This month I want to con­tin­ue work­ing with those two beau­ti­ful­ly chal­leng­ing words: avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. I’d like to explore how we can prac­tice these as a spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline, some poten­tial chal­lenges, and what these prac­tices might look like in a min­istry context.

Avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty are not prac­tices that one quick­ly or eas­i­ly embarks on, par­tic­u­lar­ly when we haven’t seen them mod­eled in our rela­tion­ships or com­mu­ni­ties. What is need­ed is inten­tion­al­i­ty, patience, and a will­ing­ness to enter into the messi­ness that seems indica­tive of human rela­tion­ships. To love oth­ers means I will be hurt, but it is a move­ment that holds great eter­nal sig­nif­i­cance for our com­mu­ni­ties and indi­vid­ual formation. 

Prac­tice

I’m utter­ly con­vinced that if we move through each moment with an open and sub­mit­ted heart before God, he is ever ready to open doors and guide our steps. Our task is to lis­ten and obey. It is because of this I always hes­i­tate to offer sug­ges­tions on how peo­ple should prac­tice the dis­ci­plines; how­ev­er, some­times hear­ing how oth­ers have been guid­ed to a spe­cif­ic prac­tice can birth steps for us to fol­low. I trust the whis­per of Jesus will direct you in your spe­cif­ic life and circumstances. 

A few weeks ago I was out walk­ing my dog and I noticed a neigh­bor I had nev­er seen work­ing in her yard. I felt a gen­tle nudge to go and say hel­lo. Now this is not a prompt that I’m com­fort­able with — I’m an intro­vert and spend much of my work­ing days with peo­ple. The time to walk the dog is my time” and I wasn’t eager to give it up for an uncom­fort­able and poten­tial­ly awk­ward con­ver­sa­tion. That day I smiled and jumped in by sheep­ish­ly com­pli­ment­ing her gar­den rocks. She lit up, eager to explain what she was work­ing on. For the next 15 min­utes we talked and she pet­ted my dog. Noth­ing earth shat­ter­ing came of the time, but I made a new friend and brought a smile to an old­er, sin­gle woman liv­ing in my neigh­bor­hood. As I walked home, I prayer­ful­ly processed my fre­quent reluc­tance to make myself avail­able to oth­ers. Of course prayer is so often a sim­ple con­ver­sa­tion with God about what he and I are doing togeth­er. And so often the ordi­nar­i­ness of life teach­es me to pray. 

The oth­er day I was in the staff break room at the uni­ver­si­ty heat­ing up my lunch. I had great plans for my lunch break. There were to-do lists to wres­tle with and impor­tant junk to look at on eBay. At the table was a for­mer stu­dent of mine and again the whis­per, Have a seat and say hi.” I embraced my awk­ward reluc­tance and sub­mit­ted. While I ate my lunch, we talked, and again noth­ing of great sig­nif­i­cance. As it turned out she real­ly liked house-sit­ting for peo­ple and was will­ing to do it for free. Not sur­pris­ing­ly in that moment, sit­ting on my to-do list was the task to find a house sit­ter. Isn’t that so like God? I often think of life with God as a very ordi­nary adven­ture, sel­dom wild and excit­ing, but good, filled with grace and lit­tle moments of his care. 

Of course this dis­ci­pline does go beyond an impromp­tu will­ing­ness to have our day interrupted. 

My friend Fil is in the habit of prac­tic­ing the min­istry of avail­abil­i­ty. He sim­ply carves out space in his sched­ule to make him­self avail­able. I reg­u­lar­ly meet with a few peo­ple. I have no agen­da. I’m just with them,” he recent­ly shared with me. And through the years, life hap­pens; peo­ple get mar­ried, have kids, lose jobs and die. And I’m there embed­ded in their lives, able to speak good­ness and grace. I am able to be incarnational.” 

He went on to recount how one of the peo­ple he’s been avail­able to recent­ly died. I think he was wait­ing until I was there to die,” Fil said. It was so rich and beau­ti­ful; we couldn’t have had the con­ver­sa­tions had we not con­nect­ed for years. It was a great hon­or for me to be by his side in the hospital.” 

While giv­ing of our time to oth­ers is a great gift, giv­ing of our heart is the ulti­mate offer­ing of avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Many of us are in the habit of prac­tic­ing guard­ed, shal­low rela­tion­ships. Cer­tain­ly in many con­texts it is not appro­pri­ate or safe to give deep­er parts of our­selves. And wounds of the past make this prac­tice near­ly impos­si­ble for some. Prob­a­bly all that’s need­ed is enter­ing rela­tion­ships with courage and a will­ing­ness to be known. 

For one rea­son or anoth­er, the books I’ve writ­ten are awk­ward­ly trans­par­ent. I nev­er intend­ed for them to be, but I found my angst and tears spilled out on the pages. While it’s hor­ri­bly uncom­fort­able to have pub­lished my secrets and fears, some­thing remark­able has come of it. In a sense, I think it’s giv­en oth­ers free­dom to fol­low. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is con­ta­gious. I’ve come to view it as lead­er­ship and a way to prac­tice neigh­bor love. 

And so we work this out in our words and lives. It can real­ly be as sim­ple as a text or ran­dom phone call to a friend, or hav­ing the space to stop to talk with those we encounter. Of course, some of the rich­est trea­sures are mov­ing with inten­tion­al­i­ty in our long-term relationships. 

Jesus gives us a good exam­ple of tak­ing a few peo­ple and pour­ing him­self into them. It is impor­tant to note that even with Jesus giv­ing of him­self, it was not with­out com­pli­ca­tions. He even lost one to sui­cide along the way. Notice that in the midst of the dis­ci­ples’ great fail­ures, Jesus empow­ered them, allow­ing his mes­sage to grow them into per­sons who were able to lead. It is so crit­i­cal in being with oth­ers to sur­ren­der our need for achieve­ment and results. We sim­ply help lead oth­ers into a life with God, but the work is a work of God. I don’t think he asks us to be suc­cess­ful, but to be faith­ful; we sur­ren­der the results to him. Cer­tain­ly some lead in places of great influ­ence with the mass­es, but we all are called to fol­low the Jesus mod­el of help­ing pass on what we have learned and experienced. 

Chal­lenges

Prob­a­bly the biggest hin­drance to being avail­able and vul­ner­a­ble is our con­stant hur­ry and over­crowd­ed sched­ules. There is one very sim­ple solu­tion to this prob­lem: learn­ing to say No.” You do real­ize that every time we say yes” to some­thing we are effec­tive­ly say­ing no” to some­thing else. Usu­al­ly that no” is to the things that mat­ter most to us — close friends, fam­i­ly, self-care, soul tend­ing, and of course, being avail­able. I’m rel­a­tive­ly good at say­ing no” to things that come up which I don’t enjoy doing. It is the good things and the things I want to do that trip me up. It is at this point that I find hav­ing peo­ple who know me well enough to speak into my ulti­mate inten­tions and pri­or­i­ties to be a great asset. 

A quote from my friend Robert speaks so strong­ly and deeply to my predica­ment: Busy­ness is greed.” By fill­ing my life with events, activ­i­ties, and respon­si­bil­i­ties that far exceed the bound­aries God has set for humans to func­tion well, I am being greedy. Greedy for expe­ri­ences and accom­plish­ments that are unre­al­is­tic. Greedy for pleas­ing oth­ers and being acknowl­edged. In a very real sense I’m try­ing to escape my own mor­tal­i­ty by try­ing to do more than God intend­ed for me. Our cul­ture con­stant­ly encour­ages us to lead lives of excess, assur­ing us that few things are beyond our reach if we only work hard enough and push the bound­aries of human capa­bil­i­ty. This approach has destruc­tive­ly infil­trat­ed our lives. We sim­ply can­not do and be every­thing we want, even if it is good. 

I have a friend that spent a year craft­ing a detailed rule of life. Year­ly he sits down and orders his sched­ule based on the fil­ter of the pri­or­i­ties of his com­mit­ments. He sched­ules time with his kids and fam­i­ly, time for rest, and soli­tude with God before he adds any­thing else. Here we see some­one work­ing against anoth­er strange hin­drance to mak­ing our­selves avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­ble to God and oth­ers: laziness. 

So often the way I end up liv­ing my life is a con­se­quence of choic­es — the choic­es I made months pri­or. It is lazy to fail in plan­ning to live with­in the para­me­ters of what is healthy. And I’m as guilty as anyone. 

As we seek to make con­scious deci­sions about how we spend our time and order our sched­ules, it is impor­tant to bring a gen­eros­i­ty to our bound­aries, both in our time and emo­tions. Do not mis­take the prac­tice of always say­ing yes” to oth­ers as a form of ser­vice; quite the oppo­site can be true. Often our obses­sion with peo­ple-pleas­ing is root­ed in self­ish­ness. Many of us were con­di­tioned from birth that our worth and iden­ti­ty is based on what we are doing, achiev­ing, and ulti­mate­ly what peo­ple think about us. When we set bound­aries for our com­mit­ments, our motives for try­ing to do more than what is healthy begin to bub­ble up, thus reveal­ing our under­ly­ing desires and inse­cu­ri­ties. What a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­tin­ue that con­ver­sa­tion with God about what we are work­ing on togeth­er. It is here, in the pres­ence of God’s accep­tance, that we ques­tion how we have com­mit­ted our days, hours, and min­utes and how this speaks to who we are and what we val­ue. And, it is in this space that we must dive deep into the well of God’s immense and immea­sur­able love for us. In so doing we root our worth and iden­ti­ty in our beloved­ness as sons and daugh­ters of God. From this place of know­ing we may soon find an abil­i­ty to make deci­sions about how to com­mit our­selves to be avail­able and vul­ner­a­ble to God and oth­ers. Secure in Jesus’ com­plete accep­tance, we find our­selves free to set lim­its and free to give to oth­ers, free to say no” to the greed of want­i­ng to do every­thing, and ulti­mate­ly free to let go of the mar­tyr com­plex that so many of us car­ry. When good bound­aries are in place, we may find we are no longer bit­ter, angry, over­taxed, or over­stressed at the com­mit­ments we have made. 

Part of this is tend­ing to our own souls with self-care. Please don’t mis­take self-care for self­ish­ness. As a dis­ci­pline before God, we carve out spaces to attend to our phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and spir­i­tu­al needs. We severe­ly dimin­ish our abil­i­ty to be help­ful to oth­ers when we live stretched and ragged lives. Bound­aries to cre­ate space for self-care are a way that we love oth­ers well. 

Min­istry

So how do we cre­ate lit­tle pock­ets of com­mu­ni­ties marked by avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty? Quite sim­ply — it starts with us. I think of a leader as the per­son will­ing to jump off the high dive first. We lead by exam­ple. We mod­el what we want for oth­ers, and in so doing, we are able to con­fi­dent­ly announce, The water is fine! You too can jump!” 

Our wor­ship com­mu­ni­ties have so many press­ing com­pul­sions: numer­i­cal growth, build­ings, pro­duc­tion, rel­e­van­cy, and often our very sur­vival. What does it look like for our gath­er­ers to be bathed in a com­mu­nal long­ing for avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty before God and the nat­ur­al trans­for­ma­tion that flows out of this pos­ture? What if we could sus­pend the incli­na­tions of inter­act­ing with oth­ers as a means of manip­u­lat­ing, con­trol­ling, and using? What if we greet­ed our fel­low con­gre­gants with the dig­ni­ty and respect of a God-kissed crea­ture made in his very image, hold­ing before us the words of C.S. Lewis “… your neigh­bor is the holi­est object pre­sent­ed to your sens­es?” What if we entered our greet­ing time, meals, and events free from agen­da with a readi­ness to be avail­able and vul­ner­a­ble? If this was the case, we would cer­tain­ly be known the world over for our love, a bea­con of hope and heal­ing. Sad­ly, we often trade the rich­es of the King­dom among us for rigid tra­di­tions, nice build­ings, qual­i­ty pro­duc­tions, and emo­tion­al­ly removed charis­mat­ic preaching. 

Of course, it’s always easy to offer cri­tique from the out­side. The chal­lenge in being the Church we want and long to be has been a good source of ten­sion for me these last months. I recent­ly joined the pas­toral staff in a small con­gre­ga­tion, speak­ing once a month, help­ing with plan­ning, struc­tur­ing the Sun­day ser­vice and meet­ing with peo­ple. Much to my sur­prise, it has become one of the most life-giv­ing things I have done in years. Yet, I find there is so much I long for us to be as a wor­ship­ing com­mu­ni­ty. We are small, sim­ple, inner city, and poor. The church lacks pro­grams, pre­tense, and resources. In a sense it’s as good as it gets. Yet we are shy, intro­vert­ed, and tran­sient. We are dis­cussing ideas of how to prac­tice being vul­ner­a­ble and avail­able in this com­mu­ni­ty. Give it five years and we’ll see what hap­pens. Growth in the spir­i­tu­al life, as well as growth in God’s oth­er cre­ations, the nat­ur­al world and uni­verse, takes time and so often what we would con­sid­er slow. This is not an issue for God; rather, it is his design and intention. 

Action

We’ve come into an age, at least in Amer­i­ca, where you’ll be hard-pressed to find some­one who doesn’t know the Jesus sto­ry or have ready access to a Bible. Soci­ety is tired of our dog­ma, moral, and polit­i­cal fights. Peo­ple have become skep­ti­cal and dis­il­lu­sioned with any­thing Chris­t­ian. As all the glit­tery things we fill our lives with fail to sat­is­fy, there is a deep long­ing and des­per­a­tion to find anoth­er way to live than the shal­low, lone­ly, and over­whelmed lives so many find them­selves stuck in. What Chris­tian­i­ty offers is so dif­fer­ent: the easy bur­den of fol­low­ing Jesus, a life free of hur­ry and dis­trac­tion, free from an obses­sion with hav­ing our own, self-con­dem­na­tion, and the con­stant dri­ve to do and achieve. Our soci­ety is lit­er­al­ly dying to cul­ti­vate some­thing deep, mean­ing­ful, and true. What a won­der­ful time in his­to­ry to prac­tice Jesus’ rela­tion­al mod­el of appren­tice­ship in avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. We have no right to self­ish­ly keep all our time, lock­ing up our hearts, and cheat­ing the world. Being in the habit of walling our­selves off from oth­ers is not only a direct path to deep lone­li­ness, but effec­tive­ly deprives the world of the gifts and life God has so gra­cious­ly giv­en us. And, what bet­ter way to start than by sim­ply mak­ing our­selves avail­able in the midst of every­day, ordi­nary life. 

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