Exploring the Biblical context
The Gospel reading for Pentecost 9 is the last section of Matthew 14. Last week in Another Spin on the Feeding of the Five Thousand, I presented this chapter as three story lines (Herod’s banquet, God’s banquet or the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on the water) juxtaposed by Matthew for maximum effect. This led me to an uncomfortable exploration of the themes of national abundance, scarcity, and failure of courage set within the current US immigration dilemma.
The final story line in Matthew 14 concerns the episode of Jesus coming to the disciples who are imperiled in a boat in the midst of a fierce storm. Jesus comes to them across the mountainous waves, walking upon the water. As he does so, he calls to them: do not be afraid. Immediately encouraged by Jesus’ call Peter gets out of the boat and attempts to walk on the water to meet Jesus. At first all goes well as Peter follows his spontaneous impulse, a characteristic that normally gets him into trouble. Then I imagine Peter begins to become self-conscious. As he begins to watch himself doing something his mind tells him he can’t do, he begins to sink. Increasingly aware of the sound of the wind and the height of the waves, he becomes distracted by a sense of his own fragility and vulnerability. As he begins to sink Jesus reaches out and catches him. Imagine Peter’s relief, his utter joy!
Exploring the current context
Following a link from David Lose http://www.davidlose.net/ I came across Brené Brown, who is a vulnerability researcher. She proposes that as a society, we have lost our tolerance for vulnerability. She identifies a number of ways this happens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UoMXF73j0c&list=PLF1DBBEBE74831153&index=1
The first factor she identifies is the way joy becomes foreboding. Let me give you a personal example of this. In order to spend a few days away we have arranged for a dog sitter to collect Charlie Girl and take her to an organic farm run by the sitter. The sitter has been recommended to me and it is a huge relief to find a good recommendation. As the time for Charlie’s collection comes closer, I awake today with the thought, but what if the dog sitter kidnaps Charlie, after all I don’t know this person?
Brown talks about disappointment becoming a lifestyle attitude. This equates to the old adage, “if you don’t expect then you can never be disappointed”. Yet, this illusion of self-protection relegates us to a perpetual attitude of disappointment. We experience low-grade disconnection, going through the motions of life without vital connection. We are driven by the need to pursue perfection mistakenly thinking this is the pursuit of excellence. Do we not all experience the feeling of never being quite good enough, of things never meeting-up to expectations? Psychologically this is a tool of self-protection from the dangerous feelings of being content or happy. Strange as it may seem, despite consciously telling ourselves how much we yearn to be happy, our fear of joy and of losing our perpetual attitude of disappointment ensures that joy and contentment continue to elude us.
Brown names the rise of religious extremism as a symptom of an equation – faith minus vulnerability = extremism. She comments on the prevalence of our addictions to drugs, food, our indebtedness as symptoms of the denial of vulnerability. Her most telling point, however, is that we cannot numb our fear of vulnerability without also numbing our capacity for joy.
Interpreting between contexts
This last week I recall a couple of experiences when I had to confront my own ambivalent experience of vulnerability. The first involved a visit to an elderly parishioner in assisted living. This woman has a disease process that involves an increasing paralysis of her body, which has now robbed her of speech. Seeing her made me fearful of being in such a state of utter vulnerability. In the course of administering Holy Communion to her, I offered some reflections on living within the experience of limitation. At the conclusion, with some difficulty she indicated towards the back of her 1928 Book of Common Prayer. As she spelled out some letters on her alphabet card, I realized she was asking me to read something she had written on the blank inner side of the back cover. As I read, I began to realize that she was not asking me to read this to comfort her, but to comfort me. Somehow she had intuited my discomfort with her level of vulnerability and wanted me to read her own reflection on her situation.
The focus of my reflection was upon the frustrations of living within the severe limitations she appeared, to me, to experience. By contrast her reflections, noted in her prayer book, were full of the joyful trust and a sense of being utterly sustained by God. I had offered her an image that was like the disciples who remaining in the sinking boat, valiantly continue bailing-out the waters crashing over the sides. Whereas, for her, her vulnerability had become a way for her to walk on the waters and to reach out and be met by the loving Christ saying to her: do not fear. My companion in this encounter did not share my fears of falling out of a capacity for an active engagement with life. She felt Christ’s embrace catching her and bearing her up in an attitude of joyful gratitude.
My second experience concerns my responsibility to administer the generous discretionary funds that are available for the crisis support of members of the congregation. The problem is that I don’t get to administer the funds for the benefit of parishioners. In an upper middle class parish made up of predominantly professional or entrepreneurial members, schooled in the American creeds of autonomous individuality and the virtue of financial independence, to admit to a need for financial help to meet and unforeseen crisis involves a painful admission of vulnerability. As Brené Brown notes, for many of us vulnerability equates with weakness.
Instead of the discretionary funds being administered for the benefit of the members of the congregation, they are more often distributed to strangers who wander into the Church office. Usually, these are people who have developed a capacity for skillful and manipulative exploitation of their vulnerability. Much of my ministry has been at the sharp end of dealing with people with what psychiatry calls personality disorders. A personality disordered person fills the interpersonal space with a level of chaos and disturbance that makes it hard for them to live constructively or enjoy stable relationships with others. I am, therefore, far from a fresh-faced pastoral rookie, not easily persuaded by hard luck stories.
My general assumption is that these supplicants are scamming me. They are persons who have honed manipulation and the parading of their vulnerability into a survival life-skill. Yet, the gratuitous generosity of God requires me in good conscience to give people the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong. This last Friday afternoon, I was able to confirm my suspicion that I was being scammed.
The long and short of this experience was through skillful sleuthing around I managed to find proof the person in question was scamming me. You might expect my exposé to have produced a sense of satisfaction. On the contrary, the discovery exposed me to feelings of having been foolish and stupid. I felt incompetent in the exercise of my pastoral duty. A voice inside my head remonstrated with me for having been such a gullible pushover.
Yet, the truth of the matter was that faced with simply not knowing whether what I was being told was true or not, I had actually primed the pump in such a manner as to be able to follow how the person claiming assistance to buy medication actually spent the money. The actual circumstances of how I did this are a little too demeaning for the ego of a Cardinal Rector to admit to. Yet, I am left with the question, why was I left feeling so stupid?
In the parables of Jesus, we find a picture of God as gratuitously, and to our mind recklessly generous. The challenge for me in pastoral ministry is to take risks and to become vulnerable. This means at times becoming vulnerable to the possibility of being duped. My belief and experience of God as gratuitously, and recklessly, generous requires this of me. Yet, my ego as the consummate pastoral and psychospiritual professional hates becoming vulnerable. Because although I know better, and my spiritual experience confirms the truth of what I know, it’s hard to shake the habit of equating the experience of vulnerability with being weak, foolish, and ultimately, incompetent. For won’t every marginal person in Providence now hear that the Rector of St Martin’s is a pushover?
Most of us live in fear of becoming vulnerable because we equate being vulnerable with being dependent as in my first pastoral vignette, and, or feeling weak as in the second – fearing that our vulnerability as a weakness will open us up to exploitation.
Could our experience of life be enhanced by breaking the mental link between weakness and vulnerability? The disciples being tossed about in the boat is an image for me of negotiating the winds and heavy seas that come upon us in life from time-to-time. There can be little doubt that the world can be a rough place. We have only to look to events unfolding in many places in our world to see this to be self-evident. In our attempt to deny our vulnerability we become the victims to the illusion that we are actually in control of our lives. That if we only do the right thing, not rock the boat, and not take risks, we can avoid the storms of life. The corollary of this is that if we find ourselves being tossed in some rough weather then it’s because of our own fault, our own foolishness.
Life is not an exercise of painting by numbers, where by following the instructions we always use the right color and never paint over the lines. It’s not like a game of hopscotch – successfully jumping from square to square avoiding treading on the lines. The price we pay for numbing our vulnerability is to become alienated from, and fearful of feelings of contentment and joy. We find we are only comfortable when we are able to turn every situation into a problem.
Peter’s impulse on seeing the Lord coming toward them through the storm is to get out of the boat and take a risk. It’s only when he becomes aware of doing something that his mind tells him he can’t do, that he begins to sink. As he does the Lord catches him. So too, will Christ catch us and bear us up, if we let him.
Brené Brown’s solution to our personal and societal denial of vulnerability is echoed by the Christian Faith. It is to live lives of contentment through practicing over and over again the spiritual discipline of gratitude. My prayer is that within the community of St Martin’s we may deepen our practice of becoming vulnerable, one to another. To this end I commend to you a spiritual practice.
Recommendations for practice
End each day with an examination of the events of the day in a spirit of non- recrimination, non-judgment, watching for signs of rumination, i.e. rehearsing what we should have done, should have said, but didn’t. Then awaken to each new day reciting our chorus of thanksgivings, or at the very least noting how long it takes for us to do so.