“The Practice of Wearing Skin,” a chapter by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World, has me weeping (as has every chapter in the book).
If God became flesh (as Christians believe) or if God can be found within and among us (as I believe), then God loves the body. Each body. Lovely and irregular.
This idea links directly to a sweet, captivating story I saw yesterday of a father who tells his toddler daughter that she has a beautiful body–two strong legs on which she can walk and run, ears to hear voices and birds, a brain that can think and figure things out, a belly where food is digested to keep her healthy, and so on. [I can't find the story! Can anyone else find it?]
The tears come because I have rarely loved my body and it never crossed my mind that God did. Taylor points out some reasons why we have a hard time loving our bodies: the Greek division between body and soul; the divide Descartes made between nature and reason; Protestant disdain for matters of the flesh; Freud and his sexual nonsense (my word, not hers); modern science that objectifies bodies and bodily functions; and an overlay of public sex from Victoria’s Secret to twerking.
I was terrified when Daddy made me touch him. I was ashamed of my body and the way it grew. I am embarrassed by the way it looks now. I am slothful when it comes to exercise and nutrition. I don’t like that it’s getting older and gray and sagging. I am loathe to admit these things semi-publicly.
But my body carries me around with some ease. It houses my brain and digests my food and allows my fingers to type. It feels pain, expresses empathy, and gives me access to sight, sound, touch, taste, and sometimes smell. It can do ordinary things like plant bulbs, read An Altar in the World, enjoy a cup of coffee, distract myself with email (stop it!).
God loves all that. God understands the shame, embarrassment, and slothfulness, and loves me anyway. Maybe it pisses God off that I don’t love my body well enough to care for it. New meaning to the prayer excerpt, “There is no health in me.”
My starting place this morning is to love my body as it is. While writing that sentence, I thought and wrote and scratched my head and shifted in my chair. My stomach growled. Then my mind turned toward gratitude. Taylor recommends that we pray in front of a mirror, naked (gulp), and give thanks for our bodies instead of rushing to cover them up. [Don't children love to run around naked and sometimes even run outside that way?]
It is time now for me to change from comfy pj’s to comfy clothes to go get my package delivered yesterday to the apartment office. Naturally I will be properly clothed. But first I shall pause before the mirror and give thanks. Look how it can bend and stretch. Admire the shapes and scars. Wriggle fingers and toes and count them all like our parents did.
Isn’t that a good way to start the day?
I seem to have entered my second childhood, spiritually speaking. Earliest lesson that I remember from Sunday School: God is Love.
Decades have gone by; theological studies; ponderings. For many years I have labeled myself a Panentheist: in short, God infuses the cosmos and also transcends it (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism). Maybe that was my grownup way to understand God as Love that flows through us yet is greater than all, the Love that abides.
I have spent time in prayer. Always before, it was meditation or silent reflection. It is more likely now to be addressed to God, a surprise even to me!
How shall we find God? Tony deMello says it by looking at creation in a special way. If you look at the sky you might see clouds and the angle of light and outlines of trees and vast stretches of blue, but it becomes beautiful with that special way of looking. You will seek God in vain until you know God is not an object but a special way of looking.
As I go about the rest of this Thanksgiving Day I will remind myself to see God and to see Love. My husband and I will go to a church potluck where there will be all kinds of people with whom I have a range of relationships. I will tune in to Love and look for God in each person.
For each of you, I am grateful. May our hearts swell a little more through the art and practice of Love.
People who evoke an emotion within us are a reflection of ourselves, based on the vibrations we send out. We raise the vibration level and the other person/people respond in kind. It’s easy to “blame” the environment but it’s more about ourselves. Blommaert says it’s possible to transform your inner life and alter your personal vibration level to attract what you want in life.
These reflections came from a set of videos on tubeinspirations.wordpress.com
Jean-Paul Blommaert has a blog full of videos on how to achieve financial freedom. He lives in London, but he went to his hometown in The Netherlands to develop his personal transformation.
Life experiences mirror who we are, he says. “Why do I suffer? Why do I feel joy?” Financial freedom actually gives us freedom of time. What you discover can tell you about yourself.
What will you discover today?
Rev. Kathleen Ellis
September 29, 2013
The Episcopal Church taught me everything I knew about God. I had absorbed the idea that God is Love, Jesus was my friend, and of course, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Details of theology like the virgin birth, resurrection, the Trinity, or salvation only through Jesus, never made logical sense to a literal-minded 10-year old. I loved the music and my friends and stayed with the church through high school.
I found my way gradually to marriage, motherhood, and Unitarian Universalism.
When the boys were grown I followed my heart into seminary—Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That’s where God was ripped away suddenly and without warning.
Let me explain. I had long ago left behind my childhood notions of God. It was a challenge to study religion in a Christian seminary where I was pushed toward a new understanding of theology. I wanted to stand on the edge of religious knowledge where it meets a great mystery beyond human understanding. What was the underlying message? What values still inform my life? We seminary students tried out all sorts of theories in class and in the weekly Chapel services.
Perkins Chapel is a lovely, old-fashioned chapel with a tall steeple and white columns at the top of a hill. Inside, there is a plain wooden cross on the sanctuary wall—it is part of Southern Methodist University, after all. One night in the middle of Domestic Violence Awareness Week on campus some students had prepared a special worship service to raise awareness. For this particular service, a startling image appeared on that wall. A photograph was projected and superimposed over the foot of that cross. It was the image of a naked woman–curled up on the floor, face down, utterly defeated. It was a jarring image of domestic violence.
I was stunned. Shocked. Furious! How could God let this happen?! Where was God for that woman when she needed help? I jumped to an obvious conclusion: There really IS no God!!
I turned and fled. . . . I ran sobbing back to my dorm room with my best friend in pursuit. I had a head start on her, though, and slammed my door with a bang. I wouldn’t let her in. She knocked, she pleaded, she slipped notes under my door. But I couldn’t face her or anyone else. I had to face my own fury and my ultimate isolation. God was dead to me.
I know I’m not alone in my divine isolation because I’ve heard stories from others. Writers, poets, and singers for over a century have declared the Death of God but neither God nor Goddess will ever die. Hindus incorporate thousands of deities; Buddhists have developed a religion with none. Atheists reject them all and agnostics continue to probe, explore, question, and doubt.
A young man approached me after a service. He was anxious and agitated as he waited to talk to me and finally blurted out, “I don’t love God anymore.” He went on to explain that if God knows everything that’s going to happen, why does he let bad things happen? He still believes in Jesus— and has no quarrel with the man. But he doesn’t love God and he doesn’t know what to do. It was an echo of my same feelings at Perkins Chapel.
The Rev. Joanna Crawford said that when she was a student minister, a woman came to her to talk about God. She was clearly upset. She had been raised “a believer,” but had learned more church history and how books were chosen to be included or left out of the Bible, and had learned that some of her Sunday School lessons from long ago were not literally true. She searched for a new church home and found Unitarian Universalism. She was reasonably happy there. But now she missed her prayer life, even if it no longer seemed real.
In the course of the conversation Joanna gently asked her, “Are you missing God?” The woman’s eyes welled up and she said yes.
She had what has been called a God-shaped hole in her heart. So did the young man who spoke with me. So did I that night at Perkins Chapel. It’s a hole that opens up when doubt overcomes belief.
This idea has resonated for centuries. In the 18th century, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote,
There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”
Today we can read it in the lyrics of a song by Tiffany Lee[i]:
“. . . Does the world seem gray with empty longing
Wearing every shade of cynical
And do you ever feel that
There is something missing?
There’s a god-shaped hole in all of us
And the restless soul is searching . . .”
We’re a restless people, working at work or home, endlessly engaged with electronic devices, computers, and games, serving as volunteers, driving our children to enrich their lives through art, music, and sports, cooking, cleaning, eating out. When anyone asks how we are, the typical answer is “busy.” Who has room for anything more?
Dr. Brené Brown is the Houston researcher we ministers have been studying for weeks. She describes the defensive shield of “numbing” that protects us from the crazy-busy lives many of us lead. When we don’t take the time for our souls to catch up with our minds, our feelings go numb. We might not do this compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but we have a strong tendency to minimize our feelings, both positive and negative. Why in the world would we minimize positive feelings? One answer is that something wonderful is too good to be true. Disaster must be lurking around the corner. So instead of feeling joy, we try not to tempt fate and bring on that disaster.
It’s easier to understand why we might want to numb negative feelings. As Brown points out, “Americans today are more debt-ridden, obese, medicated, and addicted than we ever have been.” She goes on to say that in 2011 “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that automobile accidents are now the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States. The leading cause? Drug overdoses. In fact, more people die from prescription drug overdoses than from heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine drug use combined.”[ii]
Numbness. Isolation. A joy-shaped hole. How do we cope? We don’t have to use drugs. We can sedate feelings with a brownie, maybe 2. We can anesthetize feelings with wine. But the truth is that significant feelings don’t go away for long; they just get bigger. Feelings tug on you to pay attention to them. There is nothing inherently wrong with brownies OR wine. There IS someone wrong with using them to disguise, diffuse, and detach from the emptiness of your spirit.
Emptiness was sudden that night in the Chapel. The very idea of God was ripped from my soul like ripping away my skin. It felt raw and painfully tender for a long time. It was the wrenching loss of relationship like the death of a human love. My antidote to all of the losses and numbness was a sense of gratitude and attention to spiritual needs. Gradually I refilled my God-shaped hole with the practical idea that we are her hands and heart because clearly, we are not in control of creation or tragedy. Instead, we are the ones who respond with compassion to the terrible things that happen in our lives and those around us. It is not God’s responsibility but ours.
With gratitude and spirituality we can begin to believe in something bigger than ourselves—as big as our galaxy. Start by gazing into a starry night. Do we remember stars, we city dwellers who rarely see a night without light pollution? I remember stars.
On a memorable trip to Australia my first husband and our two sons drove an RV up a mountain to a campground. It was a clear, cold night—so cold that ice formed inside the windows, so clear and cold that stars filled the night sky all the way to the horizon in every direction. They made unfamiliar patterns, because we were in the Southern hemisphere. We were inside a bowl of stars! It was a sacred time to see so many of them at one time. Two messages came to us in that moment: One, we are tiny dots in the universe … and two, we belong to the universe just as surely as every other person or rock or tree.
And when we make that connection we have found Sacred Space.
Much more recently, and on my sabbatical two years ago, I traveled to India with a group of Unitarian Universalists. We were on a spiritual pilgrimage led by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, a UU minister and a native of south India. We visited ancient and modern temples, mosques, and churches, taking in the diversity of religious practice along with the complexity of India. A pilgrimage is a way to touch the sacred in our lives.
The Shiva Temple in Chidambaram, India, had enormous impact.
A nightly ritual (to put the statue of Shiva “to bed”)
Roof open to the stars
Bells of all sizes ringing wildly in the stone temple (Inner thought–this is not noise! these are sound waves!
Hundreds of oil lamps burning
Hundreds of people pressed together, hands raised in homage
Priestly ritual, priestly blessing; a garland from Shiva presented to me by a priest, with a blessing (as though I had been ordained as a Hindu).
Without having to travel thousands of miles on a pilgrimage, you have probably read about them. Journeys to Mecca, to the Wailing Wall, Chimayo. In northern Spain, pilgrims since the Middle Ages have walked El Camino de Santiago Compostela. It became the subject of a film entitled “The Way.” Martin Sheen directed and starred in the story of a father whose estranged son had died on El Camino. He didn’t really understand why, but when he traveled to Spain to claim his son’s belongings—a backpack and all the necessary gear, the older man followed in his son’s footsteps and was himself transformed.
Sheen said that the story is about the search of every person on earth, whether we believe in God or not, for a singular “moment of clarity” when we realize we are loved. The Way—the Camino—attracts 100,000 pilgrims every year. Many of them are truly on an inner journey to find healing: a “moment of clarity” when they realize they are loved.
Sacred Space is available every day and everywhere because it relies on you. You just have to pay attention. When you are open to life or you are opened by life, you have entered sacred space. You don’t have to have a particular ritual or an intermediary. Rituals simply provide an experience that reminds you to open yourself to the sacred.
Sacred is the feeling that you belong and that you are connected to something beyond yourself. You might connect with a person, but it doesn’t have to be a person. Children’s author Byrd Baylor tells about following deer tracks when she looked up and saw “a young coyote trotting through the brush.” They stopped and looked at each other, unafraid, just a couple of “creatures following another rocky trail.” They looked at each other for a long time before they went on their way. Because of that encounter, Byrd Baylor says she “never will feel quite the same again.”[iii]
A farmer’s market is another example of sacred connection if you think about it. All those fruits and vegetables were planted and harvested by fellow human beings; they were probably grown in soil enriched by compost and worms, pollinated by bees or other creatures. The market brings together sellers and shoppers of all ages. We are all connected.
Someone sent me a photograph of a baby last week. This was no ordinary baby to me, because he was the son of a member of a church I once served. Tears sprang to my eyes because I don’t know that baby. I don’t even know his mother, who had joined the church after I left, but I did know the people who surrounded her with love. In the picture, mom held him in a fabric sling. His back was snuggled against her chest and his face looked straight out into the world. His eyes looked bright and curious. What kind of world will he inherit? How will he continue to feel that secure connection while he ventures forth into a universe not of his own making?
That one photograph reminded me how we of all ages share basic needs: Our bodies require nourishment or we will die. Our spirits require sustenance of a different kind or we will limit the full meaning of our lives. Whatever you believe to be sacred, be at one with it. Fill the God-shaped hole, the joy-shaped hole, the star-shaped hole, the fill-in-the-blank shaped hole.
You are a child of the universe for a lifetime.
You have enough. You do enough. You are enough.
Sacred wisdom is waiting for you.
Sacred wisdom is waiting inside you,
With a unique voice you join the chorus of humanity
Where all beings interconnect into a larger whole.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
My toenails sport a glittery blue paint job today. Thanks to bidding on a door prize at Project Row Houses in Houston, I won a gift card from an upscale salon in Houston called The Upper Hand. Just a pedicure today because it lasts so much longer than a manicure. With this card I may be able to pay for 2 more. Sweet!
The building is old. I suspect it has been used for a variety of businesses. Its brick walls (interior and exterior) have original archways through which I can watch the ladies and gentlemen get their hair or nails done. The ceiling is now of varnished wood in an overarching shape. Art from a local high school adorns the walls. It’s comfortably old; nicely remodeled.
I wonder how the stylists walk in those shoes: lovely spiked heels, I mean, with interesting straps and designs. The latest in fashion goes by as on a runway before me. It is a world I seldom enter. Meanwhile, Fibi treats me to a foot bath and conversation. She is married to a U.S. citizen and gets to go back to Iran every 2-3 years to visit her family of origin. Whether in Iran or the U.S. she is treated somewhat as an outsider who doesn’t really belong. Only within her immediate family does she feel at home.
She brightened upon hearing that my son lives in Japan (over 10 years now) and married a woman from Taiwan. She was curious about why he went there. As it happens, her cousin went to China four years ago and has loved it.
If you haven’t lived abroad perhaps you can remember moving to a new neighborhood where you need to find a grocery store, a bank, a school, and a doctor you like. I got lost coming to work for the first week I lived here! I do still get lost outside my usual circuit. Everything was new in my neighborhood but at least I knew the language! I never feel at home in a new place until I take a trip somewhere. Coming back, it starts to feel more like home.
Curious, isn’t it, why people go to different parts of the world? An adventure, a romance, or a job may pull you away. A graduation, a deadline, or an accident may push you along. It’s different for each of us but it requires a similar leave-taking, transition. re-entry, and resettlement.
The move doesn’t even need to be physical! You can stay in one place your whole life and still you can make big changes. What changes will you make this year?
I signed a contract for another year beginning August 1, but this year at 3/4 time (my choice). However, I’m trying to figure out how to work 3/4 time when I’ve already developed full-time habits.
There is always ministry to be done. In fact, it didn’t always get done to my satisfaction even at full-time. So, what to do?
Easy to set a schedule; hard to stick to it. Fewer hours per day? One less day per week? One less week per month? Pros and cons to each of them. Conjure up another 1/4 time job, even if it’s voluntary?
Conscious of this, I think I’ll start with an online timer to see how much time is really spent. It reminds me of budgeting for a low income–keeping track of every penny helped me figure out where the money was going and also made me more conscious of every dollar I spent.
If you have good tips, let me know. Meanwhile, there’s a movie to see this afternoon!