Grace Trumps Shame

Last October, Omaha Playhouse brought to stage the adventures of Don Quixote, The Man of La Mancha—the play is set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims have a choice—convert to Christianity, or be exiled. Thousands were imprisoned and executed; among those jailed was author Miguel Cervantes. Thrown in a dungeon awaiting his fate, Cervantes is threatened by the other prisoners. Cervantes must defend himself and he distracts the unruly mob by telling the story the chivalrous knight, Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha! Cervantes draws the inmates into the fantasy world where Don Quixote embarks on a quest to right all wrongs. While traveling, he seeks rest at a roadside village tavern, where he meets the known prostitute, Aldonza. She is scorned by everyone in the village, treated like scum, as if her life does not matter. Shame depicts her every move. After all, every person she encounters judges her and meets her gaze with scorn, everyone talks down to her, and she is a walking smorgasbord—people can take whatever they want from her.

Except Don Quixote.

He does not see her as a prostitute, but he beholds a beautiful noble lady whom he names, Dulcinea. It didn’t matter if in reality she was a prostitute… to Don Quixote, what mattered to him was what he believed, and he believed her to be dignified. Aldonza thinks he senseless, for everyone knows she is unworthy. Don Quixote is persistent in calling her the noble lady, Dulcinea. And she changes. She begins to see herself as Don Quixote sees her.

What if we all had a Don Quixote in our life who recognizes that each of us has great worth and nobility?

Cervantes lived at the turn of the 17th century, but his narrative quest to right all wrongs is applicable to our spiritual quest as we encounter obstacles of shame and guilt. Shame and guilt are like quicksand in our emotional being and disastrous to an understanding of grace. Shame creates a feeling of discomfort, which is why it is tough to engage in a conversation about racial justice. We cannot have a conversation about race without talking about white privilege, and that may paralyze us in our emotional quicksand. But that is a sermon for our August series.

In June 2010, a psychologist studying shame and guilt gave a TED talk on the topic of vulnerability, and after Brene Brown’s 20 minute talk she was a bit concerned that she had just been so open with 500 people, not knowing that the talk would circulate on YouTube and be viewed nearly 8 million times within a week. Her book, Daring Greatly, and TED talk, with nearly 26 million views now, reveals that her main message, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love…and the source of hope” really resonates with people. Why? We need to hear a message of hope and love. Grace is the foundational message of hope and love that helps pull us out of the quicksand of shame and guilt.

I think the church has not helped in the area of shame and guilt—Genesis Three we learn about shame and sin when Eve follows the advice of a snake and seduces Adam to eat an apple and they hide from God full of guilt and shame. Read that story literally and theologically our spiritual narrative is rooted in guilt and shame, not grace.

Without grace, legalism occurs.

What is legalism? Legalism is taking the words of Scripture and interpreting them to apply to a narrow code where our actions determine the reaction of God, resulting in thinking that we have to act a certain way in order to earn the love of God.

From a Christian perspective, this rational leads to a form of righteousness where I can think I’ve earned grace because of my law-abiding righteous ways. That way I have control over my destiny. Legalism is the ultimate road map for those who want control. Because if I follow my legalistic road map, then my final destination is Heaven.

However, if I stray from the map, then I end up in an awful place called Hell. Grace renders the map unnecessary. Legalism evaporates. And the narrative of Hell no longer becomes a reality.

Grace says my worth isn’t tied to anything I can control—it is a gift from God that helps me to become the person God created me to be and brings peace that no matter what the world may say, God sees me for who God created me to be. Grace defines me as beloved by God. I’m not defined by legalistic shame-filled interpretation of Scripture!

But that is difficult to really grasp. Legalism makes so much sense in the world we live in. We want to be in control. Institutions want to be in control.

Religious legalism, that desire for control, may lead us to think about God through the lens of our culture…Cultural accommodation of grace, where we think that if we are righteous then we have God’s favor, infects an understanding of grace. This mentality existed in the culture of Jerusalem and is evident when the righteous Pharisees get ticked off with Jesus because Jesus is hanging out with people who are like the Aldonzas of his time.

How does Jesus respond? He tells three stories—God isn’t like you think—God is like a woman who stops everything she is doing and turns her home upside down looking for a penny. When she finds the penny, she Instagrams and tweets she is having a party rejoicing over finding that lost penny. God is like a shepherd, responsible for the lives of 100 sheep—one little sheep wanders away and the shepherd abandons the 99 sheep to look for the one. Returning with the sheep, the shepherd has a huge convention celebrating the recovery. And then Jesus tells the well-known story of the Prodigal son-the older son stays to work by his father’s side and the other skips out on the family and leaves, but when he returns the celebration is not for the dutiful son, but the runaway. If we think we earn God’s love by righteous living, we relate to the elder son, and may miss out on the joy of grace.

We never know how the Pharisees reacted to these stories. But these parables show that God is loving, God is graceful, God is merciful, and God is active—God is on the move, searching, seeking and saving.

Grace is a gift, but not a knick-knack type of gift, but the kind of gift that comes when you need it. Like when you have to decide, do you buy groceries or pay the mortgage, and a monetary gift arrives. Like when depression invades your soul, and a gift of encouragement is given. Like when you do not believe in yourself, but someone else does.

I’ve witnessed how shame and cultural accommodation of Scripture unravels the faith of the most devout Christians. If I am kind to others, if I go to church every Sunday, if I am a good person, then everything works out.

But where is Grace? If you ever catch yourself thinking that there is a connection between right actions and right outcomes, then you may be overlooking grace.

It’s easy to get stuck in what psychologist and theologian James Fowler describes as the Mythic-Literal stage of faith, stage two in his proposed six stages of faith. In this stage, moral rules are followed literally such as “If I follow the rules, God will reward,” and “If I pray, then God will answer,” and Heaven and Hell are actual places.

One becomes unstuck from this phase when one embraces that grace is God’s gift to us, and we do not need to do anything to earn God’s grace.

Grace was a foreign concept to the college students, cadets, when I was a chaplain at West Point. The cadets were so hard on themselves and it was toxic to their theology regarding grace. One night I was duty chaplain and received a call about a cadet threatening to jump off one of the barracks buildings. She was on the roof—seven floors above hard concrete. I knew this cadet, Sarah, she was active in the church. I was able to get to the roof and sit beside her. I’ve learned that when someone thinks that ending life is the best solution, to find where, if any, there is hope. I knew a message of grace was needed, but was at a loss of how to communicate grace. Sarah went on to say that the only thing that gave her hope was a song by Alanis Morissette—I confess at the time I had no idea who Alanis Morissette was. I asked what the words to the song were and she spoke them:

I’ll give you countless amounts of out right
Acceptance if you want it. I’ll give you
Encouragement to choose the path that you want if you need it.
You can speak of anger and doubts,
Your fears and freak-outs and I’ll hold it.
You can share your so-called
Shame filled accounts of times in your life and I won’t judge it.
And there are no strings attached,
You owe me nothing for giving the love that I give.
You owe me nothing for caring the way that I have.
I give you thanks for receiving, it’s my privilege,
And you owe me nothing in return.

Sarah looked at me, “When I hear that song, I think God is singing to me. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, Sarah, makes total sense. “

Don Quixote, the nonsensical knight, maybe wasn’t so senseless because he saw Aldonza as God created her to be—the noble Dulcinea. Maybe grace doesn’t need to make sense. May we begin to live in a world that receives grace—a gift that trumps shame and says, “You are worthy. You are noble. You are loved. And you owe me nothing in return.”