More Guilt? Yes, Please! How Our Church Has Co-Opted Shame and Disguised It as Guilt

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on May 21, 2018

Have you ever heard the phrase “near-enemy” used before? No? Well, a near-enemy is when two things look very similar but are intrinsically different. I first read the phrase in a Louise Penny book, where she wrote about a woman who appeared compassionate and caring, but in fact wanted others to be totally helpless so they would need her. The woman seemed to have good intentions, but she was, in fact, hurting others so that she could receive gratitude from them. A near-enemy appears to be one thing while in reality it is another; it masquerades as a more noble version of itself.

Shame, in my opinion, is the near-enemy of guilt. Shame is a debilitating sense of humiliation or sadness; it immobilizes us and disintegrates our confidence. Guilt, on the other hand, is a pro-social reaction to how our actions affect others. Guilt helps us make our way through the world — it is the internal compass of our decision making.

Our churches have co-opted shame and parade it as guilt.

Here is an example. When I was little, I was told that to have a sexual thought in my mind was just as bad as if I committed the act (see Purity Culture). That’s an idea with a biblical basis (see Matt. 5:28). So, every time I had an even remotely sexual thought, I felt ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my body, of my mind, and genuinely believed I was a bad person because of it.

Logically, this idea is absolutely ridiculous! Natural responses to stimuli from the world around us shouldn’t be morally policed. I developed depression as an adolescent and I believe this type of thinking played a large part in that, because it extended into so many areas of my life. No matter how hard I tried, I saw myself as a “bad person,” because all I could do was fail the impossible standards the church set for me. I was trapped in a body that, I felt, kept betraying me. I could never achieve the behaviour that I thought God wanted from me; which, apparently, was a totally sexless, emotionally unaffected, and endlessly generous saint — a goal I’ve since given up.

No wonder I was depressed! I’m lucky to have had some amazing counselors and fellow people of faith who’ve been able to speak into my life and start to put an end to that horrible way of thinking. I know I still have so much damage to undo, and more shame to deconstruct and put to rest.

Shame is a self-destructive cycle; guilt is a pro-social feeling.

Shame is a feeling of humiliation, of hopelessness, that can become chronic. It can poison us and erode any sense of our own goodness. Guilt, however, helps us to learn from our mistakes; it invites us to reflect on how we treat others, their feelings and needs (hence it is “pro-social”). Guilt also motivates us to apologize, and experiencing it allows us to forgive more easily. When we understand what it means to be on the offending side, to experience guilt, we also come to understand what it means to be repentant.

Let’s return to our example. If I had been sexually active at the time, the questions I should have asked include: How do my actions affect others? What are my intentions? Am I honouring myself and my sexual partner? Am I respecting them, their body, and their autonomy? Do I see them as a whole person or just a sexual object?

If I had indeed been harming others with my actions, then my concern would have been warranted. But that wasn’t the case, instead I was immobilized by shame, which prevented me from honouring myself the way God made me — a sexual being.

There is no repentance without guilt.

Nowadays, we see folks leaving the churches of their childhood, saying, “I can’t stand the guilt.” A church in Calgary even has a sign outside it that says “We don’t do guilt!” Theoretically, I love that, but I wish I could cross out the word “guilt” and pencil overtop the word “shame.”

I hope I’ve convinced you that guilt isn’t a bad thing. It’s a big part of living in community and doing justice work. In both instances, we invite people to reflect on their actions, and, if necessary, repent. We can never be truly repentant if we don’t have guilt. If we repent because we’re terrified of an eternity of pain, then we’re only paying lip service to a God who controls us with fear. Guilt is about wanting to be in good relation with the world around us — our neighbours, our God, the earth — making amends, and choosing a better path.

So, let’s put the guilt back in church!

I want to hear folks shouting like the biblical prophets at people who put their greed over the lives of their human family. I want to see folks feeling convicted (i.e. guilty) because they’ve helped to propagate white supremacy, which harms racialized people in countless ways. I want men to feel the pang of guilt when they realize the ways they’ve contributed to misogyny in their lives. Then, I want all of us to do something about it. Shame festers and immobilizes, whereas guilt calls us to new ways of life and relationship. Honestly, that sounds a lot like the Gospel.

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A Spirit that Speaks Without Words

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday morning service on May 20, 2018, Pentecost Sunday. Scriptures are based on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, and Romans 8:22-27.

Today the global church celebrates Pentecost Sunday, except for our Orthodox family which will be celebrating in a few weeks. Pentecost, often called the “Birthday of the Church”, historically has celebrated the Spirit descending on believers in Jerusalem following Jesus’ ascent into heaven.

But, Pentecost can be a little complicated for the United Church—we have a ‘big tent’ theology that includes folks who have strong opinions on the Spirit, soft opinions on the Spirit, and no opinion on the Spirit at all.

However, we’ve also been blessed in receiving a variety of rich traditions from the various Biblical authors, which mirrors our own internal diversity.

Sometimes she is Wisdom, at God’s side during creation; or dancing in the street, calling wise men and women to follow her.

Other times, it is a still small voice speaking after the storm; or a cloud that descends from the heavens to rest on someone. The popular story in Acts talks about tongues of fire licking the heads of the disciples when the Spirit descended on them.

For the author of the Book of John it is the “Paraclete”—which we clumsily try to translate as “advocate”, “comforter”, or “counsellor”.

Do you have a name that that you call her? Is there a story that has always struck your imagination?

I was struck, this week, by Paul’s description in the Romans text we read today.

He calls it… “that very Spirit that speaks with sighs too deep for words”.

This image moved me because it felt the closest to the Spirit that I know.

I grew up in a charismatic community where it seemed like the Spirit was stirring, and moving, and doing somersaults in everyone but me. I thought that I was broken for a long time—that I wasn’t really a Christian because I didn’t experience what everyone else seemed to.

Little did I know that the spirit had been stirring me all along; she just spoke in a hushed voice—sending me Morse Code messages.

Later, in university, I joined a liturgically oriented community that was more into contemplation than hallelujahs. They taught me to listen, to appreciate those unintelligible sighs of the spirit. They showed me that we’re all wired differently and that God will speak to us each in our own way. For me, it wasn’t very dramatic, but it worked.

And, this new orientation called to mind a very strong memory I had from when I was a kid. I was walking home one afternoon from my friend Madison’s house, down a back alley lined with large trees. I walked underneath the canopy and noticed that the asphalt was sun-dappled. It made me look up. And when I did I saw the brilliant yellow sunlight drenching this domed ceiling of leaves turning them lime green. I stopped walking and I just stood there. I had the strangest sensation—I felt overcome because it was beautiful and I was at peace.

Have you ever felt the Spirit stirring you? Maybe when you were out for a hike; working in your garden; holding an infant in your arms; or creating art?

For me, it was probably less than a minute, but that moment has stuck with me my whole life—it still gives me goosebumps. It’s a special memory, of feeling like I wasn’t alone in the world, that there was goodness.

And, she has continued to speak to me through nature, sometimes using her own voice; and other times, often speaking through someone else—a loved one, a poet, or a mentor.

Does she speak to you in whispers or sighs? Does she use her own voice, or the voices of others?

***

Returning to our Romans text, for Paul, the Spirit represents kinship and liberation—particularly liberation from sin and death.

To paraphrase, earlier in chapter 8, Paul writes that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear; rather, the Spirit you received brought your adoption to Christ’s kinship.”

This Spirit, he says, is one of “life and peace”; it affirms our status as Children of God.

Paul tells us, in the passage we read together, that when we are weak this same Spirit also intercedes for us. It is our lifeline to God—an umbilical cord that connects us.

It is personal, and it is present in our joys and our suffering—as we develop and grow.

For Paul, we are gestating right now but will be birthed to new life in Christ. In that far off time, Paul says that our bodies will be made new, flesh turning into spirit. Now, whether you subscribe to his thought or not, it’s important to remember that this new life to come doesn’t preclude us from getting to work here and now.

We are not gifted the Spirit for nothing—as the saying goes “God didn’t give you a head just to hang a hat on!”

No, where some people might rest on their laurels, waiting for their spiritual birth, Paul has always been about business—the “in’s and out’s” of daily life. Paul’s letters are filled with endless suggestions on how to live out this earthly life while giving glory to God with your every breath.

So, how can we live our lives giving glory to God with our every breath? Well, we’ve got a great resource to call on:

Because the same spirit that moved over the formless void in Genesis, who brought all these things into being by imagination and evolution, is the spirit our Gospel stories tell us was given to each of us.

The spirit of a God who created, and is creating, with the chaotic energy of volcanoes, forest fires, hurricanes and floods. The spirit of a God who orchestrates the eternal changes of seasons, and planetary rotations.

This same spirit is within us.

We celebrate God both in our very being—as creatures—and in our creativity. We’ve been endowed with the freedom to do so many marvellous things, and they all honour God.

We also celebrate God when we affirm that same spirit dwells in one another—by honouring our neighbours we also honour God.

Last, we celebrate God when we care for the whole of creation and make space for it to breathe and grow. We are not the only imaginative beings in this universe! Our world is evolving and changing in marvellous ways—bringing us brilliant colours, intelligent animals, and beautiful geological formations—this whole world is absolutely marinating with creativity! We honour God when we stop to appreciate it, and work to preserve it.

Are there other ways you honour God in your living, and allow the Spirit’s creativity to flow through you?

I’d love us to take a couple minutes to share some thoughts with one another. Feel free to share with your neighbour an image of the Spirit that is meaningful to you; a moment in your life you felt her stir you; or, a way you honour God and the creative Spirit in your daily life.

 

#FOMO and Resurrection Sightings

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on April 8, 2018 (Year B Easter 2) the Gospel reading was John 20:19-31.

Have you ever heard of the word FOMO? It’s an acronym to describe one of the most prevalent anxieties in our society today. It means the fear of missing out. We now have unprecedented access to one another’s lives—at the touch of a button, I can scroll through a tidal wave of information about what my friends, family, and colleagues are doing right now.

But, that makes me ask myself… what am I doing right now? Am I on a trip? Out to brunch? Am I living my best self? Am I at that party, or concert? Am I missing out?

A January CBC article on the fear of missing out pointed to a pair of studies from UBC which “examined the mental health effects that FOMO can have.” The first survey showed that 48% of survey respondents felt that their friends had more friends—more social connection—than they did. The second survey linked these sentiments to “a lower sense of belonging and overall well being.” The research shows that we’re now spending more time, and more money, on trying to combat this anxiety—with trips, meals and experiences. We’re trying to combat that sense of “lack”.

It’s an emptiness that tells us our worst fears—that we’re not as special, or popular, or wanted, or loved, or smart, or capable, as everyone else.

***

Now, when I was preparing for this Sunday I laughed aloud while reading the gospel text because I could not stop imagining Thomas, sitting in his dusty robes and sandals, at a computer. I imagined him scrolling through selfies that the other disciples had posted of themselves and the risen Christ. They had big smiles on their faces as they celebrated together. And then, there was poor, poor Thomas—at home alone.

Of course, that’s not how it happened in John’s story. Instead, Jesus’ closest friends were gathered at a house following his death. And, I say his closest friends, because earlier in the story we hear of how many of Jesus’ followers deserted him. But, these Twelve (or eleven in this case) stayed faithful. So, his closest friends were gathered together, and they were filled with uncertainty and anxiety. And, a question hung in the air: What now?

What do you do with yourself when the revolution fails? When the king who road into the city with a parade the other week, is dead and buried this week? Rome hasn’t fallen.We are changed, but how do we return to how things were before?

So, they gather together—unsure and terrified of the Temple officials.

Then, suddenly, Jesus is there with them. They recognize him. They recognize his tortured body. They see, but don’t touch—this is a very important piece for John’s gospel—they don’t touch but they see his scars. And… it’s him.

So, they celebrate! Their friend isn’t dead, the revolution isn’t over, Rome and even death, can’t defeat him!

Jesus then gives them an important gift—a calling. He tells them the game plan, he gives them a mission and authority to carry it out. Their reward for their faithfulness is to receive his same spirit. …wow!

But, who isn’t there? Who doesn’t get to see, to celebrate, to receive?

Thomas.

Thomas isn’t there. Maybe he’s working, or picking up groceries, or visiting other followers somewhere else. In any case, he’s not there.

Instead, Thomas gets the leftovers—second-hand accounts from everyone else. And what is his response? I need to see too… I want to get what you got… I want closure… I want to see my beloved friend and teacher too!

Can we blame him? Should we really call him names, like “Doubting Thomas”? Is that fair? Would we have felt differently?

***

Jesus hears Thomas and comes back for him. When they’ve gathered in the room again, Jesus appears and offers for Thomas to see and touch his scars—so that he too will believe. Now, of course, Thomas doesn’t actually touch Jesus, instead, he recognizes him immediately and cries, “My Lord and my God!”

 

The resurrection, in John, is relational: Jesus appears first to Mary, then to the disciples, and then Thomas. This resurrection story is not possible without witnesses who knew Jesus, who recognized him. So too, God’s promises, in John, are relational—it is through Christ that we come to the Father. By seeing, hearing, and knowing Christ we come to know God and are transformed.

It is also relational, in the sense that Jesus comes to meet people where they are—waiting at the tomb, huddled together, or feeling totally alone in a room of friends.

***

Returning to our story, we then see Jesus address the reader, as he asks Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

If this was a movie, this would be the part where Jesus swivels and looks directly at the camera.

This text is our ‘Thomas moment’, a way of having the risen Christ in front of us—to see and hear, but not touch.

The author of John and the other gospel writers have made available the risen Christ to us in their works. So that we don’t miss out so that we can know him—his life, his message, his death, and his transforming power.

This theme of transformation is integral to the Christian message. These people we’re reading about were transformed by their relationship with Jesus; and, so too are we.

Jesus offers us the Easter promise of new life—new life made available through relationship with him. We are offered the same new life as the Samaritan Woman at the Well, of Mary Magdalene, and of Thomas. This offer is particular, to our circumstances and our pain.

He may call us out of shame, out of oblivion, or out of rejection, but it is always into new life. Paul tells us that we die and are raised with Christ, and so we find ourselves part of this Easter story, resurrected and liberated from death—transformed through faith and made alive again.

What a great mystery to be part of. My prayer is that, over this Easter season, with the budding trees and other early signs of spring, you will reflect on your own resurrection story, of how God has called you into goodness and life abundant.

Amen.