside a little time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with yourself by going through this exercise (or whatever portion or version feels safe and available to you).
Show some love for your body as it is now, fearfully and wonderfully made by a powerful, creative God who knows you, loves you, and could not possibly imagine this life without you in it!
Community, as Bonhoeffer describes it, requires Jesus as mediator, discipleship, and participation in the incarnation. Today, we’ll conclude with a brief look at the benefits and challenges of community as well as how Bonhoeffer’s theology relates to holistic body theology.
Challenges: pride and disillusionment
Bonhoeffer criticizes those who live apart for their pride, which separates them from living in a right relationship to God and to others. “The wish to be independent in everything is false pride,” he writes in one of his prison letters and continues, “Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves and is a part of our own lives, and any attempt to calculate what we have ‘earned’ for ourselves and what we owe to other people is certainly not Christian.”
Bonhoeffer recognizes the difficulty of this kind of intentional Christian life and takes great pains to acknowledge that sin happens. He warns against idealizing community life by glossing over sin: “In Christian brotherhood, everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.” The greatest harm to a community comes through disillusionment when sin enters in (as it inevitably will) and is revealed or is kept hidden.
Shame is a deeply crippling issue universal to the human experience. Christian or not, we deal with shame because of our fallen nature. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics: “Man perceives himself in his disunion with God and with men…Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.” Shame requires hiding (i.e., we were ashamed because we were naked), and hiding creates an environment of isolation and loneliness within the community, exactly that which community is designed to eradicate. When sin comes out, disillusionment sets in and the community rarely survives.
Benefits: freedom from shame and loneliness
For Christians, however, there is hope: community. Bonhoeffer urges “brotherly confession and absolution” to correct this tendency toward shame. “Lying destroys community,” Bonhoeffer observes, “but truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship.” It is this truth spoken to one another in community that keeps accountable for the sin that cannot be avoided completely.
Confession and intercession are essential for a healthy community life. Bonhoeffer encourages his readers to confess to one another when he writes, “If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.” When we confess sin in a safe space to a safe person, that sin no longer has power to shame and isolate us from the rest of the community. “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, ” I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” When we pray for someone, it is infinitely more difficult to remain distant from that person. Prayer brings us together, whether we are praying with or for one another, because we are looking to Christ who mediates between us all. Church, like the home, should be a safe environment to make mistakes and be encouraged.
Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Together that the “fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship.” However, the imprisoned Bonhoeffer feels the lack of community on a much more human level: “I very much miss meal-time fellowship…So may not this be an essential part of life, because it is a reality of the Kingdom of God?”
Living and acting out the spiritual disciplines within the community are certainly essential, but Bonhoeffer realizes while he is in prison that we most feel the lack of simple coming together, sharing life together; not just the Lord’s Supper but any supper. Not just confession but communication. Not just the visible church-community but daily and freely communing with fellow believers. It is the sense of togetherness that Bonhoeffer suggests as the greatest benefit of community. After all, where two or three are gathered, there is Christ among them.
Holistic Body Theology: The Body of Christ and the Body of Christ
Part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy community as the body of Christ. We are the community of God, and through Christ we interact with one another to build each other up as we seek to live fully into our identity as the image of God. Likewise, another part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy interaction with the world, both as individuals and together with the community of God. This is the body of Christ, the activity and impact of the community of God as we participate in the incarnation of Jesus.
As we learned from our tour of Bonhoeffer’s writings this week, community and Christian fellowship are infinitely vital to the Christian life. Equally vital, however, is the role of the visible church-community in the world and the impact it should have through participation in the incarnation of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer writes, “A man’s attitude to the world does not correspond with reality if he sees in the world a good or an evil which is good or evil in itself…and if he acts in accordance with this view,” that is, idealistic interaction with the world is lacking in the reality of the call of Christ to the action of the disciples. Rather, “his attitude accords with reality only if he lives and acts in limited responsibility and thereby allows the world ever anew to disclose its essential character to him.” (This is what Richard Niebuhr would call Christ transforming culture.)
We are called to be a city on a hill, but we’re not supposed to be a gated community, inaccessible if you don’t know the secret code. Jesus entered into the context of his day, and so should we. The role of the Christian in the world is to think and act according to the ever-changing reality of events in the world. Bonhoeffer makes community life seem so apparent and logical, so clear in scripture, so necessary a part of the live of the disciple who is participating in the incarnation and acting on behalf of those who need justice.
Let’s take our cue from Bonhoeffer and follow his example into a community that has Jesus as the mediator, is made up of costly disciples, and is determined to participate both individually and communally in the incarnation as the body of Christ.
Yesterday we looked at how story can be used to share truth in a way that can be more easily received or just more beautifully and creatively shared. Today, let’s look at the example Jesus gave us for sharing truth through story: parables.
There are a lot of scholarly arguments out there for why Jesus spoke in parables, and I encourage you to study up if you’re interested in further analysis. For my purposes regarding holistic body theology and what we do with our bodies in the world, I have four reasons to share with you today.
Jesus spoke in parables…
1) so that only those whose hearts were ready would understand. Part of Jesus’ reason for sharing truth in parables was to fulfill the Isaiah’s prophecy that some would hear and not understand (Is 6:9-10; Mt 13:13-15). In fact, Jesus even used a parable to explain why he spoke in parables in Luke 8:4-15. As he later explained to his disciples, the hearts that were ready to hear God’s truth would understand, and the seed of truth would take root in their hearts and grow (vs. 15).
Sometimes we’re not ready to hear a truth from God. Maybe we’re locked in sinful behavior. Maybe we’re overcome with guilt and shame. Maybe we’re already wrestling with different truth from God, and adding one more would be too much all at once. God knows us intimately, from the hairs on our heads to the deepest secrets we won’t even admit to ourselves. God knows just when to reveal truth to us, when we’re finally ready to receive it and make use of it in our lives, and that revelation will never come too soon…or too late.
2) so that there would be more room for people to relate to the story in different ways. Most of the time, when Jesus told a parable, he was speaking to a crowd of people. These people were made up of both men and women, children and adults, poor and wealthy, religious leaders and laypeople. Often when Jesus was teaching, he had a different message for each audience, but rather than address each group individually, which would have taken forever, Jesus told one story that would teach each group a different lesson.
Take, for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). Now, Jesus is speaking to the “expert in the law,” so the most obvious meaning of the parable is directed at people who fit in that category. But not everyone listening to the story was an expert in the law. Should they have just watched a fly land on some bread or pick blades of grass while Jesus was teaching a lesson that didn’t apply to them?
Consider the characters in this story:
a traveler – the victim of multiple crimes
a group of robbers – the perpetrators, motivated by greed (maybe hatred or anger) but not brave enough to act alone
a priest – the “man of God” who was more concerned about keeping the letter of the law (blood was considered “unclean” and required purification rituals) than showing compassion
a Levite – the member of the “priestly” clan, see above, also a man of importance and influence in the community
a Samaritan – the member of a group hated by Jewish people for their conflicting beliefs on correct worship of God who provided sacrificially to help the traveler despite racisim
an inkeeper – the man who provided the means to help the traveler heal, but only because he was paid
Ask yourself, who would you be in the story? Be honest. Maybe you take advantage of people when they’re vulnerable. Maybe you feel working with victims is beneath you or too much trouble. Maybe you are willing to help, but only if you get something back.
Jesus’ parables are multidimensional, multilayered, and designed with every member of the audience in mind–not just the people present on the hillside that day, but the people who have been reading the parables for centuries after.
3) so that he could get to the deeper truth behind the black-and-white Jewish law in a short time. For all his 33 years on earth, Jesus only spent 3 years in ministry. In only three years, Jesus had to squeeze in all the truth and promise and love available to the community of God in the present time and in all the time to come. Jesus had only three years to usher in the kingdom of God. And that was before the Internet and Skype and media and blogs and all the technological advances of our day. Jesus had only three years to bring the truth to the world, and he had to depend on human minds and hands to remember his teachings and write them down for future generations.
At the time that Jesus was teaching, Jewish law had expanded from the 10 Commandments of Moses’ time to hundreds of detailed, specific laws for every daily action, word, and thought. If Jewish law were a funnel, the 10 Commandments would be at the broad end at the top, and the law in Jesus’ day would be the little tip at the bottom. They had a law for everything, an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts that spanned a person’s entire existence from birth to death. So when Jesus showed up in town and started teaching, the experts wanted to know what laws Jesus was upholding, what laws he was breaking, and why.
But Jesus reminded his listeners in Matthew 5:17 that he had come to fulfill the law, to bring God’s truth for righteous living to its fullest completion, in freedom. That’s a tall order for only three years of ministry. Jesus’ parables were a way to reach down into the deeper truth of God, cutting through the black-and-white theology of their day. By refusing to engage in endless debate, Jesus was able to leave a timeless message of love, grace, and mercy through story.
4) so that human beings with human ears could through a human story relate to the divine truth in the human/divine Jesus. More than anything else, Jesus’ parables are a reflection of God’s choice to relate to us through the Incarnation. God sent Jesus–the Truth–in human form to walk like us, talk like us, and be like us. Jesus, the divine/human being, chose to speak to us in story, with human characters and a divine message. Our Emmanuel, this God-with-us, chose to bridge the gap between divine truth and human understanding with stories that allow us to meditate, ruminate, debate, delve, dwell, and finally discover some kernel of the Truth that God loves us, knows us intimately, and designed us to love and know God and each other in just the same way. The story of God is more than just written words in the Bible; the Word of God came as living flesh to live out the story of God among us.
If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how we can follow Jesus’ example to love and know intimately our brothers and sisters in the community of God, the body of Christ.