sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 09/29/2013
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There is a famous story about a man named Saul of Tarsus – more commonly known as Paul. He’s on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest members of a small but growing Jewish sect called “The Way” and return them to Jerusalem so they can be questioned and, in all likelihood, executed.
At the center of his dramatic conversion experience are the same things we’ve been talking about for the last several weeks. Belonging, shame, and vulnerability. And tucked into the middle of it, hiding in plain sight, is our topic for today: kindness and compassion as keys to moving towards the courageous embrace.
Here’s the story, from Acts 9.
9 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” [When Paul tells this story himself, later in Acts, he includes the additional detail that Jesus also said: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”]
5“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
What does this story have to teach us about moving from shame towards the courageous embrace of vulnerability, with the help of kindness and compassion? That’s going to take some unpacking, so we’ll get to it a little bit later today, but for now we can use the story as way to review and illustrate of some of the dynamics we’ve been talking about.
One of the things we’ve said is that both scientific research and biblical wisdom teach that belonging is the primary human need, and shame is the universal response when belonging is threatened. The main character in this story, Saul, has lived his whole life in an attempt to escape from and cover over the intensely painful experience of shame. How so, you ask?
Paul is a Jewish man, an Israelite. At the time of his birth, Israel was in exile, a nation under the thumb of Roman oppression. Exile is like the ultimate shame trigger, and Israelites were not immune. Many in Israel interpreted Roman occupation as a signal that Israel’s good standing – her belonging – with YHWH was no longer secure.
And what have we learned is one of the primary human responses to protect itself from shame, to defend itself against the painful feelings of shame and vulnerability? Perfectionism. The idea that if we can achieve a level of perfection in our lives, no one will have any excuse to reject us; we will be worthy of acceptance.
Saul was a member of the Pharisees, a group in Israel who was concerned about Israel’s strict adherence to the law code God had given Israel. They subscribed to the idea that if they could purify Israel of lawbreakers, and call everyone to a higher level of religious observation, they could demonstrate their worthiness to God. That God would no longer have cause to reject Israel, but would instead send his Messiah and overthrow Rome. They were hard on themselves, for sure, and they were self-righteously ruthless towards anyone that they perceived as a threat to Israel’s purity and perfection.
That sure sounds like a form of religious perfectionism, doesn’t it? But like every attempt to cover the shame and vulnerability we feel, it’s ineffective. It leads to joyless, brittle, bitter, exhausting, uncreative, disconnected life. And it has destructive consequences, such as anxiety, jealousy, greed, and prejudice.
(All self-righteousness, in fact, is a shame response at heart. We are insecure in our belonging, and so by viewing others as less secure than we are, less worthy of belonging, we bolster our own anemic sense of worthiness. This is why Jesus displayed no self-righteousness. He was totally secure in himself and in his relationship with his Father, and so had no need to make anyone feel less worthy.)
The only way out of shame and its destructive effects is to courageously embrace the vulnerability and neediness that shame reveals, but perfectionism hates vulnerability. (Saul probably hated the vulnerability he saw on display in the first Christian martyr, Stephen, whom he helped stone just a chapter earlier.) But of course, at the end of this story, Saul finds himself exposed and vulnerable, doesn’t he? Knocked to the ground by a bright light. Blind, needing to be led by the hand. Hungry and thirsty after three days of not eating or drinking. Quite a transformation from the authorized representative of the chief priest, riding into town with a posse, arrest warrants in his hand.
That’s why we’re calling this series “Courageous Embrace.” Learning to courageously embrace ourselves in our vulnerability. To embrace a God who makes himself vulnerable. To embrace others in their vulnerability. To courageously embrace the vulnerability required to change a world ravaged by sin and chained by shame. Because vulnerability is the way of Jesus, it’s the way of salvation, it’s the way of freedom and life and wholeheartedness, it’s the way of love.
So today, let’s talk about moving toward vulnerability. We know it’s the only way forward, but it’s terrifying. Counterintuitive. We’re fighting all kinds of habits and momentum in the other direction because of perfectionism and the scarcity mentality, as we’ve talked about.
Don’t be vulnerable! Be perfect so that you are invulnerable!
Vulnerability will be perceived as weakness and you’ll be rejected!
There’s not enough to go around; you’ve got to fight for what little there is!
Vulnerability will weaken you and decrease your shot at getting your fair share!
Of course, all of these are just twisted, distorted truths that Shame uses to keep us wrapped around his crooked finger.
Step one is what we’ve been working on these last several weeks, hopefully: developing an awareness of shame. Just seeing it for what it is. Seeing how it blinds us to reality. Distorts our view of ourselves, God, others. Seeing its destructive intent and capacity so that we aren’t seduced by its lies.
A brief clarification before we move on to step 2, today, which, as I’ve mentioned, is all about kindness & compassion: sometimes shame gets confused with guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. They are not the same.
Guilt isn’t shame. Guilt we’ve talked about some before. Guilt is what we feel when we do something that doesn’t hold up to our values. It’s helpful in that it can lead us to apologize, to make amends, and to change our behavior. These are all positive outcomes.
Researchers have found that shame, on the other hand, eats away at the part of us that believes we can change and do better. Shame makes us feel that we are so deeply flawed that we are unworthy of belonging, and therefore it’s a waste of time to even try to improve. It’s strongly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Shame isn’t a solution for negative behaviors; it’s very often the cause. To use biblical language, shame is a sinful response to sin.
Adam and Eve demonstrate no guilt in the garden. Only shame. And we see what came of that.
Humiliation isn’t shame, either. Dr. Donald Klein, at Columbia University, says, “People believe they deserve their shame; they do not believe they deserve their humiliation.”
Imagine you stretched out for a diving catch in center field in the bottom of the 9th. Let’s say you were to just miss the ball as it glanced off you glove, and as a result, your opponents score and your team loses. After the game your coach calls you out in the locker room for losing the game for your team.
How you feel about that is the difference between shame and humiliation. Imagine you think to yourself, “Man, I am such a loser. I should have caught that. I totally failed my team and cost us the game. They’ll never let me play again. I wish I could run far away and never have to talk to them again. I suck.” That’s shame. But imagine you think to yourself, “Sheesh, my coach is such a jerk. I gave everything I have out there; I don’t deserve this. Any number of things could have cost us that loss – no one is going to be perfect on every play, and that was an almost impossible catch. This is ridiculous.” That’s humiliation. It feels terrible, but it’s not shame.
Again, Adam and Eve didn’t feel humiliated by God in the garden. Before God is even on the scene, they’ve already taken on shame.
Finally, there’s embarrassment. When we do something embarrassing, we don’t feel alone; we know other people have done similar things. Embarrassment doesn’t define us the way Shame does. Embarrassment is usually fleeting, and eventually, funny. Shame sticks with us, and is the furthest thing in the world from funny.
Adam and Eve aren’t embarrassed in the garden. They aren’t sitting around a campfire later, laughing about it. They aren’t going on the late night talk show circuit making fun of themselves. No, they’ve got nothing but shame. And hot on its heels, of course, death.
So once we’ve recognized Shame at work in us, what can we do to move towards the courageous embrace of vulnerability that leads to life, and away from the death that Shame shuffles us towards? Step 2: We can practice (Jesus-Brand) kindness and compassion.
Yup. Just like it sounds.
We can be kind and compassionate. Towards ourselves mainly, at first.
Because that’s how God is towards us.
That’s how the rescue begins.
Changing direction in the bible is called “repentance.” Repentance just means “turning around.” When we are heading towards death and destruction, holding Shame’s hand, God calls us towards life. He calls us to repent. To turn around. To change directions.
And it’s his kindness towards us that empowers us to turn back towards life.
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
The Hebrew root of the concept of God’s kindness is חֶסֶד “Hesed.” Hesed is perhaps the most important word in the Bible besides God. Notoriously difficult to capture: Covenant loyalty. Steadfast love. Faithfulness. But one translation, my favorite, is “lovingkindness.” And it’s often paired with God’s compassion.
I will betroth you to me forever; Yes I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion.
Answer me, O Lord, for your lovingkindness is good; according to the greatness of Your compassion, turn to me.
In Lamentations 3, the writer has the powerful description of shame, attributing his misery to rejection from God, it goes on and on, ending like this:
14I have become a laughingstock to all my people,
Their mocking song all the day.
15He has filled me with bitterness,
He has made me drunk with wormwood.
16He has broken my teeth with gravel;
He has made me cower in the dust.
17My soul has been rejected from peace;
I have forgotten happiness.
18So I say, “My strength has perished,
And so has my hope from the LORD.”
But then, he remembers God’s hesed:
21This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
22The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
God’s lovingkindness and compassion cause the writer to abandon his shame, and begin to move toward life in repentance.
Let’s go back to Saul’s conversion story now.
Remember, Saul is a zealous Pharisee persecuting the resurrected Jesus’ followers, his religious perfectionism an armor against the shame and vulnerability of Israel’s exile.
Then he encounters Jesus in a blinding light on the road, and is knocked from his horse. When Paul (formerly Saul) talks about it later, he indicates that he hears Jesus in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue. Jesus is speaking in his most personal voice, maybe even with his Galilean accent (Paul’s accent was different, having been raised in the Roman city of Tarsus).
“Why do you persecute me?” He is speaking as a person who is vulnerable, someone who can be harmed and is being harmed by Saul. [Like any prisoner being abused might appeal to the humanity of his captors, “Why are you doing this to me?”] Jesus is joining himself with the vulnerability of his followers, whom Saul is arresting and killing. He doesn’t show up aggressively, angrily, but with vulnerability.
Then: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” The goad was a stick with a sharp point a farmer used to goad his oxen forward when plowing a field. It would have been painful to kick against a goad. To me this suggests that Jesus sees a pain in Saul, and has compassion on him. Perhaps Shame is like the goad driving Saul forward, and Saul has been unable to get free of the yoke. Jesus comes to him like he comes to all of us – “Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened. Take your yoke upon me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In Jesus’ public ministry, he was hard on the Pharisees. But here, in this intensely personal encounter with Paul, in the midst of Paul’s wrongness and strength-masked pain, Jesus meets him with true Hesed. With lovingkindness and compassion.
It’s reminds of that Roberta Flack song, “Killing Me Softly” (famously redone by the Fugees)…
Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song,
Killing me softly with his song,
Telling my whole life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song.
As my dad has written, was Paul’s conversion so deep because Jesus’ lovingkindness was so achingly rendered? As if this is what Hesed, lovingkindness is for…as if this is when it is most affecting and powerful…
Jesus’ lovingkindness and compassion bring Paul into an unprecedented freedom; the blinding light on that road drives Saul’s shame-filled darkness away, letting him see a truer reality then his shame-lens would ever have allowed…
If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Everything has changed for Paul. Now, instead of being goaded by shame into the lie of perfectionism, he courageously embraces the vulnerability of the cross – recognizing that it’s the only true path to resurrection life.
What does this mean for us, today? It means that if we want to cooperate with God by repentance from shame, we must practice lovingkindness and compassion towards ourselves, as a way of receiving it from Jesus. Kindness and compassion towards our selves is a participation with God in the freedom from shame he wants to bring us, and a step in the direction of a courageous embrace of vulnerability.
Remember what Jesus said? I only do what I see my father doing.
That is to be our mantra as well. What do we see our father doing towards us? Lovingkindness and compassion. He embraces us in our vulnerability. [Adam & eve in garden, Lord YHWH coming with gentleness. Replacing their inadequate covering with one that foreshadows the only adequate covering that will one day come in Christ…]
We must do the same, starting with ourselves. To treat ourselves differently than God treats us is sin. And, then of course, we will be freed to relate this way to others, even outsiders, practicing the radical hospitality of Jesus that is central to what it means to be part of the Jesus movement.
Self-compassion/kindness vs self-esteem…Research shows a difference between bolstering self-esteem & self-compassion [Kristen Neff, Researcher, Moral Development]
Self-esteem movement was a response to lousy childrearing practices of 50’s: stingy on affection and praise (don’t let it go to their head!)
“Self-esteem based on a global evaluation of self-worth. A judgment, am I good person or am I a bad person.”
-Dr. Kristen Neff, University of Texas
Psychologists saw it as a marker of mental health. But recent research suggests self-esteem emphasis may have had some unintended negative consequences. UM Institute of Social Research has been tracking the ability of young people to show empathy; current generation in college is at all-time low. Narcissism (excessive self-regard, self-absorption), on the other hand, is high. There is debate about how to interpret, what to do about it, but something is amiss…
The problem isn’t self-esteem, it’s how we go about getting it. In a competitive society, self-esteem is based on being special and above average. So 97% see themselves as above average drivers, including those who have caused recent accident. (Or tone-deaf contestants in American Idol tryouts, crushed to learn they don’t make cut…as if surrounded by family boosting their self-esteem at expense of their grip on reality)
In our society, people also boost self-esteem by putting others down.
In religion: feel better about our group if we put down other groups.
Boosting self-esteem by rendering a positive moral judgment (I’m a good person not a bad person—the language of moral affirmation) ties in well with the original sin: eating from tree of knowledge of good and evil. Twisted religious idea that it’s our job (rather than God’s) to confer moral approval or condemnation on each other.
“Self-esteem is a way of judging ourselves, while self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all.”
-Dr. Kristen Neff
Isn’t this how God relates to us in Christ? Kindly, embracing us as we are?
Jesus was known as “the friend of sinners.” He didn’t use this as a title for himself…it was what the Pharisees called him. It was their commentary on how they saw him relating, behaving around sinners. Like he preferred their company.
Which says that Jesus must have liked sinners. Who are the people in your life that you like? Your friends. Generally we don’t befriend people we don’t for one reason or another like. So why would we rob this term – friend of sinners – of its essential meaning? As though it meant he religiously loved them (savior that he had to be to them)…rather than he actually and humanly liked them?
What if you could picture yourself being liked by Jesus, because he preferred to hang around your kind, sinners?
Research supports the value of this: those who practice self-kindness get benefits of high self-esteem without down-sides of lower empathy, narcissism. [Romans: Let each person regard himself with sober judgment.]
Which brings us to our PRACTICAL SUGGESTION (in three parts)
1. Pay attention this week to your self-talk, especially when you are not performing up to snuff.
2. As you become attuned to your self-talk, ask yourself, “Would I ever talk like that to a friend?”
3. Just for the next week, as an experiment, try talking to yourself in the same way that you would want to talk to a friend when your friend is disappointing himself.
See what happens. After you’ve done it for a week, do you feel closer to God or further away?