Its that dream that everyone seem to share. You know the one. The dream where we remembered everything for the big presentation at work except our clothes. Yep, we have all had a dream like that. The feeling of being, not only exposed, but ashamed of being exposed.
There there are things that happed while awake that we wish we could wake up from. Things from which the shame doesn’t dissipate as the alarm goes off. Those thing we never want exposed. Things that we would like to bury and never see again.
Ugh, if I never feel that feeling again, I will be alright. But, the reality is that shame is a common experience for all of us. As a matter of fact, we often live in shame in such a way that we do not notice it. A constant fear of being exposed to the world, to ourselves, and (if we are honest) to a God who sees it all.
Sitting at a coffee shop with a couple of friends from out of town recently, we discussed what I see in our city- the deep needs, the things we celebrate. We discussed the things that make Seattle unique compared with other cities; not just the industry, geography, and demographics, but what motivates us and what are our assumptions about life that flavor the way we think.
What I told them is that I believe that Seattle (among other things) is a city of Shame. It is hard to explain that without being among the crowds of people and hearing what they have to say, but I believe it to be true.
We Shame Because We Are Ashamed
Sometimes it is overt shaming. It is one homeowner taking another homeowner’s plastic cup out of their trash (should be in recycling, you know!) and not putting it where it should go, but pinning it up on a common wall to display it. If that wasn’t enough, the “righteous recycler” pinned a note that stated the offending party (their name and address were found in the same bag of trash) and their recycling “sin.”
Yep, that really happened.
Sometimes it is subtle. It is the look in someone’s eyes as they walk down the street either with their head held low or their head held too high. One expresses shame by studying every crack of the sidewalk and never making eye contact with another person. The other doesn’t make eye contact either, but holds his head up so high that he portrays a look of “I don’t care what you think!” The man protesteth too much, me thinks.
Our Mantra is Myopic
I see a lot of heads held way too high. Uncomfortably too high. And that often comes from a slogan our city lives by... even if we don't use the words: “You have no reason to be ashamed!”
I understand that to some degree. There are many different types of Scarlet Letters that we give each other to wear and those letters weigh us down. A man with his head hung low is obviously carrying the weight of the Letter. He is burdened by either what he has done or what has been done to him. The man with his head held too high (both literally and metaphorically) still carries the weight of his Letter of shame, but he carries a greater burden with it: the burden of hiding its existence.
The truth is that we have reason to be ashamed. We all have reason, because we have all sinned. That is an inescapable truth, even if we desperately want to escape it. There is very real shame that was forced upon us that is not our fault. We are, in a sense, all victims of someone else’s sin. But it is just as true that we are all perpetrators too. It is the perpetrator's shame that we will focus on here.
The Source of Shame
This is primal knowledge. We all know it, feel it, live it, even if we don’t understand it. It goes back further than we can remember. There is a sense that we were born with it and with our first breaths of air we breathed it in. It came from our first parents and we have followed their lead.
In Genesis chapter 3, we see the first acts of rebellion against God. Before they ate of the fruit, Adam and Eve were naked and…NOT ashamed! There is something pure about that time. Something we long for because they were completely exposed with nothing to hide. No stain or blemish on their record. Then, they were allured by forbidden fruit that seemed more delightful than the God they enjoyed fellowship with. Their eyes were opened to their foolishness and betrayal. They saw darkness in themselves. They saw ugliness whereas there had only been beauty and holiness before.
So, rather than owning up to it and letting the light of God’s holiness cleanse them, they retreated to the shadows of the trees. They hid themselves in shame. They experienced the weight of emotion they were never meant to carry. Light hearted joy devolved into heavy hearted shame. They pasted together some fig leaves to cover themselves, but they still needed the trees to hide them from each other and the God they betrayed.
Still More Fig Leaves
So, we continue to find fig leaves and trees to hide behind. Nudists try to bring Eden back by fighting for a society that can be naked in public, but it is not clothing that is the issue. It is that the part of us that we want to cover cannot be covered by clothes because the most shame-filled part of us is the heart of greed, and lust, and self-absorption, and “I-will-show-you-how-good-I-really-am-ness” that flows out of that heart in all we do. We cannot hide that.
Worst of all, we shame other people in order to say to ourselves “At least I am not as bad as the guy who throws away plastic cups in the regular garbage!” That may be true, but it misses the point.
We tell each other “You have no reason to be ashamed!” but that sentiment (though good intentioned, I hope) is nothing but a fig leaf. My city lives in shame. It is the air we breathe. It is the weight we carry.
Thankfully, this is not the whole story…more to come.