Archive for the ‘shame’ Tag

Disappointing Everyone but God   16 comments

It took years for me to accept my own ostrich-ness without embarrassment, recognizing and not running away from the disappointment others held towards me.  I was sharply reminded of this at my dad’s funeral as I re-connected with acquaintances from long ago, the many who stood in line to offer me their condolences and politely inquire: “Where do you live now?” and “What do you do there?”

The simple answer is, “I work at Home Depot.”  There is nothing simple about that response.  It is freighted with cultural and religious baggage, and I immediately saw it in their faces when I answered, sudden flickers of questions and doubts tugging at their cheeks and blinking their eyelids. The middle-aged son of a college president working a minimum-wage job?  Should they leave it alone and move on or ask me for clarification… and how could they do that circumspectly?  Since I wasn’t sitting down with them for coffee, I started adjusting my answer to relieve their discomfort.

I understand their consternation.  When I started working at Home Depot two years ago it took me a couple months of building courage to share the news on Facebook.  As a culture, when we hear of a college-educated person in mid-career working an entry level job, we feel sure there is a tragic story behind this mishap.  Selling hammers is one step above homelessness.  I was going to say one step above unemployment, but actually an unemployed professor ranks far above a working stiff–he hasn’t given up on himself yet.

Of course the heavy cultural implications are double-weighted with the religious ones.  It is true that Jesus himself worked with hammers and saws, but that was in his youth, just an apprenticeship for what really mattered, we think.  The highest accolades in my family and alma mater go to missionaries, secondarily to pastors, thirdly to those in non-profit work, but instead of working my way up that ladder, I slipped down it, one rung at a time.  Oddly enough, my soul was gaining depth and strength and wisdom with each lower step.

It seems the Kingdom of God is much less predictable and straightforward than I assumed most of my life.  I guess that is why we walk by faith.

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Posted June 11, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

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A Visit from My Boyhood Self   Leave a comment

Caroline came to me at work yesterday with an apology, “I’m sorry I was hard on you yesterday.  I was slammed with a lot of issues I had to sort through and was feeling stressed.”  I said that I understood.  But she was not finished with her apology which rather quickly worked around to her frustration at me, still evident in her look and tone of voice, because I was apparently inadequate at my job.  Tears had started pooling in my eyes when she finally finished her lecture and turned to leave.

Having no customers to attend, I had some space to reflect.  Why did this exchange feel so bad to me?  I was better than most at handling displeased customers and angry colleagues, able to be courteous and sympathetic without taking it personally.  I felt the powerful emotional tug and followed the shame back to my childhood fears. This dynamic was very familiar, the sense that I was fundamentally flawed because I was too slow or stupid or inattentive.  It was not simply that I had failed in this one thing as everyone does, but that I had failed in a way that others did not, at least not responsible ones.  As a boy I figured dad would be patient with average mistakes, the kind he too made, so his frustration proved some deeper flaw in me.  Children who paid more attention, who got it on the first explanation, who didn’t repeat the same mistake earned approval.  I just had to try harder… but I could never quite overcome that achievement deficit.  I was stuck in a permanent sense of inadequacy.

Now whether my dad was too impatient or I was too sensitive is beside the point… or rather it completely leads us down the wrong trail.  The point is not to identify blame, but to identify dynamics–this is what happened and this is how it made me feel.  And seeing that dynamic clearly, and being the melancholic that I am (tending to self-blame), I immediately noticed how I treat others in a similar way, especially those I supervise.  My mind flashed back to the previous night when I had given an exasperated look and tone to a new student I was training because she wasn’t getting it.  I could see her face fall, and realizing what I had done, I quickly changed into a non-judgmental re-explanation.  But it passed through my mind as a common interaction, not something that called for further examination, one of those things I see as a flaw in myself that I need to work on, but with such a minimal focus that I make only incremental changes.

Okay, that is unfair to myself.  I have actually grown a lot in this area.  I just have a lot farther to go. If I’d had a little boy when I was my father’s age, I might have been much harder on him than my father was on me.  It is nearly impossible to break out of family dynamics without a great deal of reflection and understanding… and grace to myself, not just to others.  Given my temperament, I could easily turn this insight into self-blame, castigating myself for being hard on others and trying to scold myself into being more patient.  But shaming myself just makes me feel even more inadequate, leading to further dysfunction in my life.

For me, this is where reflecting on my childhood becomes so powerful.  When I find a reason for a deep-rooted unhealthy tendency in myself, when I can locate the pain I felt that I’m passing on to others, I can see myself with compassionate eyes, as the wounded one.  I can grace myself into healthier interactions instead of criticizing myself into being better, a stick I used my whole life that simply drove me into deep, unremitting depression.  I find that grace must begin with myself before I can pass it on.  We live in a fallen world, we have all been wounded deeply, and tracing that injury back to its roots can give us the insight and self-compassion we need to finally begin healing under the gentle touch of God’s grace.

Posted September 3, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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When Grace Exposes Our Sin   2 comments

Matthew 1:7 “David fathered Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”

The story of Bathsheba and David is a royal cover-up that almost succeeded as they pulled all the strings in the shadows to hide their lust, betrayal and murder.  A successful subterfuge would have rotted out their own hearts as they ran from grace.  Grace can do amazing, unbelievable things, even with what is worst in us, but it must begin with the truth about us.  It cannot work with the fog of self-deception.  Whenever we do wrong and hide it from ourselves and others–make excuses, minimize it, compare it to worse sins in others–we trap our shame inside our hearts like a festering wound, and the pathogen slowly seeps throughout our souls and stains our relationships.  God rips off that wrapping, exposing the gore, not to repulse us with our wounds, but to heal us.

Shame is to sin what pain is to injury–an alarm to wake us to crippling harm and push us to act.  It is the blinking light God designed for our inner dashboard.  Unlike God, we tend to use shame against ourselves and one another as leverage to force (or stop) change just as someone might use physical pain (or threat of it) to coerce others.  In our society, shame is a weapon that parents use against children, preachers against congregants, and friends and spouses against one another to force compliance just as a bully might use his fists.  It is psychic assault.  I am often guilty with accusing frowns or glances that say silently, “You are an idiot!”  My message is “Be different so I can love you.”

The divergence between the use and misuse of shame lies precisely in grace.  We turn shame into coercion, weaponize it, by anchoring it to conditional acceptance.  I will show you love (sympathy, support, companionship) or withdraw love based on whether you yield to my expectations.  I may even get God on my side, so to speak, spiritually legitimize my demands by arguing that they are actually God’s demands and prove it through reason or scripture or a tangle of both.  But bad methods ruin good goals.  Though God has given us guidelines on how to live in healthy ways, he doesn’t force our hand and never uses love as leverage.  He loves us fully at all times regardless of what we do or don’t do, even at our worst… even when we are unrepentant, he loves us with all his heart.

The shame he built into our bodies is a warning light, not a threat–he tells us what bad things sin will do to us (tear us and our relationships apart), not what bad things he will do to us.  (Of course, in the Old Testament where law prevailed as a system, God seemed to be a punisher to force compliance while grace lingered in the shadows, but then Christ came to reveal the face of God in the full glory of grace.)  God always acts in grace, though grace sometimes is hard and painful rather than pleasant (like setting a broken leg).  He designed shame to wake us, not to coerce us.  When we use shame to drive us to change our behavior, it simply feeds legalism: the idea that if I try hard enough, I can live in such a way as to rise above shame.  God wants shame to drive us to despair in ourselves and turn instead to his grace.  The healthy remedy for shame is always grace, never more effort.  You cannot earn forgiveness, even with godly sorrow; you can only open yourself to it as it is freely given.

And so David and Bathsheba were caught by grace, their attention riveted by a dying newborn and their betrayal and murder called out by a prophet, exposing the shame that leads to salvation.  They were rescued from being lost in the darkness of hidden sin and becoming a tragedy rather than a story of redemption, actually the story of redemption through their son, the Redeemer Jesus, born many generations later.  No sin is too great for grace to resolve into beauty and goodness once it is brought into the light of God.  We avoid the light, thinking that when God sees our failures, he will love us less like others do, but it is our spiritual wounding that draws out his love and concern even more.  He cannot love us less because his love is completely independent of our goodness.  In a miraculous twist, he can even leverage our sin into greater intimacy and spiritual depth, and like Bathsheba, our darkness can be turned into light to show others the way out of the shadows for many generations to come.  Not only hers, but every redemption story of ours is inextricably connected to the redemption story, making us not only part of redemption, but of redemption history.  By receiving his grace, we become channels of God’s redemption for the world.

Posted July 6, 2015 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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Dreams of Being a Cowboy   Leave a comment

A video on bullying I watched today sparked memories of my own childhood spent running from troublemakers at recess.  Only once was I seriously punched and had to go to the emergency room for stitches (my right eyebrow still has a slight split on the outside corner).   But harassment was constant during gym class and recess–I was pushed, punched, threatened, chased, tripped, mocked.  There were other danger zones as well: the lunch room, the hallway, the breezeway waiting for our school bus, and the bus ride itself was tormenting, bad enough that I started riding my bike the 10-mile round trip to middle school.  Among boys, the only mark of prowess was aggression… and girls were liked for their looks.

Kids reflect the values of a culture with a clarity unobscured by the social camouflage that adults master.  That’s why I like children’s books–bold, plain, and real.  Because of family values, I admired intellect as a boy, but that was the stuff of nerds, not heroes. The lead actors from all my favorite TV shows punched and shot and muscled their way into glory… and they always got the pretty girl (first prize).  Of course, their violence was validated by the justness of their cause, though that cause was usually self-defense, an arguably selfish motive were it not juxtaposed against the villainy of the other.  The “other” was evil, right down to the color of his clothes.

Aside from the cowboys and cops and colonels, we had a few “nice guy” actors, but no one aspired to be Andy Griffith–you liked him but didn’t want to emulate him.  Pacifists were cowards, courage was in the fists.  The hero never picked a fight, but always finished it by beating his opponent into submission. Be it kung fu or fighter jets, we all admired the warrior, not the lover, who was just a wimp if he showed up without his six-shooters.  The ultimate virtue was conquest, not love… even love was gained by conquest.

And so I set about life as a loser determined to fight my way into the trophy circle.  My goals slowly shifted from physical prowess to spiritual prowess, but success was still my path to prove my worth.  I focused all my energy to become a champion for God, which is to say, having a wide impact on others.  Success is just as strong an addiction as gambling, even if you’re not a winner… especially if you’re not a winner.  But unlike other addictions, it reaps praise, not shame, and moral validation, not warning, both from the world at large and from the church itself.

Cultural values that co-opt religious faith are the most pernicious and blinding of our defects.  When church and society link arms, escape is nearly impossible, and far from looking for an exit, us losers are desperate to launch ahead.  Unfortunately, as success grows, it clogs up the opening for grace. Success would have obviated my need for grace, a pitfall of all self-made men, even those who ostensibly credit God.  But grace blocked my chase after success.  It shackled me to loser-hood until I was forced to admit that my accomplishments don’t validate me.  Apparently God doesn’t need my efforts any more than a father needs the help of his 3-year-old to change a tire.  The toddler is not valued because of what he does, but who he is–a son.

Success still holds a little place in the corner of my heart–just in case–sort of like the spot reserved for a Porsche convertible that someone’s rich uncle might give me.  Both daydreams would likely be a burden rather than a blessing.  I trust God’s path for me, and I’m content just to hold his hand… most days anyway.

Posted June 15, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Yes, It Is a Lie   6 comments

Addendum to clarify yesterday’s post

Working an unskilled, low-paying job makes me feel humiliated (as I shared yesterday), but that feeling is based on a lie.  I have nothing but respect for those who work such jobs, which are usually far more taxing and less rewarding than typical middle class jobs.  Minimum wage workers are usually treated like minimum worth commodities, used and discarded, so they have to survive in very difficult situations and are often treated with disrespect.  It is not the job which is inherently humiliating, but the false valuation of society.  I do not wish in anyway to lend credence to the notion that such jobs should be despised or devalued–it is a defect in myself, not in the work, which brings about my shame.  Yes, feel with me my shame in an understanding way, “I would feel the same in his shoes,” but also realize with me that such shame is misplaced.  Hard work is always a credit to the worker (unless the business is evil) and should never be seen as beneath us, beneath any of us.  Honest work should always be a source of pride, never of opprobrium.

[*by “pride” I mean self-satisfaction, not self-aggrandizement]

Posted April 28, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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Spiritual Progress in Laziness   Leave a comment

I have always been a highly disciplined person. This has been unfortunate from so many angles.  It has made me arrogant and judgmental towards those with less “will-power” or commitment.  It has made me focus excessively on behavior and choice and see them as the foundations for goodness rather than its fruit.  It has made me self-abusive, both in driving myself past any reasonable limits, resulting in self harm, and in condemning myself for my shortcomings (because of the unbridgeable gap between highly disciplined and perfectly disciplined).  Like all coping mechanisms, it played to my natural strengths and inclinations and offered me protection from the fears that snarled and snapped inside, but like a protection racket it kept me permanently bound to those same fears.

So here is the wretched conundrum of every coping mechanism: the very thing that protects us blocks us from a real resolution.  We cannot give up suddenly and entirely on our coping mechanisms or we will be unable to cope, trampled by our fears and dragged away from the grace that comes to save us.  Except for miracles–and by definition those happen rarely–we must grow into grace, beginning with small steps.  We speak of a “leap of faith,” but that is best seen as a change in direction rather than a sudden and complete transformation of our psyche.  We make a deliberate commitment to a new vision, a new allegiance, a new God of grace instead of the old god of legalism, but learning to live out that commitment is a long, slow process, full of missteps, confusion, and doubt–ask any newlyweds… or oldy-weds.  Trust is a tree that matures from a sapling, not a full-grown log dropped at our feet.

Coping mechanisms are both necessary and limiting, helpful and ensnaring.  They cannot be shaken off in one go, cold-turkey, like one might give up alcohol or drugs, because they sustain us in a vital way.  The struggle for health is more aptly compared to an eating disorder, since we all must eat daily, so the solution cannot lie in abandonment (which seems much simpler and easier to me), but in rehabilitation.  That is, I cannot simply chuck discipline, since some discipline is necessary for life and growth.  I can certainly moderate self-discipline, but that does not resolve the root of the problem, which is not the amount of the discipline, but its role and purpose.  “Why?” is the all important question to snag our inner gremlins.  “Why is self-discipline so important to me?”  Because it is the gauge by which I measure my worth, it is my source of validation.  As long as I do the right thing, I think, I am in good standing with God… which is the quintessence of legalism.

I’ve been at this for years, rethinking my knee-jerk criticisms of the “lazy and irresponsible” and trying to be a little more “lazy and irresponsible” myself as a means of practicing grace towards others and myself.  I’ve worked hard for over a decade to recognize my real reasons for doing good and avoiding evil and to realign those with the gracious God I serve.  I’ve been focused on this, disciplined. Oh, snap!  Yes, it’s true, I can even drive myself to grace or shame my lack of it, trying to force grace to grow but ending up frustrated and impatient, which helps neither me nor my relationships.  Old habits die hard, and often rise up in new guises.  But I recognize it, take apart my viewpoint and reorganize it. Wash, rinse, repeat.  By God’s grace I am not who I once was, and by God’s grace I will not be who I am now.

Posted April 20, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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The Patience of Grace   10 comments

“I’m sorry for being impatient with you Sunday night,” I told Forest, one of my student workers, as he sat down at the circulation desk.  “You were doing your best, and that is all I can ask of anyone.”  I am not a patient man, with myself or with others.  I “came by it honestly” as my mother would say since Dad was highly committed to efficiency and raised us on the double: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing quicker.  “What took you so long?” was cliched into the moral soundscape of our lives, a diagnostic metronome to gauge our pace in life.  I never earned my efficiency badge, so it became an obsession of sorts as I chased after the qualifying time that kept eluding me.  Life was a race and I was losing, but instead of quitting, I just ran harder.

My hopped up need for hustle exalts efficiency over more Scriptural values like patience, and even when I demote it, it still  mucks up the works by prodding me to bark at consequences instead of intentions.  That is, if you get in my way, I’ll get hot whether it’s your fault or not.  Forest is diligent, but learns slowly.  Impatience (if ever legitimate) must burn at his negligence, not at his learning curve, over which he has little control.  Scolding a slow person for being slow is abusive, and the first step down that harmful path is expecting too much of others… which usually springs from demanding too much of myself.

So the cure, ironically enough, begins with grace towards myself, even about my abusive impatience towards others.  I cannot in any healthy way scold myself into virtue.  Being patient with myself is not at all the same as excusing myself or minimizing my fault.  Rather, it is fully admitting my faults, but seeking a cure in God’s greater grace rather than my greater effort.  Divine grace is key not only because it forgives me, but because it creates a whole context of grace, a circle big enough for all our failings, mine and Forest’s both.  Excuses, far from being an expression of grace, are a rejection of it.  They are a claim to need no grace since no wrong has been done–I only need your understanding, not your forgiveness.  Excusing myself closes the door to grace just as surely as loathing myself.  Self-justification and self-condemnation are both blockades to grace–in the first I am too good for grace and in the second I am too bad for it, but both express a legalistic worldview. and trying to validate them by calling them “righteousness” and “contrition” respectively will not change their antagonism to grace.

I scolded Forest shortly before we closed Sunday, and I was already feeling guilty by the time I walked out the door.  I wrestled with it on the way home, refusing to play the devil’s song of shame in my head, but embracing my failings and the grace I needed to relieve my shame.  Instead of spending the two days till his next shift beating myself–a common habit of mine that is so personally and relationally destructive–I settled into the relief of God’s all-encompassing grace, and when I apologized to Forest on Tuesday, it was not from a shame-induced defensiveness or groveling, but as a fellow recipient of grace.  We both fail, we both need grace.  May we all learn to grace ourselves and one another more freely.

Posted November 11, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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