Friday, March 15, 2019

Cultivating and Letting Go

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. Psalm 51:1-12 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. Amen.

Welcome to Ash Wednesday and to Lent. These 40 days (excluding Sundays) are a time where we seek to move into a deeper level of discipleship with God. This year our theme throughout these Wednesday evenings will be that of “Cultivating and Letting Go.” 

It’s been tradition in the church for centuries that Lent is to be a time of giving something up. Perhaps red meat. Or chocolate. Or wine. Or sugar. Or some other thing we might consider a vice. 

I’d like us to rethink this a little bit this year. To consider how we might begin to cultivate those things that bring us into a deeper relationship with God. And to let go of those things that keep us apart from God. Now, I’m not certain if chocolate fits into that category. Perhaps, for some of us it does - that our desire for chocolate overrides our desire for relationship with God. So, I’ll let you figure that out yourselves, okay?

God’s truest desire for us and for all people is shalom. We’ve talked about that concept before - shalom is related to fullness or wholeness. It’s a wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. If someone is suffering, for example, from a lack of food, they are not experiencing shalom. Likewise if someone suffers from a physical affliction or an emotional loss or a spiritual emptiness, shalom is not present for them. Shalom is the wholeness that God desires for us. That, even in the midst of our imperfections - we might be transformed to be the whole people that God has created us to be.

In our weekly studies this Lent, we’ll be using a few different resources. First, will be scripture. Particularly, our focus will be on the Psalms. If you received a Lenten devotional last Sunday (If not, please take one with you tonight.), you may have perhaps noticed that each week’s focus is on a different psalm. Our Wednesday evening conversation will focus on the psalm appointed for the week. As part of our study of the psalms, we’ll be using a model developed by Walter Brueggemann, who is a contemporary Old Testament theologian. The model that he has developed in studying the psalms is that they are structured in a process that is much like our lives: from orientation, to disorientation, to reorientation. More about that in future weeks.

Then, we’ll also be using a book written by Dr. Brene Brown. The entire title of this book is The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are - Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life. Brene Brown is a noted research sociologist, author, and teacher at the University of Houston. She has done extensive research and teaching, written numerous books, and spoken extensively on this subject of “wholeheartedness.” It’s an idea that is the equivalent of shalom - of wholeness, of living fully into who we are and who God has created us to be. 

The heart of Dr. Brown’s research, though, is not wholeheartedness or shalom. The heart of her research is shame. Because, ultimately, it is shame that keeps us from shalom

Before we move into this week’s focus, there are two words that we often pair together that we need to define and clarify. We need to look at the difference between guilt and shame. Anyone want to take a shot at this?

Guilt is a recognition that we’ve done something bad. That, we’ve sinned, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Guilt is about our behavior. “I did something bad.” 

Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. “I am bad.” In our Lutheran understanding, shame is connected to original sin. It was mentioned in our reading tonight in Psalm 51: “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” These words take us back to the story of Adam and Eve. And, if you’ve ever looked closely at that story, you may have noticed that shame is the first outcome of sin. 

In the story, after Adam and Eve had eaten the apple, God walks in the garden in the afternoon looking for them. They’ve always been there before. But, this time, God is unable to find them. God calls out to them, “Where are you?” Their response: “We were naked and we didn’t want you to see us naked.” In other words, “we are ashamed.” For Luther, the idea of original sin was related to this shame and the belief of Adam and Eve that they were not good enough. It was not that they ate of the tree forbidden by God. It was that they felt shame: a belief that God could not love them. Even though they were God’s very own creation. Shame comes from a lack of trust in God and in God’s promises of faithfulness, grace, and forgiveness. Stuff that is right out of the first commandment. 

Shame is the fear that we are unlovable. It is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love and belonging. When we experience it, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. We’re then more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others. In fact, shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying. Children, who use more shame self-talk (I am bad) versus guilt self-talk (I did something bad), struggle with issues of self-worth and self-loathing. We all experience some level of shame.

Unless we overcome this, we can never fully experience love and belonging. It is this - a deep sense of love and belonging - that is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are wired this way by God. We are wired to be loved and to belong and to be authentically who God has created us to be. It is our shame that gets in the way of this.

But, we’re afraid to talk about shame. Yet, the less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives. And the more control it has over us, the less we are able to find shalom, or the wholeheartedness that God desires for us and for our lives. To find love and belonging and authenticity.

So, what does shame look like? For some of us, it’s moving away from people by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward others, seeking to appease and to please. And some of us move against others by trying to gain power, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending mean emails or posting mean things on Facebook). Most of us use all of these at different times with different people.

What do your shame behaviors look like? Well, to answer this, consider these questions: Who do you become when you’re backed into that shame corner? How do you protect yourself when you’re hurt? Do you strike out and hurt back? Do you move away and withdraw? Do you people-please? 

One of the things I do out of shame is to self-protect. Here’s a perfect example of this. Yesterday, I had a text from Lisa May, the pastor at Shiloh. Because I’m going to be gone this coming weekend, she’s covering for me here at Grace & Glory. I sent her a copy of this Sunday’s bulletin. She texted to question me whether I had the right Gospel reading. Now, because she’s preaching twice this week, it’s easy to get confused. She was confusing our Ash Wednesday Gospel reading with Sunday’s reading. This has happened to me. In fact, it happened three days ago. I got confused between the very same two readings. Now, my normal shame-based response would be to reply and correct her, without mentioning that I’d made the very same mistake. Because to admit that I’d made the mistake would mean that I am imperfect, that I make mistakes. But, as this topic of shame has been on my mind, I decided to practice what is called "shame resilience." To stop for a moment, to think about shame and my usual response, and then to practice courage, compassion, and connection - the three things Dr. Brown has found in her research that help us begin to overcome shame. So, instead of only texting Lisa about her mistake, I added that I made the same mistake earlier this week. Lisa’s response? Glad to know it wasn’t just me. 

The more aware we are of our shame responses, the more resilient we can become toward shame. The more we can own our own stories - stories as people of God. Stories of worthiness. Of love. Of belonging. And of authenticity. We become more connected to God and to each other. We experience wholeheartedness. Or the shalom that God desires for us.

Now, this has been a very long introduction to the conversations we’ll be having on these Wednesday evenings. Before I close, though, I’d like to look at tonight’s theme about “Cultivating Joy and Gratitude.” It’s easy to just say we should have more joy and gratitude in our lives. But, this can’t happen unless we let go of scarcity or fear of the dark.

There are many different aspects to scarcity and fear. They can be related to safety and uncertainty, to fear of the dark or the unknown. They can be related to the idea that we’re not enough. (There’s that shame creeping in.) We’re not thin enough, or smart enough, or fit enough, or adequate enough to be loved by God, much less by anyone else. 

So, where in your life are you “not enough?” What aspect of scarcity or fear do you need to let go of to move toward a mindset of sufficiency? To trust in God’s promises - that God will provide for you and preserve you? 

I invite you tonight to begin pruning scarcity and fear away. To begin practicing gratitude. To trust that God loves you, that God will preserve you and provide for you. And that God keeps God’s promises so that you may fully experience joy - the “joy of salvation” referenced in our psalm. A phrase that really means the joy of healing. That you might begin to be healed and to experience the wholeheartedness of shalom.

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached March 6, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Ash Wednesday.
Readings: Matthew 18:1-9; Psalm 51:1-12.

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