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This message is from November 4, 2007

Scripture Reading:
Numbers 22:21-31

Brother Ass

Maybe it's because I'm a Sagittarius.

Don't get me wrong. Normally, I don't give astrology much thought. It's not a big deal. I don't read my horoscope, or anything like that. But I'm kind of glad to be a Sagittarius. For me, it's all about the mascot. As a Sagittarius, my symbol is a centaur. And centaurs are cool. In Narnia, the centaurs are heroic. According to Greek legend, a centaur taught Hercules.

Not every everyone gets a cool symbol. I don't want to rub it in, but if you were born in early July, then your symbol is a crab. Some people are water-bearers. I don't remember any water-bearers in Narnia. Maybe they were in the background. The symbol for Capricorn is a sea-goat. It's like a mermaid for goats.

I'm just excited, because I don't have that many cool symbols in my life. In the Chinese zodiac, I'm a rabbit. If I had been born one year earlier, I would have been a tiger. One year later, I would have been a dragon. Instead, I'm a rabbit. My birthstone is something like blue zircon. Who cares about blue zircon? Other people get to be rubies and pearls and amethyst. My birthstone sounds like one of the bad guys from Star Wars. "Look out, Luke! It's Darth Zircon!"

So I'm pretty happy with being a Sagittarius. Centaurs, in case you forgot, are part human and part horse. So, like I said, maybe it's because I'm a Sagittarius. But when Saint Francis calls his body, "Brother Ass," I totally know what he's talking about.

Sometimes, my body feels like a separate entity. It feels like a whole different animal.

I have an uneasy truce with the animal part of me. Mostly, I just hope my body will stay out of my way. If I actually have to think about my body, then something has probably gone wrong. I think about my body when I'm sick. Or injured. When the horsey parts of me demand my attention, then something has probably gone wrong.

Most of the time, I just want my body to carry me around. Having a body is handy for opening doors. It can push a shopping cart. It's useful for turning pages. But it's only useful when I don't have to think about it. When I have to think about it, then this mule feels like a nuisance. My body can feel demanding and disobedient. It doesn't always do what I ask.

And sometimes, it makes rude noises. Sometimes, it makes unpleasant smells. Sometimes, my body insists on finding on a bathroom, even though I just went to the bathroom a few minutes ago. Brother Ass, can't you just use the bathroom and be done with it?

Bodies can be such a pain.

Saint Francis, I have to tell you, treated his body with a severe discipline. It's hard to read about someone who starves his own body, or throws it into a snowbank. In those days, everyone was inclined to use violence against the flesh. It was how people rebuked their animals, their children and their own bodies. It was the way of things, and I have to say that Francis was a product of that culture. What's more interesting to me is that Francis transcended his culture. Francis would apologize to his body. He would do something severe to his body, but then he would apologize to Brother Ass for being so heavy-handed..

As you know, Francis embraced the sun as Brother Sun. He embraced the moon as Sister Moon. Francis felt a connection with things. Although he treated his body harshly, Francis felt a connection with his body. He called that part of himself, "Brother Ass."

I think Saint Francis was trying to live at peace with his body. It was a struggle, but he was trying. I want that, too. I want to live in peace with my body. Instead of resenting my body for its intrusions, I hope that someday my body and I will become friends.

And so, I am learning how to listen to my body. I am learning how to listen to his horsey part of myself.

Years ago, I heard a comedian talk about the limited vocabulary of dogs. He said that dogs language consists of two words, and two words only. Everything that a dog has to say can be said by one of two words. The first word is "Hey." The second word is "Ow." When a dog goes to the park, it sounds something like this: "Hey! Hey! Hey? Hey, hey! Ow. Hey! OW. HEY, HEY! Hey."

Gary Larson made a similar point in one of his cartoons. One side of the cartoon is labeled, "What We Say." A dog owner scolds her pet, "No, Ginger! Bad Dog! Stay off the furniture. Bad dog, Ginger." The other side of the cartoon is labeled, "What They Hear." From the dog's perspective, this whole transaction sounds like, "Blah, Ginger! Blah blah! Blah blah blah. Blah blah, Ginger."

Maybe horses have a broader vocabulary. I know Mister Ed could hold up his end of the conversation. But I don't think there are very many horses who talk. In fact, I'm sure of it. Animals don't talk. You can go to the pet store and you can buy toys for your pet. You can buy brushes for your pet. You can buy vitamin pills and designer outfits for you pet. But no one is selling you a thesaurus for your pet. And that is because animals don't talk.

Even though they don't use words, animals do have a way of communicating. If you've ever had a pet, then you know this is true. My body isn't ever going to talk like Mr. Ed. But maybe it will talk like Balaam's donkey.

Balaam is a pretty interesting character. Balaam talks openly to God, and God talks back. At the same time, Balaam is morally ambiguous. He's a mercenary. He's the sort of holy man that hires himself out to heap curses upon your enemies.

Balaam is not really a bad guy, but he's not really a good guy either. He's part Han Solo and part Darth Zircon.

Because Balaam is traveling around with the enemies of Israel, God is not happy. An angel of the Lord appears. The angel is holding a sword, which should be some cause for alarm. But Balaam doesn't see it. Balaam is oblivious.

Balaam's donkey sees the danger. Three times, the donkey acts to avoid the angel's wrath. First, the donkey leaves the road and wanders into a field. Then, the donkey presses close to a wall, scraping Balaam's foot. And finally, the donkey stops moving altogether. Balaam is outraged. Balaam is furious. He is embarrassed, because Brother Ass is causing trouble.

That's how it happens.

Sometimes, we are blind from the neck up. Brother Ass knows what escapes our higher faculties. The body has a limited vocabulary, but it can communicate. Our stomach can get tied in knots. We can feel anxiety or fatigue. Our body can be telling us, "This way is not safe!" This is a message from our body.

Instead of listening, we can get mad. We can get angry with our bodies. We can be embarrassed because we feel like we are not in control. We can refuse to listen, and throw our bodies into a snowbank to show them who is boss.

If we refuse to listen, we are at war with our bodies. If we refuse to listen, we may miss what God is doing.

* * *

I would never say that the body is always right. We are still talking about Brother Ass, after all. The body can be skittish and stubborn and prone to conflicting desires. Our bodies are wired to fight or to run away. Sometimes, neither of those options are right. Then we have to tell our twitching inner squirrel to relax. We have to tell our bellowing inner water buffalo to relax.

Of course the body can get it wrong. But unless we listen, we will never know.

So I am learning to listen.

God can speak through the most unlikely sources. God can speak through a donkey. God can speak through our bodies. God can speak.

Our job is to listen.