The Perils of Being Jesus and Risk of Vulnerability

December 11, 2013

“Baby Jesus is missing and Joseph is dead!” This was how I greeted my husband last year as we swapped cars (and a toddler) at the gym. I had taken it upon myself to get out our Christmas decorations that Saturday morning. I have several nativities that I love, each of which was acquired well before my son was born. Without thinking, I put them out. And my then nearly two-year-old was immediately drawn to them.

I suppose as a pastor I should be grateful that he was drawn to them. But my son didn’t just look at these nativity scenes, he needed to touch them, hold them, carry them around. Because that’s what kids his age do.

The one I placed on the coffee table was a nativity advertised for children. And it was made of ceramic. (Some manufacturer did not think that through.) My son loved them. For quite awhile, he took each figure and held in his hands, examining each closely, babbling and smiling at the figures. He would put one down to pick up another.

Then I made the mistake of turning my back. And when I looked again, Baby Jesus was missing. “You can’t have a nativity without baby Jesus,” I said to my son. He blinked at me silently.

Then in a move that was entirely too swift for a one year old, he swiped up Joseph in his little hand, walked off the rug to the hard tile floor, held Joseph up in the air, and opened his hand. I am fairly certain if there had been someone recording the moment, they would have seen me in slow motion trying to reach out to catch Joseph while yelling, “Nooooo!”A sickening crash, a toddler clearly surprised at the destruction, and poor Joseph in pieces on the floor.

Toddler was in tears. Ceramic shards were on the floor. Joseph was clearly dead. And Baby Jesus was still missing. I posted this picture and the story on Facebook, “Joseph is dead and Baby Jesus is missing!” My friend, Jeff, casually wrote in response, “How’s Mary holding up?”

Joseph

******

Despite how comical the entire situation was, it made me think about the family of Jesus in a new way. As a child I had always sat with hushed concern whenever the story of Jesus’ escape to Egypt was spoken. How he was stolen away in the night to hide from the swords of Herod’s army. I was young when I realized with great concern that Jesus- the Son of God- was vulnerable. Very vulnerable.

When my son was born, it was the end of January. Only a month earlier, we had celebrated Christmas- me heavily pregnant and eager to be done with that! Advent had taken on a new meaning for me that year, as I waited my own baby and dealt with some difficult closures in my life. I understood longing and patience and waiting and aching in new ways that year. And then on the heels of Christmas, the Herod story. So all that was fresh on my mind when I held my little son, so new and smelling of heaven. He was so little, so sweet. He knew me the moment he touched me and I knew him from his movements as he laid beside me- so similar to what I had felt stirring in my belly for so long. My husband was in awe over him, but when he held him for the first few times, he would tense up, afraid of breaking this tiny little life that had interrupted ours. This baby, my son, was so vulnerable, so small against the vastness of the world. And I realized when he was born that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect him. As a parent, I have never been so fiercely protective of someone else. As long as he is vulnerable to the things that happen in this world, I want to be his defender.

The reality of vulnerability hits home often even to this day. How easily we can be broken- like my Joseph dropped to the tile floor. And one of the wonders of the incarnation is that God chose to be the same- to be vulnerable. Not simply as a human, affected by the heart rending events of this earth, but as a baby, red and wrinkled and squawking at the night sky. I often think of how the angels must have marveled to see Jesus this way. In theology, when we speak of Jesus “emptying himself” to be incarnate, we use the word kenosis. Kenosis tries to explain all that Jesus emptied out of himself in order to be fully human. Of course, as most theologians know (or should), we cannot really figure out all that he emptied from himself and what that meant and looked like. But it’s an interesting thought.

I wonder if we could say that the kenosis of Jesus involved emptying himself of invulnerability. Of the opportunity to remain apart from the affects of human frailty. And to think he willingly chose that makes me stop for a moment in awe. Because I don’t like to willingly choose vulnerability. I don’t like that despite my desire to protect my child from anything that might make him vulnerable to hurt, loss, sickness or pain, the reality is, I can’t. Becoming a parent may have made me stronger than I ever thought I could be on the behalf of another person, but it also made me aware of my limits in a deeper way. I know even more that I cannot protect my vulnerable child from everything; that I am frail and broken as well… and it can be agonizing to accept that.

I do not want to choose to do what Jesus did. And yet he did.

I wonder sometimes what that means for us. Is it more than simply acknowledging we are subject to the brokenness of the world around us? Maybe Jesus’ kenosis draws us to reflect on the ways in which we refuse vulnerability- not simple to the difficulties and tragedies around us, but to being honest about our inner demons, our struggles with doubt, our temptations and fears.

A dear friend of my recently posted a Facebook status that spoke about pastors needing to speak about the vulnerabilities of yesterday and not simply the vulnerability of years ago. It’s a good thought- but I’ll be honest… I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because as a pastor, I have risked vulnerability, and been burned by it. Hard. Unfortunately there are people, even Christians, who are more than ready to pounce when a leader dares expose a struggling heart.

And let’s get even more honest: it’s not just pastors who get burned. It’s most of us. Maybe all of us. Who dared to whisper a doubt, to question an answer, to wonder outside the lines, or maybe who threw it all out there with loud sobs and pleading prayers. And we get destroyed by the people we believed would love and know and hold us in our sobbing.

Who wants to be vulnerable after that? Not me. Many of us wouldn’t try again. Wouldn’t dare. That sort of betrayal cuts so deep.

And yet, the incarnation still speaks. The baby in the manger had come from the power of heaven. The newborn with his mother had ruled angels. That toddler playing near the Nile in Egypt? He was there when the stars were spoken into existence. And yet he chose. He chose to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable to a crazed king killing baby boys. To be vulnerable to the elements of a world waiting to be redeemed. To be vulnerable to a people who would not welcome him. To be vulnerable to rejection, betrayal, loss. To be vulnerable to the stress and tears that made him cry out to his Father to let something else happen besides a cross. To be vulnerable to the solder’s whip and the cold nails of execution. To be vulnerable to a cold dark tomb sealed up tight to keep him in. He chose that. He had a wisdom about how to be vulnerable, but he was still that… from manger to tomb. He showed us a new way to live apart from the fear of loss.

And I suppose, in our own feeble way, that’s our calling too. To follow him in the vulnerability regardless of those who may ridicule, or betray, or walk away. And to trust, like him, that the Father will indeed honor our openness, our honesty, our willingness to struggle, with resurrections in our own lives that remind us of who Jesus is: Christ in us, the hope of glory.

From the beginning, the Holy Family embodied this vulnerability to the world around them. And with that, a radical trust in the hands of the Father.  Because the truth is: to be radically vulnerable, you have be radically trusting.  And as we read in scripture, God honored the vulnerable trust they offered.

Last year, as I puzzled over whether I could glue Joseph back together (which I couldn’t), as we rescued Baby Jesus from between the couch cushions, I realized that often our attempts to protect ourselves from being hurt again affect the very way  we approach to God. The reality is that ceramic Joseph could have been me, or you, or any one of us, laying in front of Jesus, only so often we are desperately trying to pull our pieces back and pretend we aren’t broken. We do it because we mistrust God. We do it because we mistrusted the world we live in. We do it because mistrust the ability of people to hear our stories and to be inspired or accepting of them. We mistrust our own people- sometimes with good reason because fellow Christians, the people who claim to be with us on the same journey of faith, have betrayed us in deeply, painful ways. Gone are the days of radical honesty. It’s not that we are dishonest. It’s just that we are not forthcoming with our struggle.

And so at the close of last year, as I swept poor Joseph into the trash, I asked God to begin to teach me to trust radically in a new way. To trust myself, to trust him, to trust my friends, and yes, to even trust his people. I’m not Jesus, who seemed to have an endless reserve of vulnerability and radical trust. But I’m willing to learn. I’m willing to hobble along on my broken legs. To lead with a limp, as an author wrote years ago. To step back into my true self and true call and true place, a bit scarred from wounds, but trusting that you and I get to stand with God- the same God who carefully breathed life into humanity. The same God who chased down his people with overtures of his love and care and grace. The same God who knows all our doubts, fears, broken places, ugly cries, everything and never flinches at what he sees. We get to stand, brokenness and all, with the same God who perhaps marveled at the vulnerable baby in the manger outside of Bethlehem, listening as the angels sang their choruses and lit up the sky, and maybe, just making, smiling as he honors the brokenness in humankind with the presence of himself. To heal and make whole what is fractured and destroyed. And to guide we who are so lost in dark places back safely to his home.

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