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The Spiritual Practice of Touch

Yesterday my husband and I splurged on a couple of 60-minute massages at a  Chinese foot clinic that just opened up in our town. We pointed out the type of massage we wanted, were led to two red chair/beds in the middle of the room, and settled in for some long-anticipated relaxation.

Since we both have trouble with our backs, we often bribe each other for massages at home, but nothing beats a well-trained, strong-fingered Chinese foot massage.  The last time we had massages, we were still dating, so we were looking forward to the treat we had saved up for.

As I lay under the soft red towel while a quiet Chinese woman worked out my knots with her strong, gentle hands, I thought about my journey with touch over the past few years. I’ve learned to allow myself to be touched in a safe, healthy way. I’ve learned to accept hugs, and then to give them.  I’ve learned to accept romantic touch.  I have always been the one giving massages, but in the last few years I’ve learned to receive them as well–first, free ones from trusted friends, and then paid ones from trained professionals.

All along, God has been teaching me about the healing and restorative power of touch.  We lay hands on one another when we pray. We hold our loved ones close.  We comfort and celebrate each other with safe, healthy touch.

But for a long time I believed the lie that no touch was safe. I felt threatened anytime my 3-feet-of-personal-space was violated by anyone other than a family member.

We westerners are so much more physically isolated from one another.  Single adults are especially lacking in safe, healthy (non-sexual) physical touch. 

Through some beautiful moments, and some long-suffering friends, I have slowly begun to teach my body to receive touch in a positive way.

Yesterday, amidst the cheesy violin solos of My Heart Will Go On, Moon River, and Edelweiss, I closed my eyes, allowed my body to relax under the towel, and told myself to receive this nice woman’s touch in the way it was meant–to provide healing.

Each time I exhaled, I breathed out distrust, anxiety, and infirmity.  Each time I inhaled, I breathed in the safety and healing of the Holy Spirit.  Getting a massage became an exercise in believing the truth about touch and allowing the Spirit of God to work within me for my spiritual and physical benefit.

By the end of the hour, I was so relaxed I almost fell asleep.

As we paid our fee, tipped our massage therapists, and went off to get some dinner, I was reminded of my plan long ago to open a healing center one day that would include massage therapy along with soaking prayer, inner healing prayer, practical and biblical teaching, and music, dance, and other artistic expressions of worship.  Maybe there would even be yoga or Pilates classes available.

What would it look like for a  24-hour House of Prayer to include massage therapy and body movement classes along with healing, teaching, and worship with music?

What better way of incorporating body theology into spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical healing and growth?  What better expression of the holistic nature of body theology?

We are physical beings, and we relate best when our physicality is incorporated into our experience–of ourselves, of each other, and of God.

Next time you get a massage, or give someone a hug, or accept a high-five or fist-bump, recognize the moment as an opportunity to experience and express your body theology in action.

Give and receive touch as an expression of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our lives.   That’s what we were made for.

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Choosing Church: A Lament (Part 2)

Read part 1 here.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

Galatians 3:28 reminds us that we are joined by the Holy Spirit beyond race, class, or gender.  How can churches preach “all are one in Christ Jesus” while discouraging strong women leaders like my friend Amy, the EPC candidate?

How can we be unified as

one body,

the body of Christ,

when we discriminate against each other based on the particular body God has given each of us?

The Choice

When we disagree with the status quo, we have a choice to make.  We can let go of the disagreement, stay in the current situation, and suffer alone.  We can stay and fight alone until we win or are removed.  Or we can leave and either join another community already in agreement or start something new.

How do we make that choice? How do we decide when to suffer, when to fight, and when to leave?

Do not suffer in silence.

Take, for example, another couple in ministry in a community that is not supportive of women.  Let’s call them John and Jenny.  John has the visible leadership role, though Jenny has the clearly stronger leadership traits.  John and Jenny have a pretty egalitarian marriage, all things considered, providing Jenny with the space and opportunities to grow into her leadership gifts more fully.  Yet, like the elephant on a leash, she has been conditioned to subordinate herself to his leadership in the community.

With people like Jenny, I am too impatient.  It kills me to see potential being wasted, to see Jenny silencing herself for the sake of not making her husband look bad, or for not drawing attention to gifts and skills she is not “allowed” to have. I want to rush her into freedom she doesn’t feel the need to seek.  It’s too painful to wait and watch and hope.

Brothers and sisters, do not let your voices be silenced.  Whether you are called to lean into your current situation and slowly affect change from within, or whether you are called to let go and move on to a place where you can experience safety and freedom–do not stay and suffer in silence.  Do not allow the fear and ignorance of others to silence your prophetic voice.

You have something to say.

     You are unique and valuable. 

            You are the catalyst for change.

And you are not alone.  There have been many men and women before you who have advocated for women in ministry and leadership.  There are many more around you now.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  Hebrews 12:1-3

Fix your eyes on the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Go or stay, my dear siblings in Christ, only do not be silent. Speak.

What Community Means

So, how do we decide when to lean in and when to let go? The truth is, there is no perfect system, no one right answer. Every situation is different, and everyone is called differently.  Ask God to reveal to you what your role is in your community.

Are you a catalyst for change? Are you in a toxic environment? Is your voice being heard? Are you an advocate for those without a voice? Is there room for you to grow?

For those of you who can stay and work for change,  I admire and commend your patience and forebearance, your long-suffering and perseverance.  I wish I could be more like you.

For me, being in community means being in a safe place.  It means being accepted and valued.  It means having the freedom to live fully into my gifts and calling. It means being able to listen to a sermon or pastoral prayer without getting angry.  It means not having to be on the defensive constantly.  It means being able to be fully myself.  It means being able to disagree with others in the community without losing anything.  It means having my voice heard, acknowledged, and welcomed.

A Seat at the Table

There is a lot of talk nowadays about being “invited to the table,” meaning being included in the conversation rather than having to wait for those at the table to discuss and decide and hand down a verdict.  I know that language is useful to many people, but it reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner.

At Thanksgiving dinner, the adults sit at the adults’ table with all the food, nice plates, and wine.  The children sit at the kids’ table with pre-prepared portions of food on paper plates and juice in plastic cups.  As I grew older, I was put in charge of the kids’ table and made sure everyone had what they needed and that they didn’t bother the adults unnecessarily.

This metaphor of being invited to the table makes me feel like I am still at the kids’ table. I may be in leadership over everyone else at that table, but I am still considered “a kid.” Even if I’m invited to sit at the adults’ table, I’m not really one of them. I’m just a kid with a new seat, closer to the mashed potatoes.

I don’t want to have to fight for a seat at the table or wait to be invited. I want to be in a place where my seat at the table is a given, where it is taken for granted that I have been called and equipped with gifts and skills for leadership.

I’m tired of having this debate. I’m tired of being forced to defend myself and my fellow women believers at every turn.  I’m tired of being angry at the injustice.  I’m tired of being disappointed at the realization that, yet again, it’s really all about fear of sharing power, fear of losing control, fear that the truth may not be quite so neat and tidy after all.

I’m ready to move on from the kids’ table and step into the life God has called me to live.  This reality is not what we are meant to be. The table is too small, and there are not enough chairs.

Where is the beauty and innocence of the first Christians?

Where is the unity and trust among believers?

Where is the sharing of wealth and power?

How can we regain our connection with the ideal, the beginning, the first bloom of the coming together of the community of God?

To be continued…

Forward Friday: 4 Ways to Pray (Naked)

In keeping with tradition, we’re wrapping up this week’s theme on praying naked with four suggestions. Choose the one that best fits, and come back to share your experience.

1) Pray in the bathtub (centering prayer): As you remove each article of clothing, remove along with it some distracting thought.  Allow the water surrounding you to remind you of the movement of the Holy Spirit within you.  Don’t be discouraged by distracting thoughts, but allow your nakedness to remind you of your purpose, and continue to set distractions aside.  Once you are centered (this can take anywhere from 15-30 minutes, so don’t rush yourself), allow God to speak to you.  This might take the form of a recurring distracting thought, an old emotional wound, a nagging memory of an unreconciled relationship, a line of music or verse of scripture, or anything else. Whatever emerges, take it to God and experience God’s love, healing, forgiveness, acceptance, and renewal.

2) Pray in your room (intercessory prayer): As you undress, be aware of the vulnerability of your naked body.  Allow that vulnerability to guide your conversation with God.  As you become more comfortable with your nakedness–alone in your room–allow yourself to experience compassion for those whose vulnerability is taken advantage of.  If that is not a natural experience for you, read Stacey’s post as an example, and ask God to open your eyes not only to your own needs but also to the needs of others.

3) Pray semi-covered (inner healing prayer): For those of you who have experienced trauma and may be triggered by the vulnerability of your nakedness, try undressing and then covering yourself with a towel, robe, or blanket.  Allow the covering to be an intentional reminder of God’s protection over you.  Read Gen 2:25, slowly, aloud, once every five minutes for 30 minutes.  Between readings, sit quietly and allow God’s truth about your body to take root.  As any shameful memories arise, offer them to God.  Ask God to enter those memories with you and show you the truth about yourself.  If you’re feeling too vulnerable at any point, try putting some of your clothes back on, one article at a time.  Allow the act of getting dressed to be an intentional reminder of God’s protection over you.

4) Sleep naked (resting prayer aka letting-God-do-all-the-work): For those of you who find the whole conversation about praying naked to be uncomfortable or ridiculous (or if the above suggestions just aren’t for you), try simply sleeping naked tonight.  Again, as you undress, be mindful that you are uncovering yourself before God.  Ask God to enter your experience and show you something new.  (If you sleep with a partner, be sure to warn him or her that you are sleeping naked tonight as a spiritual exercise, not as an invitation to sexy time. This is your chance to experience your sexuality within yourself and with God.  Have sexy time tomorrow night.)

What Laywers, Parents, and Carpenters Have in Common

I had planned to write a post for today about ways to pray other than naked. (If you missed Stacey’s guest posts on praying naked this week, you can read them here and here along with my introduction.) But I got caught watching a video of Eugene Peterson’s recent talk “Practicing Sabbath” at Q with Dave Lyons, and I couldn’t get this excerpt out of my mind.

Nothing happens when you pray, you think. There’s nothing in prayer that gives you any satisfaction in terms of having accomplished anything. So learning to pray is learning to not do in the awareness that God is doing something and you don’t know what it is at that moment.

When people ask me how to pray, sometimes I’m tempted to tell them what I do that first hour in the morning [here he is referring to his daily devotional time of reading scripture and praying the Psalms], which I’ve done since I was 15. But I realized at one point, that’s not so. When I leave my study, close my Bible, that’s when I’m praying.

I pray all day. Prayer now is something that suffuses my life. Most of the time when I’m praying I don’t know I’m praying. Later on I realize I have been. But to get to think about prayer in a little more comprehensive way as the interior life that the Holy Spirit is breathing in us every time we take a breath suddenly changes prayer from being a practice like you practice the piano to being a practice like you practice being a lawyer or practice being a parent or practice being a carpenter. You’re doing it when you don’t know you’re doing it.

Don’t you love it when you’re around a really skilled craftsperson? They just do it beautifully and economically and you realize: that man is carving something, and he doesn’t even know he’s carving. He doesn’t think: “I’m carving. Isn’t this wonderful? I’m carving!”

My goal–and the witness of a lot of people I’ve read through the centuries–is not to pray in such a way that you’re conscious of praying but to live a life suffused by prayer so that your life becomes a prayer. But that’s not the kind of thing you can write a book about. It’s only a thing you can live and see other people live.

If “play” and “pray” don’t work together, both are diminished. That’s why both are necessary.  Otherwise, they become duties that you have to perform.

Whether you pray by getting naked, going for a hike, reading scripture, interceding for others, contemplating or meditating, or any of the many, many other ways to pray–let prayer suffuse your life so that you experience the inspiration [read: breath] of the Holy Spirit with every breath.

How do you pray? Share your experience in the comment box below.

Gender-Inclusive Language; Gender-Inclusive God–Part 4

Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here. Read part 3 here.

So “we” have now established that effort toward a mindfulness of gender-inclusive language is preferable when talking about ourselves and each other.  But what about when we talk about God?

Remember when Madeleine L’Engle was writing about her perspective on gendered language? She referred to Genesis 1:27 as the basis for “man” being inclusive of both male and female.  Here’s how the TNIV translates the verse:

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

If it takes both a man and a woman together to represent the image of God, then why is it that we often only use male language when referring to God?  One common argument is that God is described in male language in the Bible; therefore, Bible-believing Christians must follow God’s example and continue to use male language to describe God.

Let me be clear.  I do not think there is anything wrong with using male language or masculine imagery for God.  In fact, God as the Father is one of my most precious expressions for God in my personal spiritual journey.

What I think is unhelpful is referring to God using male language at the exclusion of female language and feminine imagery.  Christian mothers like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena helped bridge the gap by describing God using male language and at the same time feminine imagery.  For example, Julian of Norwich wrote of Jesus nursing us at his breasts and described Jesus as “our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”

In today’s Christian culture, many people are too quick to settle on God as Him and dismiss the movement of the Mother-Father-God-ers as radical and perhaps even heretical.  For me, I strive for a more moderate stance.  That’s why I avoid gender-specific pronouns when I talk about God.  That’s why I still refer to Jesus as male (because he was a man, even if he isn’t still).  That’s why I like to refer to the Holy Spirit as female, because so much of my experience of the divine feminine has come through encounters with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit-inspired.

Even when I must use gender-specific pronouns so as not to write myself into ridiculously awkward sentence structures, I try to use “he” and “him” or “she” and “her.”  That way I know I am not saying God is “He” as in God-the-All-Masculine or “She” as in God-the-All-Feminine.  Instead, I say God is “he” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-masculine or God is “she” as in God-as-God-embodies-the-feminine.  In this way, I am able to balance the masculine and the feminine aspects of the Trinity, which is very biblical.  At least for right now, this is what works for me.

(Does the idea of God as “she” rock your world? Ask yourself what it would be like if the situation were reversed and God as “he” was revolutionary.  Watch out for double standards and try to be mindful of the way language may affect others, even if it doesn’t affect you that way.)

We all know that when the pendulum swings away from one extreme, it inevitably swings right past the middle and reaches the other extreme before it can gradually settle more and more toward the balance the middle brings.  My journey with gender-inclusive language has swung from one side where “man” includes both men and women to the other side where God as “He” and “Him” makes me feel like I, as “she” and “her,” am not part of the image of God after all.

Maybe my reaction is too extreme.  Maybe as the pendulum of my journey continues to swing back and forth, I will come closer and closer to the perfect balance of the middle ground.

But I’m not there yet.

So for now, oh ye readers, you will see me still swinging.  Let’s approach both ourselves and each other with grace, and give each other room to swing out as far as we need to, safe in the knowledge that we will also have room to swing back.

Response to: Is Premarital Sex Okay for Millennials?

Blogger Mike Friesen wrote a recent post entitled “Is Premarital Sex Okay For Millenials?”

I was taught growing up that premarital sex is bad. In fact, the environment that I was in would shame me if I was involved in any form of sexual idolatry. However, because of my love for the Bible and the beauty that God created in sexual oneness, I agree that it is absolutely best to wait for marriage.   Read the rest here.

As a proponent of healthy body theology (and by extension healthy sexuality), I wrestle with issues like this all the time.  I think one issue that clouds the discussion is the tendency for Christians to approach issues with very black-and-white theology, which I just don’t think is helpful anymore.

Rather than asking the question “Is premarital sex okay,” might not a better question be “How do single Christians express their sexuality in a healthy way?” Secondly, how does the Church guide and advise on such issues? I think it’s much more helpful overall to teach people to make responsible, adult decisions about how to experience life, whether it’s going to a bar or club to unwind with friends and meet new ones, participating in Christian communities, engaging in social justice issues, pursuing higher schooling, taking parenting classes, having sex as a single person, discerning a vocation, making wise money investments, etc.

Life is full of choices, not just about sex but about everything. There are so many things we 18- to 35-year-olds need guidance about, and without the church helping to shape youth into wise and discerning young adults, we are going to keep circling around, asking the wrong questions, and drawing unhelpful boundaries that do not allow for the “new thing springing up” and the very active movement of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.

I’m curious, for all the “waiters” out there, how do you/did you experience “waiting” for sex? Do you see more sexual repression or healthy waiting? For those of you who waited/are waiting, how did you/do you express your sexuality in a healthy way in the meantime? For those of you who didn’t wait, do you regret your choices now? Why or why not?  Leave your thoughts in the comment box below, or join Mike Friesen’s discussion.

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