University Congregational Church
May 3, 2020
“A Resurrection Shaped Life: Recovering from Shame & Blame”
Two weeks ago, Paul captured my attention during our worship with a prayer about this stay-at-home time and how we don’t have to use it to accomplish something huge or become something better. It was adapted from Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese poem, and read in part:
You do not have to become totally Zen,
You do not have to use this isolation to make your marriage better,
your body slimmer, your children more creative.
You do not have to maximize its benefits
By using this time to work even more,
write the bestselling Corona Diaries,
Or preach the gospel of ZOOM.
Many of us were raised in a time or by a generation that taught us that achievement was a good pathway to love and acceptance. The American Dream itself teaches this idea. Achievement earns us respect and affection. Failure somehow is seen as a personal deficit – and personally shameful.
Jake Owensby, whose book we are following for this sermon series A Resurrection Shaped Life, wrote: “If you spend your life trying to ensure your significance and assure yourself of your own worth through your accomplishments, the feeling of self-worth will always elude you. You will become addicted to striving, fear being found out as a fraud, resent being unappreciated, and continue to strike out at others to soothe your own misery.”
The good news for all of us is that God loves us because God loves us. Period. God’s infinite love brought us out of nothing into being. God’s love infuses us at each instant with value that can never be diminished by our circumstances or by what we do or don’t do or what others think of us. The end of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese poem reads:
Whoever you are, no matter how broken you think you are, you feel you are,
the world still has a place for you, calls to you over and over
announcing your place as legit, as forgiven,
even if you fail and fail and fail again.
remind yourself over and over,
all the swells and storms that run through your long tired body
all have their place here, now in this world.
It is your birthright to be held
deeply, warmly in the family of things, not one cell left in the cold.
Today, I want to talk a bit about shame and blame. Shame is a visceral sense that we are unlovable. All of us sense at one time or another the idea that someone doesn’t like us or rejects us… or we may even feel someone’s contempt. But when we feel shame, it is the idea that we deserve that rejection or contempt. We believe that we are just no good and people around us have realized it. That is what shame is, and it is literally a godforsaken way to live. It isn’t the idea that you have done something wrong – it is the idea that somehow you are wrong.
Often, children develop this belief from something in their early years, perhaps because of a circumstance that caused them to feel like an outsider, such as:
• Being moved between homes of parents or guardians
• Not being chosen for sporting teams, invited to parties or being in the “popular” group
• Having a noticeable difference, such as a disability, speech /language variance, culture or minority status, social or economic disparity, or another distinguishing characteristic
• A traumatic event in their childhood, such as abuse, divorce, death or natural disaster
These and other events can cause a child to feel a loss of self esteem and begin the shame and blame syndrome. They may decide to try to make themselves lovable by chasing after achievements, believing that the only pathway to being loved and accepted is by achievement.
However, ensuring your significance and worth by accomplishment is empty and self-worth will elude you. You can actually become addicted to striving for more and more and then end up resenting being unappreciated. This is known as the shame and blame syndrome. You feel shame because you feel unworthy. You seek to gain your self-worth by accomplishing things and proving your self-worth to others. But you can never do enough and they can never appreciate you enough. Then, you blame them because they don’t appreciate you for all that you’ve done.
“Overcoming shame”, Owensby says, “involves changing our minds about ourselves. And Jesus came in part to help us do precisely that. Jesus changes our minds about ourselves by changing our minds about God.” In our traditional word for today, the disciples and Jesus come upon a blind man. In the ancient world, the people believed that a person with a condition like blindness was being punished for sin – their own or the sin of their forebearer. The disciples asked Jesus why the man was blind. In other words, who gets the blame? Jesus teaches them to respect the freedom, dignity, and ability of every human.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” John 9:1-12
To recover from the blame-shame syndrome, we must reimagine God. To do that, we start with something as basic as why God sent Jesus as an infant into the world. Some people say that Jesus came into the world to die for our sins. What if, other theologians suggest, God achieves the ultimate goal of love in Jesus? Let me explain. From the beginning of creation, God created the world to be unique – each created being was created to be radically unique and completely irreplaceable. God made each being to love that particular being. That includes each and every one of us. We are fragile, unique, coarse, tender, wounded, glorious beings.
To love means to “draw near”… to get so close that you become one. In Jesus, the divine and the human are inseparable. Jesus is love divine and human all wrapped up together and teaches us about the best way to love God and to love humanity. He teaches us how to love God, how to ourselves and to love each other better. He teaches us how to draw near. This is why Jesus is born as a child – so that we can draw near to him in the manger. Babies are approachable and lovable.
Jesus teaches us that we are the beloved – not the blameworthy. Shame has no place in any human heart. And Jesus takes the lesson one step farther. He knew that shame and blame often go hand in hand. He knew that it is human nature to blame the hardest trials they face – the times they need our compassion the most. Instead of feeling empathy, we often blame people for the cruel, heartrending or sorrowful circumstances they face.
• The poor we call lazy.
• The addicts we suspect are weak
• We wonder aloud if people with lung cancer smoked
• Diabetics must not have controlled what they ate
Under the label of holding people accountable, we fault-find and shield ourselves from their misery. Blamers want to know who is to blame. Following Jesus and drawing near calls us to a new task. It asks a new question: What role can I play to make this shattered situation whole? How can I draw near and bring compassion?
Friends, you are God’s own beloved. Believe the good news. This includes you. You don’t have to deserve it. You were created just as you are – unique and irreplaceable. You are God’s own gloriously beloved child as you are. Nothing you could do or have done will change that. You are accepted. You are forgiven. Give up the shame and blame game for good and embrace the beauty of who you are created to be!
Owensby, Jake. “A Resurrection Shaped Life; Dying and Rising on Planet Earth” Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2018.