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Bodies

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

As I write this during Holy Week, I'm reflecting on the body of Christ.


It is astounding to think about God coming to earth and and getting a body. In fact, the plan of salvation required that He do so, in order to be fully God and fully human.


That body was truly a human body. It became tired, even exhausted. And it died, violently. Yet was resurrected, gloriously.


I've been trying to encourage myself toward more incarnational thinking. I love the life of the mind, but a spirituality that entirely inhabits concepts and ideas is incomplete. As much as I love theology, a disembodied theology is--at worst--heretical, and at best, misguided.


Everything we see about God in Scripture shows a concern for the particular, for the specific, for the small. Slow, incremental changes requiring hands-on involvement is the more typical model we see in the Bible, particularly with the prophets. Even miracles, those flashes of quick change, often require a physicality--not in order to bring about the miracle but perhaps to illustrate the earthy, groundedness of it.


Elijah raises the widow's son, and during his prayer to God to appeal for the child's life, he stretches out his body fully over the child's. Three times.


When Jesus heals blind men, he touches the eyes of some, and he puts spit in the eyes of another. And sight is restored.


He heals a deaf man by putting his fingers into the man's ears, spitting, and touching the man's tongue.


Very earthy.


And yet our view of miracles seems so often to be this idea of a supernatural intervention, devoid of any human touch or influence.


Miracles of course can't be a girl with cancer continuing to live with cancer. I've come to disagree with this view. The miracle is that she continues to live, like all of us who are alive right now. The miracle is that we all continue to live, that our hearts keep pumping, that our lungs keep working, that our brains stay alive. And for those who are alive and for whom these things are not true, the miracle is the ingenuity of medical technology that can keep their lungs working...or replace them when they are not.


I'm encouraged in this line of thinking by N. T. Wright, who says, in his biography of Paul:


"People often think of 'miracles' as the 'invasion' of the natural order by a force from outside. That wasn’t how the early Christians saw it. For them, dramatic and otherwise inexplicable healings were seen as evidence of new creation, of the Creator himself at work in a fresh way."


So, I've been thinking about bodies and the amazing miracles they are. Part of the amazement is that we so rarely think about them functioning except when they aren't functioning so well. Aging brings one's body to mind, as does illness.


As I go about my life, it's incredible to remember that less than 6 months ago I was briefly caring for my daughter's body as she came out of lung surgery. We didn't fully understand how hard the surgery would be, and what deflating both lungs in order to biopsy and remove tumors does for one's functioning. Not only is breathing affected, but all activities that require respiration. Walking, getting up, maneuvering anywhere at all.


It had been a long time since I had cared for an adult-sized body so completely, and yet I jumped into it with familiarity and precision.


I had only briefly cared for adult bodies when I worked in the memory unit of an assisted living facility while I was an undergraduate student. Interested in adulthood and aging, particularly Alzheimer's disease, I researched and studied, and started an honor's project on music therapy and Alzheimer's. Yet I wanted to learn more, close-up, and thought I'd work with elders experiencing memory loss, kind of like a journalist or detective going undercover. The ideas in my head about the disease were academic, cerebral.


So I moved from studying memory in the abstract to...bodies urinating in fake decorative plants, bodies sun-downing and behaving in inappropriate ways, bodies rigidly tensing and resisting movement, bodies (with surprisingly good leg strength!) trying to escape an environment they didn't understand or recognize.



These bodies were people whose friends and loved ones I'd meet from time to time. People with pastors and church friends, daughters, and former coworkers. People who seemed to have been forgotten by those from their former life.


These were people pretty disconnected from what it means to be fully functioning humans. All my research, which I would get into increasingly in my PhD program, went out of sight, out of mind, as I reflected on this particular conclusion. And yet, aren't we all in this boat? Who among us can claim to be a fully functioning human? I concluded that it's pretty much only my own body that I have great patience for (although, I'd later learn to love caring for my own babies). I didn't enjoy caring for these bodies, which acted like toddlers and yet certainly exhibited every aspect of aging when I sponged them down or clothed them.


I didn't like my own frustrations when caring for these bodies, and so I received a quick lesson in why I should stay the course in completing my degree and returning to the life of the mind. It's so much easier to be empathetic and kind toward adult bodies that you don't personally have to wipe up, clean up, and protect 24/7. Whether caring for babies' or elders' bodies, there is always so much more fluid than one expects! I had a tiny snapshot into caregiving, and wonder how we can do better as a society, and as neighbors, to help support those who are in these circumstances for the long haul.


These lessons stayed with me, and I was delighted that I knew how to help navigate an adult-sized body through all the daily caring that it needed. It was a joy to do this for my daughter even as I grieved her great discomfort and the circumstances that we were in.


I knew then that she was my hero, not because she faced these circumstances stoic-ly, but because she was just...her. She faced every new challenge as the challenge of that particular moment to get through and so...we did.


It's a good reminder to me now, when I want to rush through challenges and I don't understand why things linger in hardship. I want to fast-forward and not experience the full...earthiness...of human experience that is so often incomprehensible and just plain hard.


But our God, the greatest Being of all, who can do all things, determined that the thing to be done was to come to this small planet and spend 30 years living an ordinary human life, and then spend the last 3 or so years in intense ministry leading up to his death.


While He was here, it was like all the gates of hell were thrown against Him. Not just at His temptation, but throughout His ministry. After His temptation, we're told in Scripture that Satan left him "until an opportune time" (Luke 4: 13). Seems like there were lots of opportune times, between demon-possessed people coming out of the woodwork all of over the place, to friends and family criticizing him, second-guessing him...betraying him.


His was a body that suffered a lot, that did not recoil from frailness in others or in Himself. He unabashedly slept, the long, deep sleep of the exhausted, after a grueling day. Or in the middle of one. He "frequently" withdrew to remote places to pray. This is not the perfunctory prayer of "devotional time," but the prayer of absolute necessity for staying in-tune with God...with Oneself.


We do not worship a God Who is far off. He came near and became one of us.


It's easy to fall into one of two extremes during Holy Week: either obsessing over the violence of the cross and what was done to His body (and allowing that to be the sole focus), or overly-spiritualizing it as we glibly say, "He died for our sins" without any reflection on what the "He died" part entailed.


I think, like with our own bodies, it's important that we know and see what Christ suffered and endured. But, we don't lose our gaze on Christ Himself. We don't worship his wounds, after all. We worship Him.


At this time of year, we reflect on the reality that God died for us. And, shockingly, we will also someday die (unless the 2nd coming occurs within our life time. As many of us have been praying lately, marana tha, our Lord, come!). In fact, we already have died, spiritually, if we are in Christ.


We died with Him and will be raised to Him.


But have we died? Or do we jump ahead to the glorious life prematurely, wanting to go from strength to strength...on our own strength? Do we think that Jesus' final sermon, in the Upper Room, has import?


In my last blog entry (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/the-way), I reflected on John 14, and Jesus' words that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This passage is the beginning of that Upper Room sermon. Later on, He teaches the following:


  • He is the Vine and we are the branches. We are to abide in Him as He abides in us.

  • We are to love one another.

  • The world will hate Jesus' disciples.

  • The Spirit of Truth will come after Jesus goes away.

Then, right before His famous prayer for His disciples (John 17, one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible), He says this (verse 33):


I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!

When we think of Jesus' glorious resurrection, we probably would like to forget that right before He died, He told us that we will have trouble in this world. His resurrection doesn't mean that we get to jump ahead, like in a board game, to the triumphant end.


We remain here, and sometimes our troubles seem beyond what we can bear. Whether physical, emotional, social, or spiritual, we all have pains and struggles. And many of us are bearing the pains and struggles of others.


Yet Christ's sacrifice and His words are indeed encouraging. He has not left us alone. He is with us. That doesn't negate the fact that in this world we will have trouble. But we can take heart because He has overcome the world and, therefore, in Him we can ultimately be triumphant as well.


And our triumphant walk can look like putting one foot in front of the other, in the midst of pain and difficulty. It can look like my daughter, whose every breath hurt for that time, nonetheless getting up and taking a walk to the hospital courtyard because her mother told her she had to in order to prevent blood clots and pneumonia! It looks like abiding and trusting in Him, even when we can't understand why we are where we are, in the circumstances we are in.


Jesus understands our bodies; He still has one, a glorified one!



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