Saturday, February 27, 2010

No More Shame

No More Shame
Rom. 10:8-13; Lk. 4:1-13[1]
The spiritual life is a pilgrimage for us all. Like me, you can probably look back on your journey and find beliefs, actions, and words that you’re probably embarrassed to admit. For me, it’s the way in which the good news was presented as a kind of magical formula. If you said the right words, it was like a spell that would miraculously make everything alright. And this approach was even backed up with Scripture! It was called “the Roman Road to Salvation.”[2] Basically, this was a pamphlet that took selected verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans and came up with a summary of the “good news.” It starts with “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and goes through “the wages of sin is death” to this very passage from our NT lesson for today: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9-10)!
In my opinion, the result of this approach to the gospel was and is a kind of magical way of looking at faith and salvation. Innumerable “evangelists” repeat the appeal that “all you have to do is pray this simple prayer” –with the promise that you will (automatically?) have a new quality of life. One of the reasons why this approach to evangelism was so “successful” is that most of us tend to have some sense of guilt or shame about our lives. Most of us can point to something about our lives that just doesn’t quite measure up. Whether we fall just a little short or a lot short of what we would like to be, the shame we feel is a powerful motivator. In our despair over the prospect of ever finding the freedom to live life with joy, we turn to these spiritual illusionists in the hope that they have the power to save us.
Among the many problems I have with that whole approach to the gospel is that I don’t think Paul was that simplistic in his notions of God and faith and salvation. So what is there about “confessing ‘Jesus is Lord’” and “believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead” that translates for us into “salvation? Well, among other things, I think that the willingness to acknowledge Jesus or God or anyone besides “me” as sovereign in my soul is a very important first step in finding the freedom to live life with joy and purpose. It means acknowledging that I cannot save myself; it means admitting—at least to myself—that I need a Savior.
Of course, the biggest obstacle to that life-changing recognition is my big, fat, German-American ego! I think there is a lot of confusion out there about the “ego.” Is it the fundamental element in the human psyche, or the “inner child” that must be nurtured in order to thrive, or the root of all kinds of evil? It may be that the answer is more complicated than just one of the above. But when it comes to religion, it seems that the ego has always exercised an influence that can only be called “sinful.”
Thomas Merton calls the ego the “superficial external self” that is false and imaginary. He says that it deludes us into making it into an “idol” that demands all our devotion and all our energy.[3] In reality this “false self” that seeks to rule our lives cannot satisfy our longings because they are directed not to the Creator but to created things.[4] Rather than providing happiness, this selfish preoccupation only corrupts everything around us and leaves us alone with our selfish desires.[5]
This is a reality we all struggle with. We all know the voice that tells us that in order to be “good enough” we have to attain a certain level of success, or our kids have to turn out a certain way, or we have to look just so, or we have to have more and better stuff than our neighbors. We think we are “taking care” of ourselves when we obey these dictates of the false god within, but in reality we are simply locking ourselves in the prison of our own selfish desires. I think many people hate the prison of selfishness that keeps them from enjoying life, but they are afraid. One of the most effective tools that this false self uses to keep us imprisoned is shame. I don’t mean by that the embarrassment we all feel when we get caught doing something we wish we hadn’t done. Shame goes much deeper. It is the notion that somehow we don’t deserve to live, or we are unwanted, or we are unworthy of basic human dignity.
One of the tragic dimensions to this story is that we tend to respond to that voice of shame by trying to “prove it wrong.” But in that very act we are actually giving shame more power over our lives. Even when we turn to the spiritual gurus who promise to take all our shame away with a wave of their magic wand, we are still feeding the selfish idol within us that demands all our attention. Only by recognizing the illusions that bind us in the prison house of shame can we find the freedom to live the life God intends for us.[6]
Acknowledging Jesus as one through whom God brings the life and joy and love of God’s rule into our lives can be a step toward that freedom. Taking that step requires that we recognize that when we obsessively pursue our own selfish agenda,[7] we remain imprisoned in our shame. The way to begin the process of becoming free from that voice of shame is to acknowledge that there is one who loves us unconditionally, irrevocably, undeniably—throughout time and eternity. To this one we are always of infinite worth, we are always wanted, chosen, and loved. To this one we can turn and know that “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/21/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Apparently, Rev. Jack Hyles, pastor of one of the first true “mega-churches” in Hammond, IN, at least claimed to have originated the “Roman Road” as a means of evangelizing people. Cf. Kathleen Boone, The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Religious Fundamentalism, 101
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 7, 21, 33-34
[4] Merton, New Seeds, 26: “Instead of worshipping God through His creation we are always trying to worship ourselves by means of creatures.”
[5] Merton, New Seeds, 21-22; cf. 34-35: “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.”
[6] Merton, New Seeds, 38: the “true inner self must be … rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent.” He continues, “To be ‘lost’ is to be left to the arbitrariness and pretenses of the contingent ego, the smoke-self that must inevitably vanish. To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”
[7] Merton, New Seeds, 47: “People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites.”

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