Stumbling through Silence

I attempted to have a retreat day today.

I say attempted because nothing quite went as planned. It was my original plan to spend the day with the Benedictine sisters at the monastery a couple of zip codes over. That was actually my plan B; my original plan was to spend the weekend at St. Anselm’s abbey in downtown DC, but I’m broke and I didn’t want to be that guy who couldn’t pay the suggested donation. Plan B ended up not working out, as I woke up a full two hours after my alarm went off, then had to deal with a faulty tire on my car. By the time I ended up leaving the house it was already 11:00AM, and I had told the sisters I’d be there around 9:00.

After driving around aimlessly for some time attempting to get into an appropriate frame of mind (and largely failing), I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a Roman Catholic parish on a back road in rural Fairfax County. Even though the cornerstone pegged it as being built in 1990, the stone construction and rough-hewn, lichen-covered celtic cross at its pinnacle gave it an old world aura. I checked the website just to be sure it was open, and indeed it was, so I let myself into the church, rubbed a few drops of holy water on my forehead, and found a seat in a pew to begin the quiet day I was supposed to have started almost six hours ago.

And then I hit a wall.

Quiet days are a difficult discipline for me because they put me in close contact with the shadowy places in my own heart that largely wallow in self-doubt and self-loathing. Not only that, but “quiet time” was a staple of the civil religion of my evangelical past; if you didn’t have regular quiet time, you weren’t doing Christianity right. It became a major source of guilt–I would hear stories from peers about how “God met” them in their quiet time and apparently gave them some kind of divine revelation, or supernatural comfort, or some other such nonsense. But my quiet times always resulted in me either sitting with my thoughts, as I now was, or falling asleep. Some spiritual giant I was.

Okay, I thought to myself, time to let the Holy Spirit work. So I sat there for a few minutes trying to collect myself and enter into that mental “thin place” where the numinous is right there, breathing on you–but nothing happened. I sat for a few more minutes, waiting. Nothing. Slowly I let my eyes wander around the sanctuary, taking in the statues, the stonework, the flickering sanctuary lamp, all veiled in the grey-blue light of a cloudy sky wafting its way through a canopy of poplar and maple. You’re really bad at this. Your prayer life sucks. Are you sure you’re supposed to be a priest?

Being in the silence of that chapel today was difficult not only because  it was reminding me of my perceived spiritual ineptitude; it was also as if I had been listening to an old mix CD I found buried in my car, a mix of all my shadow-side recordings, all the ones reminding me of how much of a screw-up I am, how unqualified I am to be in ministry, how unloveable I am. When I can keep myself distracted, I do alright, but sitting in quiet puts that mix CD in the player once more. Those thoughts are painful. And here I was, in the midst of what was supposed to be holy time, and they were having free rein.

There came a point in the midst of this when I remembered that my therapist and I had been working on the idea of self-compassion. In that moment I let go of trying to silence the thoughts, and instead I let my gut be moved for myself.

Self-compassion is a strange feeling. The feeling you have when you see an injured animal, or a crying child, or a poor person begging for food–there’s a peculiar feeling right in the pit of your stomach that stops you in your tracks, as if your soul is lurching out of your gut towards that person or animal. Think about that feeling, then think about turning it in on yourself. It’s weird. And it’s holy.

In the midst of that chapel that’s exactly what I tried to do. I expected it to make the thoughts go away, but it didn’t. As I let myself feel compassion towards myself it was as if the volume was turned down on the thoughts and I could allow myself to listen more deeply to the silence of the holy space I was in. It wasn’t perfect, just a taste of silence. But it was enough. Enough to pray, enough to soak in the numinous that was right there, breathing over me. Enough to let the words of the Veni Creator come to fruition, just for an instant, to hear the Holy Spirit speaking for the Father once again: you’re my beloved.

Perhaps there will come a point when I can let my shadow-side tapes become part of my prayers. I know that even in the midst of my frustration with the whole practice of retreat that the Holy Spirit is praying through me and my thoughts with groans that I can neither hear nor understand, and that is comfort.

Terraces and Trajectories (or, the hazards of Facebook)

Earlier this afternoon I was absent-mindedly flipping through Facebook, as I am wont to do on lazy spring Sunday afternoons, and I saw a set of photos someone had posted of the beautiful planter garden that they had put together on their Washington DC terrace apartment with their impossibly handsome fiance. I flopped over on my borrowed bed and buried my face my borrowed duvet cover and let out a Tina Belcher-esque moan: he’s successful; I’m not.
Facebook has become something of a source of frustration for me in the last couple of weeks because it reminds me of the manifold ways in which my life has taken a different direction than many of those in my peer group. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is something that an increasing number of twenty-somethings are experiencing. I’m not sure where I expected to be as I approached my twenty-sixth birthday, but four months to the day away from it I’m fairly positive that living with my parents and scraping by with my overnight non-profit job and sleeping on a borrowed mattress was not it.
It used to be that I had dreams–plans, ambitions even. It’s not that I don’t have those dreams anymore, because I certainly do, and I still have a vocation and a path that I’m walking. But they’re vastly different from the dreams of the wide- and wild-eyed teenager who left home at seventeen years old to become a composer. For the first time–this is a big deal–I don’t feel like I’m running from anything (that’s an entire post on its own).

But having this trajectory is not an antidote to those feelings of, “could I have done better in a STEM field? Could I have done better if I had stayed and finished out my PhD? Could I have done better if I had made different decisions about my life?”
The answer to those questions, I think, isn’t a yes or a no. I could have done differently if I had gone to this school or taken that degree or done that internship–but ultimately living in the realm of possibilities and regrets is not going to help me find the satiety that I need in this present moment. Part and parcel of my current vocation is to be both mindful and thankful of the place I am in right now. Those things I find myself envious of are often things that I know would be toxic to my own vocation and identity. And so the cognitive distortion of he’s successful, I’m not, remains just that: a cognitive distortion, not grounded in reality at all.
And so my answer to those questions of, “could I be the one with a handsome fiance and a kickass apartment in Washington DC and a six-figure salary if I had just done things differently?” is “yes, at the cost of who I am in this moment.” I am not that person. And I accept the fact that I am envious of them. It’s okay.
Because I’m not that person, and I have a life unto which I’ve been called to live. And it’s a good life, successful even, because I have a roof over my head and food on my table, which is more than an uncomfortably large number of people have. Moreover I have a job, and a career trajectory, and the support of a loving network of family and friends across the country and the world who are holding me up and walking with me into my calling. The person that I am in this moment is precisely the person whom God needs me to be. And to live into the calling of God is success in its own right, not on the terms of Facebook.
(Even though I’d be able to throw some awesome dance parties on a terrace like that.)

Meaty Memory

Because I function as a chaplain to the residents at my workplace, I’m known to wear a clerical collar from time to time. It always seems to catch residents off guard the first time they see me in it–here is this linebacker of a man with spiky hair, spikes in his ears, and tattoos running down his arm in the garment of a religious professional. To be honest it still catches me off guard a bit when I see myself in the mirror with a plastic rectangle digging into my neck–when did I become this contradiction of life and brokenness?

The last time I came to work collared up, one of my residents asked me, “what does a pastor do?” Despite having been to seminary for four and a half years and writing page upon page of ordination paperwork, I was more or less at a loss for a succinct answer to her question. So I rattled off the usual things: pastors take care of people, they’re there to help people when needed, pray for people, preach about Jesus, and so forth. Seeing that my off-the-cuff answer was not satisfying my resident’s question, I thought about it a little bit harder, and this unexpectedly fell out of my mouth:

“A pastor is a person who helps people remember things.”

What the hell does that even mean? What’s interesting to me is that, for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had some concept of what a pastor does. My dad is a pastor, so naturally what I see him doing is what I understand pastoral ministry to be. And since I made this observation about the role of the pastor, I’ve been thinking through what I’ve seen him do, and what I’ve seen other pastors do across the entire spectrum of Christianity, and what I myself have been doing as I’ve grown into my vocation–it’s all been the heavy-duty work of remembrance.

The “remembrance” I’m speaking about here isn’t simply walking through significant events as a mental exercise–“remember that time when…”–but rather, a kind of participatory remembrance that refreshes and enfleshes the experience of a person’s identity as they live their life in community. It’s that kind of meaty memory, anamnesis (as the liturgy nerds say), that isn’t simply remembering that “this happened to me,” but rather, “this happened to me and it is shaping my soul.” It’s that kind of memory we’re digging into when we throw water at folks and ask them to remember a baptism that many have no ability to recall mentally as it happened when they were so young. And yet, we still call them to remember things lost to the fog of time! The depth of anamnesis is something that happens in the community psyche, not the intellect of the individual, and in that depth there is great power.

With water and oil and ash and bread and wine the pastor gives the people footholds of memory:
“You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.”
“The body and blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Even at the grave we make our song: ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!'”
As the community gathers around its members and sees its members scaling the wall of human experience using these footholds, the community itself becomes a witness to the collective, meaty memories that have formed its individual members.

Clinging to the mountainside on her own footholds of memory stands the pastor, from Sunday to Sunday and in the 167 intervening hours ever beckoning: “remember who you are and whose you are! You are Christ’s own!” And she offers the bread and wine once more, she prays once more, she offers another sandwich, writes another benevolence check, baptizes another baby, buries another beloved friend, and stuffs another bulletin. More footholds emerge, and as the community scales the wall they begin to shine brighter with the radiance of Christ’s likeness.

So, that’s what a pastor does. I think. I’m still learning. But with joy I remember the footholds of memory that have formed me more into Christ’s likeness–my baptism, the temple of my childhood, Eucharists and mountaintops, tears and despair, confessions and penances, my orders and my doubt. And I am finding my voice, so that from my place on the mountainside I can call out: remember!

Let God be Dead (for now)

“God, according to Luther, is found first on a cross, beaten and dead, not as a masochist but as a bearer of what is, a God who takes on our destiny of death in all its forms…God is found in the despair of the cross. God is found in our many deaths, bringing possibility out of nothingness.” – Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair
 
You have faced a lot of deaths this week, Soul. A combination of rejection, disappointment, and outright grief at the losses and lesions that have made this the Very Worst Holy Week Ever. And now this night God is dead.
 
It is okay for God to be dead. Yes, Soul,  there is an overblown Newsboys concert presently in theatres dressed up with interviews from the Duck Dynasty boys (bois?) that loudly proclaims God’s Not Dead! but in order to really call yourself Christian you have to meet the dead God. Have you met that God, Soul?
 
Can you look at God’s broken body, wracked with abuse and despair? Or is that too hard for you, Soul? Is our God only someone you understand when you are on the mountaintop, ignoring the piercing gaze of the monster of Death through the feeble veil of mass-marketed, glossy, high-octane saccharine joy? Or will you look at the dead God, who has entered into despair to destroy it from within?
 
It is comfort that God dies. Because in God’s death, God knows the despair that is winding its stitches through the sinews of your heart and body. God knows your loneliness, your brokenness, your sorrow unto death. Soul, can you enter into the passion of the despairing Christ, who despaired to rob the monster of death of its power? Can you look with awe on the one who gilt the trees with blossom and leaf, now himself pierced upon his very creation? The one for whom the earth shakes, wracked with sobs? It is here that God is lifted up and glorified in the flesh of the failed Messiah, the abandoned Teacher, hung on the tree and clothed in ragged, whispered promises of resurrection.
 
Soul, let yourself be crucified with God. Die with God that you may rise with God. In your darkness, in your wounds, in your ache and sehnsucht, there is God crucified, beaten, and dead, absorbing your despair as God undoes death from the inside. That is, after all, the only way to destroy the monster: from within. Do not rush the resurrection. Let God linger in the grave, sitting with you in your death. And when your death has been consumed, it will blossom forth in new life, Soul.
 
“In the tomb in body, in Hades in the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and seated at the right hand of the Father, you did circumscribe all things, oh Christ, yourself uncircumscribeable.”

Belief Escapes Me

Belief escapes me
despite the six-figure paper hanging on my wall
despite having mastered divinity
despite my theological pedigree
after twenty five years of a journey
towards truth and light
through clouds of tears
and crooned Hillsong
prom songs to Jesus and
accountability groups
three years at the school of
“eruditio et religio”
that left me gutted
on the altar of religion

I am no closer to enlightenment
than I was as an infant

Belief escapes me
despite new ways, new traditions
despite the muttered creed at mass
despite orders and hours
the cross drawn across my chest
where a heart that is more fear than faith
more anxiety than awe
beats through the service
afraid of what has passed
desperate to get to the one part
that makes sense

that part where we eat

because when we eat
the crunching of christ’s body in my mouth
for a split second
drowns out the people shouting
clearly
bible
says
word
sinner
homosexuals
and the warmth of his blood in my throat
melts the frozen paling
placed there by gatekeepers
and doctrine watchdogs

belief still escapes me
and i wish
that I could call myself anything but Christian
that I could simply be swallowed in the sea of nones
but my wild hope that at the end
Christ will still welcome me
despite loving other men
despite doctrinal impurity
despite failure to love my neighbor
and my unwillingness to see
the scintillating realness
of a world held together by love
stretched dyed and dead
is the one thing standing
between me and oblivion

I’m an awful christian
(if I even am a christian)
but I’ve got the wild hope
of a mouth-foaming
mass-praying
christ-eating
resurrection rebel

Real Food

It is Lent, and we draw closer to the cross.

I’m something of a rebel at heart—not because I seek to overthrow anything, but because at the core of my heart’s understanding of the way this world has turned out, it is already overthrown. There is something grossly amiss with the world, and I think it only appropriate that those who call themselves servants of a breathing, dying, rising God adopt a perspective of rebellion against the rule of death, not by denying it wholesale, covering it over in the platitudes of Mickey Mouse religion, or worse, constructing a simulated reality out of the duck-faced, over-filtered, symbols that float through Western society divorced from meaning.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently with Andrew Root’s book The Promise of Despair, the essential premise of which is that the darkness of death against which we rail is the very context in which we see the ultimate reality of what holds the universe together, the Crucified God, the One whose heart bleeds and dies over a world in thrall to death. The One whose death swallows up death forever.

One of my understandings of the sacrament of the Eucharist is that it is an affirmation of and participation in the overthrowal of the world by the death of Christ, the final defeat of the darkness that persists in those dark corners of the world. I harp on this at length but it is something worth harping upon because in the Eucharist we taste the crucified, dead God and welcome him into our bodies to raise us with him. The taste of dry bread and tawny port is the taste of death that’s been turned inside out–it’s a flavor that cries, “life!”

There is nothing more real than the Eucharistic meal, as far as I understand it. By that I mean there is nothing so closely connected with the founding and final order of things as a perfect love poured out into the most basic of human functions–breathing, eating, and drinking. But as basic as those functions are, there is something else that makes the Eucharist real: it acknowledges despair, that force which bakes and breaks us, presses and pours us. The liturgy of the Eucharist encompasses the whole of human experience.

Could it be that in consuming the bread and wine we become more real because of our participation in these symbols? I think so–and what a reality it is, a reality that is more real than the death-bent world around us, a reality in which victims and oppressors are reconciled to God and thereby to one another.

But there’s something to be said for the desire to continue living in deathly fantasy. As much as I know my reality, my destiny, is to be bound up and reconciled in the body of Christ to my wrongdoers and the ones whom I have wronged, there is yet a desire to allow the wall of hostility to linger just a little longer. That deathly pull makes me say, “no, I don’t want to dine with those people.”

If I am to accept the reality of my belovedness, I must accept that I will ultimately have to be reconciled to the people who pulled their World Vision sponsorships because of people like me. I will have to be reconciled to the single-issue voters and toxic pundits that continue to see folks like me as a blight on society, unworthy of the name “beloved.” I don’t want to embrace those people right now. I want to shield my heart from being ground further into a pulp, and so I resist reconciliation. In those moments I want the specter of death to keep me apart from those people.

Holding on to deathly fantasies may give me some sense of protection now, but as with everything, that protection is false; it too is burned away by the warmth of Real Food, along with everything else that Love destroys in the process of saving us from falsehood. But the good news is that our wounded memories will, in the presence of reality-shaping love, become a source for a wildly hopeful future in which my heart will be changed–and their hearts, too–so that at long last I can embrace my estranged brothers and sisters as Esau did Jacob.

And out of that wild fountain of hope comes this, a hope down in my bones: when at the last Death and Hell are swallowed up, hatred and bigotry will go with them, and we will finally live.

The Man God Loves

[Warning: Pulp Fiction language ahead! Also I know the title of this is “The Man God Loves” and I use that as this is a personal reflection from a cis-male perspective and it’s also a play on a song title. I don’t mean anything more than that.]

As I’m writing this Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of “The Man I Love” is playing on Spotify. In a bizarre way I somehow feel as though the lyrics could just as easily speak of “the God I Love,” especially the line I’ll do my best to make him stay.

I have trouble trusting God. I have trouble trusting in God’s goodness and his welcome, especially in a world that continues to be peppered with personages and prophets who pander to pedantic impieties and utilize the message of God to denigrate the humanity and realness of others.

I know that those people do not speak for God, and that my heart and life have already been spoken for by the God who suffers rejection and death for the sake of welcoming all into that God’s own divine demesne.

But sometimes the voices of those who cry “no!” to God’s children are louder than the dying voice of the God who cries “no!” to the pattern of suffering and death. The lie weasels into my thought processes: have I done something to drive God away? Am I still worthy of grace, despite all my darkness? And so I find myself doubting God, as though I cannot be found behind the nagging shadow of my own imagined unworthiness, listening for God’s dying whisper of tetelestai, listening for the rustle of linen in the resurrection tomb, listening for the footsteps of the myrrh bearers, and hoping that I too will find myself eating fish on the beach with the God I love. The voice inside me nags, “maybe I haven’t done my best to make him stay.”

I wonder if God ever sings “I’ll do my best to make him stay.” The reality is that God hasn’t gone anywhere; the issue at work here is my own human forgetfulness. This is why the Sacraments are so utterly important–we remember our baptism, we remember our participation in the death and resurrection, we remember the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we remember our forgiveness from sin, and we’re even set apart to help the world remember its belovedness in the other sacraments. The great grace is that I am spoken for whether or not I can hear the echoes of those realities in my mind’s ear. There’s nothing I can do to make God stay because God has never left, and will never leave. And the grace upon grace is that I can taste the realness of love in bread and wine, feel the embrace of the loving God in the arms of those whom I know love me, in their words, in their smiles and acts of service.

Even though the glow of those holy moments in which I knew God’s presence has faded, the grace of God is such that I can still see the glow of God’s presence in those people who bear God’s image. The light of God in these acts, in these glances, strikes me like purging flame, burning away the grime over my eyes and welcoming me once again into the light of God’s countenance.

And I am an image bearer of God, and what more, the final word has been spoken regarding me: beloved. And I’m willing to wager on a God whose arms are stretched far enough to embrace a world that has forgotten the God it loves. We are the world God loves, even though we’re probably going to screw it up on the way to making that love a reality for all people.

But praise be to a God who can’t get enough of us darling, forgetful fuck-ups, who joins us in the pit of despair and transforms that place of destruction into a fountain life and light and uncomfortable grace that demands we do something with it. And what’s even crazier is that God actually trusts us to bring the world back to life with him. A God who never leaves, and who does God’s damnedest to help us remember.

Beginner’s Mind

And so we reach the dusk of a stressful day of Facebook arguments, boundary violations, writing building use request letters, exploring possibilities, dreaming, aching, and spending time with friends. Though the day has been transformative in some ways, mind-bangingly frustrating in others, and ultimately the opposite of an “off” day as it was supposed to be, I have learned. And I have unlearned.

The interesting thing about my seminary education is that it robbed me of learning, scrubbing off my patina of erudition and the sores of “having all the answers”–that unique plague of Western Christendom. To be sure I learned information: verb conjugations, literary forms, pastoral skills, and so on–but putting that information into practice necessitates letting go of my grip on what I think the right answers are, being led from the “correctness” that glows like ugly orange industrial sodium lamps into the flaming sunlight that is “truth.” I no longer have all the answers. I have what I believe, sure, and I have the Christian tradition in my blood and my education as my means of framing my relationship with God, but the more I grow the more I see my own beliefs as being smudged reflections of Truth. Truth is not a parcel of information to be meted up; truth is a Person who draws us into his wild dance of creation and resurrection.

Living in the gritty waltz of grace is something that takes unlearning. It takes what the Zen masters call shoshen, that is, beginner’s mind–a mind free of preconceptions, of answers, and of self-assurance, and one that is radically open to the new learning that dancing in the great gracious rhythms of Christ will provide. And so I make my evening prayer tonight as I do every night: “let what mattered stick, let what didn’t matter fall away, and open my heart to the dance again at dawn.”

Guest Post: It’s Not Just, “I’m Beautiful”

Hey darlings! Today’s post is a guest post by one of my favorite people: Sarah. I had the good fortune to cross paths with Sarah and Lindsey on several different occasions in the great churning ether that is the Internet; first on Gay Christian Network, then via our mutual friend Heidi Weaver, who is the boss lady of LOVEboldly. Sarah and Lindsey and I finally met in person a couple of weeks ago over overpriced chocolates and vodka cranberries near Metro Center in downtown DC, and in person they exude every bit of grace and dignity that comes across in their writing. Sarah and Lindsey have a unique and beautiful calling as an LGBT couple who are living out their mutual calling of celibacy in a committed and covenanted relationship, which has drawn both praise and ire from all angles of the LGBT-Christian conversation–nevertheless, these two have borne the joys and challenges of accepting their callings with grace I only hope to emulate. Sarah and Lindsey blog about their story at A Queer Calling. Today’s post is by Sarah.

###

I always begin the Christology lecture in my freshman Intro to Theology course by performing a brief Google Images search for the term, “Jesus.” I do this as a means of segue into discussing how diverse our own mental images of Christ can be. You can probably imagine the variety of pictures my students see projected from the classroom desktop. We find traditional depictions of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sacred Heart, and the Pantocrator icon interspersed with modern depictions of Jesus laughing, playing soccer with children, or welcoming souls into heaven—and there are always a few irreverent images too (a smoking Jesus with a gun???). This exercise has never failed to produce insightful discussion, so I thought doing something similar in preparation for this guest post might relieve my writer’s block…and as it turns out, my first couple of search results for the phrase “body positivity” were scarily close to what I had supposed they would be: a photo of women with different body sizes proudly modeling underwear, and right next to it a set of “before and after” shots of a woman who had lost a significant amount of weight.

Daily, we receive conflicting messages about how we should view and treat our bodies. We hear from medical professionals, nutrition experts, and even the government about dangers associated with unhealthy food choices and larger body sizes. The diet and fitness industries take this message to another level, training us to believe that we’re fat, lazy, wastes of space unless we’re as toned as Jillian Michaels. But oppositely (some will disagree with me on this), we hear an equal abundance of “Love your body!” messages, especially from women’s organizations, the fat-positive movement, the eating disorder recovery community, and various nonprofits aimed at building self-esteem and healthy body image in young girls. We get both types of messages both in the media and in daily life. Within a single hour-long dinner, I’ve heard both, “You’re beautiful just as you are” and, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” from the same friend. It’s little wonder that many people find themselves perplexed about what “body positivity” even means. I’ve never considered myself particularly good-looking, but I certainly don’t see myself as unattractive, and I have many friends who would say the same about themselves. Does body positivity require being able to say, “I am beautiful and I love my body no matter its size”? Does it mean making “healthy” changes in order to adjust one’s body size or improve physical abilities? Or is it something else entirely?

Perhaps I’m not the best person to be discussing body positivity, but I feel that I have a certain degree of competence in this area just from lived experience. On my own blog, I’ve shared openly about my struggle with bulimia (link: http://aqueercalling.com/2014/02/27/encountering-the-mirror-of-erised/), and though I don’t see body dysmorphia as a cause of my eating disorder, in addressing the condition I’ve necessarily had to explore questions of body image. In the world of eating disorder treatment and recovery, it is assumed that a people dealing with these conditions have severe body image disturbances. In many (though not all) cases, this is true. One doesn’t spend more than an hour in a residential eating disorders facility without hearing, “I’m fat and ugly,” or “I hate my body.” That’s why anorexia and bulimia treatment programs usually involve a significant amount of activities designed to increase body positivity or at least get clients thinking about body-related beliefs. Seven years ago during one of my stints, I spent many a day drawing pictures of my body, evaluating magazine ads for the messages they send about acceptable body types, constructing body positivity collages, discussing the impact of Barbie dolls on self esteem, writing letters to my body, and so forth. A Christian treatment facility where I once received treatment actually had us searching the scriptures for positive body image messages, and therapy groups often ended up being informal proof-texting sessions. As a result I’ve never forgotten Psalm 139:14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Though I participated fully in treatment (while admittedly being a terrible patient at times), I don’t think any of those activities had even the most miniscule of impacts upon how I viewed my body at the time, or how I view myself now. Ultimately, I’ve come to see most of them as impractical efforts at putting a Band-Aid on a wound that requires far more than superficial healing. You might be stopping at this point to suggest that maybe these exercises just weren’t the best for my situation, or to remind me of how in the last paragraph, I admitted that body dysmorphia was not a factor contributing to my eating disorder. But the truth is, while I’ve never wanted to change my body in any serious way, I’ve never acquired the ideal sense of body image either. I don’t think too many people have, even most who claim absolute, unmarred love for their bodies…even therapists specializing in eating disorders. I’ve never met a person who hasn’t had a bad body image day at one time or another—whether it’s brought on by general insecurities about size, a clothes shopping excursion, a critical remark from mom, or a vague sense of, “I’m not feeling so confident this morning.” Such days are part of life, and there’s nothing that will make them go away permanently. There is no silver bullet for forcing a person to believe that he or she is “beautiful,” and even if there were, I’d not be convinced that it would bring about true “body positivity.”

As I see it, the presence of body positivity does not necessarily indicate the absence of occasional body negativity. Body positivity does not require thinking you’re beautiful—as the old adage says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing wrong with having a sense of neutrality about one’s body. Unlike body acceptance campaigns would like us to believe, “I look okay,” and “My body is alright,” are not dangerous words. They are not the same as, “I hate myself.” To me, body positivity means being able to accept the limitations of one’s body, whatever those may be. Not everyone can be thin, or even “normal” as far as weight goes. I’m still working on accepting that after years of damaging behaviors, my body is currently larger than it has ever been, and despite workouts and healthy eating, that’s probably not going to change much because my metabolism is so irregular. I believe that sometimes, body positivity can involve standing up for oneself when a medical professional uses one’s body size to assert, “If only you ate better and exercised more, you wouldn’t have the health problem you’re currently experiencing.” At the same time, body positivity can be expressed in seeking help and support, or listening to a doctor’s unpleasant-yet-true words of advice about living more healthily. It can mean deciding to alter one’s body for any number of reasons, or contentedly accepting one’s body for what it is despite external pressures to make changes. But most importantly, body positivity is accepting oneself as a beloved child of God, created in his image and likeness. It means approaching Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist with awe and wonder, treasuring the intimacy we experience with God as he enters our bodies and uses his own to bring us to wholeness.

Body Image and Eating Disorder Resources:

Something Fishy (link: http://www.something-fishy.org/)

Grace on the Moon (link: https://www.graceonthemoon.com/home.html)

Eating Disorder Hope (link: http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/)

ED Bites (link: http://edbites.com/)

About Face (link: http://www.about-face.org/)

The Body Positive (link: http://thebodypositive.org/)

Finding Balance (link: http://www.findingbalance.com/)

New ID (link: http://www.newid.org/)

Rock Recovery (link: http://rockrecoveryed.org/)

My Body Is Ready

Let’s talk about bodies. I was reflecting this weekend with a colleague of mine on this issue via Twitter; I stated to my friend that I wanted to focus my lenten discipline on honoring my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit this year. In that moment something struck me: the Christian story has at its core the salvation of humanity through work done in a human body, and the human bodies through which we spend our days are the means by which we work out our salvation.

And so I want to spend the next few weeks writing about my body. And your body. And all the bodies with and through which we touch, feel, weep, dance, ache, make love, and pray. Through all of this I want to keep in focus the idea that I stated above: that salvation is ultimately an embodied experience, and that our bodily movements through the dance of life are enfleshed theology–or rather, that we can read our bodies with an eye to the way God works with them and in them to bring about God’s demesne.

Body positivity is something that I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I grew up as a fat kid and, while childhood obesity is in some spheres a thing to be laughed at and treated as adorable and endearing (Chunk and Honey Boo Boo come to mind immediately), the reality is that for many kids the issue of body negativity is a spectre that rises at too young of an age. Yes, there are systemic issues that keep young bodies addicted to processed sugar and fat, extreme portion sizes, and a sedentary life. I look back on my own childhood and realize that I would have smacked myself had I known what I was doing to my body.

But the reality is that my body is what I have made it, imperfections and all. And I am all for taking care of myself by the time-tested means of eating right and exercising, and to be sure this is self care that we can and should all be engaging in. However, the issue is that those of us who have subpar bodies are told that our bodies are subpar by a culture that idealizes one particular type of body with some bizarre narrative that suggests that we can have a different body. Even if I did eat flawlessly and exercise every day, I will never have the body of Ryan Reynolds because I am not Ryan Reynolds. I am Nate Craddock, and the only body I will ever have–regardless of its composition–is that of Nate Craddock. We can change our body composition but we cannot change our body, because we have been given this one incredible gift through which to experience the wonders of creation.

Furthermore, when we begin to work on our bodies, we subtly begin to treat our bodies as our enemies–this is especially prevalent in the gay male culture with which I’m familiar, but I’m aware of this issue across social distinctions. We seem to dissociate our idealized future bodies, the bodies which those so inclined among us can craft after a long season of hard work and perseverance, from the bodies in which we must do that hard work–almost as if we get to turn our old body in for a new one when we’ve worked hard enough. And we fight with our present body, continually beating it down and treating it with disdain, when in reality it is this same body that we are cultivating. When we run into the difficulties of living an enfleshed existence as we work on getting healthy (and the struggle is real, believe you me), we begin to blame our bodies for their own inefficiencies.

Body positivity doesn’t mean baptizing unhealthy lifestyle habits and dietary choices as good, because mistreating our bodies by such means seems antithetical treating the temple of the Spirit with its requisite dignity. For me, body positivity means loving the body I have in this present moment. As I sit on my couch writing this I notice everything I hate about my body–my chest, my knock knees, my gut. But I also realize I am using this body with all its imperfections to process and to write about itself, and I accept the body that I have as a beautiful creation, one which can be disciplined and changed through hard work and attention but nevertheless the one body in which my soul will ever dwell.

Are there things I would change about it given the opportunity? Absolutely. But before I can begin to change anything about it in good conscience I must first recognize that my body as it is in this moment is a holy icon of the presence of God, a God who exists not in the future or the past but in the present moment expanded to eternity. Because this flesh is the flesh through which I have been given the opportunity to work out my salvation; this body is what was baptized, this body is what consumes the Mysteries, this body is what will bless and pray and weep and dance, and this body is what will be raised on the eighth day.

###

Postscript: I admit that I am writing from a cis-male perspective, and I know that my experience is not going to be the same as the experiences of my trans and genderqueer friends. For those who don’t share my experience, I want to know: what does body positivity mean for you?