Befriending Weakness

Are you befuddled by the title of this blog? That’s appropriate. I know that in the world we live in this sounds rather counterintuitive, but doesn’t the term weak aptly depict us humans? Aren’t we fragile people who are naturally dependent beings? We do not like to think that we are, but perhaps it is a more accurate description of our true state. I can presume that not all of you who read this will agree with that statement but hopefully by the end of reading this you will understand what I mean.

Vulnerability is not something we like all that much, even when the circumstance consists of vulnerability or honesty with ourselves. Weakness is a horror to some and not able to be tolerated. It is hard to tolerate the weakness and fragility in ourselves because people have told us that 1) we are not allowed to weak/we won’t make it in this world if we are found to be fragile or 2) that we must compensate for our weaknesses by becoming strong and powerful in order for society to accept and make use of us. Above all of this is the haunting reality that many of us have not been shown love when we have openly borne our weaknesses (instead we have been rejected when we have shown our true selves). When we realize that we cannot tolerate our own weakness we will also soon find that it is impossible to rekon with the weakness in others (be it our friends, family, spouse etc…). Sadly, we see this only when we first recognize that we judge others by the same hoops that we force ourselves to jump through. The aim of our culture is to ignore or relieve ourselves of all weaknesses we experience so that we are left with nothing but strengths. But again, fragility is not something that can be turned on or off but rather something that exemplifies our humanity.

I love this article by N.D. Wilson in Christianity Today. In it he states that the world we live in is “at odds with human self-importance”. Wilson takes a look at the intellectuals of today and uses them to show our delusional attempts to make the world about us. He uses intellectuals as an example to show that humans are desperately afraid to find out that they are far more weak and fragile than they ever dared to realize. Wilson proposes this because intellectuals often partake in the work of intellectualizing in order to tame, not the world (for it cannot be tamed), but rather “their perception of the world”. We philosophize and fixate over the smallest of matters to feel in control and escape to fantasy of reality. This is Wilson’s point. The fact that fantasy is reality scares us and contributes to our feelings of smallness and helplessness. Those feelings torment, but those feelings point the reality that we are often to afraid to face: we are far more weak than we ever dared imagined. In essence, Wilson states that our world is one where humans live out of control and it is our attempts to tame the world that point to our inability to stare into the face of our fragility.

We are afraid to find out how weak, fragile, and dependent we are but it is only logical when you begin to think about it. Maybe words from the Apostle Paul will help, “For what makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?” Paul is right, I think. We did not choose to be born, nor the parents or siblings who surrounded us. We didn’t get the choice to exist not will we get the choice of death. It is going to happen and we have no choice in the matter. We flaunt our accomplishments and accolades as if that makes us safe from the inevitable reality of our fragility, but it doesn’t. We will never escape the fact that everything we have has been given to us and thus by nature we are dependent/weak beings. We aren’t as autonomous as we’d like to hope we are.

It is strange, but Jesus and Paul (and other New Testament writers) both seem to explain that Life comes from the realization that we are indeed weak and fragile beings. It is a realization that the delusional regimes of being in control and being strong are not actually true even though they may be attractive. True life and true humanity come from surrender and a recognition that we need help. It is interesting when we truly begin to see Christianity in this light. It changes how we interact with our weakness and with the weaknesses of those around us.

If we begin to see that weakness is actually a way unto life then it is no longer a horror but something through which we can meet God. We no longer have to live under the presumption that we are our own creator nor that we are strong when we know that within the deeper recesses of our heart we actually aren’t. Human weakness and fragility is the way unto the cross of Christ and it is where we meet Jesus. Like Wilson says, our attempts to run from this reality are many. Why not sit and allow yourself to know that you are weak and simultaneously loved by God. That reality should trump all false illusions about who we in age that tempts us to act as our own god and flee from our own fragility.

For further thoughts on this, check out this video.

Our Attempts to be “Somebody”

“Our worst sins arise out of the innate human fear that we are nobody” -Stanley Hauerwas

I read this quote a few weeks ago in a book by my friend, Stanley Hauerwas. This quote hit me like a ton of bricks when I really began to think about the truth imbedded in these simple words. Are we deathly afraid of being nobody? For me, the answer is an over-resounding yes. Maybe the more apt questions in regard to this inquiry begin with the words what and why.

What/Who the heck is a nobody? Perhaps this is what you are thinking right now. What comes to mind for you? Is it the person who has few friends, makes little money, and works at a job that is hardly desirable? What I mean by somebody is probably obvious to most, but if it is unclear let me begin by briefly explaining what I mean. This ever-elusive somebody is usually described in our culture as someone who is known by a wide array of people, but not just known, but also valued or esteemed in some way, shape, or form. Celebrities and politicians are a good but extreme example that give form to this abstraction. Not many of us will attain the “value” that celebrities and politicians evoke in our culture, but we will try to seek it out in smaller ways through self-promotion and by refining our image for the world to see.

The reason for this? One author writes that humans tend to operate out of scarcity. By saying this he means that our soul operates out of needs (be it for love, attention, care, value etc…) that are often left unsatisfied or only temporarily sustained. Thus, people increasingly invite their identity or sense of self to be determined by those around them. We are sick with this fear that everyday we have the potential to be a nobody and we desperately want to escape that by being deemed a somebody by our culture. The same writer who talks about scarcity also says that we are a culture of people with a case of hurry sickness. Ever heard of it? I have a case of it myself. It is this busyness that finds its roots in a lost sense of self. We have become professionals at conquering the fear of becoming a nobody by making sure that we are always doing something and never allowing for rest and recuperation because we are afraid what will find when we sit still. Perhaps we will find what we truly are in those silent moments, but who needs that…

We want someone or something to tell us that we are valued and we often will fixate on that goal until it comes to fruition or until we are left disastrously disappointed and lonely. We are confused about who we are and simultaneously afraid to wonder what we might find. We want to be a somebody and Hauerwas speaks to this by saying that our worst sins are actually attempts to be a somebody. We will lie, cheat, scheme, and lust in order to feel the fleeting warmth of someone who validates us and justifies us before all of creation. When stated in this way, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. One pastor says that “we want someone who we think the world of, to think the world of us!”. This could not be more true, but we are still left striving and in bondage to those who we think the world of and their opinion of us, which is often not what we hoped it would be.

I am not sure what you think of Jesus, but let us just assume that he was indeed who he said he was for one moment (that is, very God and very man). The apostle Paul wrote this about Jesus, “who, though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Paul goes on to write that this Jesus humbled himself and was obedient, even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus, who was very God and very man, made himself a nobody. He intentionally became a servant to humanity even while being the form of God. If there ever was a somebody, it was Jesus. Yet, in this text, we find that he made himself nothing and a nobody. Yes, it is indeed nonsensical.

Perhaps our attempts to be a somebody are not only arrogant, but also a result of a misplaced and misguided sense of who we are in an age that tries to define us through materials, accolades, and what numerical value others place on us. We need someone who we think the world of to also think the world of us and only then will our hurry sickness and our fear that we are a nobody slowly begin to heal.

Jesus became a nobody. What might that mean for us in our attempts to be “somebody” in this day and age?

The False Self

Have you ever seen the movie Into the Wild? I have always placed it as my all-time favorite movie, but to be honest, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the two Sherlock Holmes movies are in the running as well. Into the Wild is based on a true story of a man named Christopher McCandless, who graduated from college and from there left everything in his possession behind (even went as so far to burn his social security card). He was on a pilgrimage and his destination was Alaska. He was a deep thinker who had thoughtful and meaningful questions about life. One of the things I admire about him was that he did not simply swallow the answers his culture fed him. He was a radical no doubt, and although he realized at the end of his life that his initial conclusions were wrong, the journey that he took was a precious one. When Christopher finally arrived and had spent some time in Alaska alone, he carved these words on a piece of wood:

Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no20130318-173123.jpg cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild

His ultimate goal in this spiritual pilgrimage was to kill the “false self” within. It is a noble pursuit certainly, and in some ways I think it is the pursuit of the Christian as well. What I am particularly interested in as of late though is what perpetuates the need for the false self? Why do we tend to keep the multiplicity of masks and to show ourselves to others as something we are not? This happens both in and out of the church, but it is particularly troubling when it happens within a believing community. The church is a place for self-proclaimed wounded healers and nothing more. Out of the awareness of our brokenness and the love lavished on us by God we are to be healers in the world. The question remains: Why do we struggle with perpetuating the false self to deceive others and ourselves of who we really are? My one thought for this blog is this: how we have been received by people in the deep of our bad has shaped whether or not we abandon the false self or keep it around to guard from the further wounding that could come from revealing to others who we truly are.

I suppose what I am getting at specifically is how we have been received when/if we confess our sin to another (although the above idea could be applied to more than that) human being. What we have received from people when we reveal our true nature determines a lot about us I am afraid. I think it goes back to how we were raised, and how we were disciplined by our parents as well. Have you been met with disdain, bitterness and punishment or with unending grace and love? It something worth reflecting on, because all of this in turn affects what we project onto to God, too. My favorite dead person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this about confession:

The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody conceals his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone in our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!

I love Bonhoeffer in this and everywhere else. To break the cycle of perpetuating the false self we need people in our who are willing to be an extension of Jesus’ grace and mercy. Just like Jesus, we need to be people and include people in our lives who are compassionate and therefore like Nouwen states, “for them, nothing human is alien”. We fear being unloved in the deep of our bad, and yes we are deeply loved by Jesus, but part of being loved by Jesus is experiencing this reality in community. It is only the person who is an extension of Christ’s grace who can hear the sin of another and have compassion on that person and speak to them the truth of profound grace and reassurance. We need that in our churches in order to curb the false self that keeps trucking along without any interruption. We can come out of hiding to be exposed yet simultaneously fully embraced. I think the killing of the false self begins by throwing it off and locating people who will mirror and reflect how Jesus receives us.

Self-Knowledge and The Knowledge of God

I stumbled upon a lecture series on biblical training about a week ago and God has been using it in my life big time. The lecture is named Spiritual Formation and God has used it to uncover my heart and re-imagine and remember what Jesus has done on the cross in taking our sin and attributing to us Jesus’ acceptance before God.

I have always been one for introspection, but I have come to realize how truly important self-knowledge is and how that intertwines and often is informed by our knowledge of God. The interesting thing is that Jesus calls us to be students of both. He calls first to be students (disciples) of Himself, but he also calls us to be students of the heart (perhaps this is a false dichotomy, but I think the distinction is needed). Both ideas are rampant throughout the New Testament and are truly dependent on one another.

Think about it…What would happen if either of these things were our main focus? If we were too focused on our own hearts, would that not inevitably lead to self-absorption? What about if we focused wholly on knowing God, and theology, and all the rest? That too would lead to a type of pride and further we would have no idea how God actually impacts or meets us personally.

John Coe (the lecturer) does a great job in the lecture of calling us to be students of both Jesus and of our hearts. In my opinion, both our vitally important. If this intrigues anyone, I would encourage you to listen to these lectures. I have only listened to the first three, but I have been ministered to greatly by these. I hope they serve some of you!

Settling into the School Year

Wow, what a time the past few weeks have been. I could describe the past few weeks in the multitude of ways, but some adjectives I might use to describe it are fruitful, exhausting, challenging, and joyful. It is unique, college ministry that is, because there is no easing into ministry each year, but rather it is a throwing of oneself into the busiest time of ministry right from the beginning. Strange how that works, but it is our reality. So, it has been difficult experiencing that for the first time, but right along with that has been joy.

Our first annual LEAD Retreat was a huge success. We (staff and student leaders of h2o) traveled about 40 minutes away to Punderson State Park and stayed there for just over 24 hours. It was exactly what our leaders needed as far as preparing their hearts for the semester. We prayed together, planned together, challenged each other, and worshipped together. It was a blessed time indeed. I could not have asked for a better way to prepare with my fellow peers and co-workers.

Each year the freshman students attend a Convocation Ceremony. Some of our h2o staff and students were outside ready to begin handing out some h2o discount cards. We gave out over 2,000 cards in under an hour! It was incredible.

A few leaders from h2o and I volunteered at a service opportunity for freshman to partake in their first Saturday at Kent. I attended this my freshman year and so me and some other h2o’ers attended the service opportunity as leaders and got to meet many freshmen. My group went to volunteer at Let’s Grow Akron which helps the Akron area by planting a number of gardens throughout the area. It was a great opportunity to help out, meet and converse with people I hadn’t met before, and even sweat a little bit (OK, a lot a bit).

We had our Welcome service last Sunday and nearly 80 new freshmen came the first weekend they were at Kent! It was a great thing to see after a summer of raising support. God used our efforts the days previous to that in many ways. This year we did something a little different in that we decided to have a picnic on campus after our service so that we would be able to connect with the students who came to our service right away! It was such a joy. Most, if not all of the students from our first service came to that picnic and stayed for a couple of hours. That night, Kent State holds what is known as “blast off”, which is where every student organization sets up shop along the track and freshmen get to a chance to join something or simply get to know people. We were there giving away goldfish and meeting tons of new students!

What a great week! This weekend has been great in reflecting on what God has already done through us, and it only excites me on to what he will do next.