Sermon: Be Not Ashamed

by therevknits

 

My boxer, Emily, has no shame. Really, you can’t make her ashamed of anything. Even when she’s done something bad…she ain’t mad atcha. She has never doubted that she is the most beloved boxer in the world. Emily was my parents’ first boxer. They believed that everything she did was absolutely adorable. If she did something wrong, well… she wasn’t a bad dog, just the best dog that did a bad thing that was probably their fault anyway.

 

My mom’s dog Cory has another story. While Emily was pampered and coddled by my parents, Cory spent her puppyhood with a family that openly expressed that Cory was a bad dog. To counteract her badness, they took extreme measures, which almost broke her spirit. Boxers are a breed that can, under intense circumstances, be broken. Broken boxers are dangerous, unpredictable dogs. Cory was on her way there. But when she arrived at my parents house, she was given her own bed and toys and there were clearly defined rules and another dog that diligently followed them. Commands were simple and direct. Love was plentiful. It didn’t take her long to come back from her brokenness. Until my mom tried to teach her a new trick or I tried to give her a bath and she just collapsed and hid under a chair, shaking. Training and bathing had been traumatic, and, even in the new house, the previous conditioning had left the dog filled with shame and fear.

 

These are short periods of a dog’s young life in which they are most susceptible to learning both fear and shame. If you shame a dog during one of these developmental stages, that dog will have shame and fear triggered for the rest of their lives unless the owners diligently recondition them to the stimuli. Failed intense training efforts during these period of Cory’s puppyhood gave her a deeply conditioned shame and fear response at any training efforts. Even now, she will only do a couple of tricks at a time, before hiding under a chair for a few seconds and then coming back and trying again. It’s a sad reminder of her almost-brokenness.

 

Just like with dogs, people can be conditioned with shame. Let me be more direct: people are conditioned by shame. We learn to feel shame when we are children, and the ways we are conditioned to shame continue with us through the rest of our lives unless we can find a way away from the shame.

 

What is shame? Shame is not guilt. Guilt is feeling bad over a specific action or group of actions. Shame is a deeper conviction than guilt. It’s the same kind of emotion but it is about the whole self. So here’s an example to demonstrate the difference.

 

Let’s say a person named Shane goes gambling one weekend and loses some money. If his family needed that money, he might feel guilty over the loss or guilty that he wasted money, or guilty that he even gambled if he had been taught that gambling was wrong.

 

But if Shane has done this several times and starts to believe that maybe it’s just him… Maybe there’s something wrong with him that he keeps doing this and losing. Maybe he’s just a bad person. He’s probably just a loser. That’s shame. It’s no longer a bad feeling about an action he took; now it’s a bad feeling about himself and his own value.

 

Shame-based conditioning also happens in organizations. Churches are particularly and horribly susceptible to running as shame-based systems. A few of the characteristics of shame based churches would include:

 

It’s important what other church members think of us, so keep up a good front.

Adults are the focus, kids need to keep quiet and out of the way.

Approval is what matters. Anything that would warrant disapproval should be covered-up.

Feelings are not recognized. People who feel too much are shunned.

People who do “bad things” are shunned.

Nobody asks questions.

One gender keeps the power, the other is just labeled as “oversensitive.”

Secrets are kept and leaked for power.

People speak in code. Communication is indirect.

Unspoken rules govern behavior.

 

Here’s an example of what that might look like: Shane goes to church after having run into another church member who was making a sales call at the casino a few weeks before. Shane didn’t want to go to church and face the man, but his wife made him go. It just doesn’t look right to go alone, she said, like they have something to hide. When he arrives at church, the wife of the man he saw gives him a disapproving look. At breakfast, one of their Sunday School classmates asks Shane and his wife what they did that weekend. After answering her, she says to him, “Oh, so you didn’t go to Oklahoma this weekend?” And he’s done. His secret shame has been leaked. Shane has three choices. He can either give up the gambling, give up the church, or fake it better and gamble farther away or on days he won’t run into anyone he knows. Who he is at church has to become separated from his real persona, causing all kinds of greater damage to his self-esteem.

 

Churches that continue in this paradigm can do some damage to its members and its leaders. If everyone requires approval or is led by unspoken rules, the choice is either to conform and resent or to “misbehave” and then fake it with the group, which leads to a sense of brokenness of self…. and… church people become hypocrites. A lot of unchurched people will say the reason they don’t attend churches is because churches are full of… hypocrites, people who are one way one Sunday and another Monday-Saturday. And that’s the product of shame-based conditioning in churches.

 

Now then… let’s take this home a bit because most shame conditioning happens… at home. Families that are shame-based have some of these same characteristics:

 

It’s important what other members think of us, so we keep up a good front.

Adults are the focus, kids need to keep their place.

Approval is what matters. Anything that would warrant disapproval should be covered-up.

Feelings are not recognized. People who feel too much are shunned.

People who do “bad things” are shunned.

Nobody asks questions.

One gender keeps the power, the other is just labeled as “oversensitive.”

Secrets are kept and leaked for power plays.

People speak in code. Communication is indirect.

Unspoken rules govern behavior.

 

Here’s an example. Shane’s wife is silent on the way home from church with her arms crossed all the way home. Their daughter is silent in the back seat. Everyone knows that when mom crosses her arms, someone is in big trouble. That’s the signal. Nobody asks what is wrong. The daughter is afraid her mom is mad at her, and she knows  know she will be in trouble if she asks. When they get home, his wife starts in on Shane, criticizing his gambling and his waste of their money. She tells him he is just as worthless as her father always said he was. It isn’t that she doesn’t like what he did, it is that she doesn’t like him anymore. When the daughter approaches them that night to ask if she can have money for the school field trip, the daughter is told that she should ask her dad why they don’t have the money for the trip. The kid knows better than to ask and starts making up an excuse for her teacher to cover up the problems at home. The kid is ashamed. The mom is ashamed. Shane is ashamed. It wasn’t that what he did was bad, it is that he himself is bad and everyone has let him know it. People, too, are a breed that can be broken.

 

But there is an answer. And it is simpler than you might think.

 

Paul writes to Timothy, his young sidekick, and Paul writes from jail. Paul. Paul is in jail. Paul was a Roman citizen, a successful businessman, and a leader of the most legalistic law-abiding Jewish people, the Pharisees. And he’s in jail… and while Paul might feel shame at this, that he has failed his upbringing, that he has embarrassed the Christian community, or that he has shamed himself and his family… Paul is proud, baby! And he writes to Timothy with excitement over his incarceration. He is in jail for Jesus, and he points out to Timothy that with Jesus there is no shame.

 

And if you think about Jesus’s ministry, there was no shame. He didn’t openly criticize anybody except the religious leaders and they just thought he was a crackpot. The individuals he met were never shamed by their encounter. His first miracle was to keep shame from the host of a party who ran out of wine. The woman at the well? He didn’t shame her. Peter who betrayed him? Didn’t shame him. Judas who was going to betray him? He didn’t shame him. The tax collector, Zacchaues, in the tree? Didn’t shame him. The woman caught in adultery? He told the crowd to put down their stones. Jesus didn’t make them feel shame. He offered them grace, the living water, the bread of life, the love of God, real personhood. G R A C E. Grace.

 

Every time we do communion, I am struck by this line in the confession, “Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” And what is the response? “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

 

That proves God’s love for us. Grace. Undeserved forgiveness. Love for us while we sin against him. Acceptance of us despite our mistakes. I sincerely think that if Jesus approached the Shane of my story today, his message would be something like this: “Hey Shane, I know you have done something you’re not proud of, but I still love you. Even though you’ve made a mistake with your family’s money, you are still mine. What you did does not determine who you are to me.”

 

This is exactly what Paul is teaching Timothy: Jesus worked through grace-based conditioning. His communication was direct. He didn’t speak in code. He told stories that mad the truth more accessible. He let children come to him and gave them a place of honor. He welcomed sinners and tax collectors and… women. He shared truth instead of keeping secrets. Oh my goodness, if we really followed the way Jesus communicated and acted with people… there would be a whole lot less shame in the world. People would hear the truth in love. Problems would be dealt with privately and with love. And people could actually be at church who they are all week. And that church would be one worth going to! Obviously, you think so. 😉

And imagine if that grace-based conditioning was shared in our families. And questions were asked, and conversations were open, and code was no more. Rules were spoken and children were valued and you knew you were loved no matter what you did. Holy cow. It’s like the whole kingdom of God inside a house. And doesn’t it sound great?

 

This winter, I offered to give my mom’s dog, Cory, a much-needed bath. Cory had a breakdown when I led her to the hose. It broke my heart. Her head was down and you could just see her little heart pounding in her chest. Bath time = trauma time. She broke free and ran away. And then she looked at my mom and then at me, and you could just see the trust in her eyes.  After a moment, with her head held up, she walked over fearlessly and shamelessly and positioned herself in the spray of the hose. And we knew then that what had been almost broken had been put back together by the love of her master. Sounds just like Paul. It could be the story of all the Shanes of the world, whatever their shame. May it be our story too. From shame-conditioned brokenness to grace-conditioned acceptance by the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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