We’ve been in a state of bodily isolation, but also in one filled with the most virtual connections ever experienced. Our past few years have also been filled with increasing political, economic, social, racial, and religious divides. How do we reconcile what it means to be humanly connected in community when we have such contrasting images? As there is a halting return to the pew and the pub, it isn’t yet clear how the pandemic will shape our ongoing discourse and our behavior, whether in the church or the public square.
We do know that while social media has allowed us to worship, celebrate, and mourn in the company of friends and family, it has also relentlessly exposed us to the chronic inflammation that permeates our culture. Hashtags and slogans are fired as incendiary devices into enemy territory—but the enemy is often faceless, and certainly not known in a personal sense. It’s not just a societal problem—it’s also a church problem. The body of Christ is being assaulted from within as much as from without.
Now, perhaps as never before, North American Christians have choices about when and where they will return to corporate worship. It isn’t known how many will remain faithful to gathered life together. What seems certain, though, is that churches will be shaped into new forms of being. In this, there is opportunity to intentionally make space for the healing of unresolved wounds and the prevention of ongoing ruptures.
As the workings of the human body are such a central focus of the pandemic, so too they can be instructive as we consider how to promote re-forming community, even in places that seem beyond repair. The body, as designed by God, is not made to stay wounded. Even gaping lacerations are eventually knit together through the orderly processes of biological healing. Four precise stages take place in sequence, promoting recovery and return of function in bodily life. The image of the Christian community as the body of Christ can be newly understood as we ponder healing at the microcellular level.
Clotting, inflammation, new tissue formation, and scarring or regeneration are the distinct phases our bodies employ to recover from both incidental and serious wounds. Each subsequent phase takes longer than the previous one. Clots are rapid immediate efforts to stop the bleeding so one can stay alive. Inflammation clears debris and cleans up the injured site, causing some heat and discomfort but all in the name of ultimate growth. New tissue formation is an elegant interdependent process, one that involves a diverse array of microcellular members to collaborate, transform, and even diminish as they coordinate the creation of healthy new spaces in the body to replace the damaged areas. Scarring is an effort to close the wound in favor of returning to as much function as possible, despite the past injury. Scars are revised over a lifetime as they respond to the changing shape of the body.
Sometimes our body gets one of these stages wrong. When this happens, disordered healing must be recognized and treated in order to successfully move forward. One such threat to recovery is termed proud flesh. Proud flesh is pink, flabby, and easily irritated. It is weak and unable to be knit together with healthy tissue. It must be controlled—and often even destroyed—in order for the body to successfully close a wound.
Proud flesh is, biologically speaking, too much granulation tissue. The body starts wound healing well, clotting and conducting appropriate inflammation. Initial tissue forms in the space—the granulation tissue. But then the healing stalls. The proud flesh stops the signals that call for more mature growth and the migration of outside cells to help pull the wound edges together. Revision and maturation can’t happen. The proud flesh grows without any constraints and overtakes the wound space, preventing closure.
In medicine, we stop proud flesh by cautery or surgery—basically destroying it. The wound tissue formation has to start all over again, but it sometimes takes several tries. In biology, proud flesh teaches us that all healing happens in the community of a diverse group of member agents; there is no wholeness that is truly individual. Proud flesh gives us a vivid picture of what the body looks like when it refuses the pull of community in favor of homogenous independence.
Proud flesh impairs the body of Christ as we resist allowing ourselves to be pulled into a new gathered shape together. Perhaps our wounds have clotted well, and we have controlled our inflammation. We even have some new pink growth. But to be knit together, a yielding must occur that is distinct and ordered to the design of the whole. Proud flesh, so often present in our tendencies to assert our preferences over another’s, must be seen and named as a threat to healing. It cannot coexist with newly fashioned life in community. This echoes the Scripture that says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, esv).
True healing is an organic process. It doesn’t depend upon organizational principles or a three-point sermon. It can’t be simply taught—it must be lived. Each member part is called to pull toward the restoration of the whole. How is that made real rather than abstract? One example is the common experience of church members doing mission service together. Across generations, skill levels, social viewpoints, physical demands, and cultural understandings, groups that participate on short-term mission projects inevitably return full of shared stories, deep bonds, and profound gratitude for having been a part of something they can’t quite articulate. They have been formed more fully into the body of Christ, one with another.
As we look to our future life together, we can reimagine what it looks like to be a body. Dialogue, technology, and even triple vaccinations won’t save us from the threat of chronic inflammation or useless proud flesh. Perhaps we need to mix up our church gatherings so that none of us return to our too-comfortable pews. Young and old, member and visitor, conservative and liberal are called to come to the table of the body of Christ. The church is reformed and always reforming—a beautiful and accurate picture of the body. As we re-form and reform our life together, may we welcome the coming creation of a newly made space that fits well with the shape of the past but also serves to bring about a healthy platform for continued growth and fitness of the body.
This can be a prophetic time for the church to image the body of Christ as a living expression of unity in diversity, wholeness in complexity, and love as a framework for coherence. May it be so.
Before You Read ...
A new poll shows that for young adults in particular, belief in God is plummeting. From research, we know a primary driver behind a loss of faith among young people is the church’s rejection of science. To put it bluntly: Young people aren’t leaving the faith because of science, they’re leaving because they’ve been told to choose between science and God. That’s why BioLogos exists—to show that science and faith can work hand-in-hand. And although the challenge is clearly daunting, our work is having an impact!
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