‘Becoming Human: Fear, Shame, and Vulnerability’ or ‘Thoughts on Having a Sucky Lent’

I couldn’t decide what to name this post, so I cheated. I’ll get to the first part in a bit … but before we go there I need to talk about the fact that Lent sucks.

Yes, you read that correctly. Two words – Lent sucks! Or it could be that I suck at Lent and am simply a free church poser (or is it ‘poseur’) when it comes to the liturgical calendar and this is the reason why my Lent sucks.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains, Lent has not gone well for me – its sucked! I know that saying something ‘sucks’ doesn’t sound too ‘spiritual’ but that’s probably a good thing. Lent is about ashes, and finitude, and death, and repentance, and being all too human – all stuff that can not seem very ‘spiritual’ by some (not very well thought out) standards. Sometimes the human part of life sucks. Hmmmm, well, put it like that and ‘sucks’ seems to fit nicely with Lent.

What has made my Lent suck? I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Peterson’s book does not suck, but my reading has not gone well. I’m not as far along as I had hoped. I was also going to do a series of ‘Readings in Spiritual Theology’ as I read through the book. This has not happened either.

Jumbled … fragmented … distracted … scattered … blocked … blocked … blocked

This is how I feel when I go to write. Even now I have to force myself. I know what it is like to have the words flow … it’s a great feeling. I do not have that feeling right now. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Our exile journey in the New Mexico wilderness is over. We are where God wants us, where God has ‘placed’ us, we stepped out on faith and here we are. I had planned for Lent to be a time of rest and regaining my bearings, the orientation part of Ricoeur’s ‘orientation by disorientation.’ But this is what I get, more disorientation.

I couldn’t figure it out. What is blocking me, what is it that is keeping me disoriented. Well, a huge part of it is that one can’t really plan when the disorientation part of over. In fact, the disorientation and orientation is part of an ongoing process, which is just to say that we can’t experience one without the other. So disorientation at some degree will always be with us. But what else…

Well, I actually knew what it was but was literally afraid to admit it. The feeling keeping me blocked and disoriented, jumbled and scattered, feeds back in itself so readily its hard to break out of the cycle it creates. Fear…

I say it again, FEAR!

Fear – I genuinely appreciate God’s provision by providing me a job in Christian retail. It provides a paycheck where previously there would be none. It helps give some rhythm to my week. At one time I may have even considered a career in Christian retail. That ‘me’ no longer exists. Christian retail hasn’t really changed but I have. How long will I have to do this type of work?

Fear – will others judge me for ‘complaining’? How many will construe my questioning as a lack of appreciation.

Fear – will my boss see this?

Fear – will others assume that because I admit to feeling fear that I lack faith somehow?

Fear – will others miss the fact that I demonstrate my faith every day as a husband devoted to his wife, a caring father to his daughter, and as a hard working employee?

Fear – what’s around that next curve anyways?

Fear – will others hold my epic failures as a liability against me?

Fear – am I up to task of being a husband, dad, employee, friend, theologian, pastor, etc, etc, etc?

Fear – am I … inadequate? (My answer to this one may indeed surprise people.)

I know this is a lot of fear I’ve just spilled out, and it wasn’t easy. But why do this? Respectable people don’t do this do they? Well, I’m not sure about what respectable people do or don’t do but I’m pretty sure that keeping our fears bottled up inside of us is just about the least human thing we can do. I’m also pretty sure that admitting we are afraid is not the negation of faith (just like doubt is not the negation of faith), that faith is going on one step at a time even when we are afraid, that admitting we are afraid is itself an act of faith.

Let’s be honest, we live in a marketplace that has come to define us and our lives. We work jobs in this marketplace, we look for jobs in this marketplace, we entertain ourselves in this marketplace, church has been subsumed into this marketplace, and we keep each other at a distance in this marketplace. It seems that the marketplace (or the church for that matter) doesn’t like weakness … no vulnerability here please. But I’m pretty sure that any context that sucks away our ability to be vulnerable simultaneously has a way of sucking away at our very humanity (even the church).

The practice of vulnerability though has the resources to break the feedback loop fear creates. In the midst of my Lenten journey I came across a TED video by Brené Brown with some great thoughts on the power of vulnerability. Have a look at the talk and then I’ve got some theological observations (promise you’ll actually watch the video and not cheat by skipping ahead, ok). [Note: for reasons I don’t understand the video(s) may not show up if the post is viewed in a reader. Click through to blog and you can view them there.]

While Brown has a ‘secular’ psychology and social work background, I believe her words have the potential to help us be better practicing theologians. The act of being vulnerable is perhaps the most genuinely human thing we can do. Jesus, our Lord, embraced weakness and made himself vulnerable (in the ultimate sense of the word) in the incarnation. Not only divine, our Liberating King is the Truly Human One! If this is the case, when we are forced to forsake vulnerability to keep a job, to find a job, to keep ourselves amused … do we in fact dehumanize ourselves? Or the Trinity … three in one … Father, Son, and Spirit in perichoretic, interpenetrating love and communion. Trinity – ultimate vulnerability at the very center of the universe itself. Humans created ‘male and female’ together made in the relational image of vulnerability … imago deiimago trinitas. Could it be that by forsaking vulnerability we forsake the very divine image in which we are created as ‘male and female?’ Yes, our lack of vulnerability, often the result of much needed protection at a particular moment, in the long run dehumanizes us.

The upshot of all this I’m trying to get to is that by its focus on ashes, death, repentance, and finitude Lent reintroduces us to our humanity … Lent schools us in vulnerability (this could be why as of yet Lent has successfully resisted commercialization – you won’t find a Lent aisle at Wal-Mart – but without Lent it becomes easy to see why the marketplace doesn’t get Easter either). But as it turns out, I am writing myself into a corner. The reason is because I believe theology matters, Peterson’s definition of spiritual theology as having to do with lived experience and lived theology underscores this. According to what I have written so far, vulnerability is a theological imperative! This means I can’t be like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts and only give part and act as if I’ve given the whole. Again, Brené Brown comes along at the right time in the video below (again, promise that you’ll watch before reading further).

Shame is even heavier than fear. Shame makes fear look easy! Want to clear a room or get some time alone … mention shame. Yet Brown is right on this one, we must deal with and listen to our shame. Again, theologically, we chip away at our own humanity by ignoring shame or hiding shame. Well, here goes…

I don’t carry shame for most things. Grief … fear … regret even, these feelings even jumble themselves together, but I do not feel a lot of shame. But I do feel shame in regards to one thing in particular – I feel shame that I’m seemingly powerless to find a way for Christie, with whom I am one flesh, to have access to medical care to help manage her fibromyalgia. For me the question deep inside is, “why can’t I get a job that carries health insurance so my wife can see a doctor – what is wrong with me?” I feel that I fail her every day that I can’t find a way for her to see a doctor or get medicine that might help.

On the flip side of the shame is still fear.

Fear – that other won’t see what a great chaplain my wife is (at least three or four times the chaplain I am).

Fear – that others will merely think she is complaining when she talks about her constant invisible companion, fibromyalgia.

Fear – that others will think her disability and suffering is a disqualification for pastoral type ministry when in fact it may be her greatest qualification. There’s nothing like suffering to get one in touch with their humanness and finitude. We need more pastors in touch with these things I think.

Fear – that others won’t see how courageous she is. Our journey has consisted of losing babies, failed adoptions, chronic illness, and fibro … yet she is the most persevering, tough, loving, faith filled person I know.

Fear – that others will keep their distance because all this is too intense or they feel they can’t understand or they don’t know what to say. Please don’t do that … come near. It could very well be awkward, but vulnerability and intimacy take practice. We can’t be incarnational if we aren’t first present with each other.

Fear – that when she reads of the shame that I feel that she will think of herself as a burden. I look at her and I don’t see a burden. That thought doesn’t even register with me. I simply see the woman I married, who is more beautiful with each day.

I feel these things because she’s my wife, she’s a part of me and I am a part of her. The pain of fibromyalgia is not in MY body (though I would take all her suffering into my own body if I could), but I suffer the suffering of my wife (and she suffers my suffering in return). Vulnerability opens me (us) to suffering and struggle, this is true. Because of this she hurts and I hurt, not in the same way, but I hurt nevertheless – this is bound up in the one flesh part of marriage.

I choose this journey with her. Vulnerability opens me (us) to joy, this is also true. Alongside all the other emotions mentioned here is a deep joy that I get to walk this road with her! In weakness, fragility, suffering, and finitude – that is, in our humanness we journey together and there is great joy in this. Paul Ricoeur says,

For from the suffering other there comes a giving that is no longer drawn from the power of acting and existing but precisely from weakness itself. This is perhaps the supreme test of solicitude, when unequal power finds compensation in an authentic reciprocity in exchange, which in the hour of agony, finds refuge in the shared whisper of a voice or the feeble embrace of clasped hands. (Oneself as Another, 191)

This describes I think not simply her story or simply my story but our story together (and even the story of those that choose to walk with us – maybe even your story as you read this). There is risk in vulnerability of this nature – of being judged, of being misunderstood, of not getting the job, of suffering, and of suffering the suffering of others. But its worth it! The joint narratives we form are the wonderfully intimate creation that grows out of making oneself vulnerable to another person.

So, there it is … I just dropped the ‘S’ bomb – shame. The thought pops in my head, I’ve got applications out still … I can’t tell you what it would mean to secure a position at HSU, my alma mater. Yes, the health insurance is a big part of it (huge even, read above) but its also a matter of calling, and place, and service, and coming home, and not just working a job but the pursuit of a vocation (note – I said vocation, not vacation … though a vacation would be nice), and being where I believe I am meant to be. Will talk of my failures brand me as a liability? Will this much honesty hurt my chances? Will people just think I’m always ‘negative’? How did we get to where we have to eschew vulnerability, and thereby chip away at our humanity even if ever so slowly, in order to do the essentially human things of pursuing God callings and providing for our families?

Is there a way to recast the questions? Is there a manner in which one’s failures are our greatest teachers (perhaps there should be a conference)? Is there a way that this sort of thing reveals not instability but great balance, awareness, stability, and the strength to take appropriate risks? Is there way that vulnerability won’t be seen ‘weakness’ but as our most accurate measure of true courage! Is there a way employers can see vulnerability as the doorway to increased productivity and creativity? Is there a way that in the marketplace vulnerability becomes an asset? Or is it just wishful thinking on my part? Will I have the courage to actually post this? (Questions, questions, questions. This is where we end up with vulnerability, lots of questions with few nailed down answers … but even just asking the questions points us toward our humanity.)

Yes, Lent has sucked! But that might be OK after all. Maybe there isn’t one ‘proper’ way to do Lent. Perhaps even, if ‘sucking’ is an undeniable aspect of the human journey then Lent (filled with ashes, dust, repentance, finitude, fear, shame … a kind of mirror of our humanity) is supposed to have a certain suckiness to it. Admitting fear and shame is not the negation of happiness or joy, but rather the kind of honesty that sets us on the path to the deepest expressions of happiness and joy.  As we approach Easter, may we make ourselves vulnerable and find our true humanity in the Truly Human One, our Liberating King Jesus.

Until the next part of the story, may the shalom of our Liberating King be with you.

Postscript: I have two quick prayer requests…

First, medical care … someway, somehow for Christie … and second, job stuff for me as I try to get on at HSU. Thanks!

Readings in Spiritual Theology with Eugene Peterson [1]: ‘Christ Plays…,’ the country of the Trinity, and Lent

We found ourselves getting settled back in Abilene just in time for Lent. Before arriving in Abilene the first time three years ago to attend Logsdon Seminary I had barely heard of Lent. We arrived in January which meant that at our church, Crosspoint Fellowship, we became introduced to the liturgical church calendar and the season of Lent right away. I can not overstate how much the lectionary and the seasons of the church calendar have revolutionized my personal spiritual life and aided me in living into the story of Christ on a daily basis.

This year I am giving up Dr. Pepper for Lent. Yes, I know, its terribly unoriginal, and I’ve ‘been there and done that’ already in past years. Ok, you got me. But this year the fast from Dr. Pepper has a deeper feel than it has in the past. The time that’s past since last year’s Lent has been one of exhaustion for me … spiritually, emotionally, physically … you name it, in every way possible I have been depleted. I had begun to really feel this depletion during my last three months as a CPE resident/chaplain at the nation’s busiest level one trauma center. My experience here was more intense than I realized at the time, as was the level of full orbed exhaustion that I was feeling. When we arrived in Carlsbad, NM I secured employment with a mental health organization working daily with severely mentally ill persons – not a good job if one wants to rest up any at all. Additionally, with the fact that my rhythms were disrupted and our experience in Carlsbad exilic in nature I found that I was pretty much living on Diet Dr. Peppers to survive.

Lent for me this year is for repenting of my proclivity to rely on a soft drink (an empty diet version no less) to keep me up and going. My intention for Lent this year is to use it as a time of rest and recuperation from my exhaustion and depletion … a time to re-establish my rhythms. Giving up Dr. Pepper is just one part of this. The other part is choosing something to read during Lent. Before we left Carlsbad I had started reading Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture by Daniel Treier. For the time being I am going to set this aside and have decided to pick up Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places for my Lenten reading (besides the lectionary readings of course). His descriptions of spiritual theology and the “lived quality of God’s revelation among and in us” (xi) I believe will provide my Lenten journey and spirituality, in Peterson’s words, “with structure and coherence by working from a scriptural foundation and with a Trinitarian imagination” (xii) in which I am reconnected with my own limitedness, contingency, and mortality (remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return) and reminded that I can not live on Dr. Pepper alone. Below are some readings and reflections from the introduction to Christ Plays (pgs 1-9) .

Christ Plays…

Peterson draws the title of the book from a poem by Gerald Manly Hopkins in which the final lines read:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, To the Father through the features of men’s faces

The ‘play’ of Christ is a mystery that involves us as participants in life, life, and more life. Peterson elaborates…

The message is that all this life gets played out in us, in our limbs and eyes, in our feet and speech, in the faces of the men and women we see all day long, every day, in the mirror and on the sidewalk, in classroom and kitchen, in workplaces and on playgrounds, in sanctuaries and committees. The central verb ‘play,’ catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. ‘Play’ also suggests words and sounds and actions that are ‘played’ for another, intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty or truth or goodness Hopkins incorporates this sense of play with God as the ultimate ‘other’ (‘…to the Father’) – which is to say that all of life is, or can be, worship.

Hopkins sonnet is as good a presentation of what we are after in understanding life, the ‘end’ of life, as we are likely to find: the vigor and spontaneity, the God-revealing Christ getting us and everything around us in on it, the playful freedom and exuberance, the total rendering of our lives as play, as worship before God… It is the task of the Christian community to give witness and guidance in the living of life in a culture that is relentless in reducing, constricting, and enervating this life.

Peterson’s aim here is to draw the ‘play’ of “we who are the limbs and eyes and faces in and whom through Christ plays” even further into the ‘play’ of Christ, into life, more life, and real life.

This image reminds me that the Lenten journey towards the life of the play of Christ travels along what Peterson calls the ‘Christ-revealed’ way – the way of the cross – the way that is cruciform – the way that brings me face to face with my own mortality and contingency – the way that shows me that the play of my life depends on the play (the life, death, and resurrection) of my liberating King Jesus.

Peterson on Spiritual Theology…

Spiritual theology is a pair of words that that hold together what is so often ‘sawn asunder.’ It represents the attention that the church gives to keeping what we think about God (theology) in organic connection with the way we live with God (spirituality).

The meteoric ascendency of interest in spirituality in recent decades is largely fueled by a profound dissatisfaction with approaches to life that are either aridly rationalistic, consisting of definitions, explanations, diagrams, and instructions (whether by psychologists, pastors, theologians, or strategic planners), or impersonally functional, consisting of slogans, goal, incentives, and programs (whether by advertisers, coaches, motivational consultants, church leaders, or evangelists). There comes a time for most of us when we discover a deep desire within us to live from the heart what we already know in our heads and do with our hands. But ‘to whom shall we go?’

Because of the spiritual poverty all around, this lack of interest in dealing with what matters most to us – a lack encountered in our schools, our jobs and vocations, and our places of worship alike – ‘spirituality’ to use the generic term for it, has escaped institutional structures and is now more or less free-floating… The difficulty is that everyone is more or less invited to make up a spirituality that suits herself or himself.

Because of this it seems preferable to use the term ‘spiritual theology’ to refer to the specifically Christian attempt to address the lived experience revealed in our Holy Scriptures and the rich understandings and practices of our ancestors as we work this experience out in our contemporary world of diffused and unfocused ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.’

The two terms, ‘spiritual’ and ‘theology,’ keep good company with one another. ‘Theology’ is the attention that we give to God, the effort we give to knowing God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and in Jesus Christ. ‘Spiritual’ is the insistence that everything that God reveals of himself and his works is capable of being lived in ordinary men and women in their homes and workplaces. ‘Spiritual’ keeps ‘theology’ from degenerating into merely thinking and talking and writing about God at a distance. ‘Theology’ keeps ‘spiritual’ from becoming merely thinking and talking and writing about the feelings and thoughts one has about God. The two words need each other, for we know how easy it is for us to let our study of God (theology) get separated from the way we live; we also know how easy it is to let our desires to live whole and satisfying lives (spiritual lives) get disconnected from who God actually is and the ways he works among us.

Spiritual theology is the attention we give to lived theology – prayed and lived, for if it is not prayed sooner or later it will not be lived from the inside out and in continuity with the Lord of life.

Peterson’s image of spiritual theology reminds me that the Lenten journey is not merely about breaking bad habits, developing better habits, or self-help techniques. A Lenten spiritual journey is a training ground for a prayed and lived theology in which I, again, come up close and personal with my own contingency and mortality on the distinctly cross shaped, cruciform Christ-revealed way. This is the only path to the real life Peterson speaks of … resurrection life.

Peterson on the ‘country of the Trinity’…

‘Trinity’ is the theological formulation that most adequately provides a structure for keeping conversations on the Christian life coherent, focused, and personal. Early on the Christian community realized that everything about us – our worshiping and learning, conversing and listening, teaching and preaching, obeying and deciding, working and playing, eating and sleeping – takes place in the ‘country’ of the Trinity, that is, in the presence and among the operations of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. If God’s presence and work are not understood to define who we are and what we are doing, nothing we come up with will be understood properly.

I am reminded here that for us our move to Abilene and rejoining our Crosspoint family only makes sense within the concept of the missio Dei – what Peterson intimates as the ‘country of the Trinity.’ This place and these people form the context, community, and country in which the triune presence and work of God define who we are and what we do. In this Trinity, narrative, and mission are lived out … missio Dei becomes missio Trinitas.

Peterson continues…

Trinity is a conceptual attempt to provide coherence to God as God is revealed variously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our Scriptures: God is emphatically personal; God is only and exclusively God in relationship. Trinity is not an attempt to explain or define God by means of abstractions (although there is some of that, too), but a witness that God reveals himself as personal and in personal relations. The down-to-earth consequence of this is that God is rescued from the speculations of the metaphysicians and brought boldly into a community of men, women, and children who are called to enter into his communal life of love, of emphatically personal life where they experience themselves in personal terms of love and forgiveness, of hope and desire. Under the image of the Trinity we discover that we do not know God by defining him but by being loved by him and loving in return.

…these conversations in spiritual theology are set in this Trinity-mapped country in which we know and believe in and serve God: the Father and creation, the Son and history, and the Spirit and community.

There is far more to Trinity than getting a theological dogma straight; the country of the Trinity comprehends creation (the world in which we live), history (all that happens to around us), and community (the ways we personally participate in daily living in the company of all the others in the neighborhood). Trinity isn’t something imposed on us, it is a witness to the co-inherence of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and the co-inherence of our lives in the image of God (where we are, what is happening, and who we are as we speak and act and engage in personal relations with one another).

Trinity maps the country in which we know and receive and obey God.

I am reminded by the image of the ‘country of the Trinity’ that in my Lenten journey the contingency and mortality of my humanity occurs within the context of the triune presence and work. Trinity, the activity and communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, maps the ‘Christ-revealed’ country in which God is known … received … obeyed. In this a Lenten spirituality is about more than behavior modification … it is about union with the divine triune story, economy, life, and communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

May the shalom of our liberating King Jesus be with you.

A Prayer for Lent

Here is a Lenten prayer from the blog of Christine Sine:

We have chosen to fast

Not with ashes but with actions

Not with sackcloth but in sharing

Not in thoughts but in deeds

We will give up our abundance

To share our food with the hungry

We will give up our comfort

To provide homes for the destitute

We will give up our fashions

To see the naked clothed

We will share where others hoard

We will free where others oppress

We will heal where others harm

Then God’s light will break out on us

God’s healing will quickly appear

God will guide us always

God’s righteousness will go before us

We will find our joy in the Lord

We will be like a well watered garden

We will be called repairers of broken walls

Together we will feast at God’s banquet table

Also, be sure to check out some prayers and reflections from the Lenten blog of Crosspoint Fellowship (our church home in Abilene, Tx).

Prayer for the Week – First Sunday in Lent: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.