Authenticity, Vulnerability, and Shame

March 21st, 2012 Comments

Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom.

What is it about children that He wanted us to emulate.  No wait – let me rephrase that.  What is it that we are to become – not just emulate?  What do children do?  What are children like?  What is it about little children that Jesus sees?

When I think about the context of this story, I have many thoughts.  I think about the freedom with which the kids flocked to Jesus – no fear, no hesitation, and not reserve.  They just came to Him.  There was no pretense.  No pride.  They were completely comfortable with Him.  The other thing I think about is their total openness and vulnerability.  They had no fear of rejection, no secrets, and nothing to prove.  They just were.  They were not play-acting.  They were not trying to be something they weren’t.  They were just pure, innocent, naive, and vulnerable.

To top it all off, these kids had no shame.  They weren’t concerned about their appearance.  They hadn’t yet learned the fear of rejection.  They had no reason to recoil from the judgments of the people around them.  Unlike the adults in their lives, they knew nothing about judgment, rejection, and shame.  They were open, vulnerable, and shameless.

The other day a friend posted the above video.  It’s a bit long by Internet standards – 20 minutes.  Most of you won’t take the time to watch it all the way through.  That’s OK.  But I must say, those who have watched it all the way through have been deeply impacted.  It was this video that unfolded a series of epiphanies in our household.

Authenticity

When we started Common Ground, it was our desire to create a spiritual community that was real, authentic, relevant, and experiential -or R.A.R.E.  Our vision was: “to gather together to experience God, seek where He is already working, then join Him.” It’s  pure Blackaby.

Our desire to be R.A.R.E. was based on what we saw as a need – both in society and in ourselves.  We saw a need for The Church to better connect with the culture and the people around us – people who do not relate well with traditional church.  But we also had a need for this type of church.  Mainly because we weren’t having our needs met in the traditional church setting.  For us, it isn’t enough to “go” to church, we wanted to belong to a community that was experiencing God and true community.

Vulnerability

For the most part, I have no issue with being vulnerable.  I’ve worked through my stuff and I know that I’m a broken, recovering, ever-failing human being.  I have nothing to hide and I don’t have a need to be an religious authority over those poor folks who haven’t “come into the truth.”  In fact, I’ve found that being vulnerable and joining in the journey with others, makes for a stronger community.

Again, this comes out of the needs I see in others, and my own need to connect.  It is a representation of the incarnational ministry of Jesus.  He didn’t send salvation from His ivory towers in Heaven, but He came in the flesh to walk among us and to experience humanity by our side.  He arrived as a poor, illegitimate, baby – one can’t be much more vulnerable than that.  He died, naked, ridiculed, and misunderstood.

Church was never conceived to be a hierarchical institution.  Church was supposed to be a gathering of spiritual apprentices who follow in the steps of Jesus.  We journey together, learning from one another, blessing those around us, and encouraging each other in the process.  In fact, I believe that the weakest members have as much to teach the strongest – and vice versa.  There should never be arrogance, there should always be humility, and one should never assume they have arrived.

Shame

When I was in high school I heard someone discuss the difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt, I was told, is from God.  Shame is from Satan.  In the video above, she unpacks this more – but without the religious, or spiritual connotations.

Shame produces fear, withdrawal, and doubt.  Shame makes us embarrassed, hesitant, and scared.  Guilt can inspire us to change and grow.  I’ve experienced a lot of shame in my life and it led to destructive behaviors and attitudes that only made things worse.  You’ve seen it in others – you’ve experienced it yourself.  We see it in the Garden of Eden, we see it when Peter rejected Jesus, and we see too much in those around us.

I grew up feeling ashamed of the scars on my face.  I had no control over the events that led to these scars – they are the aftermath of a congenital defect and multiple surgeries to correct those defects.  Most of my life I was the recipient of ridicule, teasing, bullying, and shaming.  It was a terrible way to spend one’s childhood.  Finally, around the age of 25, I began to put the shame behind me – and so began the process of recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual promiscuity.  Also, I had become a jerk.   I was a cocky, overcompensating, arrogant, jerk.

The last 25+ years have been a constant uphill struggle of recovery.  Two steps forward, one step back – but sometimes one step forward and two steps back.  Though it was good to leave the shame behind, the journey forward hasn’t exactly been an easy path.

The Church

This is where The Church, generally speaking, is failing.  In an attempt to look attractive, to show the power of Christianity, and to hide from the ubiquitous shame – people put on a pretense of perfection.  However, counter-intuitive to their motives, this makes them look proud, pretentious, and hypocritical.  It destroys their authenticity, intimacy, and creates barriers to community.

It is inauthentic to not admit brokenness.  It makes others feel inferior when we fail to be vulnerable.  It comes across as judgmental when we tell others of their sins, but give the pretense that we have overcome those sins.  In fact, we often have a pre-selected list of sins that are unacceptable within the confines of the church club, but we ignore a host of other sins that are socially acceptable.  Indeed, we have so narrowly defined sin as a behavioral issue – when in fact it is a connection issue.

Sin is separation from God, which will result in certain behaviors.  We are all separated from God.  We all struggle to maintain, let alone grow our spiritual serenity with God.  But because of unresolved shame, we hide in garments of our own making while pretending to have it all together.  When new sinners enter our confines, we are quick to reveal the behaviors that are outside of our acceptable us policy.  Though we ignore the logs in our own eyes, we are quick to reveal the splinters in the eyes of the newbie.

Missing

After watching the above video the other day, my wife came to me with an interesting revelation.  We are looking for vulnerability she explained.  This is what we’ve been missing since coming to Oregon.  At Common Ground we were small group based and we thrived in authentic relationships.  But since coming to Oregon we have felt alone.

Even my preaching style was rejected.  Where I tend to have an empathetic storytelling style, people wanted straight, three point, doctrinal dissertations.  I shared my soul and my journey, but they didn’t want that.  I went into board meetings expecting a spiritual experience, but most just wanted to get through the chores of church business.  I knew the nominating committee should be bathed in prayer and discerning of spiritual gifts and the needs of the body, most just wanted to get through the process with as little pain as possible.

We have struggled at our current church.  Yet from all outward appearances it is one of the more successful churches in the denomination.  And yet, we feel alone, judged, set apart.  But after watching the above video, it dawn on us why.  It is a lack of vulnerability – which leads to a lack of authenticity – and this in turn creates barriers to intimacy, relevance, and the overall experience.

Until she mentioned it, I was unable to put my finger on what it was that made me so angry.  Yes, I know I have history.  Yes, I know that people are scared of me because of that history.  And yes, I know that I have been sullen, angry, and depressed – which hasn’t made me very approachable.  However, everyone loves my wife, and yet not at this church.  That is strange.  There has been a failure to connect.

Every Sabbath during the worship service, there is a time set aside for prayer.  People are invited to come forward and enter into prayer.  I’ve been to many churches that have done this and it has usually been a very powerful experience.  But not at this church.  Not only does it have low participation, but it doesn’t feel safe – which is probably more causal than coincidental.  While some of the leaders who lead out in this prayer session show genuine humility and spiritual connection, most come across in very pretentious ways.  They invite the wounded, the hurt, the struggling to come forward – but they don’t cast a vision of hope.  It is more sympathy than empathy.  It comes across as a parent-child, teacher-student-relationship – as opposed to one where we are all in this together.

In fact, this prayer time epitomizes the lack of vulnerability within the leadership of the church.  It is maddeningly an unsafe activity.  One feels as if they are being put on display in front of all the saints – giving them fodder for their gossip sessions.  It isn’t intimate, it isn’t real, and certainly isn’t authentic.  We miss being a part of a RARE church.

Empathy

Empathy is the antidote to shame.  In the video above she asks, who hear feels that being vulnerable is a shameful, scary thing?  Virtually everyone in the audience raises their hands.  Then she asks about their reaction when others display vulnerability.  Again, unanimously, everyone agrees that it comes across very courageous.  We admire the strength of those who are brave enough to be vulnerable and authentic.

So, what keeps us from being vulnerable?  Shame.  We tend to judge our insides by comparing ourselves to other’s outsides.  We see the perfect, well dressed people around us, and then look inside our souls and feel more shame.  We know we will never measure up to their standards.  This causes us to put up walls and barriers.  We fear that others will discover who we really are inside.  We concoct stories that put us in the best light possible, but we avoid the truth of our fears, our hopes, and our dreams.  We can’t be authentic, we can’t be vulnerable, we have too much shame.

However, when another stands beside us and says, “Me too.” we relax.  When we let others know that we struggle with the same shame, the same fears, and the same failures – we allow others to lower their defenses.  Jesus said that sin (spiritual brokenness) can only exist in darkness – when brought to the light, we thrive.  When I give others permission to be authentic, by revealing my own empathetic vulnerability, they allow their brokenness to be exposed to the light.  This is the beginning of spiritual common-unity.

Growth

A journey together will enable a strength not common in today’s churches.  I think back to the early church and how they would gather together, growing, praying, repenting, and bonding.  Acts 2 gives an awesome view of a community I crave to be a part of.  When I read about the history of the early Advent movement, I am moved.  I long for that sort of community.  The all night prayer sessions, the tears, the struggle for understanding, the intimacy, and the common-unity – all of this is what true church is all about.  This is what I crave.

Vulnerability is scary.  Sometimes it is more scary for those watching the vulnerability than for those expressing it.  I remember the first time I shave my mustache off.  It was very freeing to not hide the source of my shame.  But for some of my coworkers, it was too much.  They were appalled.  “Why would you shave!?” They would ask.  It was as if they were saying, you aren’t supposed to reveal your flaws.

I’m currently not attending worship services on a regular basis.  I’m a member on the books, but I don’t feel like I really belong.  I get mad when I go.  I want to be real and authentic – but I’m not sure they could handle that truth.  If I were truly real, vulnerable, and authentic, I’d probably interrupt the prayer session and overturn some money tables.  That wouldn’t be good.  So, for now, it is best for everyone that I don’t go – I’m not strong enough to not be angry, and it isn’t OK for me to be real.

Vision

This is what people want.  They want a place where they can be real – warts and all.  People want to belong – even if they don’t behave.  People want to have fun – they don’t want to be judged.  People want someone to join them in the journey – not direct them from some ivory tower.  People want to know God, but currently they can’t get past the church to find Him.

Until we work through our own shame – with fear and trembling no doubt, we will be unable to be vulnerable.  Until we reveal ourselves in RARE vulnerability – we cannot be authentic.  Without authentic integrity, we will have a real hard time building common-unity.

We are told that when we “perfectly reflect Christ’s character,” then He will return.  I believe this refers to the body – the whole Church – not just individuals.  It isn’t about us becoming perfect and sinless – it is about reflecting Christ’s character – as the Bride of Christ.  

When we become like little children, we will know what this means.

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