Jul 22, 2016

Being Vulnerable, Part 1

It began with a common question: “How are you feeling today?”

“Really good,” she replied. “And you?”

Throughout the week, my heart had felt tossed about by an agitated sea. I was tired from struggling to stay afloat in uncertain waters, to draw air of hope—of confidence. Should I reply honestly about that, vulnerably?

I hesitated, compelled by the notion that I must exude an indomitable will to secure a friend’s trust. After all, such resolve demonstrates stability of character, garners respect. Being hardcore is attractive. Right?

Or does such a demeanor sacrifice approachability?

My compass has long been defined by perfection[1], even though I know that it cannot be attained. For only God is perfect.[2] Therefore, remembering one friend’s recent words that “beauty must be flawed, [that human] perfection is the idealism of the devil who aspires to be God,” I decided to stop fighting the emotional current for a moment, and see where it might carry me. After all, I live for adventure, which pertains to the heart, faith or inward truth as much as it does to action or outward truth.

Beauty in Imperfection
"My heart has too often felt heavy this week,” I began, but then faltered again, unable to let go of the idea that I needed to exhibit control, strength. Therefore, I added, “But I am trying to let go of the burden—the distraction or confusion, maybe—to be fully present.”

I thought the conversation might end there, for it seemed I had said enough: identifying the problem and promptly addressing it. Besides, entering the waters of my doubts would require endurance—a courage and compassion that is rare, even among friends. I did not want to pull her into the depths with me. Moreover, my uncertainty felt trite. It would be better, simpler, to move the conversation along. Yet at the same time, I knew that I no longer wanted to feel alone in the struggle. I desired an extension of grace—to be allowed to be weak.[3] It was risky. Still, at the same time another voice told me that such longing was selfish.

“What burdens lay on your heart?” she asked.

Was compassion possible in this instance? I treaded carefully, skeptical that she really wanted to know my answer. So I wrote about my discouragement from searching for a third job, which I suspected would lead to a predictable outcome for our conversation. That was safer.

Yet I was also curious. There was courage in me yet: a willingness to prove that my jaded attitude was misguided. Thus I dared to reveal the heart of the matter—well, at least introduce it. I eventually shared that I was realizing how many sensitive relational scars I still had, how many had not healed as much as I thought or would like to convey—how utterly humbling that was. “The vulnerability can feel overwhelming at times, though I feel as though I am supposed to fight hard to overcome it because . . . I don’t know, for some series of reasons that I have long doubted, but struggle to shake off because they persist in trying to frame new experiences.”

Vague, I know. But it was a beginning.

“When it comes to healing, you do not have to fight hard to shake it off because it then makes it harder to shake it off. The more you acknowledge your scars and accept them, love them even, the more they will heal. And those vulnerabilities rise to the surface because they want to heal and be acknowledged, they’ve been bottled up for far too long. Healing is the most loving and gentle experience we can have for ourselves. And just being with it, crying, laughing, whatever it is, allows the heart to mend. It’s ok to feel vulnerable. Surrender to it.”

She was right, of course. I knew that, and know that. I am just not entirely sure how to surrender—beyond the idea of surrendering to God, which is certainly a journey of mystery.[4]

She continued, “Just know that only growth and beauty can come from the pain we feel in our heart. Our soul purposefully lets us have these experiences so that we choose love again. It may even change whatever limiting belief we had held so dearly in our heart.”

I think I understood, but reached a bit further. “Do you believe that relational scars can only be fully mended alone in the company of oneself or that there is also a need for another person or people’s influence to help provide the final healing touch(es)?”

“I believe both.”

As do I.

“Yet even in healing,” I admitted, “I am conscious of the presence of fear or insecurity that tells me my love is trapped in a cycle; that it will be pounded down again and again by wave after wave, slowly exhausted to either drown or become numbed to the point of not feeling anything. The heart is resilient, but the mind is skeptical.” I thanked her for caring, for encouraging, for welcoming me to share a part of my rawer self. I confessed that I was unsure of the appropriate time to open up more in a friendship.

“It’s hard to let your heart open, especially if you have had heartache and pain. But the love is worth it, trust me; well, you don’t have to trust me, but trust love. You can always talk to me about these things. We are friends and that is what friends are for. We all go through this and people need one another. We need to connect. We are human and also beings of love. So don’t feel like it’s ever too soon. A good friend recently reminded me that time does not exist in the heart.”

Trust in Love
I was left wondering what “trust love” really meant. Are any of us sure?  

I mean, I can begin to unpack the idea based on the love of Jesus Christ, of a personal relationship with God, the “I am” of love. I already know love intimately because it dwells in my heart as God’s love, His Holy Spirit, the Spirit or Word of Jesus. It is indeed about trust. I believe that God desires good for me; that He daily offers to fill the infinite well of goodness in my heart. Yet I do not think that I struggle with trusting God so much as I struggle with trusting people. This is the result of numerous relational wounds. Most are now scars, but some are still tender to touch.

So what are my real burdens? What am I afraid of, unsure of? If confusion conflicts the flow of goodness to and from my heart, if therein waits or prowls the devil, what needs to be exposed to the light—cleansed by living water?[5]

These are questions that each of us must try to answer, first alone, I think—with God—before they can be adequately addressed with another person.

Gazing into the mirror of one’s heart with eyes unaverted is intimidating. It requires honesty, which needs courage. But the result of facing that reflection can be such a centering sense of freedom. What is more, it can ease the soul into a place of rest, of peace. Vulnerability can be a posture of the body, mind, or heart separately examined. It can be all of them together, holistically—a unity of self: the soul.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines vulnerable as “capable of being physically wounded; open to attack or damage.” Vulnerability. For a few years now, again and again, most palpably starting with my journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, God has directed me to meditate on and explore the idea of frailty:

Frailty, thy name is Man 
Filled with wonder and heartache,
Bright bonds that stir passion on
Shattered past spirit drowned;
Wash memory devour remorse,
Color each blessing and curse
To deny, embrace, let go?

As a word, frailty connotes struggle in weakness, particularly moral weakness in the face of temptation. I have examined my fallibility as holding the potential for distraction, even suffering. Perhaps I am meant to now take some time to mediate upon its potential for tenderness.

Exposing the scars of my heart, the imperfections, to another person is being vulnerable. Any relationship with another person makes me vulnerable to being wounded further. But is that not an aspect of what love is? No matter how scarred, how calloused, how accustomed to pain I am, the path toward lasting love will get no easier. Love has the power to swell within each of us. It is gorgeous, captivating. But it is also dangerous. That is the nature of adventure.

Beauty in Healing
“Beauty is fundamental,” writes Eugene Peterson in The Jesus Way.

“It is evidence of and witness to the inherent wholeness and goodness of who God is and the way God works. It is life in excess of what we can manage or control. It arrives through a sustained and adorational attentiveness to all that we encounter on the way . . . Beauty does not impose anything that makes either God or us, God’s world or our circumstances, look better or seem better. The beauty is already there: by means of prayer or love or worship (all mysteries) we perceive truth, reality, goodness, salvation—God. . . . It doesn’t explain anything. It reveals what is implicit in every detail of creation and salvation, what has been there all along . . . We recognize it as organic to who God is and the way God works—not an intrusion, not a violation . . . [but reveals] what is right there before us, the inside and outside, the there and the here so that we can be participants in it. Beauty. . . . Salvation is not escape from what is wrong but a deep, reconciling embrace of all that is wrong. . . . Sin is not rejected, it is borne, carried in an act of intercession. . . .

“There is far more to seeing than a functioning iris and retina. Imagination is required to see all that is involved in what is right before our eyes, to see the surface but also to penetrate beneath the surface. Appearances both conceal and reveal: imagination is our means of discerning one from the other so that we get the whole picture. . . . Memory is required to make sense of even the simplest sentence. Language is vast and intricate and living. Memory is our means of keeping the complexities of syllables and syntax coherent, of bringing together the voices of the entire membership, of getting the whole story, of hearing the voice across the room but also the voices from across miles and centuries. . . .

“Without imagination and memory we are reduced to surface and immediacy, we live in a cramped prison cell of the five senses and of the immediate moment. But when imagination and memory are healthily active, the prison door springs open and we walk out into a large, multi-dimensional world that continues to expand exponentially. ‘Beauty’ is the word of witness that we use to identify this world, this world that is both outer and inner, both present and other.” (181-187)

God, empower me to be patient. Guide me. I need discernment to navigate my doubts, my history. I need to be reminded that you do not expect me to be perfect; that perfection is only you, Jesus. Thank you for beauty. Help me to see it further, to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Help me to remember that it is foundationally you who I trust, you who I worship and follow. Help me to stand.

Cleanse my thoughts. Heal my wounds that I might revel in the scars[6]: a map of where I have been. I surrender. Show me what that means. Help me build the stamina to swim past the breakers; and once there, to ride the waves in grateful celebration.

May your love overflow from my heart. Soli deo gloria. Amen.

[1] This vision being influenced by Jesus’ words as recorded in Scripture like Matthew 5:48: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Curiously, the Greek word, teleios, which is often translated as “perfect”, really means “mature (full grown), complete in all its parts” (biblehub.com/greek/5046.htm, accessed 22 July, 2016). So for the Christ-follower, perfection has more to do with maturation or growth than flawlessness.
[2] For example, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (2 Samuel 22:31). “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). It is important to note that the Hebrew root word for “perfect” here is tamim, which essentially means blameless or without defect (biblehub.com/hebrew/8549.htm, accessed 22 July, 2016).
[3] “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
[4] I begin to address the idea of surrendering to God in “Is God Patient (Part 3)” and “We Will Overcome
[5] “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). Or as Jesus answered the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10), latter adding, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). Finally, the hope of Christ: “For the Lamb [who is Jesus] in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
[6] “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10b).

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