Psalm 27: 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
Its the day of your big presentation before all your co-workers, the boss and his higher-ups. Once you arrive at work, though, you find that you’re wearing two entirely different shoes. Maybe you shouldn’t have put on the Sponge Bob tie, either. You knew better than to dress in the dark! So you slip out down the street to buy new shoes and a tie, but entering through the emergency exit door, you set off the security system, which locks down the store so that not only can you not buy new shoes nor a tie, you get drilled and grilled by the store’s security service and then the police, while you watch the clock tick past the time for the meeting! Back in your office, you find that the printer is malfunctioning so you can’t make copies of your report for everyone. And then you find that you left the flash drive with the Powerpoint presentation in the pocket of your other suit jacket back at home, so that the only thing you can do for your presentation is to make shadow puppets on the wall with the projector….and then your boss says something about you and all you can hear are the words, failure, ashamed, and probation. And that’s when you sit up in bed in a cold sweat, and the clock tells you that its 3: 30 AM. Even then it takes five minutes to convince yourself that nothing of all this failure, shame and humiliation ever really happened.
Why do we have dreams like that? Woops! Or am I the only one? Psalm 27 nails it on the head in verse 1 with the question, “Whom shall I fear?” Why would we fear? Well, there are people like those described in the next verse: “When the wicked advance against me to devour my flesh…” Are those zombies? No. Armies, as in, “Though an army besiege me…though war break out against me….” Its the fear of having all the social and relational props pulled out from under us, and suddenly going from hero to zero, from being loved and at home, to being targeted, scapegoated and rejected.
For King David, those may well have been real armies advancing on him. But plenty of people have told me, “Oh yeah, Psalm 27 sounds like where I work.” Or, “Sounds like where I go to school.” “Sounds like our last family reunion…..or “Like coming home for Thanksgiving dinner,” or even, in some sad, lamentable cases, “Like where I went to church.” Armies of intimate enemies advancing upon us who know just how to push our buttons, the places where we have hurt before, and that never quite heal.
There are physical injuries that can hurt bad and for quite some time. But whenever we’re talking about shame, as does Psalm 27, that too is a painful, lasting injury to the soul that may leave us wounded and limping for a lifetime, emotionally, and in relationships. In fact, for many people in many cultures, if they were faced with the choice between a brutal blow to the body and a brutal blow to the soul, they would prefer the first, the physical injury. At least then you can go around saying, “I got this bum shoulder from our high school championship football game….we took state, by the way.” But as for the emotional and spiritual wound of shame, a Somali proverb says, “Better to be a dead lion than a living dog.” A Malian proverb puts it even more bluntly, “Death is better than shame.”
This would be a good time to repeat something from last week, when I began the Lenten series, “Ashamed No More,” that many of our MCUSA churches are using for Lent. What I said then, and repeat now, was, “Don’t confuse shame with guilt.” Guilt is when we evaluate our behavior as bad. That can give us energy to seek forgiveness, repair relationships and change our lives for the better. The same with modesty and humility, which we sometimes also confuse with shame. They are freeing, not binding, as shame is, because modesty and humility are about getting our eyes off ourselves, while shame is about seeing nothing but ourselves.
For shame is when we evaluate not so much our behavior, but ourselves, as bad or worthless or worthy of rejection and punishment. And that actually makes things worse. As I’ll show next week, ironically, shame actually binds us to the very behaviors that we feel shame about, and gives them more power over us. Its what keeps us hiding from God, like Adam and Eve did, when he comes looking for the pleasure of our company, as he did in the Garden of Eden. That amounts to a kind of living death, a twilight kind of half-existence. So, maybe Psalm 27 is about zombies: shame zombies trying to infect us with their shame.
But when Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and life more abundant,” I have to believe that what he offers us is to able to walk and talk freely again with God, to know that we are fully known and yet fully loved, wanted and welcomed, with our lives and our relationships unencumbered, uncomplicated, by the weight of shame. Just think of the freedom, the peace and the fruitfulness that opens up for us.
Psalm 27 gives us a blatant, no-holds-barred view of shame and shaming. Psalm 27 even names the worst possible shame in verse 10, “Even if my mother and father forsake me….” Just imagine: if the very persons, the very womb that brought us into the world, should suddenly turn against us, whether with abuse, rejection, hostility, or with cold distance and silence.
When you sent me to Burkina Faso in 2011 to teach and to visit on sabbatical, one day I listened to the heartache of a young man whose newfound Christian faith brought him much shaming, ridicule and even threats of violence from his immediate family, yes, even from his parents. So we looked at this very psalm and at verse, 10, and laid claim to it: “Even if my mother and father forsake me…….the Lord will receive me.”
But these words could apply as well to child neglect and abuse, whether the abuse was physical or emotional, like should parents withold love and attention because they confuse that with discipline. Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, God wants to be, and will be, the mother and father to us that no human being can be, however good they were.
Brothers and sisters, Psalm 27 reminds us that its a war zone out there.When King David composed this psalm, he had been granted a crown and a throne. But he had to fight the enemies in Psalm 27 to keep that crown and throne. Friends and family of Jesus, we too have been granted to sit with Christ on his throne. We too have been promised a crown. And we too must fight to keep what the grace of God has so freely, extravagantly given. Because someone is working very hard all the time, every day, to steal them from us.
You see, whenever we feel shame, whether its coming from within ourselves, or through someone else, its never just our own shaming going on; its never just their shaming alone. Within that painful, debilitating, disempowering feeling is also the hot stinky breath of hell; within the shame that we take into ourselves, within the shame that we may cast out onto others, are also the contempt and anger and hatred and fear and jealousy toward us of the Evil One, the Adversary, the Accuser, the enemy of our souls. Bound as he is to his pride, having gone past the point of no return in his rebellion, all he has left is to take as many people with him as he can.
But all he has to offer is shame and fear. And so he lies to us, telling us that all these messages we get about our alleged worthlessness and incompetence and unworthiness of God’s love are the truth and nothing but. He takes the truth about our humanity, our fallibility, our imperfections and weaknesses and needs and weaves of them a grand story of our lives. It is a sad and tragic story of failure, defectiveness and victimhood. And its false, absolutely bogus.
For the very needs that bring us together, our very incompleteness and weakness and vulnerabilities, so that, yes, we need help just as much as we can give it, are all beautiful from the vantage point of God! They are what connect us to God and each other, and not our polished perfection. God is taking our needs, our struggles and our weaknesses, and is weaving of them a beautiful tapestry of inter-connectedness and interdependence. The very needs and weaknesses for which the devil wants us to feel shame and disgrace are the elements of a story line that God is writing, a story of honor and of grace.
But whose honor? Ours of course, as in verse 6: “Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me.” But the heart of Psalm 27 is actually about someone else’s honor: the honor of God. Now we have a hunger for honor, to honor and to be honored. And we should. God made us that way. And so over the past generation there’s been much emphasis in education and business and in the church about having a positive self image. Which is good. Given a choice between a positive self image and a negative one, take the positive one, every time, of course. But given what we’re up against, or who we’re up against, our efforts at boosting our positive self-image with self-reinforcing messages are helpful, they’re necessary, but they’re insufficient by themselves. On their own, they’re like whistling in the dark.
Sure, get one of those executive teddy bears with the string that you pull so that it says, “You’re a worthy member of the team!” or “You have something valuable to contribute!” if that helps, because that’s all true, for all of us.
But sometimes something tells me, “He doth protest too much,” as Shakespeare put it. Because Psalm 27’s antidote to our shame is not just, “How great I am!” but “How much greater God is!” Both are true, but there’s only so far down the road we can get with our eyes fixed on ourselves. Where the psalmist finds refuge from shame is not in pulling the string on his executive teddy bear so that it says, “Everyone really respects you,” although we’d hope that’s true, beginning with himself.
No, he finds refuge in God and in worship, like when he prays in verse 4: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” The best and strongest antidote to shame then is not just a better, truer vision of ourselves, though that helps. The truest, lasting eternal antidote to the debilitating pain of shame is a better, truer vision of God. Assaulted by shame, the psalmist wants, “to behold the beauty of the Lord.,” and not of himself.
One thing that strikes me as breath-takingly beautiful about God as I understand him, something about God that all the beauty of creation and human creativity only hint at, is how God can be so uncompromisingly and incorruptibly holy against all evil, and, at the same time, he can be so breath-takingly merciful, so astoundingly gracious and compassionate, so faithfully and reliably warm, welcoming and inviting to all sinners. That’s beyond beautiful: its sublime. Its the gospel. That’s the healing vision of God that I see. Gazing at it melts away all shame and fear,, and gives us the wonderful freedom of forgetting about ourselves, for good or bad.
Have I mentioned that worship is the first of our four commitments in our vision statement? Only a dozen times? “As followers of Christ, Emmanuel Mennonite Church commits to worshiping God…..” Why? For God’s sake, and that’s enough. But as an extra, added bonus, consider worship as therapy. Looking to God can get our heads back on straight after a week of fearing and fighting shame and blame by the world, the flesh and the devil, by commercials, by co-workers, by other people, even by our families, even from ourselves. The antidote to shame is the freedom that comes with forgetting about ourselves and losing our selves in God and his grandeur, as we shall do for all eternity. That makes of worship not only therapy, but spiritual combat against the Accuser, the enemy of our souls. The safety and security of our honor and worth, and our antidote and defense against shame lie finally not in ourselves, but in God, in God’s beauty, and in God’s honor.