In the north of England is a dispersed Christian community whose community rule is availability and vulnerability. I have found these two words extremely helpful in guiding and shaping spiritual life and interactions with others. This month I want to work with how this is modeled in the life of Jesus and how we can practice availability and vulnerability as a spiritual discipline.

The mystery of the Trinity, a mutually submissive community each giving way to the other, is a helpful place to begin. The Trinity models relationships for us—a living example of Jesus’ teachings of loving God and neighbor.

The Life of Jesus: Availability

I think it’s important to assume that Jesus was intentional in what he did and how he spent his time. Why did he spend the bulk of his time on earth secluded from public life working with wood in what some would call the armpit of the Middle East? Why did he pour so much into twelve ordinary people of no social status? If we want to follow Jesus, tell his story and change our world, it’s a helpful thing to look seriously at the way he chose to live his life.

If I were charged with bringing a message that would forever change the face of humanity, seeking to establish a kingdom on earth, bringing restoration to all civilization, and announcing a history-altering new reign of love, I would want to get right to work on it. I would go after the power structure, establish a formal organization, raise money, build buildings and schools, and spread the message to the largest possible audiences. I would dine with the people of great influence. I would join boards and committees. Instead, Jesus “wasted” thirty years and then spent three years camping with a group of ordinary people, yet the long-term results are staggering. Certainly Jesus spoke to large crowds, did public healings and exorcisms, but a good part of his ministry was, quite simply, spent offering his presence to a small ragtag group of twelve. The fact they still believed he was the Messiah after spending so much time with him may just be proof of his divinity. You spend a week camping with me and surely any allure of divinity will quickly fade away.

Jesus’ example of temporary isolation from public life and his decision to focus on significant availability to a select few has much to teach us as we go about our ministries and daily lives. Staying in community for many years by its very nature lends itself to growing and cultivating significant relationships. I can only imagine the impact that many years of living a simple, “ordinary” life, most likely helping his father in the carpentry craft, had on those in his local community. It’s also interesting that as Jesus began his public life he did not give significant time to everyone. Certainly some wanted more from him but he set boundaries. I understand the idea of seriously mentoring a group of people, but even after all his efforts, the outcome seemed to be an utter failure. He even lost one to suicide. This is important for us to grasp. Not only does it show us the importance of focusing our efforts on a small number of people, it provides us an example of how we should set up our expectations of outcomes when we commit our efforts to be available to others. Seeing the results of Jesus’ labors help me to let go of my agenda for how things should go. It enables me to let go of my need to see big results and my idea of success. This encourages me to learn to be with people and share my life with them.

In our working with others it is important to note that after his apprentices’ failures, he didn’t give a strong correction, or even try to micromanage them. Rather, he empowered them with love and forgiveness, modeling a seemingly absurd relational method of transformation. Yet out of the ashes of his disciples’ failures, his message simmered and soaked. It was these broken people he charged with carrying the most important message the world would ever hear. His “being with” empowered them to carry his message and thus completely alter the social, religious, and governmental structures of the world.

Sadly, in modern times, following Jesus’ model of discipleship is often secondary to imitating corporate methods.

The Life of Jesus: Vulnerability

In the Garden of Gethsemane we find Jesus pleading with his friends for help, to stay and pray with him. Asking for help requires vulnerability. When they let him down, Jesus confronted them not once, but twice. Confronting a friend requires significant vulnerability. Notice the love in his confrontation, that in extreme disappointment, Jesus displays a distinct other-centeredness saying to Peter, “… that you may not come into the time of trial, I know your spirit is willing but flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Even in Jesus’ time of great suffering and disappointment he offered grace and thoughtfulness.

Probably the most profound picture of vulnerability is Jesus naked and nailed to the cross, raised on a stand, arms stretched out, bare for all to see, mocked for all his earthly efforts. It is a picture of giving, holding nothing back, openness, love, vulnerability, and submission to God and others. Then those haunting words, “Father, forgive them they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). This is what loving those who persecute you looks like. To make a public declaration that a person doesn’t know what they are doing could be made in such a way as to belittle. But, in this context we see it dripping with love. Jesus looked into the heart of his killers and saw their frailty. He saw their brokenness and foolishness. And in the middle of great agony he reached down with compassion, further opening himself to ridicule—an incredible act of vulnerability. I imagine Jesus understood that soon his tormenters would realize the significance of their actions and that it would wreak unimaginable havoc on the rest of their lives. The nightmares, the memories of the sounds of flesh tearing, the color of the blood, and the look on his face, would be a burden impossible to carry. His vulnerable words of forgiveness would soon come to mean everything to them.

Availability and Vulnerability as a Spiritual Discipline

It’s important to remember that we are asked to follow Jesus with our lives. This can only be lived out in the middle of the places and spaces we inhabit. We begin in the midst of our relationships and the positions we hold. I like the way The Message phrases Romans 12:1, “Take your everyday ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” We bring before God who we are at this very moment, our personalities, habits, shortcomings, and giftings. Rest easy knowing that God accepts what we have to offer and that the Spirit is fully intent on the grace required for our transformation.

I may not be able to spend three years camping with twelve people, but in my remaining years I can intentionally make myself available to a few. Probably the best place to start practicing the discipline of availability is with the people God has already placed in our lives, for many of us this will be in our homes. Of course, few relationships are more challenging, intimidating, and intimate than with our loved ones; they know us all too well for us to hide behind the wall of pretense that can dominate so many of our human interactions. This is also the space where we learn to relinquish the habit of letting our agenda, our fears, and our need to control undergird our conversations. Of course, being truly available to others is, by its very nature, vulnerable; and choosing to make ourselves vulnerable is not an emasculated position of weakness, rather it is a movement toward strength, joy, and freedom.

I sometimes wonder how often we spend time with people free of agenda. While a variety of interactions are often needed, I’ve come to favor submitting my words and agenda to God. Without fail, when I simply seek to be present with people, it gives spaces for God to guide, bringing wonderfully honest conversations. We show up and simply offer the greatest gift we have to give, our time and presence. There is great freedom in laying before God our need to be important, noticed, or having something helpful to say. In relinquishing my desire to control, it gives space for God to work in other’s lives through our exchanges. Generous listening can require great patience and effort, but it is a skill worth practicing that forms something deep within us. We are learning to listen and, if I cannot listen to my brother and sister, I certainly cannot listen to God. We bring who we are, thus the state of our heart. Our character formation then becomes of great importance. So often we can only take people as far as we have been. My listening to God and my own apprenticeship to Jesus is what I have to give.

Building and cultivating relationships is slow and messy work. As with any discipline, we are doing our efforts before God as an act of submission. We start small, letting go of our obsessions with perfection, allowing our failures to become teachable moments that only push us further into the heart of God.

It is important to note that as with most service, we will often find we receive more than we give. God is good like that. Not only am I given the opportunity to learn from others, but when people open up to us and choose to share their lives it is quite possibly the highest honor they can bestow upon us.

Next month I want to continue working on this theme and offer some practical examples of practicing availability and vulnerability, potential challenges, and what this looks like in a ministry context.

Now Underway: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? First, choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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