Church, Stop Hating Your Flesh

Jesus heals many. When Jesus heals he also forgives. His message centers on wholeness – physical wellness and spiritual wellness, never one without the other. But in my experience, the American church often emphasizes spiritual morality over loving our bodies. The misrepresentation has led to an overall neglect of self-care within the church. We feel the need to choose: pray or sleep, read scripture or exercise, serve or rest. The silent dichotomy lives in the tension of our everyday lives.

How did we pit the human body so aggressively against the human spirit? The physical body has been confused with “desires of the flesh.” We largely misunderstand the relationship between the human body and the human spirit.

The fallout results in deep-rooted shame over the body and its functions. We have embedded a profound ignorance towards our human bodies in church culture today. In everyday life, we fail to recognize God’s creation of the human body as good. In the church’s eyes, body and spirit have been divided, culminating in dualism at a deadly cost.

The best way I can describe dualism is the thought that something has to be either/or. For example: either good or bad, right or wrong, yes or no. Dualism does not allow gray areas or two opposing thoughts in the mind simultaneously. Over the years, symptoms of dualistic thinking in my life included:

  • Ignoring physical needs such as sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. This resulted in autoimmune dysfunction and cardiac complications
  • Favoring spiritual disciplines such as prayer, scripture reading and community involvement over physical health and wellness
  • Feeling embarrassed of my female body, shame for the shape of my hips & breasts, and the need to hide natural curves under paper-bag-shaped clothing (this could be a whole separate blog post)
  • Believing my body was unimportant to care for in response to the body-shaming of women in the American church
  • Ignoring the signs of physical exhaustion and illness for the sake of “pushing forward and helping people” (clearly a personal struggle with people pleasing)
  • Overlooking the link between physical health and emotional/spiritual health

It took a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, a cardiac complication, and six weeks medical leave for me to understand: I need to care for my body like I care for my soul. My physical body may become an empty shell when I die, but it is a gift from God just as the Holy Spirit is a gift from God. The single-most important lesson I’ve learned two years after my diagnosis? Caring for my body is caring for my soul.

 


 

| Photo credit: Anh Phan|

My Affair in LA

I talk about you like I know you intimately. How much time would it take to know all your nooks and crannies? There’s not enough time in the world. But I’m still trying.

I heard of you before I met you – small town beach girl, I heard your name and associated you with fame and wealth and fashion. The distance between us was great so I wrote you off. You were too cool. You were above me and further North than I had been.

I met you when I was eighteen. I was so innocent. You were wild then. Our first night you introduced me to Patrón and we danced in the streets then fell asleep in the early morning hours. I fell in love. We were wild and reckless and free. We dated late at night, drinking wine until the sunrise at six. For three months the liberty was alluring, but the freedom grew chains. I wanted to match your vigorous appetite for fun, but the late nights became a chore and I was tethered to the scene. You introduced me to many friends – some great, who are still with me today. Some intended to harm and manipulate.

We danced back and forth, for three years. Late nights, extravagant fun. Gray days, when I wanted out. But the sweet moments I remember most are in that old apartment. White walls, wood floors. An old fireplace and sunshine through the old bay window. The 1920s building sprinkled dust on my blue velvet pillows, but the built-in bookshelves kept me enamored. Remember the dove that lived above the window? Your present to me, to keep me company in the cold winter months and a friendly voice in the darkness of depression.

You saw it all. You saw me rise and also collapse. I wanted so desperately to leave. On the weekends I traveled south to the beaches and dreaded coming back to you on Sunday evenings. So much had happened and I wanted to go home to childhood and comfort.

Until one day, you became my home.

A switch had flipped. We still had hard days and some restless nights, but you were my comfort. On weekends I wanted to say in our cozy apartment, throw open the windows and listen to the street noises below. The summer after college we moved out of that soul-searched apartment and into a cheap, beachy room closer to the coast. When I think of that room I think of laughter and stray sand grains on the cold tile floor. We found family there, the rooms all close together like a commune. We found deep hope there also.

And when summer ended I moved back to my childhood home. We said it was just for a season until I could find a job in the city. But the job never came. And we both moved on. For almost two years I couldn’t visit you, up in Westwood or Santa Monica or Downtown or Hollywood or Silver Lake. With you, I grew from adolescent to adult. Four years of love and pain and sorrow and I needed time to heal.

For now, we’ve both moved on. I have a new home with my love. And this home is real, with a down payment and a mortgage and fruit trees in the backyard. I’ve taken him to see you – in Westwood and Santa Monica and Downtown and Hollywood and Silver Lake. When we visit, I reminisce about our years together. I think he might get a little jealous.

But he knows – I will always have an affair with you, Los Angeles.

 


 

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop via Unplash

How I Found My Soul

I found my soul in music. I don’t mean everlasting life or the forever of heaven where spirits go after physiological death on Earth. What I mean is the heartbeat, euphoria, aching pain of the soul.

I learned a lot about life and music when I was four. The neighborhood kids were all together at a McDonald’s outside a department store. It was early in the morning. One parent watched all us kids play while the other parents waited in line for TicketMaster to open. We ate little greasy McMuffins, rubbing our hands on the colorful balls in the playpen. Our parents told us later how they sprinted through the store to get concert tickets to The Eagles. Back then I didn’t know the greatness of The Eagles, or that it was their first tour together in fourteen years. Our parents didn’t get the tickets after a witchy woman shoved her way past them and got the last ones. The disappointment was palpable.

It all started for me the next year. I remember going to kindergarten with my best friend. We played together every day and when we got our first CD we memorized every line. It was the height of 90’s grunge so as young ladies who better to listen to than Alanis Morissette. I am eternally grateful for the badassery instilled in us by Jagged Little Pill (and also shocked that our parents let us listen it!). We’d walk in a straight line around the playground, teacher in front and teacher’s aide in back. Us girls were somewhere in the middle, humming and singing “You Oughta Know,” self-censoring the F-bombs. To this day I’ve still got a foul mouth. I’m thinking this might be why.

 


 

The 90s and 2000s paraded a train of music both intoxicating (post-grunge) and embarrassing (Spice Girls). In elementary school my love of music deeply challenged me. I became confounded why long division wouldn’t stick but every word and pitch of *NSYNC would. The battle was real – long division and pop lyrics battling for territory in my brain. Pop music won.

Later, I’d listen to anything from Nelly to Taking Back Sunday – especially if an older boy recommended it. But I came to the conclusion that good music is just good music. Whether it was Country Grammar or Cute Without the E. And I stand by that now – good music is good music. The through line is always artists’ soul.

 


 

One of my most vivid adolescent memories is completely woven into a song. Imagine this – fifteen and going on my first driver’s ed assignment. I completely dreaded it. Some out of touch middle-aged person judging my bad driving skills. When I arrived at the student center the dread became even worse. Matt was my driving instructor. He was young, with tight jeans and scruff. How am I supposted to keep my shit together now?

He wanted to practice merging lanes. So we went on the freeway. He wanted to thrift shop for a Member’s Only jacket. So we drove to Long Beach to thrift shop. It felt like a playdate for teenagers. Except he wasn’t a teenager and it wasn’t a date. He put in the cassette, linked to an audio jack for his iPod. Music flooded the speakers (and my life forever).

Come pick me up. Take me out. Fuck me up. Steal my records.

Those sensual lyrics and soulful harmonica. Okay maybe it was a date.

My life has not been the same since. I seared those song lyrics into my brain, repeating them over and over so I wouldn’t forget. I got home and ran upstairs. Then I Googled. Ryan Adams. His music remains my favorite to this day.

 


In college, I thought music died for me. Everything else seemed to die for me, all interests lost. I was a ghost of myself, translucent and numb. I was so fucking numb. From depression, alcohol, anxiety, Prozac (although this little pill helped me in the long run). But then glimmers of hope shined through.

Prayer. Glimmer.

Friends. Glimmer.

Miley Cyrus, Party in the USA. Unexpected glimmer.

Miles Davis and reading next to my studio’s fireplace. Deep, soul-warming sparkle.

 


 

My husband and I have been married almost three years now. Favorite detail of our wedding? The party favor. A CD, all songs hand-picked and thoughtfully arranged – a soundtrack. When I think of our wedding I think of our vows and family together, but before anything else, I think of our soundtrack.

Music has been a faithful companion. It comforts when sad, livens a dead party, and digs the painful out. I feel life in songs and learned to write from lyrics. Still, I find my soul hidden in music.

 

 

Big Mystery Part 3: Chasing Sunrises

The depth of the canyon echoed silence at night. Once lamps turned off, laughter and gossip settled into the red dirt. Tents and sleeping bags rustled, a few people whispered. Then silence.

Out of the silence, we woke at four o’clock to walk the camp paths on one of our last days in Havasupai. We walked parallel the stream, then over a bridge near the falls. With the sun hiding and the sky dark, pullover hoodies were a necessity. The temperatures climbed during the day, but at night the canyon cooled. We climbed to a ridge in the canyon and sat in a semicircle. Someone spoke about the sunrise and God’s beauty. I rolled my eyes silently in the dark. Like most teenagers, all I could think of was sleep.

Until the sky bloomed the first color.

The dark purple night became a shade of blue. Beneath the blue a cap of orange rose, like heat rising from a lamp. I wanted to pause each second as the sky changed. I wanted to stand in the brief moment of beauty, blue and orange contrasting above me. But with each passing second, the horizon was more beautiful than the last. Blue, mystic and majestic. Orange, vibrant and lively. But the colors alone do not make the sunrise beautiful.

I love the sunrise because I love change. The sunrise speaks to newness on all levels. The changing sky, the transitioning colors. The beauty of darkness right next to the beauty of light. Each new sunrise delivers a new day, a new inhalation, a new mug of coffee, a new set of problems, and a new perspective of the problems. And each sunrise is as consistent as the last.

With each rising sun, an increment of time passes, a sliver of a year. And with each passing day, the Earth turns around the sun as the lights above change. And the night sky bridges the days, ancient stars and moons perpetually shifting perspectives.

Even in the primal, selfish state of sleepiness, the sunrise woke me to beauty. But that’s the mystery of grace, isn’t it?

Big Mystery Part 2: Stargazing with Gloria, Transgender

The temperatures were high but the tiny stream running through Havasupai remained icy. My pack hung in a tree to hoist my food above hungry critters and by then my sleeping bag and clothes were settled in the tent. Blisters covered my feet – four on my right foot and three on my left. I’ll never doubt the importance of Moleskin again. One of the experienced hikers had athletic tape; wrapping my ankles and elevating my feet brought the swelling down considerably. I also had the foresight to stuff a jar of Nutella in the bottom of my pack, which all of the other teenage girls went nuts over. You’d have thought it was a nip of Popov on a detox unit.

We met a local Native American named Gloria*. Tall with calloused hands, she wore cut off shorts and a Beyonce t-shirt for the week we knew her. She also listened to Beyonce’s Dangerously In Love album on her MP3 player continuously, one ear always plugged with a head phone while the other ear joined in conversation. She followed us around and by default became part of the youth group that week.

On the third night of our stay someone grabbed a guitar. A small group of us hiked to a hill in the deep Canyon. The hills serve as refuge should a flash flood come down the falls and cover the campsite during monsoon season. Hiking at night in the Canyon I easily lost track of time. The depth of the stars above me made it feel like midnight, but it could’ve been eight o’clock for all I knew. But I wouldn’t complain, to lose track of time gazing at the night sky is still one of my favorite pastimes.

We sang songs together, our voices carrying through the Canyon. Quiet and then loud and then quiet again. Simple songs of gratitude and joy, covering each tent in the campground with a blanket of peace. Between songs and gazing at the stars, I heard snickers and giggles from some of the girls when Gloria joined us on the hill.

“How’d she find us here?”

“Why won’t she leave?”

Even the older boys couldn’t help making fun – especially when Gloria singled out a varsity basketball player as her crush. I knew she was tall. I knew she was sort of weird. But then again, who isn’t? The teenagers’ disdain didn’t make sense to me. Then I saw Gloria stand along the edge of firelight, peeing over the bushes. Gloria could pee standing up. Never mind that it was weird to urinate in front of a dozen minors – anyone who had keene observation skills now had an answer about Gloria.

I was young. I was slightly surprised. I didn’t have a political thought in my head. But I hoped she would be shielded from the sneers and sarcasm. I hoped she would stay with us on the hill that night. To sit under the stars and ponder the meaning of life. Why should we not sit together and sing and look at the moon above?

 


*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Photo Credit: oxDarkPhoenixo via Deviant Art


See also Big Mystery Part 1: Stumbling on the Rocks, the story of my eleven mile hike into the Canyon.

Big Mystery Part 1: Stumbling on the Rocks

Our bus arrived to the dusty clifftop in the late afternoon. The heat of the afternoon passed as we ate trail mix and sandwiches made with Wonder Bread. I was fearful of the trail ahead – I was young and not particularly strong. I ran track that year as a freshman but still found intense physical activity intimidating.

Eleven miles in, eleven miles out. Water for the hike down and a week’s worth of supplies on my back. Sixty-five pounds to be exact. I felt like a turtle, moving slow with my hard, heavy shell peeking up over my skull.

Once the heat of the day passed they sent us down in sets of four or five onto the first leg of the trail, a mile of switchbacks. As we hiked further, the groups dispersed more so that eventually we paired off with someone at the same pace. A few cross-country boys with wiry legs kept a fast pace alone, competing to make it to the halfway point first. As for me, the hiking was about as hard as I expected. The most surprising thing was walking downhill and the stress on my joints. It’s like the whole sixty-five pound pack and my clumsy body weight rested on my ankles alone. Around mile two or three I found a comfortable, steady pace alongside a girl I just met. She was three years older, and obviously very cool in my freshman eyes.

Along the trail was dirt and dust and rocks everywhere. The red, brown, dusty colors all blended together down there in the canyon. The rocks varied in size. Some were large and flat, meant for climbing. Others were tiny and worked their way into my shoes. The innocent looking rocks became most dangerous — I could hold one in my hand if I wanted. I stepped on one and tripped.

Before I realized what happened I was on the ground. Flat on my back with my legs and belly up, I felt even more like a turtle. The older girl was kind, she helped me climb onto my hands and knees so I could push myself up. But in the process of tripping I rolled my right ankle, now weakened and beginning to swell.

I dusted myself off and continued onward with Older Girl.

But my ankle was frail and puffy. Silently I swore at my ankle for betraying me — we needed to finish the first half of the hike today and the second half tomorrow morning. And we were only four miles in with at least two miles to go before the halfway point.

The sun was setting and darkness settled over the already hazardous trail. Within the next hour I must have tripped another three times. My ankle grew weaker and my hiking boot tighter by the minute. To this day I’ve never heard such harsh self-talk in the corners in my mind.

You can’t do this.

Told you so.

Why’d you even think you could try this hike?

Why’d you even come?

You are not strong enough.

You won’t even make it to the bottom of the canyon.

You are weak and alone.

The embarrassment was the worst in the beginning, then the fear and shame as the pain in my ankle increased. Fear that I would not actually finish the hike. Shame because this morning I thought that I could. I cried silent tears as my own thoughts sabotaged me.

Then I heard Older Girl’s voice. I fell for the fourth time, twisting my ankle yet again. She grabbed my hands, looked me in the eyes and said steadily, “You can do this, I am here with you.” She became Mama Bear, set on protecting me. I did not put a voice to the fearful thoughts but she must’ve seen them in my steady stream of tears. As we walked she continued speaking words of truth over me. I nodded my head slightly in agreement, then later vigorously in agreement until we were both smiling and laughing. My ankle still hurt like hell and I almost tripped again, but she held my hands and guided me along the slippery trail next to a stream. And then we sang. We sang songs about faith and strength and love and a good God who walks with us every step of the way.

That evening was a dark night of the soul. Then my new friend, like an angel, walked alongside me. She couldn’t take away the pain or reverse the injury to my ankle, but she flushed hope, strength, joy, laughter and music into the frightful night air until the stars were glowing and we were singing.

I never felt more relief than when we arrived at the halfway point, pitch black with only flashlights in front of us. I pitched my tent and ate a snack. A small, cold stream divided the campsite – the tiniest finger of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon. The leaders looked at my ankle and said not to remove my boot for fear the swelling wouldn’t allow the boot to fit in the morning. But the darkest part of the night had passed. I removed my boot, placed my foot in the cold stream and looked up at the sky. Inhale. Exhale. If I made it this far tonight, I would surely make it the rest of the way.


Photo Credit: Cosmic Timetraveler via Unsplash


Continue with Big Mystery Part 2: Stargazing with Gloria, Transgender

First Love’s End

 

I don’t know when I knew it was over. Maybe I always knew one day it would end, because really, how often do first loves become forever loves? Maybe it was a gradual disintegration from day one – like the degradation of a compound, it’s half-life immediately ticking away.

We were long-distance so most of my memories of the end are a blur of text messages, frustrating phone calls and tearful nights. I said I was fine, but after the biweekly frat parties or village bar crawls the tears always came. I could not lock them behind my eyeballs any longer. You were everything to me and I was everything to you and we were unhealthy. The love was real but we were frail.

The closest thing to a breakup moment was that time you drove up to LA to talk. We had already drawn our swords with fighting words the night before. “It’s over.” “Fine.” Click. Walking parallel on the sidewalk we bled silently.

We went to a Pho restaurant we had never been to – surprising because we frequented all of the local restaurants in Westwood over the past three years. Enzo’s was our favorite. Well, it was my favorite. They served New York style pizza, dimmed the lights low, and played Frank Sinatra on Saturday nights.

When we requested a table for two at the hostess desk everything was too bright under the neon PHO sign. And too big. With too many people. We were exposed in this place; our breakup moment too intimate for this public, visible setting. I smiled, and almost pretended it was a regular date. We sat in a booth and my eyes scanned the menu. Shrimp rolls. Pad Thai. To this day I always order the same thing. I glanced up, you glanced down. So I looked back down too. My moment of peace pondering Thai delicacies was interrupted by the restaurant’s loud speakers:

I heard that you’re settled down

That you found a girl and you’re married now.

I heard that your dreams came true.

Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.

All I could think was, Stupid fucking Adele song. That’s also when I ran to the bathroom, hiding my face.

I almost made it out of that night unscathed. Without a tear. Without the moment of terrible loneliness that comes with a first big breakup. Of course I knew I was lying to myself. Of course I knew whether or not I cried, the fear of missing you bubbled underneath. But I wanted to lie to myself, damn it. Then Adele had to come in and ruin it all. That song always did make me cry.

I closed the bathroom door behind me, the dead bolt poorly lined up with the drilled hole in the door jam. With the door closed it was more like a closet. When I turned around she sat in a reading chair. Of course it’s a grand reading chair, upholstered in velvet, because she’s British and everything British people do is grand. At least to us Americans. She sat with her beehive bun piled high on her head, her eyeliner fanning out into a cat eye. Her left hand cupped her face: pointer finger touching cheekbone, thumb grazing jawline, remaining fingers supporting chin. She looked at me with an all-knowing look. Don’t drag me into this.

I glared back. Fine. You’re right.

After my breakdown in the bathroom with Adele I had no where to go, except back to the last dinner we’d eat together. I willed myself to unlock the dingy bathroom door and put one foot in front of the other. Each step from the restroom to the booth felt like walking the plank, high over the dark blue unknown. Because I knew once I slid into our plastic, sterile booth it’d be over and all we’d have was this memory from the Pho restaurant.

 


 

Photo Credit: Khachik Simonian