When Our Bodies Say No

http://towlie36.deviantart.com/art/Fetal-Position-Sketch-251515909I am taking a day of rest today to recover from a lingering sickness. I rescheduled work duties and cancelled my evening plans to instead drink lots of liquids and sleep. It’s inconvenient and unproductive, but at the same time I feel deeply satisfied that for once I am listening and responding to my body’s protests.

The high value our society places on productivity and constant forward momentum (you should always be going somewhere, even if you don’t know where that is), makes it difficult for us to listen when our bodies say no. We barrel forward through headaches and fatigue, because it’s more important to get things done.  We even pride ourselves for being able to muscle through an illness without taking a day off. Unfortunately, the readily available supply of pain relievers, sleep medicines, and caffeine can feed our neglect, allowing us to mute our symptoms without fully stopping to address the underlying issue, whether it’s simply the need for rest or a more drastic lifestyle change.

If we learn to listen, though, the body’s finely-tuned feedback system of pain signals and discomfort can become a gift, instead of a curse.

Our bodies bear a lot for us. Everyone has stories of the times when they pushed through one or two frantic weeks of final exams or leading up to a project deadline and then got sick right after it was done. Our bodies can be amazingly adept at cooperating with us, enduring sleep deprivation and grueling schedules when things just need to get done.

But sometimes, our bodies stage a “holy protest.” When we take ourselves and our work too seriously, when we ignore God’s command to keep the Sabbath, when we forget that we are creatures with finite resources, our bodies have a way of bringing us back to reality. In times of illness and forced rest, it can be a humbling relief to realize that the show can go on without us. We don’t need to suck it up and be supermen and superwomen all the time.  We can drop the ball because we are not the only one holding it – we have a community of people who love and take care of us, and even if there are times when that community seems non-existent, ultimately we have a God who neither faints nor grows weary, who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless (Isaiah 40:28-29).

Kathleen Norris has noted that God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy sits right up there with the commandments to not murder and not commit adultery. I think our bodies have a better sense than our conscious selves of the gravity of this commandment. To not obey is not only to neglect our health and well-being; repeated refusal to rest becomes an act of willful pride, which says to God, “I can do this on my own, I am self-sufficient, my agenda is more important than your command.”

On a final note, there are times when our bodies say no that do not solely point to individual hubris. As the American society in particular, and as human beings in general, we have so elevated our own interests above listening to the body of the earth and the bodies of the most vulnerable that the consequences are inevitable. Environmental decay and toxins in our food, water, and air are the results (to name a few) of our failure to faithfully steward creation and instead pursue economic growth above all else. We have not given the earth a chance to rest, and our bodies, which come from the earth, suffer as a result. We breathe polluted air, we ingest harmful chemicals, and, unsurprisingly, our bodies say no.

May the “holy protest” of our bodies direct our focus once again to God’s command to keep the Sabbath, not just for our individual well-being, but for the good of all creation.

My Flesh Faints for God

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” – Psalm 63:1

What does it mean to want God so much that we feel it in our bodies, to the point where we would cry out, “My flesh faints for you!”?

What comes to mind first are the ecstatic experiences of the Christian mystics. Consider St. Teresa of Avila’s account of a seraph piercing her heart with a blade of love, causing sublime body-spirit pain:

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…[1]

God’s love was so real for Teresa that she felt as if her entrails were afire. Wow. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in my life.

I have experienced my flesh fainting for God in the form of a deep yearning in my bones to pray through movement and dance. Sometimes, especially when I am going through painful or complicated emotions, words just don’t cut it. Sinking into a deep silence and allowing my soul to be still is sometimes what I need, but at other times I need to tell God with my body how I feel.

In these times, I let my mind take backstage and give my body permission to move freely. Sometimes I wrap my arms around my core and crouch in fetal position. Sometimes I reach brokenly with my arms, clench my fists, or throw up my hands. Sometimes I twirl around and feel my body opening up to some movement of life and spirit just beyond my mental grasp. Often, my body prays in a way that my mind could never express, and leads me closer to my heart.

I can think of one other way that our flesh might “faint for God.” It is when we become painfully aware of the gap between what our bodies are, and what our bodies ought to be. Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 5:4):

For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

We feel in our flesh and in our spirits that there is more to this life than we know. Even our bodies are destined for greater glory than we can imagine, when one day what is now decaying and dying will be “swallowed up by life.” In the meantime, we wait with joy, hope, and longing, and our flesh, too, faints for God.


Fearfully and Wonderfully Made – Even our Fat

By Morielle Stroethoff

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:14.

These are the words God longs to hear every one of us cry out with joy, including me. But, even though I haven’t technically had an eating disorder for over two years, these words still do not belong to me.

My university’s free therapist thought my recovery miraculous. “How did you do it?” she asked.

“I didn’t,” I answered. “He did. He placed the well-being of thirty fragile university freshmen into my hands and suddenly, it was no longer about me. I had to help those freshmen in the best way I could, and I couldn’t from the depths of bulimia. Once it was no longer about me, He set me free!”

More than two years later, I’m still free from the obsessions, the binging, the purging. But I’m not living a wholly  embodied life. Right now, I’m sitting on my hard mattress with my back propped up against the wall in my little apartment in China. My legs are warm under the thick comforter, the muscles sore from a very fast hike yesterday. And my stomach is full of a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

But I can feel a shallow beat of guilt pushing out from my breastbone and along my ribs. It sounds like it’s saying fat. fat. fat. fat. fat. fat.

I looked in the supermarket this week to try to find a scale. It’s been six months since I left America in a very healthy state of mind and body. But the stress of living abroad, the lack of my familiar health foods, my crazy work schedule, the heaviness of Chinese food, and (most importantly) the growing prominence of my double chin in the mirror have led me to realize with deepening dread that I’ve been putting on weight.

God brought me to China to share His gospel and His love with the people of this city. I worry about being fat because I worry that people will dislike me for my fatness. Looking at these two sentences on the page, I cannot believe those two driving forces exist in this one body. And yet, they do.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sravi_in/3357450326/

The Bible doesn’t tell me exactly what to do. But, God promises, it tells me exactly enough. And so I follow the Psalmist and pray this prayer: “[Lord], you know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something.” (Psalm 139:15) And, I tag on to the end, “You know every fat cell in my body. You know where it came from, and you know what it is good for. Not only that, you sculpted it with more care and thought than any model uses to sculpt her abs.”

I don’t think I will buy that scale. For now, I will pray that prayer while I do yoga in the morning. I will visualize God sculpting every pouch of fat on my body with a smile. And, though I do not know how to mean it yet, I will say, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!”

A Church that Welcomes Sexuality

Go to film website.I recently watched a documentary about a church right in my neighborhood whose members are mostly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The film introduces the members to us first as humans – fragile, tragic, comic, lovable – and part of the body of Christ before telling us the back story about their sexual identities.

We meet Lori, a vivacious woman who faithfully comes to church spaghetti dinners and fall work days, and later we find out she is transgender, meaning she was a man in the past. We meet Dan, a blind pianist and worship leader who loves Mexican food, and we later meet his partner, Sean.

I am still wrestling with what I think about homosexuality and other non-traditional sexualities in the church. What I can agree on is how this church (and the film) handled the fact that we are all sexual creatures with a range of orientations. The fact that church members were LGBT came second to the fact that they are part of the church and called to love one another and be salt and light in the world. At the same time, sexuality was not relegated to a corner and ignored. It was recognized as a crucial aspect of everyday life and something to be talked about and wrestled with.

We are all sexual creatures. But that is not all that we are. At the core, we are first and foremost God’s beloved handiwork. I think this approach is a healthy and holy way to live as embodied creatures of God and as the church, Christ’s body in the world.

The film is called “New Spirits and is produced by Heave-Ho Productions. 

Is There a Meaning to Pain?

Some of you may have already seen this, but I want to share it with my blog subscribers as well:

Somewhere between August and October 2010, I stepped off the tracks of “normal, everyday life” into the no-man’s land of chronic pain, then depression. At age 22, I started feeling a sharp, niggling pain in my left ankle every time I walked. After some months of unsuccessful treatment and fed by my own fears and anxieties, the pain gradually expanded into a black hole of existential despair that sucked away my hope and zest for life.

It sounds melodramatic. But anyone who has been in the throes of unrelenting physical pain knows the hard truth: Pain eats away at your personhood.

Read the full piece on the her.meneutics site.