Ministry, punctuated?

This is the text of a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 4:1-16.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

That joke illustrates what I think is the key problem with our reading from the epistle today; because in fact, ancient Greek had no punctuation marks, and therefore when we translate it into English, decisions about where to put the commas are a judgement call on the part of the team of translators. And sometimes, a comma makes a big difference to the meaning.

Here’s the sentence where it happens in today’s reading. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

The way that it’s set out in the translation we usually use, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” is one clause, and as such it reads as if the work of ministry belongs to each and every one of us, and the job of those with particular leadership and teaching roles is to equip those around them. But it could be written with a comma after “to equip the saints,” so that it would read as if the work of ministry belongs to those with leadership and teaching roles, and the rest of the saints are more passive recipients of that ministry. Many, many people – consciously or unconsciously – read and hear this passage as if that comma is there, and as if the work of ministry belongs to a specialized elite within the church.

But I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we should read it with an extra comma. I think the clear picture of the life and functioning of the church community emerging from the diverse New Testament documents is one in which ministry belongs to the whole community; to each of you as well as to me, and to all of us working together as a team.

In 1 Corinthians Paul wrote that “each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” There he was commenting on marriage and singleness, as each contribute to the life of the church in different and valuable ways. But the principle holds more broadly than whether or not you share your life intimately with someone else. Peter wrote similarly in his first epistle; “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”

Each person within the community receives at least one gift for the benefit of his or her fellows. But not all have the same gift. Paul insists that gifts were granted to individuals not primarily for their own enjoyment or ego gratification but rather for the edification, or building up, of the community. The basic principle that Paul lays down for the conduct of the church (which means much more than the conduct of gatherings for worship) is that “all things should be done for edification.” That’s the litmus test that should be applied to whether or not something is genuinely the work of ministry, no matter who does it.

So the lists of gifts – whether this one which mentions apostles, prophets and so on or the other lists sprinkled throughout the New Testament – are meant to be open-ended. They don’t exhaust the possibilities for spoken and practical ministry within the community. Any edifying contribution of a consistent nature from any member of the community would fall within the category of “gift” as Paul understood it.

And this points to the reality that ministry – edification of one another – can take place in a number of different, though ultimately complementary, ways. This becomes apparent when the various aspects of community life served by the gifts are identified.

Some gifts are primarily directed towards the community’s growth of understanding of God, the community itself, outsiders, the world. This intellectual aspect of the community’s life is particularly served through the exercise of prophecy, teaching, exhortation, discernment of spirits, and interpretation, though all of these also involve personal conviction and practical action, not just intellectual appreciation. Knowledge is as much about doing as thinking, as much commitment as reflection.

Some gifts are primarily directed towards the emotional wellbeing of the community and its group dynamics; that is, the integrity and harmony of the group and of its members. Important in this regard are the gifts that have a pastoral orientation, for example, practical help, acts of mercy, and pastoring itself. As these gifts are exercised, the psychological needs of the members are met and the social cohesion of the group sustained.

Some gifts are primarily directed towards the physical welfare of the community. The rendering of financial assistance, and gifts of hospitality, and administration. The body of Christ, or the gathering of the church, is not merely a communication of hearts, minds or souls but a fellowship of persons physically in contact with each other as well.

Lest this sound like a thinly disguised plea for more people to fill various rosters, let me give you a practical example. One of the very early church fathers was concerned about the phenomenon of very rich people in his flock, and how their wealth affected the life of the church and its patterns of contribution from everyone. The answer he came up with was that wealthy Christians should be prepared to give of their money to support poor ones; but in return the poor Christians should give of their time in praying for, and in sharing their wisdom and understanding with, the wealthy Christians. And he saw the ministry of the poor Christians in that partnership as by far the more important of the two!

So here’s my challenge to you. Have you ever asked yourself what your gifts are? Have you ever reflected on what God has given you, uniquely, to contribute to the life of this place? What steps have you taken to make use of those gifts? Is it time to revisit those questions?

You see, the thing about ministry is that the vicar and I can’t do it all by ourselves in this place; not even surrounded by other capable people in particular roles like the director of music and the parish administrator. The ministry of this parish will only be all that it can be when we each play our part. That’s what it’s going to take, says Paul, to come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. And that’s the goal, that’s what we’re meant to be aiming for.

So I leave that with you for something to think and pray about.

The Lord be with you.

Free at last?

Yesterday in the parish we held a workshop on “mental health unwrapped,” which I hoped would allow us as a community to begin to be more honest about mental health issues in the church, and think about how we might address them.  (As an aside, let me just plug the excellent work being done by the Luke14 initiative in facilitating these workshops; they provided the workshop to us at no cost except the materials we were given to keep).

A very striking part of their presentation was to show us some artwork done by a Jenny Nicholls, Christian woman with mental illnesses, in which she had tried to depict and share something of her experiences.  I’ve included three of her pictures in this post; I wonder what you make of them?

free+at+last

inside+the+head

justice

Boundaries

This is the text of a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is Mark 6:14-29.

Edited to add: as a special bonus, if you’ve been wondering what my voice sounds like, for the first time I can offer you a recording of this sermon, made available on YouTube, here.

Then she began, on that well-polished floor,
Whose stones seemed taking radiance more and more
From steps too bright to see,
A certain measure that was like some spell
Of winding magic, wherein heaven and hell
Were joined to lull men’s souls eternally
In some mid ecstasy:…
In some fair trance through which the soul possest
Love, ecstasy, and rest.*

Well, that is something of an echo of Friday night’s parish dinner; a few lines of Irish poetry, but in this case relevant to our gospel reading for today. In it – it’s a much longer poem, I just gave you a small taste – the author, Arthur O’Shaughnessy, describes the dance by the daughter of Herodias, and its effect on those who watched it.

The scene – the corrupt king, the beautiful girl, the gathered guests – has inspired many interpretations in the centuries since Mark recorded it, but I particularly liked this one for the way it describes “magic, wherein heaven and hell were joined to lull men’s souls.” Heaven and hell can’t be joined, it would be a violation of their very nature for that to happen; and in expressing it this way, it seems to me that O’Shaughnessy caught something important about what was happening here; the way that boundaries which should have been there, were either not there at all, or were warped in all sorts of unhealthy ways.

You see, it strikes me that Herod got himself backed into the corner of having to execute John in order to save face as the end result of a series of events in which he totally failed to enforce healthy boundaries. Think about it; he married a woman he was not free to marry; he had no idea how to relate to John as a prophet, and had to somehow find his way through the mixed feelings of fearing John, wanting to protect him, being perplexed by him, liking to listen to him, which led to him having John in prison; he had no idea how to communicate about any of this or build a united approach to John with his wife; and as for his relationship with his stepdaughter, well, it’s hard to say much with certainty, but it was déclassé, to say the least, for him to use her in an attempt to build up his status in the eyes of his guests; he made a rash oath, why, we might guess, in order to impress her, to try to buy her affection? And when she came back with a totally outrageous and inappropriate request, Herod did not seem able to say “No,” and tell her to ask for a new pony or something else instead. Boundaries? He had no idea.

Now, I don’t really have time in a sermon to unpack the idea of boundaries, with its many areas of application in depth; I’ll just have to commend to you the idea that it’s one worth reading and reflecting on. So I want to make some brief remarks about the theology of boundaries, before reflecting on what that might mean for our particular context.

When you strip out the psychological jargon, boundaries are about where I end and you begin. We are created, each of us, as separate beings and a part of God’s good creation; but the fact that I am me, and not you, and that we each have free will and so forth, tells us that boundaries, too, are a natural part of God’s good creation. The boundaries that exist in any healthy relationship are determined in part by the roles that we hold in that relationship; the gradient of power and vulnerability, and where and to what extent we have responsibility for the well-being of one another; and what expectations we can reasonably have of one another

Any Christian congregation – ours included – is an arena in which these issues of power and vulnerability, of responsibility and expectations, of boundaries, plays out. It’s in the interplay of these things that we find the marrow of the life and ministry of the church, in which we all participate.

We gather here to work out our salvation, find fellowship with likeminded believers, to be edified, and to be equipped. And with the gathering of believers comes not only the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also the amalgamation of our pain, hurt, suffering and struggles.  Ultimately, the process of working together through these things and finding God’s grace in that, is as much the core business of the church as the more public aspects of our life together.

You all know this, really; I’m not telling you anything you haven’t observed for yourselves. If you’ve been in the church for more than five minutes you know something of what it’s like when someone in power tries to use that power for their own ends; or when someone’s weakness turns a meeting agenda on its head; or when we discover that what I think my job is, and what someone else thinks my job is, are two very different things indeed; and so forth. They’re all boundary issues of one sort or another.

So what can we do, to work on building our own healthy boundaries, and avoid making mistakes which are akin to Herod’s, in kind if not in scale? Every personality is different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer; but whether we find it in spiritual direction, or in meditation, or in prayer, or solitude, or therapy, we all need those times free from distraction in order to be clear about who we are.

And that is, at the end of the day, the core issue underlying so many boundary problems. If Herod had been clear about who he was – who he was as king, who he was in his family relationships, who he was as a Jew – clear about his own power and responsibilities, and clear about his own personal vulnerabilities and expectations, he could have avoided not only this debacle but also his later death in exile. Instead what we see is a weak man, fuddled in his relationships and easily manipulated by others.

In the same way, if we are clear about who we are – who we are as Christians, who we are in our personal relationships, who we are in our professional lives – we can be clear about our power and our responsibilities, be honest about our needs and seek to meet them appropriately, and be realistic in our expectations of one another. And we won’t find ourselves bound helplessly in the “winding magic, wherein heaven and hell were joined to lull men’s souls…in some fair trance” with which O’Shaughnessy so aptly described Herod’s dysregulated inner life.

Let us pray:

God of life,
bless this place, and all who gather here;
bless our giving and receiving,
bless our words and conversation,
bless our strengths and weaknesses,
bless our sowing and our growing,
bless our coming and our going,
Amen.

*These lines are taken from Arthur O’Shaugnessy’s poem, Salome, the full text of which can be found here.

Looking to the future

“Once Honi was travelling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob-tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered: “Seventy years.” Honi then asked: “Art thou, then, sure that thou wilt live seventy years?” And the man replied: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” “

This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish Rabbinical scholarship (tractate Ta’anit, for the curious).  I found it when I was looking up prayers of blessing when planting trees (I was giving a tree as a house warming gift), but it made me pause for another reason.

You see, I anticipate moving house soon.  And although, in the ten years or so that we’ve lived in our current home, I’ve been happily doing what I can in the garden, knowing that it might only be the people who came after us who saw the full benefit, as soon as we had a definite horizon for moving out, something in my mindset switched.  I pondered only planting things in pots, that I could take with me when I moved.  I wondered whether it was worth maintaining what we had for the next few months, or whether I might as well neglect it, since I could not even be sure whether the person coming after me would want or care about a garden (or indeed, whether the people who bought our house might want to knock it down and start from scratch).  I was more interested in investing in the new place, which I would enjoy, than continuing to invest in the current one, which I was leaving.

So when I read this story, something in it niggled at my conscience.  What is the spiritual significance of my garden, and the legacy I leave here?  What does it mean to work for a fruitful future, even on my humble plot of land (and truth be told, I’m a very mediocre gardener)?

I’m not sure I have answers.  Part of thinking about that is second-guessing who might come after me.  Will it be someone who wants fruit trees, a vegetable garden, herb beds, fruiting vines over fences (everything I’ve fantasised about and only partly achieved)?  Or someone who wants something as low-maintenance as possible?  Or someone who wants to keep everything full of natives and encourage native bird and insect life?  All of these have worthwhile dimensions, so which one should I work with as a vision?

But even though I might only be here another three months, I’d rather wrestle with those questions, and do what I can, than write this garden off as no longer worth my attention.  In time there will be a new garden to shape, but for today, I give thanks for the person who planted the plum tree which now gives me a rich harvest, and ponder what blessing I might leave for those who come after me.

Of course, the metaphor extends beyond gardening.  There are many ways in which we plant for a fruitful future.  But I find this story an encouragement; I don’t need to see the fruit of my planting, or even know for certain that it will be enjoyed, to participate in the human chain of planting and blessing and openness to a fruitful legacy not entirely within my control.  There’s something of hope and trust and joy in that.  And that sits better than indifference to all but my own “success.”

 

 

In search of wholeness

My daughter is three and a half, and recently we’ve been having her assessed due to some concerns about what we thought might be a language delay.  That process has led to the significant possibility that she will be diagnosed with autism (the medical jury is still out).

This has left me with a lot of thinking to do, as I’ve struggled to come to grips with what it might be like to parent a child with special needs.  I always – based on the strengths of my husband and me – imagined that our child would be bright, an academic achiever, someone who loved to think analytically and debate big and sometimes abstract ideas.  Someone who lived in books and found that language came naturally (quite possibly more than one language).  Given the typical struggles of people on the spectrum, that mental picture of mine is likely to change.

One big question I had to grapple with was, if my daughter didn’t have the sorts of gifts I had imagined would come naturally, if she even found that her developmental delays added up to significant disability, what would my focus as a parent be?  What did I want to give her, as the non-negotiable birthright of a human being, made in the image of God?  What did personal wholeness look like for someone “different,” and how could I nurture that?

I sat down and jotted a short list of what I thought the basic bedrock aspects of personal wholeness – wholeness as a human being, regardless of ability or disability – might be.  I also hit up the journal databases to see what others had said, and was pleasantly surprised that while they fleshed out some of the items on my list, they seemed to affirm that I was thinking along the right sorts of lines.  Here’s what I came up with:

– A realistic sense of worth; one based not on external achievement but on the value and dignity of every human being, made in the image of God.

– Ethical/moral integrity.  A coherent ethical framework, (or, as some of the articles I looked at put it, a well-formed conscience).  An ability to approach the world with a sense of confidence in one’s ability to make choices in an ethical manner.

– A meaningful network of relationships.  In this I’d include family relationships, friendships, the ability to navigate the wider community, and a relationship – if she wants it – with God.  One of the articles I read also suggested that part of this is the ability to connect with one’s culture and traditions, and while I’m not sure I’d give that quite the same level of importance, it’s certainly given me food for thought.

– A sense of purpose.  This is perhaps the hardest one for me to put into words; it has something to do with hope, and something to do with values (by which I mean, valuing something enough to want to invest one’s time, interest, energy, and/or money in it).  But a sense that one is not just a passenger in life but a participant, and able to contribute to something worthwhile.

I don’t know yet how to nurture all of these things effectively.  I’m learning as I go on this parenting journey!  And if my daughter does have autism, some of these things might look very different for her, than they do for the children around her.  But I’m okay with that; I think identifying these things as important is a good first step.  As a family we can navigate the next steps together.

The truth is, autism or not, I’m immensely proud of my daughter.  She’s inquisitive, determined, sensitive, happy, affectionate, full of beans and beautiful.  She already sings in tune, draws and paints for hours, and perhaps her gifts will lie more in the creative sphere than mine ever did (heaven help me, I’ll have to learn how to nurture that too)!  And I am determined that whatever life brings her she will have every ounce of my support, encouragement and care.  Thinking ahead about what she needs and how to meet those needs is part of that, but it comes with great joy as she grows into new skills and confidence.

What do you think?  Did I miss some important aspect of personal wholeness?  Is there something else I should be thinking about as well?  Or do you think some of these things don’t matter?

Entitled

Recent discussion in my household (and on my husband’s blog) has touched on the question of titles.  Just what do you call a woman in ministry, anyway?

It was all sparked by said husband referring to me (in jest) as “dear priestess,” a term which I particularly dislike, partly because it’s not a term Christians have ever used for their leaders, and partly because it is associated with Paganism (and therefore likely to lead to misunderstanding), and partly because it’s often been used by opponents of the ordination of women to belittle women in ministry.

But what are my options?  In this post, I give a quick run down of the possibilities, and some comment on how I find them helpful (or not), and my personal feelings on them.  Note: this post is not an attack on my sisters in ministry who do things differently.  It’s meant to be light hearted, and express my quite personal preferences and opinions.

So let’s start here:

I am, according to the order of the Anglican Church in Australia, a priest in the Church of God.  Priest can be a controversial title; for some people it carries overtones of a sacrificial ministry and a particular theology of the Eucharist (which I don’t share).  For me, I prefer to see it as a linguistic contraction of the old term “presbyter,” which came from the Greek word “presbyteros,” or elder.  I am, in that sense, exercising the leadership and teaching role of an elder, and if it seems odd to me to be an “elder” at the age of 35 (and often ministering to many people a generation or two older than me), at least I can tell myself that I’ve been well educated for the role, and that I’m now older than Jesus was when he died!  I tend to describe myself as an Anglican priest, partly because I don’t look like people’s stereotypical image of a priest, and thus it leads to questions and conversation; and partly because it is a precise term that tells people who know about these things that, for example, I can hear confessions or administer the last rites (unlike an Anglican deacon or lay minister).

One thing which seems to have happened organically as women have moved into ordained ministry is that, just as some of my male colleagues are called “Father,” that respect has been transferred to women in ministry as “Mother.”  I don’t particularly like this; it makes me sound like a nun (misunderstanding again; and people often assume I’m a nun anyway, but I certainly am not)!  Besides, I think it just tends to lead to people projecting their mother issues onto me (more than they would already).  But my biggest objection to “Mother” is actually that I object to “Father.”  Did Jesus not say, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father; the one in heaven”?  It’s a pretty simple principle, isn’t it?  There is a problem here about gender equality, though; because the use of Father is so entrenched, if a woman refuses to use Mother, it can make her seem less than her male colleagues.  So from some people who genuinely mean it as a respectful courtesy I grin and bear it.

Formally (for purposes of addressing mail and so forth), my title is Reverend.  Generally speaking, this is the title I prefer if you’re going to use one, and I encourage small children to call me “Rev” rather than “Mother” when their parents are teaching them to be polite.  Of course, Australian society is fairly relaxed about titles in general, so I tend to tell adults they don’t need to call me Reverend, unless they’re telemarketers.  But it does bother me when forms and computer systems give me the options of Mrs, Ms, and Miss, but not Revd, (or indeed Dr. or other titles).  Come on, it’s the year 2015; you think women don’t do anything to earn other options?  Is a little flexibility really so hard?

Ahem.  I digress.

One option many of my colleagues use is to call themselves a “minister.”  I tend to shy away from this, partly because I believe we are all supposed to minister to one another in the body of Christ, and so we should all be “ministers.”  And also partly because it’s a very imprecise term; a “minister” could be a lay person with a specialist ministry (eg. with children), or a lay person working as a chaplain or in a limited pastoral capacity in a parish, or a deacon, or a priest, or a bishop… it doesn’t tell you anything about what my role is.

Another option – not traditionally one used much by Anglicans, but it is becoming more common as the influence of American mega-churches grows – is “pastor” (and the associated use of terms like “senior pastor,” “associate pastor,” etc).  I don’t use this at all; it’s a title used for  members of the clergy in the Baptist or Lutheran denominations (and probably some others), so again, I think it would cause confusion to use it.  And while being “pastoral” is part of what I do, and in this I follow the example of Christ, who laid down his life for the sheep, it seems to me to really reflect only one aspect of the role.  And I react badly to uncritical borrowing from outside our tradition; what is wrong with Anglican titles, that we should need to ignore them in favour of whatever ecclesial phenomenon is flavour of the month?

Those are probably the main options out there.  Just before I finish, though, a note on the word “curate.”  I am, technically speaking, the assistant curate in the parish, but in common use that gets shortened to “curate.”  Technically, the “curate” is a person who has responsibility for the care or “cure of souls” of a parish, and so it properly refers to the priest in charge.  However, he or she is (in this diocese) generally called the “vicar,” and so the assistant curate is known as the curate.  Historically, it might have been possible to be an “assistant curate” for a long time – even perhaps one’s whole career in ministry – but today, it is understood to be a training role, generally undertaken for the first four years or so out of college.  After that one would generally be recognised as an “associate priest,” recognising the seniority of experience.  (Confused?  So are we).  Anyway, while that is my position and what I put at the bottom of emails and so forth, I don’t generally introduce myself as the curate, or even the assistant curate, because I find that outside church circles it’s unfamiliar and alienating; I tend to introduce myself as the “assistant priest,” which I find people do understand.

Look, here’s the thing.  It’s not straightforward, this business of titles.  And we find ourselves in difficulty translating what have been norms of address to men over to women, where the social baggage is very different.  And it takes time to work out what works for each person, with their personality and approach to leadership style, and theology of ministry, and all that stuff.  Just please, don’t call me Reverend Mother.  I’m not obedient enough for that!

 

In the body

This is the text of a sermon the third Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 5:6-10.

I wonder how many of you feel at home in your own skin?

Our bodies can be an endless source of angst for us; from bad hair days or extra weight and stretch marks to chronic pain, struggles with mobility or poorly regulated internal functions, our bodies can leave us debilitated, frustrated and alienated.

It can be easy, then, to hear the words from our epistle reading this morning, “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” and hear them as a promise that our bodies, with all of their frailties and vulnerabilities, won’t encumber us forever.

But this passage is part of a much larger section of Paul’s letter which is, frankly, confusing. Paul seems to contradict things he’s said elsewhere and even to be unclear in what he’s saying within this letter. In general, Paul’s vision of the hereafter for human beings is a bodily form of existence; that at the resurrection we will each receive a permanent, incorruptible body in which to live out eternal life. For Paul, fullness of life was unthinkable without a body.

So what is he saying in this passage, about being away from the body and at home with the Lord?

It seems likely (the commentators tell me) that Paul is quoting, and then responding to, arguments which have been put forward to him by the Corinthians, and that would account for the seemingly contradictory lines of his train of thought. So this line, about being at home in the body and away from the Lord, is likely not Paul’s words at all, but those of the members at Corinth with whose ideas he is taking issue.

It seems that some of the believers at Corinth (who considered themselves “spiritual”) had taken their views of the body from Pagan Greek philosophers: the body is there to be administered, to be resisted, so that the mind should not be subservient to the body, but the body should be trained to pursue the goals of the mind. Thus they had a sense of identity in which their fundamental self was the mind, which just happened to be trapped within a recalcitrant body for the time being.

In contrast, Paul reasserts a more Jewish (and Biblical) view of the person; the issue is not one of body versus mind, but one of the whole person, body and soul, standing together before the God who would judge the “heart” – a sense of self which includes aspects of body and mind. In this view, true peace would come to a person not when the soul slipped off the alien clay of the body, but when resistance to its maker had finally melted away within the heart. (So the Hebrew Scriptures resound with promises like, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”)

Therefore, Paul argues, being in the body is not, in and of itself, what determines whether we are close to or away from the Lord; since our existence is always in the body, and what changes is, if you like, the mode of our bodiliness. What we should be focusing on, Paul says, is making it our aim to please the Lord.

So where does that leave us, as we try to work through our own attitudes to our bodies?

Elsewhere, Paul reminds his hearers that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, belonging to the Lord, totally infused with the presence of God. (So much so that Ignatius of Antioch, writing perhaps 50 or so years after this letter, instructed his flock that all marriages were to be arranged by the bishop with holiness in mind; a situation I suspect we would find intolerable today!)

But this idea of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit is one I personally find very encouraging. A couple of times I’ve been through bouts of debilitating depression; and one of the many difficult things about that for me was that it emptied my regular prayer life of any sense of meaning or connection with God. What I did find, though, was that in those times when I wasn’t able to put any sense of myself into words, my most honest prayers could be as simple as the gesture of lighting a candle; or of sitting in the presence of God and allowing myself to cry. Those were prayers of the body much more than of the mind, but they gave me some way to reach out beyond my own limitations.

In a different way, the truth of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit highlights for me the importance of the work we’re doing in Light Up!* That we can provide a space where people can explore and learn what it might mean to pray and to relate to God through movement, through dance, through creativity, rather than simply through words. It’s a way of affirming that relating to God in and through our bodies is real prayer, not inferior to doing so with our minds and in words. (Although perhaps we see the most vibrant fusion of both when we sing. Then our prayer reverberates through the singing body, music and words together, involving the whole person in their response to God).

Now, everyone will have his or her own comfort zone. The issue is not one of trying to force something unnatural, and I hardly expect that everyone’s going to want to take up liturgical dance. But it is forgetting or denying the body which can be dangerous and detrimental, leading to a disintegrated sense of self which impacts on our general well being and yes, even our prayers. Even very small things like paying attention to notice the way your body holds tension, fear or hope when praying can give us important sign posts in our relationships with God.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to make it their aim to please the Lord, not to get tangled up in philosophical concerns about the body. I would suggest that taking a healthy view of the body, and treating it with honour and care even while recognizing that it is provisional, is an important part of that seeking to please the Lord. It allows us to recognise that our bodies are an integral part of our identity, and ultimately the only instrument of worship we have; and encourages us to find the ways in which we can each worship best with integrity, whatever those are for each of us.

 

 

*Light Up! is a worship service designed for children with autism and related challenges, and which focusses on worship in modes other than verbal.