Not long ago I shared with a Brother about a difficult experience and my emotions around it. This was something I had never told anyone before. Part of his empathic response was, “Luke, you’re human.” In the moment, I thought he meant the content of what I shared. But looking back, I see that it was in being vulnerable—risking to speak and be exposed—that I was most human.
Brené Brown is a research professor who has studied vulnerability for over ten years. Perhaps you’ve seen her online. Her 20-minute talk “The Power of Vulnerability” at a TED conference quickly became one of the most popular TED talks with over 7 million views. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”[i] It’s putting yourself out there when anything could happen. It’s risking action in the face of fear and all other obstacles. It’s sharing your emotions.
Here are some ways people Brown interviewed described vulnerability: “sharing an unpopular opinion, standing up for myself, falling in love, asking for help, saying no, initiating sex with my [partner], calling a friend whose child just died, signing up my mom for hospice care, the first date after my divorce, bringing my new boyfriend home, stepping up to the plate after a series of strikeouts, admitting I’m afraid.”[ii] Vulnerability feels like “going out on a high limb, taking off a straightjacket, taking off a mask, free-falling, and letting go of control.”[iii]
So vulnerability stinks! I want to be in control. I avoid high limbs and free falling at all costs. I try to run away or hide. Let me blend into the background. Just wait till I can get myself together and be perfect enough before you see me. I don’t want to get hurt. The word vulnerability comes from the Latin “to wound” and its definition includes “capable of being wounded” and “open to attack or damage.”[iv] We run from fear of the potential of being hurt. That’s why I never told anyone what I finally told my Brother.
We can’t keep running away. That’s only a tempting illusion. You and I can’t be perfect, or free from pain, or free from fear. Vulnerability is “infinitely terrifying and achingly necessary.”[v] Because what’s the alternative? Running, hiding or gritting your teeth while trying to get better just binds us up. It imprisons us. It drains us of life.
Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s stepping into the fearful place. We can’t get courage by running, hiding or gritting our teeth. It won’t come from waiting for me or the situation to change. Courage is acting, leaning into the situation as I am. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s stepping into the fearful place.
Vulnerability is courageous. In Brené Brown’s words: “It’s daring to show up and let ourselves be seen. Vulnerability is daring greatly.”[vi] Life keeps asking us to show up and be ourselves, with all the varying emotions and all the messiness. Being vulnerable is being human. Leaning into it, embracing vulnerability is life-giving. Saint Irenaeus, a second century bishop, wrote:
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To be fully alive is to embrace vulnerability, to dare greatly. We see this best in Jesus.
As we’ve sung and heard in the Gospel: The Word—that is, Jesus—became flesh and dwelt among us. God dared greatly to become fully human and fully alive. The Word “through whom all things came into being” risked descending all the way down to be a baby to a young, poor, backward, soon refugee couple. God risked descending all the way down, not to perfection, not to security but to vulnerability. Jesus was fully human by constantly inviting to risk amid uncertain outcomes, first as a baby.
Jesus shared unpopular opinions, stood up for himself, asked for help, said no, made friends, reached out to the grieving, and got hurt. He wasn’t just capable of being wounded, but he also bore our wounds upon himself. All this in the last couple years of life growing up from that helpless infancy, trying and failing, being taught and discovering his way, his voice, and his identity. Jesus was fully human.
Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!
Did Jesus fall in love? I think so. Sexuality with its energy, delight and confusion is part of being human for each of us. So too, Jesus had the whole range of joy. He went to many dinner parties. He must have learned to savor life. Children enjoyed interacting with him. He must have experienced wonder through their perspective. He said “consider the lilies of the field” probably because he had actually done that, gazed with wonder at nature. Jesus was human!
As we have sung, “Veiled in flesh the God-head see; hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased with us as man to dwell; Jesus, our Emmanuel.”[vii] Here is hope of Christmas: God comes in flesh as a human being. God comes to be with us, meets us where we are, as vulnerable humans. God is with us and for us as we are, creatures who keep facing terrifying and necessary exposure. Jesus fully gets us because of his humanity. He faced the fear. He was exposed. Jesus embraced vulnerability.
Saint Irenaeus also said: “Because of his boundless love, Jesus became what we are that he might make us to be what he is.” That he might make us to be what he is. What is Jesus? He’s as human as you, and he’s as human as me. And he’s more. Jesus is fully alive. He lives the abundant life and invites us to share it. Jesus models and empowers us to dare greatly. Jesus is God with us and Jesus is human. He promises to stay with us. Here is the hope of Christmas.
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