On "Vulnerability" & "Resilience" - my talk to Deans of Women in the Church of England

Jack is three and came to my house last weekend for baptism prep. He brought mum and dad and a sister and brother. He also brought cake!

Mum and Jack explored with me their journey to the 'big cake bake,' the dessert they provided for after our Sunday Roast together. Jack had broken 6 eggs. At three years old this was no traumatic thing. Just an interesting thing. And he enjoyed telling me. 
They dropped on the floor. 
They broke on the floor. 
Mummy was cross.

The cake we ate together was huge and delicious. 
The thing is mum had broken eggs too, she had broken 6 eggs – big cake! So I guess this proves that it is what we do with our brokenness that counts because our brokenness, our vulnerability is unavoidable if we're going to risk being transformed, which is what God would have for us. 

We are told by the world that we should bounce back but I will tell you there are a couple of problems with bouncing back. Rubber eggs bounce. But there's nothing good inside of them. They are just tough. And in their tough irregularity they are unpredictable, bouncing off in all directions. We become increasingly unpredictable if all we ever do is reactively bounce back, not dealing with the things that have broken us, causing stasis to descend, freezing all that potentially good stuff inside and fixing it still. 

In reading Brene Brown on vulnerability, I was most struck by her conclusion that in our numbing our pain, we numb too our capacity for joy. We are to stay porous then, keep processing the stuff inside and allowing light in through the unavoidable cracks.  

Thinking about resilience, my mind is drawn to my garden, in which I sat with Jack during baptism preparation eating that cake. (The trampoline engages little baptism candidates as I fill out paper work with guardians about godparents.) My trampoline has resilience, Jack loved bouncing. I have less resilience. My body feels heavier now than it did when I was younger even if it isn't literally heavier, although it probably is. I am more fragile, on the inside, for all sorts of reasons that those amongst you who have had children can relate to. The trampoline floor flexes, my floor does not. I just don't bounce like I used to. I just should not bounce like I used to!

Bouncing back, then, dips as life makes its marks upon us and it can afford to as we learn lessons along the way and apply these lessons to the new situations we face. Locating the present moment in the experiences of the past and the promises of the future keeps perspective, which serves in its own way to bolster resilience. Life only makes sense backwards. Past difficulties serve a redemptive purpose for present realities if through them we have learned anything about God, other people and ourselves.  

Kristine Culp in her book on Vulnerability (2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press) describes this prior learning as my already having been both harmed and transformed. Like eggs or as St Paul puts it, like earthen vessels, we are susceptible both to being broken and revealing treasure inside. This being harmed and this being transformed is surely part of the human condition. Jack watched harmed eggs become transformed eggs. We ate them, messily, at my house. 

Fragile like an egg, can I learn to be okay about my own brokenness; my vulnerability? 
I believe that in its brokenness the egg can become something that can go on to nourish others. 
This incredibly creative stuff can be released and apply the right kind of heat and environment to it and somehow suddenly, or perhaps in about three minutes, depending on how you like them, there are all these different kinds of eggs. 

What kind of resilience do I need to cultivate?
A resilience that is not about bouncing back - we just aren't built for constant bouncing. 
Instead I have to know the kind of egg I was formed to be (self-aware, individuated). 
I have to trust in God's redemptive plans for all humanity and that in our brokenness we can nourish others in sharing our vulnerability: our life experiences, weaknesses, our very messy humanity. God means for us to be vulnerable, we share his image built this way (more on that later). Trusting in God helps me to hold on to the belief that if I know myself and my identity in Christ, I can be broken but not totally shattered and my being broken can serve my own life and the lives of others redemptively. 

It's not about being tough
Kristine Culp in her theological account of Vulnerability1 believes vulnerability is our 'susceptibility to being changed, for good and for ill.' 'Human creatures remain open to being damaged and open to being transformed because they remain susceptible to being changed by others...'2 

The Latin root of vulnerability points to wounds or wounding. 

It's about contending, anyway, with community. Zechariah knows well, the 'wounds we gather in a house of friends (Zech 13:6).' We are not to resist community because of wounding, we are to navigate it, learn to love, be loved and live through the wounding which is never undone completely in the transforming. 
Look at Jacob, transformed but limping.
Look at Christ raised and yet punctured through his hands and side. 
Therein behold the Glory. 

Kristine Culp will not pair vulnerability with resilience, she pairs Vulnerability with Glory. She explains that we are to become attuned to the vulnerable baby-God in a manger [who] moves to glory rather than resilience.

Perhaps resilience carries too many connotations of the bouncing back that I have rejected.3  Glory better conveys the transformation possible through vulnerability. We will never bounce back into the shape we were, the shape is transformed, if through the difficulties and crises we have learned anything along the way. Even in those who seem to wound us carelessly we are to find nuggets of truth from which we can learn and transform. Finding the yolk, the good stuff gives hope the last word, turns the last word to encouragement. 

An article in Psychology Today 4 called: 'I scream, you scream, we all scream for self – esteem,' describes an experiment where samples of people to whom encouraging words had been spoken over a long period of time were then exposed to small electric shocks (don't try this at home) – fried eggs!). Those nurtured in encouragement were far less susceptible to the pain than those who had not had encouragement spoken over them. By continuing to soak ourselves and others in the words God speaks over us in his love for us in our broken moments; by becoming agents ourselves of his encouraging love, we are better preparing people to bare the unavoidable shocks of life, to have the being broken become transformative. When human beings wound us, we are to hear again the reassurance of a wounded God who loves us, knows us and can transform us. 

I made a commitment to myself, after experiences of being trained for secondary teaching, observing staff and the power of their words over students, and again, after reading the Alban Institute's 'Never call them Jerks' that I was going to hold myself to healthy responses to those who wound. Speak well of others because when there's not a lot I can control, I can control at least my own response.5 When the wounding comes, which inevitably it will in any form of corporate life, be not left also with a me I love less by not holding myself to this. This is all a part of the process of remaining self-individuated and not wounding those who wound you. 

Maintain vision, love for God, love for His Story and love for others and His vision for my identity because it is often your very identity that is being measured by those same members of that community you have been called to love. They each have their own recipe card and ideas for what you're supposed to be. It would be completely impossible to conform yourself to everyone's taste and you would lose yourself in trying to be.  

Be the egg you are supposed to be: know yourself
The interesting thing about eggs is that they are best cared for in a shape that fits them. Put into a shape too hard to adapt to and shaken around always, the egg will not last, the creative stuff will become so mixed up with the broken stuff that there will not be a lot that you can do with either. Eggs have rope-like strings called chalazae which act to anchor the yolk to the centre of the white. 

Even if we do not break completely, if we find ourselves in environments where the centre just can no longer hold, whether that be our belief in who we are or in who God is, if these become so shattered and set adrift, it is time to get out of the box.

When the centre holds, you can go on to hold that delicate and messy collection of unique people as a Christian leader. It takes time and not everyone is going to hang in there as you work out the shape of the container, its contours, weak points and strong sides.  

All the eggs in the box have their own lives and stories of how they came into being. Shell and yolk; some with centres anchored and some just hanging in there. Let time take care of the collection of eggs. Separating broken stuff from good stuff is not our job as scripture tells us elsewhere with wheat and tares, take away the broken bits and we lose something of the egg too. 'Tis always so when I pick bits out of the mixture at home! God has all the time in the world.   

Know more about who God is
In all our explorations of vulnerability and resilience we say something about God.
Does a theology of God being affected, being malleable and affected; does a theology of God being vulnerable lend itself better to a theology of our own vulnerability as those made in his image?

Elizabeth Gandolfo in her book The Power and Vulnerability of Love - captures our preoccupation with the need for a God who suffers with us, with her paraphrase: “How can a loving God remain unaffected by or invulnerably controlling a history' shot through with human suffering?6 She builds, in answer, a case for the invulnerability of God as offering vulnerable humans a necessary stability of identity.

An invulnerable God can maintain that unchanging love from which we draw in the face of life events that would otherwise break us. He's our chalazae.What human beings need from God, says Gandolfo, is not just compassion and responsiveness but a God invulnerable to the very horrors we suffer. 

With a developed theology of the Trinity we can suffer this God who doesn't suffer, because the second person of the Trinity condescends to mix himself up with the very egg of a woman, Mary, to be born in blood and pain, to be born and to die in vulnerability: Christ. The second person of the Trinity is vulnerable enough for us. 

Gandolfo explores how the Christian God comes to earth the way the rest of us do - “The bloodiness of [Mary’s] labor (sic) could have ended differently. Love incarnate did not pass into the world through Mary’s womb like a ray of light.” If ministry is also about our being perpetually born anew to the wonders of God and bringing others to birth in a similar way, why would we think that it is similarly not going to be experienced through some suffering and pain. Moses' desire had been for an encounter with the Glory of God, when that Glory comes fully it comes in the fullness of Christ in his vulnerability on a cross.

God’s invulnerability can hold within it the incarnate Lord’s necessary vulnerability. Christian resilience is found then in drawing strength from the unchanging essence of an eternally loving God, vulnerably experiencing my wounds in the woundedness of Jesus Christ. Perhaps capturing a sense of this Trinitarian invulnerable but 'oh so vulnerable' God is found in a letter written to the editor of Christian Century.

'Both the manger birth and the cross express that truth... that the "essence of God is power directed by vulnerable love....The danger of our modern… culture is the division between those who see God as loveless power, which has given us… 9/11 [and atrocities ever since] and those who see God as powerless love, which has given us a rapidly shrinking... church. The God of the New Testament is hardly powerless, as the story of the resurrection proclaims. [We have a] God whose essence is power directed by vulnerable love to wipe away every tear. A powerless God cannot do that.7

Over the years, reading the scriptures, I become more attuned to my own na├»ve idealism and how this is not supported in the scriptures by the stories of human dealings. Christian resilience is bolstered too in meditating on the stories of the human condition in the Gospel, the sheer grittiness, the simple displays of human weakness and error and God's faithful and loving pursuit of such unendearing beings. Conflict is very much at the heart of scripture's converting and transforming narrative and peace is not the absence of trouble but the presence of God. An over-realised eschatology might not serve me or others well. The Kingdom is really not here yet and there's much work to be done – God has work to do in me. Kristine Culp says 'Christian' (and I would say human) 'communities are necessarily ambiguous mixtures of creativity and destruction, holy and demonic, good and ill, true and false.' 

Egg shell and yolk.

'Faith emboldens us to resist diminishment and to persevere against fear, to enjoy and share life as a gift of God, to dare and dwell in a sturdier justice and a widening love. Forgiveness releases the burden of failures and faults, enabling us to straighten our backs, as it were... Love lifts us, binding us to God and one another, to the well-being of neighbors (sic) and strangers; it turns us around in reverence...'8 

And so the bible tells us: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed and you know the rest (2 Cor 4 vv. 7-12).

Developing self and other awareness, praying more keenly for relationship with an invulnerable but oh so vulnerable God can prepare us for a life poised somewhere between vulnerability and resilience as we 'are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor 3:18).

Written by priest, Dave Bookless, when he was at theological college, Dave used this poem he wrote which I believe to be poignant to my writing here:


There are cracks in my world
I noticed them one day and now they are everywhere:
Sinister hairline cracks that start and finish out of sight
cracks that grow and gape and laugh at my certainties
My world has been declared unsafe

I have tried to paper them over,
paint them out,
move the furniture to hide them,
but they always return,
cracks that hang like  question marks in my mind.
And now I begin to think:
why do the cracks appear?
from where do they come?
They have made my room unsafe

They have thrown it open to new horizons
drawn back the curtains
raised long closed shutters.
One day I looked and crack had become a window.
Step through it said, what have you to fear?
Do you wish to stay in your crumbling room?

And then I remembered a childhood dream.
Watching the egg of some exotic bird
oval and perfect, spotted blue and cream
I wished to hold that egg and keep it on a shelf

As I watched it, cracks appeared.
Tiny fissures spread like zigzag ripples.
It broke in two and life struggled to its feet,
Wet and weak and blinking at the world.

Without those cracks that egg could hold
no more than rotting stagnant death

without its cracks my world would be
a room without a view
Cracks maybe uncomfortable, disturbing gaps

Could it be that I need them?
Do you believe in cracks?
Because I keep searching for God in the room
and find he is hiding in the cracks.

Dave Bookless   

1 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press.
2 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press, p.120
3 Culp supports my wonderings here proposing that in much of the literature in the field 'definitions of vulnerability point to the risk of harm from hazards, epidemics, and disasters; [and] the contrasting term is resilience. In other words, damage has a force of inevitability, and the main questions are how to prevent it and, if and when hazards are met, whether persons, communities, and environments will be able to resist and rebound from it. p.2
4 Psychology Today. Mar/Apr 93, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p22. 2p.
5 Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behaviour by AP Boers, Alban Institute, 2000
6 Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo, The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology, Fortress. p.188
7 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, Westminster John Knox Press.
8 Kristine A. Culp, 2010, Vulnerability and Glory p.104 - 120

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