On being in a body

A few weeks ago I was given an unexpected gift. As a graduate of the school where I received my massage therapy training, I’m eligible for a free series of personal training sessions with their student trainers. Better still, it’s held at this crazy fancy, I-could-never-afford-it-otherwise gym. So I signed myself up. And I’ve been working with this super young, super southern, super kind young man who just LOVES what he’s doing. He gets so excited to explain how the muscle groups work, how this exercise works not only the obvious muscles, but also these less obvious muscles. He often gives me tons of information I don’t fully understand, but I nod my head knowingly and say “wow” and I mean it.

When I was last there he gave me a new exercise–a sort of reverse plank–and I got down on the floor and started this pose and said “how long do I hold this?” and he said “as long as you can.”  I had to explain to him that I need a goal. “As long as you can” translates to 5 seconds for me. But tell me I’ve got to go for 30 and I can probably do that too. I’m pretty good at psyching myself out, but, as it turns out, I’m also good at surprising myself (I made it 40 seconds, BTW). We were talking during my rest periods and got on the topic of the human body. And this kid, with his soft southern drawl and “yes ma’am” politeness looks at me and says “the human body is just…crazy amazing. I just can’t believe it. It’s so..”and he exhales this huge breath of air, smiling in both delight and admiration. The kid has awe about our human bodies–our imperfect, trying to figure them out, full of shame, full of grace, full of complexity bodies. And that too, of course, was a gift. Because awe can be contagious.

I write this from a church retreat in the Northeast Georgia mountains. I spent about a year and a half serving a parish not far from here, a wonderful sojourn that fed my heart and soul. So the air up here is balm for my lungs, the views are familiar to my eyes, and I find myself more at home and more at peace in this complicated old body of mine. Last night we gathered around a bonfire, sang every cliche campfire song you can imagine, made s’mores and prayed some ancient prayers. I loved it all, but mostly I loved watching and talking with these beautiful high school students, who took pictures of each other, laughed and sang, danced and played in their blissfully new, still being discovered bodies.

And I’m here, holding onto the constant truth that my father is in the final moments of his earthly pilgrimage. Watching cancer destroy his once strong body has me thinking a lot about these strange things we live in. They can give us such joy and pleasure and delight. And they can cause us to feel shame and powerless. We experience the world through them. We experience God through them. And God, at least in my tradition, experienced the world through something so strong and so frail.

When God kissed the ground in Bethlehem, when God put on human skin, when God danced on this earth, I hope God felt the fullness of this strange and holy mystery we call body. We tend to focus on the pain Jesus felt, but I wonder why we don’t tell the story of what it was like for Jesus to feel the cold water of the Jordan River, to taste the sweetness of the figs (before he cursed the tree, of course!),of Mary Magdalene rubbing his sore calf muscles after that long hike up Mount Tabor, of walking hand-in-hand as a boy with Joseph through the bumpy roads of the Galilee, of the way the bread his mother made tasted or the time his best friend made him laugh so hard he peed himself a little (that happens to men too, right?).

We who claim the Christian faith claim not only the divinity of God, but the humanity of God too. God made flesh. God made body. And yet we shy away from the complexity of the human part, the body part. I wonder if we’d have Ashley Madison scandals and televangelists who preach one thing and then are caught in shame-filled scandals if we were a little more comfortable with the complex and holy and deliciously real things that are our bodies. I don’t know. But I do know this: they are amazing, resilient, breakable, fixable, unique, adaptable, full-of-memory, transformable and graceful. They are holy. Wow.

Sea Turtles and Swimming Pools

Photo from a Trip Advisor review of Veranda Beach Club, Longboat Key. Photo by Jennie-A.
Photo from a Trip Advisor review of Veranda Beach Club, Longboat Key.

We’re spending the week at Hilton Head, dog sitting for some friends who have a wonderful home that once looked out to the ocean. New houses have since popped up–McIsland McMansions, that mostly serve as rental properties. It is striking how many swimming pools fill the yards, even with the ocean just steps away.

The first time we visited, in November of 2014, we were arriving well after dark and I was taken by the lack of light pollution even as we drove the highway of the island. No signs recognizable from the road–no Golden Arches or Green Mermaid Goddesses of Starbucks were visible. Even the small gas station signs, while lit, were darker than the ones that line my street. No blinding lights calling out into the night sky. Driving in, it becomes clear that you are entering a different space, sacred, if you will. The reason is the sea turtles.

Hilton Head is a nesting place for loggerhead sea turtles. An average of 150 nests are made here each season. And so the lights are dimmed, because artificial lights confuse the turtles. Artificial light is a threat to the safety of the turtles. The turtles will follow the light and lose their way, moving away from their natural habitat and getting lost in our human sprawl. The choice of an island to honor the sea turtle by reducing their lights, I remember thinking, is gracious. In our need to sell, promote and out-brand the other, this gentle lighting and making intentional turtle space feels like a small gift back to creation.

This morning we got up early, hoping to watch the sunrise (we were not early enough!). We made our way with the dog and the tennis ball to the beach. There we met up with two St. Bernard puppies (both of whom were twice as large as our fully grown charge) and their humans. We talked dogs and neighborhoods and then we stumbled upon the topic of the sea turtles.

A nest hatched last night. And at the same time, a bunch of people renting one of the new houses on the beach threw a party. Not knowing any better, I suppose, the house went to bed, with all the lights on. Through the night, the house lights shone out over the sands. The baby turtles made their way, not to their home in the ocean, but to the rental property, an icon of that over-built, over-indulged space of entitlement we humans seem so gifted at claiming. And the turtles tried to find water. Some found their way to the chlorinated pool and it’s powerful drain. A sole turtle made its way to the garage and found a puddle of water. When the rescuers came, the turtle was trying, with all its might, to swim in the puddle. The turtles remained strong, despite their being turned into the wrong direction. But the chlorine and the lack of water means that rescuers are doubtful that they will survive.

I’ve walked the beach these past days with the first lines of Genesis running through my head: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. I’ve thought about God the separating of the sea and the dry land. I’ve prayed the familiar (to me) prayer “at your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” I’ve thought about God creating all the creatures that dwell on the earth–the dolphins and the cardinals, the lizards and the gnats, the puppy-dogs and the humans.  And I’ve wondered about that other planet they’ve recently found, one someone bigger, and a bit older than ours, but otherwise remarkably similar. I wonder if there is trash in their oceans, and hungry children on one side and overfed children on the other. Today I wonder if there is safe space on that planet for sea turtles to nest.

I try to be a good steward of creation. My choice to return to a vegetarian diet is part of that. I recycle. I try to buy more of my clothes at the thrift store than new. But I fail. I use too much water. I waste food. I am thoughtless with my driving habits and gas consumption. I am part of the problem that faces the sea turtles. I am part of the destruction of Creation. But all is not lost.

We find our way back, one step at a time. I don’t know all the steps, but I suspect it begins with listening to the songs of creation, the birds that sing, the waves that lap, the dogs that bark, the humans that cry. And finding our place in the song.

The beauty of holiness


O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.–Psalm 96:9

We gathered in the nave, the worship space of the church. Our task was to create a skit, highlighting a favorite moment of our recent multi-parish youth mission trip. The usual hilarity ensued. Giggles and stories. Groupings–pairs and triplets–formed, subgroups hard at work on the task. Except for one young man, whom I knew, but not well.

He walked behind the altar, at first to take a closer look at a statue of Jesus. And then, standing at the priest’s place at the table, with only a little bit of trepidation, he began to chant the Eucharistic prayer. Or at least pieces of it were somewhat recognizable as an attempt at the Eucharistic prayer. People stopped, laughed (not unkindly), helped him out a little (the chorus of “and also with you” was  significant) and together they tried to remember what exactly those words were. A mix of prayers from Compline and random proper prefaces got thrown together as he stood in Orans position. I watched for awhile. While the others worked on their skit preparations, he continued, talking/praying/chanting ,half laughing, half praying behind the altar.

I watched for a minute longer and then went into the sacristy and pulled out the altar book, the book that has both the words and the musical settings for our prayers. Taking it and laying it on the altar, I stood just behind him, and then set myself in a matching Orans posture. “Like this” I said and then I began the song that is as familiar as my own skin. He followed, singing with me, not nervous until he suddenly remembered that I am actually a priest and this was my church. Confusion flooded his face for a moment, for surely he was breaking the rules standing here, reciting the priest’s words, standing in the priest’s place, and yet, the priest was standing with him.

One of the joys of Sunday morning, of presiding over the Eucharist, is watching the faces that are before me. My heart often thinks of P, a beautiful, long haired, lanky girl on the cusp of adulthood. One of my favorite memories of being part of P’s parish was watching her worship in the balcony where I could see her lips moving, in perfect cadence, to the words coming from my lips, together we would pray: “take, eat, this is my body.”

Some of my own earliest memories are just that–kneeling in the pew, watching the priest (his back was turned to us in those days), praying, barely above a whisper, those holy words etched so deeply on my heart “therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” along with the priest. It’s funny how words become so much a part of us. We pass them on, holy words, holy prayers, one generation to the next.

Tonight I gathered in the school room of the prison. Together about 35 of us made a lopsided circle. We prayed the ancient prayers, sang holy songs. As I lifted the cup of grape juice and said the familiar words of blessing, I heard C, our sacristan who also happens to be an inmate, whisper the prayer with me: “do this for the remembrance of me.” The beauty of it caught my breath for just a moment. And then I carried on.

I wonder what it is that makes something holy. Would any of it *be* holy without all the other? Without the prayers, it’s just a cup of juice and a cardboard cracker. Without the breath, priest and people, silent and aloud, it’s just words. But mix it all together and it becomes something wholly new–an invitation, a trust, a hope that God is moving and abiding and birthing new life into us even (or perhaps especially) in our everyday and ordinary. Holiness, I am more and more convinced, sneaks in when we least expect it, mingled into our life like cream into coffee. Not to be stored away, locked in the tabernacle or kept in secret, but waiting to be poured out, like precious oil upon the beard, upon us all.