Once there was a pastor who was carrying the weight of the world, his congregation, his family, and his own life all in one fallible body. Sunday after Sunday he brought this weight and God’s Word into the pulpit. Until one Sunday.
That Sunday heart sagging, doubts nagging, lead feet dragging he mounted the podium. His people assumed their expectant positions. He was a remarkable story-teller weaving his story with their story into God’s story (before that was in vogue).
He scanned their faces. There sat the lost, the found, the diseased, the dying, the divorced, the prosperous, the poor, the married, the single, the pretenders, the sexually abused, the jobless, the parents whose beloved had committed suicide, seekers, finders, sleepers, critics, young, old, hopeful, hopeless. The usual.
His throat constricted. Words stuck in the emotions. He thumbed his Bible. He had prepared, such as it was. Sweat rose on his skin under his dress shirt. They waited, shifted in their pews. A baby murphed. Ralph coughed.
“I got nothin’,” he bleated, surprising even himself. They cocked their collective head, thinking they had heard wrong. Preachers always got somethin’ to say, especially when they don’t.
He shrugged. Silence.
Finally he said, “I preach Sunday after Sunday. Hours of preparation, study, practice. And it seems to make little difference, even to me.” He looked out expecting pitch forks and torches, calls for his resignation.
Stunned faces stared back. He described the weight, shared his belief, confessed his doubt. It felt like rambling to him. Again he ran out of words. He asked if anyone had anything to say. Like in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Anyone, anyone?”
This may have been the most dangerous, vulnerable thing this pastor had ever done or said. Preachers and leaders are not supposed to air their pain, their doubts, their vulnerability. People might stop believing in God.
But something cracked open. And into the void surged God. People slowly popped up like rabbits in a forest of owls, sharing that they too had nothing. Words of doubt, belief, fear, faith, loss, hope, and confusion swooped through the sanctuary.
Vulnerability and honest became a core value for the congregation. By the time I came to serve that congregation as youth pastor a few years later, every worship service included a “sharing time.” And the story of that first Sunday had grown mythic.
That Sunday changed the church and eventually me forever. I began to realize God wanted to work through my many imperfections while he healed them. Not after he healed them. I also learned claiming to have all the answers is a lie. Or even the ability to find them.
Becoming Wounded Healers
Henri Nouwen called this truth being a “wounded healer.” Jacob, master manipulator and man with an answer to every problem, ended up with a broken hip after wrestling with God. He could not face the brother he cheated nor manipulate God. Nouwen exhorts us to follow in Jacob’s marred footsteps and serve God with a limp. Trying to hide the limp is folly and dishonest. It is the limp that God uses.
I’ve written about this more here.
Decades later Brené Brown describes and prescribes vulnerability in her book, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Where I quibble with Brown is in her title. Vulnerability is not a power. It is, by definition, weakness. Who, though, would read a book titled “The Weakness of Vulnerability?”
What Brown means, I believe, is that vulnerability is the crack in our pretensions where God’s strength can rush in. Alcoholics Anonymous likewise asserts an addict cannot be healed until she admits her inability to heal herself.
Still, Nouwen and Brown speak profound truth to the belief that power, strength, and certainty— especially in this time when a pandemic has exposed our physical, spiritual, and emotional vulnerability—are paving stones in the path to healing and wholeness. We are crying out for answers. And the most profound answer may be a shrug of the shoulders.
Our pretending and hiding only harms us and teaches others to pretend and hide.
What Vulnerability Makes You
What does vulnerability make you? Weak? No, it merely shows your weakness that is already present. Vulnerability does not make you weak or strong. Vulnerability makes you honest. Vulnerability makes you healable. Vulnerability cracks you open to God. Paul writes, God’s “strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Think of it! A microscopic virus has laid the entire world’s massive political power, vast scientific knowledge, and awesome religious belief low. We got nothin’! We are vulnerable. And we don’t like it. Vulnerability is dangerous. It’s laying our jugular open to the mad dog’s teeth.
So we don political stances, conspiracy theories, expert opinions, social distance, and masks as protection. Please don’t hear this as a political statement against taking reasonable safety measures against COVID-19. Rather hear it as a warning that even our best is not up to snuff. Finite creatures cannot face off against the infinite and unknown without Infinite help.
That’s what Howard Childers admitted that morning at Saint James Presbyterian Church. “I got nothin’,” he said, “especially as it measures up against the weight, uncertainty, and pain of life.”
Friends, I hate to admit it but I too got nothin’. I don’t have five ideas for you to fill the quarantine with. I don’t have a prayer that will change your life. I do have a few ideas and prayers. But honestly as helpful and beautiful as I try to make them, they are not up to the task.
Only God fits that role. And our vulnerability invites God on stage to do so.