4/19/2008

Proactively Vulnerable

What does the word vulnerable mean to you?

My own immediate answer is twofold. First, vulnerability calls to mind standing at a window on a cold day, looking out at a bleak landscape. It is a question about what I am doing, whether I have value, and whether there is meaning in my interaction with life. I feel afraid, because the world’s negative answers to my questions could easily hurt, and I therefore feel quite vulnerable. Not a very Christian answer, I grant you, but it’s the first one I have and to say otherwise would be dishonest.

My next imaginative leap flees to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug (the dragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit) resides. He is powerful and angry, full of evil and hate. However, there is a weak place in his armor. This vulnerability in his defenses leads to his demise as he is shot down by a well-placed arrow.

What then is vulnerability? It seems, in some way, to be an area of potential damage. It is something to be protected, guarded, defended. To quote the good Mr. Webster, it is when one is, “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.”

We tend to fear these areas of potential damage in our lives, especially in the emotional context. Because we fear them, we defend them. We avoid them by not talking about our past or our problems, not admitting our fears, not letting anyone too close, not confessing our sin. We formulate sterile worlds that do not challenge us or have any potential to harm us.

This is done by only spending time with others when we are, “in the mood.” We keep visits short and sweet so that we never display a hint of annoyance. We back away from offending anyone. When someone hurts, we, “give them time to themselves.” We share our lives with helpful statements like, “I’m fine,” or, “I’ve been pretty busy lately.” We organize our schedules so that nobody sees our ugliness. If the ugliness does come out, those who do see it usually won’t ever see us again.

These things create a perfect, plastic world where smiles are painted on and everyone is fine. We know about each other, but we would not ask each other for money. We hear others’ words, but do not know how to listen to others’ hearts.

In the church, however, we say we desire close fellowship. We say we want to bear burdens and share sorrows. We say, “If you need anything, just ask.” We say, “Let me know if I can serve in any way.” We say the church is our community. We say.

I want to suggest that real fellowship does not happen without vulnerability. True relationships are not possible until we see each others’ weaknesses and failings, sorrows and anger. Without the reality of the warts and wounds, we are simply acting out the plastic world once again.

But in today’s society, the plastic world is more easily accessible than ever before. The internet, the suburbs, and the automobile have created a perfect storm of community-less life. It is simply easier not to seek out the ugly things that make relationships real.

My perspective, then, is that the creation of real community, in our local context, depends on our willingness to be proactively vulnerable. We must make ourselves, “capable of being emotionally wounded.” We must put ourselves in a position to see the ugliness that is in all our lives, so that we can begin the work of loving, accepting, discipling, and forgiving each other.

How will we create a community that can confess real sin if we are scared that we are the weakest one in the room? How will healing happen when our culture stifles our ability to admit the wound?

Here, then, are a few thoughts on being proactively vulnerable.

1. Live an open life. Find creative, sacrificial ways to spend time with people. More time means more opportunity to know people intimately by seeing them as they really are.

Yes, I realize your schedule is busy. That’s why it requires both creativity and sacrifice. But trust me, the drawbacks of occasional loss of sleep or schedule are outweighed by the rewards of intimacy and honesty in relationships.

2. Share your ugliness. Yes, this is a good thing to save for groups or individuals you have a certain level of trust for. But if you never put anything out there, whom will you trust?

Leaders, especially, need to find ways to show their own weaknesses before God, so that the community can collectively celebrate God’s grace. If leaders (even unrecognized leaders, like the unofficial leader of conversation in a dinner group) do not communicate safety in sharing weakness, nobody else will go there either.

3. Ask hard questions. Though they are very uncomfortable, the fact is that most people want to be known. If you ask simple surface questions like, “how’s it going?,” you’ll get simple surface answers like, “fine.” But if you have the guts to ask questions like, “Does it hurt you that nobody seems to ask you for help when they need it?,” you’ll find out very quickly just how badly people want to be known.

4. Listen to the answers. Don’t just hear them. Come to terms with the pain and loneliness in people’s hearts. Consider situations that might give you the same emotional distress their situation is giving them, and use that mind exercise to develop compassion. Listen to people’s hearts, and let them listen to yours.

5. Pray for each other, deeply and strongly. Pray for real and ugly things, pour out your sorrow for others before God. You will be shocked at how it draws you closer.

Friends, be proactively vulnerable. It is one of the greatest needs in our sterilized culture, and it won’t change unless someone like you does something about it.

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