Saturday, March 25, 2017

Shame, Confession, and True Identity

This past Sunday, I was privileged to have a member of my church's preaching team provide the sermon. I love getting to hear others preach because it helps me hear other facets of the text and fresh perspectives that help me shape my future sermons.

In her sermon (which can be heard here until late April), Carla had a line that cast a fresh light on one of my favorite Bible passages, the woman at the well in John 4. Noting that the woman is gathering water at an unusual time of day, Carla suggested, as most commentators do, that she had been shunned by her neighbors who come in the morning. But then she asked, "Or is it her own self-doubt?"

I'd never thought of that. Shame is a powerful force for tearing us down, but it isn't always imposed from someone else. It can come from ourselves, too. Was this woman shunned by her community or did she exile herself? What little we know of her ("You've had five husbands" v. 18) means she's been widowed or abandoned five times (women didn't have legal standing to seek divorce then). She's known a lot of heartache. I'd never considered that her heartache could be causing her to isolate herself in shame. Perhaps she tells herself, "You're unlovable. They don't want to be near you. You're such a failure."

We all carry such voices around with us; little shame demons that point to our failures (actual or perceived) and our flaws (real or not). They can be rooted in minor incidents from our childhood that scarred us deeply or from repeated behaviors that we can't seem to stop doing. They can be from things we've done, things done to us, or things we've failed to do. They show up in phrases we repeat in our heads:
  • "I'll never really belong at work/in my family/with my friends/at church because I'm imperfect/stupid/different/flawed." 
  • "I'm just not cool/interesting/funny/attractive and someone's going to figure that out."
  • "If I don't keep my life balanced perfectly, I'm going to disappoint people and they'll stop liking me."
  • "If people really knew what I was like..."
Like the woman at the well, shame can lead us to avoid people, hide part or all of ourselves, or just believe that we're not that good or worthwhile.

All of this is why I love that our order of worship in the Lutheran church always begins with confession and forgiveness. Some people look at confession as a negative thing that creates shame by forcing us to think about how bad we are, but I don't.

For me, confession is confronting the shame that I carry with me and the voices that point out my flaws and then being reminded that they don't define me; that's not who I really am.

Because when I stand at the baptismal font each week during confession and splash in the "living water" that Jesus promised the woman at the well, I'm reminded that I'm a child of God, claimed by God's promise of eternal life. My shame and faults that make me feel worthless don't get the last word because I'm someone worth dying for according to Jesus.

My true identity is found in my baptism. When shame leads me to hide away, to avoid the crowds and come to the well in the middle of the day, I can remember that God's identity for me gives me a second chance. I don't need to fear living life fully or being vulnerable because the things I may feel shamed about (by others or myself) don't have to define me. God can reconcile and redeem the points of shame into empathy, wisdom, and compassion for others.

We don't need to live in shame or hide from the crowds. We don't need to listen to the negative voices tearing us down inside. The voice of Jesus says we're forgiven, loved, and adopted as children of God. That's our true identity.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Here in my head full of shame, you pick me up and say I look like You." -Jars of Clay, "Sing"

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