I never knew how extensive my shame was. Furthermore, I never imagined that my shame was coming from a God I had constructed. I had felt drawn to my maker at an early age with a determination later to discover that there either was a God or not. I was unable to recognize my own niavity and desperation to believe in something that made sense with my own shame ridden realities. I thought I was ready to be free from shame, but I never imagined how easier it was to disquise a sense of freedom and God under a construct of shame. It came to me like the path of least resistance and instead has given me nearly a 40 year old struggle with accepting myself. As life would have it, I was forced to face the reality of a God of shame in recent months. One who I worshipped with my whole heart as the protector and gate keeper of both my shame and my freedom.
If I could make a comparison, I never chose to be gay. I admit I wouldn’t choose it. It is a hard path fraught not only with rejection from society and spiritual circles but within the gay community itself. If you don’t look and act a certain way, you can easily find yourself snubbed. Yet, despite all my many efforts, spiritual retreats, prayers, reading, and therapy, I had to face I was gay. I had been so convinced by societal constructs that homosexuality was a deception that I actually believed it was my own innate “gut” to resist. However, my one standing grace, ever since I was a little tyke, was a tenacious hold to honesty and this served me well here. I wasn’t going to get over being gay. It wasn’t a “stage” of life for me. I wasn’t going to “change” so that I stopped having attractions to the same sex. Unlike other men, I wasn’t willing to put another woman and myself through the risk of an experiment to see if I could change. I had heard the horror stories. No, I had to accept this was a part of life, a part of who I was. It was not only a part of who I was, but I had been indoctrined to see it as a bad thing when it really wasn’t. Facing this has changed my life dramatically and for the better, but I went kicking and screaming. There was a cost to this brazen honesty. The cost was unraveling everything I had believed that helped me survive a bully culture and mental illness when faith was the only thing I had access to. I had cherished what I believed. It made sense to me. I had a number of soundtracks to it—many praise and worship songs. I also fit the mold of a wounded, troubled soul. Just sing “It Is Well With My Soul”. I learned to hate that song because rarely, despite my attempts to “trust in Jesus”, was it “well with my soul”. When I was forced to face that I was cherishing a prison of my own making, my beliefs unraveled like an onion and the smell of it stung my eyes. It was painful and my vision for the road ahead was blurry and tearful. I had lost any connection with the Church I was in, my friends and mentors. I had lost connection to the God I thought I knew and understood. Yet, I still didn’t feel I fit in with these “gays” either. I didn’t feel I could reach out to them and not feel like hypocrite because I had scorned ever being one of them. Yet, the stages of coming out has brought a joyous embrace of others and my own soul that increases by the year. Proof of that is that release of a decade long writer’s block that only broke after I came out and joys in joining a terrific gay men’s choir.
Today, I once again have crossed yet another threshold, and again, not because I chose to. I have to. I have to because I choose to live honestly. This one has to do with God and religion itself. Something I value above almost everything else. I consider myself quite fortunate for having supernatural encounters since a young age. I ultimately counted myself officially “born again” in 1988, on a Catholic retreat during my senior year in Catholic school. I was a nerdy, bullied kid who took a chance on a soul hunger pain and joined the rest of my class on a senior retreat. I knew God was “trying to tell me something”, as the song from The Color Purple movie goes, but I didn’t know what. While dancing around the usual power plays of “who will I hang out with” and “who will I be forced to sleep next to” that happens at a school-age camp, my transformation came via a stage play performed by my peers. It was a play about a kid going through the trauma of his parents divorcing. The play showed how many layers of protection and hurt he put over his heart as the child journeyed through the process of divorce and ignored the love and compassion of God. The child built a fortress of self-protection for very “good reasons” and yet it kept love far from him. What this play was doing to me on the inside boggled my mind. It boggled my mind because my parents weren’t divorced. Yet, as my hunger and pain moved on me like a storm over the sea, I saw in a flash that I had divorced myself from people and God because of my own hurts. I had my own reasons for this self-protective fortress. As soon as I saw that, I was welcoming God into my heart and I was transformed. Everything was new, vibrant and different. I floated around to my peers and teachers hugging them like I was a hippie in the 70’s at a free love concert. I share this for what I will point out later so keep this story in mind as I move on.
As the years progressed, I still didn't feel like I fit in with Church or that I had any real hunger to read the Bible. What stepped up my “game” was when my struggles with depression and sexuality exploded before my eyes when I entered college. My blood sugar, which would drop to the low 30’s remained undiagnosed (technically at level where one can go into a coma), the bullying, and my genetic predisposition toward depression and anxiety came to a head as well. I found myself in my 20’s nearly house ridden and struggling to finish college. Needless to say, I had a new impetus for seeking answers, no? I fumbled and struggled my way through traditional therapies and then into Christian Counseling. I expanded my spiritual search from my roots in Catholicism and Philosophy to Baptist, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal and other Fundamentalist Christian Churches which included years of programs to reverse homosexual tendencies. Tendencies I was sure were just a deception or misunderstanding.
After coming out, I no longer had a place in those circles and Christian therapies had run its course. I wasn’t depressed per say but I was sad and my anxieties still limited me severely. I was constantly struggling just to survive and not go backwards. I felt I couldn’t hold on much longer.
In coming out and facing that my fundamentalist views about God hadn't transformed me as I had thought it would (rather producing some real tall walls), I re-entered traditional therapy and progressive churches like Metropolitian Community Churches and United Church of Christ etc. I explored alternative routes to health and happiness and gained new perspectives about God and myself. Nevertheless, after years of this and progressing in my coming out stages, as life would happen, I grew unsheathed from the Church when my church moved locations. My relationship with God became something of a quiet inner knowing. I had always had this but by this point, it was all I had. This isn’t a bad thing, but not one I felt good about. There was little spiritual food or fruit per say. I wasn’t going backwards, it was just quiet. Too quiet, if you know what I mean. I was for the first time ever, perfectly content to not be at Church, reading the Bible, praying or really talking much with God or reading deep things of the soul. Yet, another part of me knew this quiet season was for a reason. See, I had this happen before. When I came out, I was 7 years away from Church. I learned later it was not only to tend to my wounds, but to get away from the doctrine and a people who would reject me. It was a move of God to distance me from toxic beliefs and show me new ways of being. Better, healthier and honest ways of being. I have been feeling the same here. So, instead of fighting it, I let it be and waited.
It has probably been about over a year and here I am writing to you today. This last year I have been exploring this discontent with my spiritual location alongside exploring Internal Family Systems (which I have spoken about in a prior post and in this book review). I knew shame was the “keyword” but I had no idea what, where or how. It was a matter of seeing that I have believed in a God of shame whose first and most important goal was to show me how bad I am for being a sinful human. A matter of Original Sin. It was also the difference between trusting God as though looking outward “to the hills where my help comes from” verses trusting my inmost self as a part where God is now. As Jesus proclaimed, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17). The problem with that is so much gobbly gook has been put ontop of what that means that it has been difficult for me to be any earthly good to myself.
At the root of all this, I believe, is what I have carried and many a Christian denomination carries. A Gospel of Shame: Original Sin. It is almost a hilarious contradiction to call what is delivered out there as “the good news” when inherent in that “news” is that you and I are born damned to hell. Of course, someone will point out the Savior as the “good news” part and the sinful nature as a necessary mode of conviction to see a Savior at all. There is some truth to that. We do need to see God as other than us as much as a part of us. God’s love is higher than human love and that can’t be seen without an encounter, if not being broken, by our own limitations.
Nevertheless, we’ve taken an idea of the sin nature to mid-evil extremes in this country. It’s because shame does get results. It has brought me to my knees many a night begging God’s forgiveness. The Catholic Church used it to have people pay money in order to receive forgiveness from sins which they called "indulgences". It brings us up to alter calls and motivates us to serve and give to religious organizations so we feel better by “doing the Lords’ work”, as if that can’t happen anywhere else but within church walls. We say to ourselves our faith is about grace and mercy but yet we operate and can’t seem to escape a God of Shame who has conditional love. We expect people to come through church doors because they have problems and are seeking answers and like a game of Clue, where do we first point them? We point them to a few murder scenes. You did it in the garden with a snake and apple alongside Adam and Eve. You also did it over here at Golgotha when your sinful nature nailed Jesus to a cross. Feel bad yet? Good, here is who will save you from yourself. A lot of what is taught about transformative experiences within Christian circles is something that is stressed as a critical componant in “the first step toward salvation”; that is, that you are not good and you are born a sinner. You are not just a little bad: you are damned to hell without God saving you from this abominable shame that you were born into. The quicker you own it, the sooner you will saved from wrath. In and of yourself is no good thing, it is said in Romans 3. Some Christian denominations take a little lighter approach and say a child isn’t born in sin (because people can’t imagine hell babies) but that the damned part only comes into play at an “age of accountability”. When is the age of accountability? After all it is never spoken of in the Bible. It is debatable, but is roughly considered around the thirteen. Isn’t it amazing what we concoct to massage deeply shameful messages into something that is personally palatable? It is because a lot of religion has bought into shame as a necessary evil, but if we allowed it to come to inevitable conclusion, we wouldn’t accept the conclusion. This is why we have nothing to replace the shame with so instead we make it into something that fits and more digestable yet still toxic. The Church holds tightly to its tenants built around shame and no one is facing that construct won’t be bought and paid for by future generations They are smarter than that.
A lot of the work for us as Children of God now is convincing ourselves that we are just that than sinning. Out of all the Bible stories this isn’t something those writers had to address with their people. Isn’t it odd that our modern problem within Christianity is convincing people they really are children are God. Who me? A child of God? It is almost impossible to 24/7 see yourself as a child of God and it makes sense. Who could after accepting the guilt of being a “fallen” human being and what we have done as human beings? Yes there is celebration of someone saving your life, but who could ever forget being a part to murder of God’s own son?Being a part of sin that would damn the Earth? One example of many twisted results are the many Christians who see the world so diseased with that same sin that it has seeped into the earth, and they shuck their responsibility in being caretakers of the earth and a good citizen because this world is going to hell anyway. They don't care if they recycle or vote--its all dust in the wind of a coming apocolypse. The most important thing is to pray and read the Bible and forget anything else dealing with “the world”. Meanwhile, they forget they can create hell on earth now for everyone by checking out. This is all, by the way, contrary to the Word of God which calls us to be good stewards of the Earth and good citizens, but that just goes to show you how insidious this all becomes with this idea of an inherent infection in us all. Bare with me here. I know what I am saying is hard to hear for some but you will comforted.
When we go to our church services, even now, as “children of God”, we are still given this message in subtle ways that there is something wrong with us. We are hardly given the message of what is right and good in us as compared to what is wrong and what to fix. We hope that every Sunday message will read back to us like self-help seminar and they often are. We want answers to help with all the things that are still wrong with us. Another example of a twisted result is how our churches offer the help we need, reflecting on stages of our lives like rebellion, cross carrying, resurrection and redemption in exchange for your time and monies. We don’t want to say motivations can be tied to the need to increase numbers, time and monies but tell me the last time you were in a church and didn’t feel a pang of guilt if you let the basket go by because you wouldn’t or couldn’t. Did you not feel you were feel disappointing God himself/herself? Did you not question whether you were still too much of a sinner? How about that plea for volunteers which you ignored that came across from the pulpit like God calling you to work in the throne room itself. Yet, you said “nahhh”? But, churches are businesses too. I get it. They can’t survive without our “time, talents and treasures” and instead of calling out the needs for what they are, churches tend to resort to this God of Shame instead as a motivator. Ministers start using commandments of old about tithes responsibilites reserved for the Israelite priesthood, reaping and sowing, the woman who gave her last three pennies etc . Instead of just being real, the Church often returns to shame building as a motivator because Original Sin is so rooted in our beliefs. Shame, we have learned, is a necessary evil to see God’s goodness. When all else fails, resorting to shame seems to be the motto in many circles. Not all, and it is improving but still many and if the church leaders aren’t doing it, we do fine job all our own don’t we? What we have to remember is that our leaders have been victims too in their own searches for God. They have been to seminary centered around a Gospel of Shame. It is the blind leading the blind.
Don’t misunderstand me, celebrating my own redemption and resurrection with Christ has been nothing but revitalizing. There are problems we have to face and part of that is owning our parts we play with in sin. I am not arguing against that. However, I too have seen myself as a person who was born into sin and unbelief but now redeemed because I have had owned this shame and a savior. Sounds not only familiar but good to some people like myself. An easy, clear model. Yet, there’s a problem here you might not see. You may already be thinking I am speaking heresey by this point, even if you made it this far. Heck, I almost scared to say it but it is true and you will see it too momentarily. We have constructed, with the help of a few key church ancestors, a Gospel of Shame. As churches empty over the country and are forced to share buildings, as they look more like nursing homes than vibrant places with a future shown by upcoming youth as leaders, we all need to look at what it is being taught and done in the name of a God of Shame. I know it now probably more than I have known anything else. We have to rid ourselves of this God of Shame.
I am reading a book a pastor gave me to read called "Worship Evangelism". It was published in the 90s and is written by Sally Morgenthaler. The book speaks to the problems of churches trying to find the right model to bring more people into church—the biggest problem of Christendom of this age. She casts this lusty thrust of a numbers game against what churches are sacrificing to reach this goal—giving people a real experience of God. The book is right on the money. My problem is that nothing has changed since this book came out in the 1990s! The biggest mega churches have scores of people and yet they are really more like Tony Robbin seminars with Vegas like shows devoid of a substantional God experience. Part of the problem, I believe, is that the Bible itself is worshiped more than God. Many people worship words. Words in the Bible, Words in Worship Music, and we only associate with those who worship the same "word" as we do. I know some could argue that the "Word" became flesh and that Jesus was a walking Bible. That would be in error though because Jesus himself scolded the pharisees saying "you worship the scriptures but deny people from coming to me with whom the scriptures point to". The scriptures point to Christ, they are not Christ himself. So, our Churches are lead by people who are over fascinated and analytical about every word the Bible says rather than being transformed by who and what it points to. Take a listen to Christian radio preachers. More times than not, if you pay attention to their words and tone, it is like listening to either a scolding parent or someone with more a know-it-all vibe than a loving one. I’m not hearing a whole lot loving voices out there are you? Knowledgeable voices but not loving and not always even wise. Ontop of this, we have people like St. Augustine whose ideas about God have shaped our view of Christianity into a inherent belief that is heavy about our separation from God rather than our inclusion into the Kingdom of God. We are taught that we are born, let’s face it, as little demon hybrids until/unless we accept God’s salvation. I know that is harsh way or crude way of saying it but we must get real with ourselves. This is really the crux of what we as a congregation who go through Sunday school are taught to digest over time. After all, how else can we see a Savior if we don’t see ourselves in need of one? This is part of the argument isn’t it? But what if instead what keeps us from the kingdom of God is not sin we are “born” into but rather our own modes of self-protection and modes of sin we adopt or buy into? It’s a big difference to consider. I’m not saying I am 100% right but I am saying I’m done with shame and this idea I was born in sin. Not because it is inconvienant for me but rather because it destroys my life and my spiritual life too.
Back to my “born again” experience in High School that I asked you to keep in mind earlier. The play showed how a child of God, a literal child, learned how to see themselves separate from God and others, creating all manner of ways to self-protect, defend and even go on the offense. I came to God and was transformed not by the notion that I was born bad, that my humanity is in sin, but that I had learned how to sepeate myself from God thru sin. There’s a difference and it is important. This is the difference between saying you are born a bad apple (excuse the pun) rather than you learned how to live in bad ways. I was transformed by the latter. It was later on, in further exploration, that I learned of Original Sin which echoed all the shameful messages I was struggling to begin with; that I was bad, that there was something wrong with me, and thus began this process of making sure I went through the steps of salvation the right way to save me from a destination to hell. Yet, and this is important…the transformation had already occurred and this also explains my encounters with God at an even earlier age. I was born into the kingdom of God because I exist. Period. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is here, now and within us. This was said before he went to the Cross. The ‘Good News’ is that we are all forgiven because of Christ period. The good news is letting everyone know what has been given. What is given does not need to be attained. It just needs to be taken. It is learning who you are and who you are meant to be in Christ which is a great journey when you don’t have shame as a motivator. You don’t need it. We carry more shame than we already need without it.
I have a question for you. When was the last time you took a class at your local church that taught you how to better love yourself? How to build up your self-esteem? Self is a frowned on word in churches. Why? Think about it. Though many talk about the “new self” in Christ, which Jesus and the Apostle Paul also speaks of, ministry leaders subscribe that to you memorizing scriptures of who Christ is, not getting down to the core of who you are. They subtly try to get you to forget yourself and adopt a Christ personality in place of it. A Christian version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Let there be nothing of yourself left but Jesus. Just Jesus. Well there is already a Jesus and He said you “will go and do greater things than I”. I could envision Jesus doing a microphone drop here. So let me ask you: How is it working for you to annhilate your “self” for Jesus’ sake? Getting to learn “who you are in Christ” while trying to rid yourself of who you are is like driving a vehicle without two back tires. Eventually that vehicle is going to fall apart. It sure has felt that way to me. It is operating with half the equation of life. Many try to think of our “selves” as little Jesus spirits residing somewhere in the center of us. Sounds good. Who doesn’t want a superhero like figure replacing our fallable selves? But again, how is that working for you? We aren’t taught any concept of a real self, a real new self, that intersects all of who we are with who God is because where is the room for it? Ministries are too busy with ritual, scripture study and ministry. No. Self is a bad word. Just focus on Jesus. It is easier that way. It is easy to even say than you and them doing the work of relationship. It is so easy to ignore self, to be in denial and take on a super-personality with a super-ego disquised as a humble character…when it really is a God of shame that we have constructed who generously chooses to have mercy on our ugly selves by ridding us of self. It also is totally dysfunctional and not anything Christ taught us. Meanwhile, we sure are given the details and reminders of the “old self” though aren’t we? Every sermon or study has some reminder of how problematic humanity is. It is a problem focus and the good news that we are given is that God forgives us and help us, despite ourselves. The Gospel of Shame first beats you down and gives you shame and then prescribes the only means of freedom from it. Yet it really isn’t much freedom at all since it is rooted insShame. You can’t escape it no matter how good it sounds. Shame will always yank you back and remind you it is still there when we start with that as the root of who we came into the world as. It is a false sense of freedom based in religious piety.
Imagine if you would for a moment that you had a life partner or parent and the message they give you everyday is this: “When I met you, you were bad, you were born bad, and in yourself you are really worth nothing. You are a sinner and before me, you were damned to hell BUT because of Me and only Me, you can now be called good. Do what I say, become just like me instead of ‘you’, and then you may escape your terrible fate. Be more like me and nothing like you and that’s how you become ‘more acceptable’ to me. Otherwise, I will have nothing to do with you. Now, listen. You will forever need me," the person says, "because without me you were and are worth nothing. But I am extending my good graces to you and only this makes you acceptable in my site.” If a real person was saying this to you, wouldn’t you call that an abusive, toxic relationship? Yet, this is exactly the kind of messages and personality we have attributed to a “gracious Father”. Really?
Go back with me 2000 years ago. I’ve wondered about the woman in the Bible who was sleeping with many men that the crowd of the religious were ready to stone to death... of which Jesus stopped. He told them “He who has not sinned cast the first stone”. When they leave her and their stones behind, Jesus tells the woman that no one condemns her, not even he himself condemns her, and “go sin no more”. How could he offer such an exaltation to someone who was inherently damned? The story doesn’t say he told her to beg for forgiveness. He said I don’t condemn you and go live a better life than this. What could he have meant when he said "I do not condemn you" except just that? Think about it. These things don’t line up with a doctrine of our inherent damnation and at the very least poses some questions we should be talking about. Same with the story of the woman at the well. Wells were places to get water back then which were popular social places like single’s bars are today. It is why we call bars “watering holes’. Jesus quite literally went to the singles bar. He revealed to her his knowledge that she had kept multiple spouses in unlawful ways. He didn’t condemn her and instead amazed her. What did he tell her? He said if she drank from his well, she would have a better, “eternal life” than any drink she would get from that earthly well. He told her the well of life would spring up from within her and never cease. How could he say that to a soul born in damnation who had yet went through the steps of salvation? Why didn’t he point her back to the sin of Adam and Eve? Or even talk about his impending suffering?
What I propose to you is this: what if the real good news is that God is within us just because we are here? What if we are born children of God who learn to sin via all this lust for self-protection and so we build these shells over our souls and spirit? That Jesus showed us a path to God we all must take, a path of suffering and resurrection and thus he said “come, follow me”? What if he was showing us how to live and that redemption and resurrection is about freeing the self we bury behind walls of stones and guards through faith in God? What if evil is that which would take the God spark within us and build all these self-protective defenses and sinful devices? What if the Good News was God wanted to help us reconnect and not be deceived that we are separate from God in the first place? Wasn’t that what God was astonished by Adam and Eve? That they now saw themselves as naked and shameful, seperate from God? Biblically history goes on to show us this belief in seperation and need for self protection from God through countless stories until the ultimate sacrafice in which we learn that “it is not that we have first loved God but that God first loved us and sent God’s Son for an offering of sins” (I John4:10).
Believe it or not, not all Apostles agreed with each other. The Apostle Timothy believed in this inner spark or light within and that sin was covering that up. The doctrine of Original Sin says we are born in sin. Timothy taught a bit differently in places like India than the other Apostles. One writer calls this idea “Original Blessing” which is a much different take than “Original Sin”. We see these differences in the gospels themselves in how Jesus is presented by different Apostles, in how Peter and Paul split in the way did ministry and taught, in how Paul was humbled about the Jewish laws he stringently followed and was inspired to loosen his grip from. Some Apostles encouraged people not to marry or have children because the end times were at hand…,but we are still here. They were wrong at times and we are scared to admit it. Truth is people were harmed by early church misconceptions (as early as even the Apostles) not to mention how we muck things up now. We are all victim to something we were not part of and that was this idea of a unified message about how the Bible should be seen and read. Like it came down straight off God’s typewriter, in Standard American English with no need for things like context. Its not all bad having a unified belief, at least in the fundamental basics so that we can sort through the chaff but some of this is lust and truth has been sacraficed. People and souls have been sacraficed. Historical details and other writings sacrificed. This can’t stand. The doctrine of our original sin came about in the time of St. Augustine who solidified it. We haven’t seen straight as a Church since. It was the birther movement of a Gospel of Shame and a God of Shame. Think of the story of Adam and Eve. They saw their vunerability and put on layers of self-protection to cover their own sense of shame. Even though nothing had changed on God's end, it had ONLY via their own perspective and their intimate communion with God was thwarted. Whether you believe the story is literal or figurative that is the message we don’t face up to. God didn’t change, humanity really didn’t change, but our pespective did and THEN we changed. It is a story about how we learn how to wall the God of love out.
What if the “Good News” was real “Good News”, that we are all forgiven, that we can begin again as long as “Today” is still called “Today” and learn to remove these fig leaves? I think this may be the major work God has done for us with Christ. To me, that sounds like some real good news.
In the next part of this series, I am excited to look at breaking this down further. We know that transformation comes from encountering a love greater than human love so what does that say about our place in universe and the place of sin? How does all this play out in our lives along side Internal Family Systems is something else I hope to flesh out. How do we rid ourselves of the shame that no longer serves us without becoming selfish ego centeric people? We will look at this and more in part two, god willing that it doesn’t take me another year to flesh out.