Thursday, 28 September 2017

Taking Care of our Bodies

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
24 September 2017
Romans 14.1-12

So, are you going to do ‘Sober October’? Or ‘Dry January’?
            Are you going to give up red meat for Advent,
            or go ‘vegan for Lent’?

How’s that diet going?
            Are you getting your ‘five a day’?
            Are you keeping your carbs under control?

What does YourFitnessPal .com tell you?
            How’s your resting heart rate?
Are you tempted by the new Apple Watch
            with its updated health and fitness monitoring?

Are you getting enough sleep?
            There’s an app for that, you know,
            to tell you when it’s time for a duvet day.

Is your life in balance?
            Are you happy?
            Is there enough hugge in your life?

We have, as a society, become obsessed with our quality of life.
            And not without some very good reasons.

The obesity crisis, as it is called,
            is a ticking time bomb of hospitalisation waiting to go off.
The NHS tell us that 1 in 4 of us is overweight,
            and we have the highest level of obesity in Western Europe,
                        ahead of countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden;
            making us the so-called ‘fat man’ of Europe.
Our sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets
            are increasing our propensity to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,
with all of the personal and economic costs involved in treating these.

The general stagnation of wages
            and the seemingly never-ending rise in housing costs
has played a contributing factor in this,
            with more and more people ‘treating’ themselves
                        in relatively cheap but unhealthy ways,
            to compensate for their overall lack of resources
                        to take more strategically healthy decisions.

It’s a well-established fact that childhood obesity is a key indicator of adult obesity,
            and that children in economically deprived communities
            are far more likely to be overweight.

This is not just a problem of poor personal choices,
            it’s a structural and systemic problem
            that’s directly related to the inequalities that exist in our society.

Professor Susan Jebb, from Oxford University, comments that,
            “Obesity is a consequence of the abundance and convenience of modern life
            as well as the human body's propensity to store fat,”
And she goes on to note that,
            “The situation in which food is readily available for most people
            has arrived in a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.”[1]

We’re just not equipped, either personally or structurally,
            to deal with the seemingly unending availability
            of cheap and yummy sugar and fat.

And then of course there’s the rising stress levels
            that come with the combination of financial insecurity and poor physical health.
            We live with an ever-increasing expectation
                        that those who have jobs will put in longer and longer hours,
            and we battle with a culture of 24/7 availability
                        where we answer emails in the middle of the night,
                        and bury our heads in our phones whilst we are supposed to be on holiday.
            While those at the lower end of the income spectrum
                        either struggle to find work at all,
            or are taking two or even three low-paid jobs
                        to generate enough income to pay rent and bills.

And all this stress leads to family pressure, relationship breakdown, and time off work,
            with 11.7 million working days lost due to stress related illness in 2015/16.[2]
There’s just too much to do, with too little time to do it,
            and not enough resources to do it properly.

And what, you might well ask, has all this to do with God?
            Why has Simon started his sermon with a mini-lecture on public health?

Well, here’s the thing.
            I think that this is a deeply spiritual issue,
and in my observation it’s not one which we normally speak about in church.

I mean, just out of interest,
            when was the last time you heard a sermon on health and fitness?

Sermons on prayer? Yes.
            Loving one another? Yes.
            Forgiving one another? Of course.
            Working for peace? Absolutely.
But caring for our bodies?...

I think we too often confine our Christian faith to our so-called ‘spiritual lives’;
            and in so doing we deny the reality of the fact that we are embodied beings.

There was an ancient Greek philosophy called ‘dualism’,
            which asserted that the physical world;
                        the one we can see, touch, and taste,
            was merely a shadow of a more real, truly spiritual world,
                        where the imperfections of this world cease to exist.

So, the Simon of this physical world, with all his flaws and imperfections,
            would be understood as merely a shadow
                        of the true, perfected, spiritualised Simon,
                        that exists beyond this world.

Dualism was developed by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle,
            and it was the dominant worldview at the time Christianity developed.
So the early Christians, and those who wrote the New Testament,
            would have found themselves in a world where the split
                        between the spiritual and the physical
            was an accepted part of the way the world was understood.

Interestingly, the Jews had a different perspective,
            and they tended to view the spiritual and the physical as more of a unity,
            with both revealing the nature and glory of God.
In the Jewish understanding,
            worship and prayer were not attempts to reach across a void,
but the conscious opening of human life
            to experience of God who is ever present in and through all things.[3]

So when we come to the New Testament,
            we can trace something of this difference of opinion
            as to the relationship between the spiritual and the physical.

Sometimes it can seem as if God is beyond us,
            and we can only reach him through engaging our ‘higher’, more ‘spiritual’ abilities;
and sometimes it can seem as if God is thoroughly with us,
            at home in the frailty and fragility of our humanity.

However, once we move beyond the time of the New Testament,
            into the second and third centuries,
the philosophy of dualism really takes hold within Christianity,
            and largely eclipses the more holistic approach to life
            that came through the Jewish tradition.

So, the view develops within Christianity
            that ‘the physical world is secondary and shabby
            compared with that which can be experienced by the mind or spirit.’[4]

And we end up with a kind of Christianised version of the classical Greek position,
            where humans are seen as a combination of body and soul,
            arranged in a hierarchy, with the soul ranking ahead of the body.

So forms of Christianity emerged where people would deny or neglect their bodies,
            in order to focus on, or develop, or perfect, their spiritual side.

Of course, in a pre-antibiotic world of disease,
            with death and suffering constant companions through life,
you can see why it would be attractive to people
            to believe that they could transcend their mortal life
            by focussing on the eternal, perfected state of their souls.

Interestingly, this dualism also finds its way into post-enlightenment philosophy,
            to the extent that it is very much still with us today.

I’m not going to blame Descartes for this,
            but I do think we can point the finger at him
            as the one primarily responsible.

You may remember his famous dictum,
            ‘I think, therefore I am’?
Well, this takes us to the heart of his perspective,
            which is that the mind, with its consciousness and self-awareness,
can be distinguished from the physicality of the brain
            as the seat of intelligence.

In other words,
            Descartes asserted that the grey squishy stuff in our skulls
            is merely where our mind sits in our bodies.
According to him, our true being, our true identity as humans,
            is more than the sum of our neurons.

A lot of science fiction, and indeed science,
            has taken this as its inspiration,
as people have wrestled with the idea that our minds can transcend our bodies.

From Frankenstein’s Monster, to Data the Android in Star Trek,
            the question of whether our bodies are inherent to our humanity
            is a recurring theme.
And in medicine, the split between psychoanalytical and pharmaceutical treatments
            remains very much with us to this day.

Sometimes the order of the hierarchy gets reversed,
            with the body finding itself ahead of the soul in the order of priority,
but the underlying split between the two remains.

Are we body, or are we soul?
            Are we physical, or are we spiritual?
            Are we human, or are we dancer?
Should we pay attention primarily to our minds, or to our bodies?

In a sense, we have here the whole basis for the split in contemporary culture
            between science and faith.
If you believe that consciousness is an emergent quality of our physical evolution,
            then you may be tempted to disregard as pre-scientific
            any talk of the spiritual, the noumenal, or the transcendent.
On the other hand, if you believe that we are divinely created beings,
                        made in the image of God,
            then you may be tempted to disregard as un-spiritual
                        any talk of evolution or medicalised treatment.

In a nutshell – if you’re unwell,
            would you go first to your pastor for prayer,
            or to your doctor for medicine?

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy.
            The scientist ignores the spiritual to their loss,
            and the theologian ignores the physical to their cost.

But it is a deeply ingrained dichotomy,
            which we have inherited as the result of two thousand years
            of cultural and religious dualism,
so it takes a bit of unpicking.

And here I want to return to a comment I made earlier,
            which is that we are embodied beings.

It is simply not authentic to the broad witness of scripture
            to separate our souls from our bodies;
and we need to recover something of the Jewish understanding
            of the unity between the physical and spiritual.

Both reveal the nature and glory of God,
            and nowhere is this more clear
            than in the life of Jesus, God with us in human form.

Belief in the divinity of Jesus is not some abstract theological point
            which is increasingly less relevant to our scientific understand of the world.

Rather, it is a crucial challenge to those practices
            which would seek to separate the spiritual from the physical
            by perpetuating the ancient philosophy of dualism.

The idea of God-with-us in the person of Christ
            tells us that you cannot touch the human, without also touching the divine.
You can no more treat the body in isolation from the spirit,
            than you can transcend the physical to live entirely in the spiritual world.

The person who fasts for too long will starve to death,
            regardless of the state of heightened consciousness they achieve along the way,
and the person who attends only to the body and its needs
            will lose touch with the mystery of existence that calls us beyond ourselves
            and into works of love and service.

Many of you will know that I use language of spiritual warfare extremely sparingly.
            I’m not the kind of Christian who sees demons round every corner.

But I do think that sometimes it is appropriate to name evil,
            and in the naming of it to seek to disempower it.

And there are many demons in our world
            that slip through unnamed, and which therefore continue to exercise their hold
            over the lives of those they are seeking to destroy.

So I want to name some demons,
            and give us permission to talk about them and see them exorcised from our lives.

You have heard, I’m sure, the phrase ‘the demon drink’,
            and many of us, myself included, know the temptation
                        to drink a little too much, a little too often.
Well, there were 339,000 hospital admissions last year
            related to alcohol consumption,
and the stories of those who come through he doors of this church
            for our Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
give testimony to the capacity alcohol has to destroy lives
            if its consumption is not regulated in some way.

And related to alcohol are the other addictive drugs,
            which range from tobacco to painkillers, to cannabis and other illegal drugs.
And if we think this stuff doesn’t happen here, we’re wrong:
            the cultural acceptability of substance abuse is prevalent,
                        and Christians are not immune.
But if we perpetuate the dualistic myth that what we do to our bodies,
            is largely unrelated to our spiritual wellbeing,
then we not only give ourselves permission
            to continue in our destructive patterns of behaviour,
            but we deny the image of God in each of us.

And what about diet, exercise, and weight?

I’m very aware that here I stand on treacherous ground,
            because I’m a slim man
            and I don’t want in any way to assume the moral high ground here.

In fact, those of you who have known me for a few years
            may remember that I used to be much bigger then than I am now.
I lost several stone after my 40-year-old man health check
            showed that my cholesterol was significantly higher than it should be.

I remember a few years ago walking round the Christian Resources Exhibition
            (yes, there is indeed such a thing!)
and there was a stall there for an organisation,
            who promote healthy living from a Christian perspective.[5]

One of the people passing by remarked, scathingly,
            ‘oh great, so being fat’s a spiritual issue now, is it?!’
And hearing that really challenged me,
            because I realised that I had been guilty of focussing on my spiritual development,
            to the neglect of my body.
I was going to see my spiritual director,
            but wasn’t taking regular exercise,
and my diet had become one of fast, convenient food,
            consisting mainly of beer and burger, or steak night at Wetherspoons, and the like…

Was it any wonder I was overweight with high cholesterol?

And when I go to ministers’ meetings,
            and I look around me at my fellow clergy,
I see many others are taking the exact same decision:
            Ministers are, all too often, overweight.

We sit at our desks and write our sermons,
            we pray our prayers, and visit the sick, and comfort those who are suffering;
and we neglect ourselves,
            because we have prioritised the spiritual over the physical.

And what has challenged me personally is the realisation
            that this is not only bad practice, it is bad theology.

And the same applies to stress.

I remember my College Principal Brian Haymes once saying to us,
            that many ministers will leave the pastorate due to stress.
And that he wanted to challenge us to consider the possibility
            that this is because they are too lazy to take control of their own diaries.

It’s a provocative proposal,
            but there is some truth in it.

All of us struggle to take control of our own lives,
            and it’s so much easier to allow other people to set our agendas for us.

A church like Bloomsbury, where there is so much going on,
            will suck every moment we are prepared to give it.
There is always more to do, and the need is so great.

And then we factor in the demands of our families, our professions,
            and our other commitments,
and suddenly we find that we are no longer in control of our own lives.

It’s hard, disciplined work, saying no to people,
            and it’s doubly difficult to take back control
            of that which we have already handed over to others.
And yet if we don’t, we simply abdicate responsibility,
            and ultimately pay the cost in our own lives.

We cannot separate ourselves off like this,
            because we are embodied beings,
made in the image of God
            and reflecting the likeness of his son.

Now, the thing is, there is no one-size-fits all solution to these challenges.
            These demons of addiction, obesity, and stress
            will not be exorcised with one simple word.

And here we need to hear Paul’s advice to the Christians in Rome:

‘One person believes it is all right to eat anything,
            while the weak person eats only vegetables.
The one who eats should not despise the one who does not,
            and the one who does not should not condemn the one who does
            – because God has welcomed them…
One person reckons one day more important than another.
            Someone else regards all days as equally important.
            Each person must make up their own mind.’

Not everyone will take the same decision.
            For starters, I’m not convinced that being a vegetarian is a sign of weakness,
                        I mean, I don’t think I have the strength to give up bacon!
            And not everyone will become vegan.
            Not everyone will take up swimming, or jogging, or going to the gym.
            Not everyone will strategically reduce their working hours.
            Not everyone will take full control of their diary.

And it’s not our place to judge the decisions of others here.
            It’s far too easy for us to write our own choices onto the lives of others,
                        and then stand in judgment of them
                        when they don’t measure up to the standards we have set for ourselves.

As Paul puts it:
‘Who do you think you are to judge someone else?’
That is not what we are to do.

But it is our responsibility to ask ourselves
            where we stand before God on this.

And it is our responsibility to stand alongside one another
            as together we seek to live into being our commitment to love each other.

My biggest worry in raising this issue this morning
            is that it would generate feelings of guilt or condemnation.
But my hope is that we can together support one another
            as we find places for honesty about the struggles that each of us has
            to care for ourselves in both body and spirit.


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