Living into Vulnerability

by Casey Hobbs

Asking for help is bold, even courageous. Asking for help requires a confession of neediness. It involves great vulnerability.

Perhaps this is why, when faced with a complex decision such as a marriage partner, a career, or even a calling, the easiest response is to internalize the process. Choosing vulnerability seems too risky. What brave soul would announce, even to his most trusted friends, that he cannot see clearly?

In recent times, it has become fashionable in certain circles to draw attention to vulnerability as a key attribute of godliness. This impulse to focus on authenticity, honesty, and transparency has deep roots in the church. This is true even if it has been  a long-forgotten virtue.

Where past generations focused on truth as objective reality, the current trend is to focus on truth as an inward reality. This, again, is an impulse to return to that which is thoroughly according to the way of Jesus. Still, there is much work to be done in the incarnation of vulnerability in the Christian community.

While there may be several starting places on the road to (re)discovering what it means to be truly vulnerable in the context of community, the church as a whole could benefit from a practice that has been quietly taking place for centuries. Since the 17th century, the Quakers have actively sought out the counsel of one another on life’s most pressing decisions.  The process of discernment that the Quakers have developed over the years is known today as a clearness committee.

The clearness committee is a two-hour session where three to four people discern on behalf of a friend who is in need of direction. Three elements emerge that can be helpful in any circumstance as those in the church seek to help one another.

1. Resisting the urge to fix
When a friend comes with a dilemma, it is only natural to offer well-meaning advice intended to alleviate their angst. But offering quick solutions to difficult problems can be damaging. People need to wrestle with questions that will shape the course of their lives, and giving friends support and enabling them to reach their own conclusions can be an invaluable gift.

2. Asking open and honest questions
Reflecting on the need for honest questions in the clearness committee, Quaker author and spiritual director Parker Palmer wrote, “The best single mark of an honest, open question is that the questioner could not possibly anticipate the answer to it…” This practice, of asking questions that do not anticipate an answer, allows space for the one being asked to mirror back openness to the one asking. If the church is after meaningful conversation, then beginning to ask open and honest questions of one another is a great place to begin.

3. Total Attentiveness
Each person in the clearness committee accepts the responsibility to be fully present throughout the process. With innumerable distractions available at a moment’s notice, imagine the gift that total attentiveness could bring into the lives of friends, family, spouse, children, and coworkers! This community vulnerability requires sacrifice, discipline, and focus.

The work of incarnating vulnerability takes intentionality, time, and practice. But by resisting the urge to fix, by asking open and honest questions, and by bringing total attentiveness to honor the vulnerability of others we can change the culture of the church.

The question then becomes: Will the church honor the boldness and courage that is required in asking for help, in admitting neediness, and living into vulnerability?

Casey Hobbs is the author of Trembling Love: Fear, Freedom, and the God Who Is for Us (Wipf & Stock, 2013).

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