Ornamental or Instrumental?
I’d been mindlessly flipping through cable channels when I caught a quick glimpse of TV hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly bursting through the doors of an ornate cathedral, followed by a choir singing The Hallelujah Chorus. When my Spidey senses warned me that something was not right, against my better judgment, I lingered.
A young priest, at the front of the sanctuary, was addressing a packed congregation. Though twenty-seven year old Rev. Emily Bloemker had been told that she was speaking to a crowd gathered to fighting extreme poverty—which made me like her immediately—she was actually being featured on the show What Not To Wear and being given $5,000 to go shopping.
The big idea of What Not To Wear is that some unsuspecting person, who’s been turned in to the fashion police by someone “who cares,” is humiliated on national TV for wearing last decade’s styles or baggy oversized clothes that are really comfortable. The premise of the show, reflecting what is true of our culture, is that bodies are made to be viewed.
Rather than treating bodies as instrumental, made to actually do stuff, our culture views bodies as ornamental. They’re made for the visual enjoyment of others. To this end, Stacy and Clinton go to an awful lot of trouble to shame victims into looking more attractive for others. Sure, they’ll frame it all kinds of ways, like “having some self-respect” or “treating yourself well” but the bottom line is that we sort of owe it to others to give them something scrumptious upon which to gaze.
We expect this from “reality” cable TV, but it should be different in the church, right?
On most Sunday mornings, in the New Jersey congregation where my 6’5” husband cloaked in a huge black robe served, he stood beside petite senior pastor L’Anni, at 5’4”, draped in a lightweight white alb. They were totally Darth Vader and Princes Leah.
L’Anni wore that white Leah robe for one reason. When she didn’t wear it, many of the comments she received as people filed out of the sanctuary after worship would be about her outfit. As a former robe-wearer myself, I can confirm that this situation actually exists. When the outfit is cloaked, the hair becomes the hot topic of conversation. As I make a mental note to knit some liturgical headwear, I’m forced to wonder if this might not be the reason Paul admonished first century women to keep their heads covered in church. I want to believe it.
We’re in a weird pickle, aren’t we? We don’t really want to be scolded for looking plain, and neither are we thrilled when people’s response to the preaching of the word is, “I love your dress.”
There’s got to be a better way.
Although the Church hasn’t yet offered a compelling expression of bodily discipleship, I am clear that it won’t be achieved by the vote of any ecclesial governing body. Rather, transformation happens as regular women, like you and me and Emily and our friends and neighbors, live into the truth that these bodies were given for relationship with others.
This better way finds expression when we use our eyes and face to reflect the irrefutable worth of another human being who needs to know she matters. It happens when we use our lips to preach the word. It happens when our ears listen really well to someone who hasn’t yet been heard. We agree with God’s valuing of these bodies when we take an infant, or adult, in our arms and pour God’s life-giving waters over him or her. We live into a holy truth when we break bread, and pour wine, and offer gifts to the famished ones God loves. We do it when we kneel to pray and then stand to serve God’s people. We do it, from wheelchairs and hospital beds, when, resting on firm and squishy butts, we pray for others.
Here’s the beauty: other women are liberated from our culture’s nutty enslavement to striving for physical perfection as they set their eyes on other women, like you and like me, using our bodies to be in relationship with God and others. When we don’t go on and on about our particular aesthetic faux pas or how tight our jeans are since the holidays or what we wish we could change about our appearance, we bear witness to a new life-giving way.
As we live into truth, both our bodies and the bodies of others are liberated from being viewed as objects to become the agents of the kingdom. See how that’s a win-win? Suddenly, whether we’re wearing a feminine peach clerical shirt to visit the hospital or grungy jeans to work in the community garden, or vice versa, becomes almost entirely irrelevant.
Thanks be to God.