Archives For Shame

God’s Behind

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

It’s not one of the scriptures for our fall series, but this week’s Gospel lection is one of the questions God poses to us: “Who do you say that I am?” In short order, Peter screws the pooch over the answer.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

– Mark 8

Like Peter, we’ve been determined ever since to get a God by any other means than a cross, a savior who meets us through any other medium than suffering and shame.

“The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. To say the cross alone is the core of our God-talk is to make the awful and audacious claim that the glory of God meets us not in our strivings up towards glory but in our suffering and humiliation. The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Christ never chooses any other avenue by which to meet us than condescension into suffering, or, as Chad Bird writes, “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility, anonymity and even foolishness, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.” 

If the cross is God’s attack upon sin, as scripture sees it, then the particular sin revealed in Christ’s crucifixion is our dissembling.

The cross outs all our spiritual pretension as a sham.

It’s our affectations at virtue, not our vice, that abandon God.

It’s our “goodness” that pushes him out of the world on a bloody tree.

In the name of godliness we drive nails through his hands and his feet; in homage to wisdom and justice we reason it’s better for this innocent one to die. God hides behind the mask of a cross in order to reveal the masks we wear to play-act the role of a righteous alter ego. Like Jekyl’s Hyde, this alter ego is as much a killer as it is addictive, for if, as St. Paul insists, God’s righteousness has been gifted to us in Christ apart from any of our religious doings, then our goodness itself- or, our pretense at goodness- is the problem Christ kills by his cross. 

Our goodness itself, and it’s attendant self-deceptions of self-sufficiency and shit-togetherness, is the sickness from which we requiring saving. Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, Christ condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine parts of our lives in the steaming piles of shit in our lives.

Wherever shit happens, grace does too.

God meets us in our shame and in our suffering because only when we’ve been reduced to nothing do we know our need and you can’t receive a gift in joy if you’re determined it’s unnecessary. It’s why God must kill the patient before he can live again. As Luther continued in thesis 18 of the Disputation: “Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is ready to receive the grace of Jesus Christ.” Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. It’s only when shit happens that you see you need a savior.

In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.

Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self: “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses: 

All at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with God. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

The glory of God always shows forth in Jesus stooping over to kiss the shameful scabs and weeping wounds of lepers like us.

During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind. To us, God responds to our taunts at glory (“If he’s the Christ let him save himself!) by bleeding and dying. 

“If he’s the Christ let him save himself” echoes an ancient addiction. From Adam onwards, we are addicted to the “glory story;” that is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?” The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets God’s directionality backwards.

The Gospel is a one-way story that goes down.

The story of the Cross is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us. The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension to us not our ascension up to God. Addicted to the glory story, we’re reliably liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction when we cry out to God for help. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness we’re in and out into the nothing and shadows that surround us. 

How preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed.

By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer.

No, God is to be found in our suffering.

God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him, crowned with thorns and his cloths and skin in tatters: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man. Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Gerard Manley Hopkins got it half-wrong: God only plays in ten thousand places if those ten thousand places are places of suffering and humiliation, crosses and conjugal beds. If the sin revealed by the cross is our spiritual pretension, then when the dying Christ declares

“It is finished” he ends any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than the cross.

While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” any who insist that God isn’t in suffering. Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering God is hidden, present, there. Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace.Where is God in my suffering?” just may be exactly the worst question to ask- even if it is an unavoidably natural cry- because the God who shows his ass to Moses shows himself no more clearly than in our suffering. 

     

When the other guys on the podcast posse found out Jason’s guest, Melissa Febos, had written a memoir about her time as a dominatrix in NYC, they all got gun shy.

Their loss. I’m grateful to consider Melissa an (e) friend now.

Not gonna lie- and you can give us your feedback- but I think this conversation with Melissa is the best we’ve had yet on the podcast, ranging from writing, bodies as objects and bodies as sacraments, Woody Allen, grace, shame, mercy, and the eucharist as an erotic act.

Melissa Febos is the author of the acclaimed Whip Smart and the new memoir Abandon Me.

Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Drunken Boat, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

She has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, Anderson Cooper Live, and elsewhere. Her essays have twice received special mention from the Best American Essays anthology and have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony.

The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University.

Next week – Scot McKnight talks to us about angels. Week after – Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Robert Jenson and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

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What do you say to someone who’s been sexually abused? To someone addicted to porn? To someone thinking of committing suicide?

“Don’t be a dumbass Christian.”

– Steve (Not Stone Cold) Austin

Teer snagged this interview with Steve Austin. I hadn’t heard of Steve Austin or his book, From Pastor to a Psych Ward. I was tired, had plenty of checks left to mark on my To Do List plus a sermon to write. I felt like begging off and letting Teer take the interview by himself. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Six months into our podcast, this conversation with Steve Austin, for which I had no expectations, turned out to be our best one, I think. It’s definitely the episode that has struck me the deepest as both a pastor and as a human being. It’s also the episode where Teer and I have done the best job yet of listening to one another and anticipating each other’s questions.

In his book and in this conversation, Steve bravely shares about being sexually abused as a child, suffering the consequent shame and panic attacks later, and attempting suicide while he served as a pastor. His authenticity is what people crave from Christians and it’s what many churches sorely lack.

Give him a listen. You’ll be as surprised and grateful as I was to have heard from him.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve already got in the can: interviews with Fred Schmidt, Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Kenneth Tanner, Fleming Rutledge, William Cavanaugh, Bishop Andy Doyle, and Poet/Undertake Thomas Lynch.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link to listen: http://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-39-dont-be-a-christian-dumbass

 

 

leperThis fall I’ve been leading a bible study through the Gospel of Mark, a small chunk at a time.

A few weeks ago we looked at 1.40-45:

‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” 

Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 

Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 

Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

The big Gospel takeaway:

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with the love of Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is infecting the status quo.

The symbolic, Kingdom-enacting power of this touch is easy to miss and hard to overestimate. When Jesus says the Kingdom is here among you, it’s in moments like this one.

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A former teacher of mine who always will be one of my theological Jedis, Dr Robert Dykstra, shares his own personal parallel to this Gospel in his book, Losers, Loners and Rebels: The Spiritual Struggles of Boys. m2Md4IhrnTDgSkyCO-I0KSA

No doubt, I resonate with it because like Dr Dykstra I too suffered this particular leprosy and shame, but, unlike him, I’ve never had the courage to share about it.

Here it is:

“By mid-adolescence, I had developed an unusually severe, almost textbook case of acne, though one mostly confined to areas on my back and chest and therefore mercifully hidden under my shirt from the gaze of others. I say ‘textbook case’ because of a conversation I had with a physician friend years later, at age 27, while working as a chaplain in a hospital.

As we talked one day, I happened to mention to my friend that if I ever were to develop a serious infection, I was sure there would be no antibiotics left to treat me because of a tolerance I had developed after so many years of taking them for acne as a youth.

She asked me which drugs I had taken, and as I went through the list and got to the last and, at the time, most potent, one called Dapsone, she casually remarked ‘Oh, the leprosy drug.’

I went to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, the drug bible, and looked up Dapsone, and there it was- the primary drug used to treat Hanson’s Disease, a contemporary form of leprosy. Acne was not even listed there among its possible indications, leading me to speculate about the desperation of my dermatologist.

Though I had suspected it since early childhood, at 27 a doctor confirmed I was indeed a leper.

Back when I was 16, I cringed one day when my minister casually touched my shoulder, because it hurt. He asked why I flinched. I didn’t respond.

He had a long memory however and days later asked if he could see my back. I told him no. He wanted to know why, but again I would not say. We played this game for a while, so great was my shame, until for some reason- perhaps sheer exhaustion but more likely an inner desire to be known- I relented.

We were together in church, in the sanctuary, of all places, when I lifted up my shirt for him. He told me he was sorry I had suffered this alone, that he was proud of me for letting me see, and that he thought it would help for me to see a doctor, which to that point I had not done.

Thus would begin my years of antibiotics and some tangible relief from an embodied source of shame.

Today, of course, a minister’s asking an adolescent to lift his shirt in church immediately raises eyebrows…

But this, I think,  would be the wrong lesson to draw. There is no question that healing for my own leprosy, not only in its most overt form as acne but in its more invidious expression as shame, began long before I took a single capsule of Tetracycline, the first of the drugs, and years before I took the final Dapsone, the last of them.

Rather, the great healing came in lifting my shirt before a sufficiently attentive, caring other, and especially in doing so in the safety of ‘my Father’s house.’

I found with graphic clarity in that particular space and action a God who was as concerned with my body as with my soul. I found acceptance, a sanctuary, for embodied shame.”