Honoring bodies

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When it comes to deepening my spiritual practices, asking the right questions matters; that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve reflected on honoring the body—the first of the 12 overarching Christian practices detailed in the book Practicing Our Faith. And the question I’ve deliberately asked myself day after day, many times each day is: “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?”

Like the afternoon sun streaming through my window reveals dust particles dancing on air, my question has illuminated thoughts about how God made us and what that ought to mean for my life.

In all my years of seeking to follow Jesus, I’m sure that I’ve never deliberately thought as much about bodies as I have in recent weeks, except maybe when I was pregnant with—or nursing—each of my three children. Growing a new body within one’s own, nurturing a little body that is completely and entirely dependent on yours, has a way of heightening your awareness of all things physical. And when I was a young mother, I was highly motivated to honor my body as a way of honoring and respecting the little bodies that were relying on mine. It was a physical practice motivated by the intellectual and emotional desire to grow healthy children.

Spiritual practice

But honoring the body is, for Christians, also a spiritual practice writes Stephanie Paulsell in the book’s second chapter. It is a practice “born of the confidence that our bodies are made in the image of God’s own goodness.” And, she points out, even such simple, everyday actions as bathing and dressing are a part of how we honor our bodies.

I know I can do a better job of honoring mine; a recent bout of pneumonia, and a number on my bathroom scale that’s risen to dizzying new heights tells me as much. Still, I was heartened by Paulsell’s words because even I shower and dress most days. So that’s not a bad baseline. And if the practices are truly not a set of goals to be mastered but of gifts to be received, then my body could do with a boon.

It’s no secret that caring about the human body is deeply embedded in Christian theology. The body matters, Christians believe, because God made it. And, as Paulsell points out, He made it in His image and He called it “good.” In Jesus Christ, God honored the human body even further by taking on a body of His own. Jesus demonstrated His love for human bodies by feeding, touching, healing, and resurrecting them. And then, when Jesus’ own body was pulverized, crucified, and laid in a tomb, God raised it to life, thereafter giving all Christians hope that one day He will do the same for our bodies. Finally, God seals His love for our bodies by inhabiting them with His own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, whom, the Bible tells us, comes to take up residence within the bodies of those who welcome Him.

Yes, Christian belief has a lot to say about the beauty, worth, and goodness of the body. It can be heady stuff to think about. But what impact should all of that have on me, now, a Canadian woman living in 2019 who’s on the downward slope of middle-age? (Who am I kidding? Unless I live to 120, it would be more accurate to say that I’m on the slippery slope to old age.)

Taking action 

Coincidentally, I happened to read the chapter on “Honoring the Body” the night before my first “annual” physical exam in more than three years. (Sitting in a doctor’s office, talking about bodily concerns is one of my least favourite pastimes, and it’s been easy to find excuses to keep putting off my long overdue checkup.)

So, the next morning, as I sat in my doctor’s examination room, I asked myself, “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?” And when my doctor asked if I had any concerns, I decided the answer to my own question in that moment meant summoning the courage to answer hers—truthfully—mentioning every concern, no matter how embarrassing, or for how long they might have gone unspoken.

The desire to honor my body continued beyond my doctor’s office and resulted in renewed motivation for everything from packing healthy snacks for work, to flossing my teeth nightly before bed, even when I didn’t want to. Asking my “what does it mean” question provoked me to live more in the present moment. I tend to be a highly task-oriented person, always racing from one thing to the next. But reflecting on my question literally slowed me down at times; rather than racing across the icy parking lot at the train station, or up and down wet subway stairs, I found myself treading more carefully to avoid the potential for slips and falls.

Bodies, bodies everywhere 

It wasn’t just my body that I started to think about either, but other people’s bodies too. “Honoring the body is a shared practice,” explains Paulsell, “one that requires the participation of all. … When we honor the bodies of others, we are also drawn into God’s work.”

I’ve thought about that each time I’ve visited my 102-year-old mother-in-law in the hospital (recovering from a broken hip). I’ve tried to honor her enfeebled body with kisses, by brushing her hair, filing her nails, massaging lotion into her papery skin. I’ve thought about the fact that human bodies do not live forever.

“All bodies are reflections of God’s good creation, deserving of reverence and care,” Paulsell writes, and it struck me that my husband and I reverence and care for each other’s bodies when we prioritize intimate time. I thought about the fact that the brain is also a part of the body. And so, I realized, I can honor both my body and the bodies of others when I refuse to watch that Netflix show with gratuitous nudity—no matter how entertaining or well-written it might be.

My professor, Dr. Wendy Porter, says it is important to remain attentive to our lives, making small adjustments as we discern the necessity for them so that we’ll be equipped to discern and respond to the need for more sweeping changes when those needs arise.

In a column published in 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks observed that, “The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells.”

My recent efforts towards thinking more intentionally about the human body, and the fact that it is indeed sacred, resulted in small but significant adjustments in my thinking and practice.

What about you? It’s time for me to ask you some questions: What are your thoughts on all of this? Do you agree that the human body is sacred? If not, why not? What does it mean to you—in your life and context—to honor the body? I look forward to hearing from you!

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Practicing My Faith, Part 3 – This post is third in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

Practicing my faith

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As part of my Master of Theological Studies program at McMaster Divinity College I’m doing an online course this semester on Spiritual Discernment. Of course, I am loving it; without exception, I’ve devoured every course that’s been part of my program. But a couple of weeks ago, our prof delivered a lecture on practicing the Christian faith that captured my imagination in a way that made me ravenous for more.

Using the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass, published by Jossey-Bass) as one of her primary sources for the lecture, our professor mentioned that this book, which was first published in 1997, “spawned practically an entire discipline in itself of people—pastoral theologians, academics—who are contributing to this discussion of practices of faith.”

Practices are simply a means of connecting our faith with our living. I may be a late comer to the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I’ve learned through my studies that Christianity is always shaped by its surrounding culture, but there have been times when I’ve wondered if my culture shapes me more than it should. “How is it,” observes author David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, “that we’ve come to expect so little of people who call themselves Christian?” And twang goes my conscience.

As a person who like rules and boundaries—because they help to make life simple and clear—I’ve sometimes wondered if the way I live my faith, which seems to lack such rules with its emphasis on the grace of God, is “Christian enough.”

I know Muslims, who pray a prescribed number of times each day in a prescribed way. I know Jews who eat kosher and who faithfully honour the Sabbath and the high holidays. Such things are easily observed by someone outside of those faith groups like me. But what practices set apart the Christian life? My Christian life?

I’m not seeking a whole new “to do” or “to don’t” list. But sometimes, particularly as I ride the train en route to my part-time job, ear buds in, listening to the latest podcast, or scrolling news headlines on my phone surrounded by a sea of other commuters all doing precisely the same thing, I can’t help but wonder at the differences that exist in how I choose to lead my life from how my non-Christian friends and neighbours lead theirs. Outside of the hidden things—my prayer life, habits of Bible reading and study, personal moral choices, customs of church-going and charitable giving for example—would anyone who didn’t know me, be able to tell that I try to follow Jesus Christ just by observing the externals, that is, the practices of my life?

And again, Dark challenges me: “Will it turn out that you belonged mostly uncritically and unthinkingly to a particular cultural context? Did you wrestle with it or was your life one of automatic obedience, a series of unfortunate events in which you carefully ascertained what values you were expected to appear to have from one moment to the next and dutifully did so, aping along as it were along the path of least resistance?”

According to Bass (and the 12 authors who contributed to Practicing Our Faith) there are 12 “time-honored practices of faith, shaped by the Christian community over the centuries, yet richly relevant to contemporary experience.” The 12 practices are:

  1. Honouring the body
  2. Hospitality
  3. Household economics
  4. Saying yes and saying no
  5. Keeping sabbath
  6. Discernment
  7. Testimony
  8. Shaping communities
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Healing
  11. Dying well
  12. Singing our lives to God

What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be? After a few days of pondering such questions, I ordered Practicing Our Faith and have begun immersing myself in its pages. Like sinking into a delicious tub filled with warm water at the end of a tiring day, it feels like I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

In a recorded lecture delivered at Yale Divinity School, Bass observed that, “What people are searching for is a way of life that adds up to something in the midst of the fragmentation and the multiple pulls that we experience as contemporary people.”

A way of life that adds up to something; this is my yearning, my deep desire. I suspect if you’ve read this far, that the same is true for you.

I hope to write about my learnings here on this blog as I deepen my understanding of the 12 practices in the weeks and months ahead. “Discerning the contours of a way of life abundant proceeds best,” writes Dorothy Bass, “when we give analytical, imaginative, critical, constructive, theological, prayerful attention to one practice at a time.” So that is what I plan to do. And I’d love for you to journey with me by reading along.

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