In my column in yesterday’s Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette (7/5), I wrote about a topic near and dear to my heart … vulnerability, brokenness and accepting our limitations…
Thirty years ago in the back of a coffee shop where I hung out with my coffee, Bible and journal at 6am, I developed an unexpected relationship with a construction worker nearing retirement. While I’m sure he ever knew it, he got me thinking about my own emotional well-being in ways that I have been exploring ever since.
It all started one day rather surprisingly when he told me about his pre-school-age grandson. I soon discovered, the grandchild was, well, darned near perfect. It was the little guy’s sheer honesty that most impressed this grandfather. He told me about grandson grabbing a cookie from the kitchen counter and hiding it behind his back after being told he couldn’t have any more. “I asked that little guy, ‘Do you know what happened to that cookie?’”
“Let me guess,” I said. “He fessed up.”
“How did you know? You’re right. That little guy said, ‘I took it. I sorry.’” I thought the conversation was over when the construction worker suddenly launched into telling me that when he was kid he grew up in a family where honesty and openness were not high values. “In my family it was okay to not tell the real truth, especially about your feelings,” he said. He said his father made it clear that talking about feelings made you look weak. “Isn’t that sad? Did you ever have anything like that go on in your family?”
Of course I did, and I told him that I grew up in the land of numb where everyone was just fine whether they were sad, glad, mad or afraid. Thus began an early-morning dialogue between the two of us about how our relationship with our families helped shape our emotional health, and certainly not always for the better.
As a boy, this construction worker told me that it was hard for him to be honest and open because he felt constant criticism and judgement from his dad. “He always backed me in a corner,” he said. He said his sister would fight with his dad, and his dad would back down. But his father would not allow that from him. So he just fled and usually left the house. When he couldn’t leave, he said he faked it, saying whatever it took shut down his dad. Finally at 18, he left his home for good. “I don’t think I said 100 words to my dad before he died.” His dad lived to be quite elderly.
Because he had observed me reading the Bible, he asked me if I thought God had anything to say about this matter. Somehow we started talking about the Apostle Paul. I told him Paul was a bright, determined person who wrote half the New Testament. Still, God gave Paul a thorn in his flesh, which God was not willing to remove, even though Paul pled with God to remove it.
“The thorn kept him from being too high and mighty, huh?” he asked.
“Yep, pretty much.”
We discussed Paul saying “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” rather than his reveling in his successes. I said I reckoned that if God was going to use me for work in his Kingdom, it wasn’t going to be because I was spiritually polished but rather through my brokenness and my willingness to embrace the good, the bad and the ugly within myself.
Since those early morning discussions back in the day, I have discovered it is virtually impossible to be vulnerable and open about brokenness without also embracing our human limitations. Quite frankly, none of us can be anything we want to be, nor can we have it all.
Those early morning discussions gave me a good foundation for my current ministry of counseling pastors and consulting with churches. With great regularity I see that one of the most difficult lessons to learn in life is acknowledging how limited we all are. Pastor-writer Peter Scazzero says it well: “These limits are actually a gift from God.”
When a pastor recently told me he feels overwhelmed and never finished with his work, I asked him how that impacts his inner joy in God and his close relationships. “Very negatively. More than I admit I’m sure,” he said unhappily. As we talked, he began reflecting on his limits: his temperament, his family wounds, his intellectual capacity and his spiritual understanding.
I encouraged him to really be himself and told him it was the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard who said the true vocation for every human is “The will to be oneself.”
Who is it in your life that models brokenness and vulnerability well? What do you admire about that person? How about trying to emulate it? Letting your life be an open book and allowing others to see your brokenness feels counter-intuitive. But in truth, it is the very doorway to freedom, contentment and inner peace.