A man once said to his son, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
His son replied, “Well, I’m not.”
Dad was just about to blow a gasket when a light went on in his head. He said, “Good for you! I’m glad you’re not ashamed of yourself. But I still want you to stop doing…..”
That was an important insight: the difference between feeling bad about some conduct, and feeling bad about ourselves. The first I call guilt. If my conscience tells me, “Woops, that action was wrong,” and if my conscience is correct, if it prods me to fess up, clean up the mess and seek forgiveness for the behavior from God and people, then that kind of guilt is my friend. It helped me.
But shame turns the focus from our behavior onto ourselves, so that we feel bad, dirty, deficient about ourselves. And whatever we did wrong only proves that. Such shame not only fails to fix the situation, it actually makes things worse.
By shame I don’t mean the same thing as modesty or humility, which are actually rather freeing. Shame is that internal bondage that keeps us from asking for help when we need it. Its what keeps us in denial about needing help in the first place. Its why people spend 80% more time on a project to make it look 5% better to our bosses, our teachers or our workmates, at the expense of time with our family, ourselves and with God. Shame is the fear of exposing our real, vulnerable, fallible selves.
I’m touching on some painful, sensitive stuff here. Ever since Adam and Eve hid from God and wore fig leaf loin cloths, ever since Adam said to God, “that woman, that you gave me, she tempted me, and I ate,” its safe to say that shame is a universal part of the human condition. So we are not alone in our struggles with shame, even though that is precisely what shame does to us: it isolates us and makes us feel very, very alone, unloveable and powerless.
Another reason we’re not alone is because all across the denomination, many of our MCUSA churches are working their way up to Easter, during this Lenten season, on the theme “Ashamed No More.” from the words we heard this morning, from Romans 10. If we could project that passage again please, here they are:
Romans 10: 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
I ran this theme and the denominational worship suggestions by our worship commission and our deacons to see what they thought about it, because shame can be powerful, painful, personal stuff. We all agreed that this was worth diving into, so here we go. But if anything I say about shame during this season raises for you distressing thoughts or feelings, feel free to talk with me about it.
To hear some parents talking to their children, the worst possible shame in the world would be to read in the newspaper: “The injured pedestrian was rushed by ambulance to North Memorial Hospital where he was found by paramedics to be wearing socks and underwear that had holes in them. The victim was identified as the son of John and Ethel Woodward, of 2517 Columbus Ave. N., Minneapolis, MN., 55413, whose phone number is 612-484-9330, and who really should have taught their son better, don’t you think?”
But the shame that Paul is addressing in Romans 10 is actually worse. It is to discover that we invested our faith, our hope, our love and loyalty, our meaning, identity, obedience, security and honor in something that ultimately proved unworthy of us, that didn’t come through in a crunch. And that we did so, ironically, as a way of dealing with shame, or rising above the shame that binds us.
Sound familiar, Vikings fans? A few years ago, Becky and I invited a friend over to watch the championship game between the Vikings and the Saints. We ordered a pizza and stocked desserts for the victory celebration. (Cue the first picture). Here’s me with a home-made Vikings hat before the game. (Cue the next picture). Here’s me after the game. On a scale of 1 to 10, that kind of shame is a 1.5 maybe? Its over. And its not like I threw the losing interception in the last few seconds of the game.
No. The greatest shame would be to come to the end of our lives, look back and realize that we had leaned for all our comfort, worth and meaning on……“My country, right or wrong?” My racial or ethnic identity?
Other fig leaves for shame might be our professions, our professionalism, our bank accounts, our social status, our politics and our political parties, even our religious affiliation. And then there’s perfectionism and performance-based living. I’ll just keep working harder to meet expectations, achieve perfection, earn love and approval, and so silence the still, small voice of my insecurities. Failing that, I will at least cultivate the appearances of high achievement and perfection, so that I can appear to be all things to all people. Except human. There are religious ways of doing this, too. Its one of the temptations of ministry.
Some people try to medicate shame away with drugs or alcohol. Or they abuse others, for a momentary rush of power and revenge. Some may say, “What’s the use? I’ll always prove deficient” and become withdrawn, defensive, super-sensitive to every possible slight, even depressed, seeking refuge in the solitary confinement cell of low expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies of defeat and victimhood. Others might focus outward, to distract themselves with other people’s shortcomings, imperfections, failures and vulnerabilities, and when they show up, they attack, with destructive criticism, or gossip. Or they just withdraw all expressions of honor, care or appreciation and give the cold shoulder of judgment and rejection.
As of last Wednesday, I now get two times a week to look over the Sunday preaching passage with other people. My role at Urban Ventures in the Wednesday night Spanish language family life program, Siempre Padres, has changed. Now I’m leading a Bible study with folks who went through the program last year and who now just want to learn how to read and study the Bible, for guidance. That makes five Emmanuelites now engaged in Urban Ventures. So I told them, I’ll help you learn how to study the Bible, if you’ll help me with my sermon and with my Spanish.” Later on, we’ll get into some themes that they want to talk about. The simplest way to do a Bible study, I said, was to read a passage and ask ourselves, “What’s the good news?” and then, “What’s the cost?”
When we looked over this same passage Wednesday night, the talk immediately went to the word, “shame,” in verse 11. If you ever want to get to the heart of a person or a culture, ask about shame. What things might cause shame? I asked.
Answers included: Being afraid of someone else. Doing something wrong. Being looked down upon and laughed at, especially because of your color or language or nationality. One person even opened up about the experience of domestic abuse and the shame that that entails, for the victim oddly enough, rather than the perpetrator.
That’s when I should have taken my shoes off; suddenly we were standing on sacred ground, right at the place of some of the most painful, vulnerable, personal stuff, the tender spots in our hearts where we hurt the most, and withdraw, and yet where we also hope the most, for connection. The stuff we try to hide with our fig leaves.
They immediately zeroed in on the next words in the passage, “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him…” So the good news, they said, is that we are all equal under the eyes of God, Anglos and Hispanos, citizens and otherwise.
The kind of estrangement, separation, fear, prejudice, judgment hostility and shame that they lamented is precisely what today’s passage addresses. Read the whole letter and you’ll see that the Jewish and Gentile members of the churches of Rome did not believe that “’Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” They had trouble with, “’For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” So there would likely have been a lot of shaming and blaming going around among them. I can just imagine scenes like this:
“You brought that to the love feast? Mu-shu pork? Is it not enough that you Gentiles have to be unclean without also contaminating us Jews, the original people of God?”
And: “Well, if the Empire can barely put up with you uppity, superior, separatistic Jews, what makes you think that we Gentiles can, even in the church?”
Shame really finally comes down to a question of trust: Who and what do we entrust with our honor, our worth, our security, our meaning, value and identity? Our eternity? Our salvation? And is it someone or something reliable, trustworthy, and worthy of our trust? Paul quotes Isaiah to say that those who entrust all these things to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will never be put to shame. What this God asks of us first and foremost is not performance, not perfection, but trust. Do we trust him enough in our hearts to confess this trust with our mouths? If so, he will prove at least as faithful to us. So, there’s no need for any God-substitutes, like performance-based living and perfectionism, if those are our fig leaves.
Yes, shame is an odd theme for the season of Lent. Usually we spend the seven weeks leading up to Easter saying, “Shame on your for eating chocolate or drinking coffee.” Give them up, if that’s how God leads you. But don’t let it degenerate into any sad, superficial, performance-based living, trying to earn the honor and love that God already freely gives. In some cultures, that would be construed as shaming God. If we’re looking for something to give up for Lent, then let’s let go of our fig leaves, those God-substitutes I have named that we wear and bear to protect the most vulnerable, sensitive parts of our souls from the pain of shame.If we’re looking for something to give up, let it be shame, either the shame we might introject, that is, take into ourselves, or the shame that we might project, that is, throw out onto others. Instead, lets keep entrusting all our worth, our honor, our identity, security and loyalty and our eternity to the only one who comes through in a crunch, like he did even after the terrible shaming of the cross of Calvary, with the vindicating, justifying triumph of the empty tomb.