Friday, March 7, 2008

Honoring our bodies is tricky business

Loving our bodies is tricky business, isn’t it? After worship last week I was acutely aware of the complexities as I held our community in prayer. I thought of those among us whose bodies are aging: with ears that don’t work the way we would like and eyes that sometimes fail to see – joints that ache and feet that hurt – to say nothing of the wonderful effects of gravity. I thought, too, of our children and youth growing up in an ever sexualized and violent culture that encourages exposing young bodies in ways that are provocative and seductive at younger and younger ages to everyone’s loss. And I held in prayer those among us whose bodies seem like they are betraying them with pains and brokenness that can’t be repaired: believe me, I wrestle with how tough it is to authentically honor the body as a temple of the Lord just like you.

During my meditative bath last week (a Lenten homework assignment) I came across this poem – as you know I have developed an abiding love of poetry in these later years – and it really helped me put the complexity of honoring our bodies into perspective. It comes from Mark Doty who is reflecting on the illness and eventual death of his partner from AIDS. I’d like you to listen to it carefully and see what words or images stick with you, ok?

Michael writes to me his dream:
I was helping Randy out of bed,
Supporting him on one side
With another friend on the other,

And as we stood him up, he stepped out
Of the body I was holding and became
A shining body, brilliant light,
Held in the form I first knew him in.

That’s what I imagine will happen,
The spirit’s release. Michael,
When we support our friends,
One of us on either side, our arms

Under the man or woman’s arms,
What is it we’re holding? Vessel,
Shadow, hurrying light? All those years
I made love to a man without thinking

How little his body had to do with me;
Now, diminished, he’s never been so plainly
Himself – remote and unguarded,
An otherness I can’t know

The first think about. I said,
You need to drink more water
Or you’re going to turn into
An old dry leaf. And he said,

Maybe I want to be an old leaf.
In the dream Randy’s leaping into
The future, and still here; Michael’s holding him
And releasing him at once. Just as Steve’s

Holding Jerry, though he’s already gone,
Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding
Her John, gone, Carlos and Darren
Holding another Michael, gone

And I’m holding Wally, who’s going.
Where isn’t the question,
Though we think it is;
We don’t even know where the living are,

In this raddled and unraveling “here.”
What is the body? Rain on a window,
A clear movement over whose gaze?
Husk. Leaf, little boat of paper

And wood to mark the speed of the stream?
Randy and Jerry, Michael and Wally
And John: lucky we don’t have to know
What something is in order to hold it.


Mmmmmmm… what IS this body – and how do we honor it? The first thing that comes to me has to do with the mystery and majesty of our bodies: Psalm 139 suggests that we are wonderfully and marvelously made by the Lord – who has formed our most inward parts and knows us inside and out – and loves us both inside and out. Notice that the Psalmist takes her time to make this point: Patrick Henry Reardon, Orthodox priest and scholar from Chicago, writes, “The Psalmist could have written, very simply, ‘Lord, your knowledge of me is total.’ This would have summarized the first strophe of the prayer – read Psalm 139: 1-6 – yet here, instead of one verb to describe God’s knowledge of the heart, the author uses six.” It takes time to honor our bodies as people of God, yes?

Further, God’s intimacy with us is multidimensional: it occurs in the darkness and the light, during heights and depths as well as in the earliest phases of creation our in our mother’s wombs. I think of St. Paul’s hymn from Romans:

We believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… for we know that in everything God works for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes. Therefore, we are certain that neither death nor life, angles nor principalities, things present nor things to come, power, height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 1, 28, 38-39)

I think that this is a reminder, dear people, that being human in God’s image is a lifelong endeavor: we have been invited to integrate body and soul, heart and head as well as strength and weakness and even “both life and death. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, we are our bodies, just as we are our souls. One is not better than the other; both are irreplaceable parts of the human person.” (Paulsell, p. 17) To honor our bodies in the 21st century involves taking the time to reclaim their sacred, marvelous and mysterious origins in the Lord. Another way of saying this comes from Stephanie Paulsell who writes: "This is our task… to learn to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of God. To learn to see the body as both fragile and deeply blessed. To remember the body’s vulnerability and to rejoice in the body as a sign of God’s gracious bounty." (Paulsell, p. 34)

First, God calls us to take time with our bodies – indeed, even a lifetime – to pursue honoring our flesh with the eyes of the Lord. This leads me to a second thought: the church – our community of faith – has been charged with training us to see our bodies through the eyes of God. Apparently, this doesn’t happen automatically – we need to learn it – and practice it so that over time seeing with the eyes of the Lord happens with regularity. So let me ask you: how does our church train us to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of the Lord?

I have learned it in two very different ministries: pastoral care with the sick and dying, and, the nurture and education of our children. Over the years, I have had the privilege of being with a number of people and their loved ones during death. I have sung their favorite hymns with them when they could no longer speak and seen them move their lips in silent harmony. I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with them as they passed from this life into the next and I waited quietly and patiently with lovers and children as they say good bye to their beloved in their own unique ways. What’s more, I have been present through death enough times to know that the dying almost always share a final gift with the living if we are quiet and attentive enough to notice.

There is a true story I want to share with you about a mother and daughter, Kay and Thelma, who ministered one to the other during Thelma’s last days. It seems that from the time Kay was little, she shared a love of bathing with her mother so it came as no surprise that when Thelma was close to the end, Kay would help her with one final bath. She writes: Mother insists on being clean, and today Amy and I invited her to a bath if she was up to it in the late afternoon. The appointed time came. Mom worked and worked and finally sat up on the side of the bed, legs down, feet toward the floor. Then the vomiting began, violent vomiting taking her last bit of strength. She told me to draw her bath, showing me with her hands how deep. I turned the bathroom heater on. I cleaned the hair out of the drain trap. I ran all hot water at first to warm the tub, then moderated it, checking with my wrist. She shuffled to the bathroom, sat down on a towel I had placed on the edge of the tub. We undressed her. She stood up, grabbed the grip bar that dad had installed for her. I stood behind her, straddling the tub, ready to catch her in case she fell. She told me I needed to trust her to know what she could do.

And then that precious body that I have looked at and loved and memorized lowered into the water. She never opened her eyes – just lay there – still and silent. Then she put her hand out and I placed a plastic cup in it as we had discussed I would. She slowly lifted a cup of water and poured it over her arms. Lying back down, she poured another cup over her throat and neck, sighing a tiny sound of pleasure. The waters sounded like baptism, holy, quiet, small splashes. (The bath ended with Kay pouring cup after cup of water onto her mother’s head, gently moving her fingers through the tiny bit of hair still growing there… and as Thelma let go of tiny sighs of pleasure, they were matched by the sobs rising up from inside of Kay as tears fell into the water of her mother’s last bath.)
(Paulsell, pp. 37-38)

I love those words – intimacy and compassion, tenderness and heart break, life and death all together – and so much more. Such dignity, such simplicity, such sacredness: there is much we can learn – and give – as we become the Body of Christ to one another in the church during times of death. Now here is something truly remarkable to me: I first shared that story about 5 years ago back in Tucson – and as I did I noticed a young woman who had been in our church youth group when I first arrived in the last row and she and her mother were holding one another and sobbing. At first I thought they were simply touched by the tenderness of Kay’s story, but when I saw them both get up during the last hymn and leave the sanctuary in deeper tears, I knew something was up. Curiously, her dad, a former fighter pilot, was softly weeping, too.

Thankfully he stayed around after worship to tell me that just the night before in Phoenix, where their daughter was living, something horrible and frightening had happened – something that nearly took their baby’s life – and they had brought her home a total wreck just a few hours before. Later I came to find out that the whole thing had something to do with alcohol, cars, hanging with the wrong people and an interrupted act of sexual violence. But on Sunday all I knew was tears, sorrow and an odd rejoicing. A few weeks passed and I received a homemade tape of music from my old youth group girl – and a note saying: “I still can’t talk about that night, James, but when you spoke of honoring our bodies – and told that story of Kay and Thelma and that bath – all I could do was cry because I realized God had been watching out for my body that night. Even when I was not paying attention, God was there. So thank you for helping me reclaim the eyes of the Lord… maybe now I can get things right.”

I saw her again that Christmas – she still looked fragile -- but a few months later her dad and I met her in Phoenix for a Springsteen concert where she told me that things were starting to turn around. She never said much more about that Sunday, but it was clear that a healing had happened. Churches, you see, when they are faith communities helping one another see with the eyes of the Lord, can be places of blessing. Healing and hope, too.

Jesus was clear: healing and honoring our bodies are a priority for us. Born of love and expressed in tenderness, we come to know that we are wondrously and marvelously made. And what has been shared with us must then be given back to the world. This is our task: “to learn to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of God – to learn to see the body as both fragile and deeply blessed – and to remember the body’s vulnerability as we rejoice in the body as a sign of God’s gracious bounty.” Lord, may it be so among us according to your will.

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