At a little campground in Kearney, Nebraska, we sat in a tent in a big circle. I was a youth pastor, and we were in the travel stages of an adventure trip to the Grand Tetons. I brought a little exercise to the group to facilitate the bonding experience and convey my hopes and expectations. This was our first night of bible study and I took the kids to several “one another” passages in the New Testament. We talked about how love requires being open to one another, growing together as a group, encouraging one another and lifting one another up. We talked about getting below the surface and really being vulnerable and honest with one another, growing together as we planned to also grow closer to God.
I had brought a large onion along. An onion has many layers upon one another. As you peel off the layers, you move closer and closer to the sweet core of the onion. This onion would represent two things on our trip. First it would represent our spiritual lives. In our spiritual lives, we often cling to the surface because we fear vulnerability and honesty with ourselves and with God. We fear deeper commitment. We feel more comfortable on the outer limits. We fear depth. The onion would represent our commitment get to the center of the onion spiritually, to cultivate intentionally a closeness with God that is sweet and pure. The onion would also represent our relationship with each other on this trip. Often we cling socially to the perimeter of relationships because we fear committing to the particularities that come with intimacy. We fear others may see the soft underbelly of our insecurities, fears, emotions, inadequacies, and even our sin. We prefer controlling the narrative of all that is uncomfortable about our lives, fearing how someone might react when they know who we really are. The onion would represent our relational lives with others in the group. Did we dare or care to reach the sweet center under the layers of our social relations? This was the twofold challenge.
After explaining this I asked for a commitment from the group to work toward the center of the onion in our relationships to both God and to others in the group. Who wants to get to the center of onion this week? Everyone agreed. Everyone was committed. I went around the circle to make sure.
Then it happened. As if it were a large, juicy Red Delicious apple I sunk my teeth into the onion and took a huge bite, crunching it down and swallowing it with a triumphant grin stretching from cheek to cheek. This was one of the hottest onions I have ever tasted. Heart-burn was instantaneous and the price of getting to the center of the onion was not an easy one. The air began to fill with the tear-jerking scent of onion. I talked briefly about a couple more things: getting to the center takes work, it’s not always going to be pleasant as we crunch on chunks of real life that sting our eyes and burn our stomachs, it’s a layer by layer process, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Then we passed the onion around and the whole group partook in our bizarre communion, forming a quick bond in us that was something we all shared in terrible gastrointestinal reminders for the next couple of days as well as a taste in the mouth that seemed to linger for the entire week.
Why do I tell you this story? Because it is my firm belief that the strength of a missional movement often rests on the deep connection of its leaders, and deep connection requires vulnerability. Some of the greatest bonds are formed in the trenches of adversity, where our true selves find raw expression. The more I lead, the more I realize how important it is to have ministry partners who know me – even in the deepest layers. I find that when we do the hard work of peeling the onion, when we shed the tears together that peeling the onion generates, when we move together towards that sweet center, we find a different kind of love and commitment. It is at the center of our vulnerability with trustworthy friends that we find ourselves loved and accepted despite our flawed humanity.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned in both participating in and leading teams is that a mutual commitment to love at the deeper layers not only builds a healthier team, it builds a healthier me, and it inevitably impacts mission.
One last story: my grandfather served in World War II in an air-force battalion where he connected deeply with a group of men in a way he never had before in the midst of battle. That happened when he was 19 years old. For over fifty years, he would maintain a bond with those men so extraordinary that he would, later in life, travel all around the country just to reconnect with these friends.
The bonds between those we share mission shape who we are and shape how we are on mission together. The question is, how willing are we to be vulnerable and to risk the tears, the pain, and the risk of getting beneath the surface?
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