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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

The Third Candle Burns: Shame and Joy

I want to begin with a story about a boy named Thomas. He was a smart boy and so quite sensitive, as smart people often are. He was born to parents who valued hard work and who, for all appearances, had an idyllic middle class life. Under the veneer of that idyllic projection to the outside world, though, broiled anger, brought on by generations of shame, insecurity, feeling unloved, unwanted, and lacking in value, and a continued unwillingness to address these things. That anger would boil over the proverbial pot and burn all within reach in those private family moments. And so Thomas grew up soaked in generations of unmitigated shame and the sense of being a worthless, useless, and empty human being that shame brings.

As he got older, Thomas tried to find meaning, value and worth, in the things he did. And even though he was at the top of his game, so to speak, there was this voice of starvation inside that always needed more external praise, that always needed affirmation that he was valued. But as his world got bigger, he realized that someone would always be better than him, or at least, eventually better. And this caused him to feel intensive insecurity. And that insecurity showed up in the choices he made: chasing sex, but not relationships, buying the latest and greatest, having the biggest home, being the star, condemning others for his perception of their lack of intellect, capacity or drive, lying and manipulating and tearing others down - sometimes publicly, not just to get what he needed, but because it gave him a sense of power and control.

No matter what he did, no matter what accolades he won, the deceptions and lies, the manipulations and distortions he used to always climb the ladder of success mounted to the point he could no longer distinguish what was true or false, even of his own experiences. So he started drinking to numb the undercurrent of pain. None of this was apparent to others. In fact, he was very well liked and respected. Like his family, he was well practiced at projecting what it was others needed and wanted to see. That was, until things fell apart. He was caught cheating. A career ending kind of cheating. A potential public disgrace kind of cheating. He thought his life was over. His own darkness of shame blinded and deafened him to hope. So he stood on the side of a subway station track prepared to jump in front of a train. The train wasn’t coming though. For someone else had already jumped in front it at the stop before his. So he boarded a bus.

On the bus he saw a boy whose father was yelling at him. Hit with a wave of memories Thomas began to cry with the boy. His tears poured down and broke into guttural sobs. This broke the cultural veneer of silence in the face of hurt, sadness, and loneliness and another passenger, a brave soul, said to the father, “please stop yelling at your son. No matter what he has done, shaming him will do nothing but harden his heart.”

This story is an amalgamation of the stories of so many people, particularly men, whom I have worked with over the years in ministry. The reasons they experience shame are numerous and often come from hidden home lives that are far less than ideal.

One of the greatest barriers to hearing and seeing God is that we often struggle to believe we have worth and value apart from what we can accomplish or contribute. This makes us feel shame, even if we don’t name it. I’ve heard people who retire say this. I’ve heard people who are older and can’t contribute as they once did say this. I’ve heard hundreds of people who were sexually, physically and emotionally abused say this no matter their age. I’ve heard the brightest and the lowliest of people say this; the most and least successful by society’s standards. In their pain and particularly, in their shame that strips them of feeling loved and valued, they hide behind their own defense mechanisms of being arrogant, angry, argumentative, overly compliant, or passive aggressive. And this stops them from being able to hear the voice of God calling out to them.

This Sunday, on Advent 3, we lit a candle for joy. Joy doesn’t rest in our ability to respond rightly to God. If we could do that then the law would save us and we’d be obliged to follow it for our salvation. Joy grows out of hope. And hope comes from the fact that Jesus came and continues to come to us even when things are the darkest. Where we hide away in our shame, our frustration, our loneliness. The tricky part for us is that for hope, and so joy, to push out so much of the doubt, shame, and fear that we carry from our past, we have to, as our canticle from Luke puts it, “fear, read, humble ourselves before God;” those who humble themselves will experience the mercy of the Father’s healing balm.” They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. In their own generations of shame and humiliation before each other and before the nations, God says to his people in our reading from Isaiah: “[I will] Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” He tells Isaiah to say to them, “those who are of a fearful, i.e. a humble heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

Joy only comes when we can experience God’s love for us. It is that love which moves us to do the will of God, even if we have to make sacrifices to do it. Experiencing God’s love begins not by gaining, but by letting go and asking for help, asking God and asking other people around us. Letting go of the things that have caused us shame, anguish, pain, and feeling unworthy or useless. It’s letting go of those worldly expectations and ways we’ve been taught to value ourselves and others. It’s letting go so that we can be filled up with God’s love. This is what fuels hope and actions that spring out of hope. So I turn to you and ask: what must you let go of to be moved by hope? AMEN

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