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13 / Entering Fullness

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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

journal

The Courage to Be Weak

April 15, 2020



 

When I think of nature’s seasons, I remember the science classrooms of my youth. Relatively inexpensive, mass-produced VCRs and color TVs in 80s classrooms allowed students to see wonders surpassing the limits of historical human sight. Recent footage from NASA missions allowed us to transcend Space, while time lapse videos showed us the many miracles of life on Earth, transcending Time.

Sitting at a small wooden and metal desk, I saw Life and Death playing out their cosmic cycle before my eyes in “fast forward.”

Flowers bloomed explosively in firework displays of color. Fruit burst from those same flowers violently like popcorn popping before dropping suddenly to the ground. Peaches, apples, and pears then dissolved into black decay before sinking into the ground and disappearing without a trace. Next, the ground lost its color and turned white with snow before the white mass collapsed suddenly like a delicate soufflé. And then from that same ground, snaky, green shoots wriggled like angry earthworms rising towards the sky. 

I remember that image the most–the violent yet joyous transition from winter to spring, when an entire field of soybean tendrils wiggled and jiggled and grew–so weird and creepy, giving me those goosebumps that come when we watch writhing things. All these years later, this vision still haunts and excites my memory every time I think of transitions from times of scarcity to times of plenty, whether in the natural world or as a metaphor for the changes in our lives.

 

More than the snapshots

As humans, we most often seem to prefer a still-frame view of life, one that is punctuated separately by snapshots posted to our social media accounts and stored in the dusty vaults of our smartphones. Rather than a radically continuous process sped up on video, we see seasons fully separated into their representative images. Summer sunshine over water. Autumn leaves amid harvests. Winter white barrenness.

Spring, the time of rebirth, is a single gorgeous photo of violet crocuses and lemon-yellow daffodils already in bloom, fully saturated and photoshopped. It is a perfectly framed shot of a monarch butterfly, posed at the exact moment to impress. It’s a celebratory selfie in portrait mode that shows off our new clothes, hard-won tan, or trendy shade of eyeshadow, taken at just the right angle. It is the joy of finally moving forward after being fallow for so long, a time of “Phew, I made it. Come look at me now!”

What we tend to forget is the vital process of transition from winter to spring in our lives. For one, the thawing process isn’t sexy or fun.

Certainly all the struggle–those writhing shoots ripping through the hardened winter soil of our souls to reach the Sun–is best forgotten. It is easy to forget how we rise up from the cold dead ground of depression, stagnation, and of spiritual and psychological death to receive Life again. Even in the most godly of winters, where we are lying fallow and prayerfully getting ready for the next step in our journey, it is often difficult to make that transition forward. And it is in these transitions between the seemingly distinct phases in our lives where real magic happens.

So how do we rise up from the cold ground, burst out of the chrysalis, or spring forth to receive God’s promises in our lives? Whole libraries can be filled with all the how-to books and novels that deal with this question, and entire industries exist that are dedicated to helping others to grow. I couldn’t hope to do the topic justice in an article, but I would like to highlight two key areas that contribute to our rebirth in spring–active reception and courageous vulnerability. 

 

Actively Receiving 

To move forward, we first need to realize that receiving life really means receiving love and joy. In God’s Reality, our relationships are central to our growth and rebirth. When Christ was asked to name the greatest commandment, He said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40 [NASB]

Receiving love cannot be a passive or solo act. It never is. We must choose to love and to be loved. We must make a regular decision to pursue joy with others–to intentionally seek the good, the true, and the beautiful God has placed in this world–rather than succumbing to our fears.

Of course, this isn’t easy. Fear is our biggest enemy, a form of death that we experience every day. It is the essential animal trait writ large within the human psyche. And our experiences through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood often reinforce our fears and get us stuck living out protective but ultimately harmful patterns of survival we learned long ago.

It is no accident that one of the most common messages in the Bible is “fear not.” But even this statement can often be taken, in our fragility, as an admonition that produces guilt when we can’t achieve it. Yet I truly believe “don’t be afraid” is a statement of comfort and love and protection, like what we tell our children when they are afraid of something in our presence. 

 

Being Courageously Vulnerable

So how do we grow into spring when fears and the barnacles of our pasts weigh us down? How do we take that first step through the permafrost into the air again? It’s certainly not easy, as we can all look at ourselves or others around us for evidence. But there are good and true ways. One is to practice courageous vulnerability, laying your emotional and spiritual self bare for others. Know and feel your deep-down “primary” emotions–fear, insecurity, sadness, anger, joy, surprise–and share them with those friends and family you trust most. Then once you get used to that, share a bit more with them.

If you really want to find out your fears, read those last two paragraphs again. Chances are, like me, a whole flood of fears and insecurities and long-lived mantras surfaced in your mind and heart. Statements like what if I share who I am and get rejected?; What if he/she doesn’t understand or gets angry?; What if being vulnerable just opens me up to be hurt again/more deeply?; I could never tell anyone that; I can never be seen as weak.

Another of the central messages of the Bible is that God blesses and raises up the weak. Other than Jesus Christ, main figures in the Bible are shown to be pretty messed up…i.e., humans who are weak and miss the mark in sometimes spectacular ways. Often the ones that seem closest to God are shown with the most flaws. Ever hear of Moses? David? Peter? All misfits and knuckleheads. Like our family. Like our friends. Like our neighbors. Yet we are called to love them. This also means that they are called to love us in return and to share our burdens.

When couples go into marriage counseling, they are often led to share their deep-seated emotions–often called primary emotions because they are the most instinctual and are also the root of a secondary set of emotions. Fear, if not worked through, turns to anger or anxiety. Sadness leads to depression. And in turn, these emotions influence our actions and patterns and cycles that we get trapped into replaying.

Often the way out of these cycles is to break them with vulnerability. A wife hears of her husband’s feelings of worthlessness and can start to understand why (if not excuse) he avoids any topic that triggers them. A husband hears that his wife feels fears about money and starts to understand why she isn’t supporting his job change. They move closer to each other. They affirm each other. They try telling themselves a new story to replace the stories of rejection and attack. “I didn’t know he/she really felt that way. If only I would have known. I thought that she/he really hated me, but he/she was just scared.”

And while couple’s therapy doesn’t always lead to a positive solution in every situation, when it does, it is predicated on this sharing of vulnerability. In our other relationships, how meaningful and life-changing is a kind word said or a loving deed performed in the midst of being laid bare! God abounds in these acts.

Courageous vulnerability is the binding agent of deep friendship and love. It allows God and others inside to help heal and support and grow. It fights off the accumulated effects of fear. Fear causes us to add layers of armor to our souls and to hide. Much damage is done in this world when we create so many defenses from pain and fear that eventually these defenses keep us from both living truly and truly living. Having the strength to be weak is one way to break through that hardened, cold soil of winter into true spring again.

 

Enough for Grace

Flawed though you are, you are enough for God’s grace. And if you are enough to receive His grace, you are enough to receive human grace. So start by being vulnerable.

Find your tribe through those who love you because of your vulnerability. Build your community. Then choose to love them in their weakness and allow them to do the same towards you. Become strong in your vulnerability. Have courage. Your relationships are your accomplishments. Not your writing. Not your bank account. Not even your personal project or mission on this earth. Those are all important, but are little compared to the messy, hard-to-control areas of relationships… and the rewards of Love that can be found there even so.

“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” John 15:9-12 [NASB].



The featured image of a baby Juniper growing up through fallen leaves is (c) Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. This image was specially processed for Steven Elmore.



 

Steven Elmore

comments

  1. Steven

    I am so grateful for this piece and I love the courage and vulnerability with which you wrote it. I especially love these Good, true words:

    “Find your tribe through those who love you because of your vulnerability. Build your community. Then choose to love them in their weakness and allow them to do the same towards you. Become strong in your vulnerability. Have courage. Your relationships are your accomplishments. Not your writing. Not your bank account. Not even your personal project or mission on this earth. Those are all important, but are little compared to the messy, hard-to-control areas of relationships… and the rewards of Love that can be found there even so.”

    This is so important to remember. Thank you, friend.

  2. Matthew Cyr says:

    A lot of wisdom here to ruminate on… great reminders. This piece brings to mind a lot of other things that I love, like Doug McKelvey’s poem “As Weak,” or Andrew Peterson saying that ultimately the Real art isn’t what we make, but what God is making out of us. I’m glad you shared your thoughts with us, Steven.

  3. Thanks for so effectively filling out this truth Stephen, that “his strength is made perfect in our weakness”.
    Encouraged,
    Denise

  4. Steven Elmore says:

    Lancia, thank you for the kind words! It’s been particularly in the last five to ten years of my life that I keep finding myself reminded of that lesson. Glad I could share what I myself have been learning.

  5. Steven Elmore says:

    Matthew, thank you for your comment! It took a bit of courage to tell a group of artists/writers that their relationships are ultimately more important in god’s economy than their art (though the best art works in the realm of relationships and vice versa). i love the Peterson quote that Real art isn’t what we make but what God is making out of us. Thank you for sharing it! I had the pleasure to meet and talk with him a few years ago.

  6. Steven Elmore says:

    Denise, thank you for your compliment! His strength certainly is made perfect in our weakness. Makes me think that sometimes we don’t fully own the good elements of our weakness, because we are often so ashamed of the bad elements. Reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of how love is always a risk. The opportunities for the strongest love are created when we expose our weakness to others or are confronted with theirs… and then instead of running away or wagging our finger, we forgive each other and love despite. not that it’s always that easy, but it often is that simple.

  7. mary miller says:

    Yes! As a trained (not licensed) Marriage and Family therapist and having been in pastoral ministries since seminary I completely agree. Relationships!!
    We become fixated on matters which first of all, need to be left at the cross, and overlook the HUMAN in front of us. Money, health, work, security come and go. Christ remains. I am the first to confess guilt–I have often put work before people. Learning to Be Still and allow myself to truly “see” God’s inconceivable love for us, His sheep.

  8. Steven Elmore says:

    Thank you for your comment, Mary! Quite a bit of what I said came from my own experiences in counseling. It’s a blessing to hear affirmation from someone who works in that world.

  9. Kathleen Dunsavage says:

    Thank you Steve for sharing these words and giving the image of “writhing shoots ripping through the hardened winter soil of our souls to reach the Sun.” it is good to hear someone (you) talk so beautifully about the reality and sometimes recurring necessity to “rise up from the cold dead ground of depression, stagnation, and of spiritual and psychological death to receive Life again.” The second part on relationships still eludes me; thank you for being vulnerable and sharing reality.

  10. Steven Elmore says:

    Kathleen, it’s great to “see you” on here! Thank you for the compliments on those passages. They were descriptions of my own life experiences as much as anything else. Glad we hung out for a bit at Camp Allen, though it now seems so long ago given everything in the world at the moment! Thank you for the times you have reviewed/commented on some of my past work in progress. And thank you too for being vulnerable and sharing reality!

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