Sunday, June 17, 2012

My left knee's private life; or, the really disturbing implications of the "body of Christ" metaphor for the church

Yesterday wasn't a great day for me.  I woke up not entirely certain which way was up.  So I laid back down, and got up again a bit later, but nothing had changed.

For close to twenty years now (good grief, I'm getting old), my balance has not been right.  Due either to a really bad inner ear problem or possibly a blow to the head caused by slipping on ice, those mysterious nerves and canals and whatnot in the human brain that control my balance (yes, that balance, the one that enables a person to stand up and walk in a straight line and such) went on the fritz; the easiest way for me to describe the result (not the condition, necessarily) is that the right side of my brain tells me I'm walking in a straight line, but the left side tells me I'm veering left, and my brain overall can't handle the mixed data, so it conks out.  It isn't really vertigo, because there is not the usual dizziness or such going with it.  Anyway, I went through some physical rehab to get my eyes and the bottoms of my feet to do the work of keeping me straight instead, and most of the time I have no problem with this imbalance.  Certain things might occasionally set it off; lack of sleep (I'm guessing that was the culprit in this case) or maybe a mild head cold or congestion can cause problems, and I'm not good at getting around in the dark (I'm the one in the movie theater who waits through all the credits until the lights come on, even if there isn't a blooper reel running over the credits).  Only very rarely does this become debilitating, and yesterday was one of those days.  Today is not, thankfully.

What I was a bit overwhelmed by was just how much of a hindrance it was yesterday.  Eventually I got to where I could get around enough to do some laundry, but I'd have to take an hour's nap just to get over loading the washer and/or dryer.  Mowing the lawn, or going to the farmer's market (both of which I'd planned to do) were completely off the table.  Even reading, which would be my normal fallback, was a bad option; my eyes were already working too hard just to keep up.  Any attempt at physical labor (like putting together the bookshelf that's been waiting for months now) was a good way to get something broken, like the bookshelf, or possibly me.  The day ended up being very limited and frustrating.  Not much to do but think, which is always dangerous and ends up in blog posts.

I was, not surprisingly, frustrated at how something that would seem to be so contained, so restricted to a very small portion of my overall body, could essentially knock me flat.  Of course, we're talking about nerves in the general area of the brain, so I suspect most people would not be that surprised that it could have such an adverse affect.  But if you think about it, it isn't just the really sensitive stuff like the brain or lungs or heart that can mess with the whole body if not checked or treated.

Take that titular left knee.  Unlike other parts of me, my knees are in reasonably decent shape.  Let's say, however, that in whatever physical activity I'm doing I get a little off-stride and tweak something in that knee--nothing major, mind you, no "pop" or tear or anything so dramatic or surgery-inducing; just a tweak, something that makes you say "ow!" for a moment and passes (or so you think) quickly.  The "manly" advice is, of course, to "walk it off."  You can still feel it; it certainly doesn't prevent you from walking, but you can still feel that tweak with each step.  Soon enough, though, you're back to walking around more or less like normal.

Or so you think.  Probably unbeknownst to you, your body is still getting those "ow!" messages from your knee, and your brain is sending out all sorts of commands to compensate and try to stop the "ow!" messages from flaring about.  The result, though, turns out to have its own unpleasant consequences; after maybe a day or two suddenly you notice a lot of discomfort in your right ankle, or your lower back, or maybe even your neck or shoulders.  Your body's subconscious response to that little tweak suddenly brings discomfort and possibly real injury to parts of your body that would seem completely distant from that original tweak.

You can see such things in sports fairly often.  A baseball pitcher who alters his throwing motion to cover for elbow discomfort tears a rotator cuff, or sprains his wrist or strains his back or incurs harm elsewhere, for example.  But one doesn't have to be an athlete, and the afflicted area doesn't even have to be so big as that left knee.  Ask someone who lost a toe or two, even the smallest ones, how much adjustment was required even to the loss of such seemingly minor digits.  And let's not forget the appendix, that small and seemingly useless part that can kill you if it bursts too far from medical help.

With these pleasant thoughts in my head, somehow my distracted brain summoned up this blog post from Duke Divnity's Call & Response blog.  With its provocative title it had managed to stay in my head for several days after I had seen it (possibly linked by a Facebook friend?  Though it's two years old I only saw it this week), and had lain quietly in the back of my mind waiting to cause havoc at the most opportune time.

Taking from that column its point about the potential difficulties of the "family" metaphor so often used for the church (Paul speaks so often of "brothers [and sisters]" that it is not feasible to dismiss), my mind went into overdrive on another of the common metaphors found, particularly in Paul, that of the "body" or even particularly the "body of Christ."

My experience of full physical discomfort found its echo in Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 12:26; "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it ... " (Common English Bible, a relatively new translation I'm just starting to explore).  Or, to go back to this entry's tongue-in-cheek title, my left knee doesn't have a "private life."  When something goes wrong there, or in my ankle or brain or pinky toe or whatever, my whole body is affected by it.  So, too, with the spiritual body, suggests Paul.  If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets tweaked, all the parts hurt with it, or are ... hurt by it?

Does this disturb you as profoundly as it does me?  I find this one of the most terrifying verses in all of scripture.  Whatever happens to me affects the whole body.  Does this also mean that whatever I do to myself affects the whole body?  How far does this idea of total interconnection go?  What then is it possible to keep to myself?  Anything?  Does this really imply that anything that I do that provides even potential distraction from my role in the body of Christ (I've always imagined myself some sort of small tendon or ligament somewhere obscure, just trying to hold things together) ultimately ripples through the whole body of Christ and becomes yet another obstacle to the doing of Christ's work in God's world?  Body or bank account, person or purse, mind or matter, no matter what... this is fearful stuff.  I suspect very few, even those who might find the whole body metaphor most useful, really want to think about such implications to the fullest possible degree.

And yet it's a rather inescapable conclusion.  It isn't merely a metaphor of cooperation, or even of accountability in the strictest sense.  That left knee isn't "accountable" to the body; the connection and the complications are simply an inescapable part of the relationship.

I don't think there is any metaphor for the church that works perfectly; we are given so many because all of them get at some part of the truth about the church without necessarily exhausting that truth.  The "body" metaphor is rather compelling, partly because Paul works it out so directly in 1 Corinthians, but I somehow suspect even he must have boggled a bit when he thought about just what he was saying.  It is a powerful and fearful thing, I think, to be called a part -- even a tiny little obscure tendon -- of the body of Christ.

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