Monday, 27 November 2017

Embodied Hope

I’m in a place of tension and it’s bothering me. On the surface, it’s a tension that’s been thrown up by social media. Status updates are by nature reductionist - in order to describe something that’s multi-faceted and integrated, we have to enumerate and disintegrate.  But then we’re left with something that hardly does justice to reality’s largeness. 

So anyway, I posted an update online about combining my two loves: spiritual growth in relationship with others, and health and fitness. And really they sound like two different things, but to me they are the same thing. It’s all about how we grow to be more fully human, and what it even means to be human, and what it means to follow Jesus and see his good reign worked out here on earth. And, well, you know, all of that good stuff.

I read this great quote by the guy who wrote Dwell (I think his name is Barry):”The Christian hope is an embodied hope. That means for us that Christian spirituality is not something experienced merely in the depths of our being, in the deep recesses of our souls. Christian spirituality is experienced in our bodies.” 

"Christian spirituality is experienced in our bodies."

And that’s where I want to go with all this. I want to understand more about what it means that I live towards God’s good future by engaging all of who I am - my mind, my emotions, my relationships, my choices, my habits, my community rituals, of course my spirit. And - since having a body is fundamental to what it means to be human - my body.

It feels like we have to emphasise the body part because it has been left to one side for so long. 

Like, in the context of being Christian at least, we don’t really know what to do about the fact that we have arms and legs, toe nails that need cutting, skin that wrinkles with age, feet that tap with impatience and apparently of their own volition. And genitals. Gosh, let’s not even go there! So we’ve made our spiritual life about all the other-worldly stuff, and assigned our bodies to the very real world in which we live.

I think that's why those who are not believers have so much more to say - good and bad - about being embodied. And I think it's why we have Christian leaders who are such an example in so many areas, yet have bodies that are crying out to be cared for. And I don’t mean by another packet of M&Ms.

But here’s the thing. When we emphasise the body to try to redress the balance, it’s so easy to lose the central focus. We elevate the body so easily. For sure, when it comes to change related to our bodies, we tend to leave God out of it almost entirely and rely on our will and self-discipline alone. (Except when injury or illness causes us to face our own mortality, perhaps. And then we cry out for God’s intervention because suddenly we are aware that what we thought we had control over doesn’t feel so certain anymore.)

I feel like it would be so easy for me to get carried away with the physical side of all this. Of course, I have always loved sport and physical activity. It feels like it’s hard-wired into who I am and I get energy by being active. I guess - I hope - I will always be that way ... one of those wrinkly old ladies who are still running marathons at 86 years old! You see, for me physical activity is also an opportunity for connecting relationally with others. Tim and I have always felt most connected when we run together, or hike a mountain. So it feels like an overflow of who I am to share that with others, to encourage them in their healthy habits and to champion them in the good nurturing of their bodies.

But I don’t want it to all be about that! I don’t want to become someone who talks about diets and weight-loss, exercise programs and nutritional supplements, and fails to keep all of this firmly rooted in the context of becoming more fully the people we’ve been created to be, allowing Holy Spirit to empower us to make good choices in our bodies. Not as the end goal but as an integral part of what it means to be God-filled people on earth.

I’m not at all saying that God’s intention is for us to become some kind of super-race. You know, taller and more chiseled than the average Joe. Able to lift burning cars off frightened toddlers, and all that. No! Physical limitations are also integral to our experience of being human but Bonhoeffer was onto something when he said that “man’s body is not his prison, his shell, his exterior, but man himself. His body belongs to his essential being. Man does not ‘have’ a body; he does not ‘have’ a soul; rather he ‘is’ body and soul.”

If I am my body and my body is me, I am going to think about it differently, right? 

There is a kind of self-love, or self-respect, that is the sign of someone who is living into their true identity. A sort of honouring of the body without elevating it. Is it even possible, through living reflectively and intentionally, to come to a place of such integration that we can learn to live that way and see it as part of our Christian spirituality? I don’t know. I hope so, I am searching for that ...

Where I care for my body as a way of acknowledging the gift that it is, and I do that by receiving the help of Holy Spirit so that I think and chose in relation to my body in ways that are good ... And I submit all that I will be for others, through my physical presence that day, to God ... And I consciously trust him for safety and wholeness, while recognising that physical vulnerability is part of the deal ... And I experience God’s presence and delight in his creation by growing in awareness and engaging all five physical senses in seeking him ... And when I slip into vanity and self-reliance, I’m sensitive to a bit of course-correction so that I can live in this body the humble way I was meant to.

Is it even possible, through living reflectively and intentionally, to come to a place of such integration that we learn to honour the body without elevating it, and see it as part of our Christian spirituality?

Call me an idealist. The odds sure are stacked against this dream. But I’m holding out for the integrating power of a kind of multi-faceted relational reality that includes not just my heart and my soul, but my mind and my body too. Pretty sure Facebook won't be able to handle it - but could you?!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Experience of Community

Yesterday, my nephew got married in New Zealand; my closest friends enjoyed beautiful Spring days in South Africa; precious co-workers held a retreat in the United States; my parents helped do some DIY at their church in the UK; and my husband left Tunisia to travel back to Spain via Paris.

Even as I was writing that first paragraph, I exchanged text messages with a Chinese friend in the US who is about to marry an Indian guy. Often, as I walk the dogs in the morning, I record voice messages on WhatsApp to send to friends in the Netherlands, or Morocco, or Switzerland, or Armenia, or Canada.

I can no longer imagine life without this network of relationships around the world. These are people I deeply care about, some of whom I have lived near for a particular season who now live far away from us, and yet I still ‘do life’ with them in some form.

Is it enough, though, this global community? 

The ironic but truer thing is that where I actually live - where my flesh-and-blood body really takes up space - the experience of community is a little thin. After more than 4 years living here, the most I can say is that there are encouraging signs of friendship here and there. Of course, language-learning makes it harder, as does cultural adaptation. The fact that I travel away for work pretty regularly probably hasn’t helped. Our season of life means that most people already have a well-established set of friendships and not much need for more. 

Community, though? No, I wouldn’t call it that.

Herein lies the tension, then. I can easily avoid the discomfort of digging into relationships here by spending my energy with the more remote friendships. I can find comfort on a bad day from a friend who lives in another country, on another continent. I've come to realise that community can be experienced by us in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places, and that's good. But when it’s easier to turn to WhatsApp than face the reality that there are few people nearby to talk to - or not many who would think of asking how things are - that doesn't seem so healthy.

And when I don’t reach out, don’t ask for help, I diminish the likelihood of forming deeper connections. Because, whether we like it or not, relational bonds are forged most deeply in our times of need. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t easily ask for help. 

Independent, impatient, more often than not I would rather figure things out myself than invite others into the process. It’s not that I don’t think I need help, it’s just that I’ve learned that it’s often easier to do things for myself. 

Thank God for the times when I have had to learn to ask. For the 4x4 breaking down on a hill when Keziah was 6 weeks old, and Derick and Ilze coming out in the Landie to tow us home. For the early years of parenting when the tears would come, and Michelle would talk me off the ledge and feed me tea and rusks. For those challenging first years in ministry, when Guy and Tarn would pour us wine and make us feel normal again. For the time Tim was immobilised by a slipped disc, when Oloff and Karen allowed us to take over their home, and then Mel and Russell let us move into their place so that we could wait until he was well enough to get the flight home.

And countless other moments when deep connections were forged in life’s most challenging moments. Not just our challenges, but during times of hardship or heartache experienced by friends, when our hearts were drawn out in love for them in new or deeper ways. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE celebration! If all of friendship were celebrating, I would be happy. But there really does seem to be something about sharing the tough times.

When we invite people into our more difficult experiences we build steel into our friendships.

The season our family is now living in is … well, I don’t have a word for it: it’s a time of being pressed. Mostly we are pressed by an unusual quantity of low grade pressures that, added together, make for a hulluver ‘squeezing’ sensation! You know, the car has broken down half a dozen times in as many months, we had rats in the house that ate through the dishwasher cables and were highly resistant to being evicted. There was that whole thing with Keziah and deciding what to do about her school misery. Constant meetings for over a year discussing life and death issues regarding a co-worker are understandably draining. And financial concerns, there’s always that. Well, you know, it all sort of piles up and leaves us feeling a little war-weary.

I suppose what I am getting to is this: is it possible to see these times of pressure as an opportunity, an invitation? Could it be that this is the very time when the bonds of close friendship will be built? Am I able to find ways to invite others into my place of need, and reciprocate that friendship in ways that make them feel cared for too?

My neighbour came to use our tumble drier because she was overwhelmed by all the wet washing produced by the combination of two small boys and damp weather. I saw that as a real triumph in the relationship. 

I won’t say I am praying for her washing machine to break down, but I might just head over there now to borrow a cup of sugar …