Something I keep learning over and over again is just how pervasive and how paralyzing shame can be in people, even in our own culture, which is far less honor/shame oriented than a lot of cultures–and a major part of pastoral skill is to help people take the first small step away from their own shame and guilt.
Something about the human condition seems to make it easy for us all to heap shame upon ourselves, and it’s probably got something to do with our dynamics when it comes to the recognition of our own sins. Unfortunately, too often, the shame is disproportionate to the sin. Way disproportionate. It’s like there’s this little kernel of sin, which suddenly racks up shame at credit card interest rates, and before you know it, there’s a pile of shame so big that even finding the kernel of sin is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
I see people do this all the time when it comes to the subjects of reconciliation and return. Someone dearly wants to make amends with someone else. Someone wants to return home, or return to church, or try to make a relationship right again. They dearly want to try. Yet something holds them back from making that first baby step. I suspect fear of rejection or the discomfort of being in the awkward place compound the shame. Sadly, so many times, ultimately, it comes down to that person being unable to believe he/she really is God’s beloved child, and that God has already forgiven them. “God can’t possibly love me because…” and the reality is they can’t believe God has forgiven them because they can’t forgive themselves.
Don’t get me wrong; there are times shame shapes us–it can certainly be part of the re-orientation process in our lives–but once we’ve been re-oriented, and we are trying to live differently, shame has no purpose. In the church setting, it’s what mistakenly keeps people from coming forward for Communion, or even back into the door of the church. In the hospital pastoral setting, it’s what keeps sick people from asking for help from their family and friends. It’s what leaves things hanging thick in the air when someone is dying.
Recently, I’ve heard a few confessions from people. Although the rubrics of my church don’t give me the power to absolve anyone, I can at least assure them that God has forgiven them, not will forgive them. It’s a done deal already. It’s also not been lost on me that so often, these confessions involve something which, in my opinion, are kind of piddly. I sit there and think, “Really? You’re worried God would chuck you into the Outer Darkness over THAT?” Yet they are worried, and my task is to meet them where they are. I have this image of a self-constructed Hell, where it’s pitch black dark, and if they would only find the wall and start following it, they’d discover the exit door unlatches from the inside. No one has kept them there. God had no desire to hold them down with a divine thumb.
Yet, there they are. So frustrating. So sad. And I’m not immune. I have my own battles with shame. We are simply SO NOT ALONE in this…and perhaps, it’s the reminders that we are not alone, that within lies our salvation.