An Earthy God (New FT column)

 

 

 

Long ago, when I was a senior in the psychology program at Trinity Western University, I took a course called “Physiology of Religion.” I remember how troubled my fellow students and I (most of us Christians) became when we saw the link between an individual’s reported religious experiences and his physical state. Was a sense of Divine Presence really just the consequence of an elevated heartrate and a flood of stress hormones? Could the hearing of a “still small voice” be explained away as the firing of overactive neurons?

I remember lying in my campus apartment with my psychology textbook on my chest, my heart, ironically, racing as I thrust treasured spiritual experience into a harsh, clinical light. And then, I heard a voice. And, though it was exactly the sort of voice that could be easily dismissed on physiological and psychological grounds, I listened.

I wired you. I made your heart, your brain, your nervous system, and your hormones. Why wouldn’t I involve all of those things in my relationship with you?

In that moment, God was asking me to be as earthy as he is—to reject a gnostic distrust of the material and see that of course his interactions with me would have physical implications. Certainly, tragically, mental illness could produce delusions of a seemingly religious nature. But it did not follow that genuine, healthy religious experience would not be embodied. In fact, if I was serious about following an incarnated Saviour, I did not have the option of leaving my body out of it.

A couple of Sundays ago, sitting in church preparing to take communion, I found myself thinking about God’s earthiness once again.

Over the past few months, my husband and I have begun attending a new-to-us evangelical church. It’s similar to many other churches we’ve experienced in the past, but with one key difference.

At this church, we take communion every Sunday.

We’ve never been dissatisfied with the monthly communion rhythm of our previous congregations. So it has surprised us how much we look forward to the Lord’s Supper at every service. We have, in fact, come to feel like seven days is about as long as we want to go without it.

This new, more frequent Eucharistic pattern has made me increasingly grateful for the tangibility of the communion elements. Of all the things Jesus could have asked us to do to help us remember him, eating and drinking are perhaps the most concrete, ordinary, embodied, and, well, elemental. The Lord’s Table has always been the place I most profoundly celebrate Jesus’ sacrifice. But these days, I also approach it in increasing awe of his creativity, his empathy, and his accessibility.

I am slowly coming to see that, in eating the bread and drinking the wine (or juice), I’m not only doing something in remembrance of Jesus, but he’s doing something active and essential inside of me—heart, mind, soul and digestive tract! The bread is nourishing every part of me, and the communion cup is offering a blood transfusion—a weekly dose of vital, essential life. I have no idea how this works. I only know I need it.

A few weeks ago, a guest speaker came to our new church. His name was Daniel Whitehead, and he’s the executive director of Sanctuary Ministries—an organization that helps churches support mental health recovery in their communities. Working through Psalm 130, Daniel explored some ways congregations can care for members contending with depression who find themselves in “the depths.” His prescription was subversively simple: We can respect a cry from the depths, we can wait with those who suffer, and we can listen.

We don’t rush another’s healing, Daniel cautioned us, but we can watch for the morning together. We can collectively offer signs of hope. And, importantly, we can do tangible, visible things—like taking communion together. “If a person can’t feel God’s grace right now,” Daniel said, “let them take it, and hold it and taste it.”

When Daniel was done, we went, nearly all of us, to the front, stretching out our hands to the folks holding the bread and the juice.

“Eat and drink ye all of it,” they said.

So we did.

And next week, we’ll do it again.

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