“Authenticity is a choice, albeit a choice with consequences… Brene Brown highlights the ‘daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.'”
Who is Brene Brown?
There are subjects that we don’t talk about in “polite company.” Politics, religion… or shame, or vulnerability. Dr. Brene Brown is a sociological researcher whose work has been primarily about shame and vulnerability. Her insights from these subjects have led her to the bestsellers lists, the TED Talk circuit and Oprah’s Soul Sunday. The following are three of Dr. Brown’s favorite topics, and how they relate to Christianity.
From top to bottom, from the youngest to the oldest, so many people are bound up in knots trying to be perfect. The perfect parent, flawless bicyclist, the exceptional coffee drinker… Brene Brown’s work shows just how pervasive this dark knot is. She explains, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
This terrible knot of the soul doesn’t stay outside the church. Many Christians have had that moment when we thought that if we could have a flawless liturgy or a seamless soup kitchen, if we could perfect this ministry, the angelic chorus would chant our name and Jesus would usher us into our eternal home!
Perhaps you recall these words from Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48, NIV). Yet if we look at the rest of the life and ministry of Jesus, if we back up a few verses, the perfectionism is obliterated by gladness rising from humility. Wherever we look in the Bible we discover that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses showing us imperfection.
As Dr. Brown says, “Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate toward ourselves. This is a tall order given how hard most of us are on ourselves.” It takes a type of silent courage and patience to love ourselves as much as God loves us.
Reflection question: Where in your life and ministry does the cult of perfectionism get in the way?
Brene Brown has utilized her research to demonstrate that authenticity isn’t just something you have or do not have. Authenticity is a choice, albeit a choice with consequences. Furthermore, she highlights the “daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” Being authentically yourself all by yourself is alright; but the true value of authenticity comes from being wholeheartedly yourself in relationship.
In youth ministry, the most consistent applause line is “a place where I can be myself.” Brown reminds us that from the time we are very young, “we know that choosing authenticity in a culture that dictates everything from how much we’re supposed to weigh to what our houses are supposed to look like is a huge undertaking.” Remember the ear-wormy song from Frozen? Conceal don’t feel, don’t let them in, don’t let them know who you really are. These are the words of silencing authenticity.
In our striving for authenticity, we seek union with Christ and one another. We work to be authentic to Christ and to offer space where anyone can “let go of who we think we are supposed to be.”
Reflection question: How will we continue to be prophets of whole-hearted love and make spaces for authentic community?
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brown tells of how startled she was by the congruence she uncovered in her research on shame-resilience. She called the quality whole hearted, and one of the most critical revelations is the following: “It was clear from the data that we cannot give our children what we don’t have. Where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books.”
For Christians, this is good news! All the perfectionist how to books in the world will not help our work of formation as much as being whole hearted practitioners of the Good News.
On Brown’s website there is a poster called A Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto. As a minister I like to take this manifesto and insert ministry/relationship words into it. The result is wholehearted ministry. What would the “Wholehearted Parish” look like? Perhaps a congregation connected and giving life to the entire community. Perhaps a ministry that celebrates imperfection by finding God’s Spirit at work in the imperfections. Perhaps a place or space where we can be wholly ourselves, all the time.
Here’s what is truly at the heart of wholeheartedness: worthy now. Not when we, not if we, not after we: but the holy truth that we are worthy of deep love and true belonging now. It is imperfect and authentic. It is Christ-like abundant love and compassion.
Reflection question: How do we build a “Wholehearted Parish”? What do we have to let go of to get there?
Jane Alice Gober is the Youth and Family Minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walla Walla, Washington and the Assistant for Youth for the Diocese of Spokane. She has a long career of service and innovation in lifelong formation with congregations across the US. You can follow her regularly at blissfulirreverence.blogspot.
This article was written in anticipation of the 2015 FORMA conference in Houston, at which Brene Brown was the keynote speaker. To learn more about FORMA and the annual conference click here.
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