Love Vulnerably

JULY 2018

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by Katie Peyton Katie is a member of EM's 2018 Summer Staff. She and her team are wrapping up the first half of their summer in Webster Springs, West Virginia before heading to Jackson County, Ohio to lead trips through the rest of the season.

There is a quote by C.S. Lewis (one of my favorite authors) that has been crossing my mind over and over this week. The entire passage, an excerpt from his book The Four Loves, is this:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable."

The part that I've been considering recently is simply, "To love at all is to be vulnerable." My job as part of Experience Mission's summer staff is basically to coordinate trip logistics and to love the people I meet along the way. Note that my job is not to act like I love them.

In fact, in our mission trip orientations every week, we tell our teams not to "pretend to care, but [to] care because God cares." I have tried to be as loving and kind as I can to those I work with since the beginning. Yet, when loving people is part of your job, it can be easy to sometimes hide behind a compassionate face and just impersonate love. Because, in all honesty, to actually love people is not easy...or painless. To give context to my thoughts, I'll explain how my week started out.

I was the Trip Coordinator and the Outreach Coordinator this week for an awesome team of only fourteen people. In all honesty, conditions were ideal for me to do everything I needed to do. But it would have been much more comfortable to do it all without love. 

West Virginia Mission Trips

Pastor Brandon came up with a great idea for outreach in Webster Springs. As the Outreach Coordinator, I was more than excited to help him start it. He wanted to offer lunch and a craft to local kids in the area a few days every week. He told me that I could put up a sign at the pool in the park and make an ad to share in the local paper and put up flyers around town. So, in a few hours, I had most of those things done and ready to go. They were easy, logistical tasks.

The hard part would be to sit at the park every day and wait, fearing that no one would show up. The hard part would be to subject this idea (and my heart) to strangers who owed me nothing. The hardest part was asking the mission team to help me start the project and telling them that it could totally fail. I don't think it would have been morally unacceptable to have kept the outreach project a secret from my team. After all, they came to Webster Springs to do construction; this is typically a construction-only mission location. I could have sent them on their way every morning, waving as they left for their sites, and I could have gone on to the park by myself.

Even if I would have been anxious and alone, at least no one could have accused me of failing. I could have kept a happy, professional face in front of them; they would have never been able to detect the disappointment hidden just behind the surface. But that's not what I did. I decided to open up the idea of outreach during our initial team leader meeting. I was a little nervous to explain it because I didn't have any concrete details to offer them besides a cooler full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a few new packs of crayons. Therefore, all I could do was be vulnerable. They had every right to say, "No, Katie, we think this is a stupid idea. No one will ever show up, You didn't prepare well enough. We would prefer to go about our business building porches and staining decks and painting houses."

But they loved me instead. No, I did not expect them to be obnoxious or rude to me. I knew that they would probably respond in a polite way whether their answer was yes or no. However, I also did not expect to see the unadulterated kindness in their eyes as I presented the possibility to them. They smiled and nodded and listened, and in unspoken (yet certain) unity, they agreed to help me try the outreach project. No matter what might happen, they were with me. I was loved.

West Virginia Mission Trips

It has been an interesting part of my job to see love at work amongst so many strangers. We tell teams to build relationships while they're in the area—to really get to know those they meet. We tell teams to love. And in all fairness, that is actually asking a lot. Love is different than any other action in that it requires both intentional authenticity and raw vulnerability.

Anyone can be kind to a stranger. But loving a stranger? It cannot be done passively.

My team loved me this week because they took my vulnerability—the little piece of myself that I gave to them—and they nourished it. Then they gave themselves back. They asked what I needed; they made kind suggestions; they asked for updates each day; they shared their stories with me; they encouraged me. The part of my life that I exposed to them only blossomed so much brighter in their presence. I am so incredibly thankful for the bond we were able to build from such tiny bits of our real selves. And so you can imagine how bonded I am to this little town where I started out fully exposed.

When I came here a few weeks ago, I had never met any of the locals. I had only met my fellow Summer Staff members a few times. I came here unknown and unknowing and definitely defenseless, and I was told to spread love. I was draped in my own vulnerability. Looking back now, I see how my helplessness was the perfect domain for the love of God to grow in me. He used total strangers to bring me closer to Himself.

As my time in Webster Springs comes to a close, part of me almost wishes that I had never loved it. Because leaving a community in which one had never had a backyard water fight or a child-guided bicycle tour through the neighborhood might not be very difficult. In fact, it would be effortless to pack up and say goodbye to a town whose memories knew of no board games or cookouts or encouraging high-fives or ice cream runs or Nerf wars or Sunday services or star gazes or river adventures or movie nights or inside jokes or sleepovers or long walks or jam sessions or group hugs.

Had I locked up my heart inside the tear-proof, laughter-proof, safe and steady coffin that C.S. Lewis describes, it would not even notice a transition. But love is hard to pack up and move. Right now, as I look ahead, I am heartbroken in the way that one can only be if they have subjected themselves to love. I am looking into my last week in Webster Springs—my last week with Hannah and Luke and Phyllis and Pastor Brandon and Amy and their kids and their dog and every other soul in the area holding a piece of my heart.

I have been vulnerable, and now, I am starting to feel the aching side effects. But I could not live the life God has called me to live any other way. Earlier in the week, I may have been caught saying (whining) something along the lines of "we are never going to see each other again." But as I think about it now, I know that such a statement is not quite true. Maybe I will not physically see some of these faces again, but I will catch a glimpse of them all again and again as God continues to love me through His people. Maybe I will not get to physically hold these hands for much longer, but I no longer doubt that God will always hold me in His hands—wherever I am.

If to love at all is to be vulnerable, then I shall choose to face this life of endless joy and sudden sorrow and keep on loving.

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