The Gifts of Vulnerability: An Advent Sermon
It’s the first Sunday of Advent, from the Latin adventus, which means coming or arrival; a season of anticipation celebrated in the Christian liturgical calendar that invites all of us regardless of our faith tradition, to intentionally inhabit this month of growing darkness before the light waxes once again. To gestate in the womb of the unknown, bathed by the waters of uncertainty where we bob with hope. Though Mary, the young Palestinian woman told by God’s angel that she would bear a child like no o ther, had no way of even imagining what that might mean, an ordinary pregnancy would be just as unfamiliar. She, like all mothers, would be faced with the uncertainty any pregnancy brings—just as life presents each of us with a journey through the unknown.
It is just as well young Mary had no idea what to expect. Had the angel laid out her path beginning with a long tiresome trod to Bethlehem and labor in a manger to be followed by the appearance of three wise men bearing gifts when she was in no shape to receive visitors, poor Mary might have said, “No thanks, dear Gabriel. Tell God to take the magic seed back” Had she known she would have endure her son’s grisly death would she have fretted the rest of her life?
What Mary knew according to the Gospel accounts, is that she alone was tasked with bringing forth a child who would change humanity. And though Advent focuses on our anticipation of the arrival of Light, for Christians, in the form of the emergent Christ—and for others, the returning sun, it also calls forth the gifts embedded in uncertainty and vulnerability.
None of us, least of all Mary, knows what awaits. Prophets prophesy; psychics prognosticate; worriers worry and optimists hope—and we all continually experience some element of the unknown. Even when we feel assured of what will happen we can’t anticipate our response. We live with the knowledge of mortality yet we never know how a particular arrival or passing will affect us. An unexpected greeting, a feather of kindness wafting our way can dislodge cynicism just as the unforeseen misfortune can send us hurtling into a vortex of despair.
Nothing binds us like uncertainty. We are stitched together by our common experience of it just as vulnerability weaves through all our lives. The Latin word religare from which “religion” derives, denotes refastening, reconnecting ligature. Thus to be religious is to notice what forms the ligature: what holds our disparate circumstances and conditions together? What coheres the range of theological, ideological and cognitive impulse? Examine a cross-section of humanity and at the core will be the weft of uncertainty and the warp of vulnerability.
It is no coincidence that many of us fear both. We prefer certainty and eschew vulnerability. In fact we often conflate uncertainty with vulnerability; if only we knew what to expect we could always be prepared, never caught off guard.
I’ve been listening to the researcher Brené Brown lately who studies vulnerability. She defines it as “emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty” and she goes on to say, “It fuels our daily lives.” Here’s the part that might surprise you: after a dozen years of research Brown concludes, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage—to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest.… vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.”
Think of young Mary being told she would give birth to religious innovation in a form no less modest than God. Now consider what gestates within you. What creation, innovation or no less importantly, what truth beckons from within longing to be heard?
Usually what happens at this point, according to Brené Brown, is that the inner critic pipes up and says, “Who are you to think you can pull of that? What makes you think you’re worthy of such an undertaking? Why would anyone care about your truth?”
What if Mary has said, “Oh no, not me. I am a poor peasant betrothed to an under-employed carpenter. Look at these tiny hips. A guinea pig could pass through, maybe. The son of God, no way.”
Or recall the passage in Exodus where God tells Moses to deliver the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt. Moses replies, “What if they don’t believe me?” God gives Moses signs to demonstrate his power. Still, Moses protests. “I’m not eloquent. I have always been slow of speech.” God says, “I’ll be with your mouth and teach you what to speak.” To that, Moses can only implore, “God, Please send someone else.”
I remember my divinity school classmate Althea, who had worked with victims of domestic violence saying, “While Moses made excuses people were dying.” Cowardice has its costs, sometimes fatal. But for me the story is instructive precisely because Moses dithered. His hesitancy, uncertainty and fear are our entry point into the text. What binds us to Moses, the great liberator of his people, and what binds us to Mary, is their vulnerability not the miracles they are associated with.
What remains unborn in us out of fear: fear of exposure, fear of failure, fear of uncertainty becomes a locket of stone we wear around our neck unable to open or give away. Inside the locket is shame. As Brené Brown notes in her 2012 TED Talk on Shame,
I did not learn about vulnerability and courage and creativity and innovation from studying vulnerability. I learned about these things from studying shame.… shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.” Shame is that thing.
We so often worry what others will think but more often than not it is we who level the fiercest criticism; it is we who manufacture self-doubt. If we have grown up hearing negative voices of parents, priests, teachers, coaches who heaped opprobrium upon us and we internalized it, we may need professional help excavating our way out. But we can begin by replaying the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who said,
It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.
As she stands before a TED talk audience of perhaps a few thousand, Brené Brown says, “You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I’ve seen, has not failed. I’ve failed miserably, many times.”
Failure ceases to be debilitating when we unhitch our sense of inherent worth from outcome or a singular perception of success. It is easy to espouse our first principle found in the grey hymnal, that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people but it is harder to internalize that principle: to fully recognize our own worth and acknowledge that it comes unbidden. We are not required to earn it through good deeds or pious faith. We are worthy of regard and belonging because we are part of Creation made holy by its sheer magnificence. And once we are able to embrace that sense of worth we can own our shortcomings, our missteps and misdeeds. We can claim our mistakes compelling ourselves to improve so as not to repeat them. Finally we can resist blaming others because our own action or inaction is not the sum total of who we are. If we are not straddled or addled by shame we do not have to slosh though the tributaries of blame. We can take responsibility for our behavior and renew our connection with potentiality.
We can find our inner Mary or Moses, summoning the courage to risk and to fail. In the 2010 TEDx talk of hers that went viral, Brené Brown tells of a transformative moment in her research where she realizes whole-hearted people embrace vulnerability. She says:
[T]he original definition of courage…from the Latin word cor, meaning heart—was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because… we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. … as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were… The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating—as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after [a] mammogram. They [were] willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
Taking risks, being open to the very real possibility of being hurt or disappointed, or evoking hurt or disappointment in someone else; telling the stories of our lives truthfully by remembering that they are just that: stories. Stories can be revised, retold. We retell the story of Mary and Moses every year because each time, the story resonates differently. We never hear the story the same way as before. Stories flow like rivers, shape-shifting within the banks that hold them and over the broken levees that cannot. Stories change as our capacity to hear them with compassion grows and our shame recedes. We rewrite the lines each time we choose authenticity and take responsibility for our part.
Sharing stories, be they biblical or personal, reconnects us as we identify and listen closely to how someone else hears. “Empathy,” says Brené Brown, “is the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
When we read the narrative of the angel telling Mary she is with child and think it’s bogus God or the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle, Mary is there to say, “Me, too.” That we feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped, that we worry we’ll fail—or be branded a fraud or a fool for trying—is human and the stuff of courage; for it is in the beating heart racing with fear that courage derives, when like Moses and Mary we find the yes that lights our way through the dark or simply companions us in it. I close with
“The Annunciation” by Denise Levertov
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book,; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child—but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, “How can this be?”
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astonishing ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness, to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power—
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God.