When I was in high school I played on the girls’ volleyball team. Not that I was all that good at it or even had any real passion for it. I wound up on the team because a friend asked me to try out with her. The uncomfortable irony was that somehow I made the team and she didn’t.
So there I was in a room full of people much more gifted for the sport than I was. Still, even then I was stubborn and when I didn’t know to do anything else I worked hard. So I did the drills with the other players every day after school. I ran the steps in the gym day after day, week after week. I was young enough still that I don’t remember it being particularly painful. But the sport itself? Well, I still recall going to set the ball at one of our first practices and in that instance I sprained both of my thumbs. From that time on, even after my thumbs had healed, I shied away from the ball. I wasn’t tall enough to spike. My serves were only adequate, I wouldn’t or couldn’t set the ball. And so I resorted, once more, to what I knew best: just plain hard work. Day after day, week after week, and on game days when the coach would actually put me on the floor, I would fall to my knees to bump the ball to a place where someone else could finish the play. And now today, nearly forty years later, my left knee still pays the price for what I did to it back then.
I look back now and find it interesting that no one ever really bothered to work with me to get me past my fear of setting up the ball. No one encouraged me to move towards the pain instead of away from it. No one pushed me to really develop my skills. And so by my junior year it all didn’t seem quite so worth it to me any more. On game days, I was sitting on the bench all the time. By then it was clear they were keeping me on the team for the way in which I would push harder at practice than anyone else, not because I would be an asset in the actual game. A vital part of the team? In that way, perhaps. But all these years later I wonder how it might have been different. By my senior year I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and decided to put my after school energy in other places. And for the next 35 years or so I honestly didn’t pay nearly as much attention to my physical body as I did back then. I haven’t tended to staying in shape like I should have — something I’ve begun to work at again now only in these last years.
And so today we have before us these marvelous words of Paul about the body of Christ. We are reminded through these familiar words that the body is all connected: which, I expect we all know from personal experience every moment of every day. When I have a toothache or an earache, I feel it down to my toes. When my left knee swells up then my right one goes weak as well as it compensates for the pain. Indeed, it’s the pain in the body that I find myself paying attention to now — whether it is in how I feel staggering away from my weight training class or as it cries out to me from some part of the body of Christ in this place. Yes, Paul reminds us today that when one suffers we all suffer together. And that is so.
Indeed, I found myself needing to pay attention to pain in the body of the congregation I am now serving a few days back. This one came in the form of an email from someone who was not particularly happy with me.
Now if I had been paying attention to my own body in those moments after I first opened the email I would have noticed a rather classic response. As I read the words on the computer screen I’m certain my pulse quickened just a bit. I wouldn’t be surprised if my face flushed and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I shifted in my chair. And I hit the reply button and began composing a response. I don’t recall being particularly angry as I wrote — but I was anxious as I found myself bearing down trying to explain myself. And then, after having written only a couple of sentences, I backed away from the keyboard. For I really do know better than to use email for anything I have to think too hard about.
I stepped out into the outer office and spoke to a coworker. I told her what I was working on and she just calmly nodded, not saying a word. I said, “I’m thinking I should call this person and not just reply to the email.” And she just nodded again. And then I said, “I suppose I should do that now.” And she said, ‘Yes, or you won’t sleep tonight.” Clearly after these months of working alongside me, she knows how my body works.
So I went back to my office and picked up the phone. I was doing all I could to step towards the pain and not away from it. Still, I confess that I was more than a little grateful when I got the answering machine. I left a message in as gentle a tone as I could muster. I said I had gotten the email and wanted to address the concerns expressed. I hung up the phone wondering what would happen next. Would the person respond? If they didn’t, what would that mean? And if they did, how would that go?
Later that night I checked email again. The person had responded saying he had gotten my message and that by then it was too late to call. He promised to call on Wednesday. And I wondered how I would deal with this anxiety for two more days.
But on Tuesday morning the person came walking into the building. I stepped out of our staff meeting and chased him up the stairs. For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably all of ten minutes we stood and talked face to face. It turned out to be a good conversation where concerns were expressed and while we did not come to agreement, I think we left that moment understanding each other more deeply and perhaps at least knowing we’d been heard.
Thinking back on it I knew this as well. One of the reasons I don’t like to use email for important conversations is that the encounter then is not full enough. For one thing, I find I assume ‘tone’ in emails. And usually in ways that are not helpful. But I think back on that conversation with one of our own and I remember still the flush in the face. The pause to think before replying. The catch in his voice. It was a face to face encounter with another member of the body. And we are both, I imagine, better for it.
Not that I wasn’t afraid. But a long time ago — at least when it comes to working in the church — I learned the hard way to pay attention to my fear, to my own pain, and to step into it — gingerly sometimes perhaps — but to move towards it still, or it will never go away, it will only get worse. And eventually that part of the body will be broken, cut off, or simply not functioning at all.
It’s part of being the body of Christ together. Any good coach will tell you not to avoid the pain. Sometimes you work through it. Sometimes you compensate for it. Always you seek to strengthen that part of the body or the parts around it. If you avoid the pain, like I did as a member of the high school volleyball team so many years ago, eventually you sideline yourself from the game altogether. And one way or another you pay a price for that. And that is surely not what God intends. Not for high school athletes. And not for us as part of the body of Christ.
And so today I’m grateful today for Paul’s reminder that we are all part of this together. And I’m grateful for his urging to pay attention to the suffering of others who are in this with us. Oh, sometimes that pain will come across as bluster, or as anger… it is true that then, most of all, I find myself most wanting to avoid it altogether. And it is then I find myself especially grateful for the folks beside me who say to me — yes, make the call now or you won’t sleep tonight. Or another who quietly tells me there is nothing to fear. Or another who simply listens and lets me work it out before I respond. Oh yes, these are wonderful gifts of being part of this body as well.
We are indeed Christ’s body together, you and I. This is who we are. This is who we are privileged to ever more deeply become. It will be a journey worth taking even or especially as we step into or towards pain in ourselves or in another. We won’t be worse for it. No, the promise is, that in the end the whole body will be better and stronger for it — and even more fully all that God intends us to be.
- How do you find yourselves thinking about these familiar words from 1 Corinthians now? How does Paul’s image of the church as the ‘body of Christ’ live for you in your context?
- How do you understand the assertion that ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it’? How does that live out in your context?
- In your experience, how is the body strengthened? Injured? Weakened? How is it healed once more?