Like Cold Water


Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
(Psalm 51:2-3 NRSV)

All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
at the words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
(Psalm 44:15-16 NRSV)

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
Rise up, O LORD! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear, O LORD; let the nations know that they are only human.
(Psalm 9:18-20 NRSV)

Jesus went throughout Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues
and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom
and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
(Matthew 4:23 NRSV)

Each Sunday, the Presbyterian worship service includes a prayer of confession followed by an assurance of God’s continuing grace of forgiveness, healing, help, and guidance – in short, renewal of the damaged relationship. Confession in this sense admits need, but mostly I find it narrows to admitting fault. The focus falls upon guilt summarized in the familiar phrase about those things we have done (that we ought not to have done) and those things we have left undone (that we ought to have done). Here we have the two-fold source of guilt: sins of commission (done) and sins of omission (left undone). Grace then narrows to pardon and cleansing – not counting our sins against us but washing our guilt away – and may even be degraded into the notion of another chance to get it right even though we are assured we shall fail and need pardon again. Such a misunderstanding of grace tends to have the wrong effect: instead of making us gracious toward others, it may make us continuously guilt-ridden and pressured to do life perfectly (or just better than someone else).

I am not suggesting that guilt is no great human problem. I know better, but I know also that guilt is far from being the only human problem, and currently it does not seem to be weighing so heavily on many people’s minds, especially not the minds of younger adults, as other problems in the human condition.

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Until They Have Faces


I’m borrowing the title of a C. S. Lewis novel, Till We have Faces. Though it held my interest, the novel itself ultimately disappointed me by leaving me in much the same place I find myself at the end of the biblical book of Job – silenced before the ineffable splendor of the divine. Being silenced by superhuman majesty is for me neither persuasive nor salvific.

Christianity is incarnational. For us, truth has a face because the nature of biblical truth is covenantal – that is, relational and communal, personal but not isolating. It is never just God and I apart from the community of faith, and it is never just God and the church apart from the world God loves and longs to heal.

Issues without faces divide us. We take sides and fight for our side to win. We refute the other side’s concerns as well as their arguments because the situation has become win or lose. We do not hear each other’s pain. We do not respect each other’s dignity.

Issues argued as issues divide churches. They make us feel we must choose to be in the right group or the wrong one. Often the dividing line is drawn between respecting standards or respecting people, between order and compassion. The truth is we need both and most of us care about both, though we differ on which we favor. But as we debate the issue as a principle, we lose sight of the humanity on the other side. We cease to see the faces of the others, and they become for us a type – the type who oppose what we stand for and believe.

Cops are people, and they are also people empowered far beyond the norm to do good or evil in our society.

I am not suggesting we take the issues out of justice and just make nice. Neither should we dilute the offensiveness in cruelty and injustice. If what happened in Ferguson, Missouri was disturbing and the actions of the prosecutor there deeply troubling, what happened on Staten Island is alarming and the grand jury’s refusal even to send the killing to a trial is outrageous. The police should not get a pass because they are, all together, a glorified type; neither should they get blanket condemnation because they are, all together, a vilified type. Cops are people, and they are also people empowered far beyond the norm to do good or evil in our society. Police power can be comforting or frightening, protective or destructive. Racial prejudice skews that power toward evil, and so does a macho culture of “Don’t mess with me, punk!” Young men (and women) in gangs have always been dangerous, and keeping the police from becoming a gang requires constant vigilance. After all, the police are trained to be violent so they can overcome the violent, and they are disrespected and taunted regularly. Young men in gangs preserving their honor and exerting their superior force have always been dangerous. When the gang mentality takes over a police force, it becomes very dangerous.

When I was in seminary I heard William Sloan Coffin preach in Princeton University’s chapel,

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Rightness on the Defensive


The current Chick-fil-A debacle prods me to reflect upon the phenomena of angry rightness because that’s what I think the hubbub is all about. For many in this land, it has always seemed right to be white, Christian, heterosexually oriented, married, somewhat educated (but not too intellectual), and successful to some degree or at least on the way toward some measure of material success and financial independence. It has also been righter to be male, but a right-kind of woman has been able to participate in that male rightness by belonging with a right male and knowing he needed her.

Since the late 1960’s, the standards of rightness have been questioned and sometimes even scorned and mocked. The right people have heard suggestions that they should be at least somewhat ashamed of the very qualities, achievements, and entitlements they had believed made them the right people. Because their points of pride were, to their ears at least, being branded shameful, they reacted with anger that is presently being pushed over the line into highly defensive and often irrational rage.

The fuss about freedom of speech is a red herring tossed into the fray to sanctify the righteous indignation of the Chick-fil-A defenders. Of course, Mr. Cathy has freedom of speech. If he did not, I would never have heard of him or his obnoxious crusade. What the Constitution does not grant him is immunity from criticism.

The right people have always expected praise and admiration from those they have regarded as their inferiors. Often, when they have received the admiration they believed their due, they have been willing to soften and become benevolent toward those inferiors, but only when “those people” have kept to their lower places in society and showed proper deference toward the pride of the right people.

So, now we are witnessing the chicken uprising: the attack-other, shamed pride of the right people, justified (very transparently) by appeals to freedom of speech and of religion, neither of which is threatened. Call people’s points of pride irrelevant to rightness, and they will feel shamed (but probably not admit it). Make people feel their pride is being threatened, and they will attack. Or they may choose to rethink their security in their identities and make room for others, but that mature response requires empathy and a more secure sense of self not so rigidly based upon belonging to the group of the right kind of people.

Should I feel ashamed of being white, male, Christian, heterosexual, married, fairly well educated, and reasonably stable financially as I begin my retirement? No, not at all, but neither do I feel a right to pride in any of those things. Why should I feel proud or ashamed of being heterosexually oriented? I had no choice in the matter, any more than I chose to be white or male. That I am Christian attaches to a much longer and more complex story that is ongoing, but let it be enough to say here that it is to me a continually developing matter of God’s grace, not of anything I have done or deserved, and so not cause for pride (or shame unless I attach it to pride). Education is a gift I resisted in my youth but received anyway. What financial security I enjoy falls under the category of the saying, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while,” much more than under any proud label I might claim for stumbling and landing on my feet, and I am thankful for and somewhat astonished by it.

This final paragraph is for Christians. Jesus has told us to treat people as we would wish to be treated in their circumstances, to show respect for all (including those whom society does not respect and those who do not respect themselves), to be servants of all (especially if we find ourselves entrusted with leadership), to speak as though we were the youngest present (the least entitled to deference), and never to assume the role of benefactor in which a supposedly higher and better person reaches down with charity or philanthropy to supposed inferiors, expecting their gratitude and admiration. People called to live by grace cannot justly regard themselves as the right people and so can be set free from the kind of pride that feeds on prejudices and boils over in rage when challenged.

Hiding Our Faces


We might think that people who have lost their jobs or who have completed their formal education but have so far been unable to get jobs would seek understanding, support, and encouragement from their faith communities. We might think so, but much of the time we would be wrong.

Psychiatrist, professor, and theorist Donald L. Nathanson has provided us with “the compass of shame” which indicates the four natural but non-restorative responses to high intensities of the shame-humiliation affect: withdrawal, attack-self, avoidance, and attack-other. The first response to shame is to hide one’s face or wish to. People caught in sustained shame affect do not seek to be understood, supported, and encouraged; they seek to be rendered invisible and left alone. So, they stop attending worship services for the same kind of reasons they stay away from class reunions: they do not want to have to explain their situations or answer questions about their job searches. In our current recession, few people who have lost their jobs or have been unable so far to secure first jobs will wish to give weekly non-progress reports to even the most well-meaning and truly caring inquirers.

Shame does not make us want to be seen and understood. It does not welcome sympathy or encouragement. It wants to be hidden from sight.

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Job Loss and Undeserved Shame


May was a better month, we’re told. The good news was that last month our economy “shed” only 345,000 jobs. That number, of course, is a net figure obtained by subtracting jobs lost from jobs gained, which means that more than 345,000 people actually lost their jobs. I find the verb “shed” offensive. Dogs shed their dead hairs which have been replaced by new ones. Shedding implies dropping something no longer useful and needed. If you are one of the more than 345,000 people who lost their jobs in the better month of May, you may not appreciate the idea that the economy of the land has shed you like a dead dog hair.

Here are my questions. Why does losing one’s job feel so shameful when it’s not the person’s fault in any way but just a result of the economic recession? Why do we feel ashamed when we have done nothing to be ashamed of? 

Why do we feel ashamed when we have done nothing to be ashamed of?

We need to answer those questions so we can move on from “why?” to the practical question of “how?”: How do we deal with undeserved shame, avoiding depression, cynicism, and sustained rage? Let’s start with “why?”

Job loss triggers a certain affect in our bodies.

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