Learning to Trust the Body

The Christian subculture I come from often teaches us a deep distrust of the body. As a young Christian, I would read passages such those in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” (7:18) and interpret this to mean that every bodily impulse I have is bad.

Unfortunately, most messages I heard in the church confirmed this interpretation. The body is the realm of unruly appetites, for sex, for food, for pleasure. Deny your body, and gain spiritual control. When I read accounts of Christian mystics through this kind of interpretive lens, my distrust of the body was only further affirmed. Here were holy women and men of God living in caves, sleeping on boards, and eating the barest minimum to stay alive, in essence distancing themselves as far as possible from the body and its demands. Is this the kind of life we also are called to lead, in order to be holy?

Besides our perception that listening to the body leads only to sin (and its counterpart: denying the body leads to holiness), we learn to distrust the body for other reasons. If you don’t deny your body, you’ll get fat, was another frightening message I internalized. As a young woman wanting to be beautiful and fearing that her body might be unattractive if a few pounds heavier, there were times when I took ridiculous pride in ignoring hunger pangs and feeding slivers of grapefruit to a growling, empty stomach.

When I went through a period of chronic ankle pain, I began to distrust my body for another reason – it was betraying me. Why the inexplicable pain? Why wasn’t my body healing, as it was supposed to? I tried so many treatments and watched so desperately for signs of improvement, but mostly got (what I thought was) an unresponsive and obstinate body that refused to comply with my attempts to make it better. For me, it was pain that strained my already broken relationship to my body. For others, it is disability, disease, or aging. It is hard to trust the body when it is the source of dissatisfaction and suffering.

In the midst of pain, I had moments where I wanted to escape my body completely. I would tell my husband, half-jokingly, half-seriously, “My body is broken, can I get a new one?” Matt would reply, “But I like your body.” This was one of many instances where my relationship with others reoriented how I saw my own body. When I knew that someone loved and appreciated my body, I began to inhabit it in a different way. I realized my body could be a conduit for joy, connection, and relationship, as much as it was a source of frustration and disappointment. The same happened at times in church, when, with hugs and kisses, others communicated their care for me through my body.

Now that I am pregnant, I am learning that my body can also be a source of life, where once I could only see it as a bog of pain and decay. It’s still unbelievable at times to think that my body is capable of creating a whole new life within itself, after having distrusted it for so many years. Just a few days ago, I experienced some unusual pangs in the womb, which I feared were the pains of miscarriage. After a call with the midwife, I was relieved to hear they were just the growing pains of the uterus expanding out of the pelvic cavity. I am also gaining weight, which is only normal. Yet, after years of being super aware and careful about my weight, it’s disconcerting to watch the numbers rise on the scale.

I have to keep telling myself, “God made my body to nourish life and to connect me to others. This is natural, and holy, and good.  I can stop being on edge that there’s always something wrong with it. I can trust my body.” It is a lesson I am learning slowly.


Being One Flesh

Wedding hands

What exactly does it mean to be one flesh? Okay, besides the obvious. I mean, when one is married, how exactly is it that your flesh is that of another person, and vice versa? I understand that you belong to each other, that your bodies belong to each other. And certainly, a couple consummates their marriage by sharing a bodily intimacy that beautifully manifests the literal reality of their unity. This love often brings forth a new human being, a symbol of and blessing on a couple’s union of body and life.

Yet, it’s not as if my husband lives in my skin, or that his brain waves can trigger responses in my own body (well, maybe through pheromones, but that’s another story). And it’s not like I can literally feel the headache pulsing in his temples or the chewed up carne asada tacos traveling down his esophagus. The limits of my bodily sensation are my own skin. Beyond that is another person, another body. A territory that as much as I claim in word and spirit, is still somewhat beyond my reach. Or is it?

As a result of my chronic ankle pain, Matt and I have gotten another view into what it might mean to be one flesh. When the pain was most grueling, I could barely move around the house, much less carry any kind of load or walk significant distances. While I lay helpless on the couch, Matt carried the laundry and groceries in, washed dishes, and picked up around the house. We joked that he was an extension of me, another set of arms and legs and back for me to use when my own were not functional. In an unexpected way, though pain, his body became my own.

A dear college professor once shared with us his interpretation of marriage. Marriage, Em said, compels you to draw the lines of your identity outside the bounds of your own skin, so that it encompasses another person. When something good happens to your spouse, it’s happening to you too.  And when one of you suffers, the other takes that suffering upon him or herself, even into his or her own body.

The lessons we learn through being one flesh in marriage don’t end there. Human marriage points to the greater mystery of Christ’s union with his bride, the church. As members of the church, I think it is God’s intention for each one of us not to draw the lines of our selfhood just around ourselves and our spouses, if we have one, but around the entire body of Christ. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Human marriage is just a beginner’s lesson in preparation for the infinitely more glorious and endless communion we will partake in at the marriage banquet of the Lamb.

Between Chronic Pain and Healing

My article for Catapult Magazine’s Health and Wealth Gospel issue tells the story of my journey with chronic pain and the questions I asked along the way. Disease, dying, decay…how did these realities make sense together with the healing, restoration and rebirth that Christians speak of as signs of God’s presence among us?

Read the full article here: https://www.catapultmagazine.com/health-and-wealth-gospel/feature/living-in-the-tension

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.

Why Am I Not Yet Healed?

This question has often plagued me in the two plus years that I have struggled with chronic ankle pain. I hear stories of miraculous healings from people I know and trust, read about them in the Gospels, and hear time and again messages about the connection between faith and healing.

Just to be up front – I am not going to answer my own question in this post. If I knew the answer, I would also be on the cusp of solving the problem of evil – a problem which centuries of deep probing has left just as tangled as it began. I am simply going to offer a few thoughts based on my own experiences.

Firstly, I have come understand that I am asking the wrong question. When I draw near to God for the sole purpose of getting healed of an ailment, I miss out on the truest and best gift He offers – Himself. I am, as C.S. Lewis so poignantly described, seeking solace in mud pies when there are fireworks going off over my head.

During a period when I kept bringing this painful question about my healing to God, a line from the Gospel of Matthew began glowing with new significance for me, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33). I don’t know when or how God will finally take away this pain. I trust He will sometime, even if not in this world, but, as for me, I am called to seek God’s face and His kingdom above all else.

Second, God, like Aslan, is not a tame lion. I can’t predict that since my friend over here was healed after three years of persistent prayer, the same thing will happen to me. I love the way that Jesus never repeats his methods of healing people in the Gospels. One minute, he is making a spit and dirt salve for a blind man. The next minute, he is healing the centurion’s servant from afar. The next minute, who knows what?

God’s ways are a mystery to me, and totally, exhilaratingly unpredictable. But I can trust that He knows my story, that He is writing my story with me, and that He will meet me in the midst of my story in a way that is deeply personal and completely Himself.

Finally, I believe that good things come out of the tension between brokenness and wholeness, between longing for and receiving healing, between the already and the not yet. One of my mentors would gently remind me that, in the midst of being tried by fire and stretched to my limit, God was forging in my heart the precious gems that could only be formed under intense pressure.

Parker Palmer expressed the same truth another way. He writes that we shy away from holding together tension and paradox because of an underlying fear that our hearts may break from holding the tension any longer. We see the reality of our broken bodies, lives, and societies, and we see the hope of healing, wholeness, redemption. But we tremble at the thought of standing in the tragic gap between the two. It is easier to respond with fight (making your ideals come true by force) or flight (escaping to a fantasy world where the reality can’t disturb you).

Sometimes it just seems to hurt too much to hold together both the hope of healing and the present pain. It makes our hearts break. But this does not have to be a bad thing. Palmer writes, “As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into a greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”[1]

I love this. I have often felt in the midst of the emotional pain that comes from questioning the meaning of my physical pain that I was falling into the gaps of life. I walked such a thin line between hope and despair, trust and disgust, patience and desperation. Honestly, I don’t like being there. I would feel much more comfortable with some solid answers about why this is happening to me. But I don’t have any. I just have the gap. As I grope forward, I take a small, brave step in believing that God is with me in the gap, and that He is enlarging my soul to live in more spacious places.

[1] Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (2004, Jossey-Bass, p. 178).

It’s Normal to Be Abnormal

A friend who also experiences chronic pain recently shared with me her discouragement when people tell her, “You’re too young to have these issues!” I know how she feels. Although I appreciate people’s care and concern, telling me that I’m too young to have health issues implies that what I am experiencing is abnormal. “Normal” young people shouldn’t have health issues. I disagree.  I think it’s time we all embrace our abnormality.

Having a “norm” or an “ideal” is not always a bad thing. The Bible obviously sets out values and role models – “ideals” that we ought to model our lives after. But are Biblical values really informing our ideas of what is a “normal body?” Or are these norms coming from elsewhere?

In actuality, the Western medical model is one key source from which we measure what is normal for our bodies. Western medicine identifies illnesses, disabilities, and pain as symptoms of dysfunction, thus categorizing these conditions as “abnormal.” Western medicine quantifies bodily symptoms against measurable standards. Your blood pressure, weight, flexibility, platelet count, etc. should all be within a certain range, otherwise there is something wrong. This logic seems natural, but if we take a step back outside of our Western-centric view, we see that there are other ways of thinking about the body.

Chinese medicine, for example, views the body as a constant interplay of Yin and Yang forces. One writer describes the balance which Chinese doctors seek as “a dynamic equilibrium that is appropriate and specifically possible in the particular circumstance and development phase of a person’s life. There is no standard or absolute – what is health for one person may be sickness in another. There is no notion of ‘normal’ Yin-Yang – only the unique challenges and possibilities of each human life.”[1] In other words, Chinese medicine takes a contextual approach to health; it does not measure individuals against an outside standard.

Deborah Beth Creamer, a theologian and disability scholar, provides yet another perspective with her “limits model” for understanding bodies, disability, and health.[2]  Creamer’s model arose out of reflection about what disability can tell us about the human condition and about God. If we take a Western medical approach and label disability as a simply a deviation from “normal” bodily functions, then we are effectively closing off any opportunity to learn from the experience of disability.

But disability can teach us a lot about ourselves and about God. As Creamer explains, disability reveals the limitedness and dependency of all human beings, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. In her model, she asserts that limits are 1) unsurprising characteristics of humanity, 2) an intrinsic aspect of the human experience, and 3) good, not evil.

Seen from the “limits” perspective, disability, illness, and pain are not “abnormal” but a normal part of life. The experiences themselves may not be good, but the fact that we have limits, that our bodies are sensitive and react to negative inputs, and that we cannot push our bodies to do everything we wish they could is definitely good. All of these things are part of being human.

Furthermore, suffering – physical and otherwise –  is totally within the Biblical norm – Jesus predicted it for his followers and the early Church was born out of it. This is not to say that we should go out and seek suffering, but, if it comes, we should not be surprised.

Likewise, when our bodies exhibit pain, illness, and limitation, we should not be surprised. Instead of thinking that the health issues we encounter are abnormal and lamenting them, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on our shared human limitations, realize our dependency on God, and thank him for the ways he sustains our lives and bodies.

[1] Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver (2000, Contemporary Books, p. 19).

[2] Debora Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology (2010, New York: Oxford University Press).

Fellowship Without Words

What does your idea of church fellowship look like? Gathering around a living room for a Bible study? Munching on cookies and sipping coffee after the service? I was privileged at one of my former churches, Bridgeway Community Church, to facilitate a different kind of church fellowship – a fellowship without words.

I had the idea after being inspired by a couple workshops on my college campus – one sponsored by the dance group and the other held by a communications class of women exploring issues of embodiment. What if I could help people in my church to communicate with their bodies – not just with their minds and with words? How would that change the nature of our communion with each other?

This was not intentional, but the timing of our church’s “body workshop” coincided with what would turn out to be the last few weeks of our official fellowship with each other – we had been through a season of painful church issues and now the leadership had discerned that the wisest and most gracious response was to release the congregation from their commitment and dissolve the church.

In the midst of this jarring news, a group of us gathered in the gym of the community center (where our church met) to process, express our pain, and be with each other. As a preface, let me first explain that I had already led some dance workshops for some of us in the past few months, so we had already had a chance to get comfortable within this space of exploration and bodily awareness. I’m not sure we would have had the same level of openness if we hadn’t already been sharing these spaces with each other previously.

In the workshop, we moved through a series of activities designed to facilitate bodily connection and empathy. In one, I asked the group to sit together in pairs, and then, with eyes closed and without words, to take the other person’s hands and take turns showing how they felt using their hands. Obviously, if you can’t see the other person’s hands, you just have to feel them and touch them. This initiates a different level of interaction, one where you are listening with your body, with the cells in your body, with your skin, not just with your eyes and your ears.

In another activity, we gathered in small groups and mimed. Responding to the non-verbal cues of others, we shrugged our shoulders, furrowed our brows, threw up our hands, and created a generous space for receiving each others’ bodies and bodily reactions. I liked this exercise especially because I realized how sensitive we are to another’s facial expressions. When I frowned, other people followed, and when others broke out into a grin, I couldn’t help but do the same. So much is communicated and received through these minute changes in our facial muscles.

Another memorable activity was body sculpting. No, not lifting weights and toning our gluts. What we did was have a couple people be the sculptors and another person be the sculpted. The sculpted person stood limp while the others moved their limbs, head, fingers and torso, and, in essence, sculpted them into a new position. If I remember correctly, I asked the sculptors to express their response to our church break-up through their sculpture. The results of this activity are similar to what my friend Pam, a massage therapist and counselor, describes when she talks about bodywork – “One powerful opportunity that bodywork affords is the opportunity to experience myself in ways that are different than my own self-generated limitations – and physical often translates into emotional and spiritual realms.” To read Pam’s full blog post on this, click here.

In other words, in allowing ourselves to be “sculpted,” we opened ourselves to be moved, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. We allowed our bodies to receive the input of other people and allowed that input to add to our own experience of reality.

Our church body workshop was a powerful time and space of fellowship. The weight and potential of what we were doing struck me in a comment from one of the woman participants, who remarked afterward, “What if we had created spaces like this for expressing our frustration and working through our church issues from the beginning? Maybe we wouldn’t have reached the point of needing to break up the church.”

What if? What if the body of Christ learned to communicate not just with proclamations and doctrinal statements? What if we allowed ourselves to be physically vulnerable, allowed ourselves to be moved? How would that change our fellowship, our service, our witness to the world?

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