Embodied

I’m thinking about embodiment this week. I’m studying the Colossians text about…well, who knows what it’s about, really. Some of Paul’s letters tend to go on and on, and i have the attention span of a two-year-old these days. ( I can make that comparison, because i live with a child nearly that age, and we are functioning at many of the same levels lately…) 

Most simply, Paul reminds folks, yet again, to put aside false gods, pagan practices and other things of a physical nature, because Jesus has eliminated the need for all these things. Christ is now the only connect that we need between God and self.  It’s an important sermon, if a boring one. But it’s got me thinking about the conflicted relationship that we have with our bodies, how we both worship and abuse them, and how either practice, in extreme, can really seperate us from the holy. Whether we loathe our bodies, or love them a little too well, they can get in the way of spiritual growth.

How much are you aware of your body on a given day? Here’s what I’m guessing…you’re aware when you’re hungry. You’re aware when you’re very thirsty. You are aware when something is painful or uncomfortable–a sore muscle from last night’s workout, a headache from last night’s beverages, or the shoes that were a bad idea. These things can quickly become the center of your day. As can the runny nose and throat tickle that you hope against hope do not signal coming illness, but probably do. Physical nuances can consume us. And then, how much time do we spend responding to each bodily signal? Fixing a meal or drink, finding and taking a pill for the ache or the cough, scratching the itch, changing the ill-fitting shoes, seeking a warmer or cooler climate…

And the irony is, as much time and mental energy that we spend answering our bodies’ demands, we don’t always answer them in healthy ways. We eat when we’re hungry, but we don’t always eat what will best serve the system. Exhausted, we crash on the couch when we know that exercise is what we need.  Our bodies lead us to seek shallow comforts of alcohol, anonymous sex, over-spending and gross consumption…when what we’re really after is purpose, meaning, and someone to love our whole self.  Meanwhile, our image of self can be almost entirely wrapped up in our personal appearance–and the more we dislike said appearance, the more we let the body define us. How can all these conflicts exist within one person, without the body itself just exploding into a million pieces?

It’s a conflict that we see mirrored in America’s childhood hunger crisis. We have more resources per capita than any other nation on the planet, and yet 17 million of our children face food insecurity. At the same time, our rates of childhood obesity are embarrassing–and it’s not the rich kids who are getting fat. It’s the poor. Lots of people are studying why this is and how to fix it, but it comes down to a simple truth–good things are costly. Bad stuff is cheap. Even the poorest among us can fill their bodies with harmful things, because harmful things are so readily available.

Is Paul to blame for all this? While he was going on and on about denying the flesh, did we somehow get programmed to think that God does not care about our bodies? Did we become so ashamed of the said body that we forgot our physical being is also a gift from God?  And then somehow get so wrapped up in appeasing the enemy flesh, that we left the holy out of it entirely?

Throughout history, when living is tough–you know, in wilderness situations, in war, in times of economic insecurity–humans have reminded themselves that we are more than bodies. When we are sick–be it with a cold or cancer–we’re to remind ourselves that the flesh has it’s limits, and that God is still supreme over all. It’s a comforting thought, that in all things, we’re more than the shell that houses the soul. However, we’ve ultimatley sold short the body, in all it’s messy miraculousness, and all that it can do to serve the world. We keep filling it with the cheapest and easiest of things, because we can. And we keep thinking that it’s everything.

There is a lesson to be learned, somewhere in all these epistles, about the embodied God. Somewhere, in all this preachy language about church and community and what it means to “put off the body of the flesh,” there is also some pretty great stuff about the Body of Christ, and (gasp) our part in it.  There is some stuff about the word coming to be made FLESH among us, so that we could live and dwell in it. There is some stuff about disciples being the hands and feet of Christ in the world, keeping him alive and working and moving and serving. God is to be made a physical presence, within and among us, and the only living bodies left to make that happen are ours.

What do you suppose would happen to our bodies, if we lived in a daily kind of awareness that our body is now the word made flesh? That our words and actions are the living Christ (or not) to those around us? Would we eat different food? Would we think and act differently about sex? Would we have different expectations about our appearance, and that of others?  Would we walk around a little more aware of the miraculous nature of skin and bone, breath and movement?  Would fewer of our neighbors be hungry? And furthermore, would we be even more adept at dealing with illness and death, knowing that our bodies are so sacred? Because if our bodies can be this holy, how much more, surely, must God value our soul?

Maybe this is not a text about embodiment.  Maybe I’m thinking more about flesh-y things because i am, at this very moment, building a PERSON, and the task is overwhelming.  Those physical demands that pull at each of us, every day, become all-consuming in pregnancy. I am nearly always hungry, always tired, always achy or uncomfortable in some part of my being.  (for me, usually heartburn or sciatica; but every pregnant woman in the world has her own old-southern-lady list of woes).  I have weeks where i cry like every day for no apparent reason, but i’m still somehow happy about all of it.

And yet, in the midst of chronic exhaustion, I can’t sleep. Nor can I hold much organized thought in my head (which explains the attention span i liken to my toddler’s). I have not blogged in over two months because it takes too much focus. I have piles of things all over my home and office that i started organizing and just could not finish. For all that my body is doing most of the work, the rest of me is likewise consumed. There is no part of my body, mind, or heart that is not taken up in this task right now, and said body can’t seem to shut down even enough for much-needed sleep.

Much as I miss bourbon, espresso, and my skinny jeans (which i am hanging onto with great faith!), I am not complaining. I’m grateful for every moment of this. I’m just pointing out that, in creating new life, there is not much seperation between the body and spirit. Both are terribly busy at any given moment, both are joyful in the task, both are tired and worn from the dailyness of it.  I’m a little sad that, once i finally get to meet this little boy we’ve pieced together, I will go back to the mind-body disconnect that plagues us human folk on most of our best and worst days.

I don’t reckon Paul knew much about pregnancy (he doesn’t seem to like women much, anyway). But he was perhaps onto something profound when it came to the body. It can be our greatest gift, or our greatest curse, in the search for the holy. Learning to keep our physical and spiritual selves connected, (pregnant or not) on our best and worst days alike is perhaps our greatest human challenge. How well we do it equals our faith. It amounts to our ministry in the world, and our likeness in Christ. In the daily journey of bringing new life to the world around us, we need our framework, and yet we are somehow more than our packaging. 

Speaking of packaging… I’m going to have to go get a sandwich soon. The body calls. I only hope that it’s the Spirit who answers.

About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...

  • Lisa Davison

    Erin, you have written good words here. They remind me of where Paul and Jesus might have found an appreciation for the body as God incarnate — the Torah. From Genesis 1-2 through the laws of Exod-Deut, the consistent message is that God made us as bodies to reflect God’s image in the world and to tend God’s creation. All the “crazy” laws about what to eat, wear, etc. (what not to eat, wear, etc.) were based on the belief that what we do with our bodies (as well as those of others, human or animal or plant) matters to God and is a direct reflection of the God we worship. This is one reason why I do not use “soul” in my theological vocabulary; I like the Hebrew word, nephesh, because it defies translation into the dualistic vocabulary of Paul or 21st century Christians. Nephesh is our life force, what makes us human and alive. You cannot separate the body from the nephesh, in the sense that the body is bad but the nephesh good. As a text in Eccl puts it: at death that which is of the earth returns to the earth and that which is of God returns to God” (Eccl 12:7). Our bodies are gifts; it is what we do with/to our bodies that matters. Like all of God’s creation, they can be used to make the world a better place or to harm God’s creation (ourselves included). Thanks, Erin, for making me reflect on this idea.

    P.S. I also posted this on FaceBook. Sorry for the duplication.

  • gil

    Hey!


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