There I was at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the underground room traditionally considered the very place where Jesus was born.
I was on a study tour with fellow seminarians, all of us American evangelicals who had traveled across the globe at considerable effort and expense. This was during the First Intifada, so we’d even accepted some additional bodily risk to be there. (Today’s Bethlehem is a Palestinian town part of the West Bank, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.)
What would we do with the few minutes we had to stand in so meaningful a place? Would we kneel and pray? Light a candle? Sing a hymn? Make a sign of the cross? Reverently touch the silver star, set in a marble altar, marking the birthplace of our Lord?
We did none of those things. Instead, we used a different embodied gesture, one with roots not in historic Christian worship practices but rather in western technological consumerism. You guessed it: We took pictures. Our chosen way to encounter the physical and spiritual reality of the birth of God incarnate was to create little sharable images, like personal trophies to show others in telling our travel stories.
Since that time in my life, I’ve been on a journey of exploring and embracing the physical side of worship — the personal and communal spiritual practices that help me worship both bodily and spiritually, as a whole person, and as an Asian American Christian.
I’ve been on a journey of exploring and embracing the physical side of worship.
You and I are embodied spirits. So is Jesus — from his conception and birth, to his death and resurrection, to his present heavenly mediation and preparations for us, to his future return and eternal reign — he has a physical body that he’s keeping forever. His physical body was transformed and glorified (as he promises ours will be), but there will never be a “decarnation”.
While we believe in the immortality of the soul, our Christian hope stands or falls on the resurrection and immortality of the body. God’s intentions for creation and for us as embodied spirits made in his image will be fulfilled in the end. And so in our worship this side of eternity, our bodies and our embodied practices in worship certainly matter.
Our Christian hope stands or falls on the resurrection and immortality of the body.
So why are we so uncertain about the place of our bodies in worship? In so many of our churches, we sit quietly and listen a lot; we bow our heads and fold our hands to pray (nevermind that not one person in the Bible is ever described praying that way); we stand and sing; and sometimes we clap, sway, and (self-consciously) lift one or both hands in praise, or feel like we’re supposed to.
This is quite a contrast to, say, Black Baptist worship, where the fully embodied, fully active participation of everyone present is clear with every call and response. Or think about a Saturday church-member wedding service, full of processions, candles, liturgical prayers and vows, special clothes, and ritual objects and gestures. Somehow, we are happy to have such embodied practices there but then they largely disappear before Sunday worship the next day.
So what hinders our embodied worship practices? There are numerous barriers.
Our western culture is greatly shaped by the Greek Platonic view that elevates the spiritual above the physical (which perhaps is one reason for our eyes-closed praying). As American Protestants, we’re shaped by the more extreme arm of the Reformation, which completely rejected anything Catholic-looking in worship, even if the Catholics had gotten it from the early church. Such Reformers also generally rejected physical representations of spiritual realities (think of a plain, whitewashed Puritan meeting house). Those in the evangelical settings who dominate the Asian American church are heirs of the conservative side of last century’s Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversies, which propelled an emphasis on biblical preaching above almost all else.
Our western culture is greatly shaped by the Greek Platonic view that elevates the spiritual above the physical.
As Americans, we’re shaped by a practical modernism that mostly trusts things that can be rationally and clearly explained, rather than things that are mysteriously experienced. Likewise, those of us who have been influenced by seeker-sensitive worship have prioritized non-religious forms and practices that are easily accessible to the unchurched.
And as Asian Americans, we live with an uncertain sense of our physical selves, caught between invisibility as “honorary white” and marginalization as “forever foreigner” and stalked by negative physical stereotypes such as the exoticized Asian female and the emasculated Asian male. Some of us also perhaps identify physical and ritual acts of worship with non-Christian religions, such as lighting incense for ancestors and bowing at funerals.
As Asian Americans, we live with an uncertain sense of our physical selves, caught between invisibility as “honorary white” and marginalization as “forever foreigner”.
With so many barriers, no wonder many of us aren’t sure of what to do with our bodies in worship! Meanwhile, so many of our churches are in what are known as “free worship” traditions, where there is no specific worship pattern, service book, liturgy, or set of shared historic ritual practices to shape and order our worship. (It’s ironic that with all this freedom, the worship of so many our churches is nevertheless so similar.) So if we are to find ways to nurture more embodied worship, we will need help from outside our own traditions.
In my own journey, I learned how to cross myself while visiting a Greek Orthodox church. (The Orthodox hold their hand differently and make the sign of the cross differently than Roman Catholics do.) I tried kneeling, bowing, genuflecting, and other ancient worship gestures while visiting Episcopalian churches.
In studying the history of worship, I learned about the orans prayer position: hands raised and palms up, but elbows in — and somehow I could do this, though I still almost never raise my arms all the way up. And I began stopping in at various Roman Catholic churches to pray, often while I was out running. Catholics are generously hospitable in leaving their churches open to the public for prayer. I especially love one particular chapel in our beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Light here in Oakland, the Chapel of the Suffering Christ.
I have also come to accept and value my sensibilities as shaped by the Confucian values and behaviors of my Asian American upbringing and Chinese ancestry. Yes, there is value in loud, direct, openly expressive, individualistic western and American culture (which is the culture of so much of our praise music). But there is surely also value in reserved, indirect, quietly expressive, and communal cultures. Neither culture is inherently more spiritual or more Christian. Both cultures can and should be honored, cultivated, critiqued as needed, and put to good use in worship. I would like to think that being bicultural gives us an open door to the best of both worlds.
Neither culture is inherently more spiritual or more Christian.
I’m thankful that my present church (New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland) has weekly Communion (served from the front) and also has a very open sensibility when it comes to the range of spiritualities, cultures, and expressions of worship among our members. It’s also a setting that makes frequent use of embodied rituals, including prayer stations, Advent candles, processions, and laying on of hands. We encourage both more contemplative and more expressive approaches to worship. And we try to name and honor the various cultures and ancestries of our members and our neighborhood setting.
From New Hope, I’ve also been able to participate in the various South East Asian Leadership Summit (SEALS) events, encouraging and helping them embrace and express South East Asian cultures in the food and drink of the Lord’s Table.
I think there are riches of cultural gifts our people have that could fill big gaps in western Christian worship, such as community dance traditions and more gestures and postures for prayer.
I think there are riches of cultural gifts our people have that could fill big gaps in western Christian worship.
If I ever return to Bethlehem, I will kneel and cross myself. I will hold my hands in the orans gesture and say a prayer, perhaps an ancient one just for the occasion that I can find and memorize.
Maybe others will be there taking pictures and might go home with a picture of me, an Asian American Christian, with his body and spirit worshiping. Such a picture will be closer to how eternity will be than any of the pictures I myself took all those years ago. And for that I am thankful.