Saturday, April 18, 2015

Body Awareness

 Luke 24:36b-48

            Last summer a friend of mine told me that she had written a book that had just been published under the title Losing Sight, Gaining Vision.  Sheridan Gates has a form of macular degeneration the onset of which happened when she was quite young.  Her adult life has been a progressive adjustment to the gradual loss of sight. 
            I immediately got and read her book.  In recounting her steady loss of vision, she writes about how she learned to listen to her body.  Little by little she learned to shift from seeing her loss of vision as a liability to seeing it as a gift.  Sheridan began to see herself not as a victim of illness, but rather as a healer.  And healing for her and through her for others has taken the form of learning how to embrace her body, learning that though it was losing the capacity to see, the body was learning a new way to have vision.  The body has its own wisdom.[1]

            For the last three years I have been on a pilgrimage to explore ever more deeply what the resurrection of the body actually means.  Sheridan’s book, and more recently Sheridan herself, have helped me in a process of what she and I call “spiritual coaching” to grasp that resurrection of the body is a way of life.  It is a way of embracing the body, of listening to it, of taking seriously that it may be not an impediment to spiritual life but indeed the key to it. 

            I believe that affirming the body is the central point Luke wants us to get in the gospel for today.  The risen Jesus has appeared on the road to Emmaus to two disciples who are discussing the events that ended his life—and the strange tale that some women of their group had told about going to the tomb and learning that his body was missing.  The wayfaring stranger proceeds to explain all the things concerning himself that the scriptures had foretold.  Still the two disciples do not recognize him.  They invite him in to dine with them when they have reached Emmaus.  While he is at table with them, he—the guest—takes bread and blesses and breaks it.  Then their eyes are opened, and they recognize him just before he vanishes.  They rush back to Jerusalem and tell the Eleven and their companions what they have experienced and hear from them that it is true:  the Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon Peter.  Suddenly Jesus comes and stands among them, saying, “Peace be with you.”  They are terrified, thinking they are seeing a ghost.  He invites them to look at his hands and feet, saying that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as he does.  While they are still wondering and disbelieving for sheer joy, he asks them for something to eat.  They give him a piece of broiled fish, which he takes and eats right before them. 

            Whatever else may be said of this story, it quite clearly establishes four things.  One is that the resurrection body of Jesus is not to be confused with his spirit in a non-physical appearance: he is not a ghost.  Second, the resurrection body is not a resuscitated corpse, because he is able to appear and vanish at will, regardless of space, time, and circumstances.  Third, there is continuity between Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and the risen Jesus, inasmuch as the resurrection body bears the scars of his passion and death.  Fourth, a transformation has taken place, because, though the body belongs to Jesus, it has changed to the point that he is not readily recognizable.

            Now we will never know until we get to the great seminar in the skies exactly what happened to Jesus between his death on Friday and sunup on Sunday.  But one thing is for certain.  Something happened to the physical body of Jesus.  And thus any resurrection we want to talk about has to do with the physical body, our physical bodies.  And we know well enough what is going to happen to them, don’t we?  They are going to die; and one way or the other they are going to return to the stuff out of which they came:  earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  But the church has been letting itself off the hook of talking about the physical body for too long by transmuting resurrection into immortality.  The issue of what happens after death might be of great importance, but the more important thing is what the resurrection means for this life, here and now.  Even the most devoted believer in an afterlife, of whatever kind, will tell you that what happens there is directly tied to what we do here.  From that I conclude that it is wise to make a short list of things not to worry about and put afterlife first on that list.  Concentrate on living life joyfully, lovingly, gratefully, kindly, and the afterlife, whatever shape it takes, will take care of itself.  You have my word on that.

            So what does the resurrection have to do with this body, yours and mine?  Well, first, remember your baptism.  What do we remember when we forget everything else about baptism?  It is “down under and back up again.”  It is a ritual death and resurrection.  (We are in the land of metaphor and symbol here.)  When we are, as it were, pulled up out of the water we are united with the Risen Lord in the resurrection.  Yes, it has a future, that resurrection life, beyond our mortal death.  But it certainly does not wait for death in order to begin.  So whatever we do with our life in Christ we do in the very body that is speaking and listening to these words right now. 

            Let’s be honest.  For centuries Christians have distrusted the body, sidelined it, repressed it, despised it, all on the theory that the body is a great big problem for anybody wanting to live a spiritual life.  So we have been quite good at developing rationales for asceticism, denying our physical selves for the sake of becoming spiritually disciplined.  We have a whole gallery of people whom we honor and pretend we want to emulate—virgin mothers and other virgins, desert fathers and mothers, saints of one kind or another who practically lived as if the physical body was of no importance whatsoever.  None of that, by the way, do we see reflected in Jesus, who by his own admission came, “eating and drinking” with all manner of folk, to the point that people accused him of being a glutton and a winebibber.  Yes, he fasted and prayed, but we have no record that he spurned the body that he lived in.  That body prayed, fed, healed, taught, walked, loved, ate, drank, sweated, slept, dreamed, and all the other things (you know what they are) that bodies do, and finally died.  And all of it, all of it, was life as God, in God, with God, and for God.  So what gets in the way of our living like that?

            We have not only some Christian history to reckon with, but a good deal of secular history as well.  And generally that has led us in two directions, sometimes almost indistinguishable.  One is to believe in the exaggerated importance of the body.  The other is to repress it and all that is associated with it, especially its sexual dimensions.  And here is where resurrection can actually help us.  Resurrection is the radical affirmation of the physical, the assertion that the Creator knew exactly what the Creator was doing by making a universe where matter and spirit (energy) are not opposed, but indeed two different manifestations of the same reality.  We do not have to repress the body, even as we are disciplining it.  You can diet, exercise, do yoga, martial arts, and engage in a host of other beneficial disciplines, all without disparaging your body.  More than that, you can actually keep the second of the two great commandments—you can love yourself as you love your neighbor.  And you do not have to be ashamed of or embarrassed about doing so; for in loving your body you are loving the greatest gift that your Creator has given you.  At its best, it can be the portal of delight you can only describe as divine.

            And you can affirm your body as mortal.  Wherever you are in life right now, your body is on its way to the grave.  That has been true all your life.  Get used to it.  On that list of things not to worry about, add “my death.”  Doing away with anxiety and fear of death is not so easily done as said, but it can be done.  It takes practice.  Take a tip from Sheridan.  Don’t imagine that your body’s loss means your own diminishment.  You may very well gain vision as you lose eyesight, or gain comprehension as you lose the faculty of hearing. 

            Ironically, the more we accept and honor our physical, mortal bodies, the more we are free to let go of the useless and neurotic effort to stave off their death.  And the more we let go, the more ready are we to move into the joy of a life unencumbered by fear, powered only by love.   Living that way is living the resurrection.  Life powered by love is the Kingdom of God, where there is no more sorrow nor sighing nor repression, because the sting of death is gone, and there is no need to repress anything anymore.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015

[1] Sheridan Gates, Losing Sight, Gaining Vision: Thriving Throughout Life's Losses (Purpose At Work, Kindle Edition), see especially p. 91.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Surprisingly Close

Mark 16:1-8 

“Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.”

And where is Galilee?

Galilee is where it all began.  The calling. The healings.  The teaching.  The small towns full of hungry, hurting people.  The crowds.  Controversy.  Feeding.  Misunderstanding.  Clueless disciples.  Smart demons.  “Galilee” is where life is lived.  Whatever he was and wherever he came from, Jesus of Nazareth joined the human race in its everyday life of growling stomachs and dead children and quarrels.  And it is right back to Galilee that the risen Jesus returns. 

You will notice of course, that Mark’s story of the resurrection is not what you sometimes hear, and lacks some of the elements we’ve come to expect.  No conventional angels here with bright wings.  No long and moving story of Mary Magdalene and him whom she supposed to be the gardener.  No appearances of the risen Christ.  Only a declaration that he has been raised and two promises—that he is going ahead and that they shall see him in Galilee.  Was it the messenger in the tomb that affrighted the women so?  Or the message?  Or the peculiar absence of the corpse whom they sought?  We only know that they ran from the tomb and told no one anything. 

End of Mark, but not end of story.  Galilee is still there, not only as beautiful real estate on the rim of the Sea by that name, but as a place in your life.  Galilee of the Nations, the place where the crowded ways of life cross, the intersection of all sorts of journeys.  Galilee is where you live.  Galilee is in your heart.  And if you would discover the timeless Christ, the Author of life and the ground of Being, you will discover him in the thick of your life. 

Is there no other option?  Can we not wait at the tomb and hope that somehow he will appear?  Can’t we look backward into the past and do our best to recover the faith of a prior generation and claim that as our own?  Can’t we take a course in God and become mystical or find him with crystals or incantations?  Try.  But I think you’ll find that the Risen One will most likely show up in the details of your life.  It is precisely where you hurt, where you resist growth, where you are whiplashed in controversy, where you are passionate, where your heart leads you, what moves you to tears, what causes you to roll on the floor laughing, what excites you and what takes your breath away—those things are the Galilee where you will see him. 

Maybe you are thinking just for a split second that, if that is the message, you might just turn and run from it, so frighteningly mundane it sounds.   We frequently believe that the spiritual life must be something special, so out-of-the-ordinary that we could not possibly find it where we are.  So we suppose that, if we are working in a law office in Washington, we should resign and go feed the poor.  Or the monk in the monastery imagines that Christ is more really to be found among the homeless.  Changing the set is never the issue.  Nor, for that matter, is changing one’s mind.  It is a matter of going to Galilee as agenda-free as possible.  You have no idea where Christ is going to appear, nor how that appearance might change you, nor where the encounter might take you or send you. 

But the Galilee to which he has gone ahead is whatever is going on in your life.  If you need to change, you will know.  If you need simply to speak your truth, you will know.  If you need to struggle with the pit of uncomfortable truth in the middle of your soul, you will know that too.  Learn to listen to your life.  Whatever it turns up, pay attention.  For there in Galilee you will see him, as he promised.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015

Why? ¿Por Que?


For over four decades now I have tried on every Good Friday to get my mind around the crucifixion.  Pondering it once again, I recalled my first Holy Week when I was a priest.  A little girl, Beth, started sobbing as the choir filed out in silent, funereal procession.  She was inconsolable well after the liturgy ended.  “Why did he have to die?” she kept asking her mom.  “Why?  Why?” 

En mi primer año como un sacerdote, durante la semana santa, había una niña, se llamada Beth, que empezó de llorar como el coro salían de la iglesia en silencio, en una procesión fúnebre.  Repetidas veces, sin consuelo, ella preguntó a su madre, “¿Por qué? ¿Por qué el tuvo morir?”

Inexplicable cruelty. Beth’s question echoed the first time I watched The Color Purple, when Mister, Celie’s abusive husband, drives away Celie’s sister and best friend, Nettie.  Screaming at the horror of being forcibly separated from the one she loves most deeply of all on earth, Nettie cries, “Why?  Why?  Why?”  So ask we all at every fresh horror, every mass murder, every appalling miscarriage of justice. 

En la película “El color púrpura,” cuándo el marido cruel echa a la hermana de su esposa, la mujer grita, “¿Por qué?  ¿Por qué?  ¿Por qué?”  Ella está devastada por perder a la persona carísima de todas.  Y “Por qué?” nosotros preguntamos a cada horror nuevo, cada asesinado, cada injusticia que nos consterna

The formulas that Christians say so easily do not work for me.  “He died for our sins.”  I do not doubt the truth of that.  But it does not answer the deep and painful cry of why?  Why was it necessary?  How do you figure?  What kind of God would require it?  “It was all part of God’s plan.”  No doubt.  But why?  Why make a plan that requires such terror? And what is the point?  That we should love Jesus because we hope for the heaven he opened to us by means of his death?  That we might die a worse death than the cross if we were to turn away in disbelief or rejection?  Does that ring true for you?  So what to make of this sacred head sore wounded, this man despised and rejected, this man of sorrows, acquainted with grief?  How do we get to the place where we can make sense of the notion that we are healed by his wounds, that we are saved through his murder on the cross?  What does it mean for us to venerate the cross, to call it holy, to say that by it joy has come into all the world? 

Cristianos frecuentemente hablan fácilmente en frases que ellos suponen explicar la significancia de la cruz.  “El murió por nuestros pecados,” por ejemplo.  Pero no explican porque era necesario.  “Dios no quiere la muerte del pecador,” cantamos.  Entonces, ¿por qué Dios requiere la muerte del hombre inocente para pagar por los pecadores?  No se puede decir como Dios es tan inhumano.  “Pero, Padre,” dirían ustedes, “Era el plan de Dios.  ¡No es justo preguntar las maneras de Dios!”  No me satisface.  ¿Por qué Dios hiciese un plan que requiere tan terror?  No sirve para nada.  ¿Qué nosotros tuviéramos miedo de ser condenados?  ¿Qué nosotros quisiéramos ir al cielo cuando morimos? ¿Tiene sentido para ustedes?  Luego, ¿como es posible entender la cruz que veneramos en unos minutos?

There is no explaining the cross.  It is a paradox, a mystery.  It is unspeakable cruelty, tragedy, and injustice that at the same time oddly reveals to us the nature of courage, of humility, even of glory—and most of all, love.  There is no one right way to respond to the cross.  You may find on Jesus’ cross God joining suffering humanity.  You may find it wringing tears of thanksgiving from the depths of your soul.  You may find it indescribably repugnant, bespeaking the worse that humans can do to one another, to creation, and to creation’s Author.  Or you may turn it into a piece of jewelry or a tattoo that identifies who you are and what you stand for. 

No hay explicación lógica ni por la cruz, ni por la muerte de Jesús.  Es una paradoja, un misterio.  La muerte de Jesús en la cruz es crueldad extrema, tragedia, injusticia, pero al mismo tiempo nos revela fortitud real, humildad, aún gloria, y especialmente amor.  No existe una sola manera en la cuál debemos responder a la cruz.  Tal vez es un símbolo de sufrimiento en lo cuál Dios participa con nosotros.  O tal vez es una causa de devoción profunda para ti.  U otra cosa. 

Hay un himno en Español muy antiguo que no muchas personas canta ahora, los versículos de lo cuál me parecen otra repuesto posible a la cruz.  Es un texto de mi vida, y un poema favorito a mi.   No resuelve la paradoja de la cruz, ni da una contestación a la pregunta, “¿Por qué la muerte de Jesús?”  El mensaje es este:  te amo, Cristo Jesús, ni porqué espero por eso que irme al cielo, o porqué tengo miedo de morir eternamente si no te amo.  Te amo porqué en la cruz tu has abrazado todo el mundo, sufriendo los clavos grandes, la lanza, la agonía, los dolores, las heridas, los azotes, y muchos tormentos para todo el mundo y para mi.  Te amo ni para ganar nada, ni vencer nada, ni para un premio, ni evitar condenación, sino como tu me has amado en verdad.  Luego, te amaré solamente porqué tu eres mi Dios y mi rey eterno. 

There is a Spanish hymn from long ago that few sing any more, the verses of which voice what seems to me to be one other possible response to the Cross.  It has come to be one of my life texts.  It does not resolve the paradox of the cross, nor answer the question of why.  But the words suggest a way to ponder the mystery in a way that unhooks it from any facile explanation of Christ’s suffering, leaving us only to behold it and see, possibly, the cross from a new and untried view with every passing season. 

I love thee, Lord, but not because
  I hope for heaven thereby,
not yet for fear that loving not
  I might forever die;

but for that thou didst all the world
  upon the cross embrace;
for us didst bear the nails and spear
  and manifold disgrace,

and griefs and torments numberless,
  and sweat of agony,
e’en death itself; and all for one
  who was thine enemy.

Then why, most loving Jesus Christ,
  should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
  nor any fear of hell;

not with the hope of gaining aught,
  not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast lovèd me,
  O ever loving Lord!

E’en so I love thee, and will love,
  and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God
  and my eternal King.[1]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015

[1] Spanish, 17th century, translated by Edward Caswall (1814-1878); adapt. Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), alt.  The Hymnal 1982.  New York:  Church Publishing Company, 1982, 682.