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Ministry is, by its nature, a healing vocation. Those of you who have ministered to others might be aware of how caring for another not only ministers to the hurt but to ourselves as well. Ministry is then as much about the healer as it is for those who need healing. The Dutch Theologian Henri Nowen termed the phrase, “a wounded healer” to accentuate the importance of accepting our own struggles in order to better help others. This makes what we do here in the church different from visiting a psycho therapist who is professionally not as open with their own issues. Healing and ministry in general are very much about empathy; the ability for those offering care to feel the pain and struggle of those being cared for. It requires of both parties a certain sense of vulnerability and acceptance for the encounter to be meaningful
Just what is vulnerability? Vulnerability is often defined as a weakness, being open to hurt. But such as definition only applies if the relationship is adversarial. In a congregation such as ours we assume that we are not adversarial but communally cooperative and in that sense being vulnerable is an asset; it allows us to be open to healing itself. As the author and researcher Brene Brown who some consider the world’s leading expert on vulnerability put it: Fear and shame keep us from experiencing joy, and to do that we have to be vulnerable, to move beyond fear and shame.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
We live in a vulnerable world; getting laid off, finding out we are sick, intiating sex, speaking in public. We put ourselves out there all the time or we don’t. Because vulnerability is scary, even as it is necessary. And we numb our vulnerability don’t we? We are the most in debt, obese and addicted population in the history. And when we numb ourselves we numb not only our fear but our joy (Brown TED Talk, 2012)
This was a long and painful lesson for me. When I began my vocation as a minister, I was a pretty closed book. I am an introvert by nature anyway so being open to people was a challenge. In many ways, it was an odd decision for me to be a minister at all. I had a deep and abiding faith in the Holy and I loved the scholastic challenge of ministry, but being open to my own wounds as a means to help others seemed like an anathema. I didn’t start out as a very fuzzy and warm bear; more grizzly than brown.
I have learned in the 25 years I have doing this work that the primary reason for my initial guardedness was my issues around authority. Those of us who have had problems with authority often present ourselves as more defensive than we need to be. I still have issues with authority but I am working on them.
In fact, when I completed my master’s degree and went before the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee I managed to get through the entire interview with flying colors until the psychologist on the committee who sat on my right in my peripheral vision said: “I just have one more question John, it seems you have some issues with authority, What do you have to say about that?”
I turned to look him straight in the eye, and, without missing a beat, said “Says who?”
The rest of the committee laughed but he wasn’t laughing and I had this sinking feeling that my smart mouthed reply might have just sunk my career. They deliberated for 45 minutes (which is a long time) and when they called me back in, they passed me but urged me to look into that issue further. So I spent a long time doing just that. And here is what I learned.
I learned that my anger, my closed nature was directly connected to how open I was to others. I suppose I wasn’t very open to others because I was afraid. And that fear and anger kept me from not only healing myself but healing others. I worked long and hard at this. Fear and anger and guardedness had cost me dearly in my young life, relationships, jobs and the ability to truly grow spiritually. I have to credit my beloved Francis and her divine intervention along with a lot of therapy and spiritual direction to lay down the anger and fear and accept my vulnerability.
I still have my moments but when I lash out I have learned to apologize. I try harder and that ability alone, is the key to healing.
Vulnerability and our acceptance of our vulnerability is the means by which we can heal the struggles of others and of ourselves. And all of us in this room have struggles still in need of healing. In the book of Ezekiel, God tells the prophet that: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36: 25-27)
Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend the installation of my colleague Megan Lloyd Jones as the minister of our church in New Haven. It was a moving service to which I brought greetings from all of you. In the sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett, she told us of a new institution in many schools a ‘buddy bench’. A buddy bench is a bench on the playground where kids who don’t have anyone to play with can sit and wait for someone else to come and sit by them who also doesn’t have someone to play with. It’s a vulnerability zone. And kids use it all the time. Kids who used to loathe recess, like me, now find friends. We all need a buddy bench. Perhaps these seats are a buddy bench. Sitting down with someone who you don’t know who needs connection, so they don’t have to pretend to be interested in what’s on their smart phone. Isnt that why we are here? To connect with one another, to create the beloved community.
From the acceptance of each of other healing is possible. From vulnerability we can be deeply seen as human and worthy. To practice gratitude and lean in to joy. To believe you are enough. In order to practice healthy vulnerability we need to acknowledge life is hard and that we all make mistakes.
Of course it’s one thing to understand the power of vulnerability quite another to do it. After all, for many of us who have been hurt it is quite natural to not open ourselves up, to protect ourselves. Last month I was on a panel at the library with a psychologist and a rabbi talking about forgiveness. The psychologist, Dr. Janis Spring said that those women who have been hurt by abusive men find it necessary to protect themselves from being vulnerable again. In fact, the hardest work women who have been abused have to do is to learn to trust again. And forgiveness may never come. What Dr. Spring writes about and advises is that if forgiveness is not possible; acceptance of what has happened is possible. And that may be enough.
What I have realized is that we may not able to be vulnerable again if we haven’t accepted what and who has hurt us and then, once we are sure not to let that abuser into our lives again, open ourselves up, a little wiser for the wear.
And this then is the power of vulnerability and acceptance, not to be hurt again (although we will always be hurt again) but to become enlightened through those deeper relationships that can only be possible by living again beyond the struggles of life.
The Irish poet David Whyte once said:
“If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability…. Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.” (From Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning)
From his poem Sweet Darkness:
When your eyes are tired tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing. You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.