Here, Jennifer Wagner McGrath remembers a disruptive experience she had years ago, one that caused her to admit that she had not cared well for her body and had ultimately separated from it. She tells of her continued conversations with her physical self today and reflects on the ways that Jesus lived a deeply incarnate life, indwelling a human body.
When I moved to Seattle to attend The Seattle School, I was coming off of four years on the mission field, and I had not lived in the same country for more than nine months. I had endured stories, people, and experiences that left my body ravaged. My plans to return to Uganda after a short sabbatical were altered when I broke into shingles. My legs were covered with excruciating boils, and my dentist informed me that I had five cavities from the malnourishment and improper hygiene. I also was suffering mental and emotional instability that would lead to violent bouts of sobbing uncontrollably at the smallest infraction by others or myself.
A month into enrolling with The Seattle School, one of my dear friends from Uganda emailed me, after months of watching his mom suffer from a mysterious illness. He wrote, My mom is dead. I am now a total orphan and have no hope.
The role of savior had been a familiar one to me for as long as I could remember, and I needed answers. Filled with rage and regret at my decision to leave Uganda, I stormed into Dr. Dan Allender’s office. “Why am I at your school?” I demanded. His face and his eyes offered a kindness that left me feeling uneasy. I wanted him to tell me that I had misheard God when He told me to uproot and join this strange school. I wanted him to tell me that I should, in fact, move back to Uganda and put this whole graduate school silliness behind me.
He did not.
Within two minutes of sitting with him, he asked the most piercing question I had heard up until that point. Six words. “Why do you hate your body?” Immediately, my body started convulsing with deep grief that I had long buried and denied. How did he know I hated my body? I was so angry at him. He was meant to tell me not to stay in Seattle. He was meant to tell me that I was doing the right thing by allowing my 22-year old body to decay in a state of living martyrdom.
He did not.
Through Dan’s question, Jesus prompted me to a much deeper, far more disruptive question than “Seattle or Uganda?” The Holy Spirit was prompting me to wrestle with why it was easier for me to “save” everyone else’s life than it was to value my own. Why I would help a three year old girl in the far flung village get treatment for her injuries, while leaving my own boils and infections to fester unattended for months.
Jesus DID pick up his cross. He did die on the cross. But he also lived a deeply incarnate life. He drank wine and ate delicious food. He allowed a woman to wash his feet with sweet smelling oils with her hair. He escaped into gardens where he could smell sweet fragrances as he prayed.
God will not ask us to surrender what we have not first received. He will not require us to offer Him what we have not first held in our hands and care for.
In order to hate my body, I had to separate from it. I had years of practice. Most of my life has been spent dissociating and disconnecting as a means of escape. Even now, when my husband and I get into a disagreement, my limbic system takes over and shuts down all other senses. I lose all affect, emotion, feeling, and awareness. Even as I write this article and begin to think about moments of strong emotion, my body tells me I need a break. I retreat to mindlessly scrolling through Facebook in order to remove my mind and awareness from the physical sensations of my body—of a tightening stomach and fast heart beat.
Our bodies are the most honest thing about us. They tell the stories that our mouths are unable to speak. They tell the truth of horrors that are not meant to be uttered, but must be uttered. They keep a tally and a score of the adverse experiences, neglectful and abusive relationships, and traumatic moments. It is through engaging with and expressing through our bodies that we are more deeply able to engage and to share the stories that God has written for us. The Creator of the universe values bodies so much that Jesus found it fitting to fully, deeply, and entirely indwell in one.
Shouldn’t we try to do the same?