Embodiment in Worship
by Sarah Werner
We all bring our bodies to worship. Though we don’t often think about embodiment in the context of worship, it is fundamental to who we are and how we move in space.
My body is different than many other bodies in my congregation because I have a disability that affects how I move through the world. Instead of walking on two feet like a lumbering bear, I roll in my wheelchair, like a river flowing downstream.
My body looks different too, all arms and torso and skinny legs. And there is nothing that is bad about this; it’s the shape of my life, one of many unique shapes. Because I look different than other people, I have spent a lot of time thinking about embodiment in general, what it feels like to be human in my particular context.
If I had lived only forty years ago, my body would not have been welcome in public spaces.
I wouldn’t be entitled to receive an education or have a job or even enter a building. Still today there are churches that I would not be invited to enter because I can’t climb steps, and there are many more churches where I would not be invited into a position of leadership for the simple reason that there is no access to the altar or pulpit. The fact that I am able to have a position of leadership at my current congregation, Columbus Mennonite Church, is because there were others who came before me who helped the congregation make a commitment to welcome all bodies to worship. When I am up on the stage leading worship or preaching, my body, wheelchair and all, reflects the character of the worshiping congregation. We are each uniquely human: old, young, tall, short, light on the melanin, heavy with melanin, and with differing levels of ability. We bring all of this to worship, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Embodiment is also reflected in how we move our enfleshed selves during worship.
In many congregations of which I have been a part, we are fairly uncomfortable with moving at all when we sing. We might bob our heads or clap or sway side to side ever so slightly if the hymn is particularly rousing, but that’s it. I think this is a holdover from when dancing was frowned upon in white churches as somehow inviting in the devil. At the root of this bias is the belief that our bodies are not holy, not a gift from God but earthly chains that weigh us down and lead us to sin. And if bodies are inherently sinful, disabled bodies are outward signs of a sinful life. This is a belief that shows up in the Bible, especially in the healing stories of the Gospels. Sadly, this is also a belief I have heard professed by Christians to this day, that disability is the result of sin.
The underside of this belief is closely related, that God can heal us of our disabilities, which are inherently bad. I have a friend who has a birth defect that resulted in him having underdeveloped arms. He said that he once visited a church where they asked if they could pray over him for his arms to grow. He said this laughing, but the sting of this unstated judgment is real. The assumption is that disability is bad and why would my friend want to live like that? They assumed they were helping him by praying for his arms to grow, which is ludicrous. He was born like that. He has a full and whole life. The fact that he looks and moves differently than other people does not make him less of a person, but this community of believers who didn’t know him made a judgment about his embodiment.
When people visit our congregation and they see a door-opener button, an elevator, large print/picture bulletins and hearing assistance devices, they know that every body is welcome and valuable.
With all of these things we are making a statement that embodied existence is different for each person and that all of these ways of moving and being in the world are part of embodied worship. Our congregation made these choices to be accessible with our minds, thinking through what different people might need to be part of our community. We thought this was an intellectual project, welcoming people, but it is also something felt deep in our bodies. A child growing up in our congregation can witness all of this and feel that they are welcome and that their body is beloved even if they can’t see or can’t hear or think or move differently than other children. An older person can know that when they are no longer able to walk or hear or see or think clearly, that they are still a valuable part of our community.
My hope is that we can translate all this welcome into an openness to worshiping with our whole bodies, even if that means dancing during music. Being aware of our embodiment in the act of worship also allows us to feel God’s presence with us more acutely. I have always been more comfortable thinking about God and faith intellectually than experiencing the presence of God. I love reading theology and writing about religion. Allowing God into my embodied experience feels much more dangerous. We hold trauma in our bodies, and I fear that if I let God (and other people) see all of what I carry in my muscles and bones (as if God didn’t already see and know all of who I am), this makes me vulnerable.
When I move my body in the context of worship, dancing or waving my arms or bowing my head in prayer, I am allowing God to flow through me.
I am also connecting with the gathered community as we move together, as we see and hear one another, as we hug or hold hands. My body is a conduit of love and connection to something bigger than myself, which is the most comforting and powerful aspect of worshiping together. In this context the particular shape of my embodied life is simply how I experience that connection to the whole, strong muscles and twisted joints and the warm heat of life pulsing in my veins.