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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Embracing a Tragic Sense of Life

Do not go gentle into that good night

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Dylan Thomas)

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Last week, my social circles were abuzz at the tragic passing of a 35-year-old mother of two. We watched the Facebook updates over the last couple of months as she struggled, and then, last week her husband and children, surrounded by many in our community, mourned her passing. Also last week, an earthquake in Italy killed more than 200 people. In Turkey, near the Syrian border, a 12-year-old (!) suicide bomber walked into a wedding and killed 50 people. While closer to home, most of us shake our heads at the bluster of the American political process and wonder “Is this really what we’ve become?”

At the same time, there have been beautiful sunsets of late, vivid canvases of blue, orange and yellow across the sky and the weather has cooled, hinting at fall. A couple Sunday nights ago on an unseasonably cool evening, I sat with a few friends around the first fire of the year and it was simply gorgeous — beautiful weather, challenging and thought-provoking conversation. I’ve been running again, I’ve lost about 15 lbs since the middle of the summer and I feel good in my body — stronger, with a high sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I come home from work, and most days I run and then ride my “runner’s high” throughout the evening. Life is good and beautiful.

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These seem to be the twin rails that life always runs on. The beautiful and the tragic, walking hand in hand. Nearly every day we hold on to both; some of us carry the beauty and tragedy in our own bodies. (We met an amazing woman in Texas this summer who actually carries a heart pump in a backpack, and still found it within herself to smile, hike, and enjoy her beautiful family!)

But in the beauty and tragedy, I believe we’re faced with a choice. Some of us wallow in the tragedy — we get mired down in it, all we can see is the darkness, the underbelly, the pain and the struggle. And others of us refuse to acknowledge it. We deny it, stuff it down, numb ourselves with wine, television, and food; we surround ourselves with only best things, insulating ourselves from the tragedy, telling ourselves that if we just ignore it, it will go away, it will resolve itself.

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Richard Rohr says part of the journey towards maturity or wholeness is that we embrace what he calls the “tragic sense of life.” We embrace both rails — that life is always beautiful, and life is always tragic. Yes, there are evil people committing injustices in the world, but there are also heroes doing achingly good and beautiful things too.

Jason Silva, in his video “Existential Bummer” (one of many like it in his Shots of Awe YouTube channel), pushes us to the same idea in relationships. He says that when we love something/someone, we embrace Rohr’s “tragic sense of life,” in that we recognize the transience of all things — that nothing we see, nothing we experience will last. But instead of moving towards detachment as Buddhists teach, we “rage against the dying of the light” as in the Dylan Thomas poem above. Instead of detaching, we embrace both the beauty AND the transience at the same time. We love and we ache. Maturity recognizes it’s always both.

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Rohr writes that this embracing of the tragic sense of life is really at the heart of the Christian story — God is always taking the tragic and working in it and through it. God has not chosen in history to simply eradicate the evil, the tragic, the darkness, but to work surreptitiously through it. It’s a long quotation, but I love how he says it (the emphasis is in the original):

“If God has not learned to draw straight with crooked lines, God is not going to be drawing very many lines at all.. Judeo-Christian salvation history is an integrating, using and forgiving of this tragic sense of life. Judeo-Christianity includes the problem inside the solution and as part of the solution. The genius of the biblical revelation is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates falling to achieve its only promised wholeness, which is much of the point of this whole book.

Jesus is never upset at sinners (check it out!); he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners! Jesus was fully at home with this tragic sense of life.” (Richard RohrFalling Upward)

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So, which rail do you lean on? Are you denying, numbing, insisting only on the beauty of all things, or do you tend towards wallowing in the melancholy and tragic? What do you need to bring balance? How might you embrace the “tragic sense of life” today?

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Embracing Messy and Complicated

A year ago this week, I began a 3-month Sabbatical.

Even now, 9 months after it’s over I could tear up if you started asking the right questions about the state I was in, what I was feeling at the time, and the healing that happened in me.

Let me name some convergences that have intersected in my life over the past year, starting in Sabbatical and moving forward.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong. Taught me the ideas of “the story I tell myself” and the importance of “rumbling with my story.” So good. So important to my own good mental/spiritual/emotional health.

The Enneagram. I’m fully “in” on this personality tool. I would talk about it all day, every day, if there were people to talk to (hint! hint!). I’m a Type 3: “the Achiever.” That affects how I see everything. And I fall in the heart triad, where I’m always going to be dealing with my feelings about people. That’s just the way it is.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. I just re-read this book about spirituality in the second half of life last week. And everything in his book resonates deeply with person I hope to become. (Someday.) (When I grow up.)

We had a small exodus of people who left our church in the months after I returned from Sabbatical. Many of them left without saying goodbye, they just quit coming. Part of me gets it. That’s part of church leadership. People come, and people go. But at another level, it’s caused me to distrust almost all of my relationships. It’s rattled my cage quite a bit – more than I probably am willing to acknowledge most of the time (see my Enneagram Type).

There’s other stuff.. But this isn’t the right place.

The net sum however, of these convergences is that at 42, I’ve really had to lean into the interior journey, to understand myself better. Those of you that are long-time readers, you already know all this. And I’m not broken in the same way I was a year ago, but I’m choosing to stay in the journey – to keep pushing myself to stay curious.

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“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton

Frankly, I still feel like I’m kind of a mess some days as I try to sort out how I think and how I feel, how I understand myself and how I discover more of God. And most of the time, no one else but Jennifer knows. She sees me brooding, hears my hurts, listens to my questions-without-real-answers. She patiently  listens as I rumble with my story and reminds me no matter what I feel that she loves me and is committed to me.

But if Merton (and pretty much every other spiritual writer I’ve read) is right, the only pathway forward to wholeness is through a deeper understanding of the self. Even John Calvin said “It is not possible to know God without knowing yourself. It is not possible to know yourself without knowing God.” And so I’ve ventured in some forums to try to say my raw truths. And most of the time, I feel deep levels of regret and embarrassment, what Brene Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.”

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And then, this afternoon, reflecting on my 1-year-Sabbatical-iversary (it’s Monday as I write this), I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s post “I need to tell you something” on her Momastery blog about her divorce. It’s beautifully written. It is honest and brave and true and sad all at the same time. And then, there was this one line, where she’s writing about why she feels the need to write a post announcing her divorce that caused my to catch my breath:

“I will be messy and complicated – and I will show up anyway.”

Yes.

I know that it freaks out some people when I choose to be messy and complicated. And it probably drives some people away, because we all love our shiny, manicured false images. But here’s my manifesto – and I say this not because I think I’m particularly good at it all the time, but rather, I say it as aspirational – as the person I want to be:

I, Charles, will be messy and complicated and I will show up anyway.

And I will choose messy/complicated because I believe it’s the ONLY way forward to wholeness. I was talking to a friend about this and I said, “to me, the only people who insist they aren’t messy and complicated are the people who might as well wear a sign on their heads that says ‘UN-self-aware.’” We’re ALL messy/complicated, whether we know it or not. I guess I just want to own my messy/complicated and so I can move through it and learn and grow.

So I will choose to be messy/complicated in my marriage, in my parenting, in my leadership, in my relationships. And I will continue to fight my desire to run away, to hide, to sulk and to bury my feelings in ice-cream and whiskey. This doesn’t mean I always need to do this externally, but sometimes it will. (God help me discern the difference!)

Listen, I promise, messy/complicated won’t be a permanent state. Messy/complicated is a place, but you move through it as you rumble with your story, come into new knowledge of yourself and learn new ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world. And it doesn’t mean I’ll be messy/complicated with all of you either. I’m discovering the right times, right places, right people to be messy/complicated with, where I feel safe, affirmed, and then gently pushed.

And I guess, if it makes people uncomfortable, or it makes me less desirable as a pastor, leader or friend, then so be it, because this is the only road to wholeness. It’s the only road on which I will find my true self and thus find God. This road is more important than all the other things. (Again, as I edit, this is more aspirational, but I’m working towards it.)

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But this post isn’t just about me. Mostly, I’m good. I’m not in any kind of crisis or major turmoil. But rather, I’m trying to embrace messy/complicated as a way of life. You move through it, you circle back around, you move through it again. You learn and grow and keep learning. There is no such things as “arriving.”

I’m writing because I want to say to you, “stay in it, show up, embrace your messy/complicated and ‘do the work.’” I’m inviting you to choose messy/complicated because sooner or later life will hand you messy/complicated and either you will prepared for it, or you’ll have to catch up to it when it comes. I’d rather be prepared.

So, today, schedule that coffee with the friend/pastor/therapist/spiritual guide/guru you need to get messy/complicated with. And be brave, my friends. We’re in it together.

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Why the “Decline of the Church” is Good News

“Today there seems to be a breach in almost every wall. Some have said, the ‘cosmic egg’ that seemed to hold us together for a long time is now broken: ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ find themselves unable to put it back together again. It feels as if the earth moved beneath us somewhere in the mid or late sixties: the old certitudes, the agreed-upon assumptions, the core values of Western civilization came up for major questioning. Our presuppositions dissolved, and the questioning has not stopped for decades. We now find ourselves engaged in major and sometimes minor culture wars on almost every personal and social issue.”   – Fr. Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know

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I’m sitting in a cafe late at night talking to a couple of new friends and I ask one, “What does your religious journey look like?” And I can see the discomfort on her face as, knowing I’m a pastor, she struggles to say that church isn’t really working for her right now, the old answers just don’t seem to satisfy and it’s frankly easier to not go through the hassle of finding a church, when she’s not even sure what she believes.

Of course I gasped; said “you heathen!”; upended the water glass and stormed off, avoiding her the rest of the trip.  (Spoiler:  No I didn’t.)

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I was listening to NPR on my way into the office yesterday morning (one of the things I missed about actually going to work), and they were reporting about a study of religious life in America. And despite the volume of the Evangelical right, and the growth of mega-churches across the country, fewer and fewer people are actually going to church. I think that’s telling. Not that one has to attend a church to be on a spiritual journey, but in my experience, most people who are on such a journey desire to be around others on a similar journey.

Which makes me wonder about the contemporary church. I think most people (clergy included) think of church as an institution with a product. They have a particular way of seeing the world (we call this a theology) and their job is to communicate that product, instead of seeing the church as a gathering space for spiritual pilgrims of various beliefs. (This, by the way, is the heart of my church.)

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I can count about 5 conversations like the one I recounted above during my Sabbatical; conversations with people who are deeply spiritual, but decidedly not religious. And rather than discouraging me, these are the kinds of conversations that I thrive upon. Talking the finer points of particular theologies may have given me life in my early twenties as a young seminarian, but it now drains me.

I’ve come to believe that we’re all deeply spiritual – if you just ask the right questions – and that many of us mistrust institutional religious structures, or at least are having a hard time figuring out the role of the church these days. I’m not against religion per se – except when it keeps people away from the love of God, when it teaches hate, not love, when it’s more about preserving “our tribal identity” than being the hands and feet of God and throwing open the doors to the world and saying, “God already loves you all.”

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You know, some people get discouraged about these kinds of things and bemoan the loss of America’s moral compass or the demise of the church. But I’m actually excited to live in the time that we do. I’m excited that people are open and searching. Of course, for some, the loss of certainty is the pathway towards despair, but to paraphrase the Bible, “those who seek, will find (eventually).”  

As for the church, this really is a great time. It’s a great time for the church to refine itself, to question everything, to think about the ways we’ve lost our way and to recover the heart of Jesus for the world. It an opportunity for the church to remake itself not in the form of a monolithic institution but rather a safe place for those on spiritual journeys, seeking to find their way home.

[photo credit]

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