The Value of Vulnerability

Born to a poor family, in a time of spiritual and political oppression, Jesus demonstrated what it looks like to lean in vulnerably. In opening himself to people, he experienced misunderstanding, betrayal, desertion, and rejection. He endured it all so that we could be connected to God.

Sometimes, in order to lean in, rather than us moving further into others’ stories, we need to invite them deeper into ours. To do that, we must be vulnerable.

What is vulnerability?

The word vulnerable comes from the Latin, “vulnerare” which means, “to be wounded,” or “to be able to be wounded.” Put that way, it’s easy to see why so many of us shy away from it.

Vulnerability is a brave act. It requires risk.

So why be vulnerable?

Connection is why vulnerability is so important. We were made for connection with God and others. I mentioned last week during the sermon that when we first moved to Orlando, I was in a process group called Connections. We spent time in that group learning to practice empathy, which was a healing process. But that empathy would have been difficult to extend if none of us had been willing to be vulnerable enough to share our stories, particularly those stories that involved pain, shame, guilt, and fear.

For me, it was a struggle. I want people to think of me as someone who is real and vulnerable, but I would like the real, vulnerable me to look put together, emotionally stable, never too needy. The reality is that our real selves are messy. We lock away that which we think is unacceptable to the world in dark closets deep in our hearts, out of fear of rejection. Bringing those parts into the light is hard.

So each week, I went to that group determined that I would hold it together. I wanted to hold in my emotions and my tears so that the other women wouldn’t reject me. But there was too much hurt inside me from our transition for me to stay composed, especially when they invited me to share it with such empathy. And you know what I found? They actually moved toward me more when I was vulnerable. It strengthened our relationships. I felt seen, known, and loved.

Tim Keller says, ““To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” We cannot be fully known and loved if we are unwilling to be vulnerable with at least one other person.

How do we embrace vulnerability?

I know I could not have gone to that group each week, taking steps to share my story bit by bit with others, unless I was secure in God’s love for me. While we seek connection with others, we have to remember that we are humans who love imperfectly; not everyone will receive us and love us as well as we would like. We lean in to others vulnerably, remembering that ultimately we are not dependent on them to give us love. Author Paula Reinhart says, “You can’t really love people well unless you are at home in your own soul. You will simply be too afraid.” When we know and rest in God’s love, we can risk moving toward others.

Sometimes when people talk about being vulnerable, a fear arises that we must share everything with everyone. That’s not what we’re called to do. But it is important for each of us to have at least one person who knows everything about us. I find it helpful, if I am struggling with an issue, to ask God, “Who should I share this with and how?” Vulnerability is a choice, and it can begin with simply finding one person we can share with.

Vulnerability invites vulnerability. If we want to lean in to loving others well, we must courageously seek opportunities to open up to others, to allow them to see who we really are- our true selves who are deeply loved by God just as we are. As we do, we encourage others to do the same with us, and as Keller says, that’s, “a lot like being loved by God.” Let us lean in to loving like He does.

What fears do you have about being vulnerable?

When have you had a positive experience with being vulnerable?

How did it impact your relationship?

Who is the person or people you feel you can be vulnerable with?

What step could you take this week to lean in to a relationship in your life vulnerably?

The Effectiveness of Empathy

We probably know what it feels like when someone responds to our pain or hardship with words and actions that make us feel erased, discounted, or devalued.  On the other hand, hopefully we all have experienced someone moving closer to us in our hurt.

We feel seen, known, and affirmed. We feel connected.

When we see someone hurting, we can have one of several responses:

Apathy avoids it.

Sympathy sees it.

Empathy feels it.

Compassion does something about it.

Jesus calls us to move toward others with compassion, but compassion is impossible without empathy. Empathy is our next step in leaning in, and here’s why we do it:

God is empathetic toward us.

Throughout scripture, we see God moving toward us with compassion. In Jesus, we have the ultimate example of God’s compassion toward us. In John 11:32-36, Jesus arrives at the scene of Lazarus’ tomb. Mary and Martha are understandably upset, and when Jesus sees them, we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come alongside her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” When he saw the tomb, “Jesus wept.

Jesus knew exactly what he was planning to do in raising Lazarus. He could have told them to stop crying, to watch what he was going to do instead, but he allowed their pain to enter his heart and he wept with them. God’s posture toward us is one of deep empathy that moves him to compassion.

God calls us to be empathetic people

As believers, our lives are meant to be a reflection of who God is, his character and his ways. We see this call to be empathetic like him through scripture. Here are a few examples:

Bear One Another’s Burdens (Gal 6:2)

Suffer Together (1 Cor. 12:26)

Put on Compassion (Col 3:12-14)

Rejoice with the Rejoicers (Rom 12:15)

Mourn with the Mourners (Rom 12:15)

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says that God comforts us so that we can comfort others. His compassion is meant to lead us to compassion.  Empathy is not something you have or don’t have. Empathy is a skill anyone can learn.

So how do we practice empathy?

Begin with yourself

How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we do not love ourselves as God does? How do you respond to your heart when you are hurting, or going through a hard time? Are you harsh and dismissive, or do you put on a brave face and minimize your pain?

Instead, we are called to speak to ourselves the way God does, with compassion, grace, and acceptance. When we treat ourselves as undeserving of God’s love, we will withhold it from others unless we think they are deserving. None of us deserves it, but God gives it freely and we are called to give freely too.

Everyone has a story that is worth knowing

What we think and say and do we come by honestly. There’s a story behind all of it. If I knew your story, I might not agree with you, but I could understand you better, and vice versa. We must enter others’ stories.

Create space for others’ stories

Here’s an A-F of practices to help us do this:

Ask questions (if you don’t know what to ask, just say, “Tell me more”)

Be slow to speak

Check your own heart (if you don’t recognize what is being stirred in you, you are likely to speak out of it without thinking)

Don’t judge, defend, justify or excuse (these are often ways to avoid feeling others’ pain)

Echo their words and emotions (i.e. “what I hear you saying is...” or “it sounds like...”)

Feel with them (find common ground in the emotions behind their experience)

Empathy tells us we are not alone. Others are willing to walk with us. This is what we are called to as a church. We lean in to others stories and walk with them. As we practice empathy, and it moves us to compassion, we have the power to heal and change our world.

Questions for reflection:

Are you experiencing God’s compassion for you?

Do you speak compassionately to yourself in hard times?

Whose story do you need to hear?

What empathy practice do you feel called to use more this week?

Reflections of Week 2 of LEAN IN (Proximity)

I’ll never forget that day in English 201. I got swept up in an argument with a guy on the opposite side of the room. Josh wasn’t the kind of person I would know outside of class. I quickly categorized him as a liberal atheist who only liked playing devil’s advocate to annoy Christians.

After class, he approached me. He asked questions about my faith and he patiently listened to the answers. He didn’t seem offended when I asked questions in return. What started that day was a friendship. I learned Josh was an optimistic, thoughtful, open hearted poet, and we spent hours discussing faith and poetry. We still argued, but we did it from a basis of knowing and caring about each other as people. Our relationship was more important than changing each other’s views. We’re still in touch today, still disagreeing about issues of faith but still caring about each other as people.

Josh leaned in to me when, ironically, I should have been the one leaning toward him. It was easy to dismiss him as just someone I disagreed with when he was at a distance. Up close, I saw someone made in the image of God.

Last week, we began to think about leaning in. This week, we’re talking about how. It begins with the power of proximity.

We start with recognizing who and what we’re tempted to move away from. Which person, people or perspectives make you roll your eyes, shake your head, draw a line in the sand separating you from them?

God calls us to move closer to ‘”it.” Jesus is the ultimate example of one who moved closer, when he came as Immanuel, “God with us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the incarnation of Jesus well, “And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.

God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and the broken.”

God didn’t stand at a distance, waiting for us to get in line with him so he could be in relationship with us. He came to us. He wants us to relate to one another the same way.

Here’s what happens when we move closer:

1. Proximity builds trust

C.S. Lewis says that Christ could have, “had he pleased, been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape him. Of his great humility, he chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood at Gethsemane.”

When my friend Josh moved toward me with questions and curiosity, I realized his goal wasn’t to win an argument. His approach created trust between us that allowed us to really hear and know each other.

Jesus moved toward us as one we can trust. When we move toward others not to win but to love, we are like him.

2. Proximity brings understanding

Shawn and Sarah McHargue are a wonderful couple who previously attended Vista. They recently moved to Atlanta, where Shawn started a non-profit helping young people learn how to be auto mechanics. Sarah works at a school designed to educate students from tough economic backgrounds.

Sarah commented that before she moved into that community, she thought, “If you just work hard, things will work out for you.” It was a simple solution to poverty.

Then she got close to her neighbors. She witnessed the single women in her community working several jobs to create opportunities for their kids. Her theory began to crumble because she was closer.

The further away we stand, the simpler the solution for “it” seems, but the closer we get, the more we see the complexity. Proximity gives us the opportunity to step into something we would not have otherwise understood.

There is a cost to proximity. It will cost time and energy and perspective. But Jesus counted the cost and came close for us. He’s not waiting for us to get our stuff together with simple solutions.

So here’s a simple phrase we can remember as we attempt to lean in: instead of debate, relate. Here are a few suggestions for how we can respond when others differ:

1. That’s interesting. Can you help me understand?

2. That’s interesting. Can I share my perspective?

3. That’s interesting. Where can I learn more?

This is the gospel: we lean into others because Jesus leans into us. Choosing proximity may not change what we believe, but it will allow us to love well.

Questions for thought:

Who or what is your “it?”

Are you simplifying, minimizing, or just avoiding those people or situations, or are you looking for ways to move closer?

Reflections on Week 1 of LEAN IN

Leaning in is tough, but Jesus shows us the way.
— Gina Butz

How many of us have avoided social media this last week because we’re just tired? We’re tired of seeing the arguments, of realizing that people we know see so differently than we do, and of hearing some stories that break our hearts and others that outrage us.

Even under normal circumstances, this can be a trying time of year. Whether it’s that relative who gets under your skin at family gatherings, or the co-worker you’d rather avoid at holiday parties, we all have someone in our lives who is difficult to love.

Years ago, I began to ask God to show me how to love well. I had a naïve idea that the answer to this prayer would mean I suddenly felt overflowing love for everyone, and it would be easy to move toward them.

Instead, my eyes were opened to so many ways I did not love well. I had to step into hard conversations with people, involving apologies, hurt feelings, and misunderstanding. It was tempting to ignore the conflict, or pretend it wasn’t important, but I chose to believe that leaning in would be better in the long run. It was.

Most conversations went well, but others didn’t. Not everyone responds with grace and kindness when we chose to lean in, yet even in those times-maybe even more so in those times- God can teach us how to love like He does.

In the next few weeks, we’re going to take a closer look at what it means to lean in to the challenging relationships. How can we be people who love well even when we disagree? How can we be more like Jesus?

But you might be asking: why? Why move toward others when it is hard, uncomfortable, messy, and inconvenient?

 

Jesus decrees it

We do it first, because Jesus calls us to it. In Matthew 5 verses 43 and 47, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

Loving people who are like us is easy. Loving when we feel like it is easy. Even the world does that. Jesus expects more from us. He ties our identity as God’s children to our capacity to love our enemies.

 

We need it

But loving others is not just for their sake, it is for ours. Psalm 133:1 says, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” There is an emotional, relational, and spiritual cost to disconnection. We were created to connect, and when we live with disunity, it diminishes our quality of life. When we refrain from giving to others, we cut off our ability to receive as well.

 

Culture sees it

The world is watching us. When we choose not to lean in and love those who are hard to love, they miss the gospel. Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Jesus invites us to lean in when everything in our hearts tells us to push away. He invites us to lean in when everyone else walks away. He knows when we do that, we will proclaim the gospel in a way that the world cannot ignore.

Leaning in is tough, but Jesus shows us the way. Next week we’ll look deeper into how to lean in. Until then, here are some questions to prepare your heart:

 

Who is most challenging to love in your life right now?

How do you feel about the idea of moving toward them?

 

Begin praying for this person and for God to help you lean into this relationship.