Category Archives: shame

Why we welcome sinners (a story)

Author Paulo Coelho created the story of a young woman named Athena. She dropped out of college at age nineteen to get married and have a baby. Then her husband left her when the baby was still young.

One Sunday the local Catholic priest, who was her friend, watched as she walked toward him to receive communion, and his heart was filled with dread. Athena stood in front of the priest with her eyes closed and mouth open. She was hungry for the grace given to her in Christ’s body. But he did not give it.

The young woman opened her eyes, confused. The priest tried to tell her in hushed tones that they would talk about it later, but she would not be turned away. She persisted until she received an answer. “Athena, the Church forbids divorced people from receiving the sacrament. You signed your divorce papers this week. We’ll talk later.”

She stood there, devastated, numb. People began to step around her, an obstacle in their path.

Naomi Zacharias, who retells this story in her book The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken, imagines people saying, “Don’t you know that God hates divorce?” and Athena answering, “I know. So do I. Possibly even more than you.” It had been so hard for her to come to church that day. And now, driving a knife into her already anguished heart, the church says she is no longer worthy to come to Christ.

As the priest finished giving the sacrament, he slowly stepped back to the altar. conversation around Bibles Athena was still standing where he had left her. Then she cried out against those who had not listened to the words of Christ but transformed his message into a stone building: “Christ said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Well, I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to him.” She turned and left the church, tears streaming down her face, her baby crying.

Years later the priest cannot forget her face, the forlorn look in her eyes, and the poignancy of those words of Christ. He now says, “I like to imagine that when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms.” And surely Jesus took her broken heart and held it carefully, gently.

It comes to me that this is what we as a church are to do: speak the truth about sin, making clear the direction toward which the wisdom of God nudges us sinners; and welcome with great patience and gracious compassion any sinner who wants to come to Jesus.

Doing both is hard. But we must try with all our heart.

A cultural shift that fuels sensitivity to exclusion

If I could subscribe to only one magazine, it would be Christianity Today. I find its editors deeply biblical and perceptive. They keep me aware of significant events and ideas surfacing all over the Christian church.

Its March cover article, “The Return of Shame” by Andy Crouch, was one of those that I had to immediately read to Karen. I’ll give a bit of summary and some thoughts after mulling over the article.

Some cultures place a lot of emphasis on the community and avoiding social shame. Asian cultures tend toward this. In contrast, secular Western cultures have tended to be more individualistic. We decide whether we are good or bad by how we personally feel about our behavior and choices rather than by what our community says about us. Instead of being preoccupied with saving face in others’ eyes, we get our cues from our own internal sense of right and wrong. Of course, others’ opinions have an impact; but with a strong self-identity we can still feel good about ourselves even when our community puts us down.

At least, we could in the past. This is rapidly changing, because various social media, like Facebook, are again strengthening the power of community over our lives. We post something and people tag us, talk about us. The social network constantly updates us on our success or failure at gaining public affirmation. And so large parts of our culture are starting to look more community-based than individualistic.

Here is a consequence of this change: social disapproval has become what those in this new culture dread more than anything else. In fact, now the main crime is to publicly exclude—and thus shame—another. Particularly when those shut out are already part of a minority and may be vulnerable.

So this generation has a built-in bias against churches who do not bless same-sex marriages or allow those in such relationships to hold leadership roles. Such judgments, they say, may cause gays and lesbians to experience shame or exclusion. It is no coincidence that many student groups who are pressing for changes on same-sex ethics on Christian campuses have chosen the prefix “One” (as in OneWheaton and OneGordon). They want unity, want everyone included.

But we must go back to why the Christian West emphasized the individual in the first place: what God thinks is held higher than what one’s community thinks.