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.


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