Vulnerability as rebellion

“Sometimes vulnerability might look like rebellion to someone else.” So proclaimed Kyndra Frazier – a pastor, mental health professional, and self-described hope innovator (I love that term!) – from the Nevertheless She Preached stage. If God is working for our thriving, she said, then we can risk standing in our truth and fully inhabiting our bodies.

I confess, I struggle with the V word. Mightily. I’ve assumed for a long time that it’s because I am an internal processor, a left-brained thinker, and a deeply private person. But lately I’ve remembered I was more outgoing – more willing to wear my heart on my sleeve – at one time. Case in point: I remember holding a boom box out the window of a friend’s house, crying and blasting Debbie Gibson, to try to win back a boyfriend in the sixth grade. Most of the girls in my grade were inside the house, while many of my male classmates were outside. I was not deterred by the gazes and whispers of this party-sized crowd. (The aim of this exercise was problematic, for sure, but also indicative that my resistance to vulnerability is learned, not inherent.)

I pinpoint the first day of seventh grade as my withdrawal into myself. New school. New people. New universe, as a formerly public school kid starting private school. The first bell rang, and I was clueless. Was I supposed to go to my first class, or was there some sort of orientation first? The first night of homework – a trauma that devolved into tears and lashing out at my parents and lasted into the early hours of the next day – zapped my confidence. The first weeks went by, and the best friend I’d followed to this new school disappeared into a new circle of peers. It suddenly felt too risky to lay out my hopes and fears and anxieties, so I stopped doing so. I was being strong and stoic, I told myself. Who wants to be a walking puddle?

What I didn’t realize was that I was playing into cultural messages that keep us isolated so that we cannot find each other, band together, and affect change. But vulnerability as rebellion exposes those messages and the systems they support for the evils they are. It prompts us to tell our stories to one another so that we see God in all people. It broadcasts the needs we each have and the barriers we encounter to having those needs met so that we can remove those obstacles. It joins us at the heart with people we see as soul siblings, and it reminds us that our vulnerability is exactly the power we need to overhaul unjust institutions. Sharing my vulnerability in service to rebellion is the least I can do as someone with relative privilege, recognizing that others’ efforts to be authentic have much higher stakes.

I’m going to try to be more vulnerable, because these times call for rebellion. Will you join me?

[Note: this is the second of four posts inspired by the Nevertheless She Preached Conference.]

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash.


Rising Strong: parsing shame and guilt

It’s hard to muster up the will to be vulnerable when we absorb criticisms and failures into our identity: “I’m not good enough.” “I’m a screw-up.” That’s why Brené Brown’s distinction between shame and guilt is so helpful.

Creative Commons "Burdened by shame" by John Hain is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Burdened by shame” by John Hain is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Shame focuses on our own or someone else’s (lack of) worth. It is rooted in the need to assign blame and in the reluctance to change, and it can quickly lead to a sense of powerlessness and even desperation in the shamee.

Guilt, on the other hand, focuses on behavior – not so much who was wrong but what went wrong: “I messed up” rather than “I’m messed up.” It fosters reflection about how to do differently and a sense of agency for making changes, resulting in hope for future successes.

In many churches those self-reflective muscles have atrophied, leading either to shaming (“Pastor So-and-So killed our congregation with X initiative”) or to feeling ashamed: “Pastor So-and-So left us to go somewhere else. What’s wrong with us?” “Our church is so much smaller than First Church. Why would people choose to come here when they could join a congregation with so much more to offer?” These kinds of mindsets, whether they are expressed aloud or not, can kill a church’s energy and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How, then, can we help our congregations lay claim to hope? Questions can help flip the narrative from one of shame to one of guilt. For example:

  • What do we do well? What are some things we’re able to do that bigger/better resourced/more established/etc. churches can’t?
  • With regard to particular situations, what do we need to do differently the next time?

Notice that these questions focus on actions rather than personalities.

What narratives in your church – or in yourself – need to be flipped, and what questions will help you get there?

Rising Strong: the power of vulnerability

I just finished Brené Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong. Brown is a research professor whose work focuses on the negative effects of shame on individuals and relationships. She encourages her readers to embrace their vulnerability instead of being ashamed of it so that they can live with authenticity and compassion toward self and others.

Vulnerability, as Brown defines it, is “the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome” (Rising Strong xvii). Truth be told, I find this concept – and most of Brown’s work – to be spot-on, exhilarating, and … terrifying. I have a perfectionist streak that is about 4’10” long, and thinking about showing my less-than-best self makes me knock-kneed. I’m working on being more brave, though, because there’s a cyclical relationship between vulnerability and courage. It takes at least a bit of gumption to put myself out there, but the more I do it, the bolder I feel.

Creative Commons "(293/365) Mary Poppins goes to the Beach, Face-Down edition *Explored*" by Britt-knee is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Creative Commons “(293/365) Mary Poppins goes to the Beach, Face-Down edition *Explored*” by Britt-knee is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Rising Strong is a sort of culmination of Brown’s research because, as she points out, if we are able to risk being vulnerable, we will sometimes end up with our noses in the dirt. What then?

Throughout November I will be riffing on Brown’s insights about picking up, dusting off, and charging ahead and then making applications to congregational life, because communities as a whole can find themselves facedown as often as individuals do. My prayer is that we’ll learn more about how to be vulnerable together so that we can feel more alive, be more creative, and connect better with others, all with a view toward living more fully into God’s mission for us.

May we be vocal in our vulnerability, because our courage is catching.