Holy Barefoot Vulnerability (or what to do with a burning bush): A Sermon

Exodus 3:1-15

3Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’

13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ 15God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever,
and this my title for all generations.

——————–

A number of years ago, a tired, dusty group of Christians from Atlanta, GA found themselves sitting in a circle at twilight, in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Piedras Negras, Mexico. They were halfway through a week long mission trip and they were gathered on this warm July night for an evening devotional. After prayers were said, the devotion leader instructed the group to get into pairs and wash each other’s feet.
I was there. I was thirteen years old and it was my first mission trip and this footwashing devotional caught me totally off guard. Of course I knew the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, but I had never seen it done by modern Christians.

I was not a fan of feet even on a good day, but this discomfort multiplied exponentially at the thought of dozens of pairs of dirty, sweaty, mission trip feet. I didn’t want to show mine or see anyone else’s—let alone touch them. And on top of all of that, I was paired with my youth pastor, Shannon. I was struck by our inequality. I was just a kid—up to no good by myself in a foreign country. She was a grown up—and a pastor no less. How could I let her see and touch and clean my dirty, kid feet? And how could I dare to hold and clean hers? The whole thing just felt so… vulnerable.

But we did it, and as we did, I felt something powerful shift inside of me. Something that made me wonder if my discomfort—my vulnerability—might just have been the point. I have rarely felt more seen and connected to another person, and to God, by such a simple act. Memories of this moment came flooding back to me as I read and sat with this story of Moses and the burning bush.

If you had to name the weirdest thing about this story from Exodus—the obvious answer would have to be the fully inflamed shrubbery from whence the voice of God speaks. But honestly, as I read and reread this text—that’s not the part that tripped me up. Over and over again, I found my mind drifting back to this line instead: “Moses, come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

And even now, all these years after that footwashing in Mexico, I found myself thinking—why does it have to be feet? And why does it? Why does God require Moses to remove his sandals to approach the bush? To stand on holy ground? Maybe it’s just a matter of respect or tradition or obedience. But I don’t think so.
Because it must have felt weird for Moses to stop in the face of this burning bush and toss off his sandals. To draw closer to it and the voice of God, feeling the grains of sand and rocky pebbles and brush poking into the sensitive skin of his bare feet, to feel the heat from this fiery bush gently licking the tips of his toes. It must have felt disconcerting. It must have felt, at least a little bit… vulnerable.

And I am left wondering, once again in this story, if maybe that vulnerability is the whole point. Without his sandals on, Moses can’t just be a bystander, an unaffected onlooker to this bizarre, revelatory scene. He has to feel it—feel the ground beneath him. And without his sandals, he can’t make a quick escape either if things get too weird or too uncomfortable. Barefoot and vulnerable, standing on holy ground, Moses is all in. He is fully bound up in the message and call that God has for him. He’s in it.

Moses isn’t alone either, in his exposed, vulnerable position. God is there. And God, remarkably, gets vulnerable too. Just a few verses after the command for Moses to remove his sandals, he drums up the courage to ask God’s name. This was no small request. In his context, to have someone’s true name was to have immense power over them. It is hard to imagine the omnipotent God of all creation giving a plucky sheepherder such power. And yet, God does. “ehyah asher ehyah” God reveals as God’s name: “I am who I am.”

And so God comes to the place where God has also called Moses—into shared vulnerability. Only then can God compel Moses to lead the Israelites to liberation. Only then can Moses fully see God as one to be trusted—one who really “knows the suffering of God’s people.”Only then can Moses fully see the trouble his people are in, and fully see his part in that story. Only in vulnerability, open and at risk, can Moses feel the full weight of his faith and what it calls upon him to do.

I am wondering if it is not so much that Moses must remove his shoes and become vulnerable because he is on holy ground, but rather that the vulnerability shared between him and God is what makes the ground holy.
This is, of course, a fairly radical idea. The notion that vulnerability, willingly shared, is an essential virtue is, frankly, counter-cultural for today’s world. We are taught that vulnerability is weakness. That weakness is brokenness and that brokenness is bad. And we are taught to value a strength embodied in invincibility and unaffectedness.

But this story of Moses and the burning bush says otherwise, and it is hardly the only time in the bible that God suggests another—even opposite—way. Look at the divine human footwasher himself. Jesus is the very embodiment of God making Godself vulnerable to be in relationship with us. Jesus is God entering into the vulnerability of a crying, homeless baby born into oppression and danger. Of a rabbi risking his life to call out injustice and stand with those in the margins. Of a teacher washing the dirty, cracked, world-weary feet of his followers. Of the Son of God, trembling on the cross, bearing his pain and his doubt for all the world to see. Of the One risen up, who returns in body to his friends and lets them touch his still open wounds. This is the one we look to as the way, the truth, and the life. And his way, counter-cultural and uncomfortable as it is, is one of vulnerability.

So Moses and Jesus are called to vulnerability. Holy barefoot vulnerability. But what does that mean for us?
When I came up to Fourth last Spring to interview for this position, most of what I knew about this city came from the show E.R. and a popular book and movie called Divergent. Set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, Divergent shows a society that has been divided into 5 factions of people based on the virtue that each group believes will best solve the world’s problems. At the beginning of the story, teenager Tris Prior makes the controversial choice to leave behind her selfless home community, Abnegation, and joins Dauntless, which values courage. In Dauntless, Tris and her friends go through physical and mental training to purge themselves of all weakness, fear, and vulnerability.

In a climactic scene, Tris finds herself face to face with the person she loves, who has been brainwashed into thinking she is the enemy. Everything she’s been taught tells her to block out her feelings, her empathy, her love, her fear, and just kill him to survive. But she doesn’t. Instead, she risks everything to let him really see her. She compels him to call her by name and remember that he knows who she is. In the end, it is not Tris’ detached strength, but the shared vulnerability between them that breaks the spell and saves them both.

Here’s the thing: Just like in Tris’ world, we are learning that our typical culture of invincibility and disconnectedness isn’t working. It doesn’t make for a better or safer—let alone holier—world. Instead we see gunned down black teens and children and angry heartbroken communities. We see abuses of power in our own neighborhoods and escalating violence in Ukraine and the Middle East and the world over. We see those who are struggling, beg for help from neighbors whose eyes are averted and hearts closed. We see families torn by conflict and loved ones lost to mental illness and addiction. Violence, pain, isolation, hopelessness. Inequality, oppression, exploitation and indifference. I am confident that we cannot strong-arm our way out of this mess. I am confident that God doesn’t want us to.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, the shooting of Mike Brown and unrest in Ferguson, Brene Brown—a research professor who has extensively studied and written about vulnerability, posted the following on her blog:

“When confronted with news of a stranger’s unimaginable pain – a suicide, an overdose, a protest for justice and basic dignity – we have two choices: We can choose to respond from fear or we can choose courage.

We can choose to believe that we are somehow insulated from the realities of these traumas and that our willpower or our strength of character makes us better than these displays of desperation and woundedness. When we seek shelter in the better than – safer than – different than thinking, we are actually choosing fear and that requires us to self-protect and arm ourselves with judgment and self-righteousness.

Our only other option is to choose courage. Rather than deny our vulnerability, we lean into both the beauty and agony of our shared humanity. Choosing courage does not mean that we’re unafraid, it means that we are brave enough to love despite the fear and uncertainty.”

These days, it feels like the whole world is on fire. Like it is one great, big burning bush. And we—you and I—are like Moses, tiptoeing closer—unable to tear our eyes away from the strange, disturbing sight. We cannot turn away and ignore it. We cannot shut our eyes and unmake it, and we cannot simply walk up, feet and heart safely wrapped in an insulated sole, unaffected by the heat and the rocky ground of this wilderness.

God is speaking to us from these flames. God is calling on us to remove the sandals from our feet. Calling us to holy, barefoot, vulnerability. This calling does not ask us to embrace the vulnerability forced upon people by oppression, abuse and the brokenness of this world. We are called, rather, to a vulnerability that is willing and mutual. That asks us to cast off our chance at easy escape and the comfort of insulated, unaffected curiosity and privilege. We are being called to be seen—in all our weak and broken and beautiful humanity and to see others in their brokenness—to see the way the world is breaking them and us and the way we are participating in it. To cry out and ask why and how long?

Why are the children dying? Why is peace so impossible? Why are the claws of oppression and prejudice and injustice so deeply sunk into the fabric of our society? Why is the world burning and how long must it go on? We must ask the questions and feel the pain of their lament on the sensitive, weary, dirty skin of our feet and know in the depths of our souls that their answers matter—not just for other people somewhere else, but for us, for all of us. And then we must get really, really quiet, and listen. Then go where we are called.

It is a scary thing—you know—taking off one’s sandals in a world like this. It is a scary thing to let ourselves be truly vulnerable—to go all in. But this much we know: we are not alone. God is there to meet us. To be seen, and known, and named. To be vulnerable with us. And there in that vulnerable place, with the heat of a broken world singeing our toes and God with and for us all, only there can we really know what it is to be standing on holy ground.
Amen.

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The Root Whispers (a poem)

I can sometimes be
a little obsessed with flowers.
I dream about bearing fruit:
bright, delicious,
the star of the morning feast.
I love them, I guess, because
they catch the eye of the world,
and so much within me just wants
to catch the eye of the world.

But lately, I’ve been aching for roots.
Just the little tendrils that reach down
from delicate plants
to grasp the earth before them
and say,
“Today, I am here.
I am here.”

I have never been good about
valuing the quiet,
invisible things.
But I’m learning
that roots hold you together.
To yourself.
To the world.
And flowers fade,
fruit falls, and withers,
but the roots, they dig deeper
and stay.

Even when you’re gone,
and they’re gone,
the roots:
they’ve turned the earth,
in their own, gentle way.
They leave a whisper,
“I was here.”

I’m learning to dream
about whispers.

Mental Health and Ministry: Confessions of a Decently and Disordered Pastor

I have been afraid to post this particular blog entry for years, but recent events both nationally (like Robin Williams suicide) and in my own ministry have compelled me to step up and speak and hope my transparency might be helpful for someone else who is struggling.

Here is a story I’ve never told anyone:

Four years ago, I stood with my then-boyfriend outside of Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. I had recently joined a small Thursday night bible study there and had even attended worship on a few Sunday mornings. Eventually, this would become the congregation that saw me through seminary and my ordination process. They would become a special part of my Christian family. But on this Sunday morning, standing outside the fellowship hall, I was still new. I had been invited to attend a Rally Day brunch before the worship service and my boyfriend, who had surprised me with a visit after having moved away, agreed to come along.

Twenty yards from the front door, my world turned upside down. I barely felt it coming before suddenly I was having a full-fledged panic attack. The edges of my vision grew dim, my breath came in short, tight bursts, I felt certain my heart would stop at any moment and I would die, and—most humiliating for me—I was sobbing uncontrollably. My boyfriend instinctively wrapped me tightly in his arms and slowly but surely the panic passed. I don’t remember what happened next. The stark memory of that panic eclipses everything else, but I suspect that we went home.

I actually had a lot of anxiety around joining a new church when I moved to Austin, TX. That’s why it took me over two years to attend anywhere regularly. But this one episode stands apart in memory. In that moment, mere feet away from a building and community that now feel like home, I felt some of the worst anxiety I have ever known. Church, which for my entire life to that point had been my anchor and sure foundation, suddenly felt—without the slightest exaggeration—deadly. I have carried the trauma of that memory with me ever since.

I have Social Anxiety Disorder, which means that—despite being naturally extroverted—many social situations cause me extreme and occasionally even debilitating anxiety. This is not your typical, elementary-level shyness. This is irrational, sometimes uncontrollable panicked responses to something as simple as making as asking a salesperson for help or making a phone call—even to someone I’m close to. It is also having a nearly constant (though sometimes worse than others) destructive, delusional internal narrative: a voice undercutting me and distorting the way I perceive myself and my relationships. That I know it’s delusional only mildly softens its effects. The distortion still has exhaustingly destructive power.

I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder when I was about 16, and at its worst (during college), it kept me from venturing out of my apartment almost entirely for nearly 3 weeks. At the same time that I was told about my Social Anxiety, I was also diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and [re-diagnosed] with ADD. This unholy combo on their worst days and weeks have made hours of my day disappear with needless compulsions and devoured entire sleepless nights with obsessive thinking. I convinced my parents to let me see a therapist as a teen (with the absolutely essential advocacy of my youth pastor) for depression. My therapist told me my depressive symptoms were actually the result of untreated anxiety. Slowly but surely, I began the process of learning to manage these realities and take care of myself.

Not every night and day of my life is given over to the worst of these symptoms. Far from it. In fact, it’s been years since I’ve had a panic attack. I’m lucky. Even in my worst moments and days and months, I’ve been surrounded by multiple deeply supportive communities. I have almost always had ready access to mental health support. I’ve been able to afford medicines when I’ve opted to use them, and I’ve been able to find success both socially and professionally even when circumnavigating the barriers of my disorders. Perhaps most significantly, I’ve had multiple years of regular interaction with a dedicated, patient, and insightful therapist who knew when to push and when to hold on. These are things that should be a human right for everyone that needs them, but the continued stigma around mental health means that I have had them purely as a benefit of my privilege.

Even so—even with all this support and resource-access—the realities of my mental health and anxieties follow me around like a second shadow. In fact, it mostly feels like a persistent mesquito that eternally buzzes in my ear. I have become an expert at swatting it away with one hand while living my life with the other, but it always comes back. My anxiety always gets worse in periods of transition and higher stress, and that knowledge had me dreading the long weeks and months of getting settled in Chicago even while I’ve been beyond excited about this new opportunity.

There was a time when I was afraid that my anxiety—particularly my Social Anxiety Disorder—would keep me from being able to be a minister at all. How could I do my job when sometimes picking up the phone or going to visit a parishioner could induce sincere panic? I had—like most people, I think—an image of what it means to be a pastor and that image left no room for struggle, particularly when it comes to mental health. But last summer I worked for 10 weeks in a high intensity ministry context. And somehow (I like to think that it was by the grace of God), I managed my anxieties, did my job very well, and had an incredible experience. Even then, I don’t think I handled this aspect of my life as a pastor as well as I would have liked.

It wasn’t until this past year that it really hit home for me that being a pastor isn’t about being perfect or perfectly strong—it’s about being human. And struggling with mental health is a part of being human for many, many people—including Robin Williams and including me. Robin Williams’ death has been a reminder to me about the disparity between what we think mental health issues look like and their reality. In reality, people with anxiety or depression or mental illness or disorders look like our neighbor, our friend, our parent or child, our favorite comedian, and even our pastor.

The crappy thing about the stigma around mental health is that it creates barriers between people that further the isolation that our disorders or illnesses already foster. If there’s one thing that makes me truly believe that we live in a fallen world, it’s that on some level we all feel isolated and alone, and it hurts but we can never fully overcome it. I believe it’s the work of faith to a seek world where all of that broken isolation is overcome, and I believe it is my work as a pastor to tear down any barriers that further our separation rather than drawing us into the perichoretic, relational existence we were made for.

To that end, I am finally learning that, as a pastor and as a person, I don’t feel called to be perfect or untroubled or to pretend that I am. I don’t feel called to be strong all the time (which is impossible), but I can let others in and trust them to be strong for me and offer them the same. I think my own experiences with mental health gift me with an awareness as a pastor that anyone can be struggling and need help, love, and grace. Every tiny mesquito wave of anxiety reminds me to consider others who are struggling, even if that struggle is invisible to me or the world.

I don’t feel called never to struggle, but to struggle well, to be vulnerable and open in my living, and to love gracefully—both others and my own beautifully imperfect, disordered self.

A Love Song for Lake Michigan

My first love was the ocean.
She wrapped me in her vastness
And rocked me with her slow, eternal movement
Like an ancient mother, like a goddess
She buoyed up the part of me
That is a part of all things
And drew me to her
Like my heart was a ship
With its anchor lost in her depths.

I have never lived farther from the ocean
Or closer to the shore.

I have wondered since I got here
If I would love her the same
This Midwest Lady, this great lake.
But the truth is
I don’t.
Not the same.
Not that deep and unchanging tidal longing.

She is different, see.
She’s lighter in her dance
And more transparent
The light shines through her
Like she’s made of eyes wide open
She’s lively and refreshing
With an independent spirit.

And love her I do
In all her thousand hues
Cerulean and aquamarine
And stormy shadow gray.

But I do not love her constantly and samely
For she is always new
And so I love her newly, over and over and over.

When she greets me in the morning of each day
I fall again into her changing beauty
And remember all over
What it is to be captivated
And to love at first sight.