Every now and then someone in the mental health field takes our breath away with their insight, their deep understanding of what it is to be human, and their insight into nurturing healthy relationships, overcoming mental illness, parenting, loving one another, and building strong, connected communities. For us at Shalem, one of those persons is Dr. Brené Brown.
Brown has a gained a sterling reputation for her research into what it is to belong, and how belonging is shaped by our experiences of shame, vulnerability and risk. She is a “rock star” in our field. Her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has had over 7.5 million views—and counting.
All of her books, such as The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Leadare outstanding explorations into what it is to be human. We use her short video on “blame” in our WrapAround training (in WrapAround, “no shame, no blame” is one of our key values). I recommend all of these without hesitation and return them again and again myself.
Imagine my delight then at hearing Brené Brown speak publicly and articulately about her deep love for and faith in God. I should not be surprised by this: her work resonates profoundly with the Gospel.
On January 21, 2018, a Sunday morning, Brené Brown delivered the sermon at Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal (Anglican) church. I highly recommend it.
In her sermon, she describes her relationship with God as “an amazing love story.” However, she describes her relationship with “church” as far more rocky. I can relate to this—and I expect many of you can too.
Nevertheless, she talks about why church remains so important for her. Her insights are not just personal—they are research based. She describes how her research shows that in the last 20 years we have “sorted ourselves by ideology into bunkers.” But remarkably, rising loneliness rates have tracked equally with this rising sorting process. What she calls “common enemy intimacy,” or clustering together behind the barricades of belief, is not the same as connection. Indeed, the sorting has not resolved loneliness at all.
In fact, loneliness has reached epidemic proportions today. Recently the government of the United Kingdom has appointed a “Minister of Loneliness,” because the rise of chronic loneliness is creating a public health crisis. As I wrote about in a recent blog, loneliness is a greater predictor of early death than smoking, drinking or obesity.
Brown says that what we face today is a “crisis of spiritual connection.” Spiritual connection, she says, is the “deeply-held belief that we are inextricably connected to each other by something greater than us, something that is rooted in love and compassion. I call that ‘God’.” Neurobiologically, that connection cannot be severed, but it can be forgotten, she argues. When it is forgotten, the result is the dehumanization of others. And dehumanization is what leads to the unspeakable actrocities of human history.
For Brown, this is where church, for all of its issues, fits in. She wants to sing with strangers. She wants to pass the peace with people whom she disagrees with and might even seriously dislike during the week. And she wants to “share the rail” (share the eucharist) with people she might otherwise never cross paths with, because they are different. She wants, in other words, connection and even intimacy with strangers. And in today’s world, she knows of no other place for this to happen than in church.
Church, in other words, can serve as an antidote, an alternative, to the epidemic dehumanization crisis of our time—providing it itself doesn’t serve as an ideological bunker by which people cluster together. What a compelling, timely, and essential mission for the church today! May our churches have the ears to hear.
You can’t go wrong watching Brené Brown’s sermon; you get a sense of her joyful “amazing love story” with God. You may or may not agree with all that she says. But I recommend it highly.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is the Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.