“If a Body meets a Body…”

You may recognize this phrase from Robert Burns’ bawdy poem put to music many times since.

To identify a person as a “body” is not unfamiliar, at least in some regional dialects.  For example, look at how Mark Twain describes the wisdom Tom Sawyer gained through selling whitewash “privileges” to his mates:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

In Sierra Leone the standard greeting is: “Aw di bodi?”  Response: “Di bodi fayn”.  Do you need translation?  “How’s the body?” “The body is fine.”

What would happen if we tried saying something like that here in Kentucky?  “How’s your body today?”  You might get slapped, or written up for sexual harassment.  We aren’t that comfortable with our bodies anymore.  Now the body is mostly associated with sex or abuse.  We are nervous about our bodies and everyone else’s.

Of course there is more to us than our bodies.  Sometimes we refer to human beings as “souls,” often when counting casualties. When we say, “The ship went down with a loss of 500 souls” we affirm the eternal value of the lost.  But we build life boats for bodies. Our souls, whatever they may be, and all of those other capacities that make us human, reside in our bodies.  Only in and through our bodies can we access them and make them known.

One of the things I found so refreshing about life in Kenya was its “physicality.”  Life is lived much more happily and easily in the body.  People touch each other.  Hands are shaken and held, cheeks are kissed. Buses are overloaded. There is a unique consolation of  shared humanity when twenty-five bodies get to town pressed together in a twelve-passenger mini-van.

I’ve told you before of my cognitive dissonance looking out the window of my seminary classroom, full of attentive note-takers. I wondered if what we were doing in there would make any difference in the life of the laborer, working–with his body–on the new classroom building next door, for two dollars a day. How would the words coming out of my body ever become a blessing to his body? I’m sure they never did.

That question is not geographically restricted. It haunts me still.  I’m in the idea and word business.  I preach, I teach, I write.  But what difference does it all make to anybody’s body?

In the West generally, and particularly the Protestant, post-Enlightenment West, we place the highest value on ideas. We believe our eternal destiny hangs on a few basic beliefs. We call this faith. Under no circumstances can it be contaminated with “works.” Could this abstraction account for the diminishing impact of Christianity?

Ponder with me the proposition that things only really matter to us when they affect our bodies.  Think for example of the words, “I love you.”  If those words do not get translated into something physical they remain only words.  Do those words and the sentiment behind them make any difference in how your body treats my body?  What your body does for, or to, my body?  Or refrains from doing to my body?

We live in an increasingly disembodied world.  We communicate by phone, text, email.  We don’t touch each other very much.  We dare not! We don’t visit each other’s houses, eat each other’s food.  Communication ecologists have observed that for every advance in technology we have paid a price in community.  Church is disembodied.  Rock-star preachers are projected on screens to satellite campuses full of strangers.

Our bodies are not doing too well these days, in spite of a gym in every strip mall.  Our marriages aren’t doing too well either.  Our sexuality is not getting any saner.  There is a concerted effort to separate our identity from our bodies.  Anatomy is irrelevant.  You are what you think you are.  This delusion will take care of itself sooner or later.

Isn’t it fascinating how enthralled we are with visions of AI and becoming immortal by downloading “ourselves” to a computer?  Really?  Now isn’t that a comfort?!  All my thoughts and ideas living on forever in the cloud!  If that’s all there is to me, it ain’t worth preserving.

I am only just beginning to think about this, but I believe it is a trail worth exploring.  And it has Scriptural warrant.  God the Father sent God the Son in the flesh.  Then God the Son told His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.”  I take that to mean that we have essentially the same job-description as Jesus–to make the Word flesh, to embody it and to communicate it in such a way that it makes a difference to other bodies.

As a preacher this ups the ante for me considerably.  It is not enough to come up with a couple of application points at the end of the sermon.  I have to ask myself what difference will this teaching make in my body, and how I treat the bodies of others? And how can we as a church embody it in a way that will touch other people’s bodies for the better?

I feel myself being driven to a radical conclusion: If an idea doesn’t change the body it is irrelevant.  What do you think?

“But the life of the mind is essential to our humanity.”   “Ideas have consequences.” Yes. But where are those consequences ultimately experienced and felt?  If not in our physical existence, then where, and how consequential will they be?

Of course there is mental, emotional and spiritual torment, but we experience these things in our bodies too.  And the best, perhaps the only way to find lasting relief is through embodied encounter with love and belonging. Much of our intellectual anguish is relational and physical in its origin. And the cure must be experienced in our bodies in communion with other bodies.  There may be exceptions, I know, but when God looked at the wreckage of humanity, He sent a Body, not an idea.

What about music, poetry or great art?  What about characters in a novel or play or parable?  While these have no bodily existence they still “touch” us.  From abstractions in word, color, tone, harmony and rhythm our imaginations create experiences often more powerful than flesh and blood encounters, in the same way a dream can leave you trembling in sweat or tears.  True artists touch that unique human capacity through which, without physical contact, they make real bodily impact, transcending space and time.  Most of us ordinary mortals will simply be characters in our own little plays, in our own little bodies. That’s plenty to keep us busy, and more than enough to be accountable for.

One of the core Christian beliefs is “the resurrection of the body.”  We don’t know the exact sequence or timing of events after death, but scripture is clear, we will spend eternity, not as spirits or souls, but as bodies, glorious bodies, much better than the ones we have now, but definitely bodies.

Can you begin to think of your body as the primary expression of your faith?  What about other peoples’ bodies?  What are they to you?

I believe this invites us to rethink our understanding of the senses.  Touch is just one of them — what we do with our hands, how we experience physical proximity, “personal space.”  How do we look at each other, what messages do we send with our eyes and our faces, what is our tone of voice, how well do we listen?

What about smell?  Does it bother you to think about that?  It’s part of who we are. When online education found its way to our seminary in Kenya I told them I did not want to participate.  I said that my students and I needed to be able to smell each other if we were really to communicate.  They thought I was goofy.  Maybe I am.  But no biologist (or perfumier) would say that olfactory information is irrelevant to human communication.  We are mammals.

As Anglican mammals we have some advantage over other traditions.  We are pretty physical.  We worship with our bodies.  We may have some remnant of regard for our bodies from our Celtic ancestry that our more “enlightened” European cousins are missing.  But we have a long way to go to recover a fully embodied faith and worship.

There is a line from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s wedding vows that would make a school boy smirk today.  The man takes his bride’s hand in his and looks into her eyes.  His breath vibrates his vocal chords, his tongue and lips shape the sounds, and her eardrums resonate:

With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I’ll leave it to you to ponder all that this might mean.  I suspect most women would have no objection to being on the receiving end of that experience.  How would our lives be different if such vows were still made and kept?

We are all worshiping with our bodies already.  Do we know what/who? When Bob Dylan wrote, “you gotta serve somebody,” I believe he was asking the same thing.

I’ve been thinking about what I do with my body. What has my body been doing today?  If there had been a camera on me I assure you watching the film would be right up there with watching paint dry.  My body is nine hours older than it was when I came into the office.  What difference will the time I spent at my desk and my computer make to anyone else’s body?

I was going to say this is a haunting question.  And it is.  But it is also exciting.  This could be the beginning of a wonderful new adventure.




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