Un-exceptional good

A friend gave some advice to a couple on Valentine’s Day — to do something special but without having to spend a whole lot of money.

“Just go to one of those card stores in the mall, and give each other all the time needed to peruse the hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards on the display racks. When both have found their favourite card with the perfect message to their loved one, each takes turns reading the card to the other.

“And then put the cards back on the display rack.”

An exceptional strategy of showing your love? Or, not?

The president of Princeton’s Theological Seminary was coaching pastors and congregations in how to build lasting and durable relationships.[1]In other words, he was giving advice on the art of making friendships and successful working relationships in the church, relationships that would stand the test of time.

You’d think that in order to form these relationships—at the attraction stage, the beginning especially—you would emphasize and focus on what is ‘exceptional’ in the other. You’d search out the strengths, you’d highlight the giftedness in each other, you’d try to seek to understand, if possible, how the person is exceptional in some way. These positive traits, you believe, provide the groundwork, the framework and foundation for building a strong and enduring relationship, wouldn’t you say?

They are a good cook. They are exceptional public speakers. They can fix anything. They are wonderful people-persons. They are passionate and gifted in making crafts. They are the best listeners, and most compassionate. They have the best bed-side manners. They are musically talented. They have such a quick and sharp mind. They are so physically fit like no other. Money is no limit to expressing your love … Exceptional!

And yet, despite our drive to show our exceptionalities, we eventually confront a truth that we cannot deny: No matter how hard we try to make these connections work, before long relationships will disappoint in some way. Especially if we’ve focused exclusively on how exceptional we are. And, especially in crisis when our first impulse is to show off and boast of the good. Eventually, the wounds in us will emerge. We can’t hide them forever. They will show.

This rather absurd, counter-intuitive advice that I heard from the Princeton Dean of Theology can be summarized as such: You don’t focus on what is exceptional in building relationship with the other person or people, you embrace and accept what is un-exceptional. What is not exceptional, then, forms the basis of a lasting relationship. 

Whenever we suffer in relationship, is it because we refuse to stop trying to hide our woundedness, I wonder? The crisis, does it not stem from the ways we try to mask our insecurities, our fears, our anxieties? The crisis, does it not come from our avoidance of seeing the harsh truth of ourselves and our situation? Are we so afraid of simply being who we truly are with each other that we create a problem that becomes harder to deal with the longer the pretense lasts?

We all carry wounds which go deep, and with which we have lived since our childhood. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche community, suggests these wounds are so deep we cannot fully escape them over a lifespan, try as we might.

These wounds were evident in the church Paul founded in Corinth.[2]The people of Corinth, it seems, wanted desperately to belong and to be part of a community of faith. Yet they were divided into rival groups, some belonging to Apollos and others to Paul. They must have had Protestant blood flowing through them! When you have a rivalry, you defend who has the better plan, who is stronger, who is more exceptional. In Paul’s view, this rivalry betrayed a misunderstanding of the Gospel.

So, how do we learn to walk with our wounds that go deep? And be faithful to God, to each other and to ourselves?

“Jean Vanier tells the story about a severely disabled man named Daniel, whose parents did not want him. So, he ended up in one institution after the other. Even after becoming a part of L’Arche, a community that specializes in helping people like Daniel, he would hide his anguish .. 

“As Vanier puts it, ‘He felt guilty for existing, because nobody wanted him as he was. What we must do,’ said Vanier, ‘is walk with the wound instead of fleeing from it. We cannot accept it until we discover that we are loved by God just as we are. And that the Holy Spirit, in a mysterious way, is living at the centre of the wound.’”[3]

Paul talks about the crucified Christ who identifies with us and who carries our wounds. It is in the love of God within and for us, just as we are, that we can learn not to avoid but to walk with our wounds and each other’s woundedness.

And this is how relationships endure. Not because we fixate on how exceptional we are. But rather accept how unexceptional we are. This is not only how we endure but how we grow. Because we are no longer ruled by fear of our humanity. The image Paul uses for this kind of growth is a horticultural one: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (v.6). And, then, again: “We are God’s field …” (v.9). Notice the gardening, planting, growing images here?

There is a place that ecologists identify in a field, the place in a field that is most fertile and life-giving. This area is called an “ecotone”, the special meeting ground between two different ecological communities such as, for example, a forest and a meadow, or two different types of flowers or grasses.

In other words, you have to go to the edge of some kind in order to experience the most fertile and life-giving space in your life. Ecologists go so far to describe the ecotone as the “pregnancy of edges.” It’s the place with the greatest possibility for growth.[4]

Where two different entities, two different living beings meet. Life-giving relationships of growth are not found in places where everyone’s the same, but in spaces where difference meets. Where in your faith might be the fertile place where you encounter the edge effect? Where do you go to experience God’s love amid your woundedness to give you healing and life?

Baptism is one place. Renewing our identity in Christ. Affirming our belonging to the living Jesus. Baptism is also the place where we ask who we really are. In the waters of baptism we honestly confront our limitations, and feel the discomfort of confession. We may doubt our lives are worth anything seeing our failures and expressing our woundedness. We confront here our identity crisis. We are at the edge. We may feel like drowning in the waters.

But at the edge, we are also ready to take a step towards life and new growth. It is the place pregnant with the promise of healing and renewal. It may be the place of tears; it is also the place for new found joy. We come up out of the waters to breathe the air and renew our life.

In relationship building we must embrace our wounds to go into the depths of our being where Christ’s love abounds. It is the way of the cross. And then we see it all around us: in the spouse who tenderly cares for his wife in the Alzheimer’s unit of the hospital, the child playing video games on an oncology ward of the Children’s Hospital, the mother raising four kids on her own, the middle-aged addict finally reaching out for help that is willing.

God’s love abounds. New life and true relationship form and grow, forever. We come up out of the waters to breathe and renew our life.

[1]Craig Barnes preached a sermon at the Festival of Homiletics in Denver Colorado in 2015 for pastors and congregations seeking traits in each other that are unexceptional – contrary to the norm. By implication I apply his specific context to the broader dynamic of how relationships form and endure, regardless of the kind of relationship.

[2]1 Corinthians 3:1-9

[3]Cited in Roger J. Gench, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.350-352

[4]Gench, ibid., p.352-354

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