Updated: Aug 6
This sermon was delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 At Westminster Presbyterian Church In Trenton, New Jersey. Text: Psalm 51
One of my favorite authors in the world, Brene Brown, says that we often confuse guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I did something wrong. I need to make this right.” Shame says, “I am wrong. I need to isolate myself, because I’m not worthy of connection.”
Psalm 51 lets us in on the prayer of a person caught in shame. This Psalm reminds us that shame is a threat to embracing ourselves and each other.
Tonight, as we reflect on this Psalm, I invite you to join me on a journey through the land of shame. The ultimate destination is your essence, what I like to call your home. I can’t take you there. Only you can do that. But, I hope to remind us all tonight of the power of humility as we navigate through the land of shame towards home.
What does humility have to do with shame? For years, I held on to a lie that I wasn’t even aware that I believed. I told myself: humility feels like shame. If you were to ask me what humility was, I would have probably given you some nice Christian answer that I told myself I believed. Yet, there was some part of me clinging to shame and calling it virtuous.
So, I fed the voice of shame and unfortunately I had a lot of help from the church in doing so. Psalm 51 was one of my go to passages for feeding that shame. I mean, the greatest hits of Psalm 51: “My sin is always before me… you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge…surely I was sinful at birth.” “Hide your face from my sins” became “Hide your face from me.” I was not worthy of love.
The message that I was holding onto was: I’m so bad that nothing good can come from me unless God does it. And if I want God to do good in me, I have to beg God to do it. And hopefully it will happen.
Have you ever found yourself believing that you can’t do anything good? Maybe for you, it’s less subtle: you say to yourself, “I can’t do anything right! I’m such a screw up!” What does that self talk sound like?
Shame talk is real common. For starters, shame is a normal human experience. We all visit the land of shame. Many of us spend years there without even realizing that’s where we are. Shame does something for us. In a strange way, it is protective. If we believe that we can’t do anything right, we let ourselves off the hook. I mean, if we can only do what is bad or wrong, then why try doing what is good or right? Why try if we’re only going to fail?
Here’s the good news about humility. It’s not shame. Humility is actually allowing ourselves to see what is true about us. Shame distorts our agency. It inflates our agency by telling us we are solely responsible for all the problems. It can also deflate our agency by telling us we cannot have any positive effect through our behavior, because we are wrong. Whether shame leads us to take all responsibility for wrongdoing or disempowers us entirely, the problem is the same: pride.
Humility, on the other hand, restores our agency and our responsibility to their rightful place.
But how do we reclaim our agency and take responsibility for ourselves when it is easy to go through life without awareness of ourselves? I mean, can you remember the last time you realized something new about yourself? Humility requires that we get to know ourselves. And I mean really get to know ourselves. And this is vulnerable work. It takes courage, folx!
When we look within, we are taking time to recognize ourselves. This means listening to our self talk, noticing what we’re feeling, and seeing how our thoughts are influencing our behavior. Doing this with curiosity and care helps us name our complex stories, our range of emotions, our unmet needs, our hopes and our fears.
When we look within we realize that what we know about ourselves is only a fraction of who we are. It’s strange to think that we live in our bodies everyday and yet know so little about ourselves. Just think about that self-sabotaging behavior that you just cannot stop doing. Where does this behavior come from? Why do you do it? It’s likely that there are unconscious beliefs and stories you’re holding onto that lead you to do this.
This is why our behavior is often at odds with our values. Though we may celebrate ideals like kindness and patience, our unconscious concerns are powerful. They influence our behavior in huge ways. Our unconsciousness does this because at some point (usually in childhood), this behavior was of use. The problem is that what served us when we were young is often not helpful now. This is why we find ourselves hurting those we care about and love without intending to do this.
When we are honest about this, it’s clear that none of us can claim perfection. And we don’t have to, because we are human. The Psalmist’s words come to life: “You make wisdom known to me in what is hidden.” Beauty and imperfection. Known and unknown parts of ourselves. People of success and people of failure. Glitter and Ash. Wisdom is here in the paradox.
This is why it’s important that Psalm 51 begins: “Stoop low with grace, God, as befits Your great love; with Your great compassion wipe away my rebellion.” It is easier to hold ourselves and others with compassion when we know that we are held by infinite compassion. We are already accepted by the divine mystery who knows us entirely. Even in the womb, we were known and loved.
Accepting this reality allows us to connect—not just to ourselves but to each other. In our humility, we can know that we have something to offer to the world even though it’s not perfect. There is goodness underneath the shame and the unconscious beliefs. Diving into the unconsciousness is about getting home to who we are. Maintaining humility on the journey home is challenging as we come to know more about ourselves.
Tara Brach, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher, explains that self compassion is found by becoming aware of what is happening, allowing our feelings to exist, investigating those feelings, and then responding by nurturing ourselves. When we investigate our feelings, we identify needs that are behind the feelings. Knowing the needs helps us to nurture ourselves and ask others for help, which leads to more authentic connection.
Through these connections, we learn that it’s okay to be complex creatures growing in our own awareness. And knowing this allows us to make more space for those around us to be complex and on their own journeys.
Friends, when the journey is hard, when the shame feels overwhelming, and when none of it makes sense, may Psalm 51 remind us that we no longer have to fear a broken spirit. Instead, may we find that our brokenness is actually where hidden wisdom, infinite compassion, and joyful connection are waiting to be discovered. Amen.