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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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For those of us who are grieving

As those who live in this tragic beauty called life, as those who live at the intersection of sorrow and joy, we approach death with a strange mix of emotions.

As those who follow Jesus, we remember that short verse I memorized as a kid: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

It’s one of the most profound verses in the Bible, which is why those two words stand by themselves as their own verse. Jesus wept. He joined us in our sorrow. He knows grief from the inside-out, not just from above.

This was no feigned sorrow by the one who knew himself to be “the resurrection and the life,” who just minutes later raised his dead friend back to life. No, this is the real thing by one who was deeply bruised by the death of a loved one.

This grieving by Jesus gives us permission to grieve ourselves. There is nothing faithless about our tears. In fact, they are the most fitting response to the rip in our hearts. Our dear dead deserve our tears.

But Jesus is in fact “the resurrection and the life” and the firstborn from among the dead. He is the first harvest of the grave, proving the future harvest to come.

This is why St. Paul wrote these words to grieving followers of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, The Message):

And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.

And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master’s word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they’ll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God’s trumpet blast! He’ll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise—they’ll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we’ll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words.

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How has Easter become the most predictable Sunday of the year?

I don’t get sunrise services on Easter morning.

When I look back over my life of church stuff, I can’t remember a sunrise service that I liked. I never wanted to get out of bed. The weather was never all that great. I was always desperately hungry by the end of them. Everything was supposed to be all happy and cheery, but I wasn’t.

So, I didn’t do them when I became a pastor. But I still had to deal with traditional Easter morning services. And something bothered me about them. They were the same routine every single year. The Easter lilies and the Easter dresses, the vocal choir and the bell choir — it was the same old song and dance each year. And yes, even the songs were the same. And no, we didn’t dance.

How is it that Easter has become the most predictable Sunday of the year? It’s crazy! The actual Easter that got everything going was far from predictable. So, I started changing things up.

One year, during the seven weeks of Lent leading up to Easter, we draped the massive stained glass windows in our traditional Presbyterian church building with long black curtains. The sanctuary that was so wonderfully bathed in light became dreary and funereal. After one week of it that way, we all longed for the curtains to go and the light to return. So, when they were still up on Easter morning and not a lily was in sight, one of the elderly women of the church, Thelma Johnson, came up to me and said, “Do I need to go to a different church? One that celebrates Easter?”

“Just be patient,” I said.

Soon after, the service started and I proclaimed, “Christ has risen!”

At that moment, all of the curtains fell from the windows and the light flooded in. Children poured from the back of the sanctuary, bearing dozens of lilies to the front. And from the balconies, bells and chimes rang out wildly with joy. Light and life had returned to us with a burst that caught us all off guard, even those of us who knew what was coming, and our faces were covered with unexpected tears.

A couple years later, I visited the funeral home two blocks from the church building and made an odd request. “May I borrow a casket?” And since the church had given them plenty of business, they were glad to comply. On Good Friday morning, they brought an empty coffin and set it up in the sanctuary.

It had a profound effect on worshipers at our Good Friday service and overnight prayer vigil afterward. We’ve grown so accustomed to crosses, after centuries of turning them into jewelry and into logos for churches and Christian organizations. We’ve so trivialized the cross that it no longer has much of an impact on us, no matter how we drape it in black or whatever we do to it. But a coffin brings out a deeply visceral reaction in people. We don’t see them nearly as often and when we do we’re either watching a horror movie or dealing with personal tragedy. People appreciated the impact it had on them as we remembered the death of Jesus.

But they didn’t appreciate it when it was still there on Easter morning. Even worse than the black curtains of a couple years before, the coffin offended them. This was definitely not an Easter thing.

But isn’t it? Isn’t Easter about a tomb being empty? (I checked the coffin and it was definitely empty.) And wasn’t the original Easter a day full of perplexity? Think about it.

A group of women went to the tomb to care for the only halfway prepared body of Jesus, but it was gone. Gone! Tears were shed. Could it have been grave robbers? But dazzling angels appeared and spoke words that were stunning, causing the women to hurry away in fear.

John and Peter ran to the tomb. Peter entered in and found it empty, confirming what the women had told them. John believed, but to what extent? This is not what they had expected.

A pair of travelers were on their way to Emmaus. But they could hardly think straight, hearts shrouded with grief and minds clouded with the morning’s stories. It’s no wonder they didn’t notice that Jesus himself was their traveling companion. They certainly didn’t expect him to be on the road with them. And so they recognized him too late, only after he’d gone, causing them to hightail it back to Jerusalem, where they gathered with the eleven remaining disciples.

The confused stories must’ve been flying when Jesus appeared. We’re told that “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost” (Luke 24:37). It’s only when Jesus began to speak to them that their fright was turned into joy and amazement.

But even then, they were amazed. Even though Jesus had predicted his resurrection on numerous occasions, there was nothing predictable about the actual event.

From the unpredictability of the Easter event, I take Wendell Berry’s advice to do likewise: “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. … Practice resurrection.”

Instead of turning the resurrection of Jesus into the most predictable and boring story and celebration we’ve got, let it disturb you. Let it rock your boat so much that you fall overboard. Let it soak you like an unexpected Spring shower. Let it leap from the shadows and startle you. Let it do this to you by becoming as unpredictable as it is itself. Practice resurrection.

If we recover the unpredictability of Easter, we will discover its power all over again.