Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Courageous Embrace // To Be Perfect


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/15/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
podcast here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/VineyardChurchOfMilan
or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379


Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

There’s more to this Jesus saying than meets the eye, but let’s consider first how our hearts might hear it.


We live in a world in which perfectionism is rampant. As we talked about last week, perfectionism is one of the ways we try to protect ourselves from the pain of shame. Because shame is, as Dr. Brene Brown describes it, the universal, intensely painful experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging.

Someone you really care about criticizes the way you look or ridicules you for some mistake you made or looks at you like you’re an idiot for something you said, and shame floods over you. [examples…] It’s a terrible feeling. Our place with that person, or in that group is at risk. We feel naked. Exposed. Judged and found wanting.

What are we going to do? In the moment we might get angry. Or embarrassed. Or break down in tears. Or run away. Anything to avoid that shame feeling. To avoid the painful experience of believing we are flawed and unworthy of belonging. But all of those strategies are very temporary. They don’t promise any long term relief.


But perfectionism does. Perfectionism offers us a way out of ever having to experience shame again; it presents itself as an antidote to shame. And it’s very, very appealing. If we can just be perfect, we won’t be vulnerable to rejection. No one would have any reason to not like us, to not accept us, if we could just get everything right. Be right about everything. Do everything right.

Because if we are perfect, and someone rejects us, well clearly they are the flawed one, not us, and they don’t deserve to have us belong with them anyway. No shame anymore, not for us.


What a great thing, perfectionism! It’s like a suit of shining armor, custom made for us. Slip into it and enter a world without shame. A world where rejection doesn’t hurt anymore. A world where we never have to be naked or exposed again, where no one can see us and laugh or sneer or frown. A world where the us we see today, in fact – the flawed, pained, sometimes weak self that we ourselves are ashamed of when we look in the mirror – a world where that us never has to be seen again, replaced by the strong, shining, armored superhuman that has taken its place.


So we hear Jesus say, “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as you heavenly Father is perfect” and it makes perfect sense to our perfectionism clad hearts. Surely God doesn’t have to worry about shame and rejection and vulnerability – he’s the most perfect of all, and therefore the least rejected and the most loved being in the universe. And that’s what we are becoming too, as we follow Jesus. Sinless, perfect Jesus.

So our religious efforts become woven together with our perfectionism, so much so that they are effectively inseparable. We’ll do everything perfectly, we’ll believe everything perfectly, our faith will be perfect, our morality will be unquestionable, our devotion will be perfect, our love will be perfection itself, and we will never have to fear rejection from God.


Well, except for two things. And both of them pretty major things, all things considered.


Except that we can’t succeed, for one thing.

Our attempts at perfectionism fail on every front. It’s just not sustainable. Not over time. And not across all the areas we try to be perfect.

Perfectionism is like those fig leaves in the garden of Eden story. A pitiful cover for nakedness. They don’t hold together very well. They are going to wither, eventually. And crumble away. And we’ll be standing there just as naked as we were before.

Let me illustrate in an area I think most of us will be likely to identify with.

In our culture, the demands of perfectionism are very different for men and women, generally speaking, because what it takes to belong as a man or a woman in good standing with one’s gender are very different. To belong one must conform to the norms. And if you don’t, you’re likely to experience shame, the pain that comes from feeling like you’re flawed and don’t belong.


According to a US study on conformity to feminine norms, the following is a list of the most important attributes associated with “being feminine.”

Being nice.

Pursuing a thin body ideal.

Showing modesty by not calling attention to one’s talents or abilities.

Being domestic.

Caring for children.

Investing in a romantic relationship.

Keeping sexual intimacy contained within one committed romantic relationship.

Using her resources to invest in her appearance.

In other words, stay as small, sweet, and quiet as possible, and use your time and talent to look pretty.


For men, here’s our list of the most important attributes associated with “being masculine”


Emotional control.






Primacy of work.

Power over women.

Disdain for homosexuality.

Pursuit of status.

Anything that deviates from this list is seen as weakness, so the basic message for men is this: if you want to secure your belonging, don’t let anyone think you are weak.


For some men and some women, it will be easier than others to come close to succeeding. But for all, failure and shame are forecast with 100% certainty. Research shows that all the roleplaying we do becomes almost unbearable around midlife. Men feel it two ways: 1) they feel increasingly disconnected (because real relationships are impossible without vulnerability, and showing vulnerability feels like it will be perceived as weakness), and 2) they develop a paralyzing fear of failure. Women experience it as exhaustion from trying to meet impossible expectations.


Side note: men, do you notice how Jesus didn’t give most of these masculine expectations the time of day…? Yet, at the end of the day, how many of you would call him weak?

So problem number one is that perfectionism isn’t possible. That’s bad enough. Problem number two is worse, though. Problem number two with perfectionism is this:


Perfectionism cuts us off from the good life, subjecting us to hell.

Let me try to say the same thing in several different ways, and then we’ll explore what that means and what we can do instead.


Perfectionism keeps us from doing what wholehearted people do, which is embracing vulnerability instead of running from it. Because perfectionism hates vulnerability and leads to increased anxiety and depression, which is destructive to relationships, hinders creativity, and limits performance. Perfectionism, in other words, promises to make us so good that no one can reject us. But instead it makes us worse and drives others away. That’s a hell of deal, isn’t it!? At the same time, it keeps us from courageously embracing vulnerability, which research shows expands relationships, helps creativity, and leads to, of all things, better performance.

[Think about an athlete who is struggling to master a skill, and, courageously embracing vulnerability, goes to a coach for help… or one who doesn’t, because of the grip of perfectionism…]


Perfectionism keeps us from being perfect. That is, it keeps us from being perfect the way our heavenly father is perfect. Because our heavenly father is perfect in ways perfectionism can’t even imagine.

Remember that saying of Jesus that we opened with?


Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

The original Greek word that is translated perfect here is teleioi. It means “reaching its end, mature, whole, finished, developed into a consummated completion by fulfilling the necessary process.” In other words, Jesus is telling his followers that they are to go through a necessary process in order to become mature, whole, finished. That at the end of a journey towards wholeness, they will find themselves in a state of consummated completion. That they will grow up to be like their heavenly father. Does that sound anything like what we experience in perfectionism?

No! Not at all.

Perfectionism says I’ve got to get everything right. This time. No room for mistakes, or I might find myself on the outside looking in.

Jesus says follow me and grow up into adulthood as a human being; if you’re patient and persistent, you’ll be amazed at the transformation into wholeness you experience along the way.


And maybe even more significant than that is the context for Jesus’ statement about being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. It comes right on the heels of these statements:

Don’t make oaths – all you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No.”

Don’t resist an evil person – If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

Give to the one who asks and don’t turn away the one who wants to borrow from you.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.


What do all of those instructions have in common? Every single one requires a courageous embrace of vulnerability.

Therefore, you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

How is our heavenly Father mature, whole, finished? He is mature, whole, finished, perfect because he always, every time, time after time, courageously embraces vulnerability.

What did Jesus say about himself? I only do what I see my Father doing.

And what did Jesus do, every time, time after time? He courageously embraced vulnerability.

He let go of divine privilege and became a human baby. Born in a stable. To a teenage mom suspected of sleeping around. Under a death warrant issued by an unstable king. That’s courageous vulnerability.

He let himself be parented by poor human parents. Who sometimes forgot him in big cities and left without him. That’s courageous vulnerability.

He went into the wilderness for 40 days without food and let himself be tempted by evil personified. That’s courageous vulnerability.

He let himself be known by, associated with, and entrusted his mission to, a ragamuffin group of outcasts and not quite good enoughs who had trouble understanding him most of the time. That’s courageous vulnerability.

He spent day after day with the sick, the demonized, the deformed, and the marginalized. Eating with them. Touching them. Healing them. That’s courageous vulnerability.

He let himself be crucified for them, hanging naked and accused on a Roman cross, mocked and beaten, without defending himself.

He only does what he sees his Father doing.

Therefore, you are to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.

Are we getting the picture?

Perfectionism keeps us from enjoying the life that God enjoys, which is what Jesus calls eternal life, or the life of the heavens.

God doesn’t care about the things perfectionism cares about. God cares about us having life, life to the full. To do that, we’ve got to get right with him and with one another and with the world around us. Which has nothing to do with being right or even doing right.

It has everything, on the other hand, to do with courageous vulnerability.

We said last week that we would make a connection between perfectionism and what is called in religious terminology, “the Fall.” Now is the time to do that.


When did “the fall” happen? When first humans ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in Genesis 3.

There’s something very strange about the story. In Christian theology “the fall” is not sexual sin. It’s eating from a tree it feels like we ought to eat from. Don’t we need the knowledge of good & evil to be good people? So “the fall” is not sexual sin or any other particular sin. It is religious sin.

This is subtle, not obvious. Like the human psyche is. It’s mysterious. But it’s real. If you try to work it out conceptually-abstractly it will defy you. But go at it like this, from the feeling end…

If you feel (not think, but feel) that it’s your job to figure out what’s good and what’s evil in order to be safe and secure…and if in your most emotionally honest moment you can admit that you feel alone in doing that job (so it’s an anxious experience for you) then you are tapping into what it means to eat this forbidden fruit.

Adam and Eve in the garden were brand new humans. Didn’t know the ropes. They were like children, vulnerable. Their vulnerability is signified by nakedness. But they were fine being vulnerable—like any naked 2 toddler running around in glee---because God was near to look after them, to guide them. But then that serpent sowed doubt about the goodness of Lord YHWH’s instructions. “Hey, you need that fruit! Eat it so you can be wise and grown up like God!” And they thought, “Yeah, maybe we do need that.” And they took it, despite the warning that God had given them.


Perfectionism has its root in the twisted religious idea that it’s our job (rather than God’s) to confer moral approval or condemnation on each other (and ourselves, for that matter).

Jesus seemed to make lots or religious people nervous by questioning this assumption. When a leader comes to him and says, Good teacher! Jesus stops him and says, “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus is responding to the Pharisaic tradition that the good religious person has an important job: to say what’s good and what’s evil. To relate to others based on giving or withholding moral approval.

Jesus isn’t eating from that tree. He’s eating from the other tree, the tree of life.


In other words, the way out of our sinfulness, out of our brokenness, out of the source of our shame isn’t perfectionism. Perfectionism will just keep us trapped. No, the way out is to courageously embrace vulnerability.

It’s to feel the painful experience of shame when our sense of belonging is threatened – perhaps because of our own actions, or differentness, or flaws, or mistakes, or just because of the brokenness of others – and to embrace the neediness that it indicates.

Yes, I didn’t do that well. Yes, I am not how someone wants me to be. Yes, I am not how I want to be. Yes, I have flaws. Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I am being rejected.

And yes, I care about belonging. Yes, it hurts like hell that my belonging is in jeopardy. Yes, I want to protect myself from that pain.

Yes, I am needy. Yes, without others, without God, I don’t stand much chance.

Yes, I am vulnerable.


But I am not going to run from that vulnerability and my own neediness. I am not going to run from others. I am not going to run from God.

I am going to embrace my vulnerability and my neediness, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life. I am going to embrace myself, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life. I am going to embrace others, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life. I am going to embrace God, even in my shame. Because Jesus does. And it’s the path to life.

It takes courage to eat from the tree of life, doesn’t it? Courage and vulnerability.

As we’ll explore further in this series, the embrace of vulnerability is ultimately an embrace of death. But we’ll save that for later. So much to save for later! How does self-esteem, and self-compassion fit into this? The kindness of God? What is shame-resilience and how do we develop it? What’s the role of scarcity in this discussion? How does the good news of the kingdom make the courageous embrace possible? How does all of this help us see what Love is?


For now, let’s close with this, from the Velveteen Rabbit.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

Therefore, you are to be real, as you heavenly Father is real.


Practical Suggestions:

1. Declare a Perfectionism fast day one day this week. Don’t make any excuses for any mistakes you make that day. If you break wind, own up to it voluntarily and loudly enough for others to hear. Don’t wear makeup, maybe, if that’s something you put on to protect yourself from feeling shame. Let someone you love and who has earned your trust see you try something you’re likely to fail at or be bad at. Be creative. Don’t do it first thing this week, so you’ve got time to notice how perfectionism influences you and you can figure out ways to fast from it.

2. Spend 5 minutes a day this week being vulnerable with God. Confess your sin to him. Tell him about your experience of needs. Your fears and anxieties. Don’t clean any of it up or try to make it sound good. I’d recommend doing it at the beginning of the day.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Untitled Series // Nicknames, Fig Leaves, & Bare Feet


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/08/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
podcast here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/VineyardChurchOfMilan
or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379


Our mission: Together we follow the way of Jesus, creating breathing room for the disfavored to find favor, for the discounted to count, and for the disconnected to connect. Starting here.


At the center of this assignment from Jesus swirl three interrelated concepts: belonging, shame, and vulnerability. And these three words aren’t just central to our assignment from Jesus, they are central to our experience as human beings, and they are HUGE themes in the bible, which is our shared book here in the Vineyard Church of Milan.



We’re all looking for a home. We’re all looking for a family.

We’re all looking to be invited to the party, to have a place at the table.

Who’s in, who’s out? How do you get in? What’s keeping you out?

Who’s cool? Who’s not?

Who gets embraced? Welcomed in? Who gets the cold shoulder? Who gets left in the cold?

Who gets chosen? Who makes the cut? Who gets rejected? Who gets ignored, passed by, shoved aside?

Who fits? Who doesn’t?


Nicknames make me think of what it means to belong. Technically, hypocrostics – which are the good kind of nicknames, terms of endearment. A good nickname says that you belong. [Gray – Bossman, Wilson, Wi-Fi, etc…Mama June’s guestlist from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon…Clinton at Washtenaw County Rec Center] We all want to belong somewhere the way you belong when you have a good nickname. The kind that says you’re known, you’re respected, you matter, you’d be missed, you’re loved – the real you is really loved.



I hate myself for doing that. I suck. I’m a loser. I’m a failure. I’ll never be accepted.

Who would have me? The only ones who’d want me aren’t the ones I’d want.

No one would ever want me. Not like I am. Not like I’m ever likely to be.

I’m different. Not what they are looking for. Not what they want.

I’ll never make the grade. I’m not good enough. I’m not enough.

What’s wrong with me?

I’m what’s wrong with me.


Fig leaves are the symbol of shame. We’ve realized we’re naked and we feel ashamed of our nakedness. We don’t want anyone to see us. We’re covering ourselves up to try to hide our shame, make it seem like everything is ok. But it’s just not working very well.



Uncertainty. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I don’t know how it’s going to work out.

I’m not in control.

Risk. This may pay off the way I’m hoping. But it might not. Everything is on the line. I’m on the line.

Emotional exposure. People will see me as I really am, and not how I want to present myself. People might not like what they see.

I could get hurt.

I could fail.

I could be rejected.

I’m naked.

Maybe even afraid.


Bare feet are associated with vulnerability in our world. The most vulnerable people in our world are the ones with bare feet (other than distance runners from Africa, of course.). Picture someone with bare feet in his or her day-to-day life. You probably picture a baby. Or someone very poor, possibly homeless. Or someone sick and bedbound, perhaps in a hospital. Even in our normal lives, we are most vulnerable when our feet are bare. In the shower. Sleeping. When your feet are bare, you feel vulnerable. You might get cold, hurt if you try to move too quickly. People might see your callouses, your corns or warts, your ingrown nails, that big gap between your big toe and the next one. Especially true for men. [Relay for life foot massage…too vulnerable, intimate to let someone see and touch your feet, especially un-cleaned up].


Nicknames, Fig Leaves, & Bare Feet. Belonging. Shame. Vulnerability. Right at the center of our longings, our pain, our fear. Right at the center of our mission. Right at the center of our lives.


Dr. BrenĂ© Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social work. She is also an Episcopalian. One Sunday in church there was a prayer that stood out to her: “I have not loved you with my whole heart.” It got her wondering about what it would mean to love God and others with a whole heart, and so she did what researchers do, she began to research. To observe and study and try to understand whole-heartedness. What is it? What gets in the way? How do people overcome those things?


Her research over the past decade led her to examine – you guessed it – three themes.  What emerged was 1) the importance of belonging to all human beings; 2) her findings that shame is the universal response when our sense of belonging is threatened or disrupted; and 3) her surprising finding that wholehearted, thriving people, learn to embrace their vulnerability rather than run from it.

In this series, we’ll be exploring how Dr. Brown’s research sheds light on these themes both in our lives, and in the scriptures, and how the wisdom and witness of God in the Bible gives us a way forward into following the way of Jesus together more faithfully without shame, creating breathing room for others (and ourselves!) to belong in the family of God, and doing all of it more wholeheartedly, embracing our vulnerability courageously, in the face of our fears.

[Note: companion resources – “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown, the “Daring Greatly” sermon series from the Ann Arbor Vineyard, much of which I’m adapting/stealing from for these messages, as well as Brene Brown’s TED talks which you can see if you go to www.brenebrown.com and click on “About”]


My dad has said that God is, in a sense, the first social scientist, in that he has an empirical side. Empirical just means “based on careful observation.” In Genesis 1 God steps back to see what creation is or is becoming. He lets creation reveal itself to him as he is, and only then does he say “This is good!” Looking first to see, and then to understand is the way of the scientist. Jesus is empirical in this way too. In John 5 he says, “I only do what I see the Father doing.” He’s not starting with a set of ideas about what he’s supposed to do; he starts by opening his eyes, observing, taking note and then acting.

Too often, religion is just about imposing our religious ideas on reality, rather than letting reality show itself to us, as God does.

All that to say, I’m excited about what we are going to experience in this series. Because when the data we get from careful observation of the world around us lines up with what we see God revealing to us through his actions and interactions with us, it emboldens us to take the leaps of faith Jesus invites us to take. So that, through radical faith in him, we can have the life to the full that he says he’s here to lead us into. I’m praying, over these next several weeks, for the kind of significant transformation good faith always produces.



(note: many of these powerpoint backgrounds are from www.vladstudio.com/wallpapers/ – great digital art by Vlad Gerasimov.)

Research finding number 1: The primary human need – the thing that shapes all of our social relations – is a compelling need for connection, the need to belong.

Our survival depends on belonging, so the need to belong is hard-wired into our brains. We need nicknames. We need an experience of home. Of family. With it, we thrive. Without it, we don’t survive.


Which may be why Belonging is God’s preoccupation in the Bible, start to finish. Genesis 1: the Earth is God’s temple, his home and home to his creatures, including us, who are caretakers of his home. Genesis 2 shows this from a different angle. God places humanity in a garden, beginning of his royal priesthood caring for God’s house, the earth. (Garden is like holy of holies.) There’s a place for us. A job for us to do. We matter, we belong.

In the Bible, home is home because it’s where connections happen. God with us, us with each other, us with the other creatures. All of us connected, belonging to each other in a heaven on earth. (Interestingly, in the garden, naming is what happens. We all need nicknames, even the animals…isn’t that when the stray dog you adopt becomes part of the family, has a home in your home?)


Research finding number 2: When belonging is threatened, when we perceive a threat to our social connections, our experience of home, shame is the response.

Shame is universal since it is tied to the universal need for belonging. Essentially everyone everywhere experiences shame. Successful people, unsuccessful, nice people, mean people (with the notable exception of socio-paths, who are incapable of experiencing shame). When you feel it, you’re likely to say or think something like “I’m a loser” or “I suck” or something like that. But what shame means, more fundamentally, is “I care about my connections and when they are threatened, I feel pain.”

Shame is different than guilt. Shame is “I am bad and no one will want me anymore.” Guilt is “I did something bad and I need to do better.” Guilt is helpful, it’s a useful response to getting off-track. Shame, on the other hand, has no benefit. Zero. Research shows not a single positive thing associated with it; but it is associated with lots of negative outcomes. Studies have shown that shame doesn’t even help people behave better. What a waste!


Dr. BrenĂ© Brown says: “Shame is the intensely painful experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging.”

Belonging is so important to our survival that we experience something remarkably like physical pain when it’s threatened. So remarkably like physical pain that Tylenol helps lessen it. In other words, there is evidence that shame is something we experience deep in the central nervous system.


Shame, like belonging, is a major theme in the Bible. What do the first humans experience when they break trust with God and eat from tree of the knowledge of good-evil? Not guilt per se. They don’t say, “We blew it and need to make amends!” No apologies in garden story. Just this:  “they realized they were naked…” Adam: “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” (Genesis 3: 7,10)

This is a dramatic-narrative depiction of shame. A sick to my stomach, diffuse emotional pain tied to belonging and fear of rejection.

Here’s where Brown’s research gets especially interesting. Brown says people have a variety of strategies for dealing with this yucky shame experience. We adopt strategies to deal with shame in order to protect ourselves against feeling vulnerable. She calls these strategies: “armor” (like defensive shields.) And most are ineffective.


What does that remind us of if we know this famous garden story? Adam & Eve’s pitiful attempt to cover their nakedness with fig leaves, “So they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). We like to make coverings for ourselves, but if you’ve ever tried sewing fig leaves and keeping them on through the day, they don’t work so well.

Take perfectionism for example. Perfectionism comes from the idea that if we are right, perfect, no one can criticize us or threaten our belonging.

It’s tricky, because it’s not the desire for excellence. It’s not the desire to improve. We need those desires. They help us.


Brown describes perfectionism this way: “If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”

We’ll talk more about perfectionism next week, and its connections to what in religious language is called “the Fall” in Genesis 3. For now, just consider how much perfectionism hates vulnerability. It hates depending on the grace of God or others. It wants to be so in control, so good, so flawless if possible, so perfect that everyone would have to accept you. If they didn’t, it would only be because they were wrong, flawed themselves, so forget them.


Which brings us to the third finding in the research. Wholehearted people (those who learn to move past the debilitating shame response) are those who embrace their vulnerability rather than run from it. Research shows that vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To believe that vulnerability is weakness is to believe feelings are weakness. Rather than weakness, Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

Listen to these descriptions of the kind of vulnerability she’s describing:

sharing an unpopular opinion

standing up for myself

asking for help

saying no

starting my own business

helping my 37-year-old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will

initiating sex

hearing how much my son wants to make first chair in the orchestra and encouraging him while knowing that it’s probably not going to happen

calling a friend whose child just died

signing up my mom for hospice care

the first date after my divorce

saying “I love you” first, and not knowing if I’m going to be loved back

sharing something I wrote, or a piece of art that I made

getting promoted and not knowing if I’m going to succeed

getting fired

falling in love

trying something new

bringing my new boyfriend home

getting pregnant after three miscarriages

waiting for the biopsy to come back

reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce

exercising in public, especially when I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m out of shape

admitting I’m afraid

stepping up to the plate again after a series of strikeouts

telling my CEO that we won’t make payroll next month

laying off employees

presenting my product to the world and getting no response

standing up for myself and for friends when someone else is critical or gossiping

being accountable

asking for forgiveness

having faith


There’s a paradox related to vulnerability. We hate being vulnerable, but are drawn to the vulnerability of others. [How many of us hate to admit we were wrong, but admire others when they do?]


But we shouldn’t hate it; at least not for the outcomes related to it. Embracing vulnerability is connected with these 10 traits, according to the research:

1. creativity

2. self-compassion

3. resilient spirit

4. gratitude

5. joy

6. letting go of the need for certainty

7. calm and silence

8. meaningful work

9. laughter, song, and dance

10. play and rest

Who wouldn’t want all that?


Before we wrap up today, let’s look at the story in the garden of Eden one more time, this time seeing how the role of vulnerability is prefigured. After God comes upon Adam and Eve hiding, coving themselves with fig leaves in shame, God doesn’t draw attention to their shame. He doesn’t shame them further. He does the opposite. When he sees their ineffective fig leaves, he quietly “makes garments of skin” and “clothes them” (Genesis 3:21).

If this story were being told to its original audience, at this point a hush would fall over the room. This is the first indication of sorrow / death in the garden. An innocent living being had to die to get those pelts to cover their shame.

In Christian theology, this is hinting at, pointing toward, prefiguring God himself coming in human neediness and relative weakness, completely exposed on the cross as an act of redemptive, saving, life-giving vulnerability.


There is no more powerful image of human vulnerability than Jesus, naked and exposed on a cross. And this is an image of God making himself completely vulnerable to us. His bare feet pierced with a nail, supporting his body on rough wood. As if the mark of true faith is not guarding against vulnerability, but embracing it. To follow a vulnerable Lord is to be willing to embrace your own vulnerability as he did. Courage is therefore at the heart of faith. A courage expressed in resisting the shame of human neediness; instead embracing a dependence on a good God who embraces us in our neediness. A God who walks without fig leaves, out of the tomb, his bare feet cushioned by dewy grass before the dawn of a new creation, his nickname announced by a surprised Mary: Rabbi! Teacher!


So much more to come, but for now, one practical suggestion:

1. Look for connections between fig leaves and nicknames.

This week, take a stab at noticing the connection between shame and belonging. When you get that diffuse, vague, almost painful yucky feeling—might be anxious, angry on surface, but hard to pin down underneath—ask yourself if it might be shame.  And see if you can connect it to belonging in some way. Is there some connection-relationship or your place in a group that you are worried about losing? Do you see yourself putting some kind of armor in place to numb the feeling? If there is, if it is shame, consider the thought that this feeling of shame may not be so much a signal that “I’m bad” as a signal that “I care about belonging.”

(It may be easier to notice it first in others – do you hear someone saying “I suck!” “I’m a loser!” “I’m an idiot!” or some other sign of shame? Can you see how they might be feeling that belonging is somehow threatened? Can you see them looking for reassurance that they are in fact worthy of belonging despite whatever lack of perfection they just demonstrated or perceived in themselves? Do you see them defending themselves against feeling the shame with some kind of fig leaf? Watch your kids especially.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Outsiders: Love’s Labor


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/01/2013
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand
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or via iTunes here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/vineyard-church-of-milan/id562567379


This is good news of great joy that is for all the people…this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Glory to God in the highest heaven

And on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Think of your primary images of Christmas: peace, joy, beauty, wonder, light, life.  All of which are true, and potent.  But because we come to the Christmas Story with such warm associations, even love, there some powerful and meaningful aspects that we are almost sure to miss.

One of the striking elements we are insulated from by the silent nights and Christmas lights and chestnuts roasting on open fires is just how much of the Incarnation is fundamentally disconcerting, challenging, perhaps even uncomfortable.

On Christmas, the holy, blessed, strong, good and pure creator of the universe becomes a weak, messy, fragile infant who depends on weak, messy, fragile, sinful creatures to puree his bananas, wipe up his spit ups and change his diapers.

At heart, the Christmas story is a story of God making peace with that which we are least at peace with about ourselves. It’s a story of him embracing us where and how he finds us, and it’s a story that invites us to embrace him where and how we find him – which, on Christmas, is in the middle of that which we find most disturbing about ourselves.


God does all of this so that the depth of his love for us might be fully revealed.

And so that, as we embrace him, we would be transformed in our capacity to embrace others.

So that, in other words, as the angels sing, there would, in fact, be “on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests.”


As we’ve been looking at Love’s Tension around the topic of outsiders, we’ve found ourselves again and again having to consider the role of disgust and love. Because disgust is what makes us want to push others away and make them outsiders. And love is the thing that dismantles disgust so that we can embrace outsiders and create breathing room for them to become insiders.


Perhaps you’re familiar with this summary of the Law from the gospels: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Love’s labor – overcoming disgust in order to embrace – is at the center of this, and not just in the loving your neighbor as yourself part of it, as we’ll see in a bit.

Here’s the thing this Labor day weekend: Love’s labor is the labor of overcoming our disgust responses – relaxing, suspending, undoing, overriding disgust – so that we can embrace the outsiders that God desires to welcome as insiders. Love’s labor is the labor of Christ-directed hospitality toward the disfavored, the discounted, the disconnected, and it begins by dismantling disgust. Love’s labor begins not with the act of hospitality, but rather with the internal choice to set aside our disgust responses and open our hearts toward the other in love.

And Love’s labor begins by welcoming God. God, who has been an outsider to us, desires for us to embrace him, first. To make him into an insider. To make room in ourselves for him to be included in our circle of self. And then we can get on with the joyful and challenging business of welcoming others.


What we’ve been describing as Christ’s Radical Inclusion – God’s extraordinary embrace of sinful human beings, welcoming them into himself, making outsiders into insiders and dismantling disgust along the way - began with his birth as a human baby, and that’s no accident. Because birth and what follows is one of the primary places in our human experience where love and disgust meet head on, and where more often than not, love wins – at least for those to whom the babies are given to welcome.

A reminder about how disgust works before we continue.


Disgust starts with what psychologists call “core disgust.” Core disgust protects the body from contamination centered on eating and oral incorporation – we feel it towards food, feces, slimy water, etc. But we also feel disgust in other areas. Especially socio-moral disgust (revulsion centered on social and moral judgments – those people who do those things or think that way, or this or that disgusting activity or thought), and animal-reminder disgust (revulsion centered on things that remind us of our mortality, that we are needy animals who will someday die).


Now, back to thinking about how brilliant Jesus is, and how our embrace of him – Love’s Labor that opens up a God-connection in our lives – empowers our embrace of others. That is, how our embrace of Jesus empowers Love’s Labor, a participation in Jesus’ salvation work in the world through Radical Hospitality.


Welcoming a baby is a radical inclusion, isn’t it? For a mother, this child that is part of her own self for 9 months – the ultimate insider - becomes a literal outsider, and then Love kicks in to high gear and the child becomes an insider, not in the biological sense, this time, but through the mother’s profound embrace. He becomes her son, her family. And through the embrace of others, this brand new self, an outsider to the world until his birth, becomes an insider at different levels to all kinds of groups of insiders. To fathers and brothers and sisters and extended families and households and neighborhoods and churches and cities and states and on and on.

In the ancient world, when people would first hear the Christmas story – without the benefit of years of singing Christmas carols, and exchanging gifts, and kissing beneath the mistletoe; when it was a simply an account about how a proposed Messiah figure came into the world - much about it would be uncomfortable to digest, even to the point of provoking feelings of disgust.

For example, the woman pregnant with the Son of God is a poor, unwed, teenage girl. The kind of person who, in that culture, would have been naturally rejected, spit out, pushed away. The revulsion we might feel is socio-moral disgust.

And Jesus is born not in the brand new high tech maternity wing of St. Joseph’s hospital (get it, St. Joseph?), but in a stable for farm animals. In their feeding trough. The revulsion we might feel is socio-moral disgust.

And the first people to visit him are shepherds. People who work with animals all day long, and as a result were thought of as dirty, uncouth people. Who have been sleeping with sheep before being woken by the angels that night. Who come to visit the Son of God without showering first, without squirting the Purell antiseptic gel on their unwashed hands. Again, socio-moral disgust.

What’s up with all that? It’s almost as if God is trying to make a point.

Because he is.

To understand God’s point, let’s talk for a minute more about disgust.


Various studies have shown that disgust is rooted in our unease with our mortality. Our discomfort with the reality that our bodies have needs and, without those needs being met, they will die.  

So anything that reminds us or confronts us with our physiological needs can trigger disgust. Food, excrement.  Blood, broken skin, injury, deformity, illness, snot.  Dead bodies.  Aging.  

(Side note: this is part of why there is always pressure to separate and quarantine and move out of view anything that might provoke disgust. From garbage dumps to old folks homes to hospitals to clothing to slaughter houses to pre-packaged and prepared food to suburbs and on and on…because the disgust response always wants to push away, to expel…which is great for rotten food, but maybe not so good for the person who loses a limb in an accident, or is born with a deformity, or loses hair in chemotherapy, or is visited by an angel and becomes pregnant with the Messiah.)

Disgust plays a big role in our conception of God, because we like to conceive of God as having no needs.  As being immortal, untouched by death.  


So we have something like a disgust continuumGod at the top - least disgusting.  And the "lowest" creatures at the bottom - most disgusting.  Worms, snakes, insects, slugs, farm animals, pets, people (and we have a continuum of people too) working our way up to the divine.

[This is a big part of why we don’t like disgusting things in our sacred spaces. Disgusting things are “lower” and we feel like they should be separated from God who is “higher.” Interestingly, the greater one’s death-anxiety, the greater aversion (a mild form of disgust) one has to the idea of Jesus experiencing or being affected by body fluids, body flaws, bad hygiene, or physical vulnerability. In other words, the less comfort you have with the idea of your own death, the more likely you are to say incarnational images make you uncomfortable, to say they are demeaning to Jesus, to say they are unrealistic, or to say they are unbiblical. Also, the greater one’s death-anxiety, the greater one’s aversion to profanity. Think about how you felt when I said “pissing” (in church!) last week. It doesn’t necessarily reveal how you feel about your death (although it might!), but it does illustrate this discomfort we tend to have about mixing things on opposite ends of the disgust continuum.]


Now here's where things get really interesting. As we’ve explored, Love and disgust are intimately intertwined.  When you deeply love someone, you widen the boundaries of your self in order to include them on the inside of you, where disgust plays a less controlling role.  The two become one flesh, as the scriptures describe marriage.   Which means all kinds of things that might otherwise disgust you, don't – or at least, disgust you less as your love grows.   You might pick up your spouse’s Kleenex, but not a stranger’s. You'll spit on a napkin and clean up your child’s face.  You'll change your baby's diaper.  Maybe even your aging Father's.

Think about this: you kiss your husband or your wife and it’s not gross at all (or at least, I hope not!) But your 10 year old, who has never experienced that kind of love, is all weirded out by it. Ewwww.


In fact, some of the most beautiful and powerful images of love in our world are images of people who have entered into places where mortality and need are on full display, unmasked, and embraced the people and problems and wounds and needs they find in those places, without shirking back. (Think about Mother Teresa…)


Love, in other words, does violence to our instincts for disgust.

The Disgust Response must always be surrendered for Love to come.

Which brings us back to the incarnation. God entering into our neediness.  God becoming a mortal, needy human being.  A baby born in blood and placenta.  Pooping meconium.  Spitting up.  Growing up to scrape his knees.  And have pimples.  And the other things that go on with adolescent boys.  And eventually to die a naked criminal.

Now, are we beginning to see why?


The LORD’s love for us is so immense, so deep, so powerful, that he expands the boundaries of himself to include us, so that that which might expect would produce disgust – our mortality, our sin, our neediness - is no obstacle to him.


And not only does he include us in himself, he becomes one of us. And the lowest kind of us, at that. As the prophet describes, one who carries our infirmities, who is despised and rejected. One who touches lepers, and invites traitors and prostitutes to be his closest friends, and eats – has table fellowship – with those society has already spit out.

Because he has come to embrace that which we are most ashamed of, that which we are most afraid to look at straight on, and said to us, “I love you. Even at your worst. Even at the point of your greatest need. Even at your most fragile and vulnerable. Even at your most unwashed. Nothing about you can keep me from embracing you.”


And now, this Labor day, the question is before us. Will we embrace him as he clothes himself with that which is most discomforting to us? In the midst of our sin. Our mortality. Our need. Our brokenness and deformity.

Because if we do – if we embrace God in his embrace of us, if we embrace Jesus at his neediest, blood soaked and sin clothed, outcast in the stable and on the cross – as the poor shepherds did, and the rich Magi did, as Mary did and as the women who washed his body and prepared it for burial did – we can be transformed by His love. A love that will empower us to love ourselves. To love ourselves without the disgust that separates us from the unsavory parts of our selves, and makes us wear masks and pretend to be that which we are not. A love that empowers us to confess our sin, to name it without shirking back, without shame, and in the process find forgiveness and healing.

And we can be empowered to love our neighbors as ourselves. To practice Radical Hospitality. To resist the impulse to crinkle our noses at them, or spit them out, or be nauseated by them – even at their worst, even at their most fallen or unbeautiful or impure. But instead to embrace them as brothers and sisters, joining them in their mortality and neediness, empowered by the love of the Savior who was born to us.

This is the fellowship of Christmas. This is the fellowship of the Cross. The fellowship of all who share in mortality, and need, and hunger, and sin. A fellowship that God has entered into as a full participant, in order to redeem and rescue us and restore us to one another and to himself.


Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, strength, mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. This is not some high, heavenly spiritual ideal. This is down to earth, dirty in the mud, changing diapers Love. This is Love’s Labor.


This is good news of great joy that is for all the people…this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Glory to God in the highest heaven

And on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests.



we are going to follow the way of Jesus…


we are going to create breathing room for the disfavored to find favor, for the discounted to count, for the disconnected to connect…


we are going to be a church that practices Radical Hospitality – the embrace of the outsider in Jesus’ name…


we are going to be a church committed to being centered set – embracing an identity and purity that comes from being “In Christ”…

If we are going to do any of this, we need to engage ourselves in Love’s labor, counting the cost and counting Jesus worth it.

Here’s why I’m absolutely convinced this is the only option Jesus gives to us as his followers.

The great commandment – Love the Lord you God and Love your neighbor as yourself – is followed immediately by the story of the good Samaritan. A story we talked about last week that is all about Love overcoming disgust for the sake of radical hospitality, turning outsiders on both sides of the story into insiders.


When Jesus tells his disciples, just before his execution, that he has a new command, what is it? It’s his command to love one another the way he just loved them. And how had he just loved them? He’d washed their dirty feet. An action so disgusting that Peter almost wouldn’t let him do it. Until Jesus told him, unless you let me wash your feet, you have no part with me.


And what practice did Jesus give us to do, whenever we are together in his name? We are to eat bread that he says is his body, broken for us. And to drink juice or wine that he says is his blood, shed for us. And we are to do it together with one another, breaking down all socio-moral boundaries to be gathered around one family table together, in common neediness before the uncommonly needy God revealed on the cross.

[Communion having to do with socio-moral disgust / animal-reminder disgust - intertwined with purity/sacrifice/mercy - in the end a proclamation of “the Lord’s death.” A proclamation that simultaneously announces that he has embraced our mortality (love doing violence to disgust / disgust doing violence to love) and an invitation for us to embrace him while he is clothed in our mortality, so that we can join him in embracing one another still clothed in mortality.]


Practical Suggestions:

1. Love your mushrooms as you love your Lindt. Embrace a disgusting food. Learn to eat something that disgusts you but that you know is actually good / healthy / beneficial and perhaps delicious to others. Commit yourself to the process until you find yourself no longer having a disgust response to the thought, sight, taste, texture of the food. If you are a Jesus follower, engage in the process prayerfully, asking Jesus to teach you something about himself / about your sinfulness / about his calling on your life.

2. Dine In with an Outsider. Make a goal to have an outsider over for a meal (or go to their home for a meal) between now and Christmas. Somebody you wouldn’t normally. Somebody who is an outsider for social, moral, or physical reasons.

3. Imagine Jesus Clothed with Your Disgust. As you come to the Lord’s supper, picture Jesus on the cross, clothed in the thing that most disgusts you about yourself. Whether it’s something social, moral, or physical. See him loving you even though you’ve been clothed in it. As you receive communion, picture yourself embracing him, carrying him from the cross to prepare him for burial, even though he’s clothed in it too.