Oh, The Shame
I was listening to an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, and she started on her standard riff about how shame is bad and we don’t have to be ashamed because, really, all of us are equally shitty and sinful, but God loves us all anyway, because God is just special that way and He just loves to pour out His infinite grace on all us lousy assholes. All of that is true, of course, and, of course, Bolz-Weber is going to go off on it because she wrote a book called Shameless, and that’s her schtick. I was happy to hear her doing it because that’s part of why I was listening to the interview — I wanted to hear someone talk about the kind of Christianity I believe in and Pastor Nadia is pretty consistent that way. She and I are both recovering alcoholics who came back to Christianity after some time away — I was away longer than her — and landed in the ELCA. We both have tattoos, curse with reckless abandon and hate CCM. Heck, we were both born in April, 1969.
I agree with Bolz-Weber completely, and I’m glad she’s out there, addressing the damage the big “C” Church has done over the past couple millenia, but I honestly can’t imagine life without shame. What would that even be like?
In addition to the afore-mentioned alcoholism, I have dysthymia — persistent depressive disorder — and recurrent major depressive disorder. I’m transgender, and wasn’t able to fully accept that until pretty recently. And I grew up in a fairly loveless environment where verbal abuse was the norm. It all contributes to me being able to consciously understand that I don’t have to be ashamed because I’m no worse than anyone and God loves me — but I don’t feel it.
This is not an attempt to get pity. Actually, the opposite is true — I want to suggest that the way I am is fine and more people should consider adopting it. Bolz-Weber is not wrong — I totally affirm her position on shame — but the simple fact is: some of us are pretty messed up and we aren’t going to resolve all of our issues. Some of us are going to die of natural causes, in very old age, with a bunch of trauma and damage still negatively affecting us. Some of us will never be okay — in this life. As a Christian, of course, I believe that there will be an afterlife, in which I will be finally and fully restored to wholeness and unity with God. I’ve heard that there’s no depression in Heaven — I’m guessing there’s no shame there either.
I don’t believe that the goal of life is to undo the damage that life did. I don’t think that our number one mission is to get ourselves all fixed up. If that was the case, then Jesus would have said so, and He didn’t. Actually, Jesus is not a very good model for self-care. He did get off by Himself occasionally for a little rest and rejuvenation in the wilderness, but He also gave and gave and finally gave His life for a bunch of people who truly didn’t deserve it, which no psychologist would recommend. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus tell somebody to take a little time for themselves, maybe get a massage. He’s pretty clear about people being forgiven, and then He tells them to get to work.
I know that I’m forgiven. I know that the boundless grace of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe covers my petty little sins and that I am loved beyond my ability to comprehend. And there’s another part of my brain that is equally sure that I’m a worthless piece of garbage. I know that I could take steps toward some sort of breakthrough which might liberate me from some of the negativity in my head, but I’m sure that would require a different kind of discomfort than what I’m used to — and probably some undignified behavior, as well — and I don’t want to.
The homeless people I work with don’t know any of that. They might not always like me, but they know that I’m going to show up for work at the shelter and do my part to ensure that they have dinner and a place to sleep, inside and safe. My internal conflicts and lasting damage don’t change the impact that my actions have. I don’t have to achieve any level of psychological wholeness to be able to feed Jesus’ sheep. I’m confident that I’m doing what I’m instructed to do.
And I’m confident in God. If He wants me to get down to the core of what’s wrong with me and ugly-cry right out in front of people, then that’s what’s going to happen. There’s an old gospel-blues song by Rev. Robert Wilkins called “Holy Ghost Train” — the reason I thought of it just now is that the Holy Ghost is about as unstoppable as a train, so you’re better off being on board than in the way. I’m going for the ride — there may be stations I’m not crazy about, but I’m not getting off. God’s in charge.
It’s also true that I’ve only been back in Christendom for a few years. Some healing just takes time. I may, one day, be able to gabble on about how useless shame is and how joyfully free of it I am the way I enjoy seeing Bolz-Weber do. That could happen.
In any event, I’m not well now. And that’s okay. I don’t have to be psychologically A-Okay to do God’s work or enjoy His infinite grace. That really is poured out on lousy assholes like me.