Taking a deep breath to embrace vulnerability


Brene Brown, in a TED talk on vulnerability six years ago, points out some of my own struggles that over the years I never fully came to grasp with. Two recent personal  experiences however have drawn my attention to the power in vulnerability and the courage to confront shame.

I have been blessed with wonderful friends and incredible meaningful connections. These fill the all-human need to know that we fully belong and we are loved. It’s a wonderful blessing to be in a caring community.

Recently two wonderful friends asked if I needed help in a situation that I needed to deal with. The question spun me into a panic. “Why are they asking if I need help?” I thought. “Shouldn’t I be the one to help?”

This is a classic example of vulnerability and shame. I shared in my book, Paths as yet Untrodden my societal privilege of education in the final years of British rule and the early years of post-independence Tanzania. Like many of my generation we came out of school invested with privilege and opportunity.

Because of that there is a sense of shame and failure to find oneself needing help. It takes courage to be vulnerable and as Bene Brown points out vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

Recently I posted a blog about the paralysis of depression I succumbed to after the death of my sister. Much of that depression was rooted in shame.

I know I am not alone in this emotional trepidation. But vulnerability is not weakness and we can overcome depression if we courageously confront shame (something we avoid to talk about).




Domine quo vadis and coming to sense


There is a sobering story – for me – in the New Testament apocryphal book Acta Petri, or Acts of Peter. which reminds me of the significance of coming to senses. In this story, at the height of emperor Nero’s persecutions, Christians were fleeing from Rome. Peter’s colleagues advised him to leave Rome too.

“Shall we be runaways brethren?” he struggled with the idea.

“Not quite”, they responded. “But you may be able to serve the Lord better”.

“Let none of you come with me, but I’ll go forth alone having changed my appearance”.

And so, as he fled from the city, he came face to face with the Lord, headed in the opposite direction.

“Domine quo vadis?” (Lord where are you going?), Peter asked.

“I’m going to Rome to be crucified”, Jesus answered.

“Lord, are you being crucified again?”

The text says, Peter then came to himself and the Lord disappeared. Peter went back to Rome and would eventually be crucified upside down according to the same Acta Petri.

The expression “he came to himself” reminds me of Luke’s story of the prodigal son who in Luke 15: 17 “came to his senses” and reversed course.

By the way, on Rome’s Appian Way today, there is a small church of the same name, Domine Quo Vadis, built at the site of Peter’s yet another encounter with the Lord when he (Peter) was off course. And in the National Gallery in London, there is a painting of the same name by the Italian artist, Annibale Carracci, painted in 1601-02.

This is a story which, from time to time, serves to bring me to my senses.


6 steps to compassionate good deeds


We were in bible study discussing good deeds and the correct motivation for the deeds when someone raised a question about the correct response when a homeless or poor person asks you for money. A practical question for what was looking like a theoretical talk.

It is a familiar question I have heard many times in different bible study sessions.

In these cases, the motivation for any good deed is compassion; and there are no rules regarding compassion. But doing good deeds merely to feel good is not compassion.

Secondly, being compassionate does not mean being naïve either.

Third, money has never been the solution and chances are, you won’t have enough of it to give a dollar or two to everyone who asks.

It is best, number four, to provide information/knowledge about available resources in the community.

Fifth, the person asking for money is probably already aware of the community resources but he/she is not motivated. For the most part many of the needy individuals have given up, they have lost hope. That’s probably where your most significant help will be. Inspire a sense of hope again.

Finally, to do so, it is essential to create connection between the individual and a community. Connection, connection, connection.

None of this is easy, but we are all at our best when we function within community, when we are part of each other.

The question reminded me of two articles from the past:

  1. “Compassion really hurts” in Psychology Today and
  2. “What Happens When Compassion Hurts?” in Greater Good Magazine.

What do you think? Feedback invited.




What is a bible-based church?

Anglican Gospel Reading

By whatever definition, a church is first and foremost, a community. That is the fabric that holds everything else together. There was a community that decided what its scripture would be; and that became, the bible, from the Latin, biblia, which in turn is from the Greek, biblos, which, literally, means book, and a collection of books.

The bible then, is a collection of books, a library. These books are of different genre, from different historical times and periods, and by different authors. The authors for the most part, wrote independent of each other, with different themes and to different audiences.

A community then decided, out of a myriad of books, which ones to include in their scriptures and which ones not to include. Different traditions may offer different interpretations of the process of selection but the bottom line is that a community canonized the selection to be its scripture.

Today, ignoring this basic understanding, we have, in some traditions, elevated the bible above even the community that made it scripture. With that we have therefore come to make the bible what it is not, read it with literal and closed worldview, and, shocking as it may sound, we have come to worship it.

So, when at the end of a worship service the preacher urges those heeding a call to look for a bible-based book, they are advocating a literal reading and inerrancy of the bible. That is not bible-based but the contrary. There is nothing literal about the bible and – yes, it may sound even more shocking – there are errors and contradictions in the bible.

Let’s look at some of the contradictions next.

Bible-based means horizontal


Yesterday I attempted to revisit Tertullian’s remark, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ with bible study for reference. Perhaps a vertical approach in bible study would tempt one to declare, “there is no connection” while a horizontal or historical/critical approach might suggest plenty of connection. Nevertheless, deep consideration of both approaches lead to the conclusion that a vertical perspective in bible study is superficial and misleading and even deficient.

The Jesus birth narratives I mentioned in the last blog are perhaps one of the simplest illustrations of what may not be obvious in a vertical approach in bible study. There are similar examples in the resurrection accounts and indeed, throughout the entire bible. Try reading horizontally, for example, the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles. You will discover, not only differences with regard to similar accounts, but outright  contradictions.

So what happens when for example, Jesus’ birth narratives in Matthew and Luke don’t agree? In a vertical approach, typically we edit or write our own account to combine both accounts into one. But then, is that what Matthew or Luke wanted to say? Perhaps not. In a horizontal approach we seek to understand what Matthew is saying and what Luke is saying, and the two may not be saying the same thing.

Aha! Somebody will tell you, you are not bible-based. If that is your approach, you are not bible-based. I’d say, on the contrary! Understanding the individual writers of the bible is truly bible-based rather than rewriting the bible attempting to synchronize all the writers’ messages in order to arrive at a common understanding.

An invitation at the end of a sermon that invites you to look for a bible-based church essentially is urging you to look for a church that follows the vertical approach in studying the bible. It also appeals to a view of the bible as inerrant.

Let us talk about that next.

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Bible Study

A few days ago Tertullian’s famous question came to my mind, though from a different context: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

For bible study, a group I belong to has been reading a book titled, The Dream of God, by a late member of the parish. So, a few days ago, our group leader said someone asked him, “what has reading Verna’s book got to do with bible study?”

The same morning I had read in my email notifications that another parish had started reading Walter Brueggermann’s new book, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, for Sunday morning bible study. So, what has Brueggermann’s or Verna’s book to do with bible study?

In reflection I realize that bible study in most churches takes a vertical approach, reading a bible book from chapter one to the last chapter, discerning its message for us and how we relate to it.  But there is also another approach, the horizontal or lateral, in which we read the book alongside contemporary sources.

Does it matter at all? Yes, it does, Consider, for example, reading Jesus’ birth narratives from Matthew’s or Luke’s gospel vertically. In Matthew we have Jesus’ genealogy, back to Abraham. There is also the story of the magi, Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt and Herod the Great’s massacre of Bethlehem babies, then the family returning from Egypt and settling in Nazareth because of fear of Herod Archelaus.

None of this is found in the other birth narrative, in Luke. There we have an empire-wide census when Quirinius was governor in Syria. Instead of magi visiting the infant Jesus, we have shepherds, Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, presentation, and ultimately, return to Nazareth. In a lateral approach we will discover that Roman sources do not mention the census in Luke, and Quirinius, according to the historians Tacitus and Flavius Josephus, was appointed governor of Syria in 6 AD (CE).

In my next blog I’ll pick up from here to a discussion of a familiar phrase: a bible-based church – what it is supposed to mean and its implications.


If you want to surf you must step on the surfboard


I am not a surfer – water or wind – but I like the sport and even watch it when I can. I am aware that, like any sport, water surfing requires certain techniques like paddling, popping up (not on your knees), regular or goofy foot (left or right foot forward), balancing and so on. Experts say, to surf you will need to get onto the surfboard rather than standing at the beach and running the different techniques in your mind.

Like anyone, I have challenges I am facing. Some are new everyday, others are from the past. You have probably heard that the universe always gives back what we put in. When you think deeply about it, at some time, we receive the results of what we put into the universe. When that happens – because it will happen – like surfing, step onto the surfboard. Thinking about it, wishing it didn’t show up serves no useful end.

The point is, just as there are techniques for surfing, there are resources to meet any challenge in life. We have strengths within us to meet the most challenging situations.

I have a friend who is in a rehab facility after she fell and broke her arm. She is 93, has managed, even at 93, without outside help. She still drives wherever she wants to go, lives alone rather than in assisted living, and she is pretty much in control. That is her strength.

Yet, since falling, she has had some concerns – even fears. After all, she reasons, she fell when she has always been careful to avoid falling! That has always been on her mind, like any mentally alert 93 year old would be: Careful not to fall! But when it happens fear comes in.

For her and every one of us, it is important to remember that we can marshal our inner strengths to meet the most challenging situations. So, what are your strengths? Resilience, tenacity, patience, optimism? Whatever inner strength you are blessed with, that is how you’ll face your challenges.

What is the best medicine?


I made this journal entry yesterday:

Today I went to bible study as the weight of my depression seemed to be lifting. I missed last week’s session and everybody had been concerned. And this is the thing. I had sent an email to our group coordinator and group leader but did not mention the depression. I thought, who wants to hear about depression anyway? And, man, was I wrong!

Anyway, I got to bible study and we began with sharing concerns and anything. This morning we received, via email, a pastoral notification from the rector that a long-time member of the congregation went home to be with the Lord last night. We spent some time sharing memories of this most amazing individual who, even as he was going through treatment for cancer, he remained very active in the theater group he was part of, kept up with his hobbies of water rafting and wind surfing, all of this as if nothing at all – including chemotherapy – had any effect on him. A man who enjoyed life to the fullest under all circumstances.

We also reflected over the wonderful time we shared with a 60+ years member of the congregation who also went to be with the Lord and whose life we’ll celebrate  on Friday. A very active member of the church in various ministries, including leadership of our bible study group some years ago. The first day I came to bible study I happened to sit next to her as we went around the table with introductions. At 96 she told me she had hearing difficulty in her left ear and wanted me to make sure I spoke to her right ear. She and I shared the prayer book and the text we had for that day though when it was her turn to read, she passed it on to me.

She was the first person I knew by name on my first day of bible study; she ensured that I felt welcome and from then on she left no doubt whatsoever that everyday I knew I was part of the group.

Then our group leader turned to me. The response of the email I copied to him last week showed  someone who really cared. “Joel”, he wrote, “please let me know that you’re O.K”. It touched my heard especially as I knew he was expressing not only his own sentiments, but also the love and care of the whole group. So, I shared the story I wrote about in the last blog.

I even opened up about something very strange that happened to me during my bereavement. As I mentioned, for a couple of weeks I could not do anything – I was blank. Strangely though, I remembered a documentary I saw some years ago about history’s worst aviation disaster at Tenerife airport in the Canary islands on 27 March, 1977. For some still unknown reason, I found myself obsessed with the documentary and I watched the video over and over and over. It was the only thing I could do and it would not release me from its grip.

I saw everybody staring at me with shock – literally, wide eyed. “Alright”, I said to myself, “they must be saying, he is a nut; let’s get out of here!” But nobody ran out. Instead I got possible explanation connecting my grief to the disaster.

At the end of bible study, I can only thank God for connection, thank God for community, thank god for vulnerability.




How do you overcome the stigma of depression?


Recently I have found myself deep in depression after my sister died of cancer. I know there was nothing I could have done – yet, knowing is far from believing. I keep reminding myself that I need to accept the fact, still I am unable to let go and forgive myself. A few years ago, I suggested 7 tips on how to deal with depression, but here I am trying to motivate myself to visit the 7 tips.

Lest you think I am on a lost cause or course, not actually, because here I am writing this blog after a two-week blankness. I am actually coming out of the doldrums. What has helped me is the very first point on my 7 tips: Positive influence, or surrounding oneself with positive people, or positive connections.

I begin every week with volunteer work at a local church, teaming up with other volunteers to prepare and serve breakfast to our neighbors in need. Yes, Monday morning at 5:30 we are in aprons, in the kitchen, being creative about making the best breakfast. We serve, we sit down with our guests, share a devotion, then we clean up. The experience is totally uplifting, fabulous, and propels us through the week. And we look forward to teaming up again.

The fundamental and overriding principle here is that, as Brene Brown puts it in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, as human beings, we are wired for connection. Whatever situation we may be in, good or bad, afflicted or thriving, we are meant to be connected. We draw strength from one another. Connection is the primary resource in all situations and circumstances.

Most of us know this, yet, often times there is the temptation to go it alone. As with all “how-to” strategies, knowing how does not always translate into success because – again as Brene Brown points out – there are things that get in the way, for example, trust issues, shame, vulnerability, and so on.

I am personally blessed, in this regard, with a PCP who is more than just my physician. It’s just one example. I am able to talk to her about my depression, and she is empathic with a listening ear and sharing encouragement. Connections come in many different ways if you are open to seize the opportunity.




Why is balance so important?


Have you experienced a disconnect between your body and your mind and emotions – or your thinking process? I am a type 2 diabetic and on insulin. I shared, in my book, how that is not necessarily a weakness but, in many ways, a strength, especially in relating to others in situations of adversity.

Because I take insulin, there have been a few times when I have experienced what is known as hypoglycemia, when blood sugar levels fall too low. It is not a good situation to be in.

There are several signs of hypoglycemia and they vary from individual to individual. For me, typically I begin to experience physical weakness, feeling shaky, then sweating, confusion and anxiety.

Confusion: I know what I need to do, like – “reach for hard candy or orange juice”. But in this state, it is sometimes a struggle to coordinate “what I must do” with actually doing it. This leads to anxiety (another sign of hypoglycemia) and frustration, and the cycle continues.

From this unusual physical experience I often wonder how to maintain the balance between body, mind, and spirit. How do I get life in alignment with the soul? I don’t like the experience of hypoglycemia which is an illustration of physical imbalance, Yet, I wonder, is everything else in balance?

I invite comments and suggestions.