When God created humankind, we were declared not just good, but very good. Humans were/are so important to the Creator, the Word became flesh. Jesus pitched his tent on our campground and walked among us . . . and touched sick people and ate food and slept and got his hands and feet dirty. And then he washed the feet of others, and his body was anointed. Embodiment is important to our spirituality, to the belief in the One greater than ourselves. Our bodies connect us to God, the earth, and the other.
In my talks, I try to focus on the positives of our bodies, that they are more than just houses for our spirits. Rather than being separate, body and spirit are entwined. The body is not an object to be used and abused or ignored, but rather the vessel shaped by the potter and the tools we use to serve God and one another.
In reading Stephanie Paulsell’s Honoring the Body, I have realized that my initial reaction to body image is shortsighted. Yes, I come from the perspective of media and outer/ideal vs. inner beauty, but as a workshop leader and writer and speaker, I must embrace that sometimes the body just stinks.
The book has helped me think about those bodies, who suffer from illnesses. That mind and spirit are separate from the skin and bones and disease. And I think of my grandparents. They each have their own body/mind/spirit thing.
My Granddad, Mom’s dad, had a stroke when I was a freshman in high school. He was a healthy 75 year old, who worked for justice and God’s Shalom. He had many life experiences, yet much more to do in the world. However, the stroke put him on life support. No longer a body that would ever be able to do more than exist. This wasn’t the life Granddad would want. It was his wish, and my mom and grandmother’s, that the tubes be removed. Before that, we celebrated communion in his hospital room. Ministers and family surrounded the bed. The juice was lifted to his lips, and a tear fell from his eye. The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak. My, what a Spirit Granddad had. But his body was broken.
Not long after, Grandma, developed dementia. The woman who walked everywhere and gardened and did yoga and played with her grandkids was depressed. She had been part of the control group for an Alzheimer’s study, and now she had it. This disease took her mind, but not her body. She remained quite “healthy” for a long time, until the disease prevented her body from remembering how to work. Grandma became a different Spirit in those last years. Body and Spirit were separate. The two could not be celebrated, but grieved for. And yet, my mom, sister, and I held her hands as she entered into eternity. Death embodied. Spirit long gone.
And now, I have my dad’s folks, who just “celebrated” 65 years of marriage, sitting on separate twin beds in the same room suffering from different ailments.
Grandmother has never taken great care of her body (doctors were not her thing), but she raised three boys and a grandson. Her spirit took many licks along the way, no more painful than watching her youngest son, my uncle, die, imprisoned by addiction and disease and the state. Her body and spirit are probably in the same state right now. Neither completely lost, nor completely found. Her eyes sure do light up when she sees Miriam, though. In body (face and shape), I look a lot like my grandmother. She aged gracefully for many years, not turning grey until her late sixties or early seventies. If clean, her hair is still lovely. But the roles have reversed in her life. Her two boys now take care of her, cleaning, feeding, dressing (like my mom did for Grandma). It is easy to curse the body and spirit when they refuse to cooperate.
My grandfather was an actor and a dancer and a teacher. He used his body to teach me how to tap dance to “Singing in the Rain,” and he is remembered at the high school where he taught for acting like bacon frying down on the floor. We danced at my wedding four years ago. But he was already in pain and out of breath. Dialysis three days a week for four years has made him weak and tired. But it is keeping his body alive. Always thin, he is now just skin and bones. And it makes my heart hurt to see him. His mind is sharp, but his will is mostly gone, I think. Sweet and smart and funny spirit, but it, too, is broken. I understand that he just asked to be taken off treatment. Perhaps he will have more energy . . . for a while. And then . . . he will dance forever more.
God created us in God’s very own image. When we look in the mirror, it is God whom we reflect. But God didn’t always look so pretty or young or fit or healthy. I have to remember that Jesus, God incarnate, suffered and died. His body was dirty and scarred and pierced and hard to look at. Hard to celebrate the body that feels so much pain. Yet that body is God’s too. And all that God created is deemed very good.
Former international fashion model Rev. Sarah Renfro seeks to boost the body image of young women by educating them on the myths of media and focusing on divine within. She also preaches and teaches about marriage and divorce, motherhood, ministry, and mental illness.