Rising Strong – Dec 10, 2017
Throughout 2017 I participated in a fun and sometimes silly competition called Participaction’s 150 Playlist. In honour of Canada’s 150th year, Participaction put together a list of 150 different activities representing Canada and encouraged Canadians to sign up to track their activities and be entered to win prizes. I didn’t win any of their prizes (at least not yet!) but I did have a ton of fun participating in a whole variety of activities, many of which were new to me. As people asked about the experience along the way, I started saying that mostly, it was an opportunity to be terrible at a lot of different things.
Laughing at myself was critical. But there was more too… as the competition wrapped up last weekend, I posted some of my key learnings on Facebook. The key one is that the first time you try something new, you fail… you don’t hit the target, you don’t catch the ball, you don’t score a point, you fall over. But after you fail, if you keep trying… practice for a bit… fail a few more times, after about 20 min, you start to get it. This was true even, or especially, when someone who already knew how to do the activity made it look easy. “How hard can it be?” is soon followed by “wow… who knew it would be so hard?!?” The key point is that success is necessarily preceded by failure. It is only by trying and failing that we learn. Theory… understanding the rules… book study… will only get us so far. When it really comes down to it, one just has to give it a shot, fail, and try again.
This process is what Brene Brown elaborates on in her 2015 book Rising Strong. The book is the third step in the progression of her work, beginning with her book The Gifts of Imperfection and its essential message to “Be you.” Next came her book Daring Greatly and its essential message to “Be all in.” The third book, Rising Strong, details the outcome of the first two… being you and being all in means you will fall. The book is about getting up and trying again. Underlying it all is a basic human yearning to live a wholehearted life, which she describes as “engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.” (xix, italics hers) It’s the difference between feeling guilt and feeling shame… guilt is “I have done wrong.” Shame is “I am wrong.” Shame is destructive and paralyzing. Guilt, on the other hand, doesn’t impact our fundamental worthiness and can actually be productive by showing us the way to newness of life.
Today we hear “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is the first verse in the Gospel according to Mark and it makes the focus and purpose of the story clear. This is a good news story. And it is a story about Jesus the Christ, God incarnated on earth for the salvation of the world. This first sentence, the thesis statement, is then grounded in ancient history, tradition and wisdom. There is a combination of quotes from Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi… prophetic statements of encouragement for the people of God from 3 distinct time periods: the wilderness wandering following the escape from Egypt; the time of the exile to Babylon; and the struggle to re-build, re-form and renew the community following the return to Jerusalem after the exile. Three different times of trouble and three promises that God will once again show the way to new life in the community.
This latest incarnation of the ancient promise comes in John the baptizer. Like the prophets before him, he too speaks from the midst of the wilderness and like the prophets before him, he speaks a message of repentance and forgiveness. There is something about him that compels “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” to go out to him, out to the wilderness, to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, and to confess their sins. It seems odd… a call to repent and be baptized doesn’t sound so compelling. Few people today jump at a chance to confess their sins, much less to leave a familiar and comfortable life in the city or the countryside for a sojourn in the wilderness. So what was it about John and his message that was compelling? I wonder if back then, like now, familiar and comfortable lives in the city or the countryside aren’t as fulfilling or as meaningful as we might pretend. Maybe then, like now, too many of us are so busy hiding our shame and hustling for love that we’re exhausted and desperate for another way. God’s way. If we’ve tried everything else, then maybe it’s worth giving God’s way a try… even if it means a journey to the wilderness… even if it means we’re going to fail.
The people go, to be baptized by him and to confess their sins. Baptism affirms our fundamental worth as beloved children of God… and our confession of sin is our acknowledgment that we aren’t perfect. Each bolsters the other. We know we are already loved and forgiven, so we can be bold in admitting our guilt. We acknowledge our imperfection, so our guilt in wrong-doing can lead us to repentance… trying again after failing, doing something different, turning another way, getting up after falling. All this trying and failing and turning and getting up shows us that those things will define us only if we let them. Risking the same honesty as John… risking being ourselves and being “all in” in our own lives and our own communities – in this community – brings with it the possibility of discovering a greater love and a deeper acceptance than we first knew, even as we have already received the fullness of grace at our baptism.
“John” we’re told, “was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” There are no fancy clothes in the wilderness. There are no Michelin star meals. There is no pretense. The wilderness might be difficult, uncertain, full of struggle… but at least it’s honest. And maybe that’s a relief. Maybe that is what draws, compels, the people to go. For this story of John is a story of humility. Not low self-esteem or low self-worth, but true humility. John might speak of himself as unworthy and his manner of life might express a kind of poverty, but his actions demonstrate confidence, courage and a calm sense of acceptance. He takes on his prophetic leadership role without apology or excuse. He isn’t paralyzed with self-doubt, believing: “I am not worthy, therefore I can’t or won’t do anything, hoping that nobody will notice my shame.” Instead, he embraces that to which God calls him, and in doing so, recognizes his fundamental worth, while also recognizing he is not everything: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming… I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” If only he knew that the power of the one who was coming was in his vulnerability.
Like those faithful ones so long ago, let us heed John’s call to repent and be baptized, that our crooked ways of sin may become straight paths. We repent because we are already God’s beloved. We repent because it’s worth trying again. It only takes about 20 minutes to begin hitting the target, catching the ball, scoring points or winning the game. We only have to fail a few more times before we will succeed.
At the women’s Christmas potluck the other week, the representative from Aventa shared with us Brene Brown’s “Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted” (267) with which the book ends. It reads…
There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fear mongers
Than those of us who are willing to fall
Because we have learned how to rise
With skinned knees and bruised hearts;
We choose owning our stories of struggle,
Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.
When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.
We will not be characters in our stories.
Not villains, not victims, not even heroes.
We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.
We craft love from heartbreak,
Compassion from shame,
Grace from disappointment,
Courage from failure.
Showing up is our power.
Story is our way home.
Truth is our song.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong.