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Shame Is a Prison, and I’m Breaking Out

The first email came a few months after we formally joined the church. The message from the pastor was cryptic, asking my husband and I to come to meet with him. Despite the sparse words, I shuddered, knowing in my bones that this was about me, not a friendly “let’s get to know each other” meeting.

The day of the meeting, I felt physically sick, heart racing, hands shaky. I wanted to hide.

Shame is a prison. It is impotent to help us grow.

The pastor’s office was lined with bookcases crammed with theology. I took the chair nearest the door, settling uneasily on the leather. I tried not to grip the arm rests, to adopt a calm and confident pose that hid my fear. Scott took the other chair, a full three feet from mine. I wondered at the distance. He was too far for us to hold hands. Too far to feel like we were in this together, that he had my back and I his.

The pastor took a drink of water, and licked his lips nervously, the way I do when my mouth is nothing but ash, too dry for words. I found a shred of comfort in knowing that he was not comfortable with this meeting either.

He opened a manilla file folder and slid out a few sheets of paper. I spotted my name on the folder, Facebook-blue across the top of one page, and my blog header on another. My mind raced as I tried to process. The pastor has a file on me. My gut was right. They don’t like who I am.

He hadn’t said a word, and I already felt awash in shame. I wished that I could hide my too-easy-to-read face from his gaze. My hair was short, unable even to hide my eyes. I turned slightly in my seat, towards Scott and away from the pastor, trying to angle away from his direct gaze.

He prayed that obligatory I’m-a-pastor-so-I-better-talk-to-God-before-doing-anything prayer, took another sip of water, and began.

“Someone has brought your blogs and Facebook posts to my attention.” He pointed to the print-out of my Facebook wall and a couple of blog posts, peppered with underlines and notes.

“You shared a post on Facebook that supports egalitarian views of men and women, in direct opposition to our church’s teachings. You know that we believe men are to lead and women are to submit. We are asking you to stop sharing things that disagree with the teachings of our church.”

They are spying on me! I felt anger smolder in my belly.

He continued. “Your blog has us concerned about your personal spiritual wellbeing. We are also concerned about the wellbeing of the other people here in this church who may be led to doubt by the things you are writing. We are asking you to stop writing about doubt.”

I stared at him, stunned. “You are asking me to stop writing about my faith and my questions on my personal blog?”

“Yes. You and your husband are high-profile members of this church, whether you like it or not. You have influence.”

I felt isolated. Targeted. Rejected. Ashamed. I wanted desperately to hide, even as I argued how important it was to me to be real and honest about who I was and where I was with God. And how laughable it was that my little bitty blog was influential. I remember reaching for my hair, wishing it were long so I could pull it across my face like a veil.

People who get to know me well will eventually discover this about me: I am like my son. I am direct, say what most people won’t, have poorly-developed filters. Most of the time, this is refreshing. People tell me it’s such a relief to have someone blurt out what they’re too afraid to say. My lack of political savvy can cut through the crap… sometimes. But other times, it really gets me into trouble. I’ll desecrate someone’s sacred cow, wound their fragile ego, or drop innuendo into the wrong conversation or with the wrong person. When that happens, I swing to the other extreme – I clam up, bottle it all inside, and hide.

That’s the time I wish for a veil.

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka by way of Dubai. In those countries, women wear veils far more often than they do in the U.S. (though we have a large Muslim community in my area, so it’s more and more common around me than it used to be). Always before I saw veils as repressive and as projecting responsibility for a man’s thought life onto a woman. But I began to see benefits in the veil on this trip, until this morning.

I was thinking about this post and trying to uncover why I have this instinct to hide inside a veil, when I saw it. Shame. Shame makes me want to hide, whether it’s over a legitimate mistake or whether it’s someone else projecting their issues onto me. When I feel vulnerable and rejected, I hide.

This is not how we ought to be. Hiding my shame behind a veil is not healthy. It doesn’t protect me, any more than hiding behind fig leaves protected Adam and Eve from God after they disobeyed. Hiding is a symptom of our brokenness. Shame is the painful fall-out from our warped desire to control people.

That first meeting with the pastor, nearly 3 years ago now, began an ongoing fight against my own fear of being shamed, rejected, and branded a threat again. It is getting better now, but I still sense it with nearly everything I post. That church tried to shut me down and control me with intimidation (church discipline is no small thing). It was all about power and control, and what I’ve realized is that this was rooted in fear.

How sad, especially when the Bible they claimed to love and follow teaches that perfect love casts out fear. When we love, we reject shame. We do not use fear to control. Shame is impotent to love or help us grow – it is a prison. We must not succumb to the temptation to hide behind a veil, to pretend to be who we are not.

Perfect love casts out fear. Shame is fear and has no place in this holy work.

I promise today to throw away the veil of shame. I will accept you, the whole you. I will love you with all your flaws and all your weaknesses as well as your strengths and your character and your talents. Will you embrace the good as well as the bad in me, too? I will practice forgiveness and grace. We can help each other become who we are meant to be, to overcome our weaknesses, together to be more than we are apart. Shame is fear and has no place in this holy work.

Update: Don’t miss my follow-up post, in which I respond to the questions “Why did you stay?” and “What happened next?”



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