Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 – Forsaking Shame

ashamed

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God….

My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. (NRSV)

Shame is powerful. It keeps a person locked within themselves with their secrets hidden far from others. Far too often we try and cope with our shameful words or actions through promising to work harder, pledging to have more willpower, and/or plain old complaining that life is unfair. None of this gets to the root of our shame. Unlike guilt, which our conscience identifies as specific behaviors to repent of, shame is the message of our inner critic who obnoxiously decries that we are somehow flawed, not enough, and inherently lacking intelligence.

Shame is the insidious mechanism which interprets bad events as we ourselves being bad. Shame lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets – which is why the posture of shame is to hide our face in our hands. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness.  Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name our stigma and tell our stories. In other words, throwing a bucket of vulnerability on shame causes it melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West.

In contrast to the unhealthy hiding of ourselves within prison walls of shame is seeking refuge and hiding ourselves in God. Even a cursory look at today’s psalm evidences an open and vulnerable person who wants nothing to do with shame. The psalmist unabashedly and without shame is quite forward in presenting his wants to God.

The psalms are meant for repeated use, to be voiced aloud again and again. In doing this simple activity, we shame-proof our lives. God’s face shines upon us and takes away the shadows of shame. It is no coincidence that Jesus forsook the shame of the cross through publicly uttering the words of this psalm: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Unchecked verbal violence will eventually lead to physical violence. If wordy persecution comes from others, the primary tactic will most likely be shaming the people such persons want to control. Abusive people will frame a justification for violence because the people for whom they are leveling shame are “bad,” even “monsters.” If the verbal persecution comes from within, the shame can reach a critical mass of suicidal ideation and perhaps outright attempts at ending one’s life.

There is no living with shame. The good news is that we don’t have to. Instead, we can live in the strong fortress and the rock of refuge which is God. The Lord traffics in redeeming mercy and steadfast love, not in the demeaning judgment of shame. We can flee to God and find grace to help us in our time of need. There is no shame in reaching out for help. We all need deliverance from something. Its a matter of whether we are open to ask for it, or not.

Father God, into your hands I commit my spirit – everything I am and all that I hope to be – so that Jesus Christ might be exalted in me through the power of your Holy Spirit. I choose to leave shame where it belongs – nailed to the cross. With your divine enabling, I shall walk in newness of life through expressing my needs and wants with courage, confidence, and candor. May it be so according to your steadfast love. Amen.

Click You Are My Refuge sung by Shannon Wexelberg and Matthew Ward and allow your spirit to open.

Own Your Struggle

sisyphus struggle

In this social media driven world, we know all too well the temptation to sanitize our respective life experiences and stories.  Even the cloistered folk who refuse any social media will often not give you a straight answer when asked the sincere question, “How are you doing?”  “Fine” is not an acceptable answer, in my book.  The reason I say we need to be more honest in our responses and presentations to one another is:

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace.  However, owning our internal struggles through embracing weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens to us the way of grace.

Far too often you and I have ongoing struggles within because we don’t own them.  We struggle because we don’t struggle.  I’m the expert on stuffing feelings.  I learned it well early in my life.  Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them.  Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness.  We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them.  If not openly confronted and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness.  It’s much better to get down and dirty with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

20180220_111056

Holy Scripture and 2,000 years of church history have given us a path to wholeness.  Lent is the season which draws out grand themes of the Christian life from the Bible.  Prominent is our need for confession, repentance, faith, humble prayer, and forgiveness.  Spiritual disciplines exist to put us in a position to confront our deepest struggles – even ones we didn’t know we had.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the Bible.  “Love one another” (John 13:34-35); “Be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32); “Show hospitality to one another” (1 Peter 4:9); “Forgive one another” (Colossians 3:13); “Encourage one another” (Hebrews 3:13); and “Bear the burdens of one another” (Galatians 6:2); are just a few of the exhortations Scripture gives us to “spur one another on” (Hebrews 10:24) toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships.

help one another

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.  Some folks live as if the author of Hebrews said, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting together for worship and edification, so just let them go, slackers they are.  Forget about that encouragement thing, especially since Jesus is coming soon anyway.”  Here is what the verse says, for real:

“Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that.  We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer”. (Hebrews 10:25, CEV)

There were confessing believers in the ancient church who drifted away and dropped out.  They had legitimate internal and external struggles with outward persecution and inner doubt.  What they needed most was an infusion of faith and perseverance, which would only come if they owned their struggle through sharing it with others.  Like a charcoal briquette which falls off the pile and loses its fire, so there were individual Christians who separated themselves from the warmth of genuine fellowship and lost their faith.

hot charcoal

The ancient believers had some of the same struggles we had.  They just couldn’t make sense of why things in the world were so bad.  The people had little money, no respect from government authorities, and, most of all, family who were telling them they were crazy for following Jesus.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Rather than embrace the struggle and work through it, they just sat in the back of the fridge, I mean in the back pew of the church, and slowly gathered mold.  Doing nothing is usually a bad idea.  If you try and fail, there is grace.  But if you do nothing, there is only nothing.

Freighted within the definition of biblical faith is risk.  Faith is stepping out and taking a chance on love, encouragement, help, support, comfort, and kindness.  No risk it, no biscuit.

“Keep on being brave! It will bring you great rewards.  Learn to be patient, so that you will please God and be given what he has promised.  As the Scriptures say, ‘God is coming soon!  It won’t be very long.  The people God accepts will live because of their faith. But he isn’t pleased with anyone who turns back.’  We are not like those people who turn back and get destroyed. We will keep on having faith until we are saved.” (Hebrews 10:35-39, CEV)

william penn quote

God desires you and me to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus.  Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, to him and to one another.  Yes, you may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve.  But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m talking about something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing.  We want to be liked and we want to be loved, and we mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get us what we long for.

You might fail? Join the club. I’m willing to wager that I’ve been fired or let go from more jobs than you’ve even had in your life.  I’ve some wild ministry successes, and I have had some spectacular failures.  I have been at the lowest of the low in a major depression, and I’ve been at the top of the mountain where every prayer gets answered.  I have had God be silent for months on end, with me having no clue as to why.  I’ve had literally no money to my name, and I’ve had plenty in multiple accounts.

So, here’s the humble observation: It doesn’t matter whether your circumstances are to your liking or not, whether you have all you feel you need, or don’t ever seem to have enough, whether you have well-behaved kids and family, or wayward children and messed up uncles and cousins.  What matters is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6).  It takes risk to have faith.  It takes two (or more) to have love.

Own your struggle.  Don’t live in denial.  Grab it and face it squarely.  Face it with God.  Face it with others.  If you’re mad as hell at God, tell him so; he’s big enough to take it (please go to the psalms and pray them as your own).  If you need prayer and/or help, ask for it.  Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions.  If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing and get on your knees with that person and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

no-risk-it-no-biscuit

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of emotions that need dealing with.  Being overwhelmed is common to the human condition.  “How are you?” “Busy!” Tell me something I don’t know.  It takes no relational effort to give a pat answer.  Let’s get down to why you feel you constantly need to express how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

I think you get the idea.  Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace.  Maybe you don’t need to let it all out on social media, but there is a place and a context for you to bring your struggles before God and others.  Take advantage of the privilege and the opportunity which has been provided for you through the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Shadow Self

20171020_081145

In my line of work, I meet a lot of different people.  Some folks are a delight to be around, others not so much; some people talk a lot, some barely any words, at all; and, many people are nice and civil in conversation, and some can be brutal with their words concerning others.  For the most part, I know what I’m walking into when I engage with another person because there are some common types of people.  But, once-in-a-while I find a person who is as rare as blood type AB negative (which is only 1% of the world’s population).  That person is one who has no shadow.

Even Peter Pan had a shadow, even though it usually wasn’t anywhere near his body.  Everybody has a shadow.  When the light strikes us, a shadow is created beside us.  The shadow is not so much us, but the dark reflection of us.  Now I’m not talking about physical shadows, but the common condition of people who only let others see their shadow, the nebulous reflection, and not the real self.

Here’s an admission: One reason I don’t go to very many Christian conferences, and even some churches, is that there is so much preening, posturing, and pretending going on.  Far too many people only show their shadow selves and only present a silhouette of their real selves.  Pastors’ Conferences, I might add, are the worst.  Shadows are everywhere.

The shadow self thinks the dark reflection is who he/she is.  The shadow has grandiose thinking, and believes that external behavior is who you are.  The shadow needs to be the up-front show for all to see, as to disguise what is creating the shadow.  When a person is overwhelmed by her weaknesses and has a difficult time looking at the real person in the light, she looks to the shadow self to serve her.  Keeping up the shadow for others to look at, instead of the real deal, becomes the modus operandi of life.  Other folks just rabbit hole themselves in an imposed solitary confinement and don’t come out.  They literally hide in their homes.  That way no one will see them, and they won’t have to deal with other people’s shadow selves.

Let’s get a solid biblical theological truth out there in the light for you to see, without any shadow: God likes you.  God loves you, cares for you, knows you intimately inside and out, and still likes you, a lot.  God created you in His image and likeness, and, despite any weakness, ignorance, and imperfection on your part, has demonstrated his enduring commitment by sending his Son, the Lord Jesus, to teach, save, and empower you in life.  God’s love is not only for other people, but for you.

The love of God is the light of the world – manifested, fulfilled, and demonstrated by Jesus.  The light shows all the imperfections, flaws, disobedience, and rationalizations.  The light exposes everything, but also creates the shadow.  This is where your choice comes into play: Will you embrace the light, or turn and face the shadow?

The true self knows God in her, and knows herself in God.  She believes she is united with Christ.  She doesn’t need to prove anything.  This rarest of person can say with peace and confidence, “I am who I am, just me, warts and all, with no window treatments around me.”  The laws of physics are suspended; there is no shadow.

To live into the true self is to be fully detached from your shadow, your self-image, and live into God’s image within you – which embraces both the good and the bad.  It is the peace and serenity of knowing that I don’t have to present a different self before others, and especially to God.

Evil relies upon denial and disguise, and lives in the shadows.  Righteousness trusts in the love of God, the person of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The shadow self improvises with personal ingenuity.  The true self plans to risk all on the grace of God in Christ.  The shadow refuses to change; it is always a dark reflection. The real person is a transformed person; like Moses, their faces shine with the glory of God.

The only way to live without any shadow is to be completely open to God, full face in front of him, and vulnerable to others.  When we enter a vital union with Jesus, his very rare AB negative blood is given to us and new blood engorges our spiritual veins.  Christ changes us.  Where there is fresh blood there is life.

20180112_080015

You will meet a lot of different people, maybe today, maybe over the course of the next months and years.  Who are you to them?  Who are they to you?  What kind of self is there?  Are you in a place of shadows?  Will you live in the light?

Weakness

 
 
            When we think of Jesus, we might immediately think of him as Lord and King, the sovereign of nations, the high and exalted ruler above all creation.  But in this time of year, we remember that Christ did not come to this earth with triumphal strength.  Jesus came as a weak little baby.  He purposely divested himself and became just like us – vulnerable and subject to weakness.  “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).  The incarnation is an astounding doctrine.  Such a doctrine really ought to inform our church ministry and how we operate with one another.
 
            Weakness tends to be one of those things we don’t like.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We fear being taken advantage of if we are exposed.  So, instead, we value self-sufficiency, independence, and holding our own.  Strength is a value we can buy into.  The Apostle Paul struggled with his weaknesses.  Yet, he learned not only to accept human weakness, but to actually value it.  It wasn’t easy, especially since Paul had to hear from Jesus himself:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  It was then that Paul made the decision:  “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
 
            From a biblical perspective, weakness is not a bad thing.  In fact, it is through the weak that God delights to work.  “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” was Paul’s message to a Corinthian church that esteemed strength and looked down on weakness (1 Corinthians 1:27).  Weakness and strength are not moral or ethical terms.  To be weak is simply to recognize reality.  The goal of life and ministry, of both pastor and parishioner, does not really demand strength.  I always chuckle when a church tells me they are looking for a “strong” pastor to lead them.  Um, maybe they should get their job description from Scripture.  Vitality and vigor among pastor and people are not the goal but by-products of dwelling together in Christ as real people without pretense or posturing.  It is when we insist on strength that we get things like hypocrisy and two-faced behavior.  We keep up appearances so that we can avoid being seen as weak.
 
            Weakness is vulnerability.  And vulnerability demands reality.  In order to become real people in a real church we must embrace our collective weakness.  Until we can get to that point, there will continually be an emphasis on manipulation and technique to produce strength.  Black and white thinking takes over the unreal church.  The lone ranger and rugged individualist who seem to have it all together are held up as the model.  But Scripture will have none of this.  True community comes through weakness and vulnerability. 
 
            We cannot truly understand ourselves until we can admit our weakness and our inability to understand everything.  Indeed, one of the great mysteries of Christian faith is that God himself exists as a perfect One in a community of Three.  Embracing weakness allows us to embrace the mystery of God and the Gospel.  This compulsion that so many have to nail every theological statement down in neat packaged solutions is to treat weakness and vulnerability as some disease to be cured.  The obsession for clear answers to every question only creates anxiety, which, in turn, produces irrational behavior.  An anxious church makes decisions with no sense to them because they are always trying to gain the high ground of certainty through strength.
 

 

            If we want to live into our weakness, then we need to drop the pretense and admit how we are really doing, feeling, and even believing.  For, no one can truly live life to the full in a fantasy world constructed of our own strong making.  Weakness allows us to experience true community, significant relationships, and connection with God.  God became a baby.  He embraced weakness and vulnerability.  Let that thought marinade in your heart and soul in this season so that the New Year will bring a truly new life.