If you’ve gone anywhere near my Facebook profile since about April, you probably know that I started my first garden this year. You will also know that I have been pretty excited about the whole process. From the tiniest sprout to the biggest head of broccoli, everything is cause for excitement when it comes to my garden.
But it hasn’t been a perfectly smooth ride. Back in the spring, after doing the hard work of amending the soil, building beds, researching growing seasons, raising some impressively big, leafy kale and broccoli, and transplanting summer crop seedlings, I made a mistake that cost me almost all of my plants.
I had noticed some bugs had been munching on my kale and broccoli, so I got some insecticide. I knew this particular product was also good for fungus control, so I put on my straw gardening hat (which I bought ironically but am now totally, unabashedly in love with) and set about spraying down not only the brassicas but also my brand new transplants.
I finished treating most of my 14′ x 24′ plot, wiped the sweat off my brow, and looked at the bottle of the product I had just been using.
My heart sank at one word: “CONCENTRATE.”
This little bottle in my hand makes 16 gallons of spray when watered down. I had just coated my plants with the undiluted solution.
A quick phone call and a Google consultation revealed that this product was nothing but organic oils, so it’s not like I had just doused my yard in chemicals. Maybe the plants would be OK?
But after a few days, it became clear that they would not be OK. My baby tomato and squash plants, and even my big, previously healthy kale and broccoli, all looked like they were dying.
So I thought about it and put a plan into action. Most of the young plants had only been in the ground a few days; I could easily replace those. The kale and broccoli were a lost cause, but I could tear them out and plant other things in their place.
I set off for Webster Brothers Hardware, feeling confident and in control. I had made a mistake, yes; but I had a plan, and everything was going to work out just fine. You live and you learn, that’s what I always say.
And then, that little voice in my head started talking. You are an idiot. You know you should always read the instructions. You never pay attention. You are careless and stupid.
Suddenly I was back in familiar territory. This is how I usually handle making mistakes—by seeing them as further proof of what an awful, useless person I am. I should have read the directions. A halfway intelligent person would have read the freaking directions.
Around that time, I had just finished reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. If you follow Roots Revival on Facebook or Twitter, I posted a TED talk she did that is great, so be sure to check that out.
In the book, Brown makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt, she says, is feeling appropriate remorse for something you did or said and taking action to remedy it. Shame, she says, goes beyond that—it becomes about your worth as a person and your ability (or lack thereof) to connect with others.
In this example, guilt sounds like this: “I didn’t read the instructions. That was a mistake. I know that’s something I tend to do, so I’ll be more attentive to that from now on. I will do what I can to fix this, and next time, I will read the instructions.”
Shame (courtesy of the little voice in my head) sounds like this: Only an idiot does something stupid like that. Everyone who has been so interested in and impressed by your garden is going to be disappointed when they find out you screwed everything up.
Brown says that shame is the fear of disconnection. My garden has been a source of connection for me—to the earth, to myself, to other people—and suddenly, I was imagining all the ways this would ruin that. My roommate had been looking forward to juicing the kale. My dad had been so impressed by my big, leafy plants. Colin had helped me start the garden and had given me or helped me select all the plants I had just murdered. I had let all those people down, and now they would all know that I was an idiot.
Fortunately, I quickly realized that I am not nearly that important. And my little gardening story is a pretty silly example about the power of shame. Shame is usually far more destructive, because it cuts to the core of who we are and how we relate to others.
Shame is the fear of disconnection. Too many people have experienced shame that causes them to disconnect from God. The church, unfortunately, has shamed many different kinds of people over the centuries: Jews, Muslims, the poor, ethnic minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, addicts, divorcees, the depressed, victims of suicide, and more.
Ben Wood grew up in a United Methodist Church in Clemmons. Ben was gay, and his church family had always been a safe place for him when school brought mostly bullying. That changed when a new youth leader joined the staff at the church, and tension began building between him and Ben. At one youth group, the topic was homosexuality. If the anxiety of the teaching weren’t enough, the leader took things a step further. Ben’s mom tells the story:
The youth leader said, “You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay. Who here is comfortable being around him? Child by child as each name was called, the leader required a response. The next question that was posed to each child in the circle, do you understand that Ben is going to hell? Child by child the leader pressured an answer. Child by child, Ben’s sanctuary was dismantled.”
From then on, said Ben’s mother, Ben lost his faith in the church and in God. His continuing struggles with depression ended when he took his own life in May of 2013. Although his mother understands that depression is so complex that Ben’s suicide cannot be attributed solely to that youth group experience, she said, “[it] may not have taken his life but it most certainly did not help save it!”
Shame will take our lives from us, whether literally as with Ben or figuratively through self-loathing, insecurity, and difficulty receiving and showing love. Shame leads us to believe terrible things about ourselves. It leads us to become guarded, like that “real emotional girl” who got her heart broken and is now “very, very careful.”
Being “very, very careful” may seem like a wise move after being hurt, and in many ways it is. But the problem with being “very, very careful” comes when we allow pain or rejection to make us so defensive that we never allow ourselves to love again. For Ben, the shame of being cut off from his faith community was so painful that he would rather die than return to the place of that hurt.
What happened to Ben is tragic, and as a church, we must take seriously the part we played in his death and in so many other deaths, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional. Only in this way might we begin to regain the trust of so many people who rightly refuse to open themselves up to a God and a church that have done nothing but hurt them.
And there are some who have experienced shame similar to Ben’s who for some reason keep showing up anyway. There are people in our churches who come and worship and serve faithfully despite being told, directly or indirectly, that they are not wanted. Many cannot do that—Ben could not, and who could blame him?—but there are those who take the risk because they know that the shame that would push them away is not the Gospel. Even if they cannot always trust the imperfect and fallible people who make up the church, they trust the perfect and infallible God who made them and loves them.
Vulnerability requires trust, and trust requires vulnerability—it’s a chicken and egg sort of thing. There are no guarantees in love, whether among family, friends, romantic partners, or even faith communities. Love, as expressed in human relationships, is messy and broken, and love is always a risk.
C. S. Lewis says this about love and vulnerability: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
In her research, Brené Brown does not find a way to avoid feeling shame or fear or pain or anger. These things are simply part of being human. If we get rid of those things, we must also get rid of joy and compassion and empathy and even love.
But Brown did find traits that made certain people more resilient to shame. The people who were able to cope with feelings of shame, to deal with failure and rejection and hurt and betrayal without shutting down or giving up—these people had the courage to be imperfect, a willingness to fail.
Brown points out, “According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning ‘to wound.’ The definition includes ‘capable of being wounded…” Vulnerability is not about avoiding pain—it is about opening ourselves to its possibility, its reality, knowing that we are capable of withstanding it.
As we build up courage to face pain, fear, exposure, and vulnerability, we will find that we are so much stronger than we think. What’s more, we will become more willing to share ourselves and our imperfections with others, which in turn gives them the freedom to share themselves and their imperfections. And we will discover the beautiful, comforting truth that no matter what we’ve been through or felt or said or done, we are not alone.
Glennon Doyle Melton wrote in her book Carry On, Warrior about the moment she stumbled upon the power of sharing our messiness with others. She was sitting on the playground with a friend, and as they watched their children playing, they talked about many profound and important things—about soccer practice and how often they got highlights put in their hair.
But all the while, Glennon felt uncomfortable. Everyone knew, but nobody said, that the other woman’s marriage was a mess. And eventually, Glennon got so tired of the pleasantries and superficial conversation that she decided to take a huge risk. She decided to tell this woman her story.
And so she laid it all out. She told about her recovery from bulimia and drug addiction, about her accidental pregnancy and shotgun wedding, about how she feels like she has no idea what she’s doing and is always afraid she’s being a terrible mother or wife or friend or Christian and most of the time feels like a total mess.
When she finished, the other woman stared at her for a moment, and Glennon did what we all do when we even consider baring our souls to another person. She imagined this woman telling her she was crazy, that something was wrong with her, that she should never speak to her again. But instead, the woman’s eyes welled up, and through tears she told Glennon all about the marital struggles that everyone whispered about but for which very few had offered support.
Glennon took a risk in sharing her story with another person. She ran the risk of being rejected. But her courage gave another woman courage, and together they were able to find hope and grace and love even in the midst of their imperfect, messy lives.
Glennon says this: “Here’s my hunch: nobody’s secure, and nobody feels like she completely belongs. Those insecurities are just job hazards of being human. But some people dance anyway, and those people have more fun.”
My mom does this thing where sometimes she’ll randomly run into a room and start dancing around like crazy. It used to embarrass us as kids, but now I think it’s just awesome.
She did something similar last weekend when she, my brother Noah, and myself all ran a 10K in Charlotte. At the end of the race, we discovered that she had placed first in her age group (“50 or better”). And so, when they called her name for her prize, she hooted and hollered and danced her way up to the stage.
The MC was a bit taken aback but amused, and Noah and I laughed and high-fived her. Then they called my brother’s name—he had placed second in his age group—and the announcer said, “Hey, is that crazy mom’s son?” And we hooted and hollered—yes! That was our crazy mom, the one dancing anyway, having way more fun than anyone else and inviting us to have fun, too.
There are so many things we let hold us back from being fully who God made us to be. Worrying about what other people will think or do or say, fearing disconnection from others, and putting on a happy face seems less risky than dancing.
But I think we’re all a little crazy. And if we look at the Bible, do you know how many perfect people God called to serve him? Exactly zero. Think about it. You may have heard this before [adapted from this], but here’s a list of some of the crazy, messy, unlikely people God uses throughout Scripture:
Noah was a drunk. Abraham was too old. Jacob was a liar. Leah was ugly. Joseph was abused. Moses had a speech impediment. Tamar was raped. Jeremiah was too young. David was an adulterer. John the Baptist ate bugs. Peter denied Christ. Martha was a worrywart. The Samaritan woman was divorced. Paul was too religious. And Lazarus was DEAD.
So what’s your excuse?
What is your shame? Are you too rich or too poor? Are you too dumb or too smart? Do you have too much doubt? Is your family dysfunctional? Have you wrestled with addiction and alcoholism? Have you been sexually assaulted? Are you anxious or depressed? Do you have cancer? Have you lost a loved one to suicide? Are you overweight or underweight? Have you been told that who you are and whom you love makes God not want you?
Whatever it is that fuels the little voice in your head, there is only one voice that can speak to the deepest truth of who you are. That is the voice of the beloved, speaking to you in the shelter of the cliffs, in the intimacy of a cleft in the rock.
And what that voice will tell you is that the most fundamental truth of who you are has nothing to do with any of those things that the voice of shame tells us matter so much. The most basic truth of our identity lies not in anything we say or do or think or feel—it lies in the fact that we are children of God.
You are a child of God. I am a child of God. We were all made in the image of God. And God is love. So we are made in the image of love. And being made in that image, the truth that goes beyond anything we can accomplish or mess up is that we are worthy of love.
I wish that youth pastor had told Ben Wood that he was a child of God, full stop. I wish he had told Ben that he was worthy of love, full stop. I wish he had encouraged Ben to dance. I wish pastors and churches everywhere would stop shaming people and instead offer them the good news that we serve a God who desires and honors our beautiful, messy vulnerability, a God who loves us no matter what—full stop.
The Song of Songs is a love poem. Oddly enough, God is not mentioned in this book of the Bible. But the Song of Songs can teach us so much about vulnerability. Here, we see two people professing their love for one another with reckless abandon. They say things to and about one another that I, admittedly, cannot read without giggling. But I don’t think they would care. The fear of looking silly or of being rejected is nothing compared to their desire to show their love for one another.
God pours God’s love on us with this same reckless abandon. God sees us as the beloved and claims us as such. And if we are grounded in our own belovedness, then we are free to share our love with others, whatever the risk. We become capable of being wounded when we know ourselves as truly loved and held by the God who made us for love. We become free to shower the people we love with love, knowing that we, and they, are worthy of it, for no other reason than that we are all beloved children of God—full stop. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell