Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
Last week, we considered the gift God gave humanity in offering us a life beyond the Garden of Eden. A life that encompasses great joy, pain, and sin against God and our neighbor. “Sin” meaning when we seek to separate ourselves from God in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Try as we might, we can never completely separate ourselves from God, because God is omnipresent, inescapable, ever before us.
In today’s collect, we pray: “Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word…”
What does it mean to have penitent hearts? It means we are sorrowful for our wrongdoing; that we feel regret for the sins we have committed, that we would like to repent and receive forgiveness. Lent is a penitential season of preparation for Easter; a season where we are invited to amend our lives. Yet too often as we come before God with penitent hearts, we are unable to let go of the burdens that keep us in perpetual pain.
This is in part because our guilt has been mixed up with our shame. Often without meaning to, important role models in our lives, whether it be our parents, teachers, or clergy, have taught us that if our thoughts, words, and actions are not a certain way, we are somehow less worthy of receiving God’s love. When in reality, there is nothing that could be further from the truth. There is nothing we can do that will keep God from loving us, and the more caught up we are in our struggles, the more God loves us.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tries to untangle guilt and shame in his book, How Good Do We have to Be? He suggests that guilt is when you feel bad for what you have done or not done (35). It is a judgment you pass on yourself, with a voice inside your heads telling you that you did something wrong (39). Shame is feeling bad for who you are when you measure yourself against some standard of perfection (Kushner 35). According to psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, “Shame and guilt are necessary for the development of some of the most elegant qualities of human potential….They are not useless emotions. They signal to us that we have transgressed codes of behavior which we personally want to attain”( 40).
The problem is shame brings an overwhelming sense of being judged by someone else...(39). “We hear criticism for something we have done, and translate it into a comment about what sort of person we are. We assume it is our worth as a person, not just our behavior, that is being judged and found wanting (36).” In other words, a performance evaluation that offers constructive criticism, or a spouse’s snarky comment about a Christmas gift results in a wrestling match within ourselves that will decide our self-worth. Kushner goes on to say that “When we let ourselves be defined in our own minds by our worst moments instead of our best ones, we learn to think of ourselves as people who never get it right, rather than as capable people who make an occasional, thoroughly human mistake” (38).
Somehow when we left the garden, we left with this understanding that we had to be perfect. Yet we were not created to be perfect. It’s an impossible goal. We will always be unfinished, because the hope for humanity is that we spend our entire time on this planet growing and changing, adapting and amending our lives. Not obtaining perfection. Instead the goal is that we might dare to be vulnerable with God and one another by acknowledging our weaknesses, and by recognizing the ways those weaknesses help us to grow into the persons God created us to be.
Take Saint Peter. In his weakest moment he denied Christ three times. Something he promised Jesus would never happen. A regrettable mistake. A thoroughly human mistake. The kind of mistake that can eat you alive from the inside out if you let it. When Peter realized his mistakes, he wept bitterly (Matthew 26:75). That could have been the end of Peter, he could have self-destructed like Judas. Instead, through his tears he offered God his penitent heart and became the rock upon which the church was built. Peter was able to acknowledge his weakness, to be vulnerable enough to receive the kind of forgiveness that washes over us and allows us to let go of the heavy burdens that weigh us down.
God wants all of us to have that experience, to release the mixture of guilt and shame that somehow we are not good enough or not worthy of being loved because of of our actions or because of who we are. God loves you beyond measure because of who you are.
As we make our pilgrimage through Lent, I invite you to continue offering God your penitent hearts. Be real, be vulnerable, acknowledge your weaknesses, but receive God’s gift of release by letting go of any shame you have held onto. When this Easter comes, rejoice in the knowledge that God loves you for who you are, weaknesses, imperfections, and all. Amen.
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