‘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!