“You cannot devalue the body and value the soul – or value anything else. The isolation of the body sets it into direct conflict with everything else in Creation.” – Wendell Berry
He danced. David was so overcome with joy and gratitude that he danced before God. His entire body became an instrument for his prayer. (2 Sam. 6:14-22) His prayer was in the rhythm of his feet striking the earth. His prayer was in the strength and grace of his sinew and muscle and marrow as he leapt and spun into the air. His prayer was in the wind upon on his skin, the taste of sweat and blood-iron with each breath. He sang out as he danced in holy rapture. He sang out holy words that vibrated through his body as it drummed in dance upon the earth. David prayed with everything he had. His whole body became an instrument. And he was not ashamed. There were those who tried to make his ashamed. But he was not ashamed.
The Bible is full of people throwing everything they’ve got into prayer. Throwing themselves onto the ground. Throwing their hands in the hair. Crying out. Singing out.
The most moving acts of prayer in the Bible are Jesus putting his hands on wounds so bodies may be whole again, or breaking bread to feed deep hunger.
We gather here as one body to share that bread, to breathe together and sing together, to dance … to bow our heads to the earth, to lay on hands and heal … to pray.
The body in prayer. Our bodies are our instruments for prayer. Our bodies are temples, holy temples with doors we can open and windows, our bodies can be temples full of light and shadow, sound and silence, tastes, smells, textures, sensations, that all may be focused to serve as sanctuaries for the living presence of God. (1 Cor. 6:19-20) Prayer is about focusing our physical selves to be sanctuaries. Focusing our attention on the Holy One. Focusing our sensations. Focusing our passions.
Prayer may look like someone focused like this in silence, sitting in clear and open attention. Prayer may look like someone focused like this while chanting Prayer may look like someone focused like this while crying out in grief, singing out in joy Someone bowing in humility Someone dancing Someone speaking, someone listening, someone gazing upon another, Prayer may look like someone alone, Prayer may look like many joined as one body in community.
Whatever it may look like, Prayer is about bringing to God our whole selves, body, mind, spirit, and society To be made whole, in body, mind, spirit, and society. Yet so often this is not how we approach prayer – prayer is so often cut off from our whole selves, And in particular cut off from our bodies There is a very insidious reason for this: A long standing, insidious, twisted belief that the body is itself evil, inherently, our bodies are dirty and diabolical … and more than that, all of creation is evil, the whole physical world is corrupt at its core. So, if we want to seek God we need to cut off from the body and seek some spiritual realm that’s purified of any physical defilement.
This kind of belief has had many forms through the ages. But the fact is, early in the history of our faith, this kind of belief was declared a heresy. At the time of early Christianity there were a few movements that believed the body and the physical world are evil to the core and that therefore God and heaven and Christ and salvation have only to do with pure spirit cut off from the body and the world. But early Jesus followers spoke clearly against this belief: No! That’s not what it means to follow the Way of Jesus and to find salvation in Christ.
God made all of creation, God made each of us from the stuff of the earth and the stuff of the spirit and our Creator said it is Good, we are Good. At the core, Creation is Good.
Now, things have fallen from their original purpose, forces of error and sin can enslave us and keep us from our true purpose, our true natures as children of the Living God, and therefore cause horrible destruction and vicious, unnecessary suffering. But the way we are saved, through Christ, from those forces of sin has everything to do with the sanctity of Creation. Christians believe that creation is redeemed through God’s act of embodiment.
God’s Word made flesh – that’s what Christians believe about Christ, right? “Flesh” is a very fleshy word. And the “Word” here that’s made flesh is literally down to earth. Not abstract, like it first sounds. This “Word” is the Word God spoke at the beginning to make the beginning, the Word that conjured creation itself, for the sake of love, the Word is the humming in the breath of the Creator as it winged over the surface of the deeps, setting in motion the subatomic ripples that ring out into quarks and electrons and atoms and molecules, cells, organisms, ecosystems, solar systems, stars, galaxies, all the stuff of the universe. The Word and Wisdom of creation, manifest in the waves and harmonies of creation, the rhythms of life and death, creation, destruction. In breath, out breath. In the flesh. Of the flesh. Among us. That’s what we can find in Christ.
The Christ we find in Jesus, born of Mary. A little baby at Mary’s breast, new life – fragile and tender and fierce. Jesus of Nazareth, who grew to be a healer of bodies, minds, souls, and communities, a teacher, a prophet, a savior who prayed and suffered and loved and died and was born anew … so we can wake up and be free to be as God created us to be. God’s Word in the flesh sweating and laboring, breaking and giving so we may receive like manna the fact that God’s Word in Creation is Love.
If you believe that, please know that God loves your body. Know that God’s love pulses through you. Know that your body is a temple for the Living God, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. You need not be ashamed.
Now, Jesus laid bare how the forces of sin can lead us to think that in our limited animal lives we are somehow gods in our own right. He showed how sin can cause our anger to lead us to violence against others. He showed how sin can cause our lust to lead to violation against others. He showed how sin can cause greed to lead to vicious predation against other. He showed how the forces of sin can multiply through society. And he showed that it doesn’t have to be this way.
None of this has anything to do with our bodies being somehow inherently bad. Jesus healed bodies. Jesus fed bodies. Jesus took away shame. Salvation through Christ means, we are free to be whole people, free to be entirely as God created us to be.
So, if you believe this to be true, please love God with all your body mind heart and soul, please pray with everything you’ve got, whether in silence or in dance.
Thanks be God, the Creator of each of you.
(Delivered Aug. 19, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg. Image by Mary Hall)