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An Embodied Faith

Head, Heart, Hands

Steve Watson

Sep 09, 2018

All That You Are Matters

Today we start a two-month series we’re calling An Embodied Faith. It’s about an exploration of life where all that we are matters. Where everything about the human body and mind and consciousness is spiritual. Where religion and spirituality speak to the whole earth and everything in it, and where our experience of everything and everyone in the earth can speak back to our religion as well. Embodied faith says that who and what we call God loves all the earth, and all of ourselves, and all of our neighbor.

Embodied faith is maybe easiest to grasp when we contrast it with disembodied faith. Disembodied faith thinks that the proper subject of religion or spirituality is something separate from our bodies that we might call the human soul or spirit. Disembodied faith thinks this is what God cares about: getting this part of us into heaven when we die, rescuing human souls from the inevitable destruction of everything else on earth. The God of a disembodied faith does not necessarily take interest in or love the whole of the earth, the whole of our neighbors, or even the whole of ourselves. So disembodied faith says we don’t need to either. Disembodied faith is dominant in the most common and powerful strains of American religious life, past and present. But it is toxic and limiting and not true to the liberating, good news of Jesus.

These two months we’ll make the case for the good news of an embodied, Jesus-centered faith and see where that takes us as we consider the implications for how we view and experience our own whole selves, our longings for justice and freedom, our experience of disability and trauma and more.

Let me start, though, with a story. A story of my body.

I’ve had the strange experience this year of being diagnosed with ADHD as a 44-year old. It’s weird to pick up a new diagnostic label so late in life, to learn this thing about myself now that explains so much looking back, but that I never knew.

Here’s how it happened.

I was telling a mentor of mine about the stress I sometimes still experience around writing and around preparing to speak in public. It’s not the actual speaking. I’m not stressed right now, I enjoy this. It’s the preparation, and the writing, the pulling things together I was talking about. And it was awkward for me to say this out loud to someone. Because I speak a lot – it’s part of my job now and of most jobs I’ve had for more than twenty years. And I write a lot too, and I used to be a teacher of writing, professionally. So that was awkward — to admit stress in this thing I was supposed to be an expert in.

I also don’t like admitting weakness in myself, that something is hard for me. I took a lot of pride when I was young at things that came easily, and I tend to experience my problems and failings and challenges with a lot of shame. If I can’t easily do something that’s important to me, I instinctively – right away – start asking what’s wrong with me. And how I need to fix it.

So I’m telling all this to this friend, and I’m kind of spiritualizing it a bit too. Like maybe I need to pray better or trust God better in my stress patterns, and my friend was like: Hey, it’s not my place to diagnose you, but have you ever wondered if there might be a simpler explanation for this, like maybe you just have ADHD. And he explained to me that it’s not that unusual that people who are hitting new challenges in mid-life can learn they have ADHD, which was not as much of a problem, or at least not diagnosed, when they were younger. This was intriguing to me, that there might be a body-brain explanation for something I’d seen as some kind of spiritual or even maybe moral deficit in me.

Now, for reasons we’ll look at next month in my talk on faith and disability, it took me two or three years from this conversation to actually get diagnosed, and then almost by accident.

But wouldn’t you know it, I passed the ADHD test with flying colors. I looked back and remembered that when I was a kid, I’d stand there sometimes with so much energy that I would shake my hands. I would get so hyper my parents would tell me to go run laps around our house. I used to lose stuff constantly too, well into my adult years, sometimes still now. Younger me was super-skilled and hyperfocused at things I liked and that came naturally and had next to zero skill and motivation for all the other things. Still true, on the whole. On and on it goes.

So with this ADHD label, my first thought, I think, Ah, this starts to explain some things. And then my second thought is, You know, I’m kind of curious about this part of myself. And so I’ve been learning about my ADHD brain and body. I’ve been learning I’m not just this bright, motivated guy who’s got all these screw-up parts of my life I’m ashamed of. That’s how I used to see myself.

Instead, I realize, hey, I’ve got the brain and body and personality that I have, and this ADHD piece is one part of that story. Part of what makes me, me. Annoying sometimes, for sure, but part of the man that I am, part of this person that God loves, just as I am. God doesn’t love my spirit or my soul but hate the brain and body I have. I am one thing. Just like every other human alive, you can’t split me up into matter and spirit, loved by God and not, or any other pieces.

And I’m learning that to manage my ADHD, to sort of get the best out of it but not let it hijack me, isn’t just a bodily or spiritual thing either, as if you could separate those. The same exercise that helps my brain focus gives me more joy and focus in prayer, and sometimes I experience it as a form of worship. And the same spiritual exercises that help me follow Jesus also unburden my mind and help me live with more peace and health in my body.

Like you, I’m one thing, a whole and embodied person.

Disembodied faith would tell us to not pay so much attention to our bodies or brains or contexts. They’re not so spiritual or important. Just believe in Jesus, pray.

But embodied faith gives us permission to bring our whole selves to the table, and approach God in a way that validates and nourishes the whole of our bodies and the whole of our unique life experience, and equips us to flourish and be agents of the flourishing of our neighbor and of our world.

These two choices aren’t just two ways of seeing ourselves, though. They’re actually rooted in two different ways of seeing God.

The Moved God

Disembodied faith tells us that God is all powerful and all knowing and never changing, that the good news of Jesus can be reduced to a simple formula that saves our soul, and therefore tells us that God doesn’t care about all of us, all of our body, all of our life context and experience. A disembodied faith’s God has more of a one-size-fits-all approach to people.

This has been a dominant way that Western culture at least has understood the divine, going way back to Plato, who thought of the divine in terms of a some kind of distant, unchanging spiritual ideal. And Aristotle, who imagined the divine to be an unmoved mover, that which shapes all events in the universe without ever being affected by them. The Christian faith, as it accommodated and acculturated to these Greek ideals, gives us a disembodied God.

But I’d argue that the God that Jesus worships and embodies, and the God that the Bible bears witness to isn’t like this at all. I think in Lydia’s talk next week, there will more about Jesus, but we’ll start today with a poem about God.

It’s a poem that was so beloved or so important that it’s one of the only things the Bible editors thought to include twice, pretty much word for word.

They thought it said so much about God too that even though these words were written down in the 8th or 7th century, they are put in the mouth, or the pen, of one of the Bible’s most epic figures from a couple hundred or more years earlier, King David. Now I kind of trashed David all summer, but — love or hate him — he’s a big deal in the Bible’s story and symbolism. And in this poem, we learn about the kind of God David was said to worship, and the kind of God the Bible again and again portrays. 

Let’s read it.

II Samuel 22:1-20 (NRSV)

David sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. 2He said:

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
3my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation.
He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior—
    from violent people you save me.

4“I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and have been saved from my enemies.
5The waves of death swirled about me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
6The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

7“In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I called out to my God.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came to his ears.
8The earth trembled and quaked,
    the foundations of the heavens shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
9Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
10He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
11He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
12He made darkness his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
13Out of the brightness of his presence
    bolts of lightning blazed forth.
14The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
15He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
16The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at the rebuke of the Lord,
    at the blast of breath from his nostrils.

17“He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
18He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
19They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
20He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Do you hear it? The God David sings to is not an unmoved mover, unchanging, unemotional, stoically floating out somewhere in the universe, disinterested in the particulars of David’s culture and context and experience.

No this God is a God who changes course and acts in history. David says: in my distress, I called out to God, and then he listened to me, and then he started doing stuff he wasn’t doing before that. God hears a cry of distress, and God wakes up, or changes his mind, or gets started doing this intervention that God either hadn’t previously planned on doing or at least wasn’t doing beforehand. This is like a template for the Bible’s language about God – responsive, really particular, present in the moment.

This is also not an unmoved God. A God of just steady intellect or theory. This is a God who feels, and feels and acts with a kind of passion. David looks back on his life and borrows the central event of the Hebrew scriptures, the Exodus of his ancestors through the sea out of slavery, to symbolize God’s help for him in his own difficulties. And as he works this metaphor, he imagines that the hot breath of passion out of God’s nostrils parts the sea for the formerly enslaved children of God to march across into freedom. When I was starting to read the Bible a lot, this was one of my favorite images, the one of this song – which you find here and in Psalm 18 as well. It’s God like a dragon – hot breath out of angry nostrils, fire out of his mouth. God feels that much.

Now beyond the metaphor, God feels here about injustice and suffering. This is a God who cares about the whole human condition. The exodus, after all, was not in response to a crisis in religious freedom, or a need to get people praying more. It was a response to injustice and a need for liberation – not about souls, prayer, heaven, or all the other important stuff that disembodied faith limits its interest to. God cares about that stuff, but God cares about all the things, all of us, and – the arc of scripture says – especially about those that cry out in distress under injustice.

Speaking of God’s fond response to a distress cry, this is also a God who likes someone. David says, God was my support. When trouble penned him in, when he was confined and shrunken by stress and fear, God brought him to a spacious place. I love that image. That all of us, in our circumstance-imposed stress, and our self-imposed business and busyness and diminishment could hope for God to lead us into spaciousness, outer freedom sure, but also inner freedom and peace. Beautiful.

But whatever all this meant to David, whatever form his sense of God’s rescue took, he says God did it because he liked me. That liking he knows from God, that love isn’t cool or abstract but it’s formed and colored by affection and pleasure. What we translate from Hebrew as “delight” tries to capture the mind and the heart of God toward God’s kids. A smile of affection, a kind of I can’t help but be kind and generous to my kids. Look at ‘em, aren’t they great?

At risk of repeating myself, here’s what this means. God is not some kind of abstract, unmoved force or spirit who sent his son as with a formula to get his kids out of this hellhole and into heaven. God contains all the passion and wisdom and affection that comes with the best and deepest and highest love that God is. God is interested in and responsive to, God engages with, all that we are – our eternal destiny, our present challenges, our joys and our distress, our minds, our spirits, and our bodies – our whole indivisible selves.

Mind, Emotions, Body

One of the brightest and kind of geekiest people I know is one of my very best friends, who happens to be a graduate of MIT, just on the other side of Cambridge. And he wears his MIT class ring with pride. It’s got that beaver on it they call the brass rat. And my friend John at least tells me that stands for engineering focus of the school and its motto – Mens et Manus. Mind and Hand, or Head and Hand. And that motto has had an important place in my friend’s ongoing career in academia – where he’s argued that great scholarship, great work of the head, should find its connection to innovative application – to the work of the hands, the work of our bodies in the world. Just mind, just head, just intellect isn’t good enough for a university. It needs the hand, the body, expressive action in the world as well.

And that’s part way there, isn’t it, but not enough, because it doesn’t name the heart. I’ve followed closely through the campus ministry of our own Adam and Mary Reynolds the developments at MIT in recent years, where student problems of stress, and sleeplessness, and mental health challenges, and suicidality have been named as crises that call for a response of not just the head, or the hand, but the heart.

So I gather that this year’s class rings, the MIT Class of 2018 brass rat, had another motto on them as well – TMAYD. Tell Me About Your Day. A slogan members of this class tried to popularize on campus. Tell Me About Your Day – it’s a call to community, to empathy, to heart, really. Because we’re people of head, hand, and heart, people of mind, emotions, and body. All of that is made in the image of God. All of that is who we are. All of that is who God loves.

Disembodied faith in an abstract God can be reduced to assent to a creed, saying a certain prayer, or believing certain words and that’s it. You have faith. It’s simple, I guess, but not very interesting, not very helpful, I’d argue.

Embodied faith, though, is engagement. It’s what Jesus famously called loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Loving God with what we say we believe, sure. But also loving God with how we trust or feel, and even loving God – engaging in faith – with stuff we do, regardless of whether it’s even backed by any belief or feeling in the moment. Some people say faith is what they believe. For one guy I know, when people ask him what it means to have Jesus-centered faith, he’s like I don’t know what I believe, actually. That’s complicated. But I know I build a sukkot every fall. He – though he’s not Jewish – takes part in this Jewish seasonal ritual of community and connection to the land and gratitude to God. He’s like that’s how I engage in faith right now.

This speaks to me as I figure out and come to peace with my ADHD. Faith to me these days includes letting go of shame that parts of my brain are defective. It involves embracing that parts of what I love about myself are actually tied to some things I haven’t loved about myself, but coming to understand that God likes me in all of that. Embodied faith for me is learning more deeply that my practice of exercise and friendship and prayer and Bible reading and social justice advocacy are all tied together, all part of how I engage in faith and love the God who likes me with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I want to tell you one last story as I wrap up of a holistic faith helping us engage with our whole self. How embodied faith can affirm and free our interests and help spark a joyful life.

It’s the story of a fellow seminary drop out, but one that I heard on the NPR podcast for entrepreneurs called How I Built This. The story of Bob Moore, the kindly old man whose face you see on all his products in the store, the beans and whole grains and baking mixes sold by his company, Bob’s Red Mill.

Bob early in his life was not a seller of foods or miller of grains, but he was a businessman. He owned and operated a gas station and sold tires for a while and kind of accidentally picked up an interest in healthy eating, whole grain breads, and the old technology of stone ground grains.

Bob Moore also had a Jesus-centered faith and as he approached 50, he didn’t need to work quite as much and wanted to learn how to read the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, so he enrolled in seminary. And what he discovered, or was reminded of as he studied Greek was that God is a God of truth and that all truth is God’s truth.

And Bob was like, you know this stuff about whole grains matters to me, and you can actually read about whole grains here and there on in the Bible, and for me, faith is going to mean making and selling healthier grains in my time. And so Bob Moore engaged in his embodied faith, which included passions about nutrition and technology and healthy eating. Stuff of the world. Stuff of the body. And stuff of God’s interests as well. And as he ran a business, Bob Moore was like this business practice can be part of my faith engagement too, and he celebrated his 81st birthday by transferring a bunch of his profits to every one of his employees.

Because he thought if I’m going to love my neighbor with a good for the world product, I’m going to love my employee neighbors by having us share the profits too.

All of this — an embodied faith.

We’ll keep on this for a few weeks as we look at what it means for God to take on a body, and what all this embodied faith means for freedom and social justice and body image and disability and mortality and more.

But for today, as we just get started, I’d love to close with two invitations for you.

One, I’m calling this week’s tip for whole life flourishing, which is to task:

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing: What part of yourself or your life have you considered beneath or outside of God’s attention? Imagine God takes interest in this. What does that say to you?

What would engaging this part of you with some kind of faith look like?

And secondly, what I’m calling our spiritual practice of the week, is this:

Spiritual Practice of the Week: Each day, take ten minutes to consider that God delights in you. God likes your whole self – head, heart, and hand; mind, emotions, and body – with affection. How do you react?