I just spent 45 minutes staring at a blinking line on my computer wanting something, anything, to come out, but I’m filled to the brim with emotion and unable to pour it out onto a page.
But, I’ve learned a lot about myself lately, and I can tell you that it’s fear that is holding me here staring at a blank page.
If there is something else that I am learning in a real and deep way recently it’s this: When life is scary it’s easier to hide.
It’s easier when faced with the choice of having to talk to people you haven’t talked to in a long time about why you moved back to your hometown after years abroad to avoid it and hide.
It’s easier to not go to places where you might run into people and be forced to talk about what your life is like, while trying to put on your best “I’m fine” face when you’re crumbling underneath.
It’s easier to stay in the shadows, isolate yourself, because talking about how you’re a complex human being, full of light and dark, just seems like too much. Too exhausting. Too scary. Too shameful.
It’s easier but it’s not better.
You know what is better? Vulnerability.
There is a lot to unpack when you talk about vulnerability and it feels so counterintuitive to everything we are taught about how to survive in the world. All you have to do is watch Planet Earth and watch some unsuspecting antelope meet its end at the merciless hands of a prowling lion (Or tiger or hyena or cheetah. I mean are antelopes at the bottom of the food chain here? Goodness.) to know that being vulnerable is seen as a liability not an asset.
It’s funny though, isn’t it? Maybe sad is a more appropriate word here. In hiding what we’re essentially doing is trying to protect ourselves, because life is scary!
You can put your heart out there and get burned. You can lose your job. You can get cancer. Someone you love can get in a car accident or make destructive choices or know just the right words to use that will send you spiraling either into a fit of rage and an abyss of sadness. Sometimes you can even hurt yourself.
And so, we protect ourselves from rejection, sadness, grief, and other emotions that cause us pain. We do this because we think in moving away from vulnerability we are making ourselves strong. Nothing can hurt us if we make ourselves strong. Strength is a highly valued attribute in our culture. While, I won’t argue that it’s a valuable attribute, I will argue that what makes someone strong isn’t their ability to not be emotional.
I’m reminded of this great C.S. Lewis quote from his book, The Four Loves:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Lewis is talking specifically about love here, but he makes a wider point about vulnerability. Without it, we cannot experience the things we want from life.
They all happen, truly happen, when you risk. Vulnerability requires risk, but we are all familiar with the idiom that with great risk comes great reward.
Many of you may already be familiar with Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability (and shame. Honestly that could be a series of posts in and of itself.) from her brilliant TED talk. She’s a wealth of information, a great writer, and gifted storyteller. In her book Daring Greatly, she says this:
“What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotion and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
Does showing up to be with someone in deep struggle sound like a weakness? Is accepting accountability weak? Is stepping up to the plate after striking out a sign of weakness? NO. Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Friends, being vulnerable is one of the strongest things you can do with your life. And the reality is that it is the gateway to meaningful connection. Something every one of us desires.
I’m by no means perfect at it. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of my life hiding behind lies and not reaching out for help a long time ago when I really needed it. I still need the help. I’m not there, yet, but I believe that the weird, awkward, scary, sometimes (basically always) uncomfortable, even painful feelings that come with being vulnerable and being truthful, letting down your walls and being real with who you are, all the light and dark that exists within each one of us, is always better.
Without it we cannot experience the deepest desires of hearts to be loved, to be known, and to belong.
Yes, life is scary, but don’t hide! Be vulnerable and discover that in this counterintuitive act of leaving yourself exposed you find you make room for the best parts of life. Especially love.
* I wanted to title this post “Life is Scary,
Hide Be Vulnerable!” But you can’t use strikethrough in a title. Sad. (Nudge, WordPress, Nudge.)
Living in Paris has introduced me to the joy of good cheese. The French are proud of their cheese (as they are of their wine and of course their haute couture). And really they should be. It’s damn good. I’ve particularly fallen in love with a cheese called camembert, which I did not know existed until moving to France in August 2015. I’ve mourned the fact that I’ve missed out on this pleasure for most of my life. It’s a soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese first made, you guessed it, at Camembert, Normandy in the north of France.
But what you really need to know is that it is as delicious as it is smelly. Which makes it hard to gauge when it has run it’s course and needs to be thrown out. Though I can’t imagine a scenario when I wouldn’t eat it before this happens. Because that’s what you do when you are a bachelor responsible for feeding yourself. You smell things… because things typically smell bad when they are no longer good for human consumption.
Cheese might be a confusing example, but we do this all the time with food. We test it. Does it smell right? Does it look right? And finally, if you’re brave enough, does it taste okay? These tests gives us clues to whether something is potentially harmful to us. Maybe it works this way with theology as well. Yes, I went there.
Lately, I’ve been reading Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus?, tackling the Christian doctrine of atonement and looking for new alternatives. Near the beginning of the book Tony describes his own smell test when it comes to our theology. And for Tony it really matters what your theological positions are aside from personal conviction.
“That may seem an odd way to measure a faith system. We are used to matters being true or false, right or wrong, not beautiful or ugly, sweet or sour. most prefer a more forensic approach: she who has the most logical doctrine wins. But… many religious systems that are perfectly logical are nevertheless downright ugly. They’re bad for the world and bad for people. In other words, you can devise a system of doctrine that makes perfect sense within its own little self-inscribed world, but when you take it out into the broader marketplace of ideas, it spoils, like dropping a teaspoon of vinegar into a gallon of milk.”
The more I’ve thought about the theological smell test, the more I’ve resonated with it. Jones reminds us that “Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Good Theology begets beautiful Christianity.”
As you think about what you believe about God, Jesus, sin, or any number of things ask yourself if what you believe is shaping your behavior and your relationship to others in positive or negative ways?
Because, as Jones writes, “it doesn’t matter how logically airtight some doctrinal system is if it results in an army of jerks.”
If you tend to see God as wrathful, bound primarily by supreme laws of justice, then chances are your life will model this. Think of Westboro Baptist Church. We use them often as a case study for religion gone awry, but think about their message. God is angry, God is full of wrath against sin, and God wants the world to know it. They delight in their message, which the rest of us, including most Christians, see simply as hate. But their theology comes from the same pages that all Christians read.
Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. I would say that “God hates fags” is bad theology and doesn’t pass the smell test.
Next time you come across a group of people attached to a particular theology or doctrine, notice what kind of fruit it produces. Does it breed love? Does it breed compassion? Would it mesh with the kind of life that Jesus lived and taught others to live? If it doesn’t pass the smell test, it’s time to think of better alternatives more akin to character of God exemplified in Jesus who as Paul describes in Colossians is, “the image of the invisible God.”
So many people don’t bother too much with theology, thinking it is the job of the pastors and leaders in their church to decide and share with the congregation. I think that’s a shame. It matters what you believe because what you believe shapes you.
The question is how? Will your theology propel you towards love or legalism?
This was a piece used in The Spire, a monthly newsletter published by the American Church in Paris. Visit acparis.org for current and past issues.
It is inevitable that during the month of February that one writes on the topic of love. We have so many pictures of what love is. And many words have been written elsewhere to discuss love in its many forms. But I would like to discuss the role of love in our theme verse for 2016 at the ACP.
12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17 (CEB)
One of the unique and beautiful characteristics of the ACP is the diversity, not only in culture but in theology. We are a body made up of 40-50 different nationalities, but we are also a community with wide-ranging theological views. And this can be a tricky sea to sail upon.
Let’s take a look at just a few (and I mean just a few) examples.
- What is the role of women in ministry?
- Is homosexuality a sin?
- Was the world created in six literal days? What about evolution?
- Can we participate in war as Christians?
The reality is that in a congregation like ours there will undoubtedly be as many answers to those questions as there are denominations represented. We are faced with the challenge then to worship together in the middle of a complex web of theologies. You will not agree with every person you meet at the ACP. In fact you may vehemently disagree with certain people on certain issues which may hold significant importance in your life.
Here in Colossians Paul lists all these attributes to possess as ‘God’s choice, holy and loved.’ And he finishes that list by saying ‘over all these things put on love.’ Why? Because it ‘is the perfect bond of unity.’
So often in the protestant tradition we have disagreed, but rather than work together, we have split apart, forming yet another denomination. Paul challenges us here to put on love over all of the other attributes, because through truly loving each other, even in our differences, we bound together in unity.
St. Augustine of Hippo is famously quoted saying, ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.’ Immediately following verse 14, Paul tells us that ‘the peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body.’
Don’t miss that, because Our essential is Christ.
We belong to the ACP through our unity in Christ. Remember that though we have our differences, sometimes big differences, Paul tells us to put on love and St. Augustine reminds us that in non-essentials (which by the way, is what all these controversial issues are) we have liberty, and in everything we ought to show charity.
So the love I want for each of us at the ACP is one that, amidst complex theological diversity, is bonded through our most important essential, Jesus Christ. So that in our community of believers of all kinds, we work out our faith together ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.’