There is a beautiful passage in Ezekiel that some pastors will be preaching on this coming Sunday. The prophet has a vision of a “valley of dry bones.” This is not representative of literally dead people coming to life, but people who feel lost and dead from living as captives. The passage reads, “I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.”
Our bodies are really important. I didn’t always know that. Throughout my life I have struggled with a lot of guilt and shame about my body. It started even before puberty and the guilt and shame that came with discovering I was a sexual being. My mother told me masturbation was a terrible sin. Jesus said that anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. A youth pastor upped the ante on that and said that if you lust for someone and it is not a “mutual lust” it follows that your lust is akin to rape (as apposed to mere adultery). Add to that my discovery at a young age that I was attracted to females and males, the latter which is considered an “abomination” by the writer of Leviticus and much of the church, and I had a recipe for a lot of self loathing.
But it started even before that. I have struggled with my weight my whole life. At home it was “Fatty fatty two by four can’t fit through the kitchen door,” from my father. At school it was “fat ass” and fat slob” and “fat piece of shit,” depending on what grade level we are talking about and the vulgarity of the bully. But at church it was always, “Your body is the temple of the Lord” and “Gluttony is a sin.” When I had sleeve gastrectomy in 2007 and lost a lot of weight, quite rapidly, it was often (but not always) Christians who asked things like, “So are you doing it the real way or did you cheat?”
There were a lot of mixed messages in the conservative Christian culture of my youth about our bodies. On the one hand, the body was so important that it seemed like touching my penis or eating too much could damn me to hell. I mean my body was the temple of god. On the other hand, there was a glorification of escape from the body. It was viewed as a cage or prison of sorts and escape was the goal.
Granted, not all Christians or Christian communities are like this. I am grateful for my time in the reformed churches. It is true that at times reformed theology puts so much emphasis on the notion of divine sovereignty and doctrines like predestination, that god seems even uglier and more arbitrary than in other Christian circles. But those reformed folks – at least some of them – do place an awful lot of emphasis on the importance of the body. The most consistent reformed folks even have an embodied eschatology (that is theology of “the last things”). They don’t believe “the in Christ will rise” to be a metaphor. They don’t believe in escape to a heavenly other world, but in god – in Christ – returning to reign on earth and people eating and dancing and never growing old.
Of course, the most conservative among them also believe that half the world or more was damned to hell before the beginning of time. But I digress. People of all different sects, and religions, and people with very little or no religious faith, all seem to be able to find various reasons to believe that the body is important. And along with that, they find various reasons and methods to care fore and nurture it. I want to do that too.
Just like my mental health, it takes concentrated effort. Just like my mental health, I have some genetic predispositions and modeled patterns of behavior that make it more of a challenge. My mom struggled with her weight much of her life. My dad was an alcoholic. And I have self medicated with both food and alcohol in my life. I don’t think I have been shy about sharing that here. What I am a bit hesitant about is articulating any sort of action plan. My mental health is easier to talk about because despite obstacles of guilt and shame in that area as well (both religious and “secular”) I have simply been working on it much longer.
But in the end mind, body and “spirit” (whatever that is) are all just components of one unit with one life to live. Each and every one of us! Jesus, Hitler, Reagan, Thatcher, Dahmer and Gandhi, we are are connected by the same particles of star dust “made” flesh and dwelling amongst each other. I want to treat this pile of dust like the sacred vessel that it is (with or without a creed to tell me to do so). It probably won’t start with going to the gym every day or beginning each day with flaxseed and kale smoothie. It can start with passing on the doughnuts on casual Fridays. It can start with working out once a week – not to look like a Greek god – but to take better care of myself (I mean I’m pretty damn sexy already). It can start with having one or two beers after a stressful week, rather than four. It can start with not using the excuse that I haven’t become like my mom or dad used to be to coast until I do become like that. I want to feel my flesh, my skin, my breath, my bones and be as attuned to the heart that beats within as I am to the fragile state of psyche, I have come to take greater care of.
Live! Live! Live!