Faith Practices for Spiritual Resilience: Body Care

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Psalm 31

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
    do not let me ever be put to shame;
    in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
    rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
    a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
    for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
 take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
    but I trust in the Lord.
I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
    because you have seen my affliction;
    you have taken heed of my adversities,
and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
    you have set my feet in a broad place.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye wastes away from grief,
    my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
    a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.
Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord,
    for I call on you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
    let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
Let the lying lips be stilled
    that speak insolently against the righteous
    with pride and contempt.

O how abundant is your goodness
    that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
    in the sight of everyone!
In the shelter of your presence you hide them
    from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter
    from contentious tongues.

Blessed be the Lord,
    for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
    when I was beset as a city under siege.
I had said in my alarm,
    “I am driven far from your sight.”
But you heard my supplications
    when I cried out to you for help.

Love the Lord, all you his saints.
    The Lord preserves the faithful,
    but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
    all you who wait for the Lord.

Romans 12:1-2

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

***

Five years ago I completed a brief and inglorious stint as a hospital chaplain, one of the requirements for my ordination as a pastor. I didn’t much care for it. I’m not built for the high-energy, high-intensity work of the hospital. But during this pandemic I’ve found myself reflecting often on the lessons I learned there—lessons from the other period in my life where I walked with people through constant crisis. 

Before we were sent out to our floors, my supervisor gave us a bit of wisdom on dealing with people who were grieving, in pain, or in shock:

“Offer to pray. Let them guide you on whether they want that. But if you can at all, get them to drink some water.”

It struck me as odd advice at the time. I was a chaplain, not a personal trainer or dietician. Why should I be their water girl?

Over the course of the summer, as I fetched tiny paper cup after paper cup of water for families reeling from deaths and patients reeling from diagnoses, I came to realize my supervisor’s wisdom. You have to take care of the body before you can take care of the soul. 

More than that, caring for someone’s body is spiritual care. It’s where their spirit is, after all. Nowhere else.

It’s a simple lesson, but somehow not one that had sunk in during my churchgoing childhood. If anything, I had somehow internalized that our bodies were hindrances to the our souls—or spirits, or essences, or true selves, whatever language you prefer. That bodies and souls were enemies, and you had to choose which one to serve. Perhaps I had heard one too many scriptures from Paul’s letters where he rails against the dangers of “the flesh.” Perhaps I had looked too uncritically at stories of the saints and martyrs who starved and beat themselves to try to look more like Christ. Perhaps I had simply learned as a young American girl that my body was a bad thing, something I would have to spend my whole life—and a large portion of my income—trying to shape into something acceptable in society’s eyes. 

When I thought about spiritual practices, I thought about things that took me out of my body—praying with my eyes closed to shut out the world, meditating, fasting, reading scripture or devotionals. Cerebral things, brain things, not body things. In fact, how often have we heard that “out of body experiences” are the most heightened form of spiritual experience a person can have?

But God didn’t breathe spirit into Adam’s body because God couldn’t find anywhere better to put it. God lovingly shaped Adam’s body as the vessel for God’s own breath, the place where it could thrive. Despite what you may have heard from preachers reading their Paul with a sloppy lens, our bodies are not evil. Our bodies were lovingly created to be the place where our souls come to life. They deserve the same tender care from us that God gave them when God knit them together in our mother’s wombs. 

Body care is spiritual care. Especially when we are in crisis. 

As a child, I thought the psalmists were a little overdramatic. Always talking about their bodies wasting away, their tears pouring out, their shame hanging heavy. But as I’ve grown, I’ve come to understand how much our whole selves are connected, and how if you pull on one string all the others can come undone. We give the different areas of our health different names—physical health, emotional health, mental health, spiritual health. But mental health is about our brains, which, last I checked, were a physical part of our bodies, and our emotions are regulated by chemicals and hormones, and our spiritual health is affected by it all. Physical illnesses have mental symptoms. Mental illnesses have physical symptoms. God made us to be whole people; we can’t ignore any part of who we are if we are to live out that wholeness. 

During this pandemic, I’ve talked with friends who are struggling with the simple day to day tasks that used to be no problem. “I’m not sick,” they say in wonder. “Nothing that bad has happened to me. Why can’t I get the job done?” Eventually, we always get around to the fact that they aren’t sleeping like they used to, that they’re eating random junk at random times of the day, snacks scarfed down between hours of Zoom meetings that keep them tied to the chair and to the screen. Little things, but they add up. The basic needs aren’t being met, and so the more complex responsibilities are suffering. The emotional and mental chaos of this pandemic and all its ramifications lives in our bodies too.

Friends, we are all in a crisis. We have all been in a crisis since March. It may not feel like it on a day to day basis. But the body keeps score. Sometimes the body knows what the brain can’t quite grasp—and that knowledge often feels a lot like stress. 

Listen again to our psalmist:

“For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away…
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.”

The psalmist knew—knew viscerally, intimately—that all the parts of him were connected, body and soul and mind. He describes so evocatively what it feels like to have crisis overwhelm you—the sorrow, the exhaustion and fatigue, the shame, the brokenness. 

I wish someone had brought him a cup of water. 

Body care is spiritual care. And I want to be clear: I’m not talking about diets and exercise. I’m not talking about changing your body. I’m talking about caring for the body you have in such a way that you feel safe and whole inside of it. Only you know what that looks like—no magazine, no meal plan, no cultural expectation, no personal trainer. 

There are some basics though. Drink water. Get both regular sleep and regular rest. Move your body in some form or fashion every day. If your doctor has prescribed you medication, take it. If you benefit from therapy or think you might, seek it. Step away from screens for at least an hour a day. Eat food that gives you nutrients and energy. Take a few deep breaths when you feel stressed or stymied.

I’m terrible at a lot of these. I hate water. I hate exercise. I love binge-watching Netflix and I ate marshmallows for breakfast one day this week. I’m not beating myself up over any of that. I’ve finally learned that God doesn’t want me to bully myself. But I also know that I pray with more focus, read scripture with more clarity, serve others with more enthusiasm, and generally live more joyfully and gratefully when I care for my body’s basic needs. 

Our second scripture today is a few brief verses out of Romans. Paul writes “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” I had always heard that word sacrifice, and assumed it meant I had to sacrifice my body to God, which meant, in ways both real and metaphorical, destroying it, killing it, giving it up so that God would approve of me. But to sacrifice something and to present something as a living sacrifice is very different. The animals sacrificed to God in the temple were not half-starved, untended, uncared-for strays. You were supposed to bring your best before God, your healthiest goat or strongest calf or sleekest dove. So to present your body as a living sacrifice to God is not to damage it, but to build it up; to care for it so that it can be the strongest offering you have. And hear again what Paul calls this: “your spiritual worship.”

Body care is spiritual care.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about other spiritual practices to help us build a resilient faith during these challenging days, but this is where we have to begin, strengthening the house where our soul lives, so that we can do the higher-level soul work that helps us not just survive but thrive. 

Friends, we are walking through storms. Be good to yourselves. It is your spiritual worship. 

And please, please, remember to hydrate.

Amen.

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