The Value of Vulnerability

by Rob Gibson

Post #2 in: Gleanings from a Sabbatical Journey: Chasing God and finding me

The dictionary defines vulnerability as: “capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt; open to attack, criticism, assault etc…”  Yikes, that sounds like something to be avoided!

Maybe, but vulnerability is the pathway to knowing, loving and receiving love. I know this because Jesus came to us vulnerable, to be known and to know and love us. He risked coming as a vulnerable human to the jacked-up, deadly world of ancient Israel. No doubt he knew it would be tough living with messed up humans and that our love would be fickle at best. Still, he vulnerably showed up and opened up. I get this intellectually, but is vulnerability worth the risk, for me?

On my journey I had a lot of opportunities to risk relational vulnerability. I think it’s always there, but I was more aware, maybe because I prayed the end of Psalm 139 and God gave me what I asked for.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting! 

(Psalm 139:23-24)

The search revealed hidden treasure in my heart and others. It happened with my wife as we read The Relational Soul and together answered challenging heart questions. I learned beautiful and tender new things about a women I’ve lived with for over 28 years! It happened with old friends who wondered how in the world Rob Gibson (hear that with astonishment) became a pastor, and I shared my story. It happened with family who wondered if I was loosing it and we talked about the struggle. The opportunities are abundant, but scary, because it involves heart exposure.

I want to be vulnerable with you and share my story, but it is hard. It’s a risk to expose my heart and let let you peer into my life and feelings that are real, sometimes raw, and deep. I’m trying to do this without posturing, posing or defending (more on my false selves another time).

I have one older brother and three older sisters. My brother is thirteen years older. When I was 5, he left for college and then the military, a natural progression for him. But that departure hit me hard, because I lost the presence of my big brother and I loved him deeply and likely idolized him at that age. When he left I felt very sad, abandoned, alone, and I didn’t have the capacity to put words or understanding around the loss. That began a journey to shut out sadness, the risk of relational pain and lonliness. More of each was coming, life brings it, but also all four siblings would leave home before I was ten. I entered life in a big family and by eleven I am essentially an only child. That was sudden sad aloneness in a family system that expected happiness (more on that in another post).

I became guarded, emotionally distant, subconsciously suppressing sadness and anger over the aloneness. As adulthood came I was physically distant from my brother and became emotionally distant from everyone, subconsciously protecting my heart. As grown men my brother and I were generally kind and enjoyed some superficial laughs together, though we had occasional fireworks as suppressed hurt would come flying out sideways. We were generally superficial, never really sharing the depths of life – at least I wasn’t. But this journey, which gave us a bit of time together, provided an opportunity to be vulnerably real.

One evening he asked me, “what is the purpose of your sabbatical?” Well, I said, “a part of this is rest from ministry and heart work” trying to give a pastorally abstract answer and move along to the chips and guacamole. “What will rest look like,” he says, “Gibson men don’t do that well? He continued, “And why are you going back to Wellsville and Canister (I shared I was taking a trip to our and my dad’s childhood homes in New York) – what is there for you?”

We were sitting at the bar in the kitchen in Colorado when the risk presented itself. I chose not hide the truth of the ache that was stirring in me. I skipped the logic of a sabbatical, which might have satisfied his sharp intellect and kept him distant. I risked exposing my burnout, my relational pain, the sense of loss, the deep sadness I felt in my soul. I told my brother that a lot of pain and sadness was behind me in Wellsville, a lot of loss and that a piece of it was connected to him.

“To me, how so” he asked. I told him how sad I was as a little boy and how hard it was to loose my big brother. My tears began flowing. I said “you meant a lot to me.” Grown men now in our 50’s and 60’s, tears filling our eyes, and he said, “I meant a lot to you? I had no idea I meant a lot to you.” I thought are you freaking kidding me?  I said, “You’ were my cool big brother, you were supposed to show me the way as a  boy – and then poof – you were gone and that left a huge hole in me.” We wept together. Our daughters eased away and looked on wondering what’s happening with our dads right now?!

Vulnerability sparked a deeper connection to love. It was a connection the little boy in me subconsciously longed for, but I couldn’t imagine. A couple steps on the path of vulnerability ignited a depth of love, care and connection that had been plowed over and buried for years. As I write this I’m crying again, because it was such a gift .

We have both been reasonably successful and have comfortable lives, enough toys and distractions to amuse ourselves regularly. We could have gone on existing in the status quo of superficial engagment. But I risked, actually we risked, and we experienced something tremendously more valuable than all the toys and success the world offers. I think deeper love awaits us in almost every human relationship, if we’ll press into it.

I know it doesn’t always work. Sometimes vulnerability will leave us hanging, exposed and unknown, uncared for and feeling unsafe. That possibility tempts me to hide at times, even though God is there for me. But sometimes I don’t hide because I want to experience more wholehearted love, God’s love, and I’m convinced it comes through sharing my story, my heart, my pain and my joy with other human beings. Maybe you long for wholeness, love and connection too?

Vulnerability is a pathway to life and love in the likeness of Christ – I’m growing at it.


This Rat needed to Stop Racing

by Rob Gibson

Following is the first post in what will be a weekly blog to unpack my sabbatical journey. It will be real, and sometimes that may get messy, but it is treasure that I want to share.  I’m calling it:

Gleanings from a Sabbatical Journey: Chasing God and finding me

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house,

and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;

in your light do we see light.  (Ps 36:7-9)

The idea for a sabbatical surfaced years ago, and I dismissed it. I never thought I would take one, as I didn’t plan to write a theological tome or feel “so weak” as to need that kind of rest and recalibration. After all, I worked for over twenty years in the corporate world and in the “real world” you just do it, hit the goal, beat last quarters numbers, conquer or be conquered. I thought this was part of manning up and earning the bragging rights and stuff to show you’ve arrived. Or maybe it was my misplaced sense of macho significance and a misunderstanding of true personal worth. It may too have been driven by my need to be needed and perform well.

Well, with those adversaries fighting in my head, I risked vulnerably asking for a sabbatical. It was not without a tinge of guilt, a sense of wimpyness and some concern that I’m not enough. Yet I was hungry for more from God, to grow and wrestle internal darkness and at least have a break before I crumbled, crashed or crushed others. I was running on fumes, and I don’t think they smelled sweet. A I was performing (more about in a future post) out of professional strength, not serving from a passionate, centered place in my soul. Looking back, I see now I was burnt out and closer to being toast than I realized.

The good news is I am not toast. The good news is God gave me more than I had imagined possible. The good news is I’ve learned sabbatical rest is not for wimps, but for humans. Humans with limits, who are broken, who get weary and worn. I am human and broken. You’re not surprised are you? Who was expecting super-pastor to fix or reform the world? Nobody, but me. That’s just a jacked-up internal story that drives me to race like a rat in an endless maze for cheese that never satisfies. This rat needed to stop racing and drink from the fountain of life (Ps.36:7-9).

The good news is I stopped chasing cheese and caught more of God. I experienced a deeper love and care from him than ever before, but it took going deeper into my own soul. The good news is loving Elders, a great congregation, friends, family and a tremendously supportive wife  gave me space and a tremendous healing gift.

I hope sharing some of my story and the treasure of the gift of this sabbatical will bless you.

Next week: Risking Vulnerability