sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/08/2013
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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.
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. Brené 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. Brené 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
starting my own business
helping my 37-year-old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
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
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
asking for forgiveness
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:
3. resilient spirit
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.)