Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Shame”

Discomfort of Grace

One of my favorite stories of grace is the Prodigal Son. He blows everything, hits rock bottom, then comes to his senses, and heads back home.

He has a carefully prepared speech geared to diffuse what he presumes will be his father’s anger and disappointment. “No way do I expect that you’ll take me back as a son. I know I don’t deserve that. The best I can hope for is that you’ll be kind enough to allow me back as a hired hand–as one of your slaves.”

You know the rest of the story. His father exceeds the prodigal’s (and our) wildest imagination. He displays unimaginable grace. The father won’t hear any of the son’s pitch to be a hired servant. The prodigal is a son, through and through, and is fully restored into the family again. The best robe, a ring and sandals–all privileges reserved for family–are given to the son. To top it off, the father orders that a blow-out party be thrown in the prodigal’s honor.

Who doesn’t love this story? Well, okay, other than the prodigal’s brother those of us who identify with the older, more responsible brother. But otherwise, we can’t help but feel the thrill of such love and grace lavishly given by the father.

Lately I’ve been wondering how the prodigal handled his father’s generous acceptance and joyous celebration? I’ve been imagining what it was like for him to have a pricey ring on his finger, an expensive robe on his back, and signature sandals on his feet, knowing full well where he’d just come from.

How did he handle being the center of such a joyous and excessive celebration–dancing and wine and food and slaps on the back and hugs and kisses–after such self-indulgence and wastefulness, fully aware of the pain he’d caused his dad?

After all, the prodigal’s behavior wasn’t just the whim of getting carried away being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, his was the act of premeditated selfishness and rebellion.

How could the prodigal take all this in? How did he stay and party? What kept him from slinking out of the room in shame?

This speaks of the courage it takes to embrace God’s grace. While we glibly sing of amazing grace, truth is, grace is uncomfortable.

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize the discomfort of grace. When facing the shame of a particular failure, I often felt it would be easier to run away and hide. That way, I could continue to nurse my sense of unworthiness and beat myself up. To receive family and friends’ love, forgiveness and acceptance has demanded more courage than I thought I had.

It came to a critical mass point a few weeks ago. I was asked to present a marriage seminar and do the Sunday sermon at a friend’s church. The response was moving. People responded with great affirmation and reported how helpful my presentations were to them. I could sense God speaking to me that it was time to move forward and not let my past cripple and define me.

I recognized that I was (and am) at a crucial juncture in my life. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, I sensed the Father saying, “It’s time to embrace your calling and ministry. To hold back because of your shame is not humility. It is cowardice.”

Embracing grace, with its strange mixture of joy and discomfort, seems crucial to being the good enough pastor.

A Driving Force in Relationships

Genesis 1:1-2, 26-31; 2:18-3:13

The foundation of relationship is laid out in creation. In this story we discover the essential element for healthy, vital and high functioning relationships. We also see the basic roots of conflict and relational.

It all begins with God. Before time, before creation, God was. Have you ever wondered what God was up to before all this? This is more than mere speculation. The answer points to the essence of God’s existence.

We get a hint of the answer by the wording in the creation account of mankind, “Let Us make man in Our image.”

Before all time, before the foundation of the world, at the center of God’s nature is relationship. God exists as the Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit. His moral attributes flow from and must be understood in the context of relationship

This relationship is marked by other-centered love, respect, honor, enjoyment and validation. It’s the perfect relationship. The Triune God is perfectly whole, sufficient, comfortable and secure. There’s no lack, no need, no desperation, no demanding-ness, no jealousy, no forcing one’s way over the other.

Out of this relationship God creates. Much like a couple decides to create out of their love for each other, decides to create another to share in this relationship, so God creates us to share in this relational dance.

This defines the purpose of creation and is loaded with all kinds of meaning. One thing is clear, that being made in the image of God we are designed for relationship—relationship that reflects the Trinity.

However, we soon see a breakdown of this relational quality. And in this we come to realize what drives much of our conflict and relational struggles.

Things break down quickly when the man and the woman take the forbidden fruit. First there is hiding—from each other and from God. The openness and transparency are gone. Intimacy breaks down. The sacred trust and honor that the Father, Son and Spirit share are shattered.

Shame drives them to hide. The enemy succeeded in convincing them that it’s not safe to be with God when one disobeys. This leads me to believe that there had been more conversation between Adam and the serpent than the text cites. Adam and Eve already have a severe case of insecurity with how God handles disobedience.

Second, there is blame and conflict. Eve at least tells the truth. She admits she was deceived. She takes ownership of her downfall.

Adam, like many males, becomes defensive. He makes a startling accusation in his shift of blame. He not only blames the woman, but he attacks God.

“The woman YOU gave me. She tricked me and persuaded me to eat the fruit. This is Your fault, God. You’re not really good after all. You cannot be trusted.”

He sounds a lot like he’s siding with the serpent. Adam no longer has clear and accurate thinking about his Father. Adam no longer trusts. Adam no longer believes he’s fully and unconditionally loved. Adam no longer is convinced that God is truly good.

With that kind of thinking, insecurity, fear, jealousy, and shame take over. Adam resorts to blaming. He dishonors and dismisses and marginalizes Eve—the one created to be his soul mate, her companion, his lover and his helper.

Recent Reading: Across All Worlds

One of my goals for this blog is to discuss what I’m reading. I haven’t done much of that yet, so here’s an offering.

I recently read Across All Worlds: Jesus Inside Our Darkness, by a relatively unknown (I assume anyway, by the blank looks when I mention his name) author, C. Baxter Kruger. Kruger is the Director of Perichoresis, an “international ministry dedicated to sharing the good news of our adoption in Christ with the world” (from the cover). He’s a theologian who studied under the Torrance brothers in Scotland.

Kruger came to me by recommendation from a trusted friend. Kruger’s message is steeped in Trinitarian theology. He writes extensively about the power and reality of grace that earmarks the core nature of the Triune God. Kruger has recently teamed with William Paul Young, author of The Shack. Together they lecture on the impact of focusing on the relational paradigm of God over the legal paradigm. Kruger asserts that the beginning point of our theology, understanding and interaction with God starts with the Trinity–that God is at His core, relational.

In Across All Worlds, Kruger explores the practical implications of Jesus entering into our darkness of our distorted view of God to bring us the good news of the Father’s love for us. He builds on Jesus’ remarkable statement in Matthew 11:27, “All things have been given to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”

What exactly does Jesus know about the Father that no one else quite got right? Not a manual that tells us how to live right, get our act together and get our doctrine correct. What Jesus knew, coming from the perfect relationship of the Trinity, was the Father’s great love that eclipses any of our rebellion, darkness and shame.

“The biblical story is driven by the love of the triune God, and in this love by the relationship between God, on the one side, and Adam, Israel, and humanity on the other. In this relationship, the Father speaks. He reveals. He gives. Humanity is thereby summoned to hear, to know, and receive the Father’s love. And in hearing the Father’s voice, in knowing His affirmation and receiving His love, humanity is quickened with an abounding life that it can neither possess in itself or create. This abounding life then overflows into our relationships with one another and with the whole creation.”

“The problem of sin is far deeper than mere transgression of the law. And if we do not see the deeper problem, we will be left with a rather shallow understanding of our reconciliation in Christ, as well as of the very nature of our own existence and struggles. Sin is about losing our right minds, such that we are no longer able to see the goodness and love of the Father, and thus no longer free to live life in His unearthly assurance and blessing. We are left to live our lives in and out of fear and anxiety and dread. And those emotions create their own self-centered, self-protective world of hiding and brokenness, bitterness, frustration, and chaos.”

“This is the problem of sin. The impossible has happened: The truth about the Father is eclipsed. The unforgettable love of the triune God is now forgotten, so forgotten that it is now inconceivable . . . There is now a terrible incongruence between the being and character of God as Father, Son, and Spirit and the divine being Adam perceives and believes God to be. And for Adam, and indeed for all of us, the god of our imaginations is the only way God can be. Any other God makes no sense to us. From this moment, the Father’s face will be forever tarred with an alien brush, and His heart, His beauty, His goodness, will be misunderstood. Our darkened imagination will recreate the Father’s character in its own image. Our shame will disfigure the Father’s heart.”

“Jesus Christ did not come to change God. He came to identify with us, to stand on our side of the mess, to see what we see in our blindness and shame. He did not come to camp out on the frontiers of our great darkness and shout across the chasm. He came to experience the hell of Adam’s alien vision, and thus to establish a bridgehead between his communion with his Father and the human race in its tragic mythology.”

Across All Worlds is a short (Kruger calls it an essay) but powerful read. It’s a manual of sorts, outlining the progression of our distorted beliefs about God, the resulting shame, and how shame drives us to live our lives in a self-protecting manner that leaves us alone and perpetuating that pain. More importantly, Kruger points us to the power of the Gospel and our reconciliation and redemption in Jesus. As we come to know what Jesus knew about His Father, we are freed to live a life that enters fully into relationships, secure enough to take risks, and strong enough to face our pain.

Getting a Taste of My Own Medicine

Have you ever had a sermon or message come home to roost? You know, what you preach to others gets reflected back on you, forcing you to prove whether you really believe it or not.

I had such a moment this week.

I presented a seminar on marriage for our church this past weekend. I was excited. I’d presented it before and received enthusiastic feedback. I reviewed my notes, and then reviewed them again. A slick power-point, humorous video clip, diagrams and models, strong theoretical basis, life application and anecdotes, good refreshments–all the bases were covered.

I anticipated a slam dunk.

But from the get-go, I felt like I was running in quick sand. I didn’t sense the energy and engagement with my audience that create synergy and magic. Reading facial expressions made me unsure if my concepts were connecting. It reminded me of times while preaching when the sermon would sort of tumble off the pulpit and plop to the floor, dead, before reaching the front row.

My anxiety began working me over. Pressure began building down in my gut. It must have risen to the top and affected my brain because I became time confused. Knowing 6:00 was our cut-off time, I was aghast that the clock already read 5:30. I still had a good hour’s worth of material to cover.

I sped through my outline, summarizing and condensing as I went. I shelved  key illustrations and discussion questions. I didn’t even give them a bathroom break in the interest of saving time. I wrapped up and closed things down at 6:05. A little long, but at least I was in the ballpark.

How could I mess things up like this? My inner critic began warming its engine.

When the last of the couples left, I told my wife we had to hurry to get to our next engagement by 7:00.

“Why?” she said, “we still have over an hour to get there.”

“What? It’s already 6:30,” I replied.

“No, it’s not. It’s only 5:30,” she countered.

I looked again at the clock. She was right. I’d misread the clock and cheated myself and my crowd out of a solid hour. All my rushing and editing were for nothing.

My inner critic kicked into high gear.

For the next 24 hours, self-denigrating thoughts flooded my mind. “You stink at presentations. Quit trying to fool yourself in thinking that you can communicate effectively to groups of people. You’re a loser. No one wants to listen to you. You have no future in ministry. Give up the dream–it’s just wishful thinking anyway. You’re a failure and this is just another confirmation of that. Go get a job at WalMart.”

Was I good enough? I certainly didn’t feel like it.

I slowly fought my way through the shaming. I don’t hold out my process as a formula for all, but here’s how it worked for me.

For starters, I recognized I had a choice to make. Which story about myself would I choose to believe? I could stay loyal to the message of self-loathing. Many of us are fiercely loyal to that story. Or, I could cling to the story God tells about me. He is resolute in bestowing worth and value and acceptance. Jesus certainly wouldn’t be saying the kinds of things my mind was repeating.

Second, I opened myself to hear from others. I get myself in trouble if the only voice I’m listening to is the criticism of my own shame. I shared my angst with my wife and a few trusted friends. They told a different story about me as well.

I also asked God for help. I needed a word of encouragement, a shot of confidence. I received several  emails throughout the day from attendees saying how helpful the information was. One guy reported that he and his wife were able to get back on track with their communication.

Finally, I realized one of the driving forces of my disappointment. I had become strongly invested in impressing my audience. I particularly hoped to wow a select few of the attendees. My ego and validation were riding on it. When I perceived I shot a dud, my fragile self-esteem crashed. I needed to repent and center myself again on Who my audience is and on what foundation my core sense of self rests.

To live in the freedom of being good enough, all those elements seem necessary. By the way, if you’re interested in having me present the seminar for your group, let me know. I promise to watch the clock.

Some Practical Theology

I am reading Viginia Satir’s The New People Making. Published in 1988, it’s hardly “new” anymore. Her insights, however, are timeless.

I am not aware that Satir, a pioneer in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy, ever professed to be a Christian. But her writing indicates that she “got” grace more than many who profess Christ and espouse the Christian theology of grace. For all our talk in the church about grace, I find that a good deal of our Christian systems are more shame-based and performance-oriented than manifestations of grace. But I digress.

Satir’s book explores the role of the family system in shaping and forming the individuals within it. It’s an extensive and exhaustive expose. In reading it, I’ve been struck with the idea that her concepts and processes make for good practical theology for church life. Let me share a few examples:

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere in which individual differences are appreciated., love is shown openly, mistakes are used for learning, communication is open, rules are flexible, responsibility (matching promise with delivery) is modeled and honesty is practiced–the kind of atmosphere found in a nurturing family. It is no accident that the children of families who practice the above usually feel good about themselves and consequently are loving, physically healthy and competent” (p. 26).

What she states about the family is true for the church. Imagine a church operating from a relational system such as she describes. She provides us with a great definition of a culture of grace. Sadly, too many churches operate from a shame-based and shame-producing culture.  Specifically, communication is not open. Only acceptable, agreeable statements are  welcomed and tolerated. Rules are rigid, harsh and unforgiving. Mistakes are dealt with punitively. We seem more intent on making others wrong and making sure they are put in their place. Honesty is preached about, but pretending and keeping up an image are modeled. I agree with Satir, a church that can practice what she is promoting will produce people who are good with themselves, loving, healthy and competent.

“Some styles of parenting are based on comparison and conformity” (p. 34). How many pastoral styles are based on these? What if we as pastors could shift away from this and be comfortable with uniqueness, diversity of view points and individual expression of gifts. Seems like the Apostle Paul had a similar vision of church life.

“Eyes clouded with regret for the past, or fear for the future, limit vision and offer little chance for growth or change” (p. 64).

How true for us pastors and our churches. This speaks to the courage it takes to embrace forgiveness, grace and faith. What would our lives, our ministries and our churches look like if we allowed the God of grace to free us of these fetters? How would our vision expand–what could we see and what possibilities would we pursue?

A final quote, “Spending time on any kind of blame just makes you ineffective and limits your energy for change. Blame is an expensive, useless, and destructive way to use your energy” (p. 211).

Ever notice how much blaming can go on in congregations? Among pastors? I wonder what it says about us when we blame others, our church board, the contentious parishioner who gives us fits, denominational leaders and/or political leaders? Whatever generates blame, one thing is sure. Blaming keeps us stuck in the process and mires us in continuing to be part of the problem.

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