Tag Archives: vulnerability


Vulnerability as a gift

Every winter, my church participates in a rotating shelter program for people who are homeless; this year, thirty men are staying with us for a week.

Our parish school closed years ago, but for this one week, classrooms are converted into bedrooms, the gym into a cafeteria, and a large meeting room into a gathering space with televisions, games and snacks. It is an excellent example of repurposing.

I love the outpouring of generosity this program elicits, as parishioners step up to serve as hosts, prepare meals, provide transportation and do laundry. The planning for this week is spearheaded by one couple who start months in advance to make sure they have enough volunteers lined up to meet the needs of our guests this week.God-vulnerability-serviceMost nighttime shelters are set up for sleeping, and the people who are staying usually have to leave for the day. The rotating shelter program operates under the same rules, but holidays are the exception.

On New Year’s Day, I was one of four volunteers who spent the afternoon with our guests.

The day before, I was aware that our guests were arriving that evening. Throughout the day, I held the guests, organizers and volunteers in prayer. I was conscious of how blessed I am to have a home with heat—and to earn enough money to be able to pay my heating bills. All day, I thanked God for my blessings.God-vulnerability-serviceTwice in my life, I have been without a home and had to rely on the generosity of others to have a place to stay. Both times, I was humiliated and felt incredibly vulnerable; and I did not like it.

So being able to offer hospitality to others through this program is especially meaningful to me.

The afternoon started with lunch in the gym/cafeteria. Each table was decorated with a small bouquet of fresh flowers, creating a feeling of spring inside—in sharp contrast to the sub-zero temperatures outside. I sat with two other volunteers, and after we had finished eating, one of the guests came to our table and offered to clear away our dishes.

“Thank you,” we each said as he carried away our trays.

“I like to help,” he commented.

Being vulnerable and needing to rely on the generosity of others can create the sense of being a taker, of having little or nothing to offer. It took me a long time to understand the gift of vulnerability—the gift of seeing myself as being an opportunity for others to be generous.

My time as host on New Year’s Day included refilling water pitchers, replenishing snacks and helping guests with their medications. Last summer, I learned to play Euchre (a card game that is popular in Michigan), and I spent part of the afternoon in a Euchre game.

I can think of no better way to start the New Year than to put myself at the service of others, and also to be an opportunity for someone else to serve.



Open to the unexpected


My father could be quite the bigot. He thought that anyone who was not Polish was somehow less than. My grandparents all came from Poland, and in my dad’s eyes, Poles were a superior race. He could go on and on about the inferiority of other races—Italians, Irish, etc.

But his two closest friends were Irish and Italian. How did he reconcile that?

When he was disparaging people from Ireland and Italy and I would ask about his friends, he would say, “That’s different.”

He felt similarly about people of African descent. But, when he was much friendlier with our new African-American neighbor than he had ever been with our old Polish neighbor, I asked how that made sense to him.

“That’s different,” he said.

My father could differentiate good people from bad—despite race or ethnic heritage. Our old neighbor, the Polish guy, was not a very nice man. He was the kind of person who yelled at kids playing in the field next to his house, the kind of man our mother told us to avoid.

Our new neighbor, the African-American guy, was the opposite.

Skin color and ethnic heritage had nothing to do with it. The same was true for my dad’s close friends. Because he saw them as individuals, their ancestry did not get in the way of their friendships.

Jesus healing the ten lepers and the one foreigner who came back to give thanks reminds me of my dad’s biases.

I can imagine this scenario today with a Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister, Rabbi, Imam or any other religious leader, healing ten people—nine of whom are from their religious tradition and one is a foreigner—an outsider, someone who is seen as other than, perhaps from some demonized group. And only that foreigner, that one who is thought of as less than, comes back to say thanks.

We can get caught up in believing we know how people will act and react based on some preconceived notions. We can rationalize our prejudices and excuse ourselves when we condemn whole groups of people.

During Advent, we reflect on Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist—Biblical characters who could easily be looked down upon and judged as less than because of their life circumstances or ethnic background.

Mary was an unwed, pregnant teen. John the Baptist lived in the desert and proclaimed a radical message. Mary and Joseph were relegated to sleeping among the animals.

Yet, we celebrate John the Baptist for speaking truth to power. But today, people who do the same are likely to be castigated. Pregnant teens, homeless people and refugees are more often thought of as problems to be solved than people we can learn from. We can use the word foreigner as an slur.

Jesus challenges our preconceived notions and invites us to be open to and surprised by the unexpected.

And as my dad’s experiences taught me, moving past biases opens the door to unexpected relationships that make life richer. advent-God-vulnerability


Getting my attention

When my friend Jim had brain cancer, many people sent him cards and notes. I thought I had gone through all of them, and then I found one more box. In it, I found this:

The Brick

 A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something.

As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick smashed into the Jag’s side door! He slammed on the brakes and backed the Jag back to the spot where the brick had been thrown.

The angry driver then jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car shouting, “What was that all about and who are you? Just what the heck are you doing? That’s a new car and that brick you threw is going to cost a lot of money. Why did you do it?”

The young boy was apologetic. “Please, mister, please. I’m sorry but I did not know what else to do,” he pleaded. “I threw the brick because no one else would stop.”

With tears dripping down his face and off his chin, the youth pointed to a spot just around a parked car. “It’s my brother,” he said. “He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair and I can’t lift him up.”

Now sobbing, the boy asked the stunned executive, “Would you please help me get him back into the wheelchair? He’s hurt and he’s too heavy for me.”

Moved beyond words, the driver tried to swallow the rapidly swelling lump in his throat. He hurriedly lifted the handicapped boy back into the wheelchair, then took out a linen handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes and cuts.  A quick look told him everything was going to be okay.

“Thank you, and may God bless you,” the grateful child told the stranger.

Too shocked for words, the man simply watched the boy push the wheelchair down the sidewalk toward their home.

It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was very noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door. He kept the dent there to remind him of this message: “Don’t go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention!” God whispers in our souls and speaks to our hearts. Sometimes when we don’t have time to listen, He has to throw a brick at us. It’s our choice to listen or not.

A sticky note was attached: “I know you don’t need this, but someone you know might.”

In the ways that brain cancer got our attention, slowed us down and shifted our focus, I think it was a brick.

This Advent, I am praying to be aware of the ways God is trying to get my attention.






Falling apart

I think most of us have had something painful or difficult in our lives, experiences we might rather move away from (quickly) rather than examine for life lessons. My living in l’Arche was like that for me.

l’Arche is a Christian community where people with and without developmental disabilities live together and create community. Sounds idyllic, right? For some people, it is. But I was not one of those people. For me, living in l’Arche was very painful.

My plan had been to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life. I had quit my job, given away my furniture, packed the rest of my belongings into my car and headed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I quickly realized, though, that my plan was not going to work out, and I left the community before my first year was up.

I was devastated—and humiliated and angry. This was the most difficult and painful situation I had gone through—and I had gone through some pretty painful things.

I think what made this more difficult was that I had brought it on myself. No one had coerced me or forced me. I had decided to go to l’Arche. It was a decision I had freely made with prayer and planning—and then it did not work out.

Shortly after leaving l’Arche, I sought spiritual direction to help me process my sorrow and grief.

All of my hurt, disappointment and frustration poured out in that session. Tears of sadness mixed with tears of anger. I was confused and felt like I had just been through an extreme spiritual battle—a battle I had lost.

Did I give up too quickly? Had I not been persistent enough? Doubt wracked me.

“I think I am falling apart,” I said to the spiritual director.

“I think you are falling together,” she replied.

Her words stopped me cold.

Had I been looking at this apparent failure from the wrong angle? Was the whole point of my moving to l’Arche to break me down, to uncover what I had so carefully kept hidden? Was I meant to fall apart so that God could put me back together in a different way? Had this experience revealed deeper truths to me that I might not have learned any other way?

Laying out the pieces of my shattered dreams and allowing someone else to look at them was a turning point. Where I had been stuck trying to piece things together in one way, she was able to offer a different view. It was like a jigsaw puzzle—one where I could not see the whole picture.

Great mysteries are sometimes hidden in unexpected places.

Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on the hidden mysteries of our lives and to be open to growing in trust that God sees the whole picture of our lives.

More often that we might think, God is helping us to fall together, even when it might feel like we are falling apart.



Please don’t judge me

The fact that women are vulnerable is not new to me.

My dad was a cop, and when I started driving, he gave me the usual safe-driving talk. He also told me never to stop for a cop at night but to slow down, put on my blinker and drive to a gas station or other public place. He knew what some cops did to single women drivers in the dark of night.

I was forewarned that some men abused power, and I needed to be vigilant.justice-vulnerability-rapeMy supervisor at a temp job right out of college was a man in his late fifties. He often made suggestive comments to me, which was creepy, and after multiple pleas for him to stop, I went to his supervisor. “He is harmless; just ignore him,” was his advice.

I did not stay long in that job because I did not feel safe; I had no power or protection.justice-vulnerability-rapeEvery day now it seems that another powerful man is being called out for his dark deeds.

Please don’t judge me, but I am taking a fair amount of pleasure in watching these men being publicly outed—and imagining other men worrying if they will be next. Men who believed their power and/or wealth could protect them are now having to face the fact that they are as vulnerable as the women they abused.

It feels like justice has finally found its way to our world, and I am delighted to welcome her.

I was raped by a man who had power. His advice? “Don’t bother to tell anyone because no one will believe you.” I knew he was right and so I kept quiet. Why subject myself to a process that was not going to bring me justice.

In the intervening years, I have wondered if he has raped again, and how many times. When there are no consequences for bad behavior, people tend to continue behaving badly.

The guy who raped me apologized a few weeks later (we worked together). I am pretty sure that the hatred in my eyes told him he was not forgiven. As if a few words of contrition could erase the damage he did to me—the damage it took years to repair.

I remember thinking this must be his M.O.—rape and then apologize. As if that let him off the hook.

Now, all these years later, I wonder if he is wondering if I and the others he raped will call for accountability. Is he worried his life will be shattered by his dark deeds? Just imagining him squirm brings me pleasure.

The sweetness of it—that taste of justice.

Are we finally developing into a country where women matter? Will women no longer feel that we have to ignore or “get over” situations that feel unsafe? Do we now have credibility? Is the atmosphere changing so much that no abuser is beyond accountability?

This a form of climate change I can live with!





Getting ready

In my religious tradition, Christmas is a season that begins on Christmas Day. The weeks leading up to Christmas are a separate season—Advent.

Some years I am more attentive to Advent than others, and this year, I feel called to pay attention to Advent.

The differences between Advent and Christmas are easy to see. Advent is a time of waiting—just think of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. It is clear that something is about to happen, and family and friends eagerly anticipate the birth of a child. There may be some anxiety (it is possible that something could go wrong or not turn out as expected), but for most people, the expectant hope and joy outweigh the worry.

Christmas, on the other hand, is the time of celebration. To continue the analogy, the baby has arrived; it is time to rejoice.

In our culture, Advent seems to get overlooked, and we move right to Christmas (now as early as October, if we are to believe retailers). That would be like a woman who is only six or seven months pregnant acting as if her baby had already been born.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are often seen as a time of gearing up, but Advent really invites us to slow down and pay attention to the movement of the Spirit within.

I used to write bulletin reflections for a priest friend, and one Advent he asked me to encourage parishioners to resist the secular celebration of Christmas during Advent and to truly celebrate Advent.

I felt a bit guilty completing this assignment because I always unpack my Christmas mugs on the first Sunday of Advent, and every day of Advent, I enjoy coffee in a Christmas mug. Not very Advent-ish of me.

In my defense, I love my Christmas mugs and they get so little use (December and early January).

But, I wrote the reflection piece and gave some suggestions on celebrating Advent.

I have been pondering ways I might use Advent to get ready for Christmas. Some ideas:

  • Practice patience—check frustration, yield, wait;
  • Reach out to someone who is alone or lonely and offer companionship and comfort;
  • Seek forgiveness and reconciliation;
  • Take a break from some popular-culture activity that consumes leisure time (television, texting, movies, sports, etc.) and spend that time in prayer or service (maybe for just one or two hours each of the weeks of Advent);
  • Do at least one act of kindness every day, totaling twenty-two acts of kindness—hold the door for someone, offer a compliment, pay the toll of the person behind you, add something extra to tips, thank someone….it does not have to be extraordinary to be meaningful;
  • Save all Christmas cards and open them all on Christmas Day or during the days of the Christmas season (which ends with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, January 8, 2018);
  • Practice gratitude.

Advent offers quiet blessings and insights if we slow down and pay attention.Advent-God-gratitude




Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.