Growing up, I had a friend named Caleb* who lived down the street and on school days we would walk to the bus stop together. We would often catch up with Sarah* and together they would bemoan what happened the day before in Catechism. While they mourned the loss of time it took from more worthy endeavors, they painted a picture for me of lavish ceremonies and girls in crisp white dresses. While they lamented, I was enchanted. I didn’t know much about this secret Club, but I knew I wanted in.
I pull my memories like taffy and as far back as I can go, I remember an attraction to the mystery of God. As a young teenager, I visited my aunt and uncle in Wheaton, Illinois. On my second day with them, I found myself on the campus of Wheaton College, open-mouthed as I walked through the maze of the Billy Graham Center. I went room to room, reading every verse on plaques lit from within. The last room featured a giant, imposing, glass cross, glowing blue and white. I stood at its feet, transfixed, strongly resisting the urge to reach out and touch its glossy edges. The Halleluiah Chorus flowed from unseen speakers. I pushed through the exit door into the glaring sunlight and immediately started back at the beginning.
At home, we had a large, black Bible in the cabinet where we kept our photo albums, and some days as a pre-teen, I would sit on the tan shag carpet and slowly flip through its pages. Far before I knew for certain there was an unseen Audience, I laid motionless in my quiet room whispering secret prayers into the dark. Back even farther still to Caleb, whose family had the real and bloodied Jesus on their walls, and who touched their foreheads and shoulders when they prayed. Even though I only saw them do this the one time I ate dinner at his house, it lent legitimacy to his case. While they bowed their heads, I snuck glances at the half-naked Man, displayed on the most prominent wall in their home, blood in perfect droplets from His crown, from His hands. I was transfixed by His eyes, those steady, placid eyes, that calmly observed my deviation, in the midst of the slaughter scene around Him.
My parents exchanged glances at dinner one night when I asked if I could go to this catechism. My father, a lapsed Catholic, gave an audible sigh, and looked at my mother pleadingly. My quest for faith was not overtly rejected. It was more like my mother and father held two ends of a blank canvas for me when it came to figuring out God. They kept up this non-judgmental white space, while I mulled over paint choices and made haphazard strokes. They took me to weeklong Christian summer camps every year that I adored. In my teenage years, they dropped me off at Audio Adrenaline concerts and Wednesday Night Youth Group, elbowing my older sister to keep her eye rolls to a minimum. They bought me T-shirts with the Christian fish on it. They gave me the incalculable gift of grace and space to figure things out for myself, for which I am forever indebted to them. If they were dismayed, they suppressed it, while they obliged my every request, for there was no sin in my family as grave as the sin of closed-mindedness.
My father told me that it wasn’t until I got to college that it dawned on him that this phase might stick. He was convinced that an Evangelical Para-church organization I was attending, was indeed a cult (“are they asking you for money??”), and my mother thought that raising funds to go on a summer missions trip with them was unseemly. In fairness, some of it was. And it was there that I learned there was a Code of Conduct For The Evangelical Christian Woman. It was within this context that I first learned my body was a Temple of the Spirit of God.
Applying for a mission trip within this same organization meant signing an ‘Agreement’. There were Rules. I was still on the outside looking into the Club but I was starting to understand the price of admission. One of the numbered lines said I was ‘submitting to a dress code of modesty, so as to not make someone of the opposite gender stumble into sin.’ At retreats in high school, I had heard similar themes presented to women: modesty, submission, gentleness, quietness. Without having attended the men’s events, I suspected they ingested a different curriculum. It seemed that the older we were getting, the more heavy-handed the topic became. I was becoming suspicious that the topics of modesty and submission were reserved for only half the Club, the half with boobs, the half with the duty to keep those boobs covered up. When I brought up these concerns it became clear to me that others had long ago received the pamphlet on the Code and that I was way, way behind. And so, my introduction into what it meant to have a temple/body of God began and ended with what it was not to do, what it was not to wear, and where it was not to go.
I felt about this Club, and perhaps the Church in general, since I had not yet parceled out the two, similar, maybe, to how an astronaut feels hovering outside the Earth in space. Their home, their belonging and belongings, everything they’ve strived for, everything they love is reduced to a tiny, suspended marble. The Church, and its rules and its codes and its crisp white dresses and suffering Savior with the gentle eyes was my beautiful marble and I rolled it between my fingers, deliberating. I ached for the beauty of it from the outside. I tried to make sense of the lines, discern their coming and going. I wanted to make myself small enough to jump into the ocean blue of the marble, to be swallowed up in belonging. Some days I wanted that more than I have ever wanted anything else in the whole world.
Other days I wanted nothing to do with the misogynistic undertones, the contradictions and restrictions. I couldn’t seem to make sense of what was learned and what was true. I read a book that argued Christian women were equipped to teach in the nursery but not in the sanctuary. This made absolutely zero sense to me. My mother, the first female litigator in her law firm’s history, showed me by example, her equality to a man. My father, a self-professed feminist, had looked me in the eye, more than once to promise me that in this life I could be anything I wanted to be. Were these just boosts to my self-esteem? This bolstering, ingested from infancy, were these made to keep up my magical thinking? Like how my parents took my gift tags to work and had their co-workers sign my Christmas gifts from Santa Claus? Or were they empirically true? Could these, my earthy parents think more highly of me, want more freedom for me than my Heavenly Father? My parents thought I was just as good as any man, but did God?
I saw that my parents had good reason to fear my increasing obsession with religion. They knew things I was just beginning to learn. But they also knew that forbidding my travels to these corners would only ignite my teenage rebellion to do the things they forbade. So, they let me keep painting. I was still painting on that blank canvas but I was no longer depositing indiscriminately. And I was learning to be more careful where I procured my paints.
To be clear, my faith was shaped for the better by organizations, like these, that had things like rules and dress codes. They were the ones who invested most deeply in my spirituality and who taught me to read and understand God’s word. While I have found their container at times restricting, it was that container that gave me context and language to form the most crucial parts of my faith. Also, I want to do things like dress modestly and hold a loving awareness of how my choices affect the temptations of others. But what if the conversation didn’t begin and end there? What if when we talked about our temple bodies, we began with what it can do instead of what it cannot? Instead of starting with no’s: no sex, no drugs, no midriffs, what if we started with possibilities? I’m beginning to think that this is what actually matters: not only what shouldn’t we do with our temples but what our temples should do, what our temples can do.
For Lent this year, I went through the book of Exodus. On January 1st, I began a ‘read through the bible in a year plan’ which I am historically terrible at completing. Because of my slowness in keeping up with it, the book of Exodus in this plan, coincided with my Lenten readings on it. For at least 2 full weeks they converged on the instructions regarding building God’s Tabernacle, His dwelling place. I was reading about the length of the wood pieces and the color of the fabric and the golden candlesticks and yada yada get on with it, Moses, until it thought I could take it no longer. I decided to give myself a break from the saturation of details, so one morning, instead, I opened my contemplative prayer app (‘Pray As You Go’-get it if you don’t have it). Wouldn’t you know it, that day’s prayer, too, was out of Exodus.
It was at this point that I realized God was trying to get my attention. God was giving an excruciating amount of detail to this one thing, and He was having me double-down on that specificity. Jesus in all His teachings, never touched on homosexuality, never talked about birth control, talked only a few times about sex and marriage and was surprisingly vague about a lot of details He knew we would contend with on a daily basis. The Epistles themselves leave quite a bit more grey than my black and white thinking would prefer. Yet here’s chapter after chapter, after nauseatingly detailed chapter, about how to build, decorate and engage with God’s dwelling place.
I got so tired of reading it that I decided to cover the days’ passage on audio. I put on my tennis shoes and started walking because, I figured if I had to do this, I might as well be productive. I got to the part (for the second time that week) about God’s spirit dwelling on the masonry workers and designers building the tabernacle. Years ago, I read a book about Christian creatives that said this was the first instance in Scripture where God’s Spirit is said to rest on a person, here, in a creative capacity. This time I heard it though, I stopped in my tracks.
It took hearing it/reading it/ ingesting it a number of times before I made the connection between the Tabernacle, the coming Temple and the human body. The tabernacle’s purpose was to contain the Ark of the covenant of God, the holy of holies, the place where God dwelled. This holy place was then transferred to the Temple where everyone came to worship, where a priest could only enter once a year to offer sacrifices to God. This is the same place where the dividing temple curtain was torn at the moment Jesus died giving access to God’s dwelling place, the holy of holies, to all people. At Pentecost that dwelling place split into a million tongues of fire and dwelled in the hearts of mankind as the prophets said it would. The tabernacle, the temple, the body: the dwelling places of God. Suddenly it became perfectly clear to me why the writers were taking this much time and giving this much detail.
As I’ve been thinking through the care and specifics of the tabernacle and temple, I’ve been thinking about the implications on my personal life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of proximity. What does it mean that my body is now the temple, now the dwelling place of God? What does it mean when I, in my body, am in proximity to the poor? What does my presence alone, mean, if anything, when I engage with the pain and suffering and brokenness in the world around me? What does it mean to purposely bring the temple near to other people instead of demanding that they make their way to a temple?
And what does it mean if I refuse to be in proximity to the poor? (I’m referring here to materially poor as well as spiritually, emotionally and mentally). What does it mean if I settle for writing checks in lieu of interaction? Does it matter? Does my engagement or disengagement matter? To what extent am I neglecting God’s call on my life if I insist on keeping my temple to myself?
These questions have surfaced as I’ve become more engaged volunteering with a local non-profit whose tagline is ‘mentoring families out of homelessness.’** This organization, backed with some really interesting new scientific data on the topic, is figuring out that relationship building is the most solid way out of addiction, homelessness and crime. Imagine that: Jesus, who told us loving God and neighbor was paramount, was right all along.
We forget that this is the thing He told us to do. We can get easily sidetracked, we wring our hands over what a woman can and cannot do in the church. Can they stand on the altar or only on a stage? Is what they’re doing ‘teaching’ or ‘preaching’? We get tied up in knots over this, making sure everything is fair, making sure our theology is on the right side. But in the meantime, there are places and people desperate for temples that don’t have them.
What if instead we started here: every single person, male or female, gay or straight, whatever the shade, whatever the denominational banner over their heads, any and every person that confesses Jesus as Lord and believes that God raised Him from the grave, has a body that is a holy, amazing, unique, intricately designed, precious, irreplaceable temple. Let’s talk about what that means, the extravagance and the responsibility. Let’s start with the potential over the problematic. Let us repent for where we have failed to go, for surely the Owner of the temple expects a yield on His purchase. Let us have the courage to take it out of its comfortable inertia and bring it near those who need it most, trusting this kind of temple was made mobile for a reason.
**For more information on Imagine Whittier go to www.thewholechild.info or www.imaginela.org