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Margin in Our Bodies

Psalm 23

Several hundred years ago, a saying originated that is still in use today. To “burn the candle at both ends” is meant to suggest someone who overworks both day and night, never taking enough time or space to rest or recover. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where the saying came from. A candle could double its effectiveness if you set it horizontally and lit both ends at once. The light would burn brighter, and more could be accomplished. For a while. The problem is that a horizontal candle drips wax at a much higher rate. Not only double, but exponentially quickly. Before long, the candle is gone, and the short-term efficiency is long gone.

Americans have become experts at burning the candle at both ends. The news is filled with statistics of ways we wear ourselves out at exponential rates. We eat poorly, exercise poorly, rest poorly. We don’t even stop to listen anymore when we hear another set of obesity statistics on the news, accompanied by the clichéd view of overweight individuals from the neck down. Unfortunately, the media often replaces one unhealthy image with another unhealthy one. When I talk about health, of course, this is not the photo-shopped, binge-and-purge, “ideal body” worship that so often passes for health today. Women especially are expected to live up to an image that is usually too perfect to exist. Instead, I am talking about actual health. Dr. Richard Swenson, author of the book that inspired our series, highlights three elements of a healthy lifestyle: healthy rest, healthy exercise, healthy diet. That is what health looks like. But that is not what we look like. At least a lot of us don’t. So many of us have failed to seek and protect margin in our lives when it comes to all three of these areas:

• We burn away our margin when it comes to our sleep. We go to sleep too late, eyes propped open by the various screens of our existence, and then we struggle to get up the next morning, using caffeine to prop our eyes open throughout the day. Some of us struggle with insomnia, wracked by the emotional and relational stress that we cannot walk away from. Others of us struggle with overworked and overcommitted schedules that can’t even find room for the seven to eight hours of sleep a night that is usually recommended.
• We burn away our margin when it comes to our exercise. Imagine what a time lapse video of our sedentary lifestyle might look like. We sit at work. Then we go to the car and sit some more (what Swenson calls a lazy-boy on wheels). And then we return home, exhausted from all our sitting, and sit down again in front of another screen. We might use exercise for a few weeks as a New Year’s resolution, or a way to drop a few pounds for a class reunion or trip to the beach, or maybe to run in a 5K with the folks at work. But our obligation-driven exercise doesn’t last long, and the lure of sitting wins again.
• We burn away our margin when it comes to our diet. We eat too much fat. Too much sugar. Too many processed foods and not enough whole foods. We eat out too much, and generally pass up the fruits and veggies when we do. And when we feel guilty about our diet, we go out and buy a book that tells us we can lose weight if we do some radical and unsustainable and actually relatively unhealthy diet that promises to make our life better. It doesn’t. And so we seek solace in a tub of Chunky Monkey, exasperating the problem.
There is actually a picture of this marginless physical un-health in Scripture. And we find it in the Psalms. Psalm 22 is a long prayer to God about the struggles that the Psalmist faces. As the Psalmist reaches out to God in pain and frustration, complaining that she or he has been forsaken by God, it is profound to note how many images are connected to the human body. The Psalmist’s message is clear: A God-forsaken life includes an unhealthy body.

• Verse two proclaims: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” Healthy rest eludes the Psalmist.

• Verses 14 and 15 describe a body that is unhealthy and broken: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”

• Throughout the Psalm there are contrasts of feasting and starving, reminding the hearer that the sustenance of our food is not to be taken for granted.

Our bodies and our physical health matter, according to the psalmist. But unfortunately, the Church has not had a good track record of claiming that message. How many times have we heard that this physical world doesn’t matter – what matters is our soul, our spiritual self? As long as you are getting into heaven, that’s all that matters…you are going to get a new body anyway! But this body-soul duality is actually more Greek philosophy than Biblical theology. The theology of Scripture consistently speaks another message:

• In the first words of the Bible, God looks at our physical earth and declares the Creation “good.”
• The Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly talk about divine salvation in terms that are not simply afterlife rewards, but are provision of health and strength in this life.
• Jesus preached about the body. A few weeks ago, we read the passage that “your Heavenly Father knows that you need…” food, shelter, clothes. To not worry about them incessantly is different from declaring that they are not important and living an unhealthy lifestyle as a result.
• And even Paul, who ventured into that body-soul dualism language from time to time, also talked about the Church itself repeatedly using the metaphor of the body. A healthy church is like a healthy body.

Scripture tells us that our spiritual health and our physical health are closely tied together.
To amplify the point, look at today’s Scripture passage. Immediately following the body-depravity of Psalm 22, we find the 23rd Psalm. Many of us know this Psalm by heart, and even those of us who don’t have it memorized have undoubtedly heard it at countless funerals. But J. Clinton McCann Jr. reminds us that there is more to the 23rd Psalm: “it is appropriate that Psalm 23 be read and heard in the midst of death and dying. It may be more important, however, that the psalm be read and heard as a psalm about living, for it puts daily activities, such as eating, drinking, and seeking security, in a radically God-centered perspective that challenges our usual way of thinking.”

This is a passage about the valley of the shadow of death, but it is also about living! McCann suggests that if we are really going to understand this as a psalm about living, we need to read the psalm from the perspective…of the sheep. We spend all of our time talking about the shepherd in the psalm, but where is a shepherd without the sheep? Think about how a sheep would hear these words:

• “green pastures”? Lunch! A healthy and lush meal.
• “beside still waters”? Sounds like a cool drink and a nap.
• “leads me in paths of righteousness”? A safe and healthy walk on a protected path.
• “God restores my soul”? McCann says the better translation is literally, “God keeps me alive.”

The 23rd Psalm is not only about our spiritual comfort in the midst of loss, though it is about that. It is also about the providential care of God of our bodies. It is about physical as well as spiritual health. The contrast between these two psalms shows us that the Biblical perspective is one of body wholeness. Psalm 22 was quoted by Jesus on the cross – “why have you forsaken me?” – a picture of bodily and spiritual brokenness and depravity. In contrast, the images of Psalm 23 were preached by Jesus as a picture of health and protection. Indeed, he called himself the Good Shepherd as a way of reminding us how we are cared for physically as well as spiritually.

So why do we fight against the providence and protection and health that God wants to give us when it comes to our bodies? It’s like we are telling the Good Shepherd that we don’t want His provision…we’ll do it ourselves. But God is still leading us to the green pastures of healthy food, the quiet waters of rest, and the healthy paths of righteous exercise. It is no coincidence that the three elements of health that Swenson points us to are all echoes of the 23rd Psalm. My prayer is that today we would hear the echoes of the Psalmist as we care for our bodies.

I’m not going to tell you how to do that. There are plenty of resources out there to tell us how to eat better, exercise better, and sleep better. As long as you choose who to listen to carefully, and find someone who cares more about your health than another book sale, it’s not that hard to figure out how to do it. What we need is the reminder of why we do it. Because our bodies were created in God’s image and God cares for us, body, spirit, and mind. And because God is calling us: Come be fed by my provision. Come walk in my ways. Come rest in me, by the still waters.
Molly sat in the floor of the grocery store, staring up at the bottles of olive oil. Her life had just become too overwhelming, and she couldn’t take it anymore, so she sat down in the middle of the store. Of course, as folks started to glance at her out of the corner of their eyes, she began to feel more than a little sheepish. She was already late for the post-Christmas party, and had yet to make her dip to share.

She sighed as she collected herself. It is time to buck up and get herself together. No more feeling sorry for herself and make a list! She would stand up, grab a box of partially hydrogenated, corn-syrupy post-Christmas-markdown cupcakes that she saw on the endcap and still make it to the party without being too late. Tomorrow, she would call the financial counselor that their friends recommended every time she started whining about her debt. And she would join the gym that so many of them were members of. And she could take a class on eating healthier at the Mercantile. In fact, she could probably do all of that before noon, and still make it in to catch up on the work that she didn’t get done. Her phone buzzed…her friend wondering if she was on the way. Time to go…this new leaf wasn’t going to turn itself!

But as she started to get up, she stopped. She was done taking the shortcuts. She couldn’t buck up anymore. She paused as she remembered that one meditation class at church that she went to…before she got too busy to go back. Mindfulness, they taught. She tried to take a deep breath. It was the first time she remembered slowing down long enough to breathe in a quite a while. She closed her eyes and took another breath. An image came to her from her aunt’s funeral a couple of months ago. As the preacher read the 23rd Psalm, she imagined herself running and jumping in the green grass, and laying beside the still waters. Once again, she felt sheepish, but this time it was a good thing.

After a few moments, she turned to her phone and texted her friend. She wasn’t going to make it to the party tonight. She would explain later. That night, she went home, and went to bed early. It was the first time in a while she didn’t fall asleep looking at her phone. The next day, after a good eight hours, she decided that she was going to start with one change – one way to recover some of the margin that she was missing. The internet. How much time did she spend on it in a day, a week? She started timing herself every time she surfed, or checking her notifications. When she hit an hour a day, she stopped.

Over time, she was amazed at how much time she regained. She had the time to make the appointment with the financial counselor. Over a few months and more than a few tears shed, she carved out enough money to start buying healthier food. And then to join that gym. She started making other decisions about her time and her money and her body that gave her more energy and helped her to sleep better. She missed out on that promotion at work, but she wasn’t crushed by it. It gave her more time to do yoga, something that really helped her physically as well as mentally and spiritually. During one class, the teacher asked her to focus on a peaceful image. She thought back to what she had been calling her olive oil epiphany, and the image of the sheep in the green grass. She felt touched by the Holy Spirit in her mind and her body, and breathed in deeply as she felt the Spirit flow through her body. Finally, she’d found the margin she yearned for. The space she needed. Finally, she was at peace.

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