The original title I selected for this sermon was “A Book Everyone Is Reading.” Kind of a misleading title, I know, but it sets the scene for how I chose this morning’s topic. Following a sermon I gave earlier this church year several members of the church asked me whether I had ever seen the TED talk given by Brené Brown. Just so we are on the same page, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design and began as an annual conference on California’s central coast in which powerful thinkers in diverse fields such as science, art, business, technology, the humanities, and more are invited to give talks of 20 minutes or less and offer ideas that stimulate, provoke, challenge, and ultimately change the way we see the world. These TED talks became extremely popular and spun off a number of regional TED gatherings. (Most of the talks are available for free on the web.)
In 2010, Brené Brown’s talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” was a runaway hit and became one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, with more than 9 million views to date. Like I said, I had about a half dozen members of the church ask me if I had seen her talk. I kept running into her name seemingly everywhere I went. My wife Anne read all three of Brené Brown’s books and recommended them to me. I noticed that Brené Brown was being referenced and quoted in sermons in Unitarian Universalist churches across the country. Last week during church I announced that I’d be talking about her most recent book today and by the time I had the chance to check my email after the service, a member of our church had sent me a video link to a sermon from another church where Brown was mentioned. UU minister Rev. Naomi King says of Brené Brown’s bestselling book Daring Greatly, “Faith leaders and faithful people need to read this book and take it into home, congregation, and community. We need vulnerability to really lead lives of steadfast love.”
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead may not be a book that literally everyone is reading, but after running into mentions of it time and time again it certainly felt that way. So that is why I decided I’d pick it up, read it, and preach on it.
Brené Brown has a master’s degree and doctorate in social work and is a researcher who studies people’s stories. She explains the trajectory of her research this way. “I wanted to develop research that explained the anatomy of connection…. Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”
She continues, “Studying connection was a simple idea, but before I knew it, I had been hijacked by my research participants who, when asked to talk about their most important relationships and experiences of connection, kept telling me about heartbreak, betrayal, and shame – the fear of not being worthy of real connection.” She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
The course of Brown’s research led her to focus on studying shame. She wanted to learn about shame operates as a barrier to connection, but she found out that it was difficult to come at shame so directly with her research subjects. So, she turned the topic on its head and asked a different question, “What do the people who are the most resilient to shame, who believe in their own worthiness – [she calls] these people the Wholehearted – have in common?”
As it turned out, in her research of Wholehearted people who live lives of courage, compassion, and connection, she found a common trait they all shared. “The willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything – from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments – to their ability to be vulnerable.”
And, just to carry the story of Brené Brown’s research a little bit further, when she discovered that vulnerability, the ability to be vulnerable, was the common denominator shared among people who lived what she called wholehearted lives, she was upset. She hated being vulnerable. It was uncomfortable. It was potentially embarrassing. It was terrifying. She had cultivated a professional persona as an expert, as a clinical researcher. Vulnerability was something she went to great pains to avoid feeling and now her research was telling her that vulnerability was something that she would have to practice and even embrace if she was going to live into the fullness of the connections that make human life worth living.
So, just a couple of quick questions. I don’t need to see a show of hands here. How many of you are really uncomfortable with vulnerability? How many of you struggle with it? How many of you go out of your way to avoid it? How many of you establish elaborate defenses to minimize your vulnerability?
Brené Brown writes, “Our rejection of vulnerability often stems from our associating it with dark emotion like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment… What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of my research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
One of the ironic things about vulnerability is that even when it is a trait that we try to avoid, we find ourselves drawn to others who practice it. Two weeks ago, we lived this in our church service. Four members of our youth group spoke in a deeply personal way about the vulnerabilities they faced as teenagers. I think just about everyone in the room was drawn towards their openness, their courage. And, if we turned the tables, how many of us would be willing to stand up here and speak so vulnerably? I don’t mean when you were fifteen. I mean now. Or, you go to a concert and the band you love says that they’re going to play a new song they’ve been working on but have never played it live before. That’s vulnerability. That’s risk. And, we’re drawn towards this in others. Both the examples I’ve given have to do with being vulnerable in front of a large group of people. Vulnerability has to do with putting yourself out there, whether in a pulpit, or on a stage, or in a meeting, or with your beloved, or with something you’ve created.
Why is it so hard to be vulnerable? Vulnerability is both necessary for creating those real connections that we crave as human beings, and it involves the risk of being rejected for the true and vulnerable selves that we might share with others.
In Daring Greatly Brené Brown has an entire chapter on habits that we cultivate to avoid being vulnerable. Let me share a couple of them with you and you can sort of evaluate whether you identify any of these habits in your own life. One of the habits that she mentions is practicing what she calls “foreboding joy” which basically means that in the midst of experiencing something that we should find joyful and fulfilling we instead turn on a message in our minds of all the things that can go wrong. This hedging our bets distances us from connection and gives fear power over our vulnerability. Another way of resisting vulnerability is to practice numbing. Numbing can be anything we turn to in order to take the place of our authentic connections with other human beings. Numbing can take the form of an addiction, a compulsive behavior, or any tried a true way of distracting ourselves from our connections. A third way of resisting vulnerability is perfectionism. Perfectionism isn’t the same as having high standards. It is insisting of having control over all the variables before you open yourself up. It is a way of removing all elements of risk.
Reading this chapter on ways we armor ourselves against vulnerability, I found myself feeling, well, feeling vulnerable. To tell you the truth, I realized that I turn to all three – foreboding joy, numbing, and perfectionism – but especially perfectionism. Man, she had me nailed. In reading this book I saw how I practice perfectionism in ministry as a way of resisting vulnerability. A situation will come up where I have to respond to something difficult or challenging, a question will come up that’s hard to answer. And the voice inside of my head will say, “Thom, you should know the answer to this question. Only a fraud wouldn’t know the answer.” These questions are not like, “Do you know the combination for the lockbox to get into the church?” These questions are like, “What is the nature of God? What is the meaning of life? Why do people suffer?” And the voice inside of my head will demand that I not only offer an answer, but that the answer must carry the wisdom of the ages, must be brilliant, must be original, must be spoken poetically and with confident assurance. No fumbling. No hemming and hawing. And, in the quest to come up with the perfect answer, what I sacrifice is vulnerability. The ability to admit that these are hard questions. The willingness to admit struggle. Comfort with embracing mystery. Connection is increased by the vulnerability to wrestle openly. Connection is decreased by the insistence on having the right answers. It’s one of the ways I struggle with vulnerability.
All this discussion of vulnerability, shame, connection, and resistance can be applied to us as individuals. But, it also could apply to church communities and even to our Unitarian Universalist theology.
One UU church in the Midwest actually declared several years ago that helping its members to grow in vulnerability was one of its core objectives. It said, “Our members cultivate the ability to go deep quickly in small groups and to connect with others across differences.” That’s the language of vulnerability if I’ve ever heard it.
Goals like these are not only tied into helping us to live full lives as individuals, but they are also an expression of theological ideas about the nature of God and the Universe. The God of Universalism was a God of connection who condemned no one to hell. Such an understanding of the divine sees human vulnerability as strength rather than mortal weakness. John Murray, the father of American Universalism, is quoted as saying, “Give them not hell, but hope,” an appeal to a religion of connection rather than a religion of shame, fear, and judgment. Our UU seventh principle affirms that connection is the nature of our universe, that each is inextricably bound to all. Our place in the web of all existence is a place of connection.
I want to conclude this sermon by asking several questions: Are we a church community, are we a congregation, that fosters and promotes vulnerability? Are we a place where it is safe to be vulnerable? What would that look like? What would it look like to say “The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church” is a vulnerability leader in the greater Kansas City community? How would we regard failure? How would we regard error? How would we regard the sharing of ourselves? Where does shame live in our community and how do we become better resistant to it? Brené Brown’s book has me asking questions like this. I’m interested in your risky questions, your daring sharing, and the connection that vulnerability makes possible.