We, The Body of Christ, Hate Our Bodies. Maybe We Could Stop?
Do you hate your body?
I know I hate mine, and my best guess is you hate yours.
And that is a tragedy.
We are members of an incarnational faith.
We celebrate and stake our very souls on God coming to Earth in a human body, and then giving that body to us, in life and in death.
We consume the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday.
We call our collective self the Body of Christ.
And yet we hate our own bodies.
We hate our very incarnation, call it ugly and feel shame at its appearance and functioning or lack thereof.
What is wrong with this picture?
This is not a pulpit sermon, so I’m warning you now that it has very little to do with the scriptures appointed for this Sunday.
As an Associate Rector, I’m only in the pulpit twice a month, and I’m finding that I really relish the freedom to write a spiritual message on my non-pulpit weeks that is more personal and perhaps less driven by the needs of my actual congregation.
So this reflects what I’ve been led to in prayer lately, and what I think might be helpful to folks reading this.
(And by the way, I’ve never heard a sermon preached on this topic. Why not? Perhaps patriarchy’s colonization of the pulpit might be a suspect.)
Men and women in America have been trained from a very early age to hate their bodies.
Everything in the beauty industrial complex is geared toward leveraging your consumer dollars based on the belief that you are not enough.
From the cosmetic industry to the weight loss industry, billions of dollars a year are staked on your shame and hatred of your physical self.
Then we have the unholy intersection of the processed food industry and the pharmaceutical industry.
Our palates have been trained to crave highly processed foods loaded with sugar and salt, so that real food is boring and, particularly for poor people, inaccessible.
Add to our terrible food the fact that we don’t get enough sleep or appropriate exercise, and we are sick.
Diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and anxiety and depression are so rampant as to be the new normal in our society.
Then come the pills.
We are dependent on medications of all kinds.
I’m in no way condemning very necessary and life-sustaining drugs that are miracles for those who need them.
But we have become such strangers to our own spiritual depths, so mentally and emotionally unequipped to deal with pain of any kind, that we drug ourselves into a stupor.
The opioid epidemic is one result.
And it seems as though every other commercial on TV is urging us to talk to our doctors about yet another medication that we didn’t know we needed.
This is the poisonous legacy of our deep alienation from our own bodies, and it’s a real mess.
These may seem like very broad statements to you, but I’m not afraid to speak with authority here because I am on the front lines of this toxic atmosphere.
I have lupus, which means I deal with chronic pain and I have to follow an almost comically restricted diet to maintain a baseline level of functioning.
I have to be rigid about my self-care practices like getting nine hours of sleep a night and exercising just the right amount—not too little and not too much.
I can’t work 60 or 70 hours every week, or I will end up in the hospital. And I have been shamed for that, called weak and a slacker, and that hurts.
I have lived with eating disorders since I was a teenager.
I have bounced from anorexia and bulimia in high school and college to obesity in my twenties.
Despite years of effort, study, conversation with others and soul-searching, sometimes I feel no closer to exorcising my food demons than I was when I was fifteen.
All of us manifest patterns of addiction in some area of our lives, and for me and so many others, it’s to a substance from which abstinence for the sake of sobriety is impossible.
And then there’s the anxiety and depression. These two have been my faithful companions since I was very young, and despite having tried multiple medications and years of therapy, none of it worked for me.
I’m not telling you all of this in a “poor me” bid for attention.
I’m just letting you know that if you are one of the people for whom your body and its failures take up a disproportionate part of your mental space, I am with you.
I know I am not the only person who has never had a day go by in her life since she was twelve that she didn’t mentally punish herself for being fat.
I know I am not the only person for whom depression and anxiety have created a gray fog of simultaneous panic and lethargy that makes leaving the house to get groceries a Herculean task.
I know I am not the only one who mourns not having a body that would simply work the way it was designed to work, rather than breaking down at every opportunity and making me walk the tightrope of pain management and the road to addiction.
So what are we going to do?
Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly, and this is most definitely not life abundant.
I have been praying about this more and more over the last year.
God has been leading me to love and freedom and abundance in so many areas of my life, but I know I have still been stuck when it comes to my body.
God has been opening me to surrender and letting go and trust in my prayer life with such tenderness, with such beauty.
And yet when it comes to my body and how I struggle to care for it, all my old patterns of anger and fear and a rabid need for control are fully intact.
On my recent retreat, I was led to a new and life-giving relationship with my internal poverty, and it seems that the poorest of all the poor places in my life is my relationship with my body.
So I know from the outset of trying to rethink this relationship that Jesus cherishes me right here, in the very midst of all my pain and self-hatred.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says, and I am very poor in spirit when it comes to my ability to love my physical self.
I know I’m not the only one. I think it’s possible that a significant part of the Body of Christ, at least in America, is suffering from body-hatred.
Where do we go from here?
I think we need to go back to what makes our Christian understanding of God unique: the Incarnation.
Jesus was God come to earth in a human body, and Jesus was very body-positive, to use a modern term.
He was constantly interacting with people’s bodies.
He touched people to heal them, including smearing mud and spit on a man in one particularly earthy episode.
He fed thousands of people with fish and bread.
And he gave his own body freely to sensory experience—he was drenched in the water of baptism, he endured the hunger and heat of forty days in the desert, he let his feet be washed by the tears and dried by the hair of a devoted woman, and he reclined with the beloved disciple cradled to his chest.
Jesus was incredibly incarnate, incredibly present in his body, and most of his miracles were about giving healing and new life to a seeker’s body.
Do we ever think about how healing and new life could be present in our bodies, even and along with poverty and pain?
What would it be like to live into those two realities fully?
I think what we’re missing in large part is that we have spiritualized both the crucifixion and the resurrection so comprehensively that we forget that the great work of salvation was accomplished by Jesus’ body dying and Jesus’ body being resurrected.
And orthodox Christianity believes in bodily resurrection, not just a getting rid of this foul flesh and ascending to bliss as a disembodied soul.
I will state again that I think we limit the possibility of resurrection in our lives significantly by pushing it all off to some misty afterlife. “Now is the day of salvation,” Paul says.
Now is most certainly the day of crucifixion for many of us in our bodies between both pain and self-hatred.
When will we be willing to accept that now is the day of resurrection in our bodies?
And how could we forget that Jesus gave us his Body and Blood in the Last Supper?
Eucharist is one of the central sacred acts of our life in worship. It is how the Body of Christ is nurtured and fed and strengthened and sustained.
We take Jesus’ body into our bodies.
And yet we spiritualize that so overwhelmingly that it never even registers that Jesus is feeding our bodies with his own.
I don’t really have any answers here.
I’m basically just saying that 1. I am completely poverty-stricken when it comes to the ability to love my body, 2. I know I’m not the only one, and 3. Everything I know about Jesus tells me that he loves my body with abandon and gives himself to nurture and bring it to flourishing.
I offer you my poverty and vulnerability here because I know that Jesus is most present and does his most transformative work in places of poverty and vulnerability.
My body and its travails have remained stubbornly and densely opaque to me spiritually, which makes me believe that when I am awakened, my journey with my body may be where I come to know God most fully.
So perhaps I’m simply inviting you to join me in the prayer discipline that I’ve recently begun: to take part of my prayer time each day to ask God to teach me to love my body the way God loves my body, which is with tenderness and affection, generosity and joy.
And God’s love is a love that loves us exactly as we are, without changing at all, and for everything that we can and will be, as we welcome transformation within us.
It is a love that requires nothing and enables everything.
Why did we think it applied only to our minds and hearts?
We are followers of the Word Made Flesh, and we might start to consider how that Incarnation is real in our very own humble arms and legs and skins and sweat and tears and beating hearts.
When I left my first church, I received a few gifts from parishioners as one often does on leavetaking.
I didn’t open any of them until I was unpacking in my new office.
One of them was a copy of Dr. Phil’s Guide to Weight Loss, and on the inside cover was written, “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple?” from 1 Corinthians 3.
I sat there in my new office and cried, that this parishioner thought the most important thing she could communicate to me was, “You’re fat and God disapproves of you for that.”
And then I threw the book in the trash.
But in the years since that incident, I’ve realized that I am no different from the woman who gave me that book in her misguided attempt to help me.
We both are poor in our ability to love our own bodies, and that makes us poor in our ability to love others freely, without needing to control them.
So we’re in the same boat.
But the two of us, and everyone reading this, in our very souls and bodies are the Body of Christ.
That means we are made of the potential to love, even and especially in our messy and beautiful biological matter, and I believe that we will find a way to let God’s love flow through us.
I believe that the barriers we have erected to life within us will be gradually eroded by the gently flowing river of grace that is the Holy Spirit, and our very cells can be and are Her temple.
So I ask you to pray for me as I pray for you, that we may begin to know ourselves as God knows us, love ourselves as God loves us, see that our bodies are the very means of Christ healing and serving the world.
And incidentally, a billion-dollar industry based on self-hatred has no chance against the smallest and most humble prayer welcoming new love.
So I am taking Job’s words to myself—and he was someone who understood the pain of the frail human body at a visceral level.
“After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.”
May that awaking be today.
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