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recess. He isn’t very strong and a little awkward when running. When it is finally his turn to bat he actually hits the ball but as he starts to run towards first base the bat gets caught between his legs causing him to fall on his face. The kids laugh. The teacher noticed that Teddy’s drawings in class often had scenes of violence or blood in them. Kathy is one the heaviest kids in her class. During English she accidentally dropped her pencil beside her desk. As she reaches down to get it her shirt rides up to expose her stomach. The boy beside her comments out loud, “Nice one fatty Kathy,” The name stuck. Kathy began to look at food differently. She decided that either she wasn’t going to put anymore in or the food she put in she would be get out by any means possible. Sam is becoming increasingly aware of sexuality. Certain images and thoughts arouse him. He does not quite understand what to do about this. Sam notices that his mother always refers to anything sexual as “sick” and his preacher talks a lot about the disgusting views of sex in the world. Sam realizes that it would probably be better if he did not talk to anyone about how he is feeling. The kids are beginning to notice a stutter that Jared has been developing. He always felt a little uncomfortable speaking in public but now that his dad left his mom always seems to be yelling at him. Money is tight and home life has certainly been better. Drugs promise both escape and money. With her last three boyfriends Sarah was given a reputation for being promiscuous. Each boyfriend seemed dumped her for another girl, in her mind each girl seemed to be prettier than her. Feeling pretty low she remembered some really great experiences when she went to youth group in junior high. Building up the courage she went on Saturday night only to be met with stares and a few whispers by the kids who were their. Brent is having a harder time coming up with explanations for his absences at work due to his depression. It was hard enough during the interview to steer clear of the one year gap in his resume when he was in and out of the psych ward trying get stabilized on medications. He’s starting to hear comments about how nice it must be to be able to take so much time off. Brent isn’t sure anymore if he is actually is lazy or not. It has been almost five years since Reg and Susan’s son killed someone while driving drunk but people still tend to look down at their shoes passing them on the sidewalk. If you haven’t found yourself somewhere in one of these stories fill in your own experience here. Most of us have both experienced and likely caused others to experience some level of shame.
Some argue that shame is a near universal human experience. Some of those writing from a theological perspective go on to say that perhaps it is shame that best characterizes the nature of sin in contemporary society. We tend to think of sinful nature in terms of disobedience and guilt. Though there is much overlap there are also significant differences between shame and guilt. Guilt is usually the response to acknowledging the wrong you have done. Shame however, moves beyond wrong doing. One writer expressed that, “to distinguish shame from guilt it is crucially important to grasp guilt’s emphasis on wrong doing as opposed to shame’s emphasis on wrong being.” Guilt recognizes the wrong done. Shame points to us as the wrong. Another person wrote that shame “awakens ‘the piercing awareness’ in us that we are ‘fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being.’” In all of the stories that I opened with not one of the characters had essentially done something wrong rather, all of them were placed in a situation in which they were made to feel as though they were bad. Shame may appear as the result of our wrongdoings but it is perhaps more fundamentally something we receive passed down often from parent to child and from generation to generation. Shame is that lingering heaviness that convinces that we are not good enough and that we are not deserving of good. It is the fear of being exposed for what we think we really are. The fear that if people were exposed to who we really are then they would no longer love us or stay with us. If sin might be better understand in terms of shame as opposed to guilt than what does this mean for our understanding of salvation? We often talk of salvation as being pronounced innocent. This works in the arena of guilt. It is the classic image we tell of God as a courtroom judge who pronounces the defendant innocent of the crimes committed. This makes sense when what is wrong can be localized to a particular act of transgression. But how can we be delivered, saved, from chronic experiences of shame and worthlessness?
Most of us are probably familiar with the passage in Romans in which Paul states, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” Now, perhaps you have thought of this already but Paul would likely not be saying this if there were not some reason why he or other believers might find themselves ashamed of the Gospel. In fact it takes only basic overview of the Bible to notice how central the role of shame is in the experience of God’s people. We can of course begin with Adam and Eve’s awareness that their nakedness, their exposure to one another created a feeling of insecurity, of threat, of shame. This demonstrates a basic component of shame. Shame is often the fear that if people truly see who we are they will not accept or love us and that ultimately they will abandon us. We can also recognize an aspect of healthy shame that demands that some level of trust needs to be established before we are willing to reveal ourselves to another person. However, a pervasive fear of being exposed comes close to the heart of shame. The Israelites were also no strangers to shame. In numerous occasions the Psalmists cries out about the shame and disgrace he is experiencing. Psalm 44 laments that, now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies. You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us. My disgrace is before me all day long, and my face is covered with shame The prophets also live in an uneasy tension with shame, Jeremiah writes, 7 O LORD, you persuaded me, and I was persuaded; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and shame all day long.
Then there are the exiles, coming back to Jerusalem on the promises of the prophets are also met with shame. The surrounding communities mocked their attempt to rebuild Jerusalem. The old Jerusalem and the Temple were built with the riches of David and Solomon. The exiles were without resources and still worked at the walls and the Temple in midst of mocking neighbours. When we reach the New Testament we find Mary and Elizabeth who both suffered shame for the will of God. Elizabeth felt shame for having not bore a child until she was old and Mary was viewed as a disgrace for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. The work of God in Mary’s womb was literally an image of shame for her. And then our passage this morning; Joshua 5 tells us that it was 40 years before God removed the shame of Egypt. All their time in the Wilderness was spent carrying it.
Why? Why is the work of God so tied up with the experience of shame? We need to remember that in both the Bible and modern research on shame a central feature is the fear of being exposed, that our very presence will evoke mocking or disgust. And what do we naturally do to deal with this feeling of fear? We attempt to create an image of ourselves that reacts to our sense of shame, an alternate identity. Now if we believe that God is personal and wants to be in relationship with us then we should assume that just like a spouse or a good friend God is not interested in our “alternate identity” rather God stops at nothing to know us we truly are. And if this is the case then our shame and God’s presence are set on a collision course.
First lets examine the relationship between our identity and shame. The stories that I began with hinted at how our shame may affect our identity. Being teased at school may lead someone to become introverted and eventually violent. When someone is objectified for their looks it may lead to eating disorders or promiscuity. An aggressive parent may influence a child zealous competition or cheating. When a child is not valued for who they are it will somehow impact their identity.
Saddam Hussein’s mother had lost her husband and first child by the time she was pregnant with Saddam. It is recounted that, “in a state of much distress, she attempted suicide. Before Saddam's birth, she would pull out clumps of her hair and pummel her pregnant abdomen with her fists. In the Wall Street Journal article she is quoted as having said that she did not want her baby and asking "after losing my husband and child, what good can this baby do me?" Even Saddam Hussein's official biography recounts his unhappy childhood. The trauma left her such that she tried to throw herself in front of a bus and failed to abort Saddam and kill herself. . . . “When Saddam was born, her mother would have nothing to do with him and sent him away to an uncle. At 3 Saddam was reunited with his mother after she had married a distant relative, but he was then physically and psychologically abused by his new stepfather. He has spoken bitterly of being mistreated by a stepfather, who kept him from school, forced him to herd the family sheep and insulted him as the son of a dog.” (http://premendra.sulekha.com/blog/post/2006/12/wounded-childhood-makes-dictatorssaddam-osama-hitler.htm) Saddam was allowed little context in which he could explore who he was. He was told from before birth that he was not worth living and in turn he believed that the same was the case for others.
The influence of shame, however, does not always have a negative expression. Some people who believe they have little worth or value will do whatever it takes to prove to themselves that they are not. Winston Churchill is an example of a person who experienced chronic neglect as child. It is the classic example of the child trying in vain to win the approval of the parent.
Why is it that God allowed the people of Israel to live with their shame for 40 years until they reached the banks of the Jordan in Joshua 5? What was one of the first responses of the Israelites right after they were liberated from Egypt? At the first sign of trouble they say,
“If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” It never made much sense to me that the Israelites often longed to be back in slavery but for sociologists it is startling common observation. Professor Kevin Bales tells of man named Baldev in India who owed debt to landowner and so had to work for him essentially as a slave. Baldev inherited money from a relative and was able to pay off his debt. Bales continues by saying that Baldev, “had freed himself from debt. But he had not freed himself from bondage. He told me: After my wife received this money, we paid off our debt and were free to do whatever we wanted. But I was worried all the time--what if one of the children got sick? What if our crop failed? What if the government wanted some money? Since we no longer belonged to the landlord, we didn't get food every day as before. Finally, I went to the landlord and asked him to take me back. I didn't have to borrow any money, but he agreed to let me be his servant again. Now I don't worry so much; I know what to do.” Lacking any preparation for freedom, Baldev reenrolled in slavery. Without financial or emotional support, his emancipation didn't last. (http://www.mit.edu/people/etekle/Index/) Listen to the words of Baldev. “I was worried all the time.” He had been placed in position below his master and over time he developed a dependency, a view that he could not survive with the presence of his “superior”. Baldev’s shame was fully internalized.
What would have happened if God had brought the people directly into the land of Canaan? They were freed from land of Egypt but they were not yet freed from the shame of Egypt. Like Baldev they were not ready to live as free people.
It is like the TV series Lost where a group of people are stranded on an island after their plane crashes. As the show unfolds we find out that most of them had some type of struggle, often a shame that was a part of their life before the crash. With the plane crashing they were physically freed from their situations of shame. However, it is during their day-to-day life on the island that they begin to overcome the shame itself.
The island is much like the Wilderness for the Israelites. In the Wilderness the people live day-by-day, apart from the influences of other people. There God taught them to trust with the tangible image of daily bread given to them as manna. As they traveled together they could not see the long-term stability of a wealthy master nor could they put themselves to work in the belief that they would earn their keep. Rather, they had to trust that who they were stripped of any constructed identities, who they were in and of themselves, was valuable to God and that God would not abandon them.
The 40 years in the Wilderness is also symbolic of a generation. Though we believe that God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents we do know that the shame of a family can be readily passed on from generation to generation. Throughout their time in the Wilderness the people who came out of Egypt continued to exhibit an identity based on shame. They continued to be deceived into thinking they were not worthy of God’s call. In the book of Numbers, already almost 40 years after the Exodus, the twelve spies go to scout out the land of Canaan and ten of them claim that there is no way that they could take the land. And how do the people respond? “If only we had died in Egypt!” Remember Baldev from India, “I worried all the time.”
For God to remove the shame of Egypt he needed the identity of that entire generation of Israelites to be removed as well. Joshua 5 states that after the 40 years the generation of Israelites from Egypt had died and that God “raised children in their place.” It was at this point that the males were circumcised signifying the unity, creation, and covenant of the new people of Israel. And with this they celebrated the Passover. Then in Joshua 5:1112 it says that, “the day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan.” In the Wilderness the Lord taught the Israelites to trust, they were taught that they had value apart from the systems and demands of the world. As they crossed the Jordan and
ate from the produce of the land they returned to a world where people remained in bondage to a shame that demanded that they try to satisfy and meet up to the standards of false gods. They entered as a testimony against the power of shame. They entered as a people delivered from shame.
Why is the work of God so tied up with the experience of shame? I began by talking about shame as the feeling that we are somehow in our nature wrong or deficient. Shame whether it is healthy or unhealthy confronts us with the reality that our identity and selfworth has strayed from God’s desire for us. Shame is not static or still it is restless. It can make us reach for unattainable goals or it can make us plummet into self-destructive tendencies. Shame signifies both the need for and the fear of intimate relationships. In the experience of shame we can either keep returning to our old masters who promise to keep our faults hidden from the rest of the world. They promise, like Baldev’s master, to keep us in a predictable but unfulfilled cycle.
Or in the experience of shame we can, like the prodigal son we read about, remember another master. Well not so much a master but father or mother. This thought is the memory of someone who cared for us before we were even able to earn their love. The prodigal felt as though he was no longer worthy to be called a son but even in this place of shame he began the trip, his own journey into the wilderness, on the way back to his father. And what do we find? We find the father at first sight rushing with open arms. The son, as he is, stripped of the status he tried to attain in the world, the son as God created him is worth the abundant love of the father. The scene is as dramatic as a plane crash. The son is lifted from his old life of shame as the people were on the show Lost. And now begins the patient work of a parent to walk day-by-day with the child so that the child is not just free from the life of shame but free from the shame itself.
Too often the church has felt called to bring people into shame. “You should be ashamed of yourself” as the saying goes. Now there may be times for someone to be more selfaware of the false identities they have adopted and so experience a healthy sense of shame. However, what we don’t realize is that more often than not the way people act
already comes out of some existing shame. We are called then, as we are called each Lent season, to recognize and journey in the Wilderness. We are called to journey together as we patiently allow the shame of our old self to be removed. The self that never feels good enough. The self that never feels like it belongs. The self that never feels like it deserves love. Like the Israelites we allow this generation to pass away as we nurture the new self on the trust in daily bread. We travel trusting in the one cares when and perhaps especially when we have nothing to offer. We travel until we reach our Gilgal. The place the Israelites reached on the banks of the Jordan river in Joshua 5. The word Gilgal means to roll away and in Joshua 5:9 the Lord says, “Today I have rolled away the shame of Egypt from you.”
The Greek word used to translate Gilgal is used in only one context in the New Testament. And it is our Gilgal, the place where the old has passed and new is born. After Jesus was crucified and buried Mark tells us that very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, Mary Magalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! Amen.
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