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Bodies — why we struggle with them and what God is doing about it

When my Mom had a massive stroke 27 years ago that left her body significantly handicapped, I was left with a question that was new to me but had been asked for thousands of years before:

Why would a God who is has no body create a physical world and give us humans, who are created in his image and likeness, these wonderfully awkward bodies?

In the Leonard Cohen song “Lover Lover Lover,” the great singer-songwriter begs:

I asked my father
I said, “Father change my name”
The one I’m using now it’s covered up
With fear and filth and cowardice and shame…
He said, “I locked you in this body
I meant it as a kind of trial…”

This concept of being locked in our bodies is nothing new. People with disabilities like my Mom feel it. People who are have eating disorders feel it. People with gender dysphoria feel it. People with chronic pain feel it. People feel it as they age and can’t do what they always did with the ease they had before. People who are losing their hair, who have cancer, who can’t carry a tune, who are picked last for sports teams, who feel out of control with their sexual urges, who have body chemistries which cause mental illness, who have a skin color which causes them to be mistreated, and on and on — for so many reasons, people get disconnected from the very bodies they cannot ever leave, wishing they had different bodies or none at all.

The Canadian band Arcade Fire complains:

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

Picking up on that theme, our science fiction writers have been writing stories and making movies about advanced races of beings who are all mind and no body — disembodied consciousness formed of the union of reason with energy. For some reason this form of pure being seems preferable to our animalistic bodies. But after meeting one of these writers at a book signing, I came away wondering if it wasn’t a profound dislike of his own small, weak, and unhandsome form which fueled his imagination for something other than what he was born with.

The body hatred so many feel in our culture is only magnified by our obsession with our bodies. The idolatry of the body is a real thing and so many, even among those who claim to worship only the God of the Bible, bow before their bodies far more than they pray to their so-called Lord.

Come on, let’s be honest here. There are many of us who give ourselves over to grueling exercise regimes. (The fine line between exercise and torture is crossed far too often by the body-obsessed.) Too many of us eat food that lacks any real flavor at all. (Come on, those shakes and protein bars are horrific! There is no joy whatsoever in eating them and no community around the table to be had while gobbling them down.) And there is no real and lasting joy experienced in the bodies we do have, for there is always the fear of gaining weight or losing function through injury. (I was at peak fitness a few years ago after going through P90X several times when I stepped in a hole and sprained my ankle. And the first thing that went through my mind was: “There goes my ability to exercise. I’m going to get out of shape.”)

As with every form of idolatry, the god being worshiped enslaves the worshiper and body-idolatry does just that. Narcissistic self-pleasure in six-pack abs and the fear of losing it all create a vicious circle of ecstatic worship and terrified service.

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are the body-deniers, who like the science fiction writers, long for a bodiless future. But some of these do it for over-spiritualized reasons.

I heard a preacher talking about the day we will “shed our bodies” and how what Jesus is all about is our souls. He completely ignored the fact that Jesus came in a body, healed bodies, fed bodies, died in a body, was raised in a body, ascended to heaven in a body, will return in a body, and will resurrect us and our bodies to live in a heaven come down to earth where we will still have bodies.

But it’s a natural thing for those who actively struggle with sin to look askance at their bodies. All of our lusts and gluttonies are sins of the body. Our hungers and thirsts are bodily. Our vanities are bodily. Thefts and murders can only be done because we have bodies (even digital theft only makes sense ultimately because of bodies — it’s only for physical realities that we need money; for ears that we listen to digitized music; for eyes that we watch digitized movies). We wouldn’t need to work if it weren’t for our bodily needs of food, shelter, and clothing.

But along with their myriad struggles, our bodies are also the source of our greatest joys.

The pleasures of eating and drinking all rely on bodies. There is no joy in that cup of coffee in the morning, that piece of chocolate in the afternoon, that craft-brewed beer in the evening without bodies. We have whole professions built on making the most of the flavors of food and drink. Without the need to eat and drink, the need for tables would disappear and with them the place where most community happens.

The thrill of sports evaporates without bodies. Watching a figure skater glide, a downhill skier fly, a basketball player dunk an alley-oop, a golfer chip a shot from a sand trap straight into the hole — these and so many others are only made possible when bodies are trained and exceed the limits of what the rest of us can do. And it’s the exceeding of these limits which makes our chins drop in awe. For there is no awe without bodies.

And that includes the awe inspired by luxury. Sports cars. Rolex watches. Sprawling mansions with spectacular views. And though we may shake our heads at opulence while there are still those who are sick and starving in the world (victims of their bodies), we wouldn’t mind a bit of it ourselves. Our bodies thrill at the physical delights of luxury.

The word “beauty” has no meaning aside from our bodies.

We wouldn’t need each other without bodies — need, that most essential aspect of community. I couldn’t borrow a lawn mower and my neighbors would have no need of my ladder without bodies. Without our need of food, there would be no borrowed egg or cup of flour. There is no gratitude without something to be grateful for.

Our bodies are the source of so much glory … and so much shame. No beautiful clothing; no naked shame.

Our bodies are the source of so much weakness and strength. Without them, there is no falling down and no picking up.

Without our bodies, there is no sickness and death. But neither is there resurrection and life.

And this is something the Scriptures are unbending on: We don’t have bodies, we are bodies. And we will always have bodies.

Whatever else is included in the life of the age to come, what we generally call heaven, the Scriptures are clear that it will include bodies.

In 1 Corinthains 15, Paul writes his great chapter on the resurrection. And resurrection requires bodies — bodies that die becoming bodies that rise up again. And Paul claims that biblical faith rises or falls based on the truth of the resurrection of bodies (and not just souls as so many believe).

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Cor. 15:13-14)

Having established the necessity of the resurrection to biblical faith in the first half of the chapter, Paul turns to the nature of our bodies before and after the resurrection starting in verse 35. He writes of bodies that are psuchikon and bodies that are pneumatikon. But here’s where we get into some translation trouble and end up missing the point.

Psuchikon is an adjective built off of the word psuche from which we get the word psyche. Most literally, it refers to breath. But it generally refers to the breath of life, the soul. So, psuchikon most literally translates as “of the soul,” but most translations render it as “natural.” It doesn’t help that the word only appears three times in the Bible, all in a cluster in 1 Cor. 15, so we don’t have other contexts to help us have a sense of what Paul was getting at with his use here. But what the translations that have opted for “natural” are getting at is that the soma psuchikon is a “body suited for the life we live now.” This is in contrast to the soma pneumatikon, which is generally translated as “spiritual body.” But “spiritual body” is an oxymoron; it’s either a body or a spirit, for saying “spiritual body” makes as much sense as saying “physical spirit.” Pneumatikon would be better translated not as “spiritual,” but as “Spiritual” or “of the Spirit,” referring to the Holy Spirit. So, if soma psuchikon is a “body suited for life as we live it now,” then soma pneumatikon is a “body suited for the life of the Spirit.”

 

All this to say, our bodies now are suited for the souls (psuche) we have now. But the bodies we will have in the resurrection will be suited for God’s Spirit in ways that we aren’t suited for the Spirit now. We taste of God’s Spirit and experience God’s Spirit to a degree now, but in the age to come there will be a change in us where in our very bodies we will be more fully suited to experience life with God by his Spirit fully resident within us.

In the resurrection, the tensions we face and feel right now will be gone. We won’t be done with our bodies, but we will be done with the struggles we have with our bodies.

We were created for more than we experience right here and now. We were created to be fully physical. And we were also created to experience the life of the Trinity by the indwelling of God’s Spirit. But we are broken and don’t experience either ends of the spectrum as we were designed to. We experience all kinds of problems in our physicality and we experience all kinds of problems in our spirituality. Both of these will be reconciled in the resurrection.

The body-spirit divide will be done. Our bodies will no longer feel like cages, like we’re locked in them as a kind of trial.

Physical disabilities, sexual disorientations, destructive hungers, physical addictions, messed up chemistries, empty vanities, poverties and hoardings — these will all pass away, as will our sense of disconnection with God. And in their place, the beauty, satisfaction, pleasure, and glory of the creation God smiled on and sees as very good will be renewed. In the new heavens and new earth, we will be renewed ourselves with bodies suited for the life of the Spirit and all will be beautiful.

Why do we have bodies? Because God loves beauty. And the day where all is beautiful is coming. The resurrection of Jesus is the downpayment on that day.

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How to live. How to die.

I don’t talk about death a whole lot. None of us do. And yet it’s always with us.

My wife and I started watching a new TV show recently and more than 1,000 people die in the first episode and another dies in the episode we watched last night. I turned on an audiobook today and someone is shot dead. In our fiction, we tell death stories frequently.

Death is like a blurry background to our lives — always there but rarely in focus. That is, until it crashes into us and makes a topsy-turvy out of our lives.

I’ve watched one of my sisters die, smashed into head-on by a drunk teen. That experience of death was like when I was a kid at the beach and I got pummeled by an unexpected wave. It plowed me underwater and I was so disoriented I tried to swim down instead of up. Noise and darkness and chaos filled my senses.

As I watch my 90-year-old Dad and 86-year-old Mom, I know that death is coming, but I still see so much life that mortality’s shadow seems thin, even as it hangs over them. We talk about it sometimes but not a lot. It seems like an important conversation to have, and yet there’s so much living yet to do that we can’t seem to give it the attention it probably deserves.

There have been a bunch of celebrity deaths this year (as there are every year), and as I’ve written elsewhere, I believe they are helpful to us, because they they give us an opportunity to learn how to mourn. Celebrities are fake friends, people we make an emotional attachment to who have no such attachment with us. When they die, some of the joy they brought us through their art or sport or whatever goes out of our world and we grieve the loss. Among all of the drawbacks of celebrity culture, that is one of its true gifts. Grief training.

But of the artists who’ve died this year, it is Leonard Cohen’s death on Nov. 7 that means the most to me. The meaning arises not just from the impact his songs have had on me, but from the way he died. Cohen knew he was dying. He was ready for it. He talked about it. He even sang about it on the album You Want it Darker, which was released barely a week before his death.

In the opening title track, Cohen sings a simple refrain in his bottomless baritone, “Hineni. I’m ready, my Lord.”girls-weekend-guide-to

Hineni is a Hebrew word found throughout the Scriptures. Its a simple statement of presence. Here I am. Look, I’m right here. I’m present to you. It’s me. Hineni is the most basic prayer we have in biblical spirituality. God makes himself present to us and we respond as naked souls, present to God in return. Hineni.

Much of this life is a game of hide and seek. We hide our true selves from one another. We hide from God. We even hide from ourselves.

As theologian Julie Canlis points out, God’s first question in the Bible is: Where are you? It’s a gracious question, because it draws from their hiding the shame-ridden Adam and Eve, making an opportunity for restored relationship. And God has been asking the same question ever since. Where are you? I’m present to you. Will you be present to me? Come out of your fortress of solitude and let’s be face-to-face with one another. Let’s be friends. Friends live hineni with each other.

In his dying, Leonard Cohen shows me how to live. His “Hineni. I’m ready, my Lord” has a sense of finality to it. “I’m here. I’m ready to die. Come and get me.”

But there’s more to that line than that. There’s no resignation in it. There’s no “I’m done. Let’s get this over with.” No. It’s more like my wife coming down the stairs after getting dressed up for an adventurous evening. “Here I am. I’m ready.”

The same words that Cohen says at the end of his life are words he’s offering to us to speak every day throughout our lives.

Be present. To God. To others. To this world. To yourself.

Be ready. Ready to live. Ready to die. Ready to dive into whatever adventure or mystery God and this grand world have ahead.

Live hineni and be ready for what happens next.

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Electing & being elected

The word “election” is both political and theological. Interestingly, though they both are about the process of making a choice, the political and the theological are done in exactly the opposite way.

During political elections in our republic, the people do the electing. The many people elect their one leader. Theologically, this is topsy turvy. The one God elects his many people.

Living in a setting that makes election a democratic process plays havoc on our theology of election.

Instead of trusting the one God to choose his many people, we all want a say in this choosing. In fact, having been so indoctrinated into the democratic process, we firmly believe that locating the choice of election within the people is somehow an innate human quality and right. Going back to the American Revolution, we have rebelled and continue to rebel against the idea that election is somehow located within the sovereign one, not within the people.

This creates problems for the average Christian in believing in God’s sovereign choice in election.

As much as we push back against it, God’s kingly but gracious election of his people is bedrock theology in the Scriptures. Though it is everywhere in the Bible (where “king” is the most common metaphor for God), our most elegant expression of it is probably Ephesians 1:4-6 —

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace,which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 

We don’t create our own selves, our own bodies, our own souls, our own spiritualities. All of who we are is a gift of grace.

I love how Bono puts it in the song “Magnificent”:

I was born
I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise

This is election at work. Predestination. God’s will setting things in motion, choosing. The singer responding.

What is even better than Bono’s song is Leonard Cohen’s glorious song “If It Be Your Will,” where he submits not only to God’s previous election, but to his ongoing sovereign will:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

(Why isn’t this song sung in more churches? Come on, worship leaders!)

What I love about these two songs is their willingness to offer back to God what he’d given them. Their voices were not their own in the first place. They were gifts from God, acts of grace, means of election. Acknowledging this, both Bono and Cohen offer back their voice-gifts to God in recognition of his magnificence and praiseworthiness — a freewill response to being elected.

This stands is stark contrast to most popular songs, which express our wants and our feelings, not God’s will. Us as electors, not God as elector.

Should we continue to elect our officials? By all means! As long as our system allows our participation, let us participate. But in this culture which suggests that we should act like little gods who live by our wills, our choices, our desires, we need to reject this self-obsession by offering ourselves back to the one who has elected us, the one who has chosen us as his very own.

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Dear Canada, thank you for being so awesome.

Dear Canada,

You’re awesome. Really. I loved living in the Great White North for five years. And I will always be grateful that my oldest child was born in Vancouver.

Thank you for excellent comedians. John Candy, Mike Myers, Leslie Nielsen, Phil Hartman, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Jim Carrey, Dan Ackroyd, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Will Arnett, Michael J. Fox, and others. There is a  lot of humor in your self-deprecating nation. I love that you don’t take yourself so seriously, willing to laugh at yourselves and helping us Americans laugh at ourselves as well. And all of those Canada jokes in How I Met Your Mother were simply brilliant. Thanks for letting us laugh with you and at you.

Thank you for your bacon, even though it’s just ham.

Thank you for your flag. The best one in the world hands down. Really. Simple symmetry. Environmental connection. Just lovely. It makes the American flag look cluttery in comparison.

Thank you for your maple syrup. So tasty.

Thank you for our openness to immigrants. I love your open-door policy and how it has changed your white British faces to being so wonderfully multi-ethnic.

Thank you for hockey. You invented the sport. It’s yours. Thank you for sharing it with your southern neighbors. That final match between the U.S. and Canada in the Vancouver Winter Olympics was truly epic. I’m sorry that we’ve bought some of your smaller market teams, breaking long-standing community bonds. I hate that. It’s one of the things that frustrates me about being American. (The puck moves so fast, I could really use a glowing one …)

Thank you for your government. I like your take on the parliamentary system. I like that elections don’t take as long or cost as much as they do down here. I like that new parties pop up now and then and that a party can go from being the majority to being almost non-existant as happened when I moved to Canada in 1993. It was stunning. I wish the same thing would happen to the two parties in power in the States.

Thank you for calling your indigenous people groups First Nations. It’s much better than our “native Americans.”

Thank you for a great health care system. There are so many fears and lies about it south of the border, but we saw so many people covered by it and cared for by it during our five years of graduate school, without anyone falling through the cracks. That year of working as a chaplain among cancer patients was amazing in its immersion among people who were so grateful for the access to care that they were receiving.

Thank you for Justin Bieber. Just kidding. Though I do hope he’s able to pull things together, drive safely, treat women well, and sing powerfully.

Thank you for great music. Rush, Neil Young, Tom Cochrane, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Oscar Peterson, Triumph, Feist, Bruce Cockburn, David Wilcox, Neko Case, and many others. My life is richer for the music you’ve brought to me. I understand why the White Stripes wanted to play concerts in just about every corner of Canada. You’re great music fans as well as great musicians.

Thank you for hosting the Women’s World Cup. Even if it was on turf.

Thanks for your accent, eh? I love how your pronounce process, pasta, Mazda, basil, roof, out, and about. I love that you spell colour and counsellor differently than we do. That’s rad.

Thank you for Regent College, the unseminary. Christian graduate studies in Vancouver was a great immersion into real community and faith. Some of the best days of my life. And what other seminary devotes that much space to an art gallery?

Thank you for keeping mullets alive a lot longer than we did. I was sorry to see you abandon them, bending to American fashion trends. The same is true of parachute pants and bell bottoms.

Thank you for letting us call ourselves Americans when you have just as much a right to call yourselves as Americans, living in North America, as we do.

Thank you for being so nice. Sometimes, it’s just being passive-aggressive. But most of the time, you’re just nice. Compared with aggressive Americans, it’s no wonder why the rest of the world likes you as tourists.

Thank you that we don’t have to arm our border. You’ve been a good friend and ally for so long. Sorry for taking you for granted.

Some of my best friends and best experiences are Canadian. Thank you.