Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Power of the Physical

For as long as I knew my mother-in-law she observed one solemn ritual, Decoration Day. In the south, each spring local cemeteries would set aside a day for this special occasion where relatives would go and put flowers on the headstone of their departed loved ones. It’s also a time to remove unsightly weeds and other debris, a type of spring-cleaning for the graveyard. Memorial Day, which initially established to remember fallen soldiers, has taken over Decoration Day, but has the same function.

Of course my mother-in-law understood the remains under the sod had no spiritual significance, at least I don’t think she did, but rather the gravesite was a touchstone, a physical connection to the one who was no more. Catholics in South America has a similar practice called All Saints Day. Some of them have a superstitious notion that by praying to their kin the dead relatives will grant their requests, or perhaps take the request to the Virgin Mary, Saint Peter or maybe even to Jesus Himself. Buddhist pray to their ancestors. Even my aged and sickly Hindu neighbor told me the other day he prays to his mother that she will grant his wish to let him die. Idols, temples, churches, saints even cemeteries are “sacred space,” for us mortals. Why do people do revere these things? It’s the power of the physical. What we see, touch, posses we can conceptualize as real. What we cannot see is perhaps just myth.

Capitalism and the free market economy is the driving force behind the power of the physical. My sister-in-law sells cars, but not just any car, she sells BMW’s. Ah, but she sells more than automobiles, she sells image. If you drive a BMW you are making a statement that you are successful. Certainly a BMW is a nice car, but it has the basics you will find on a Ford or Honda, or even a horse cart for that matter. Four round wheels, a place to sit, a steering system and a power source. Depending on image preference, capitalism will steer (no pun intended) a demographic buyer toward the $40K silver roadster or $40K double cab pickup. Both conjure a powerful physical symbol in the automotive market.

Because we are physical people, living in a physical world, our value system is influenced by our material world. A person's weight, color of hair, whiteness of teeth, skin tone, dress, social associations, house, the comforts one strives for, all point to the physical. Fat means lazy, dark skin means lower class (or caste...or terroist), plastic means poor, country club means status. We kill, cheat, horde for the our cherished physical symbols.

The church is not immune to the power of the physical. The buildings they erect, the music they perform, the programs they create for the special focus groups in their congregation, are all a part of the emphasis on the physical. As I listen to pastors the topic generally is about the three “P’s,” programs, presentation and property. In missions, the focus is on churches planted, fostering a people movement, reproducing the western physical in a foreign context.

What’s the harm? Nothing, except that there are two dimensions of man, one physical the other is the metaphysical (see 8/22 post). So dominant is the physical that it not just overwhelms, it often annihilates the spiritual. The more one buys into the physical the less we are even aware of our “real” needs, which is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When was the last time you heard, in a church business meeting, a serious discussion in the budget to help the homeless, the drug addicts, elderly or handicapped in the community? How ironic that helping others with their physical may be the instrument God will use to lead us to the metaphysical.

As I write this I am aware of the tree trunk in my own eye. I am not only consumed with the physical, I fret and worry about it. Am I doing enough to satisfy my donors who want a report on those ‘saved’ or churches planted under my ministry? How can I make my presentation, my newsletters more attractive so that people will see that I’m a good investment for their support? How do I look before my peers? Do they see me as intellectually capable, or merely an intellectual-wannabe dufus? Do I really care as much about the rag pickers I see on my morning walks as I do about my retirement portfolio? Am I like the young ruler who turned away from Jesus, so close to the kingdom, but walked away sad because he had much wealth he was unable to part with?

Of course Jesus was the antithesis of those dominated by the physical. He didn’t dress for success, he ate with the wrong crowd, blessed and cared for the wrong people. The only image he was concerned about was reflecting the image of His Father. “If you’ve seen me work,” he told Philip, “you have seen the Father.” If I am to ever break this bondage of the physical I must fully embrace His words, “Seek first the kingdom [metaphysical] of God and these other things [physical] will be provided for you.”