All Pointed in the Same Direction: Body Acceptance, Grace, Nonviolence, and Our Whole Lives

by Karen Richter

Advent is short this year, y’all. Because Christmas Eve morning is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the season is 6 days shorter than usual! It’s a great time to do something pondering on the incarnation. I like the incarnation as a metaphor to help us have a healthier understanding of sexuality.

I’ve heard lots of people talk about incarnation as a one-time, limited engagement kind of thing – that it’s just about Jesus. I’ve heard lots of people use the incarnation as an exclusionary doctrine to clobber people who believe differently. And I’m not interested in that at all.

I want to make a case for keeping the incarnation… not in a literal “special Jesus” way but in a life-giving metaphorical way.

The shame around sexuality and BODIES in our culture is the best reason to keep the theology of incarnation! The Word became flesh and lived among us for a time (John 1.14)! Full of grace and truth :: when Jesus was fully human he was full of grace and truth. WE ARE TOO. We are full of grace and truth! Who is full of grace and truth? You are, friend!

We know this. This is not new to us… except sometimes this is new to us.

Living it out  – living INCARNATIONALLY – means having a different relationship with our bodies than we are accustomed to. Living it out means treating ourselves and everyone around us in ways that our culture thinks is downright odd.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means “have you lost weight?” is not a compliment. Yeah, you heard me.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that “I hate my thighs” goes against my faith.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means shoving your 5 year old forward with instructions to “Go kiss Auntie Jean” tears down that child’s body autonomy.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that a school dress code that shames young women and holds them responsible for the learning environment is offensive and just plain wrong. “What was she wearing?” is always the wrong question… whether the setting is a darkened alley or a college party or a public school classroom.

On the positive side, Living INCARNATIONALLY means that when we show up for one another in embodied ways… with hugs or casseroles, on yoga mats or in the dugout, with fist bumps or shared tears, with birthgiving and diapering and nurturing, and yes, with sexual intimacy…  holy space is created.

Living incarnationally means that when we say God loves everybody… we MUST mean that God loves Every. Body. including our own… or we are liars. I like to say it like this: “God loves Every PERIOD! Body PERIOD!”

OWL - Our Whole LivesSo… The United Church of Christ and the Southwest Conference support Our Whole Lives. We do this for wonderfully practical reasons: because we value our young people, we want them whole and healthy. We want them to experience sexuality as part of God’s good gifts of embodiment and creation. And OWL does a great job at teaching sexual decision-making, values, safer sexual behaviors, and consent. In so many congregations, there are these awesome trained facilitators… they live this out, showing up for our students. At Our Whole Lives here at Shadow Rock, we eat together, we ask questions… we do many ridiculous role plays… It’s so fantastic.

BUT HERE TODAY, I WANT TO TAKE IT FURTHER. I want to move Our Whole Lives, and bodies, and incarnation, and sexuality to the heart of my own faith.

We believe that each human person is unique and unrepeatable. So in the OWL classroom and beyond, we foster a culture of consent… moving through the world in such a way that each person’s individuality is honored.

When consent become part of our basic operating system – when consent is entrenched as part of our core value of JUSTICE – when anything other than consent is anathema to us… we begin to move through the world in a non-harming way.

Consent and body autonomy are part of nonviolence for me. Nonviolence is not just nice (‘nice’ being a pretty low bar) – nonviolence is even beyond kindness (although kindness gets us closer). It’s a way of being – a kind of showing up – that’s marked by life-giving interactions with other earthlings.

Life-giving interactions with other earthlings. I have SO MUCH WORK TO DO on this. My way of showing up is way too often characterized by materialism and greed and arrogance.

But continuing to lead Our Whole Lives, even when the students are a little squirrelly… this helps.

Remembering that at my best, I too am full of grace and truth – this helps.

Being here, with you all in the Southwest Conference, being part of a group of OWL facilitators and trainers that embodies the Our Whole Lives values of Self-Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity… this helps.

Knowing in my heart in my bones that God loves me – that I am part of Every. Body. … this helps.

Our Whole Lives

So in this season of Advent, I invite you to be gentle, to remember how this idea of incarnation  – of the Word becoming flesh – makes us all siblings together, God’s children, full of grace and truth. Amen!

 

Tips for Interacting with Newer Humans, in Your Congregation and in Their Natural Habitats

by Karen Richter

My feminism became much more real when my daughter was born. She’s a native Georgian (with the double name to prove it), born where dressing and grooming your girl child is an expensive and full-time hobby. I was known for being a somewhat relaxed parent (maybe even a slacker), so I got this helpful advice from a friend,

“Oh for gosh sakes, don’t bring her to church with her diaper showing.”

There are, you see, cute, preferably monogrammed, little lace bloomers that one purchases to cover diapers when Baby Girl is wearing a dress.

Gigantic bows and lacy bloomers are not part of family culture in Arizona, for the most part. But it still seems that folks don’t always know how to interact with children in respectful, non-gendered ways. And we so want to make children and families feel welcome in our faith communities! Here are some things to try with young humans in your congregation.

  1. Recognize that children have moods just like adults. I have been in faith communities where the children’s behavior is seen as a direct reflection of the parents’ character. It was not fun. Accept that children don’t always welcome interaction with adults they don’t know well. Smile, and move on. It may be that we can learn something from kids who don’t hide their cranky moods, even at church. They are being real – you can do it too.
  2. Physical touch needs consent. When you see a child upset or sad, ask, “Would a hug or a back pat help?” For happy kiddos, you can say, “Are we fist-bumping today?” This can feel a little awkward at first. Practice… and know that you are doing a small part of changing our culture around consent and body autonomy! Plus it’s good for Safe Church culture. New families and parents visiting for the first time may be wary of adults who seem overly familiar with their children. When safe adults model consent, it makes unhealthy adult behaviors more obviously out-of-the-ordinary and protects all children.
  3. Strive for gender-neutrality. OMGoodness this can be hard! I’ve observed that adults most often make comments to little girls on their appearance and comments about ANYTHING ELSE to little boys! Discipline your reactions; respond mindfully and intentionally. Here are some conversation starters you might try…
    • How are you today? (It’s a classic!)
    • Is there something you’re looking forward to this week?
    • I saw a bunny/lizard/fast car on my way to church this morning! Did you see anything cool?
    • We are singing ‘Blahblahblah’ this morning… it’s my favorite! Do you have a favorite church song?
    • Replace “Boys and Girls” as your default way of addressing a group of children! Try Young Ones, Friends, Beloveds, Children of God… Be creative and find what feels natural for you.
  4. Learn kids’ names and help them learn yours. It feels good to be known by name. Decide how you would prefer to be called by children: Mrs. Smith or Ms. Sally… Mr. Johnson or Bill. Parents may feel uncomfortable with family titles like Grandpa Joe.

Are you cringing, thinking about that sweet kid just the other week whose sparkly shoes and hairbow you complimented? Or are you annoyed… seeing my suggestions as political correctness run amok? I recognize that our culture doesn’t encourage open-minded open-hearted ways of communicating with young humans. It’s a place where we can grow and learn – because there’s never a time in which children don’t deserve our best efforts. We must find ways of talking with one another – at all ages – that are true to the values of inclusion, respect, and inherent human dignity.

Let’s keep talking!