Vulnerability

Will We Be Divinely Vulnerable?

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Will we sit and listen to a refugee mother talk about her family’s horrific life in her war-torn country, and realize we’re no longer afraid of her? Will we talk to the gay couple that needs a cake and hear their love story, and feel a bond because it reminds us of our own love story? Will we look into the eyes with the homeless person begging just outside our car window and see another human being in pain, and suddenly feel an urge to help them? Will we make ourselves divinely vulnerable?

In that moment, we reach beyond our fear. We’re finally freed by love. No longer hiding in a tiny room behind a locked door. That. We all need more of that.

How to Have Hard Conversations

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Without a commitment to having hard conversations, and without healthy outlets for them, disagreements can be terrifying. They can seem like the end of the world, especially in the rarified atmosphere of our churches.

Unfortunately, Christians often deal with disagreements in their congregations in one of a handful of ways. We might disagree only in public, or only in denominational forums; we might talk only to our pastor, or only to the people who agree with us; we might let our money do the talking for us; we might not say anything at all; or we might split — leave, get kicked out, break fellowship.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can create a culture of rich dialogue, even around our disagreements. We can cultivate community conversations marked by gracious space and spacious grace. This unity is possible because we are bound by a covenant 

'... A Fragile Sense of Self'

MaestroPhoto / Shutterstock.com
MaestroPhoto / Shutterstock.com

Some of you might be downright shocked to know that many clergy have to undergo a three-day battery of psych tests as part of the ordination process. If a significant issue is discovered, say, addiction or something else (perhaps the main reason these tests have become required), one's ordination process can be slowed down or halted all together. When I was going through the process, I too went through these evaluations.

The result? I have "a fragile sense of self."

What does this really mean? Well, I'm an alcoholic. It's true. I've spoken about it as part of my faith journey (read: testimony; yes, I have a testimony). I don't wave it around like some flag, but I'm not shy about telling people. And I have certainly told the congregations and other organizations I have served about my history with addiction.

Keeping this stuff secret, for me, is poisonous.

At any rate, there it was, "a fragile sense of self" on my evaluation. This caused everyone to pause. The ordination committee had a ton of questions for me. They did the obligatory background check (this is perfunctory; everyone gets one). They checked my references, etc. They did their due diligence to make sure, as best as anyone could, that I was not going to fall off the wagon.

Of course. No one can promise that. Not really.

Why I Shared My Sexuality Story

Photo: Audrey Hannah Brooks
A story penned by Jonathan Merritt goes viral. He reveals why he decided to share it now. Photo: Audrey Hannah Brooks

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability … To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.

This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imaginedin which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.

This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.

The Need to Be Relevant

Homeless man, wrangler / Shutterstock.com
Homeless man, wrangler / Shutterstock.com

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend the night at the Metropolitan House Men’s Shelter, part of Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church.

And in this experience, Henri Nouwen’s, In the Name of Jesus came to life for me. In reflecting on his own experience of transitioning from Harvard University to L’Arche, a house for mentally disabled individuals, Nouwen realized he had to rediscover his true identity. Up until that moment, Nouwen relied on his accomplishments, achievements, accolades, educational training, and social connections to legitimize his impact and reputation in ministry as a priest. However, at L’Arche none of the things he relied on seemed to matter, and he had to gain credibility with those he planned to serve — the mentally disabled. Nouwen states, “I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment” (28). Nouwen was forced to let go of his “relevant” self. Nouwen defines relevant self as, “the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things.” Nouwen would have to allow himself to become vulnerable while suppressing his “relevant” self.

When Christmas Gets Real

Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock
Maybe a picture-perfect nativity scene isn't the whole story. Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock

Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike. 

Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.

Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.”

Breaking Down Walls and Individualism

Auremar/Shutterstock
Auremar/Shutterstock

While sitting listening to a musician pour out her heart through music at a show the intern house hosted, I was challenged. The emotions in her voice communicated her story and as I sat there pleasantly soaking in the music and admiring her vulnerability, I also realized I wouldn’t want to put myself out there like that. At that same moment, I stopped and thought, is that how I view church? Do I put up those same walls with God?

Vulnerability is difficult, when our culture thrives on individualism. Television shows, books, and movies tell us that we can create the world we desire through our own strength. This culture tells us that we are the creators of our reality, a societal standard that has seeped into the church, creating a standard of self-reliance and individualism.

Brennan Manning stated, “the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.” The church “hospital” should be the place where we come ready for healing and treatment. As such, people generally do not go to a hospital hiding their wounds and disease expecting to get better. This self-medication can only cover the symptoms while never combating the true source of the ailment. The truth is that in life, we are all terminally ill patients with different pains in desperate need of a doctor. In this, we are not alone in the fight.

 

My Unexpected Diagnosis

THIS IS A very personal column. Last December I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms, just a routine blood test. I was on a conference call when the doctor phoned with the biopsy results, but I continued on with the other call assuming I could return it later to hear that there were no problems. There were problems, he told me, and I would need to see a surgeon.

I felt incredulous about the news. I was about to launch a book tour and everything seemed to be in control. Sojourners was involved in intense advocacy work around immigration reform, gun violence, and the budget/sequester battles. There had to be a mistake, or surely some convenient treatment would suffice. Certainly, I would work this all out privately, and stay on schedule for everything else. But then came further testing and discussions of medical options—and anxiety began to grow.

The tour for my latest book, On God’s Side, had to be postponed without announcing why. I kept the health news to a small circle of family, friends, and senior staff, and I did my best to go on as if this wasn’t happening. But it was.

My care shifted to the research center at the National Institutes of Health. There, I took part in a new program using resolution MRI to guide surgical decisions. Such opportunities are available to anyone (people can find out about the work of NIH on its website—sadly, this critical work is being severely cut in the sequester). The NIH staff’s extraordinary knowledge of cancer was immediately evident, as was the wonderful care they showed me.

 In early June, I had major surgery for prostate cancer. The surgery “couldn’t have gone better,” the doctors say, and I seem to be recovering well. They keep telling me to go slow and take my time, which is not only good physical advice for healthy recovery but also spiritual counsel for those of us who sometimes tell time by how much we hope we are changing the world.

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God's Passionate Vulnerability

One of the drawbacks intrinsic to liturgical worship is the length of time it takes to adopt expressions that are newly current and potent into the approved forms. Certain forms of language become deeply important to a generation—key words and symbols that are pregnant with meaning, yet haven’t been incorporated officially into our forms of worship. So we often feel a certain dissonance in church as the language of worship seems impoverished by the absence of expressions we value so highly in our own exploration into God today. I long for prayers that express, directly and passionately, that God suffers. I look forward to praising God’s vulnerability. I am impatient for the recasting of prayer to praise the Creator in terms that unequivocally embrace the evolutionary perspective. In the meantime, preaching is the key field for using this fresh language with passion, in an exciting conversation with ancient expressions and classic symbols that can never become out of date, as long as we use our imaginations to keep on releasing their latent powers.

The scriptures in this season provide rich opportunities for exploring great images of God’s transforming power in vulnerability. Has anyone coined the word “paradoxology” yet to express the essence of transformative Christian worship? Only paradoxical language can point with any degree of success to the mystery of God and the revelatory revolution that springs into life out of the action of Jesus, the passion of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.

[ June 3 ]
Leadership Reborn
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29;
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17.

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Tell The Story of Who You Are With Your Whole Heart

Being vulnerable isn’t easy. I think it would be easier to stand outside naked for a moment of mocking than to unveil the inner-self to others for a lifetime of judgment. However, I recently heard theTED Talk below by Brene Brown on her years of study on the subject of vulnerability.

What she discovered moved me to the core.

Brene states that in order for us to connect we have to allow ourselves to be SEEN. This is scary for the shy and the outspoken because we all think the same thing — “Is there something about me that if people knew they would withdraw?”.

Every soul cries: “Am I worthy of connection?” We then allow the mass public to tell us the answer to that.  Please note: that unstable analysis can never end well no matter how popular one may seem. This leads us to live in shame of who we are in which Brown describes shame as “the fear of connection.”

I believe I can state truthfully that we live in a world of people full of shame. We’re scared to death of each other!

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