Introducing Leslie Leyland Fields

This post introduces to Jesus Creed readers one of my favorite authors, Leslie Leyland Fields. Author of numerous books, including Forgiving our Fathers and Mothers as well as Crossing the Waters. She and her family live in Kodiak Alaska and are commercial fishers — on an island off an island! She has taught at Seattle Pacific and speaks all over the USA on a variety of topics, including parenting. She blogs here.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 10.06.28 AMThe Olympics are nearly over. I’m relieved. How much perfection, beauty and grace can a person stand? How much pathos? How much love? Watching the trio of women sweep the high hurdles (image), gaping at Usain Bolt’s insane speed, seeing Michael Phelps move through water slick as a seal undoes me. I do not mean to, but I fall in love. I am astonished. I think of the Scriptures,

“What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you would care for him? You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor.”

We do indeed crown these victors with glory and honor, as such mastery and discipline deserves. But then it comes. At some point, all this glory and honor can depress a body. Can depress this body. When the music fades, when we’re left with instant replays of triumph, when we stand before the mirror before bed. Are they truly human, these athletes from Olympus? I would prefer them to be gods and goddesses, possessing bodies at least half-divine, half more divine than mine. If they are not, if they are mere mortals, they indict us all. Don’t most of us have the potential to be more muscled, more graceful, more coordinated, more competitive than we are? Couldn’t we all be faster, stronger, more agile than we are? Wouldn’t just an hour or two of practice and discipline sculpt our bodies more closely toward their God-made potential?

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 10.06.42 AMWhen I look out my windows here in Alaska, I am doubly indicted. The creatures I watch—those who fly, swim, soar, run, and dive with such beautiful animal force—are also perfectly formed. Their bodies precisely fit their habits and their habitat. And they do us one better: they are also made without the capacity for dissatisfaction or self-loathing. Creatures large and small, creatures Olympian and animal, among all of these we are, all the normal rest of us, the odd creatures out, twice over.

So I am wondering, amid all this perfection, muscle and discipline, does God love our bodies, the bodies of the rest of us? Our out-of-shape, overfed, so-much-less-than-they-could-be bodies? If we evangelicals are truly healed of our body/spirit divide, if we honor the sacredness and unity of our God-made beings, what do we do with this? We’re not athletes or models, though surely, some of us could be, if we worked hard enough. Aren’t we all colossal disappointments to our Creator, who does, after all, love beauty, self-control, speed, and grace?

Photographer Howard Shatz perhaps looked in the mirror and wondered this as well. A few years ago, he photographed 125 of the world’s most elite athletes, each one an Olympian. (http://www.boredpanda.com/athlete-body-types-comparison-howard-schatz/)   The lineup of the men and women’s wildly disparate bodies and vastly differing skills not only returned my breath, but reminded me of what I so often forget: perfection is neither singular nor static. Nor is it always visual. Not all of these Olympians will make it to magazine covers.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 10.06.50 AMAnd then I remember the fin whales, our front and backyard neighbors whom we watch every day. They’re the second largest whale in the world but they’re not photogenic. They don’t spyhop or breach or enter the air with any sort of drama. Their 45 ton 70 foot bodies simply perform a serpentine arc from water to air, then a curling dive below, like ships sinking into the deep. They’re monstrously slow, these whales. Not spectacular. And their skin is mottled. Almost ugly.

I think of the tufted puffin, who paddles about our bay, who can barely lift off the water. He belly flops through the tops of waves, wings beating madly, and often gives up in a defeated splash. Is he meant to fly or not? He’s not sure. The oystercatchers on our beach know only one trick when we come too close to their nest in the gravel—they feign a broken wing. But the foxes are seldom fooled. I watched a bald eaglet learning to fly last summer. She spread her massive wings on the edge of a cliff, then crashed into the sea below, missing the rocks by just feet. She almost died and then attempted to fly with wet wings. It was the most pathetic attempt at flight I’ve ever seen. When I look clearly, I see that God’s creatures, too, struggle with their limitations. They too suffer from disease, imperfection and disabilities. We are not alone.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 10.06.59 AMBut neither are we the same as our creature-brethren. Our Father and Creator not only formed and shaped our bodies individually and particularly before they saw light, but he loves us, that is, our bodies enough to inhabit them. He loves us enough to join us here in and through our bodies, however muscled or weak they are, however ravishing or plain. For this is how we know Him. We cannot know him any other way. In every breath that lifts our lungs, every bite we swallow, every landscape and face and sunrise we see, every mile we walk, every thought we wonder–in all of this we are made to know more of Him.

But we are slow learners, and stubborn. I prefer body-hating and shaming at times. It’s easier and it feels more spiritual, but some writers and friends won’t let me get away with it. Rob Moll’s What Your Body Knows About God  reveals the inextricable connections between our bodies and God’s presence. Brent Bill and Beth Booram give us another vital resource with Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (https://goo.gl/ejcVn4)

I cannot escape the centrality of my body to my knowledge and experience of God.

And lest I think good health, perfect vision, or Olympian skill or speed is required to truly know God, my friends set me straight. One of my dearest friends has dystonia, which delivers great pain and renders her unable to move some days. Her body is teaching her immense patience and gratitude, qualities I often lack in my healthy state. Other friends have cancer, one with a terminal diagnosis. They tell me they have never known God more deeply than through their illness.

We cannot wrestle death or outperform our mortality no matter our fitness or grace. We will always wrestle with our declining health, our shape, our age, our vast imperfections, which feel as though they sink us like whales. But, like the fin whales in our bay, no matter how deep we dive, we will keep rising to breathe for as long as God gives us breath. For in Him, we live and move and breathe and have our being, a being loved, beautiful, spirit-indwelt, redeemed, and—-rising again, God willing. And He is.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.