Monday, September 21, 2009

The Practice of Wearing Skin and Fellowship

One of my daily morning practices is stretching, and I pray as I stretch. My first few prayers are done just in breathing, as I stretch my legs and hip joints to one side and then the other. Breath is ruach, the Spirit, and I invite the Spirit to dwell in me fully again each morning.

After several more stretches have limbered my joints enough to consider standing up again, particularly now as mornings are chilly, I turn and do what yoga practitioners might call an extended child's pose, kneeling with my hands stretching out as far in front of me on the floor as I can. It's a great shoulder stretch, but now it invariably reminds me of the Baptist-Muslim National Dialogue conference I went to in January, and the Muslim Friday night prayers I had the opportunity to participate in.

At that conference Cheryl Townsend Gilkes from Colby College made the connection between the historical fact that many of the slaves brought over to American colonies from Africa were Muslims and many were forced to convert to Christianity by slave owners. But she pointed out that the Islamic influences lingered on in the spirituals.
And so as I stretch in this pose, so similar to the full outstretched Muslim prayer prostration, I remember and hold the stretch long enough to sing a couple of lines: "When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me."

As I get up and stretch my hamstrings and calves, I stretch on each side and sing another song that I learned in Sunday School, that was perhaps a reminder of the Muslim calls to prayer:
Whisper a prayer in the morning,
whisper a prayer at noon,
whisper a prayer in the evening
to keep your heart in tune.
Once I've stood up I continue stretching and praying, mentioning those people whom I am praying for by name—opening the world for God's presence in their lives. Then in my final stretches, I pray for myself.

I think it's very appropriate to pray and pay attention to the body, to the aches and tight spots. I'm continuing to read An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor and she talks about the "practice of wearing skin":
(p. 43) The daily practice of incarnation—of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of 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.
What do those concrete things remind us to do now? Where do we find incarnation these days?

Over the weekend I attended the Northeast regional gathering of the Alliance of Baptists. The Alliance is either a movement or a fledgling denomination. This gathering did not remind me of church business as usual, although a lot of the elements were familiar, but they are thinking about what gathered believers need and want in associational fellowship, while maintaining Baptist principles and a commitment to welcome, hospitality and fun, as well as to social justice and peace. In the preaching, in the singing, in the communion, in their covenant and in the fellowship before and after, these people are doing a fine job of remembering that we are the body, and acting on what Jesus taught—we need to care for the body. I knew a few people there and was warmly welcomed by both those I knew and those I didn't know. The conversations were lively, supportive, and interesting. It really was fun, and such a spiritual boost—that's what a fellowship will do: bring joy (and yes, we sang Leaning on the Everlasting Arms).

Recommended reading from the gathering's sermon: The G
reat Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle:
"Phyllis Tickle offers a creative and provocative overview of multiple social and cultural changes in our era, their relation to previous major paradigm shifts, and their particular impact on North American Christianity. This is an immensely important contribution to the current conversation about new and emerging forms of Christianity in a post-modern environment—and a delight to read!" —The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
"Tickle, author of God-Talk in America and PW's founding religion editor, observes that Christianity is holding its semimillennial rummage sale of ideas."

What is trash and what's worth keeping in the rummage sale? That would be prophecy… All of my reading and encounters convince me that we are and need to be in a time of great change about our religious institutions and spiritual practices. Does ordination (making/protecting order) in/through today's church and denominational structures make sense in this time that we are called to embrace or create change? Since institutions by their nature are resistant to change, they protect homeostasis by choosing/ordaining leaders who will keep the same old order. On the other hand would Luther have had the same impact if he had not been ordained within the institution that he was trying to change? Can you tell I'm waiting on the next step in the ordination process?

While I wait I'll just continue to practice wearing and appreciating my own skin, and hope that you will do the same. As Taylor put it:
(p. 42) One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.
Blessings to us all!

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