Sermon Illustrations on Vulnerability
The Most Private is Often What Resonates the Strongest
The pyschologist Carl Rogers, a person who would know quite well the interior lives of others, has this to say of our inmost thoughts:
I have most invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal and hence, most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared and expressed, speak most deeply to others.
Vulnerability that Leads to Flourishing
The vulnerability that leads to flourishing requires risk, which is the possibility of loss—the chance that when we act, we will lose something we value. Risk, like life, is always about probabilities, never about certainties. To risk is to open ourselves up to the chance that something will go wrong, that something will be taken from us—without knowing for sure whether that loss will come to pass or not. To be vulnerable is to be exposed to the possibility of loss—and not just loss of things or possessions, but loss of our own sense of self.
Vulnerable at root means woundable—and any wound deeper than the most superficial scratch injures and limits not just our bodies but our very sense of self. Wounded, we are forced to become careful, tender, tentative in the way we move in the world, if we can still move on our own at all. To be vulnerable is to open oneself up to the possibility—though not the certainty—that the result of our action in the world will be a wound, something lost, potentially never to be gained again.
Vulnerability vs. Fauxnerability
Twenty-five years ago, when I was just getting started, vulnerability was not a high value. Things have changed. But with a higher value on transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability in the church, there is a dark “flipside” that we need to be aware of, a phenomenon I call “fauxnerability ” And this may be the newest revelation of narcissism’s pastoral bite.
Recently I listened to the final sermon of a pastor whose affair was found out the week after this sermon, and who committed suicide not long after. Strewn throughout the sermon were statements like “Were all broken and need the gospel” and I’m a mess like you,” along with talk about the power of God to transform our wounds like God had done for this pastor. Imagine the shock and sense of betrayal when the congregation found out about his year-long sexual relationship with a female admirer he had met while speaking at conference. The discovery was followed by days of throwing his wife under the bus for “emotionally abandoning” him.
…Fauxnerability is a twisted form of vulnerability. It has the appearance of transparency but serves only to conceal one’s deepest struggles. A husband may talk generally about his sinfulness, but a significant addiction to pornography may be ignored. A pastor may share vague references to his battle with lust but be covering up an emotional or sexual affair.
Here are some distinctions to be aware of:
- Contradictions. Fauxnerable people are not consistent in their character.
- Disclosures that focus on the past. “I struggled with porn” or “I was such a mess.” This isn’t vulnerability. Vulnerability is about showing up courageously in the present moment with how you are currently affecting someone or experiencing your inner life.
- Staged fauxnerabilitry. A fauxnerable pastor or leader may conjure up tears at will on stage but show little empathy or care face to face.
- Victim mentality. The fauxnerable pastor may blame his staff, bad system, or a needy spouse.
- Lack of curiosity. Vulnerable people are curious. Fauxnerable people are defensive and reactive.
- Oversharing. An emotional dump is not necessarily an act of vulnerability but may in fact be a way of using you to engender sympathy or to take their side.
- Self-referencing. His fauxnerability is in service of his ego, not an expression of mutuality or connection.
Certainty vs. Vulnerability
In this excerpt from his book Faith in the Shadows, pastor and author Austin Fischer shares a surprising truth about the need to be vulnerable with our own faith if we are likely to have a positive impact on unbelievers:
As a personal anecdote, I’ve always found that unbelievers are much less offended by the hypocrisy of our morality than they are the hypocrisy of our certainty. Every human, believer or unbeliever knows what it’s like to fail to live up to one’s beliefs, to fail to embody one’s moral ideals. Moral hypocrisy is a universal experience, so unbelievers can be remarkably understanding of our moral fragility because they know it too.
What unbelievers fail to understand is how we can pretend to be certain of things we obviously cannot be certain of…I once spoke with an atheist who told me he would love to hear me explain the coherence of Christian faith, but not until I admitted that, while a believer, I was also uncertain about my beliefs.
I asked why and he curtly responded, because I haven’t any time to waste talking about something this important with someone who lacks the decency to admit we are two uncertain human beings trying to make sense of mysteries. I know that I am an uncertain human. Do you?” Sadly, at the time I did not, so our conversation floundered on the shoals of my unacknowledged uncertain (or humanity).
Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is the presence of love.
Taken from Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fischer. Copyright (c) 2018 by Austin Fischer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Why I Share
Renowned author Henri Nouwen used the book In Memoriam to tell the story of his mother’s death and his consuming grief. Somebody asked Nouwen, “Why do you do this? Why are you so public about your personal problems?” Nouwen replied, “I always try to turn my personal struggles into something helpful for others.
J. Howard Olds, in Ministry matters, August 1st, 2008.
To Love is to Suffer
After C. S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he wrote these words about the inextricable link between love, suffering, and vulnerability:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
The Music Must Always Play
As Europe plunged ever deeper into a second world war, the British poet W.H. Auden composed a poem (“September 1, 1939”) that peels back our human tendency to cover up all fear and uncertainty with sentimentality. But, as Fleming Rutledge notes, “the poet knows better:”
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play.
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort* assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
Ultimately, a flourishing life can only be lived when we face our fears head on, to allow our “fort”-like defenses down. The season of Advent calls us to peel back these layers, to see the situation, that is, our utter need of a savior, for the truth of what it is.
Source Material from “W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939,” in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (New York: Random House, 1945), 57.” Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Eermdans, 2018.
Nakedness is a Funny Thing
In his excellent book, Strong & Weak, Andy Crouch discusses the unique phenomenon of nakedness, something, as he will argue, no other species really experiences. “Nakedness” has, for good reason, been used as a shorthand for experiences of vulnerability. Therefore, one might argue, a part of what it means to be human is to be naked is to be vulnerable:
Of all the creatures in the world, only human beings can be naked. By adulthood, every other creature naturally possesses whatever fur, scales or hide are necessary to protect it from its environment. No other creature—even naked mole rats or Mr. Bigglesworth, the hairless feline sidekick of Mike Myers’s movie villain Dr. Evil—shows any sign, in its natural state, of feeling incomplete in the way that human beings consistently do. Only human beings live our whole lives able to return to a state that renders us uniquely vulnerable, not just to nature but to one another.
Washing another Person’s Feet (Is Difficult)
I Am more or less ready to wash someone’s feet, but, like Peter, I discover I am not prepared to have my feet washed. I am willing to play like I am a servant and wash the feet of someone else. When I wash the feet of someone else I am still in control But to have someone wash my feet makes me feel vulnerable.
My feet are not all that attractive and they are usually covered up. To ask me to take off my socks feels like I am being asked to expose myself.
It makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable and I am not at all sure I lib what we are about to do. To have someone wash my feet, moreover, is an act of intimacy. We are asked by the one kneeling before us, “May I your feet? Who is this person willing to wash my feet? I may not even know his or her name.
I am supposed to enthusiastically say, “Yes, by aII means wash my feet.” But that means he or she will have to touch me. Dear God, how did I get myself into this predicament?
I did not come to church to be served, to be cared for, by someone else. Yet here I am, stuck in this communal rite that requires some acknowledgment on my part that this is a practice worth doing. This is not going to be easy.