Nothing to be Ashamed of
My senior year of high school, I had a Bible teacher everyone considered their favorite. I, of course, liked him because everyone else did. It wasn’t unitl much later in life that I realized, deep down, I sort of thought he was an ass. I was as everyone else, swept up into his pretty peacock feathers, misguided by bright shiny lights and comical interludes during class. We would listen enraptured as he spoke of his past life working in stocks and bonds, making millions of dollars and deciding to give it all up to work humbly with our small-town Christian high school. He taught out of a book called “Biblical Counseling” which was a training manual for non-ministry trained men and women to counsel other men and women. The gist of the book was based on the principles of how to live a good Christian life which of course boiled down to a very telling statement he once made during class that has stuck with me ever since.
“You want the warm fuzzies while you worship God? That comes when you know you are standing before the Lord blameless because of your lack of sin.”
Yeah, I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Flash forward to present day. Ten years later, I have become a fan of the 12 Steps. Culture and people on a whole, tend to live in addictive systems. Symptoms of this would be: high levels of anxiety, depression, work-aholism, perfectionism, passive aggressive actions, high levels of manipulation, actions performed out of guilt rather than choice, loss of boundaries (internal and external), narcissism, etc. Unfortunately, the church on a whole functions pretty well using many of these methods and as such, we have a hard time letting them go. Many church leaders prefer the use of fear to subdue, guilt to induce and passive agressive relations to create a response that is both swift and complete from their parishoners. If you are like me and not only did you grow up in a family system feeding on it, but went to a church immersed is such behavior only to be combined with a school working tirelessly to control and condition its students into behavior modifaction, coming up for air is hard to do. You sink or swim. Play or sit out. There are no other options, so you jump into the deep end, believing this system is the only one that exists.
But in all three cases, places and institutions, there was always something just slightly… off. As though no matter how hard you tried, freedom could never be achieved. We were talking, preaching, listening, studying grace, love and mercy and yet it felt as though they were a million miles away, having nothing to do with present circumstance. A great turmoil, discontent and deceit lay just beneath the surface. My family would be falling apart at the seams, my sister pregnant, my dad out of work, my mother always at work, but we were at church every Sunday and soccer games on Saturday and home group on Wednesdays, expounding on the greatness of God. Churches were splitting over secrets and elders defecting, whispered rumors echoing in the sanctuaries and ultra-cool folding chairs. My school was overrun with the students performing sexual acts in the back of teachers cars after high school games, drinking on Friday nights, teachers coming in and out lasting only a year as they were chewed up and spit out by families, students and administrative staff. All the while, everything was good and so was God.
The schyzophrenic message did nothing for a young impressionable mind. Where was the truth? Where was the consistency? Where was the peace?
Recently I started attending a group for codependents. It’s actually a 12 step group. The Twelve Steps for Codependents. And you know what? It’s brilliant really. My favorite are the 4th and 5th steps. Apparently I’m the only one who likes it, but I do. I find them cleansing, healing and hopeful.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Everyone lives with a shadow side. Whether we like it or not, we all have the activities, choices, memories we would rather not remember, or would rather weren’t there at all. They could be things that we have done, or things done to us. Ways we have manipulated, or ways we have been manipulated. We treasure the moments no one has to know, when the consequences haven’t reached visible portions, and we can tuck our secret back into the safe recesses of our minds pretending that’s not who we really are. Guilty, ashamed, we “confess” to God, promise to never do it again, and quickly move on, rushing past the awkward memory. And thus, the great divide happens. In monumental efforts to gain ground in perfection, we lose the very essence that makes us who we are: our humanity. We become impenetrable forces of sinless men and women, bringing good news to the poor and lowly, all the while, our souls, churches and families are starving, barely rubbing two dimes together in terms of joy and peace.
This same teacher spoken of above, at my graduation, called me bold. I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment, or a putdown. I’m not sure he knew either. A decade later though, boldness has taken on a new meaning.
Now, boldness looks like walking into the schism of my heart and standing firmly in the space in between and being willing to do whatever is necessary to bridge the gap. Boldness is walking into a 12 step meeting, realizing the wisdom of Jesus in his message to the Pharisees regarding cleaning the inside of the cup. Hope of perfection has long been abandoned, but clarity, now that is a treasure worth seeking. It’s frightening, wondering if a lifetime of operating out of dishonesty can be undone, even scarier knowing there are few around who will understand.
The irony is, reaching for perfection, chasing an illusion of control, working tirelessly to be sinless, hiding my imperfection under a cover of church on Sunday, and an exterior scrubbed and actually does more harm than good. In the end, as much as I rage against the machine, I’m agreeing with it. I’m validating that I have something to be ashamed of, I’m telling me, you need to be someone different and in the end, the only heart I’m breaking… is my own.
No, the world, the church, my community, it won’t always accept my flaws. In fact, it will most likely shame them and do its best to manipulate me back in line. The script is well known. But what choice do I have? What choice do we have? Insurrection doesn’t always look like changing the system: most of the time, it looks like exiting it. Sometimes you have to go off-script. We are trying to win 1,000 battles everyday, but we’re losing the war… and it’s exhausting.
It’s hard work, peeling off the layers of shame, fear, anger, resentment, mistrust and anxiety. It’s scary, stopping the engines that have been running on full pistons barreling headlong towards no where. There is a huge void in the space between who I am and who I’ve presented and getting to know the real me, the one knit together, the one full of very real, honest experiences and emotions, the one silenced by so many unspoken messages, the one raging beneath the venear of superficial control, the one broken by a system built on death, the one honest and compassionate, truly grateful and desperate to love and be loved, to know and be known.
But if I wait for the day I am sinless to truly experience the warm fuzzies, I’m going to die miserable and never really loving life. God will always be a task-master giving me the cold-sholder when I’m less than acceptable, and I will never really have a faith that moves mountains.
I set my face like flint, wondering what will come along the way, knowing learning new ways will take a sort of boldness that could only be described as heavenly grace. And maybe one day, far off in the distance, I will be able to face the schizophrenic messages of all systems spoken of and help apply some truth. First though, the plank in my own.