Why We Need Vulnerability as Much as Theology and Spiritual Practice
“This is good.” I hear my small group leader say these words to his wife as I leave the table for the restroom, passing other patrons at their own tables chewing their garlic bread and stabbing pieces of lettuce with their salad forks. I had taken these friends out to eat after another summer away for me at a graduate program. I wanted to tell them I was starting over with my faith, that I would keep believing in Jesus and Scripture as God’s inspired Word, but I was questioning my own theology and much of everything else I had believed .
That memory came back to me recently as I sat at another table with different friends. I’m on a church’s spiritual integration committee, composed of many in leadership, including two spiritual directors. It was originally called a spiritual formation committee, but the group decided that the word spiritual formation had too much baggage. We’ve been discussing being intentional in appealing to head, heart, and body in our church setting. It’s easy, we’ve recognized, to overemphasize teaching (focusing on the head) and neglecting heart and body.
“What we need when we’re in crisis,” I proclaim, “is more than just good theology because our thinking is not enough. We need spiritual habits to fall back on.” We’ve talked about how people often leave the faith or dwell deeper in it when crisis happens, and I’m musing about the spiritual practices we’ve mentioned: lectio divina and participating in liturgy, including the Eucharist. The two spiritual directors shake their heads and immediately disagree.
Those can mean nothing when you’re in crisis, they tell me. Spiritual formation happens in vulnerable community. Then, even when you have nothing left but gasping pain within you, at least you know you’re still God’s beloved because your community comes alongside you despite your thoughts, your anger, your apathy and despair.
This is good. How could I have forgotten those words? I had remembered in my own crisis of faith that my spiritual practices had changed from daily reading the Bible through each year to a quiet and eventually intimate time with God through lectio divina: slow, imaginative reading focused on listening. But that was only one factor of transforming faith during that time.
There was my community. My small group leader sometimes sat with me after our Bible study as I vented about the abuses of the Church or moaned about how so many contemporary American Christians had tacitly taken on their culture’s values. And he agreed and calmly reminded me of other more positive facts, giving me a broader, more complicated view of Christianity. He was gently amused one evening as I disputed with the son of a famous New Calvinist pastor that if David and Moses sometimes argued with God, then surely I could.
Spiritual formation happens in vulnerable community. What does this look like, I’ve been wondering? I’m a fan of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom on the importance of liturgy to challenge the deep rituals of our secular culture. I agree with him that liturgy brings us into the ongoing story of Scripture, able to shape our imagination and desires, but there is more.
My husband and I weave much of our teaching about Scripture and God (theology) for our daughters with historical church prayers. This is the way I had hoped to reach their hearts and not just their heads. But I have been somewhat mistaken. This is true only if our home is a safe place to talk (albeit age-and-boundary appropriately) about our hearts—only if, as I’ve heard spiritual formation scholar John Coe say in audio lectures, our kids are able to share the confusion or darkness with us and not meet shame, but grace.
Smith also writes about Christian education, in particular at his academic home, a Christian college. And I’ve been eager to embed spiritual practices into a Christian university classroom, such as silence and a regular reading from a book of prayers. But could my college classroom also be a safe place for vulnerability?
In the past, I know that my own moments of vulnerability have opened my students to talking more freely with me. Like the time I, as a single person, wistfully told a class that if only “Frederick Buechner was thirty and single” … and then trailed off when I saw their massive eyes and open mouths. Yes, college professors have desires just like you. Or the time I said, “This idea of doing all things to God’s glory is exhausting to me. There’s gotta be a better way to understand or think about it” to the shock and pleasure of a table surrounded by seniors. Professors get tired too.
And I’ve failed miserably. In a discussion on Bible translation in a linguistics course, I shut down a conversation when a student began to question the validity of the Scriptural canon. I was scared. I didn’t know enough about the subject to respond quickly and articulately. What if I made a mistake? What if I looked like a fool and caused other students to doubt? How much I look back and wish I had said, “This is good.”
This is good. This is something to think about. I don’t know a lot about this, but what if we each did some research and talked about this tomorrow? I know this might be an intimidating topic, but talking about it could strengthen our faith. I wish I had had the courage to love. I wish I had had the humility to be vulnerable. I wish I had trusted God, and maybe there would have been more hard questions, and more prayer, and more formation for all of us.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.