The Home of the Brave
By Beth Ann Estock
We are called to open our hearts to the holy discomfort of the unknown so we can bravely lead communities toward faithful futures.
Have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt like you did not belong?
Have you sat in a meeting and wondered if it was safe enough to share your thoughts and ideas?
Do you find yourself checking to see where or with whom is it safe enough to let your guard down and be fully yourself?
If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, welcome to the human race! You are not alone. Our need to feel safe is hard-wired into our very survival. We would not be here today if it had not been for our ancestors who knew how to fight, play dead, or run away when they sensed danger. Neurologists call this primal area found at the base of our head the reptilian brain stem. This part of our brain controls our body functions like breathing and heart rate as well as our survival instincts. When we sense potential danger, adrenaline is released, and our heart begins to beat faster so that we can be ready to respond instantly to what threatens our survival. Unfortunately, when our blood is being directed into our reptilian brain stem, the neo-cortex in our frontal lobe shuts down, preventing us from accessing our creativity and playfulness.
In our modern world, we may no longer have to fight off lions, tigers and bears, but our brains are still hardwired to sense danger and be ready to respond. This is the unconscious current running underneath all of our encounters as we determine, in various ways, whether we are safe. As leaders in community, it is important to understand this phenomenon, especially if we want to be a part of the unfolding of the Holy Spirit’s creativity in our communal lives.
We are told that in the beginning God created humans in God’s image and proclaimed all of creation as very good. If God is the creator, then we, made in God’s image, are partners in creativity. This creative process requires us, just as God did, to create out of the void, the unknown, the space between the now and the not yet.
This liminal space can be as scary as walking into the wilderness without a compass or trail map. It is unknown territory filled with potential danger. We believe that if we step out into that unknown, something bad will happen. If we examine these beliefs further, we might find that those “bad things” involve our sense of self-worth and security. After all, who wants to risk sharing a new idea if we fear potential judgment from others? However, this is exactly where the Holy Spirit encourages us to go—feeling into that place of holy discomfort. For God is constantly inviting us into this co-creative process!
The Book of Acts is filled with stories of the early apostles partnering with the movement of the Holy Spirit in highly unusual ways. Ananias was asked to find Saul, the killer of the followers of Jesus, and heal him of his blindness. Phillip was asked to hitchhike on a dangerous road and climb into a passing chariot. Peter, a devout Jew, was led to baptize a Gentile family and to eat all kinds of non-kosher food. To an outside observer none of this makes logical sense, but this is exactly how we are formed into a life of faith, by trusting in the grace of the unknown.
Interesting, isn’t it that anytime an angel shows up in the Bible, the first words spoken have to do with addressing our needs for safety and security? “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good tidings…” I could imagine in those instances it was easier said than done because it is difficult to trust when we feel vulnerable stepping into the unknown. But the very essence of faith is having a sure trust that God loves even us. As Psalm 23 assures, it is the capacity to know deep within that, even through the darkest valleys of life, God is with us as a comforter and guide. The very word, “faith”, is correlated to the word “trust.” Both have their roots in the Latin word, fides. To have faith is to trust in something that we have no control over. If we are unable to trust in our divine belovedness then fear can easily have its way in our lives.
In the 21st century we have much to fear—global warming, pandemics, polarized politics, failed democracies, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of despots, and the lack of affordable housing, healthcare, and living wage jobs, to name a few. Churches fear their own decline as worship attendance atrophies and with it, financial solvency. In the face of all this fear, how are we going to lead?
Our set point has been to unconsciously play out our fight, flight or freeze reptilian brain responses. We see this in fighting over issues of doctrine, trying to make the church great again by trying harder at what no longer works, or simply repeating our favorite mantra, “We already tried that…Don’t rock the boat!” at the hint of some potential new way forward.
Jesus reminds us that the world will not accept the advocate that God has given us in the Holy Spirit. But when we open our hearts and find our home in love, we can step out in courage just as our ancestors of the faith in the early church.
As leaders, we can practice this by creating what Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens call Brave Spaces in our communities. Brave Space, as opposed to safe space, acknowledges that we come together with different histories, customs, gifts and ideas. In this space, we are invited to listen to each other’s stories with curiosity, trusting that we are together for a divine purpose that is ours to figure out. It is a space where failure and uncomfortable emotions are expected as we hold one another in compassion.
As leaders, this requires us to develop robust self-reflective skills, discerning the difference between our personal preferences, based in our fears and unchecked assumptions, and the guidance of the Spirit in the ways of holy discomfort, resilience and grace. That means allowing curiosity to have its way with us as we seek to discover God’s grace with our everyday encounters. Researchers are finding evidence that curiosity is correlated with creativity, intelligence, improved learning, memory, and problem solving. We can begin by asking questions such as these that pique our curiosity on a regular basis:
- What does God want me to learn or discover about myself, the other, our context, our world?
- What conditional beliefs or assumptions might be holding me back?
- What is that new thing that longs to spring forth?
- What is one step I could take into the unknown, where creativity and playfulness await?
Brené Brown, a research professor studying courage, vulnerability and shame, discovered that we cannot be brave without having the courage to feel into our vulnerabilities. The origin of the word courage is from the Latin root, cor, meaning heart. The word, courage, originally meant, “To speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.” When we are willing to risk sharing from our hearts, we grow our capacity to be courageous. We begin to see all of life as a sacrament of God’s grace.
As leaders, we can help our communities by modeling this. One effective way is to create a culture of Brave Space. We can begin to invite teams or any groups in our communities to create covenants of how we will relate to each other. When we gather, our first ritual can be creating a list of how we want to hold each other accountable as a group by asking the following questions:
- How do we want to show up to each other in this meeting, project, or group?
- What do we need in order to show up in authentic ways that honor each one of our community and us?
During each meeting, we can refer back to the covenant that the group created, setting the stage for openhearted conversations where trust is nurtured. The safer people feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. When we feel a sense of safety then our souls can come out and play! One sure sign of this is when light-hearted laughter is present in our gatherings.
We can also begin to build a culture in which failure is viewed as a wonderful learning opportunity through a simple assessment process that encourages spending five minutes at the end of any project, event, or meeting to ask the following questions:
- What worked well?
- What could be improved?
Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability found that the level of collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of its members’ ability to be successful in developing healthy leaders and meeting their mission. These practices build resiliency to weather any storms of passing fear in the midst of constant change. What the world desperately needs today are brave leaders with open hearts. Are you willing to take that next courageous step?
Beth Ann Estock is an ordained United Methodist minister, leadership coach and author of two books, Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century and Holy Living: Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Building a Life of Faith. She enjoys the wilds of Portland, Oregon and can be found at bethestock.com.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.