Women, Bodies and God

 

Some things take a long time to write.  Probably because they take a long time to live.

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Mary Madgalene Proclaims the Resurrection to the Disciples, Albani Psalter, Hildesheim, 12th century

 

 

This is a story about when my body told me it was time to start listening and when I actually listened.

 

It was dark outside. I had been under the fluorescent lights for two hours. At the gym, under the cavernous ceiling, that old sweat smell everywhere. The clanging of weights and deep whir of the treadmills almost drowning out tinny top forty music that always played.   I was moving from one weight machine to another. And then, my head, in an unaccustomed moment, started to bob. To the music—to that song Hanging by a Moment by Lifehouse (It was 2001, don’t laugh).   And my knees bounced. Just a little, just a few times. I caught myself. I had just danced. Or done something almost like the beginning of a dance—almost, just a little—without meaning to. And then I started to cry.  Right there beside the leg press. Tears welled up. A lot of them.   In that split second my body did something all on its own. It did something I was not in charge of. It pressed up against the wall I had put it behind. and finally got a word in – well, a movement in. And it was a good word, that non-word.

 

And I’ve never forgotten that moment. Mostly because I cried for a long time beside that leg press and won’t forget how people walked the long way around me. But I also won’t forget that this was when my body told me it was time to start getting better. I was beside myself with surprise.  This was the time my body connected me to something larger than my ability/inability to make it what I thought it should be. It was small but in that moment, that tiny moment of movement, I knew that my body was bringing me back to myself, by doing something it was made to do, completely unbidden by me, starting right then.

And my body brought me back to God. As God was bringing me back to my body. That’s how God’s bringing always works.  We will always be given back to ourselves, the more we are brought into God’s love.  There’s a reason why we give words like reconciliation to this work of faith. That’s why we give words like reconciliation to the work of Jesus, the confessional embodiment of God.  And words like reconciliation are what this, this life, is all about.

 

Like so many women, I lived and grew in and through a space where our bodies were not accounted for. Not in a real sense. Not in the way that I longed for and we all do. Not in a way that lets us live, truly live within them, as we were made to.  Our bodies–idolized, utilized and commodified on one hand and dismissed, ignored, quieted and despised on the other.  As happens to our bodies, so happens to our personhood.  You can’t ignore someone’s body, not least your own, without negating something of their personhood, their worth as a being, present and alive.

I, and we, emerged into adulthood in a space where what our bodies want to say about us, about life, what we bring to it and about God was at odds with all the narratives we were been given to understand them, the narratives that tell us how to live within these bodies. Narratives from our culture, from our churches, in our families, from our own fears and deep hurts. I’m lucky. This body had never been traumatized even though I knew from a young age to be very afraid of violence against me.  (There’s this joke….”Sure I’d like to meet you after dark but I forgot to leave my vagina at home…”   It actually isn’t funny at all….) But I was lucky. I have also been loved pretty close to the best of my people’s ability. And that has given me a piece of ground to stand on which in turn gave me a chance to be able to see past some of the untruths. But even with that, it’s been hard enough.

 

This may surprise you, but I am a little intense (ok, that shouldn’t surprise you, I was trying to being funny).   My God-given intensity coupled with a deep grief of leaving, being left by, a community I deeply, deeply loved (another story, completely related, but for another time) triggered something in me. I was very confused about who God was, which meant I was very confused about who I was.  I didn’t have much to define me, my voice was unsure and negated, so I think on some level I turned to the one thing I thought I could and should control—this body. This body was the lower, so it was to be, could be, purified. To be like the higher parts of me, the spiritual, that I was trying so hard to find.

 

I didn’t eat for a few years. Under the guise of “health” and “godliness” but in my deepest heart knew that I was just starving myself. I melted to 97 pounds. In my last year of university I went to class, read, planned my food consumption and workouts and that was it. And then when my body tried to get my attention by overriding my self-control, it ate food out of control. Which is when I started exercising 3-4 hours EACH DAY. (If you know me now, this is so unimaginable, its almost laughable if it wasn’t so painful). For another few years. I remember talking with someone who mentioned she had been on a long walk by the river and how beautiful it was and all I could think about is how I would never have time for such a thing because all my free time was spent at the gym trying to get rid of calories.  I was at once disgusted and jealous of the luxury of spending time by the river.  And my soul kept shrinking, painfully–it hurt– behind this wall.

 

The depression was drowning. It may have been there first, tied to what was going on in the church, and the disordered eating was in response to it–our bodies tend to bear the brunt of our quieted voices. All I know is that the end result was I had shut down my body. I didn’t feel much of anything. I didn’t exist in my body even though I spent almost every second of my day thinking about it and trying to work it into submission. I hid myself. I stopped participating in everything I loved. I read and exercised and wrote, mostly at night, because I had stopped sleeping. I hid from friends. I dropped commitments without explaining. I ate in secret, in basements, in bathrooms, after my family had gone to sleep. I remember going with friends to someone’s house where they ordered pizza. And while the girls were watching a movie after dinner, I excused myself to use the bathroom and passed through the kitchen and scarfed down 4 pieces in easily 3 minutes. I hoped no one would notice. Things like this happened many times.   I kept thinking that what I needed was the strength to beat this body finally into submission. This body was to be subjected right? This body was the weak link, right? Getting this …thing….under control was the goal right? I had to figure out how to get it from God, this ability, this control. And then I would make better choices.  And then God would work in me.……Then my ache would go away. Then my longing for a place in this world would be satiated.  But it never was. Not that way.  I hid my mind and my thoughts but try as I might, I could not think my way out of this. God was gone.  I couldn’t find him.  I hid the pain of this deep, deep loneliness. I hid the shame of not being in control.  I hid the shame of not knowing how to live, of not being able to feed myself, of not having a clue what this was all for.

 

And yet……

 

Where I want to stay in this story is with this– this is the important part for us to hear– that what saved me out of that dark, dark time is that God turned up and started his good work in the very thing I had been taught to distrust. God didn’t show up by giving me the strength to finally get this body thing under control. God didn’t show up by convicting me, making me feel worse, shaming me into stopping this nasty behaviour.   He showed up by showing me that my body,  a deliberate and inextricable part of my personhood, was good – as it was.  And together we moved towards my createdness, my embodiedness. I did not need to flee from it in fear. That takes a lot of trust my friends.  That I’m still working out.

 

God showed up in the action of letting go, of which my bouncing knee was the first sign, the first fruits of the work of God–music and the instinct to move that takes over.  As I chose something other than control, the revelation gradually took me over–that it wasn’t my brain nor my will power nor my good deeds that could make me whole.  By letting go and living, in this body, because of this body, as it was, I had been given life.  It was only here that I began to get the smallest inkling of what grace actually is made of.

 

I was saved through this body. This very one you see when we go for coffee. This very one that you know when we hug. The one I still put a lot of coffee into and I’m learning to let rest.  This is what saved a whole human.  That night with the knee, I suddenly remembered-I was given to remember-my body.  That it was there and that it might want to participate, with joy, in the life it had been given.  That it might want to speak, that it might have something to say.  This woman’s body.  The tears were finally allowed to get out. And something like hope seeped in. I had almost, almost forgotten hope. I had grown so used to fighting and of hating and of being deeply, darkly alone in my own divided being. And Emmanuel, God With Us, gave me hope. In that unbidden movement of my knee.

 

 

 

God got to work, putting a whole soul-body, heart and mind-back together.  Cause he really loves to do that.  That’s his job.

 

What came after that night was a long, long, long journey back to health and back to myself, back to a wholeness. A paragraph can’t do justice to the length and breadth of this reconciliation, of this redemption.  There are so many parts, insights, conversations, good and bad choices, deep disappointments and many years of good therapy and good theology that came after that night in the gym.

Coming to know the created goodness of my own self, including my body, in all its human weakness, became the way to knowing God, who created it. The movement towards the freedom that comes from being the good creation we were intended, is the movement that the Spirit is always about—because it is a movement back to unity.  The intention of creation is also always God’s end game of salvation and the tell-tale sign of the inbreaking of His kingdom—it is life, in this body, on this earth, fully open and unafraid, in ourselves,  before each other and fully open and unafraid before God.   It is reconciliation. It is reunion. It is a re-membering of what we are and were always meant to be.  A veritable resurrection.

 

Those seem like high words. Maybe like words that sound good and poetic. I’m never sure if all the words ever do any good.  But at some level I know, and want to know, that words are powerful things. That they can beget true ways through the darkness. But only as they are given form and lived out in and amongst our actual, real-life bodies. And only as our bodies, our whole selves, are in turn shaped by this good Word.

 

In the beginning God created. Us. All of it.   And it was good. Even as we dug in the dirt, learned fire, needed each other, built towns, learned to live together, knew our brokenness, learned to forgive…slowly.

In the beginning was the Word and it was God. And it was a crying-all-night-baby kind of God.

In Him, all things are being brought into unity. Even our own hearts and our own present bodies as we welcome one another’s physical presence to eat and drink their fill at the Table.

All this is from God, that He would reconcile all things to himself through Christ. All of this, its all his, even you, every cell, every synapse, every bit, drawn into the folds of his being, the embodied and cruciform being we see hanging in all those pictures, that we see reflected even in our own selves.

 

These old, old words are pinging around my brain even as I try to tell the truth of my body. My woman’s body.

 

There is a space in the back of your mind, or in the back of your soul, or in the pit of your stomach or the space around your heart (which maybe are all the same thing) where you know your body has been quietly talking to you. Is it in the exhaustion? Is it in the literal numbness of your arms? Or face? Have you been holding your breath? Is it in the tension in your neck? Is it in your appetite, your need to fill your stomach, or your arms, or your mind with noise, noise, noise, noise? What is your body saying? Is it the anger? Is it the sadness? The sleeplessness.  Is it the fog you can’t get out of? What is trying to get your attention? What is the truth of you and God that your being, your embodied self, knows?   The truth of where you are right now. And the truth of where you deeply long to be.

 

This is work that sounds so, prosaic…the stuff of our very ordinary being… but is life-altering.   I started this blog to write about this very thing—its why I say “our flesh and blood spirituality.” But it’s taken me a long time to even start to find the right words.

 

But two words stick out the most and are my beacons—like fireworks, like a flare. These two words rise up in the confusing darkness and when I see them, hear them remember them, I am called to the right place.  Like the freaking Star of Bethlehem.

One is Incarnation. The Incarnation of the Word. Jesus. What could it mean that the God of the universe, the Creator of every impulse and chemical reaction, revealed himself in a body – a baby, a boy, a small brown human? What could it mean that the spirit that transforms us into the likeness of what we were created to be does it through the very stuff of our world—matter, bodies, each other? What does it mean that God doubled down his commitment to the good stuff of this world, and of you, with this enfleshed entanglement in our world? That he did it to the point of death. And more tellingly, to the point of resurrection.

 

The other word is Embodiment. Our embodiment. What could it mean that the God of the universe, the Creator of every impulse and chemical reaction intended that we live out our lives with Him in these bodies?  Every day, with all the ordinariness of blood and sweat and food and family.  We weren’t created bodiless souls–how did we ever think that was the goal?  What does it mean that all of our thoughts, hearts and spirits have our bodies to mitigate them to the world, to each other? What does it mean that we live out our lives in a sacramental way, that enacts the good news every time we do the very stuff that keeps us alive–when we eat together, drink together, every time we remember this body, That Body?

 

And that is what I want to talk about. All the time. I want to talk about the Incarnation and the Embodiment.   How WE are Embodied creations and HE is the Embodied Author and sustainer and finisher of all of this who just longs to walk with us, in the garden, as the sun goes down.

I want to talk about the tensions and hard places that the real world work of living in our bodies brings up. The disconnect we live in, the brokenness that can not be glibly discounted. I want to talk about what it looks like to live this being-a-human thing out.  But there is also the joy in the trusting amidst the brokenness and I want to talk about that too. And the fellowship. And the deep, deep peace. And the wholeness of His Presence even in the midst of it all. The Reconnection, the reconciliation, the reunion. I want to talk about the Reunion.*

 

whew….I’m not sure if I’ve thrown enough words at this….(that was gently sarcastic).

 

Friends, if you want to talk about these words, this Word, which is actually Good News, join me. There are so many ways in which this plays out in each of our lives– what we need to say about this will be completely unique to each of us at the same time as being familiar to us all.

And its time we start saying the words out loud.  The good Word about women, bodies and God.   Take a look at that picture at the top again.

 

I don’t know how to start the conversation other than by starting it.   I am hosting a retreat day in Calgary with my friend Dr. Angela  who happens to be a registered psychologist who knows a lot about what it means to live practically and live wholly–body, mind and spirit. It will be in Calgary at the FCJ center on November 26, 2016. The cost is $80 which includes lunch and snacks and us and handouts!!! Glorious handouts!

I love handouts.

 

If you are interested, let me know. I would really love to see you and hear you and have a chance for us to hear God together. It would be a day for discussion and teaching and concrete ways to live this out but also some space for you to be with yourself–your body, and heart and mind—and with your God.

There is so much room around this table.

 

 

“The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.”                ― Irenaeus of Lyons

 

*I recently read Love Warrier by Glennon Doyle Melton and this work Reunion struck me as the most important word in there.

 

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Meditations on Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm

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Christ in the Storm, Rembrandt, 1633

 

I came across this painting in a book a little while ago and could not stop looking at it.

It was in a book called Contemplative Vision – specifically looking at paintings, visual art.  The author, Juliet Benner talks about about how “seeing” spiritual realities depends on our noticing, our seeing what is around us. Looking at visual art helps hone the ability to stop, notice and see what God is doing—it helps us to see where God is and where we are.

 

And then I read this a few days later in an article by Amanda Benckhuysen in the Calvin Theological Journal where she specifically looks at the work of Rembrandt. “Art is a way of acting with the world that engages with its materiality such that it illumines something about the world’s depth and reality…Art’s ability to open up its viewers to new ways of seeing and understanding is not only true of the world but also of the biblical text….It brings out the new and unexpected, the hidden and the silenced in the text.”

 

I was already sensing this, as I looked at that Rembrandt. There is something about this painting that captured me. Something the painter understood about what it meant to be human, what it meant to be in a storm and something he hoped for about God that made me see this story in a new light. And more than just aiding me to “see” this story, this painting opened a door for me to know this story somewhere within myself considerably more intimate than my good, moral-of-the-story analysis had ever done.

 

I brought the picture to mom’s one afternoon in the spring, just to show it to her. And she said, “Didn’t I tell you how God got me ready for all this with that story?”

Hmmmm.

I started to pay attention.

 

And I’ve been sitting with this picture all summer. I’ve had it printed in big and in little – there are multiple copies sitting on shelves around my house. I stare at it a lot.

 

The following meditation is what it brings up for me but what could it bring about for you? Take time and look at the picture. What strikes you the most about it? What is grabbing your attention? Bypassing our long ingrained habit of only looking for the behavioral takeaway, what is God speaking to your heart about him, his character, his ways, about you, about yourself, about where you are, about how you are in this world?

 

Look. See.  What can you not stop seeing the most?

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Is it the water? Is it the way the water looks alive and terrifying? How it is dark and endless. What would be lost under that water? What is already down there?

Is it how the water washes away any sense of where the boat begins and ends? It washes away their safe place, their only way of keeping their heads above the darkness. The water washes over, gets in, takes over that boat. The water looks cold and rough and like it goes down forever. There is nothing solid about that water, no footing to be had and it makes me nervous. I am a prairie girl and while I love and thrill being at the ocean, there is something about how deep the ocean is that terrifies me. What might be lurking down there? It’s a deep, evolutionary fear – of chaos, of falling, of losing any foothold. Of being consumed, of being lost, of losing breath and hope and the ability to get yourself out. The waves, roiling, make me want to look away but they also catch me up in them. I can’t stop staring at them.

 

Is it the wind Rembrandt painted? How everything in the picture is affected by the wind? How the wind bends and pushes the boat over, under its invisible power? See the wind unloosing the ties that keep the ship together, blowing strong wood to the point of break. The sails are straining, the boat shifting, unstable underfoot. Notice how the wind whips everything towards those disciples – they can’t keep their eyes open, they have to look away. They can’t see where or what or how they can possibly keep afloat. Its hard to catch their breath.

 

Or is it the light that catches you? The light and the dark that Rembrandt painted so deliberately.   Is it how the light creates such a beauty in the sky, a beauty completely apart from the trauma of the storm but also because of it. Is it that kind of beauty that invites you; the kind of beauty that gives a hint to the mystery on the other side of what you are seeing?

Look at how the light hits the front of the boat – where those disciples are working so hard. So hard. All their effort, everything they know to do is being done, in the light while at the back of the boat, the disciples in the dark are looking at Jesus.   Why is Jesus in the dark?

 

Is it the disciples themselves? Some trying everything they know, some working harder than they ever have before. Some looking beseechingly at Jesus and some looking downcast, forlorn, not knowing what to hope for. Some are gazing into the distance, maybe trying to see beyond the storm, trying to see the land. And some are searching the water, the deep dark water. How are these disciples striking you? Is it in how they reflect you? Where would you be in this boat? What would you be doing?

 

Is it the way Rembrandt painted Jesus, his face lit up in the dark aft-ship? Do you notice him looking at the faces of those around him. He sees them. He grasps, he must grasp, what is happening but there is something in his posture that does not say panic. He is almost in repose, as he would be at the dinner table. His posture says rest. For indeed that is what he is all about in this picture. Christ in the storm – resting. Sleepy Jesus. As if the storm, for him, was no different than the calm.  As if darkness and lightness were the same for Him. For He himself in no way changes, and his presence in no way changes within the two places, between the two. He is the same in that storm as he is at the Passover table. Present and there.

 

 

What does this picture hold for you?

 

For me, as I’ve sat with this picture, meditating on all it could say, and as I sat with mom with this story and this picture over these last few months, I keep staring at the disciple straining to keep ahold of the mast, trying to maintain their hope of getting to shore upright, and I keep staring the disciple staring into the water. I am both of them. Trying so hard to hold together that every muscle aches. But also consumed with what is underneath the waves, what might be right around the corner, with the darkness I can’t see a way around.

And then I can’t stop hearing sleepy Jesus’ voice:

“Why don’t you come to where I am?”

To where you are sleeping? Not doing anything? Watching your loved friends struggle?

“Yes, to where I am. I rest in this time, I do not struggle in this storm, like I do not struggle when I sit back at a table. Because this storm is no different than the calm to me. The darkness is as light to me. I do not change within them – I am here, with you, in all of it, I am. That does not change. So you come over here, and sit with me. And I will show you that I can calm a storm, This storm. The storm.  And I will also show you that I am not afraid of it. And I will show you that your fear is not the end of this story. “

 

What this picture revealed to me in a way that no “you of little faith” sermon ever could, was the invitation. The deeply personal and known kind of invitation to me to join Him where He was, at rest in his world, at rest in the storm, at rest in the dark, his still presence lit like a firefly.

 

This painting has then sent me back to the text. And as I read it yesterday I, along with the disciples, heard Jesus say, “Let’s go to the other side.”  He does that doesn’t he.  Invites us to go with him.  But this story, like my story, and like so many of our stories’, goes to a completely unexpected place.  What they thought they were embarking on with Jesus, with all the faith they had, and all the idealism and vision and hope and intention, took a turn they were not expecting.  In all of our lives this happens.  We start, we think we hear God calling us to do something, to start something, to be faithful and trustful and then all of a sudden a squall rises up from the depths and we are suddenly fighting and struggling like we’ve never done before.  We get confused–did God mean for this to happen?  Did He do this?  Did I hear wrong?  What is happening?  Our ways of making sense of this are completely stripped away.   And where is Jesus in this?  Sleeping.  Not even in a “so it seems”kind of way but actually sleeping, at rest, completely unconcerned.

And so then I ask, along with Mark, “Who is this?” Who is this, that we followed out into the middle of the lake, who is at home, at rest, in a storm such as this? What kind of messiah do we follow who is not terrified of the world and its storms. What kind of God is right at home in his creation, even lets go into sleep within it and does not, could not, change in the darkness and in the light?

 

The one that is with us, drawing our attention to where he always is, to where the light can never be taken out, even in the dark shadow of the storm. The one in whom there is no question of his ability to effect his will, good and restoring, in this world. The one who does not change, even in the awfulness of our lives, but thoroughly changes us in the process of being with us in the bottom of the boat.  The one who invites me to sit with him and watch how he does it, with all the repose of one who offers me some of his food while staring at the sunset.

 

This is he.  Thank you sleepy Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Call to Worship

Worship, in all of its states and ways, serves to open our hearts to our true home, our hearts to our true selves and will always work to infuse this world with the incredible beauty of living with God.  If our worship is a clear seeing, a window cleared of fog, just for a moment, then these are my calls to worship in this season.

Marilyn Robinson’s  novel, Gilead, has been one of the great surprises and gifts in this season.  How have I not read this before?  I am more whole for reading it.

 

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light …. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? …. Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

 

And this Decemberists song.  I can’t get it out of my head.  We sing it at church because God’s truth oozes from its words.  “If I am waiting, should I be waiting?  If I am wanting should I be wanting?  When it’s all around me.”  This song calls me to the clear seeing, the right direction of my gaze that I am longing for, waiting and wanting for.  To the truth that is already and always there.  That God may give me the courage to know.

 

A Beginning Song, The Decemberists

Let’s commence to coordinate our sights
And get them square to rights
(Get them square to rights)

Condescend to calm this riot in your mind
Find yourself in time
(Find yourself in time)

If I am waiting, should I be waiting?
If I am wanting, should I be wanting?
And all around me
(All around me)

Document the world inside this skin
The tenor of your shins
The timbre of your limbs

Now commence to kick each brick apart
To center on your heart
Starting with your heart (bright heart)

If I am waiting, should I be waiting?
If I am wanting, should I be wanting?
And all around me
(All around me)

It’s the sunlight, it’s the shadow.
It’s the quiet, it’s the word.
It’s the beating heart. It’s the ocean. It’s the boys.

It’s you, my sweet love (my sweet love)
Oh, my love (oh my love)

And the light, bright light
And the light, bright light
Bright light, bright light

It’s all around me
It’s all around me
It’s all around me

 

 

God grant us eyes to see, ears to hear, the work you are always doing–bringing this world, this creation, us, back together, back to you.  And may our participation in it, our delight in it, our pointing to it, our honouring of it be among the acts of incarnation you are eternally about, thatyou are always and forever doing.  Your work in your world, your work in ourselves.  Its all around us, breathed into, offered up.