ASH WEDNESDAY
February 13, 2013

Before there was shame or guilt or blame, there was sin. In the book of Genesis, sin is clearly estrangement…separation…from God, from nature, from each other, and ourselves.

Shame is a popular substitute. Shame, as I define it, is something that originates outside ourselves. Shame is something your feel, but its origin is in ‘being found out.’ This ‘being found out’ involves something you feel inadequate about, inferior even. Shame is the focus on what others might feel about you or think about you. Shame is a popular substitute for Sin. It is much easier to manipulate others by shaming them.

When I was a child we had a fairly straightforward disciplinary program at my house. For large transgressions we were referred to my father. In my case, I don’t remember my sisters ever receiving this penance, the paddle would be retrieved from the broom closet and I’d get a swat and that was that. My mother, however, was a master at shame. For days, weeks sometimes, after the error in my ways she would talk the thing to death with phrases like “I am so disappointed in you.” It may not surprise you to know that I preferred the corporal punishment.

Shame can be so manipulative because the old adage, “I did the crime, I’ll do the time” doesn’t work. For in the midst of the shaming it appears as though it will never end.

Then there is guilt, another popular alternative to sin. Guilt, at its best, is an internal experience. Thinking of my childhood again, when I knowingly disobeyed my parents I felt guilty. My mother’s other superpower was that she was able to discern a particular aura, not like the transfiguration; somehow my countenance revealed my true nature, and she would talk me to death until I revealed the transgression.

In my view, it is sad that no one identifies with Adam and Eve these days. Pastors like me would rather remind you of Gods grace than point out the many ways your behavior adds to the human predicament. It is way too easy to point this out in others.

There is enough guilt to go around. Shame is regularly used in the cultural wars we find ourselves in. Fists are still shaken at those people over there whose behavior does not square with what we have decided is acceptable over here. The in the religious camps, leaders on one side deride leaders on the other side. Politicians are the same. If sin is discussed it is used to demean someone else.

To get at the heart of this matter, we must first deal with the sinners in our midst. By that, I mean ourselves. All religions remind us that actions have consequences for which guilt can and must be acknowledged, forgiveness humbly begged, reconciliation sought. I believe Sin is the condition of being separated from God; engaging in those actions that oppose the Kingdom of God, knowingly willed and done. But, like virtue, sin results from habits that take time to develop, and even longer to overcome. Sin, moralists tell us, is disease of the soul, not a passing headache. That is what makes it so hard to come to terms with. Yet, if the Scriptures are to be believed, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one contrite sinner than over the 99 righteous who have no need of repentance.

Although the challenges we face may be different from what the ancients faced, or even what our grandparents faced. The human condition has not changed. We church folk might complain that people have slipped away from their religious commitments. But did you notice, again, we are focusing at somebody ‘out there.’ In reality the only place to gain some ground on the condition of the culture is in here. With us.

To God’s people, not everyone, the prophet speaks: First, Joel predicts dire consequences and gets their attention with ominous threats: “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming.” He predicts a “day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness … like blackness spread upon the mountains.” His fearsome predictions continue at length. Got your attention? Then, when one imagines the people quaking with fear, he totally changes his tack. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Joel has called upon the people of the land to repent. “Rend your hearts, not your clothing,” he commands. Thus, God “relents from punishing.” The people of God are to evidence their renewal of commitment with fasting, weeping, and mourning. These were (and are) traditional religious practices, not always as life-changing as one could wish. Jesus didn’t seem terribly impressed with wailing prayers, preferring private prayer. In a culture where public prayer is an expected custom, such prayer can become a status symbol. It is still popular with televangelists and with politicians. We have heard of the Pharisee who prayed in the temple, rather pompously Jesus thought. It isn’t that such displays have no value, if sincerely offered. The issue is that they can be an empty ritual.

Listen, Jesus was more impressed with our treatment of each other than with our religious observances. Only insofar as the latter improved the former would Jesus have encouraged what Joel recommended. Lent is a decent corrective because it begins with insisting that as individuals admit our gone wrongness; then, Lent, with its ancient wisdom invites us into practices that have the potential to improve your relationship with God and neighbor.

Here’s the thing, All this begins with you. You need to get right with God. As your pastor, I will defend you from everyone who wants to heap guilt on your head, shame you into believing you are garbage. As your pastor though I do you no service by avoiding the fact that you are a sinner; there is some distance between you and God and your neighbor and you created it.

So what to do?

Joel said it: “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” Inward change. It’s a step beyond wanting to be different, or trying to be different. It’s becoming different. That can never be an act of the will. Only God can change me, and even that is a slow, incomplete process. But sincere prayer can do it. So I find that repentance is a companion effort, that God will do God’s part if I do mine. Life is so much better that way. The effort to increase our faithfulness is the sacrifice God most values.

Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is not about making you feel guilty. There is no place for shame or shaming here. Lent is about stripping off the layers of grime and varnish (Fr. William Byrne, in “The New Faithful” p. 35, by Coleen Caroll, Loyola Press, 2002) and reclaiming the person and life God already recognizes in you.

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