Rector’s Blog

“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.




Reading This Week

I am working through two fascinating books this week. The authors were long time friends. One is writing from a more psychological/personal perspective.  The other from a sociological/historical/literary perspective.  I highly recommend both.  The Sibling Society was written in 1996. Amazing prophetic foresight.  He saw it all coming.

Click on the titles below for Amazon links if interested it a closer look:

The Sibling Society

Growing Yourself Back Up

Image result for sibling society       Image result for growing yourself up


Is Bach Better Than Lady Gaga?

I’m a great fan of Sir Roger Scruton who has devoted a large part of his attention as a philosopher to the study of beauty, or, more technically, aesthetics.  He himself is a composer with several operas to his name, as well as being an accomplished pianist/organist.  Here is a link to one of his latest books on music.  His interest also extends to architecture and environmental sanity.

And if you want to read something of his that is quite accessible and helpful, here is a good place to start.

See what you think of this little clip on Lady Gaga.


And, here is his BBC Documentary on Beauty

And this…

And this on desecration

Welcome Clarification

Have you ever been accused of “legalism?” Rollin Grams, who led us in our Christ and Culture Conference 2017, has written a very important article that will help you understand the meaning of the term, biblically.  Click here.

Rollin clears up some common misunderstandings about Jesus’ real “beef” with the Pharisees, and sheds important light on what is going on in the mainline denominations regarding human sexuality.  This is really worth your time to read and understand.

The Reality of Pain

Rene Descartes’ simple statement, “I think, therefore I am,” shaped philosophical dialog from his time forward.  It is possible — logically — to question the existence of everything, and philosophers seem to enjoy doing it.  Descartes proposed that the act of rationality required for doubting proves the existence of the doubter.  The undeniability of the doubt provides a basis from which to infer the reality of the world, and a foundation for truth itself.

I’m sure not many of us have felt a need to prove our existence or that we or the world itself are real, but the question does come up in popular media.  Are we just dreaming?  Or, are we being dreamed?  Are we delusional, insane, hallucinating? Can we count on our sense perceptions? What is the difference between a “real” human being and an android?  Will the advance of artificial intelligence force us to rethink reason?

Early in my graduate studies I got into an intense, prolonged debate with a fellow student, an atheist.  When it seemed I had him on the ropes he did something I was completely unprepared for.  He shrugged and said, “Well, reason is just the result of cultural conditioning.  You have your rationality, I have mine.”  I said, “What about math? 2+2=4?”  He laughed.  “Math is culturally relative too.”

That was my first encounter with post-modernism, though I did not even know the term.  Now, it is the water we swim in.

The big questions are still there: What is true? What is real? How can you know? But there is no more confidence that we can find the answers with our senses and our minds.  All we have now is consensus, the way most people see things, or the way the most influential people see things.  In the absence of truth there is just perspective, and the power to enforce it.

But there is one thing that we can’t so easily dismiss.  Pain.  We can tell ourselves that it is not real, that it is an illusion, just like everything else.  But when they are really hurting that does not help most people.  Try telling a yourself a toothache or a kidney stone or a bad case of epididymitis is an illusion.

Our bodies can be pretty insistent and they may be our salvation.

It is almost impossible to deny the reality of pain, partly because it is impossible to do that kind of philosophical gymnastics when your body is really hurting.  That part of the brain just doesn’t work except under fairly congenial physical circumstances.  When truth hurts it is hard to deny, even if we don’t believe in it.

The late Dallas Willard, former chair of the philosophy department at USC, and fervent Christian, used to quip: “Truth is what you run into when you are wrong.” And it is often a painful encounter, as when you stub your toe on the coffee table in the dark on your way to the kitchen.  The existence of the coffee table was no longer theoretical.  There are true and false answers to the question, “Where is the coffee table?” And there are real consequences when our “perspective” about its location is wrong.

Trivial mistakes like the location of the coffee table are addressed through a very short feedback loop.  The information is transmitted from foot to brain and back to foot in nanoseconds.  The same thing happens with the finger on the hot stove.  Thanks to our lightning fast reflexes we get away with a blister instead of charred flesh.

What about the other things we get wrong, things that really matter? 

Now that I am well past mid-life I wish the more important things in life had shorter feedback loops. We can be wrong for a long, long time and do lots of damage to ourselves and others, and not know it for 30 years, too late for any correction to make much of a difference.  I guess this is the job of the conscience, but mine is not as loud as I might have wished.  Why can’t it be as unignorable as my little toe?!

If you are wrong about something, how soon do you want to know it?  How will you feel about someone who helps you realize it?  We know the rational answers, but there is another factor, isn’t there?  The painful consequences of being wrong are usually in the distance.  The pain of admitting we are wrong is all too present. Wounded pride hurts right now. And then there is the pain of making changes.

Missionary physician, Paul Brand, spent the bulk of his career working with leprosy patients in India.  Leprosy is primarily a neurological disorder.  Lepers lose feeling in their hands and feet.  They hurt themselves without knowing it.  Rats can chew their toes in the night without waking them up.  Cuts and scrapes accumulate without the constant minute feedback we rely on to coordinate our movements.  The sores and infections and tissue degradation we associate with leprosy come from the absence of pain.

The title of Dr. Brand’s book says it all.  “Pain: The Gift that Nobody Wants.”  We seldom regard pain as a gift, but without it no animal can survive.

Pain is a universal human experience.  Philosophies and religions vary widely.  Same with temperament and intelligence and culture.  But we all feel pain, physically and emotionally and spiritually.  And we all hurt in remarkably similar ways.  We are vulnerable creatures in a dangerous world.  And we are creatures with deep longings that this world cannot fully satisfy.  The fact that it sometimes comes close to satisfying them only makes it worse.

For C.S. Lewis this reality served as a pointer to God.  If human beings have longings that this world cannot fulfil it may be that we were meant for another world, ultimately.  Here we thirst, and there is water, we hunger, and there is food.  But what of the longings of the heart, that undeniable sense that there has to something more than this, even when on the surface it seems that every need has been met?  Such desires are invitations to lift our eyes above the horizon.  And to question those who would tell us that we are just a bundle of random molecules.

Descartes was convincing in his day.  But pain may in fact be the ultimate proof of our existence.  “I hurt, therefore I am.”  I desire so much it hurts, therefore I am.”  God has made us for a kind of life that can be only partially realized here on earth.  And pain tells us that this earth is not exactly as it should be.  Something has gone wrong.  Both pains are invitations.

Of course, past a certain point of intensity such attempts to make sense of pain fall short.  Lewis found this so in his bereavement over his wife’s death. It overwhelmed even his formidable rational capacities and he was undone. He wrote about it honestly, and some think he may have lost his faith at least for a while.

No answer to the problem of pain even approaches adequacy that does not include what we are promised in Scripture: a new Heaven and new Earth, where all things are put right and every tear is wiped away, where every pain becomes a distant fading memory, if that, and all is caught up in a quality of life and joy and fulfilment that goes beyond our imaginations.

In the meantime we hold on, and we experience pain and longings, and we try to learn from them. Hopefully we turn toward God in the midst of them, and not away.  It’s better for us if we do. But it is OK to ask questions, like Job.  In fact that may be the most important thing we can do.

I will never forget Dr. Dennis Kinlaw’s statement at the memorial service for my brother, who died at age 25 under seemingly meaningless circumstances.  He said, “God, in His infinite mercy, said, ‘I will make man’s life painful and enigmatic enough that he will never be able to escape the question why? and is there something I might have missed?'”

This could seem harsh. Most of us legitimately struggle with the idea of a God who allows pain.  But what would become of us if our existence in a world that has turned its back on its Creator were not painful?  Like lepers, what damage might we do to ourselves and to others?

When pain does drive us to ask what we might be missing, and we stop to listen, there is often a still, small voice that answers, saying: “You are on the wrong track.”  There is often an invitation to change course, to reorient yourself, to “Come unto me.”

But sometimes all we get is the reminder that, for now, we too are part of something that has gone badly wrong, and we are not exempt from the wrongness.  We get an inkling that the arc of God’s redemption extends beyond the horizon of our life-times, and the limits of our imagination.  And then we add our puzzled tears to the groaning of creation (Rom 8:19-23) in hopeful anticipation of the Day when all things are made Right and New.