First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Beautifully Vulnerable

March 19, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees


Reading: from Annie Lamott

Here’s how to break through [and become a person of life-giving risk]: make a LOT of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club. Celebrate messes — these are where the goods are. 

Put something on the calendar that you know you’ll be terrible at, like dance lessons, or a meditation retreat, or boot camp. Find a writing partner, who will help you with your work, by reading it for you, and telling you the truth about it, with respect, to help you make it better and better; for whom you will do the same thing. Find someone who wants to steal his or her life back, too. Now; today.

One wild and crazy thing: wears shorts out in public if it is hot, even if your legs are milky white or heavy. Go to a poetry slam. Go to open mic and read the story you wrote about the hilariously god-awful family reunion, with a trusted friend, even though it could be better, and would hurt Uncle Ed’s feelings if he read it, which he isn’t going to. Change his name and hair color — he won’t even recognize himself. At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny. Wow!

A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring. Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who cares?


Have you ever done any of these:

  • Told an uncomfortable truth
  • Asked for help
  • Stood up for yourself
  • Stood up for someone else
  • Stood up to speak in front of a large group
  • Called a friend whose child has died
  • Gone on a first date after a break up
  • Initiated a break up
  • Fired an employee
  • Participated in a protest
  • Gotten pregnant after a miscarriage
  • Admitted you are afraid or lonely
  • Owned up to your part in a situation or relationship
  • Traveled to a foreign country
  • Moved to a new town
  • Started a new job
  • Told someone you love them
  • Shared that you or a member of your family have spent time in prison
  • Said “yes”
  • Tried something new you thought you would not be very good at
  • Sung boldly off key in public or at church
  • Lost your temper in front of a friend
  • Admitted you have an addiction
  • Shared a mental health diagnosis
  • Given voice to a dream you have for your future that you thought would not be well-received
  • Tried to befriend someone
  • Initiated sex with your partner (From Brene Brown. Daring Greatly, and varied sources)

If you have taken any of these risks, regardless of how it turned out, you have been vulnerable. Just reading that list makes me realize how many times in my life I have been deeply vulnerable, and how many times I have witnessed others being vulnerable. I also realize how uncomfortable many of the experiences on that list make me feel.

I happen to dislike asking people to do things for me. I have no trouble asking any of you to volunteer at church or asking people to do things professionally. But personally, that is a different matter. A few years ago, for example, I needed someone’s help with a small project of mine that needed a personal touch. I carefully considered who to ask.

The person I did ask surprised me by saying, “no, I’m too busy.” I was hurt. This was someone who had actually been instrumental in my undertaking the project in the first place. That refusal made it hard for me to go and ask someone else – because I did not want to face another rejection. I eventually did ask someone else who thankfully and enthusiastically said “yes.” But it took me awhile before I was ready to stick my neck out again and ask.

Being vulnerable feels awkward, scary, and uncertain. No wonder we so often restrain ourselves from stepping out of the shadows. No wonder we hold ourselves back. Being vulnerable is a risk. There is no guarantee that stepping out of the shadows will turn into a success. There are so many wonderful examples out there of people who allowed themselves to be vulnerable and that vulnerability led them to great experiences and relationships.

In this morning's story, "Giraffes Can't Dance," the giraffe took a risk and the other animals were amazed. But failure happens too. The other animals might not have ended up being all that amazed. They could just as easily have decided the giraffe was weird. They could just as easily have rejected the giraffe or laughed at him.

That is why Annie Lamott advises us that when we step out of the shadows someone may hate our style. Someone may neglect us. Others may tell us we are bitter or boring. But in the big juicy scheme of things, she says, who cares? Who cares if someone else thinks we are weird?

Well, it turns out that a lot of us seem to care an awful lot. A lot of energy gets devoted to protecting ourselves from embarrassment, rejection, criticism, and judgment. Of course there is a natural tendency to want to put our best foot forward. Most of us want to be liked. At the same time, if that is taken to extremes, our whole lives can become an effort to craft the image of ourselves we want the world to see rather than learning to be a loving, joyful, dynamic person of integrity.

In fact, Courtney Martin suggests we stop being so zealous in curating our lives and instead learn to be ourselves. She says:

Here’s what I’ve discovered. In a world where we are crafting our identities more conscientiously than ever before — picking particular shots of our lives to share on Instagram, liking certain posts on Facebook — it takes a certain kind of modern courage to stop crafting. To say, enough with the curation. Enough with the control. I’m just going to be myself — warts and all….  (Showing Up Whole, Despite All the Risks. Courtney Martin.

This means revealing what we so often try to keep hidden from others and allowing ourselves to be seen. Now I want to make an important distinction here. This is really important. Being seen is not the same as dumping ourselves on other people. It is not about oversharing deeply private information with people we don’t know or barely know. Being vulnerable requires having good, appropriate boundaries and trust with people in one’s life. The idea is to build deeper connections not to bare the soul to a stranger or passing acquaintance.

When someone shares their deepest struggles and secrets with someone they just met, that has more to do with desperation, attention-seeking, and pain than being oneself. And it is unlikely to lead to any kind of deeper connection and intimacy. It is more likely to lead to an experience of alienation.

I remember going to a conference once and sitting outside on a bench next to a woman I had never met. We said hello and somehow or another she ended up sharing with me some really personal stuff. All of a sudden she caught herself. She stopped and said, I don’t know why I shared all that with you. And then she sort of ran off disappearing into the sea of people at the conference. That is not what is meant by vulnerability. That kind of sharing may have some therapeutic or cathartic value, I don’t know. But it was not based on trust or intimacy or relationship or deeper connection.

True vulnerability requires some thought and consideration. If you are going to break up with someone, it is important to think about it first and give some thought to how to tell the person. Sometimes when trying something new, practicing first can help. The giraffe decided to practice dancing alone in the woods before trying out his dancing in front of everyone else. When it comes to sharing our feelings, this means choosing the right time and the right person or people to share with.

Let me share a story Thandeka shares what it means to be vulnerable in community. She calls the story: “A Lonely Soul in Community.” Thandeka is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, theologian, author, and professor. Her name, Thandeka, means "beloved" and was given to her by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984.

Thandeka was talking to a New England church about forming small groups of six to ten people to meet regularly to share experiences and deepen their spirituality. After presenting the idea to them, she asked if the congregation would be interested in such a program. And then one of the most respected elders in the church stood up and said:

he had wanted something like this for years … because he was lonely. “I do not have any friends,” he finally confessed. “Every man in this room who is my age knows what I am talking about. Our social upbringing has taught us not to talk about our feelings. We are not supposed to be emotionally vulnerable or close to anyone except our wives.”

The congregation was shocked because they saw him as a beloved pillar of the church. Thandeka says she could feel his vulnerability ….

because his heart spoke the hidden language of my own heart: loneliness. My own social upbringing had taught me not to talk about my feelings to anyone. I had learned to be emotionally invulnerable and closed to everyone. But now, here, in the midst of this gathered community — someone so much like myself — had stepped forward and said "I'm lonely." (A Lonely Soul in Community.

It is beautiful when someone opens up and takes a chance like this with their heart. This man took a risk that benefitted everyone. He took a risk that made it possible for others to acknowledge their own loneliness and desire for deeper connection in community. That experience drew people closer together in community.

Taking a principled stand is another act of vulnerability. When taking that stand, it only makes sense to have a good handle your perspective and to think through how others may respond.  

The latest issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine includes an article about John Dietrich, who was one of the early humanist ministers in Unitarianism. Born near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1878, he was raised in the Calvinist tradition. He took a liberal approach to scripture and liturgy. “Dietrich saw Humanism not as a rejection of religion.” He saw it as “a critical shift of emphasis, from a supernatural being to human beings, from the promise of an afterlife to the wonders and challenges of this one.”

Dietrich called his ideas “religion without God.” This theology was an unwelcome challenge to Christianity. He soon came to be accused of being a Unitarian. He was ejected from the Reform Church. Afterward, he was accepted into fellowship in the American Unitarian Association. And as a Unitarian minister, Dietrich further “developed his ideas of a religion centered on human beings rather than God.”

It turned out that his humanist principles were even edgy for the Unitarians. Historian Mason Olds wrote that Dietrich’s personal theology “evolved through several stages … to a Humanism so radical that it took the Unitarians years to decide whether they were sufficiently liberal to contain it.” (Humanism at 100.

Today, humanism seems to be fairly pervasive – not only in Unitarian Universalism but in mainstream Christian churches and the culture at large. The idea of speaking up as a humanist may not seem that bold any more. And yet – humanism’s core principles are still pretty radical in some circles – even under attack. Humanism, according to our fifth Unitarian Universalist source, counsels us “to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.”

Dietrich was willing to stand up for his principles despite the criticism. He was willing to take a stand, even when it led to being ejected from his religious tradition. Making himself vulnerable to ridicule and rejection opened up important possibilities for those who came after him – for all of us. Today, we are standing on the shoulders of people like Dietrich when we take a stand for the scientific basis of climate change and even the use of reason in evaluating fake versus real news.

Taking the risk of dancing funny in front of others, revealing one’s sense of isolation in community, or standing up for one’s ethical principles are all beautiful acts of vulnerability. They are all beautiful examples of the way that being vulnerable breaks us open.

Annie Lamott says in the big juicy scheme of things, who cares if someone hates our style or neglects us? Who cares if they eject us from a religion? Who cares if they are shocked by our honesty?

Well, it turns out a lot of us care an awful lot. And we ought to. Because opening ourselves up is the only viable choice if we want to love and be loved, if we want more joy in our lives, greater intimacy, true community, and integrity of the spirit.

We ought to care a lot. We ought to care enough to risk our hearts.

May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.