“One of my favorite things about you is all of your intersections,” the designer said to me as I perched on the futon across the room, “You know I love your selfies on Facebook, all the mascara, big hair, everything. You post about ministry, and being queer, and you also walk around here in these platform stiletto heels. I’ve never met a pastor like that before.”
Part of me wanted to assure her that actually, there was a whole swarm of us out there, pastors and pastors in training like me. Pastors who carry eyelash curlers and tampons in the same purse we carry our prayer books. Pastors who preach the Gospel best through our red painted lips.
But that wasn’t the point.
“The photographer is really good,” she said, “There won’t be any gratuitous booty shots or anything. We’ll show you the photos first, you’ll have a say in what goes out there. I don’t want it to mess up anything for you.”
The point was that I was at a casting call, auditioning for the chance to model a body-positive line of bras and underwear. The church has a reputation for prudishness about anything having to do with things like desire, bodies, or sex. And so me, a seminarian, a pastor-in-training, showing up ready to strip down to my skivvies for a photoshoot seems to a lot of people like a glaring (or at least interesting) contradiction.
But it shouldn’t be.
Christianity, at its core, is a religion about bodies.
It’s about a God who, instead of staying aloof and loftily enthroned in the clouds, chose to enter into the world as a human with a body in the person of Jesus Christ. This Jesus found a new, fleshy throne first in the womb of an unwed teenage girl where he grew, cushioned in her amniotic fluid, until he entered more fully into our realm through the holy portal of the vagina of his mother, Mary.
The church often uses abstract-sounding words like, “the incarnation,” to talk about how we worship a God with a body. Perhaps it’s because the corporal reality of it all is still such a scandal. God made a grand entry on earth not clothed in robes and jewels or even a sweet, white, baptismal-looking robe, but naked, screaming, and covered in blood and vernix.
And as God grew, God walked around with real feet on real dusty roads and hung around, eating and drinking with other people who also lived in bodies. Many of God’s favorite people to spend time with had bodies that were deemed “unclean” by polite society, either because of monthly blood or because of disability or because of occupation. Some of God’s best friends were sex workers. All of them lived as minorities under the reign of terror of the Roman Empire.
And when that same Empire killed God, they stripped him naked before they pounded real nails into real flesh and God bled real blood. God’s lifeless body was cradled in the arms of God’s mother who bathed God in real tears of a mother’s grief. And perhaps even more scandalous than coming to us the first time in a body, when God came back, it was not merely spiritual or symbolic. God came back with a body, ascended to Heaven in a body, forever destroying the lie that bodies are inherently bad or dirty or wrong.
I will forever sing praises about the story of a God with a body because that story is really good news for those of us with bodies.
It is especially good news for those of us who, instead of being empowered to celebrate our bodies, have been oppressed BECAUSE of our bodies or told that our holy, beautiful bodies are dirty, sinful, or wrong.
Whether you are queer and femme and a survivor (like me), or a person of color, or fat, or disabled, or trans, the institution of the church and the Empire have historically colluded with one another and have used tools like shame or abuse to alienate us from our own bodies as a means and method of control.
It happened to me.
I remember sitting in a circle in youth group when I was in 7th grade. The youth leader passed around individually wrapped Hershey’s kisses. We were instructed to look at the kiss and then pass it on. The next person was directed to unwrap it a little and then pass it on. The next person was asked to smell it, the next was told to lick it, and then the next person was told to eat it.
“EW!” the entire room of teenagers shrieked at the idea of eating a piece of chocolate that other people had smelled, touched and tasted.
The message was clear: if you have sex or share your body with anyone, you are dirty and disgusting and no one will want you.
It was during this same time in my life that I was being regularly sexually abused. This activity cemented for me that I could never, ever tell anyone, especially not anyone at the church.
These years of sexual abuse and assault made me feel disconnected from my own body. I internalized the lie that my body (including my sexuality) and my spirit were opposite and opposing forces. I hated my body because I believed it was at fault for what happened to me. I wished I could erase it, punish it, make it disappear. It took years of therapy to even begin to undo the damage done to me by my abusers, and to stop the constant track of Christianese shaming that plays in my head. These internalized lies had real effects on me not only mentally and physically, but spiritually as well. Shaming people’s bodies, falsely cutting people’s sexuality off from their spirituality, it has spiritual consequences.
The more I heal though, the more I realize that my sexuality and spirituality are made of the same substance. They are an integral part of what makes me who I am.
Learning about a shockingly embodied God empowered me to reconnect to my own body in a variety of ways through therapy, yoga, running, dancing, sex. Mention some of these methods, (like yoga or running) to church folks, and they barely bat an eye. Talk about the ways in which sex has been a powerful way not only to reclaim my body and reconnect to my sexuality, but to heal from spiritual abuse perpetuated by the church? It seems unheard of.
So after a week of full of #metoo stories reminding me of the ways that my precious, holy body has been objectified, abused, degraded, repressed, and controlled, when I saw a casting call to model for a lingerie line? I was there.
I felt my black lacy, cheeky shorts rub against my skin underneath my jeans as I sat on that futon and talked with the designer and the photographer about being a faith leader. Then I took off my t-shirt and took some photos in my bra, feeling free and brave, knowing that if anyone found this scandalous, at least I was in good company with my Scandalous, Incarnate God.