Come As You Are

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

This week’s gospel reading is perfect for all the people who don’t have it all together. Now, I know what you may be thinking: that means all of us. Right? Of course, except that we’re not all ready to admit it, and I’d wager that at one time or another that also includes all of us.

Some of us can’t admit our need because we’re too invested in having it all together — or at least in looking like we’ve got it all together — to admit that we actually don’t. It’s too scary, too frightening, to be that vulnerable. What if someone else notices or tries to take advantage of us? Or, maybe it’s just that the world would seem too unbearable if we admitted for a minute that we’re not on top of it. I’ve felt that way at times.

Some of us have a hard time admitting we don’t have it all together because we’re convinced that others need us to have it all together, and we don’t want to let them down. Vulnerability doesn’t feel like an option because, quite frankly, we’re not sure those we love would make it without us. We haven’t checked that assumption, haven’t explored whether that’s fair to them or to us, but we’re pretty sure it’s true and, by now, that’s become part of our identity. I’ve felt that way at times, too.

And some of us know we don’t have it all together, but find it hard to admit because we’re pretty sure that’s an unacceptable option to those around us. What would people think? We probably haven’t checked that assumption either, but given the huge emphasis on success, on getting ahead, in our culture, we’ve gotten used to a front 24/7. It’s exhausting, but what’s the alternative? I’ve felt that way, too.

So what about you, Working Preacher? I mean, it seems to me that if we’re going to ask our people to admit that they don’t have it all together, we need to be prepared to do the same. And yet “omni-competence” is the third word the job description most of us have written for ourselves (right after “faithful” and “really good preacher,” of course ?). Doesn’t admitting that we don’t have it all together — and I don’t mean admitting it intellectually, the way we did when reading the first sentence of this column — but really owning the fact that we have needs beyond our ability to meet just a little terrifying?

If so, then read on. Like I said, this reading is perfect for all those who don’t have it all together.

There are three main characters Jesus attends to in this story. It’d be cool if they fit the little triptych I painted above, but I’m not sure they do. That’s okay, though; they’re still important people to learn from.

Jairus is a leader, a leader of the synagogue, who comes to Jesus for help. Remembering, of course, that all of Jesus’ disciples and early followers are Jewish, it’s probably also safe to assume that some Jewish leaders also found his message attractive, even as some didn’t. So it’s not that Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, that’s significant, but that he’s a leader of the synagogue. And leaders are trained to be competent, to get things done, to keep it all together. Until, that is, your little girl gets sick, really sick, maybe even sick unto death. I’ve got a twelve-year-old daughter, too, and I can’t imagine the desperate agony of watching her dwindle away, disappearing before my eyes in the grip of illness.

Actually, I can imagine it, which helps me understand why Jairus’ runs to Jesus himself, instead of sending an emissary, as a leader normally would. I can understand why Jairus throws himself at Jesus’ feet, rather than address him as an equal. And I can understand why Jairus doesn’t inquire, or politely ask, or even petition, but begs Jesus to come. He’s desperate; his love for his daughter has left him utterly vulnerable.

The woman is nearly the exact opposite of Jairus. She is not a leader and has no social standing in the community. Moreover, she apparently has no advocate to beseech this teacher on her behalf. And if all this isn’t enough, she’s also ill, bleeding for twelve years. Mark doesn’t make a point of her impurity or isolation from the community, but because this was most likely vaginal bleeding it would have rendered her impure and, just as important, likely unable to bear children. So she, too, has been rendered desperate and for this reason braves the crowd seeking only to touch the cloak of this healer whatever the potential cost.

And then there’s the little girl. It’s easy to forget about her. She’s twelve years old — an important age, as it signals the onset of menstruation, of gaining the ability to bear life, of adulthood. Yet she may never see it. She, too, is utterly vulnerable, though she is in no place to do anything about it.

Three characters that Jesus touches. Each in their own way vulnerable, each in their own way desperate. Which one do you identify with, Working Preacher? The leader who finds that all the usual advantages and experience that go with his office suddenly avail him nothing? The one who has endured much and isn’t sure she can bear any more? Or the one who is helpless, utterly dependent on others? Which one do you identify with? Which one do our people identify with?

Our inclination at this point — especially if you have been considering a more participatory style of preaching — may be to ask our people to identify where they feel vulnerable, to admit that they don’t have it all together, even to name their own points of desperation. But I have a hunch that this will be too much for most people. And, quite frankly, it would be for me to do at church. That kind of candor takes a level of trust that, quite frankly, is difficult to muster in a public setting.

But there are two things we can do. First, we can begin to change the way we think about vulnerability. We tend in our culture to avoid vulnerability — to admitting that we don’t have it all together — because of the way it can leave you feeling exposed, desperate and, well, vulnerable. And there is something of that in these stories. But we’ve also seen that only in admitting our vulnerability are we able to receive help, and only by owning our moments of desperation are we willing to try something out of the ordinary, discover the courage to be and act differently. So perhaps admitting need isn’t the end of the world we think it may be, but just the end of the world we’ve constructed (or had forced upon us). And as the world of self-imposed or culturally cultivated perfection crumbles around us, we’re invited to enter a new world of mutual regard, acceptance, and inter-dependence. And we can start to describe that world, even name it the kingdom of God.

Second, we can pledge to work at being communities where you don’t have it all together. There are manifold ways we can do this, I suspect, and you’ll have far more ideas than we do. Maybe we can encourage people to “dress down” for church this summer, kind of an invitation to come as you are. Maybe folks can wear what they wear to work, or when they’re relaxing, or when they’re doing the things they most love doing, the things that remind them of who they really are. Or maybe we can take a pledge — right there on Sunday morning — to become the kind of community that accepts limitation and honors vulnerability. In this way we can perhaps move toward being the kind of safe place and caring community where we can come as we are rather than keep pretending to be the person we think others want us to be.

I don’t know all what to do, Working Preacher, but I do know this is important. Because the only way to trust God’s great “I love you” is to first hear God’s equally important “I know you.” Because as long as we think we’re fooling someone — a loved one, a co-worker or neighbor, or God — we can never really trust that they accept us for who we really are.

None of this is easy, of course. Admitting our need, our vulnerability, can be scary. And I know I can’t do it by myself. But I think that’s part of the nature and import of the Body of Christ and community of faith — that together we can create a place to admit our vulnerability, to share our hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments, so that together we may speak and hear word of God’s amazing grace, unfailing acceptance, and unrelenting mercy.

Thank you, Working Preacher, for being one of the heralds of this grace. And, don’t worry, you don’t have to have it all together to do it!

Yours in Christ,