The Danger of Misplaced Trust

On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania just off the southern coast of Ireland, mere hours from port. The Lusitania was one of the largest and most luxurious ships of its time. It carried a complement of 1,962 people, passengers and crew, as well as hundreds of tons of munitions (something the British government repeatedly denied until 1982).

Shortly after the torpedo struck, there was a second (internal) explosion, and twenty minutes later the Lusitania’s bow was on the seabed. Of the 1,962 souls onboard, 1,198 were lost. One of the mysteries surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania is why she still had unmanned lifeboats aboard when she went down. Only six of the Lusitania’s 48 lifeboats were launched.

There was certainly little time to launch the boats before the Lusitania went under, and she was listing badly, which made the task extremely difficult and for some boats impossible. But there is another possibility as well. After the torpedo struck, one of the surviving passengers heard a passenger call out, “Captain, what do you wish us to do?” Captain William Thomas Turner replied, “Stay right where you are, Madam, she’s all right.”

The female passenger then asked the captain, “Where do you get your information?” and he answered, “From the engine room, Madam.” There is no evidence, however, the engine room provided the captain with such information. It seems Turner said what he said not because it was true, but because he was trying to prevent a panic.

Moments later, a passenger shouted from the direction of the bridge, “The Captain says the boat will not sink,” and cheers went up across the deck. According to an eyewitness, people who were trying to board the lifeboats changed their minds and turned around.

Misplaced trust killed many of the people who died that day. They got bad information, and accepted it as true. In this, the age of spin doctors and fake news, we may be as vulnerable in our own way as were the passengers of the Lusitania.

This is particularly true in the areas of spirituality and religion, where anyone (I am an example) can voice an opinion. Warnings against misplaced trust have been sounded since at least the prophet Jeremiah’s time. He lambasted the religious professionals of his time who, he said, “…dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

This is a recurring theme in the Bible’s Old Testament, and particularly in Jeremiah. The prophet carried on a lengthy feud with religious professionals who falsely reassured their hearers everything would be alright. St. Paul sounded a similar note in the New Testament when he warned, “While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly … and they will not escape.”

The message, “You don’t have to do anything; it’ll be fine,” plays well to an audience. It played well to the people aboard the Lusitania, and they broke into cheers – just minutes before they drowned. It played well in 1929 when the Secretary of the Treasury, just weeks before the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, assured people, “There is no cause to worry. The high tide of prosperity will continue.” And it plays well now.

I sometimes hear the “You don’t have to do anything; it’ll be fine” message in religious circles, usually introduced by the confident assertion that God loves us unconditionally. It’s true God’s love is unconditional, but nowhere in the Bible does the message of his love promote a laissez-faire complacency.

According to St Paul, God’s kindness does not leave people where they are, but leads them elsewhere – to repentance. God is like a good parent. He doesn’t stop loving his children because they disobey him or engage in immoral or self-destructive behaviors, but neither will he ignore or acquiesce to such behaviors.

The Bible is clear: God did not send his Son so we could remain in our selfishness and sin, but so we could escape them. He does not say, “Stay where you are; it’s alright.” That’s not the kind of thing he would say. He loves us too much.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/5/2017

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The Virtue We Wish We Could Do Without

When the Tribune Chronicle stopped carrying Sydney Harris’s column, I abruptly cancelled my subscription. It was my habit to turn first to “Strictly Personal,” and only after that to check out the rest of the paper.

Harris’s famous aphorisms and colorful analogies made his work both wise and entertaining for a generation of readers. Nevertheless, I think he got it wrong when he wrote, “Perseverance is the most overrated of traits, if it is unaccompanied by talent; beating your head against a wall is more likely to produce a concussion in the head than a hole in the wall.”

True, perseverance will not produce talent in the untalented, but it will help the untalented accomplish more than they could otherwise. And in a talented person, perseverance will produce remarkable results. Consider Albert Einstein, who humbly claimed, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

President Coolidge made a similar point: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Perseverance is one of the most important virtues mentioned in the Bible. It is “through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures” that we have hope. When God gives people strength, it is usually does not manifest in awe-inspiring displays of might but in steady and determined perseverance.

According to the Bible, which takes a very dynamic view of human personality, people are under construction. It takes a variety of tools to build a great person, but none is more important than perseverance. Character is produced and maturity is gained through perseverance.

Yet perseverance is the one virtue we all wish we could do without. It requires us to do the hard thing, long after the desire for doing it is spent. The very sound of the word can make a person feel weary.

Despite its prominence in Scripture, perseverance is frequently missing from classical virtue lists, like the celebrated Cardinal Virtues – prudence, justice, temperance and courage. St. Ambrose gave them their title (from the Latin cardo, for “hinge”) in the fourth century, but the virtues themselves were extolled long before Ambrose, and even before the Christian era.

Perseverance didn’t make the cut for the so-called “theological virtues” (faith, hope and love) either. Perhaps if someone were to formulate a new category – “The Unwanted Virtues” – perseverance would finally make the list. It would sit right alongside chastity, which St. Augustine famously deferred, and that most elusive of virtues, humility.

It’s not hard to understand why perseverance gets so little love: it’s no fun. It’s hard work. It’s tiring. Yet perseverance is essential to the formation of character, and character (of a certain kind) is what God wants for humans. It’s what he’s been after all along.

The other virtues, including the cardinal virtues of St. Ambrose and the theological virtues of St. Paul, become expressions of character only through perseverance. This explains why God doesn’t just force us to do the right things. It’s not right things he’s after, but right people. He’s wants character, deliberately and freely chosen.

Virtue is not something that comes to us ready-made, from on high. C. S. Lewis described it well: God does not generally give us virtue. Instead he gives us the “power of always trying again. For however important [any virtue] may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still.”

  1. T. Wright put it this way: “Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature” – that is, become character. It is our choices, not our religious experiences (however extraordinary they may be) that most shape us. Mystical experiences may produce emotion and provide insight, but only our repeated choices, made with perseverance, can produce character.

Sydney Harris was wrong. Perseverance is not overrated but overlooked, unseen because it lies beneath and supports all the other virtues. And that is why St. James pronounced the one who perseveres through trials, instead of the one who has no trials, to be blessed.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/29/2017

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Acquire Inward Peace, Change the World

Before “Wayne’s World” was a movie with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, it was a Saturday Night Live comedy staple. The sketches were frequently based on some daydream fantasy of the stars – things that did not, and perhaps could not, happen in the outer world but could happen in “Wayne’s World.”

Wayne is not the only person with his own world. People frequently say of a coworker or family member, “He is his own world,” usually in a disapproving tone. They’re implying their friend is escaping from the real world (and his responsibilities in it) for the less real world of his own thoughts or fears or fantasies.

But Wayne is not the only one with his own world – everyone has one. While the thoughts and fears and fantasies of the inner world might not correspond to what is happening in the outer world, they are nevertheless real thoughts and fears and fantasies – actual events in the inner world which are bound to influence the outer world.

So it’s not just “Wayne’s World.” It’s “Shayne’s World” too – and William’s and Jennifer’s and Michael’s and Emma’s. There are currently about seven billion such worlds within our shared world.

What takes place in the world inside a person has a profound impact on the world outside a person. Freud promoted this idea, but we didn’t need Freud to know it was true. We’ve all seen how what goes on within us affects the people around us.

All humans have an inner world in which “the inner person” (St. Paul’s terminology) spends his or her entire life. Our usefulness to family and society, as well as our happiness and sense of purpose, have more to do with this inner world than the outer one. People who understand this can be useful, happy and purposeful even when everything in the outer world is wrong – when disease strikes, relationships break and financial supports collapse.

People wrongly assume happiness and fulfillment result from a careful ordering of the outside world. If they can just get a high-paying job, a nice house, and an attractive spouse (and, with these things, people’s respect), happiness and fulfillment are guaranteed. But they’re not. The idea has been disproved about as many times as there are people on the face of the globe.

Yet people try. They sometimes kill themselves trying, kill themselves with stress and overwork. They go to ever greater lengths to control their outer world, sacrificing themselves and manipulating their friends, but the results for which they hope never last.

The truth is a person cannot ignore the inner world and still be happy in the outer one. There are wars to be waged in ordering one’s private world, battles to be won. And there is friendship to be gained with the God who alone can enter our inner world.

It might be argued that such an emphasis leads to an unhealthy introspection and a spiritualized self-absorption. These are dangers, but they are dangers for everyone, spiritual or not, because everyone has an inner world. It’s not attention to the inner world, but inattention – and the helter-skelter interior life that results – which leads to self-absorption. As John Ortberg put it, “The neglected soul doesn’t go away; it goes awry.”

There is a long border and a great deal of commerce between the inner world and the outer. The person who most benefits the outer world is the one whose inner world is peaceful and well-ordered. Hence, St. Seraphim of Sarov’s observation: “Acquire inward peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.”

The evils we all bemoan in the outer world – greed, apathy, selfishness, bigotry, anger, sexual exploitation, and all the rest – didn’t originate in the outer world, in New York, L.A. or Kandahar, but in the inner world. Jesus was (as always) right on target when he said: “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.”

There will never be peace and prosperity in the outer world while there is envy, greed and deceit in the seven billion or so inner ones. Achieving peace in those inner worlds is an enormous task. God alone is big enough to accomplish it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/22/2017

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Good Friday Service

Below are the messages from the Coldwater Area Ministerial Evening Good Friday Service. I hope it will be an encouragement to you – it was to me! The area pastors are friends an co-workers in the kingdom of God – a blessing to me and to the larger church. – Shayne

INTRODUCTION

Our theme tonight is the glory of God. We want to look at God’s glory through the lens of Scripture and the medium of song. It will be something like climbing a mountain: at each new rise, we will gain a perspective we didn’t have before. Then, at last, we will come around the mountain, and out from the cleft of the rock to see God’s love and holiness displayed with breathtaking and fearsome glory.

When we were in Yosemite a few years ago, we came to a lookout high in the mountains, where we could gaze down at the valley stretching out before us. We saw distant and noiseless waterfalls perpetually cascading down sheer rock walls. There was Half-Dome reaching for the sky. To our left was El Capitan with it 3,000-foot vertical wall. As we looked, my wife and I had the same thought: It doesn’t look real. It was clear and grand – but too grand to take in; there was always more to see than you could see. Whichever way you turned, wherever you looked, there was some new glory.

Tonight, we hope to have the same kind of experience, but as we look at the cross: “Let me never boast,” the great apostle said, “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When it comes to the cross, whichever way you turn, wherever you look, there is some new glory. We can’t take it all in – perhaps we’ll never take it all in – but tonight we will look and be awed.

 EGYPT

Some form of the “word” glory is used in over 300 verses in the Bible, but the word doesn’t appear at all in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It doesn’t make its first appearance until the story of the Exodus – the story of Israel’s escape from slavery and oppression in Egypt. God reveals his glory as he triumphs over the gods of Egypt, one by one, in plague after plague. His glory shines as he defeats his people’s oppressors and their gods.

The pharaoh recognized the superior might of Israel’s God, and surrendered, but later withdrew his surrender and sent the armies of Egypt, with their overwhelming numbers and advanced weaponry, sweeping down on Israel’s frightened refugees. But the God of Israel will have none of it. His glory lights the heavens. His right hand stirs the sea – “The God of glory thunders over the sea.” He rends the waters like a garment, then sews them back together right over the top of the enemy of his people.

The gods of Egypt are humbled before the Lord God Almighty. The light of Rah, the mighty sun god, is dimmed before the dazzling glory of Jehovah (Yahweh). The glory of the god Khepri (who was always represented by the scarab beetle) was crushed under the weight of glory of the God of Israel. When the Gods battled in Egypt, the God of Israel was the glorious victor.

God showed his glory in Egypt when he bared his arm and made a fist.

SINAI

The next significant grouping of “glory” words comes as Israel journeys to the Promised Land. Instead of heading northwest to Canaan, the Israelites are led by God to go south into the formidable Arabian desert. They travel through some of the most barren and intimidating country on earth until they come to Horeb, the Mountain of God: the place called Sinai.

Here the Lord displays his glory. As it settles on Mount Sinai, fear settles in the hearts of the people. The sight is awesome and alarming: It looks as if the entire top of the mountain is being consumed by fire. Here the God who “is a consuming fire” enters into covenant with a people who are like chaff. Deity and humanity come to terms, and laws for their relationship are put in place.

It is here that Moses ascends the mountain and dares to say to God: “Now, show me your glory.” So, God hides him in the cleft of the rock and causes his glory to pass by, but warns Moses that he will only see his back for no one can see his face and live.

Moses returns from the mountain heights, his face shining with glory. He carries two tablets of stone, on which are engraved the terms of the covenant. These are the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words), the basis for the Book of the Law. They are placed in the ark, where the glory of God shines continually. God revealed his glory at Sinai, when he donned his judge’s robes and laid down the law.

 The Tabernacle/Temple

The next major cluster of glory words appears around the construction of the tabernacle and, later, the temple. God gave instructions to Moses for making a tabernacle where people could come to meet God, worship him and seek his forgiveness. Inside the tabernacle (and, later, Solomon’s temple) was the Holy Place, where only priests were permitted to go. But inside the Holy Place was the Most Holy Place. It was cordoned off by thick curtains and surrounded by an overwhelming – and frightening – sense of holiness.

No one entered it except the High Priest, the firstborn son of the firstborn son in Aaron’s direct line, and he only entered one day a year: The Day of Atonement. When he entered, he wore a robe that had little bells sewn on its hem. The priests outside would listen, and if the bells stopped ringing, they would know that God had taken the High Priest’s life because he had entered the most holy place in a state of sin.

Within the Holy of Holies was the golden lampstand and the ark of the covenant: The ark that contained Aaron’ staff, a jar of manna, and the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. It was in this hidden place that God displayed his glory. It was so awesome that no one dared enter except the high priest, and he only entered because he was required by God to do so.

When the tabernacle was completed, the glory of God descended on it. It filled the tabernacle so that even Moses dared not enter. When Solomon completed the temple, the same thing happened, so that the priests could not even perform their service.

After a while, it seemed to those outside that the glory had dispersed, but really it had condensed: it filled that tiny room known as the Holy of Holies, which was charged with glory. Hidden from all human eyes, except those of the high priest, and hidden from him on all days but one, God displayed his glory in the straight, unbending form of his holiness.

The Cross

God made a fist in Egypt, and displayed his glory. He donned judge’s robes at Sinai, and displayed his glory. He descended on the temple in unbending holiness, and displayed his glory. But the greatest revelation of his glory, its most terrifying display, happened elsewhere.

Even Jesus’s disciples, looking at it, did not see it. They did not consider this a day of glory but of infamy; not a day of praise but of shame. When they looked at the cross, they not only didn’t see God’s glory, they didn’t see God. They felt abandoned. Their sense of loss and desperation found expression in one voice that rose above the din in a cry of desolation: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?”

There were other people looking on, the priests and rulers, who watched all this with satisfaction. When they looked at Jesus, they saw a bloody lump of human flesh nailed to a cross. They saw nothing they cared for, nothing they desired. They scorned and mocked him in the cross, just as their spiritual descendants scorn and mock him now, in the church. When they looked at the cross, they saw weakness. They saw shame. As far as they were concerned, they had put that man in his place.

But they were blind to what was really going on, which is just what Jesus told them. They could no more take in what was going on than your pet can take in a work of art. If you go to the Louvre with your service dog, and enter the gallery with Michelangelo’s sculpture of The Dying Slave, your dog will see what you see, but it will mean nothing to him. He will miss all the glory and pathos and wonder. To him, The Dying Slave may be nothing more than a substitute fire hydrant.

The priests and rulers looked but did not see. As far they were concerned, they had put this man in his place. But the truth they couldn’t see is that God had put himself in our place. Had they seen God’s hands outstretched to strike their enemies, as he had once struck Egypt, they would have called it glory. But when they saw his hands outstretched to embrace a world – outstretched, and nailed to a cross – they called it shame. They exulted in the fact that God has revealed his glory by giving them the Law, but they missed his greater glory when he took the punishment the law demanded on himself.

They thought they knew the glorious God: the wonder-working, enemy-striking, law-giving, mountain-shaking, temple-filling, plague-sending, sea-parting God. But up till now, they had only seen the fringes of his garment. Like Moses, they had not seen his face. They had seen only his back.

And now they look on the face of God … and don’t recognize him. They see but do not perceive. They don’t realize that beyond the glory of his power is the greater glory of his love. Beyond the glory of his might is the unfathomable glory of his helplessness. The wonder-working, enemy-striking, law-giving, mountain-shaking, temple-filling, plague-sending, sea-parting God is also the cross-carrying, humanity-serving, sin-bearing, pain-enduring, curse-suffering, sorrow-knowing, life-giving Lamb.

This is glory.

Before the crucifixion, Pontius Pilate brought Jesus before the crowds and cried, “Behold the man!” But mystery of mysteries: On the cross, God brought Jesus before humankind, before angels and principalities and powers, and cried: “Behold your God!” This is what God is like. This is glory.

The poet spoke of “Earth cramm’d with glory, and every common bush aflame with God,” but she warned that most of us lack eyes to see it. Will we have eyes to see this? Not a common bush, but a tree; a tree cramm’d with a glory that burns but is never burned up; a glory so bright that our eyes cannot bear it, only our hearts. A tree, on which is nailed our Lord and our God. Here is the ultimate display of God’s glory, “in the very dying form of one who suffered there for me.” This – this – is glory!

“God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

 

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Easter: More Than a Promise of Life After Death

Most pastors have more than a passing acquaintance with death and dying. They are frequently called to people’s bedsides at the time of death. They spend hours in rooms over which a pall has already been cast, where people speak in hushed voices, and tears are shed in long vigil.

My acquaintance with death and dying began long before I became a pastor. It started when my brother, two years my senior, died at age fourteen from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It continued when my wife and I cared for our parents as they died. We brought my wife’s mother into our home when her cancer made constant care necessary. On the night she died, we were sleeping in the living room so that we could be near her.

The seven years I spent as a Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator allowed me to be with many people in their final days, and sometimes final hours. I’ve been privileged to pray with people as death neared, to hold their hands or sing their favorite hymns and, occasionally, to close their eyes.

I’ve had an interesting vantage point from which to see how people in our society cope with dying and death. I’ve known some people who looked death in the eye without quailing, and others who literally ran in fear at its approach. For the most part, though, the people I’ve accompanied to death’s door died with courage and honor. God really gives “grace to help us in our time of need.”

Individuals often face death bravely, but I don’t think society as a whole does. As a people, we both fear death and are embarrassed by it. We treat it like the contracted employee everyone hates but can’t be sacked, and so is sent to the recesses of the warehouse. Society hides death behind closed doors, usually in sterile hospital rooms and Hospice facilities.

We are like the people in biblical times who said, “We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement … for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.” But that agreement was based on a lie – the lie that death would leave them alone. But death doesn’t leave anyone alone. Of the estimated hundred billion people who have ever lived on earth, only seven billion or so are currently alive, and death will not leave them alone any more than it did their ancestors.

Christians believe, and on Easter celebrate, the news that God has torn up the agreement with death. The resurrection of Jesus means that God does not intend to honor any covenant with death. The old agreement, “You leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone,” is out the proverbial window.

Death enjoyed a long reign as the undefeated champion of the world, but it came to an end on that first Easter morning. Death is undefeated no more and will be destroyed. Christians join with the English Renaissance poet John Donne in his taunt: “Death, thou shalt die.”

If we take Easter to be the story of one man’s unlikely return to life after death, we will completely misunderstand it. Easter does not tell a story about how God played favorites with his favorite son, while leaving the rest of us to our misery. (Though more than one skeptic has mocked such a view as if it were the church’s own, it is nothing more than a rank caricature of Christian belief.)

Nor is Easter merely the promise that human beings can continue to exist in some form after death. Preachers sometimes talk as if that were the main point, but the vast majority of people who first heard the Easter story already believed in life after death.

The earliest Christian thinkers did not regard Jesus’s resurrection as proof that life continues after death, but as proof that God was bringing the age of injustice and rebellion (the age of death) to an end. They saw Jesus’s resurrection as initiating God’s “end times” strategy. It was not merely an extraordinary event, it was a promise: a promise that death will be destroyed, the world put to rights, and God and his people reconciled.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/15/2017

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Get Rid of the Litter in Your Life

My wife and I walked down our country road this week, picking up litter. We took a thirty-gallon trash bag with us on our usual two-mile walk, thinking that we would pick up trash as we went. But we had to turn around after about 700 yards to get another bag. And then another.

We found beer cans, pop cans, liquor bottles of various sizes, water bottles, plastic grocery bags, fast-food containers, construction materials, and more. I felt sympathy for the poor man or woman who tosses the beer cans each night (there seem to be new ones each day) before arriving home to spouse and family. I suppose he or she is trying to hide the evidence

Most of that trash will be hidden from view within a week or two. The grass will grow, the mayapples will push up, and the stinging nettles and other weeds will emerge. The roadside will grow a lovely green that motorists will admire, but behind the signs of life will lie the evidence of corruption and decay.
When the grass and weeds die in the autumn, the trash will be visible again, but only for a time. Then the fresh, white snows will cover it under their cold blanket until spring. There are certain times when clean-up is best done. At other times it cannot be done at all.

Because we live at the bottom of a small valley between low ridges, water runs down the ditches from high to low, especially in the spring. Sometimes enough trash collects in the ditch to dam up culverts and force the water aside into rank pools or to spill over onto field or road.

As we climbed in and out of the ditch, I couldn’t help but think of the trash-strewn road as a metaphor for people’s lives. The road itself remains clean (for the most part), just as the part of our lives that most people see remains clean. But out of sight, in the ditch and hidden recesses, lies the litter of our failures and excesses, our sins and our pains.

I have been in pastoral work long enough (and have had a long enough acquaintance with myself) to know that a casual Sunday drive through someone’s life will not reveal what’s really there. Most people look good to the casual observer but conceal, in the hidden places of their lives, the residue of broken relationships, fears and failures.

The lives we live, like the roads we travel, are often in need of a clean-up. Sometimes the task seems so daunting that we hesitate to tackle it. We cling to the hope that no one will notice (or call attention to) our trash while we wait for life to provide some kind of cover to hide it.

In our lives, as on our roads, there are seasons when clean-up can best be done, and seasons when it can hardly be done at all. Put another way, there are times when we cannot overlook the stuff that is polluting our lives, and those times provide the best opportunity to do some clean-up.

But cleaning up can be hard, and even dangerous, work. Some of the stuff strewn along the periphery of our lives may be quite toxic, while other litter may be, simply put, embarrassing. How are we supposed to go about cleaning up?

First, don’t think of cleaning up as something meritorious. If you do it to earn moral or spiritual bonus points, you’ll be disappointed—and most people won’t even notice. Do it, rather, to be happier and more productive.

Second, don’t do it alone. Find a trusted friend or spiritual director who can help you think rightly about yourself and be honest about what you find.

Third, ask God himself for help. We cannot always see the things that litter our lives or prevent us from being happier and more productive—but God can. Like the biblical poet, ask him what he sees: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/8/2017

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Shame and Shamelessness in Contemporary Culture

“I feel like a garbage can, full of ugly, nasty things.”

That’s how a young woman once described herself to me. She was in her late teens or early twenties, and had been raised with a sexually abusive father until her parents divorced. She then lived with her mother, whose life was punctuated by binges with predatory men and alcohol. She remembers getting her own breakfast, dressing herself and going to school on mornings when her mom failed to come home. She was five-years-old at the time.

She has since married, had children and worked in a successful career. But she struggled for years with depression, self-mutilation, and thoughts of suicide. Shame wrapped her like a blanket – or a shroud. She hated what had happened to her, but hated even more the person she envisioned herself to be.

Shame is a terrible burden to bear. Introducing shame into a person’s life is like putting herbicide on a garden: it prevents that person from blossoming. “Shame,” wrote Brené Brown in “I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Whereas guilt concerns one’s actions, shame is about one’s self. Guilt is a powerful motivator. Shame is a powerful demotivator. Shame makes no one better or stronger or move loving. The only thing worse than feeling shame is the inability to feel shame.

According to Brené Brown, we live in a culture of shame. Perhaps she is right, although our culture is very unlike traditional shame cultures, and might even be regarded by them as shameless—something some social commentators consider a positive thing. But people who “have no shame” are like people who, due to injury or disease, have no nerve endings. Yet in the current cultural climate, shamelessness is considered a good, and possibly even courageous, thing.

Of course, the problem for most people is not being shameless, but being ashamed of the wrong things. For example, people today are often ashamed of things that former generations took pride in: patriotism, masculinity, femininity, respect, broadmindedness, etc. But they are shameless about things that previous generations wouldn’t mention in public, most of which have to do with human sexuality.

(I am not here endorsing all the things past generations took pride in: some were morally debased and indefensible.)

When people refuse to find meaning and satisfaction in love for and relationships with their creator and their fellow creatures, they will look for it in themselves. This usually means they will look for it in sensations and feelings. And of course sexuality is a rich source of sensations and feelings.

An addiction to sensations and feelings overshadows our culture right now. Some of the most critically acclaimed books and movies in the last four decades are variations on a single theme: that to be authentic, people must give expression to their feelings—whatever they’re feeling—even when society considers such expression immoral; even when they consider it immoral; even when giving expression to that feeling harms other people.

This is diabolically deceptive. People are ruining their relationships and their lives because, as they say, “It’s just how I feel. I have to be myself.” But the self is much more than feelings and sensations. Without realizing it, people who live for their feelings are betraying the very self to which they say they are committed.

They endless pursuit of sensual and emotional gratification turns people into ghosts, into mere shadows of their true selves. They dwell on the surface of their lives, becoming increasingly less human and increasingly more like soulless sense perceptors. No one finds meaning and satisfaction like that.

Shame is a devastating disease of the soul that must be treated, but becoming shameless is not the treatment. Shamelessness may relieve the pain, but the cure for shame is found in loving acceptance in the context of honest, mutually affirming relationships.

However, there is, to my knowledge, no known cure for shamelessness.

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