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.