SAVING PLACES, SPACES, AND PRACTICES
INCARNATION: The Practice of Wearing Skin
John 1:1-5, 9-14, Psalm 34:8, I Corinthians 6:19-20
Pastor Donna Buell
Saving Places, Spaces, and Practices
Incarnation: The Practice of Wearing Skin
A group of students were asked to list what they thought were the seven wonders of the world. Though there were some disagreements, the following received the most votes: the Great Pyramids of Egypt – the Taj Mahal – the Grand Canyon – the Panama Canal – the Empire State Building – St. Peter’s Basilica – and the Great Wall of China.
While gathering the votes, the teacher noted that one of the students had not finished yet. So she asked the girl if she was having trouble with her list. The girl replied, “Yes, a little. I couldn’t quite make up my mind because there were so many.” The teacher said, ‘Well, tell us what you have, and maybe we can help.” The girl hesitated, then read, “I think the seven wonders of the world are: to see – to hear – to touch – to taste – to feel – to laugh – and to love.”
Like this room the classroom was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop, for everyone recognized their classmate had rightly seen that these simple, ordinary things, which we so often take for granted, are truly wondrous – certainly far more wondrous than anything that can be bought or built with human hands.
When I received that story in an email this summer, I immediately thought of today’s practice from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World – the practice of wearing skin. Now I suspect that some of you may have been puzzled when you first saw that title, wondering, What does she mean, “wearing skin”? What choice do we have about that? What does it have to do with the life of faith? And how is wearing skin something we can practice?
Years ago I led a study on the book Practicing our Faith, edited by Dorothy Bass, which included a similar chapter describing the Practice of Honoring the Body. Both of these chapters noted that many of us have an uncomfortable, or even an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. We may neglect them. We may abuse them. We may ignore the signals they try to send us. Most of the time we simply take them for granted, that is until an illness or injury or the realities of aging force us to do otherwise.
And some of us go to the other extreme, being obsessed with our bodies and with their appearance. It amazes me the amount of time, money and energy that are spent in our society on gym memberships, weight loss programs, beauty products, waxing, tanning, coloring, botoxing, nipping and tucking. Of course it is important to take care of our bodies. And it is good to be concerned about our appearance, at least to a point. But seriously – sometimes we go too far.
Well in light of all of this, what might it mean to practice wearing skin? I mean our actual skin, not the skin we wish we had. What would it mean to honor our bodies? Not the bodies we wish we had, or we used to have, or we hope to have, but the bodies we actually have now? What would it mean to stand, naked, in front of a mirror, as Barbara Brown Taylor describes, and say to ourselves: “There I am. This is the body like no other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”
I think the practice of wearing skin begins with accepting the bodies in which we dwell – respecting them, honoring them, caring for them, listening to them, appreciating them, even loving them. As Taylor writes, we need to “do a better job of wearing our skin with gratitude instead of loathing. [And] No matter what [we] think of [our particular body], we should offer [it] to God, to go on being useful to the world in whatever ways we can.” We need to remember, as Paul wrote, that “our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit within us.”
Now there are tendencies in the Christian faith and in our culture to draw a sharp distinction between things that are of the body and things that are of the spirit. Taylor describes the roots of this tendency quite well when she writes these words:
“Although Jesus was a Jew, many of his earliest interpreters where Greeks, who divided body and soul in ways that [Jesus] did not. Descartes did not help matters by opposing nature and reason in his philosophy. Then along came the Protestant Reformation, with its deep suspicion of physical pleasure, followed by Freud’s dark insights into human sexuality. Add to that the modern scientific reduction of the body to biological matter, overlaid by Victoria’s Secret ads, and it is a small wonder that so many of us are uncomfortable in our flesh. Yet here we sit, with our souls tucked away in this marvelous luggage, mostly insensible to the ways in which every spiritual practice begins with our bodies.”
She’s right. Spiritual practice begins with our bodies. It is in these bodies and through these bodies that we experience life and death, love and fear, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and everything in between. It is in and through these bodies that we give and receive love, that we offer and experience compassion, that we worship God, and that we love and serve God and neighbors. Faith is lived in these bodies – wearing this skin.
And in this, we are in good company. At the beginning of the Gospel John we read that the very Word of God, which spoke creation into being, became flesh and lived among us. In Jesus, God was incarnate – was in flesh. In Jesus, God was embodied, in human form with a body like ours, with eyes and ears, a nose and a mouth, with arms and legs, hands and feet, with a heart and lungs, a stomach and a brain, with bones and cartilage, muscles and ligaments. Jesus was born, he ate, he slept, he stretched, he sang, he laughed, he prayed, he touched, he wept, he walked, he suffered, he died. And it was with that body, wearing that skin, that he called others to follow him, that he listened to the cries of those who called out for help, that he reached out and touched those who were ill and brought them healing, that he embraced the children and blessed them, that he washed his disciples feet, and broke the bread and blessed the cup, and knelt in prayer. And we – who are followers of this Word made flesh – are called to do as he did: to live enfleshed in these bodies – to wear this skin.
After the first gathering of the anti-racism reading group on Tuesday night, I found myself reflecting on the fact that we all live in different bodies, with different shapes and sizes and abilities, and with different colors of skin. So how is wearing skin different for a person whose skin is a different color from my own? Can I be curious enough about that to listen respectfully to what they have to say about their lives and their experience of life? How can I better honor and respect the lives and the bodies and the skin of others? And how can we, as a culture, do that? Taylor doesn’t go there in this chapter, but I think it’s worth pondering.
Practice wearing skin. When I sent those words to Ben this week to put on our church sign out on the corner of Greeley and Myrtle he wrote back “this has to be among the most intriguing messages posted in the past few years!” In some ways it sounds absurd, for wearing our skin isn’t really a choice that is ours to make, is it? But perhaps that is why Taylor uses that phrase, to point out to us how absurd it is for us to imagine that we could do anything other than live and love and serve God in and through these bodies.
So how do we practice wearing skin and why? Well that brings us back to the young theologian I told you about at the beginning of the sermon. We see, we hear, we taste, we touch, we smell, we laugh, we love… We live in these bodies of ours and we engage this world through our senses, for this is how God’s Word and God’s love are made flesh in our lives and in the world around us.
I have a friend who loves to ponder spiritual things. She herself says that sometimes she’s so heavenly minded that she’s no earthly good. But engaging with life through our senses gets our heads out of the clouds, puts our feet back on the earth, and helps us to encounter the presence of God in the everyday stuff of this world and in all of the other skin-wearing people we encounter.
It also keeps us from over-intellectualizing, which can also be a problem for some of us. Some of us spend a lot of time in our heads. We are bright people with good minds. We like to learn new things and to engage our intellect. And we want to be “thoughtful Christians with a thoughtful faith.” And those are good things. But we can spend way too much time in our heads, and our thinking about God can sometimes become a way of keeping the real thing at arm’s length.
Taylor writes that what most of us need is “not more information about God, but more God.” And for her the way to ward against a faith that is too much about ideas and thoughts and beliefs and doctrines are those simple daily tasks of life that keep her grounded in things that are real and tangible. Taylor writes of feeding chickens and digging for potatoes in her garden and hanging wet laundry on a clothes line. For me, one of those daily tasks occurs when I come downstairs each morning, and go into the kitchen to make coffee. Making coffee became a spiritual practice for me about 15 years ago when I was leading a workshop on Celtic Prayer. In the workshop I invited the participants to create a Celtic-style prayer around something that they do each and every day, as a way of helping them practice the presence of God in their daily lives. That day I wrote this prayer, which I later taped inside the kitchen cupboard where I kept the coffee making supplies:
As I make our morning coffee, Lord
may I be conscious of your presence.
As I grind these whole brown coffee beans,
may I be reminded that sometimes we must be broken down
in order to serve.
As the coffee brews
-the color, flavor and scent of the grounds infusing the water-
may I recognize all the ways your Spirit fills my life.
As I pour the hot coffee and the steaming milk into the large white mugs,
may I remember Christ’s love generously poured out for others.
As I carry a brimming coffee mug to my husband,
may it be a symbol of the love and support I offer to him.
As I drink the steaming hot coffee
may I feel the warmth of your love filling my soul.
As I begin this new day,
may I be awake and alert to all that you call me to do and be.
This simple prayer reminds me to engage all of my senses when I make and drink my morning coffee, transforming what might otherwise be considered an addiction into a spiritual practice – one that allows me to practice wearing skin.
Making coffee, folding laundry freshly warm from the dryer, packing a nourishing lunch for a child, changing the oil in a loved one’s car, vacuuming the rug, mowing the lawn, lying awake listening for the sound of your teenager returning safely home after a night out with friends, kneading dough and baking a loaf of bread, offering loving help to a spouse who needs assistance with daily cares. All of these are the kinds of things that can save us – by bringing us into the present moment and helping us to taste and see and touch and hear and smell and embrace this life we have been given to live. These are the things that put us in touch with the daily presence of God.
And these daily practices extend out from the center of our lives and homes into the world, as we extend our hand to the person sitting near us to offer them Christ’s peace, as we offer a listening ear to someone who needs to talk, as we help a neighbor in the community gather their food at the food shelf, as we respect and honor the bodies and the lives of other people, as we pause in the midst of reading the newspaper to whisper a prayer for people and places half way around the world and then try to find a way that we can be an answer to that prayer. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
“The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of the flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies – that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.”
Wearing skin, intentionally, takes practice. And that practice can start here at this table. So as we gather this morning at our Lord’s Table, and share in these breads from all around the world, may we hear and smell and touch and taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ
looks out with compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless others now.
~St. Theresa of Avila