Vulnerability in the Pulpit

I love to talk about preaching (or teaching or talking or lecturing, or whatever you prefer to call what I do every Sunday morning). When I get with other pastors I nearly always ask what they’re currently preaching or about their process. This post is about preaching. Read at your own risk. (HA!)

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“Did you ever imagine that what we call ‘vulnerability’ might just be the key to ongoing growth? In my experience, healthily vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change, and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a kind of constant openness to the other — because it would mean others could sometimes actually wound you (from vulnes, “wound”). But only if we choose to take this risk do we also allow the exact opposite possibility: the other might also gift you, free you, and even love you.

But it is a felt risk every time.

Every time.” [emphasis in the original]

– Fr. Richard Rohr (w/ Mike Morrell), The Divine Dance

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Sunday morning, I grabbed a mostly-blank red journal off the shelf for a project I’m starting to work on. I wanted something small that I could keep with me and collect ideas as they came.

When I opened it, my eyes fell on a page where I had written the following title: “Things that are messed up in my head right now,” and on the page was a list of things I was struggling with in the late winter of 2015. Most of the stuff on the list I’ve worked out, worked through and am in a much better place. (Example:  “Tired,” was a big one as we neared the end of our house-building project.)

I showed it to Jennifer, and I shared the list with a friend Sunday night in an unguarded moment. But today I ripped it out and threw it away. It’s too vulnerable. Even reading it all this time later makes me feel bad stuff inside. And while I felt a certain sense of accomplishment reading the list, it also represented some of the most broken, fragile places inside of me. Places I’d rather just hide most of the time.

The real truth? Sometimes I choose vulnerability, but other times I hide.

Like everyone else, I can vacillate wildly between “I want to be vulnerable,” and “I want to hide.” And sometimes, even mid-conversation, mid-sermon, mid-writing, I find myself changing my mind about how safe I feel and how vulnerable I choose to be. Or I regret sharing too much, or not enough.

But, I think the only pathway to growth is vulnerability. (I know I’ve said this before. But I have to keep reminding myself, so I’ll keep saying it in case it’s helpful to anyone else.) The only way to find my truest self is to say the true stuff with people who can carry the weight of it with me.

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I think church is supposed to be this kind of place. It’s supposed to be the kind of safe place where we can say our truest thoughts/feelings/intuitions about God, ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Everything I’ve said up to this point, I’m sure I’ve said before, but here’s the real point I’m trying to get to in this post — I think pastors are supposed to lead the way. We’re supposed to model what it means to live in an appropriately vulnerable way with our church. And, beyond that, I think we’re supposed to model it in our private lives as well, being appropriately vulnerable at the right times with the right people. Being gutsy. (But not foolhardy!)

This is what I love about recovery groups. They jump right past the images we all want to project and get to the vulnerability, “My name is _____, and I am an alcoholic.”

But, as Richard Rohr notes, this “always feels like a risk. Every time.”

The day I’m writing this is my study day. I intentionally keep my calendar clear on Tuesday mornings. I stay as quiet as possible, with as few interruptions as reasonable. I study the text, and then move towards teaching the text.

The temptation – every time – is to keep it clinical, theological, “factual.” But, deep in my bones, I don’t think that’s the “job.” I think the “job” is to take the text deep inside myself first — to pay attention to where the text is speaking to me, to ask what the text means in my context and then, with an appropriate level of vulnerability, to invite others into the same experience.

But that feels risky. Every time.

My friend Ryan Phipps – built a meme. And I love it:
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My hope is that somehow I can do both: I can be elegant and vulnerable. In some ways it’s easy to elegant. It’s easy to stand in the pulpit, and give the appearance of knowing everything cold and having it all figured out. But it’s simply not true. So, if I have to choose, I’ll choose vulnerability over elegance. (At least when I feel brave.)

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The Dynamics of Mutual Submission in the Church

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  – St. Paul to the church in Ephesus

Over the past couple of months, at the church I pastor, we’ve been having a rather intense conversation. The way I’ve been framing it is this: “What is the church’s answer to our LGBT brothers and sisters in terms of how they are supposed to live?”

You can listen to the podcasts on our church website, but in short, we’re deeply indebted to the work of Ken Wilson and his book A Letter to My Congregation. In the vein of “3rd Way” thinking, (you can read about how Ken Wilson’s church does it here) our church recognizes this matter as a “disputable matter,” analogous to what Paul is addressing in the early church in Romans 14.

We don’t have all the particulars worked out, but we’re close.

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Because this series has been so significant, we’ve only been having one service on Sunday mornings in which I’ve taught. Then, in the second service time slot, we’ve opened the floor for conversation.

The reason for this post is because someone on our leadership team asked me to repost what I said to wrap up the conversation this past Sunday. I wasn’t part of the question and response. I had asked two people from our Leadership Team to field questions. But, I couldn’t help myself at the end; I just had to say one last thing.

So, this is a little awkward, quoting myself, but by request, here’s the transcription, with only minor edits:

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“I hope what you all hear is there’s lots more discussion to be had on this. I want to encourage you to continue to have this conversation. I think that the questions that you’ve asked the Leadership Team this morning are good and pointed and should be asked. I invite you and encourage you to ask every pointed question you want to ask of us.

In the space of Romans 14, here’s what scares me. There are some of us sitting here saying, “If the Pastor performs a marriage in this room, I’m leaving.” And there’s some of us that say, “If the Pastor does not stand in this space, in this room, and do a marriage, I’m leaving.”

I think what Paul was saying in the tensions between Roman 14:13 and 14:21 (and throwing in a little bit of Ephesians 5 here) is that we’re all supposed to be for the other side. The “conservatives” are supposed to be the ones saying, “I don’t want to put any obstacles in the way of you following Jesus. However you have to follow Jesus, my desire for you is for you to follow Jesus as best you can.” That’s what the conservatives are supposed be saying. Not, “How do I make sure my voice is heard?”

The “liberal” side is supposed to be saying, “If it’s going to cause problems in the body, I don’t have to get married here. I’ll lay that down. I’ll get married somewhere else.” Not, “I have to have that just like everybody else.”

The Scriptures are calling us to actually take the opposite side of what we want to take. That’s when the body looks beautiful. That’s what a good marriage looks like. It’s when we say to each other, “I don’t have to have my way in this, what do you want?” That’s what it’s supposed to be.

I feel like we fail sometimes when we go into our camps and we say, “I am not getting my way in this, and if I don’t get my way I’m leaving.” That’s where I think we’re missing it as a church. That’s where we miss the whole thing that Paul is talking about in Romans 14.”

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Just last night one of our leaders asked me, “Do you really believe it? Do you really think people can live like that?”

Truth is, it’s super idealistic to think that people — especially us rugged, individualistic Americans — are going to submit ourselves to anyone. Confession: it’s hard enough to submit to my wife and I’ve made promises to do so. (And I really, really, like her and making her happy is one of my most favorite things in the world.) So, at one level I’m really cynical that this will actually happen in the church.

But at the same time, it’s a beautiful picture of what the church might be. I have a wedding message that I’ve used for years called “The Beautiful Dance,” in which I talk about how the best dancers are submitting to each other, working with each other in harmony. Yes, that might be idealistic, but the romantic in me can’t let it go, and even if it’s hard, and even if I’m a bit of a hypocrite and even if I think only a few will actually do it, I’ll keep preaching the ideal. (Because that’s what we preachers do.)

 

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