ALL THAT HE HAD MADE (all) was very good.
These are not complicated words, and yet for many centuries, it seems, we have failed to receive them. Cautioned by New Testament exhortations, we’ve assumed the Genesis writer’s generosity and inclusion of every part of creation to be poetic device, quietly maintaining that our harsh assessment of “the flesh” is a right and godly understanding of the way things really are. Fueled by Paul’s rigorous insistence that we fight to keep our bodies in check, we have adopted, not a celebration of flesh and bone, but a suspicion and disdain for these barely tolerable shells we live within.
“Please, no,” these authors urge us. “Please, no.” In two quite different approaches, Tara Owens and Jean Janzen invite us to re-orient ourselves toward our ordinary and “lowly” flesh, finding therein knowledge of The Holy.
Owens takes a scholarly approach, carefully spelling out for us the history of how we have come to the twisted conclusion that our bodies are to be, for lack of a kinder word, despised. Drawing on her experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse, religious misinterpretations of New Testament cautions, and an overly enthusiastic evangelical response to fear of sin and suspicion of pleasure, she untangles how we got here and offers us a new approach.
What if we expected to hear God in our very beings, just as we sense His voice in other parts of creation? What if we asked Him if He is communicating to us in our tense jaw, our aching stomach, before we rush to cover these symptoms with a battery of medications? Without over-spiritualizing every symptom we might have, Owens honors the One Who Made Us by suggesting that we listen for Him in our sinews, bones and muscles, just as we might encounter revelation about Him as we watch a tremendous storm rolling in. We understand that God’s voice is heard through creation. Now let us open our ears to the part of creation that makes up the vessels of who we are.
But it’s not easy. Our fear of physical bodies is strong and it keeps us from knowing God in the fullness of what He has made: “Unfortunately, . . . we’ve cut ourselves off from the life of God in our bodies. We can’t hear God’s whispers through our physical senses because coming near the messages of our fingers, our eyes, our lips is much too risky.” Owens walks us through and then away from these (sometimes well founded) fears and encourages a new and healthy freedom that benefits not just each of us as individuals: “The larger whole needs me to be whole in order for the entire body to function, to be complete and healthy. The body of Christ needs me to be integrated with my body so that we may experience redemption together, not just as individuals but as a people, a colony of heaven here on earth.”
As we heal in our understanding of our own bodies, the body of Christ is also made whole. Our healing is not just for ourselves. A right relationship with our bodies brings blessing to the corporate body, the Corpus Christi we are inherently woven into.
Jean Janzen, in her slim volume of light but weighty poems, lifts and honors our physicality as messenger of the sacred with the subtler voice of an artist of words. In her poem “Psalm 91,” the hushed and tender scenes of little girls solemnly rocking stiff plastic dolls to chanted Old Testament blessings—blessings they’d heard their preacher father reciting over their own selves—connect the internalization of belief to an outworking in physical play. With what I imagine to be a kind but wry voice, “Three for the Body” points to the (obvious) need for physical ears to hear the divine message:
Likewise, in “Bullheads in Minnesota,” her father’s reverent movements as he simply picks the bones from a fish reveal holiness in our eating, the sacredness of receiving provision for our needs:
one flaky chunk after another with
his fork, gently removing the delicate
pieces of spine with his fingers,
and laying them around the edge
of his plate, leaving a halo of bones.
In plain words that, like the faintly sweet taste of salt on my lip after a warm evening walk, leave something earthy behind, truths that are far from only earthy are revealed: “Love is rooted in risk, our thirst / for the other rising like new grass / easily trampled” (“Playing Bach’s Three-Part Invention #9”). Our desires are insistent, natural and fragile. And good! “The groan, the sound / of ecstasy when our deepest hunger / finds a feast, and we eat” (“Vulture Sculpture”).
Our bodily cravings carry the soul’s most intimate longing for connection. The two appetites are joined in purpose, even though it would appear that one is carnal and the other is spiritual. These hungers do not reveal opposing truths. The fibers of our beings are bearers of glory. As we learn to pay attention to the stuff we’re made of, we will find our attention drawn to the One who knit us in our mothers’ wombs. In this world of massively contorted messages about the value and purpose of our physical selves, I welcome the voices of both Owens and Janzen. There is comfort and relief in their reverent treatment of flesh and bones.
Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone, by Tara Owens (IVP Books, 2015)
What the Body Knows, by Jean Janzen (DreamSeeker Books, 2015)
Lisa Repko Borden loves the music of Jackson Browne, the Psalms and David, and the writing of A. A. Milne. She has lived most of her life outside the United States and is currently settled in Tanzania, her sixth country of residence. With thirty years in Africa, her writing is shaped by creation, faith, and nearly three decades of parenthood. Her book, Approaching God, speaks of intimacy with God as she ponders God as Friend, Father, Mother, Artist, Healer, and Guide. Lisa dances in the kitchen, and is a little bit crazy about her husband, their four grown children, two daughters-in-law, and one ridiculously cute grandson. Lisa believes that poetry is the best and highest form of language.
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