Saturday, March 16, 2013

Our bodies make our prayers

Worship is a contact sport

Imagine signing your child up for youth soccer. A pre-requisite for participation is a five session class with the coordinator of youth soccer. In these classes, your child sits in rows at tables, and listens to lectures and presentations about soccer. Before being allowed to play, they do an exercise exploring the philosophical nature of balls. They get asked repeatedly why they really want to play soccer, and whether they fully understand the importance of soccer. Finally, after a presentation on the history of the development of soccer as a sport, and a short quiz, they are allowed to attend their first actual practice session.

Alternatively, imagine a group of people all who believe soccer is very important, it's healthy and fun, and they claim to center their lives around it. But they never actually play it.

This wouldn't happen, would it? Everyone understands that you learn a sport by playing a sport. It's obvious that if you really love something and it is central to your life, then you would practice it, play it. Although you might take short breaks during the game, or during practice, for the coach to review strategy... might even need certain seasons for recovery or healing, the majority of the time spent learning soccer is spent... playing soccer. Foot to ball contact, that's the key.

My argument is simple: worship and prayer ought to be considered contact sports, physical embodied activities, and the way we learn and engage them should correspond. At each stage of the journey of faith (or stage of development, say, in childhood) the appropriate way to learn about worship and sacraments is through engagement with embodied practices.

If you are a parent wondering how best to raise your child in the Christian faith, or if you have been questioning whether participation in Christian worship and community is integral to the life of faith, I invite you to read on.

Consider how you go to sleep
"Maurice Merleau-Ponty points to an intriguing analogy: sleep. I cannot 'choose' to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. 'I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there' (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I've chosen to climb into bed--but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. 'I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of sleep... There is a moment when sleep 'comes,' settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be' (PP 189-190, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception--a king of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls 'habitations of the Spirit' precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?" (Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies))
Try to replace "sleep" in the above paragraph with "faith." In order to grow in faith, have faith, make room for the Holy Spirit to create and in-spire faith, there are better or worse ways to assume a "posture of reception" where we "succeed in becoming what we were trying to be." 

At least one reason to gather for Christian worship even when it doesn't feel necessary or desirable is precisely because it is one place, one way, for us to take on a faith posture where faith can be received as a gift. Being physically present in the body in corporate worship is a bodily posture of reception. Like any bodily practice, it will be tiring, awkward, painful, thrilling, distracting, and more, depending on the moment. But that is just what it means to live faith in a body. 

And in fact there is no way for us to have faith apart from the body. Our bodies are the frame through which we see and experience the world and God.

This is one reason I love the Rotation Sunday School model our Sunday school director has implemented at Good Shepherd. Leslie knows that children learn best not just through exposure to information, but rather by experiencing the biblical stories in tangible ways--through games, crafts, cooking, story, and art. We are shaped by these actions and activities in ways that then embed the Christian story not only in our minds and hearts but in our bodies. Our Sunday schoolers know the biblical story through their tastebuds and muscles as much as their minds and eyes. 

This is the best and most important reason why I encourage families to participate in weekly Sunday school in addition to weekly worship. There is simply no other way to embed faith in ways that ensure that our bodies make our prayers than by assuming this weekly posture.

Faith is a posture

I wish more of us knew this: Faith is as much a posture or way of being in and perceiving the world as it is a commitment to certain doctrines or beliefs. Unfortunately, much of the educational culture of the church has failed to recognize this. So "old school" Sunday school and confirmation emphasized "stuff you should know" rather than open up the perceptions of the baptized so they imagine the world differently. Even much of Christian worship tends to focus on the "noetic"--what we need to know or believe--rather than actively assuming postures that train the body in faith.

So much of Christian education--such as pre-communion classes or traditional seminary education--has been focused on the intellect and what we are supposed to know, rather than on our bodies comportment or orientation to the world and how our being bodied and storied people is to be shaped that we might live in the world as people of embodied faith.

This is why, for example, I am committed to an open table for communion, and offer communion even for infants and children. I simply don't think children can learn what communion is apart from participating in it. In fact by being excluded from communion, children do learn something, but it is not what we want them to learn. They learn they are excluded, that this meal the pastor just proclaimed in the sermon, presided over at the table, is for lots of other people but not for them. 

The liturgy is its own best catechesis, worship teaches all by itself, and children learn weekly what communion is by their presence in worship and their reception of Christ's body and blood at the table. We can't introduce children to Christ cognitively first, while excluding them from Christ bodily at the table. It splits what can't be and shouldn't be divided.

We're still stuck with the mindset that somehow the right set of classes, or the proper ideas delivered in the right way, will prepare us to receive something that is embodied. We think the intellect takes primacy over the senses. Almost all of contemporary theology, philosophy, psychology, phenomenology, and neurosciences, however, is drawing the opposite conclusion. They are now calling upon the intellect to establish not its superiority or primacy, but its own inferiority and secondarity to embodied faith.

Even our practices of worship have not been reformed sufficiently by this insight. In some ways, various ancient forms of Christian worship are actually more bodily than the forms of worship that have developed since the Enlightenment. Think of the mystery of incense, the drama of processionals, the ringing of bells and elevation of the host at communion, kneeling and standing and prostrating, the iconography of the east, and more. Or in the modern era, many churches have rediscovered this in new ways. Consider the raised hands and dancing of pentecostal worship.

How do we teach the body? 

1) Next week is a holiday that teaches the body. Holy Week is intense. It invites Christians accustomed to at most weekly worship to return to church day after day Thursday through Sunday in commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. The liturgy, the worship, is designed to embody in Christian community the very bodily events of Jesus' final days--washing the disciples' feet, the last supper, his crucifixion and burial, the empty tomb and resurrection appearances. A lecture or book about Easter cannot replace Holy Week worship that embodies it. 

2) But even weekly worship and observance of high holy days will not, all by themselves, develop the kind of posture we need to make space for the Holy Spirit to prepare us for the gift of faith. The body needs daily practices also. No one has made this argument better than my friend Dr. Rich Melheim. His encouragement for families to engage in a Faith 5 is essential for our recovery of the practice of teaching the body and assuming postures of faith. He offers a series of videos on the Faith 5 (Share, Read, Talk, Pray, Bless) here: His forthcoming book is going to be essential reading for families wishing to incorporate embodied faith practices into their family life, and just so holding their family as a body together in faith:

3) I'm intrigued by the early reports of the actions of Pope Francis. Clearly he knows that faith is embodied. He carefully selected different clothes to wear to represent his papacy, and his daily actions have sent indication (with as of yet few words) of how he will lead the Roman Catholic church. Ride the bus rather than the limo. Pay for your own hotel. Wave in an endearing way at the gathered throng. Clearly he knows worship is a contact sport. He learned from one of the great saints on this point, Saint Francis himself, who illustrated so thoroughly how faith is embodied or it is nothing.

4) One of my favorite communities and resources for exploring how these kinds of insights work at all levels for faith formation is this journal and web site:

5) Finally, worship and prayer are not the only Christian faith postures. Other postures include love of neighbor, especially commitment to justice and care of the poor. In this case, the same insights apply. To feed the hungry, we have to place our bodies in places where we have opportunity to feed hungry people. We need to give our money to the ministries we wish to support (remembering Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also, and not the other way around (Matthew 6:21)).

A couple of additional quotes from James K.A. Smith's very fine book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works:

"I understand in ways I don't know, and it is my body that understands. If we're going to make sense of that, what we need is 'a new meaning of the word 'meaning''. And if we are going to appreciate faith as a kind of "know-how" that generates action oriented to the kingdom, we will need to grapple with Merleau-Ponty's account of the materiality of habit formation" (Imaging the Kingdom, 58).

"Perception [the bodies corollary to intellectual understanding] is a fundamentally different (and primary) way of intending the world, of meaning the world with the body. Perception does not just provide the raw materials to be processed by intellection... it's not a matter of valorizing perception over reflection but of reconceiving the nature and task of reflection. What Merleau-Ponty offers, then, is a new account of what we're doing when we 'know' the world objectively in a reflective mode" (Imaging the Kingdom, 72).

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