Embrace the awkward

February 20th, 2019

In his Meditations of the Heart, Howard Thurman writes this regarding communion:

"The central element in communion with God is the act of self-surrender... I surrender myself to God without any conditions or reservations. I shall not bargain with God. I shall not make my surrender piecemeal but I shall lay bare the very center of me, that all of my very being shall be charged with the creative energy of God. Little by little, or vast area by vast area, my life must be transmuted in the life of God. As this happens, I come into the meaning of true freedom and the burdens that I seemed unable to bear are floated in the current of the life and love of God. The central element in communion with God is the act of self-surrender."[1]

It may be that there are spiritual saints among us for whom complete and total surrender to God is possible in a single moment, but for most of us discipleship is a longer process. So how do we get from here to there: from reservations to surrender, from guarding ourselves to exposing to divine mystery the very heart of who we are, from working under our own energy to being charged by God's creative energy?

I have found that ministry among severely challenged, marginalized people is one discipline that may lead you to a place where communion is possible in the sense Thurman has in mind.

You might think that it is the mystical encounter with Christ incarnate in the poor that leads to this development in faith. Maybe you're thinking, "If I go serve the poor beloved of God, Christ will meet me personally and form me as a servant and disciple." I'm not saying all that definitely isn't going on, but I would encourage you to lay these lofty ideas aside and Embrace the Awkward.

I can tell you that every conversation in ministry among homeless, traumatized, mentally ill, dying, drug-addicted people is not exactly comprehensible. Often you'll find yourself just smiling and nodding and feeling like an idiot. Sometimes the topic of conversation will stray into territory where you'd rather not follow. More often than not you won't know what to say, how to say it, what to ask, or how to relate to your conversation partner's experience. You might see someone’s bare bottom once more than you’d like or find yourself on your hands and knees cleaning up someone else’s poop. Sometimes you might not be able to connect with anyone around you and you'll be left standing in the middle of a room full of people desperately trying to figure out what to do with your hands.

This is the feeling called awkwardness and I wager it's the healthiest, safest experience of vulnerability available to anyone who seeks to find closer union with God's divine life. When someone feels awkward, we say they feel unsettled or unsure of themselves. We may say they "don't know where they stand" or they feel like they "don't stand on solid ground." Awkwardness is a destabilizing experience where the self is temporarily upset, the ego is set off balance or unseated momentarily, and our well-worn coping mechanisms don't live up to the task.

Awkwardness is a feeling we all know. We can identify it when we feel it, and though we may be made to feel a bit uncomfortable by it, it isn't so painful that we must flee from it immediately.

To feel awkward is not to feel unsafe. Though we might be fine with experiencing a little awkwardness, we know when an awkward feeling becomes a feeling of danger. Anyone who participates in outreach ministry and mission work should be encouraged to pay attention to the differences between these feelings and should be empowered to exercise agency in extracting themselves from any situation they deem to be unsafe.

It is important that awkwardness not be associated with danger because as an experience in faith formation it is a place we can return to again and again. When we are thrown off balance, when our old coping mechanisms and sense of self are found to be wanting, this is when the Spirit finds purchase in our lives. The momentary and mild experience of vulnerability that is awkwardness creates space where the masks we wear and defenses we erect drop away and we stand before the divine not as who we think we are, but who we are created to be.

Paradoxically, the more often we feel awkward in the service of Christ the more confident we feel when we encounter our Mother, our Father, our divine parent, the Creator.

Blessed are the awkward for they will find their true self.

[1] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston, Beacon Press 1981), 174-175.

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