The Art of Hope: Spirit and Body

March 11, 2018
Luke 13:10-17
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

You’ve probably seen a woman like the one in our gospel reading, a woman whose back is so distorted that she is permanently bent in half.  What would it be like, we wondered, to have your eyes always glued to the ground; to see and yet not see, to have functioning eyes that did so little good restricted as they were to the periphery of a permanently downcast sight?

Some of us may be coping with a similar infirmity and know first hand what her world is like, but even those of us with straight spines and strong backs have felt the burden of problems so heavy they metaphorically double us over, or challenges so restricting that they consume our sight, our thought, and our hearts until we can’t see beyond the sphere of our concerns.  Fears, worries, physical disabilities, family problems, financial anxieties, and all of the troubles that weigh down our soul also shrink our world causing us, like this woman, to develop a sort of tunnel vision in which we can’t imagine anything beyond the troubles we bear.  Our worlds literally shrink in size.  And the more our stress mounts, the less we can see and think clearly because our minds and bodies get caught in an endless feedback loop.  Anxiety shoots adrenalin into our body causing our hearts to race and our muscles to tense, and as our hearts race and our muscles tense, our brains go into survival mode and shut down all unnecessary activity…. like joy, laughter, generosity, social interaction, creative thought, and all of the things that make it good to be human.

A business psychologist once conducted a leadership exercise with a group of would-be managers.  Each participant was given a variety of items and a list of additional items that they had to obtain, and as soon as the exercise began, people began to rush around trading items and negotiating deals, trying to be the first to collect all of the things on their list.  At first, there was a lot of laughing and silly exchanges but eventually, some people discovered that there were a few items on their list which no one else in the room had.  As the difficulty of their situation sunk in, these participants became irritated and some even began hoarding what they had, refusing to do any more trades.  They didn’t want to lose what they had in hand if they couldn’t get everything they required.  At the end of the exercise, these unsuccessful participants complained loudly that the game was unfair.

“I needed an apple, and there were no apples,” said one irritated individual.  Another woman complained that her list included willow leaves.

“No one here has any willow leaves,” she grumbled. “There was no way I could succeed.”

The psychologist confirmed that no one in the room had apples or willow leaves but added, “The cafeteria on the next floor has apples, and look out the window: there’s a willow tree right there.  I never said that you had to stay in the room during the exercise.”

No one had been able to see beyond the limited sphere of that small group in that small room and the more their anxiety and frustration grew, the less they were able to see or accept alternative possibilities. 1  Like the bent over woman, their sight had become constricted and their world limited by their concerns and fear of failure.

When Christ healed the woman in our gospel story, when he straightened her back, he not only healed her in body but also restored her ability to see beyond the tiny world of her disease and troubles.  He enabled her to look into the eyes of those around her, see the world beyond her feet, and stand face to face with her Savior.  In this gospel story, the woman’s physical stance becomes a metaphor for our way of moving in the world — either we live closed off from others and restricted to the small piece of ground under our feet, or we are able to look beyond ourselves, connect to others, and be at one with Christ.

And the reason that this story — this metaphor — is such a powerful one is because the connection between our bodies and spirits is real.  Scientists have discovered that if you are depressed, faking a smile may actually make you feel happier because shaping the muscles of your face into a smile tells your brain to be happy.  So too, when we are consumed by anxiety, we may without realizing it become hunched over, eyes downcast, and the simple act of standing up straight, taking a deep breath, and looking around us may make us more receptive and calm.  During Lent, we have been looking at faith and the arts, considering ways in which writing, story telling, poetry, and the beauty of craft making has intersected with and enhanced our spiritual lives and this Sunday, we turn to the way our spiritual lives are connected to physical movement.  The connection between bodily movement and spirituality is an ancient one and is found in nearly every form of religious worship.  Think about the elaborate ritual dances of indigenous ceremonies.  Think of yoga.  Though Americans have turned it into an industry, Hindus developed yoga positions more than 5000 years ago as a means of developing heightened awareness and spiritual consciousness.  Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art, has its origins in Daoism and Confucianism.  The movements are designed to increase the flow of energy through a person so that one’s mind, body, and spirit are in greater balance and in harmony with nature and the world.  When I took the youth to the Islamic center and the Jewish synagogue, we were struck by the centrality of physical movement in their services.  Muslims accompany their prayers with bowing and lying prostrate in reverence toward Mecca.  In Judaism, whenever the Shema is read — the verse from Deuteronomy that begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” — members of the congregation gather the corners of their prayer shawls, and touch it to the Torah as it is carried around the congregation.  They then touch the prayer shawl to their lips, close their eyes, and bow in prayer.  Joanne Tucker, who creates dance settings for Jewish scripture 2 , says, “It is as if we are gathering in all of our energy to affirm God’s oneness as we find a place within ourselves to relate to God.  After the Shema…. we open back out, uncovering our eyes, letting go of [the fringes of our prayer shawls] as we [pray aloud that we may teach these things to our children.]  Our movement now echoes the intent of the prayer: we become action-oriented, open, and outgoing.”

The ritual movements of these religions are not simply symbolic gestures; because of the connection between mind and body, these physical movements heighten the worshipper’s spiritual awareness, and help open their eyes to God, the world, and others.  Like Jesus straightening the back of the woman to free her from the small constricted world of her ailment, our ritual gestures free us from our self concern and lift us beyond ourselves toward God.

Christianity too, has its ritual movements.  In the early years of the church, Christians adapted the Jewish gestures of respect to the Torah to their new faith, adding the sign of the cross to show their reverence to Christ.  The early church writer Tertullian who lived about 100 years after Christ wrote, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.“ 3  This ancient gesture is still employed by many Christians today, maybe not with the frequency of Tertullian, but at least at baptisms, confirmations, anointings, and Ash Wednesday.  Using only the thumb, the minister or the worshipper traces a cross on the forehead marking them as Christ’s own.  Eventually, as the church grew and spread, additional forms of the sign of the cross became popular.  Besides just marking the forehead, Christians began to make what is now called, “the small sign of the cross,” tracing a cross over the forehead, lips, and heart of the worshipper.  Today, Catholics make the small sign of the cross before the reading of the gospel, while praying, “May Christ’s words be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.”  A more familiar sign used even by many Protestant worshippers today, is the larger cross in which one passes one’s hand from forehead to chest and then from shoulder to shoulder.  Interestingly, Catholic historians believe that this cross was an indirect result of the Monophysite controversy.  Those of you who were here on January 14th may remember that I handed out a cartoon depicting the theological battles in 451 over whether Christ and God existed in one body indivisibly (the monophysite position) or whether Christ and God remained two persons yet one (which became the orthodox position.)  I won’t go through that again but if you are interested you can check out that sermon on our website, but one of the side results of the whole debate was that some church leaders began to declare their allegiance to the orthodox thinking by using two fingers instead of their thumb when making the cross in order to represent the two natures of God and Christ.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell how many fingers a person is using when they just trace a little cross on their forehead, so they started making a big honking cross on their body so that everybody could see that they were using two fingers and were a died in the wool orthodox Christian.  (Kind of like Trekkies doing the Vulcan hand greeting.)

Most people today, however, don’t make the sign of the cross in order to pledge allegiance to a particular theological interpretation of the nature of the trinity.  They do it because, like a dance, they know that our bodies can help attune our minds and hearts to the spiritual.

Just as Jesus straightened the woman’s back to enable her to look into the eyes of others and see the world beyond her area of concern, the way we hold our bodies, the way we move them, the gestures we make, and the stances we take as we pray and worship affect how we feel and think about ourselves and the way we interpret and experience the world and Christ.  C.S. Lewis described the entire Anglican liturgy as a dance.  He said, “[We go to church to enact the service]…. And it enables us to do these things best if …when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it.  As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. …The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” 4

If liturgical movement — if making the sign of the cross, genuflecting, and kneeling — is an important way in which we can concentrate our minds and hearts on the sacred and turn our eyes away from our small worlds to the larger sphere of others — then why did so many Protestant churches get rid of them?  One Catholic jokingly said, “I went to a Protestant wedding, genuflected before I went into my pew, and caused a five body pile-up behind me.”  Some Protestants did retain some of the “dance” of the Catholic liturgy: many Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists still make the sign of the cross at certain times or kneel for prayer or communion, but those of us from what is called the “low church” tradition, retained none of the gestures of worship.  Such gestures were rejected by the more extreme branch of the reformation along with statues, paintings, fancy robes, ornate Cathedrals, and even instrumental music.  For them, scripture and the Word were central to the worship and so the service and the meeting places were stripped of everything that might distract the mind from engaging it with the Word.

A Protestant family was visiting friends and decided to attend Catholic mass with them that Sunday morning.  Their son was 5 years old at the time and after the service, the priest greeted them and asked the little boy what he thought of the church.

The boy sniffed the incense still lingering in the air and he said, “It smells holy.”

The priest said, “Yes it does.  What does your church smell like?”

The boy replied, “Coffee.”

As someone who grew up Baptist, I am not going to suggest that we all begin to kneel, genuflect, and make the sign of the cross in worship.  There is also an argument to be made for the emphasis on the community that arises from a Protestant worship that has stripped away all adornments to leave Christ’s presence to be experienced only through the gathered faithful.  Low church Protestants don’t bow and genuflect because they believe that Christ is not in the building itself or in the person of the priest or even in the bread and the cup, but is present in the people, and so the simplicity of worship itself humbles us before one another.  Nevertheless, whether in worship or in the privacy of your homes as you bow your heads in prayer, I encourage you to think about the way in which the physical motions you make with your body can bring your eyes up from the ground to be better able to meet your Lord.

Using your body and gestures to indicate the words, I’d like us to end with the words of St. Patrick who said:

“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”

Footnotes:

1. https://www.ivyexec.com/executive-insights/2016/tunnel-vision-failure-solve-tough-problems/

2. or Midrash, rabbinic commentaries and expansions on scripture

3. De cor. Mil., iii

4. From Letters to Malcom