I attended a conference this fall, which broadly focused on growing closer to God, to others, and to my life’s purpose.
In the days leading up to the conference, I was expectant for good things. I’ve enjoyed the conference setting many times in my life. I brought my journal and my pen. I expected to hear inspiring words, learn new things, and think fresh thoughts, or possibly to be moved in my heart in a way that would lead me to encounter God afresh.
Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo
The first evening began familiarly enough. We worshipped together, which typically leads right into speakers. However, before the speakers came up, a leader of a different kind took the stage. I honestly had no category for her. She most closely resembled a group exercise instructor, but as she called out physical movements, she attached powerful phrases of faith to them, sort of like prayers. She beckoned us to pump our arms into the sky over and over, charging us to “push away the darkness.” And she led us to march in place, calling us to “stomp out our anxieties.”
She was clearly a woman of faith who believed in God’s power to rescue and to restore, and she exercised that faith (literally!) with movement in her body to accompany her prayer cry.
I’m a team player, and I did my best to play along. But the whole experience was so foreign and unexpected that, while my body was moving, my mind was stuck on, “What in the world is going on here?” I know how to listen to teaching, to learn something stimulating to my mind, and to respond with my heart. I hardly know anything about connecting my physical body to my life in God.
Given how stunned I was by the experience, I was surprised to find myself sincerely willing to try. I think I’ve known that I generally live quite out of touch with my body. But I don’t know that I ever thought it mattered that much.
That day, though, as I pushed my arms up and down at the conference, I may have heard a whisper of the Spirit. Maybe this is part of what I’m here to experience.
I continued to feel super awkward each time this “movement leader” led us throughout the weekend, but I gave myself to it and to the wondering it spurred. What is the cost of failing to appreciate the gift it is to live in our bodies?
Interestingly, not long after I attended that conference, I was struck with debilitating back pain for the first time. Stay-in-bed-for-three-days back pain. I-have-nothing-to-compare-this-to-but-labor-pain back pain. It was awful.
And I was again left thinking about the body. How incredible its intricacies and yet how limited and limiting it can be. That, too, is a kind of gift, right? My body reminds me that I am finite. I had so many things planned and dependent on me the weekend I ended up in bed. But, life went on. Visitors were hosted. Parties were thrown. Newcomers to the church got welcomed. It was humbling and freeing to remember that the world, and even my specific plans, still spin without me.
Not surprisingly, I’m now catching glimpses of more ways that living in appreciation and in sync with my body is a gift that I’ve largely overlooked. We’ve been experimenting with a focused deep breathing practice in our family as we look to be more present and less reactive to all that comes at us in a day. That helps us be aware of unhelpful thought patterns and unhelpful flash responses, but it’s also intertwined with the body’s inner workings. We can partner in peace with our body, or we can give it over to lashing out.
God gave human beings bodies in the creation of the world. It’s striking to realize that God could have designed things differently. The body is part of God’s intention for us. I’d like to not miss out on its gifts. As awkward as it might be sometimes, I’m committed to staying open to this surprising channel of communication and connection to God.
Michelle Manley likes the space of quiet reflection, reading, and prayer. She enjoys sitting and talking with others, listening for the creative work of God in daily life. Given that, many are surprised to learn that she's an avid sports spectator and fan. She also tackles bike rides and ski slopes occasionally with her nine- and eleven-year-old sons to keep credibility up with them. She is married to Mark and has worked as a pastor at The River Church Community in the areas of Small Group Community and Adult Spiritual Formation for nearly eighteen years.