January 2022: Guilt, Shame, or Transformation?

I had two ideas for what I wanted to talk about today as we continue our series titled Ojalá. Last week, M encouraged us to release our judgment and self-judgment and to prevent perfection from preventing us from what is good. The week before that, S kicked off the series and invited us to be thoughtful and intentional so that we can give our best.

I couldn’t decide, so I went to the lectionary hoping I’d hear a nudge from God about which message of the two ideas I had that I should pursue, and the nudge was not in either direction at all, so here we are. We are going to talk about Nehemiah chapter 8. But first, some background:

Nehemiah was appointed to be the governor of Judah after the Israelites returned from exile to Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites return to see their city in ruins. It says they come back “in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.”

And it’s under Nehemiah’s watch that the wall is rebuilt. 

Can you imagine the collective and personal heartache people experienced? The rebuilding wasn’t a piece of cake, either. Israel’s enemies – other tribes – were united against Israel, constantly taunting them and trying to waylay their plans. Before they could ever think about a temple-rebuilding, a town-rebuilding, they had to rebuild the wall around the city.

After about two months of constant rebuilding, they’re done. And then the Israelites undertake a different kind of rebuilding: this time, a spiritual and moral rebuilding. 

On the new year, which is now known as Rosh Hashanah, the priest Ezra reads the Torah, also referred to as The Instruction, to the people. Everyone was there – children and adults. It was packed. He read for hours, and the people helped each other to understand what was being read aloud to them.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 reads:

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction.

“Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

The Levites also calmed all of the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy. Don’t be sad!” Then all of the people went to eat and to drink, to send portions, and to have a great celebration, because they understood what had been said to them.

Later, after eight days of reading from the Torah, and then two more weeks of observance, the Israelites began to confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors. “Don’t be sad,” they may have remembered from that first day. “Because the joy from the Lord is your strength.” 

When the Israelites hear the extent of God’s wishes for them and how far they’d strayed from adhering to them, they weep. They’re heartbroken. And I’m sure that they must have felt guilt – maybe even shame. 

But their leaders said to them: rejoice instead. Be grateful instead.

Guilt is a natural response when we realize we’ve done something wrong. It says, “That action was bad” or “what I said was bad.” 

Shame, on the other hand, makes our behaviors about our character. It says, “Because of what I did, I am bad.”

I think it’s possible that the Levites were saying to the rest of the people: “Don’t be ashamed. Don’t give in to shame. Don’t be immobilized by shame.”

The Israelites had an encounter with accountability. God had a calling for them: a calling to transformation and out of the way things had been. And they responded with understanding and with gratitude, and later with repentance. And they managed, as a people, to bypass shame and move toward transformation.

Shame produces spiritual gridlock. I think the Levites were so wise here, acknowledging through their public exhortations that shame can be a self-focused response to accountability or opportunity. Shame fixes our attention on ourselves and the way things are and not on what we spiritually stand to gain.

At some point – many points – in our personal and communal journeys of faith, we will be called by God to transformation. Little transformations. Big transformations. And whether we meet the opportunity with shame or with thanksgiving may make all the difference.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a young rich guy, “Look, you asked me how to be perfect, and you gave me a list of all the good you did. You want to be perfect? Fine – give away everything you own.” And that man went away ashamed, perhaps unaware that the question he asked, “What still do I lack?” was only a proxy for the question he really had, which was: how do I live in a way that is life-affirming and faithful to God’s call to me?”

And to that, Jesus later answers by talking to his disciples: “By our human efforts, we will never reach perfection. But if we rely on God, we will be transformed.”

The rich man’s distress over what he could not do perfectly clouded his ability to understand what Jesus was saying: that we are not called to perfection, but neither are we called to shame. We may not have had the past we wish for today, but our hopes, our Christ-likeness, and our world are still to be determined.

Reckoning with one’s personal or communal past is not a risk-free activity. It’s a commitment. In Germany, for example, teachers reckon with a national history in the spirit of repentance – so that the next generation can learn and be transformed and not to be immobilized by shame. 

Teaching the subject of the Holocaust and the Nazi era is mandatory in German schools and in addition to the classroom curriculum, almost all students have either visited a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial or museum. 

But the normalization of Holocaust teachings wasn’t always the case in post-WWII Germany. For years, Germans were afraid to talk about their history.

According to Susan Neiman, author of the book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil: what changed was that “a new generation came of age.

“They realized that their parents and teachers had been Nazis, or at least complicit in Nazi atrocities, and were outraged,” she said. A small and often controversial vanguard insisted on digging up history that older generations had refused to discuss. People called them Nestbeschmützer, or “nest-foulers.” But the process they set in motion—a process of uncovering the past and talking about it—eventually reverberated throughout German society.”

Today, says Neiman, “Germans don’t learn about the Holocaust in just one way. “You really can’t escape it,” she said. “It’s in art works, in literature, in movies, in television, done in different keys and in different registers. There’s no one message.””

In contrast, in the United States, we are still reckoning with great shame with our national history. Just this past week, the Florida governor backed a bill that passed the Florida Senate and would ban public schools and private businesses from making people feel “discomfort” when being taught about racial discrimination in U.S. history.

Shame breeds defensiveness, and defensiveness prevents us from vulnerability and ultimately, from transformation.

We saw this in action this month when too many refused to recognize the attack and hostage situation in a Texas synagogue as an antisemitic act of terror. Some preferred to single the attacker out as an unwell individual instead of someone with unresolved and destructive prejudices.

But we do also have forces of reckoning, too. Recently, thanks to the BTS Center and the Maine Council of Churches, I learned about the Atlantic Black Box Project here in New England. The Atlantic Black Box Project is a public history project that empowers communities throughout New England to take up the critical work of researching and reckoning with our region’s involvement with enslavement.

The practice of unearthing our collective history is a liberating one. We may be surprised to learn how far we’ve strayed from God’s call to us. We may be saddened. We may be tempted to despair or to give in to shame.

But God has not called us to that, either.

It is a spiritual practice to know our history – our own history and our collective histories – and to say yes when God calls us to transformation. Time and again, the Israelites stressed the importance of knowing, not for the sake of self-punishment, what the past has held, but so that we can arrive in the present firmly planted and ready for the future.

Time and again in scripture, God says to us: you are a being in perpetual revolution. Whatever your past is, don’t be ashamed. And don’t let it stop you from becoming what you’re meant to be. Let my joy be your strength!

God calls us to transformation – not a one-time born-again experience but a lifelong commitment to growth and living in the way of Jesus.

And I mean this not just about us as a church, because we’ve talked a lot about us as a church this year… but also us as individuals. Us, and our own spiritual lives. Do not – you personally, and me too – do not despair. Do not look back in shame when God calls us to transformation.

We could look back and weep for what we stand to lose. Transformation involves risk. We are called to reinvest our gifts and resources and attention in new and life-giving ways. And those may feel like volatile bets. Even when we know in our hearts they are the best bets we could make.

We could weep for the iterations of who we’ve been and no longer are. We could weep out of fear because we can’t be certain about what’s next. Or we could weep in guilt when the flame of accountability is held beneath us. 

Or we can seize upon the heat of that flame and be moved.

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