Our Terrible Vulnerability


my vulnerable ones

Last week, a precious little boy named Lane Thomas Graves was playing in shallow water on the edge of a lagoon when an alligator dragged him into the water and killed him. His father tried to fight off the alligator but could not. When I think about this story, I think of my own little boys and I weep for those poor parents. How do you recover from such a random, unpredictable, horrible loss? How do you return home without that child?

But if I’m honest, sympathy wasn’t my first reaction to this story. My first reaction was to investigate the details. Was this a recognized play area, or a random alligator-infested lagoon where only crazy people would swim? Was he just splashing in the shallows or was he waist-deep? Only after I learned the truth—that he was wading in ankle-deep water in a beach area intended for play along with many other families, all watched over by lifeguards—did I open my heart. My first instinct, like that of so many others, was to see if I could apportion blame.

Incidents like this bring out our human tendency to blame. The nasty comments directed at these poor parents remind me of all the hateful blame thrown at the parents of the little boy who got into the gorilla enclosure. Why must we humans do this to each other?

On the face of it, it seems that the problem is a lack of compassion and empathy, a failure to put ourselves in the position of others and to feel the full weight of their suffering. It seems that our hearts and imaginations are just too small.

But perhaps that’s not it. Perhaps we blame not because we don’t feel the full weight of suffering, but because we do, and we don’t want to shoulder that burden. We don’t want to acknowledge that that horrible thing could just as easily have happened to us. We want to shove away the unwelcome reminder that these sorts of events provide: that all of us, by virtue of being human, are vulnerable to random suffering, pain, and loss. When we blame, we’re saying, “That wasn’t really random. I am safe from that. That form of suffering can’t happen to me or mine.” We blame to reject the possibility of suffering in our own lives and in those of our loved ones.

The ancient Greeks had a saying: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” At every moment of our lives—crossing the street, falling in love, giving birth, going in for our annual check-up, watching our child splash in the water—our happiness is a terribly fragile thing.

Every human culture has to find an answer to our horrible vulnerability to suffering. Our pagan ancestors burned sacrifices to curry favor with the gods. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle insisted that living a virtuous life in pursuit of truth could make life meaningful, even in the face of misfortune. But it was Christianity that provided the ultimate answer to the problem of suffering. In Christ, God Himself suffered for us. Jesus’ suffering on the cross gave new meaning to our vulnerability to suffering. We serve a God who suffers with us, who loves us in our suffering, and who promises us that our suffering is not the end, but the beginning of an eternal life of unimaginable joy, a life He suffered to provide for us.

As our culture turns away from Christ, we are also turning away from the Christian answer to suffering. And without Christ, suffering loses meaning.

Of course it is good to alleviate human suffering. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, shelter the homeless, tend to the sick and dying, work to cure diseases, and engage in all the works of mercy. But there’s a big difference between sacrificing to aid the suffering and refusing to accept human vulnerability to suffering. We can do all these good works and nevertheless, many of us will suffer without cause or warning.

If we live only for happiness and success, then suffering robs of us of everything that matters. It cannot be borne. We cannot bear the thought of children being born poor and unwanted—better that they should die in the womb than to emerge so vulnerable. We cannot bear the thought of terminal disease—better to die before suffering and seeing one’s loved ones suffer. We cannot bear the thought of a random killing of a child by an alligator—surely his parents were negligent. And when we can’t kill or apportion blame? Then we look to laws and government programs to protect us from the horrible weight of our neighbor’s suffering. (This is what it means to make the government your God.)

When we can’t find meaning and hope in suffering, we end up denying the innate value of human life. We start thinking that life is only worth living under certain conditions. We privilege the lives of the healthy, the lucky, the intelligent, the wanted, the educated, and the successful or potentially successful over the lives of the weak, the disabled, the failed, the ill, the ignorant, the unwanted, and the poor.

Our vulnerability is essential to our humanity, and when we deny that vulnerability, we become less than human.

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Bring Your Toddler to Mass

I have never written a “tips” piece on this blog before. I didn’t think I had how-to sorts of tips to give. But the other day I tossed off a comment about being an expert on taking little kids to Mass, and then thought, well, yeah, I kind of am. To be clear: I’m not an expert on getting them to behave at Mass, just an expert on taking them, week in and week out, without despair or undue frustration. So, at the risk of sounding like I know way more than I do, I am sharing ten tips on how to get through Mass (or any church service, really) with your young children.

But first, before I get to the “how” of attending Mass with young children, you might be stumped by the “why?” Why take them at all?

Because your whole family belongs at Mass. Mass isn’t a privilege intended for the well-behaved, whether age two or forty. It is a privilege intended for every single member of the church family, including and especially the messy ones (again, whether age two or forty). Your children belong with you at church, and you should never be put in position of having to find child care for them so that you can attend.

There is no good way to do this. If you hire a sitter, you’re making someone else work on the Sabbath, making Sunday morning an occasion for dividing instead of unifying your family, and buying your way out of a problem that belongs to the community, not to you as an individual. If you keep them home with dad while mom takes the older kids to Mass, you are endangering the faith of your children. (Multiple studies indicate that it’s the father’s church attendance that, more than anything else, determines whether or not children will attend church as adults.) It’s important that your kids see mom and dad worshipping together. Leaving them with extended family is a much better option, but not a perfect one, especially if your older kids figure out that grandma or auntie’s house is more fun than Mass.

So bring them, and if they disrupt things, know that that’s not all on you. The Church wants you to be open to life, and when we’re open to life, toddlers happen, and toddlers are loud, messy, and disruptive. Bring all of your children, the messy ones and the well-mannered ones, and if you don’t feel welcome, either keep going anyway, knowing that Jesus welcomes you always; help your church to develop good children’s programs that get the little ones out of the sanctuary, at least for while; or find another parish with good children’s programs. Above all, don’t not go for three years because your kids are too little. Mass is for you, no matter what stage of life you are in. Don’t let anything or anyone take the Bread of Life from you.

Enough about why, here’s how:

1) Go every week and, if at all possible, always to the same Mass.

When I was training my dog, I learned that puppies don’t automatically generalize. Just because you’ve taught them to come when called at one park, they won’t necessarily do the same in a different context. Toddlers are the same way. Through sheer repetition, you can train them to contain themselves reasonably well during Mass at one time in one location, but they will not transfer that training to any other time or location. For our two-year-old, a different Mass time or place is a brand-new game with rules yet to be invented. Can I dance in the aisle here? Knock over an urn of holy water? Crawl under the pew and grab the shoe of the man in front of me? Let’s find out. (By the way, the answer to question number three is no, because he will reflexively kick you in the face. At least I hope it was a reflex.)

2) Come armed. Bring food and books.

Do not bring Cheerios or other little crunchy things. They get everywhere and you will spend your time at Mass picking them up. They will get ground into the floor and the pews and you’ll feel bad. For guilt-free snacks, I suggest pancakes. No crumbling, no scattering. In my family, pancakes are a once-a-week treat, so they’re yummy even without maple syrup. (I hope it goes without saying that you shouldn’t bring syrup to Mass.)

There is no need to bring religious books—who are we kidding with those? Your toddler is not going to get religion by looking at pastel illustrations of Noah’s Ark. Instead, bring lift the flap books with as many little flaps and sliding pieces as possible. Even better, make these books available only during Mass. Yes, you will have to spend some time naming things and whispering “How many? Where is the circle? Which is the red one?” and so on. That’s fine. God knows you can multitask.

(Obviously your older kids, say age five and up, don’t get to eat or read books other than the Bible or the missalette at Mass. They are more likely to accept this if instead of saying “you’re too old for that,” you explain that needing these things is a sign of immaturity and weakness.)

3) Unless your child is really loud, as in loud enough to drown out the priest, or injured, do not take them out of the sanctuary. Otherwise, they quickly learn that making any noise is a quick ticket to freedom.

It’s ok if they make some noise. When they feel the need to vocalize, instead of leaving, I teach them to talk about Jesus. Everyone thinks that’s cute, even if it’s during the Gospel reading, the homily, or the Eucharistic Prayer. Teach them to say “I love you Jesus!” or “Hallelujah!” Even “preach it, Father!” is better than “I tooted!,” which is what my two-year-old called out during the homily last week.

4) If you do have to leave Mass, be as boring and unfeeling as possible.

Leaving Mass should feel like missing out. If you have to take them out, or if they run for the exit and get past the usher, then no talking, no eye contact, no affection whatsoever. The love is in there, with Jesus. If you become a zombie the moment you hit the narthex or the church garden, your child will not want to hang out there with you.

5) Shower affection on all of your children when they are well-behaved.

Mass is a time to get loved up, by God and by your parents. Cuddle. Never brush off the affections of your children, even if you are deep in prayer or trying to focus on the homily. Hold hands with them and your spouse. Kiss them. Make Mass an experience of Love Himself for your children.

6) Embrace the laughter.

Being serious, dour, and prim doesn’t make you more holy. We are a people of joy and Sunday Mass shouldn’t feel or sound like a funeral. Laughter is the yin to piety’s yang—it keeps us in balance spiritually. When we start imagining life with God as a gauzy, bloodless place of noble sentiments and easy virtue, laughter cuts through our BS and brings us back to our bodies. Wholesome family laughter is a spiritually gift. Give that gift to others. Give it to your older children by bringing their younger sibling to Mass.

7) When people give you the stink eye, smile back, forgive them, and pay them no mind.

Know that most everyone at Mass is delighted that you are there with your children, as they darned well should be. You and yours, rubbing snot on their hands before the passing of the peace and shoving each other, are the future of the Church, sitting in your proper place. You have brought your children to their Father’s house where they belong and He is glad they are there. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” If we adults are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we have to become more like them, not the reverse.

8) Don’t bribe them with the post-Mass donuts.

After Mass, donuts happen just for the asking, whether you deserve them or not, like grace. Otherwise my littlest would never get donuts. There is plenty of time for consequences; don’t make church a place of denial and disappointment.

9) No matter what, never judge other parents and their kids at church.

If your kids are well-behaved at Mass, do not take it as your doing. Don’t you dare start thinking you could do better than that poor lady two rows behind whose kid is acting possessed. My second child was always well behaved at Mass, even as a toddler. I took that as our doing, and then our third proved me very, very wrong. Graciously accept good behavior as a gift from God. Receive it thankfully and you might get that gift again. I realize that God is beyond human ways, but I have to think that if we go about grabbing the gifts God gives us and pretending we made them ourselves, God might just stop giving them. The moment you judge another parent, you’d better get ready for your children to humiliate and disappoint you, because it’s coming.

If you see a family that is struggling, smile at them. Make funny faces to entertain their children. We are in this together. We are raising the next generation of Catholics, and we will make the Church a welcoming, loving, joyful, even (gasp!) a fun place for them.

10) Get Little House on the Prairie and all other stories of the perfectly behaved children of yore out of your head.

Rid yourself of images of the Ingalls kids and their Puritan or Catholic forebears sitting bolt upright, all prim and starched, in cold pews for hours because Pa said so and they love Pa. These and all the images you have of childhood perfection are pure fiction. (If it helps, note that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose rewrote most of her mom’s work, which in its original form didn’t involve much in the way of stories.) If you expect perfection, you will be disappointed and frustrated. Keep your expectations in line with reality. Expect them to be there; to dress decently; to show respect to you, the priest, and each other; and to be children.

You’ve brought your family to Mass, where you are all in God’s holy presence giving Him the worship He is due. Extract your toddler from under the kneeler, pick up the half-eaten pancakes, and go get yourself a donut. You’ve done good.

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Faith or Hell


About five years ago, God asked something dramatic of me. I had finally finished my book (Slavery and Sin). The final edits and the index were off to the publisher and I’d filed my notes away in deep storage. My slate was clean and I was ready to start a brand new book project. But every time I started to plan and to write, I felt an unexpected, enormous, overwhelming “NO!”

I had a spiritual director at the time, and the best way I found to describe the feeling to her was that the act of starting another academic book project felt like contemplating an act of adultery. What had once been my work suddenly felt like sin. God doesn’t tend to speak to me in sentences, but if I had to put what I heard in my heart from Him at that time into sentence form it would be something like, “If you do this, you will do so purely out of your own will, without Me. I am elsewhere for you. Follow Me. Now.”

So I stopped trying to write, and I asked God where I was supposed to go. I got two answers, clear as could be. One was that I would find my own deepest purpose and my salvation in raising my children. This offended me a little, but I got over it. The other was that when I did write again, and that would not be right away, I was to write in a way that served His Church.

I was an assistant professor, on the tenure track, with tenure in sight. Quitting felt like a radical thing to do, but I also felt an enormous sense of divine consolation. And then, as if I needed a nudge or a sign, the kids’ babysitter up and resigned, completely out of the blue. So I quit. That summer with the kids was blissful. I knew that I was where I should be and I was grateful to be there.

I remember thinking that I finally understood what scripture means by the “pearl of great price.” My worth was no longer in what I accomplished, in being “Dr. Oshatz,” or in what others thought of me. I belonged to God and I was His delighted, beloved daughter. For the first time in my life, I put my entire worth in the love of Christ. I wanted and needed nothing else than to live in that love all of my days.

And then, because this is how life goes, I was tempted. Or, rather, I subjected myself to temptation. Like Lot’s wife, I looked back. What would been my dream job just a few months before appeared, the job I had been waiting for and praying for years, ever since I was writing my dissertation. I reasoned that I was highly unlikely to get the job (even my dissertation advisor said I didn’t have a chance), so the best way to avoid regret would be to apply. That way, the decision wouldn’t be mine. Nice try, but God wasn’t going to let me off that easy. I got the job.

At the very moment that I got that offer, every bit of consolation left me. I couldn’t find God, couldn’t feel His Presence, and couldn’t understand what the heck all of that blessedness and calling had been about. This was my dream job, a prestigious position in a lovely town where my husband could work, just down the road from my aging mother and my sisters and my family land—what kind of idiot would I have to be not to take it? Not taking it would mean letting down my mother, my sisters, and my mentors. I’d thought that my radical yes was quitting my other job, but it wasn’t. I’d thought I’d already made my leap of faith and was safe in God’s country, hidden away from doubt and fear, but I’d been wrong. Now I was looking at a real leap of faith. I couldn’t see or feel the other side, and this jump made no sense to anyone around me. My spiritual director had just moved to Indiana.

I scoured my Bible for proof that God wouldn’t abandon me after calling me to do something. I hung on every word of my kids’ Veggie Tales videos about Moses, Joshua, and Gideon. I discovered that God has a record of testing faith by giving people who want to follow Him laughably ridiculous instructions. I was in good company.

I turned down the job. I made a serious of agonizing phone calls, disappointing a long list of people whose respect and love I craved.

I’d like to say that at that moment, the consolation returned, God caught me in His arms, and I entered into His peace and joy, but faith doesn’t work like that. (And no number of Christians claiming that they have lived in God’s presence ever since that one single moment in time when they said yes to Jesus will ever convince me otherwise.)

Blessings did follow, including my fabulous, brilliant third child, but perfect peace did not. When I don’t surrender to God on a daily basis, I am prone to horrid, depressing floods of regret.

Here’s what I’ve learned: even once you sell everything you own to buy the pearl of great price, you still have to wake up every day and decide to love that pearl. You cannot take it or your own apprehension of its worth for granted. If a few days or weeks go by and you haven’t wondered at its beauty and sat in its presence, your decision and resulting life stop making sense and you falter. You panic, reaching out for the false jewel of worldly glory. But if you do spend that time, nothing can possibly outshine the glory of that pearl! You are greatly beloved by God. His peace guards your heart and mind.

My floods of regret used to make me feel angry at God. I used to doubt. But now I think that the way things are for me is actually a beautiful gift. God has brought me to a place where to have joy and hope, I have to walk by faith. As long as I live in the love of Jesus, my days are a foretaste of heaven, but the moment I forget and return to living for my own glory, doubt and regret are there waiting to consume me. These days, there is no middle ground for me, no option of muddling through on my own merits. It’s faith or hell. But then, of course it is! What other decision is there? That’s the choice we all face, and it’s not just an ultimate choice, it’s a daily one. How amazing it is that we manage to forget that, and how loving God is to remind us.

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Zero Effect


I am expecting my fourth child in October. I am amazed by this fact. So amazed that if it weren’t for my growing belly, I’d still have a hard time believing it. Yes, to those of you who have asked, I do know how this works, but I also have a basic grasp of statistics, and I am a 42-year-old woman who has had eight miscarriages. Between my age and the particular problem that caused my miscarriages, I have more than an 80% chance of miscarriage in the first trimester of a pregnancy. And yet here I am, by the grace of God, nearly four months pregnant.

I’m getting my head around being a mother of four. I am now mostly happy and grateful, but in the first trimester I was a mess. There was the constant worry about miscarriage, of course, and the nausea, exhaustion, and temporary hormonal insanity, but also worries about whether we could really handle four kids, in a small three-bedroom house, with no extended family nearby, and presumably the same amount of patience my husband and I have now, which is not quite enough to make it through each day without wanting to flee the house or hide in the bathroom. I did some math, and if all goes well, I will be dealing with a teenage girl, a toddler, and menopause all at the same time. Lord have mercy.

I sought out a friend with four young children and asked her if she was ok, like, really ok. Kind and thoughtful woman that she is, she consoled and encouraged me and sent me happy bits of news about large families. My favorite was “The Breeders’ Cup,” a Wall Street Journal essay by Bryan Caplan from 2010.

I read this article back then, when I was a mom of two, but it didn’t speak to me. Now it’s like manna from heaven. Basically, Caplan argues that children are a better deal than we’ve come to believe. They don’t contribute less economically now than they used to, they have only a tiny negative effect on your happiness, having them is a decision that almost no one regrets (while many people do regret not having them or not having more), and raising them doesn’t need to be so difficult and stressful as we make it out to be. Here’s the kicker: it turns out that most of our parenting efforts have zero long-term effect on our kids. Zero.

Here’s Caplan:

Parents try to instill healthy habits that last a lifetime. But the two best behavioral genetic studies of life expectancy—one of 6,000 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900, the other of 9,000 Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925—found zero effect of upbringing. Twin studies of height, weight and even teeth reach similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that diet, exercise and tooth-brushing don’t matter—just that parental pressure to eat right, exercise and brush your teeth after meals fails to win children’s hearts and minds.

Parents also strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart….

Parents use many tactics to influence their kids’ schooling and future income. Some we admire: reading to kids, helping them with homework, praising hard work. Others we resent: fancy tutors, legacy admissions, nepotism. According to the research, however, these tactics barely work. Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote studied about 1,200 families that adopted disadvantaged Korean children. The families spanned a broad range; they only needed incomes 25% above the poverty level to be eligible to adopt. Nevertheless, family income and neighborhood income had zero effect on adoptees’ ultimate success in school and work….

Behavioral geneticists also find that the effect of upbringing on morals is quite superficial. Parents have a strong effect on which religion and political party their kids identify with, but little on their adult behavior or outlook.

In 2010, this seemed like bad news. When I had two kids, on really good days I could imagine that I was more or less in control, or at least that with the proper advice I could hope to regain control. Also, when I was working more and spending more time thinking about my work, I tended to bring a career mindset to raising children. I would read the right books, seek advice from wise mentors, do my very best, and progress toward goals. But of course motherhood isn’t a career. It’s a vocation, which means it’s not about me and my goals.

Not that mothers and fathers have no power, or that our sacrifices are worthless. Caplan again: “The most meaningful fruit of parenting… is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you. When 1,400 older Swedish twins were asked to describe their parents, identical twins’ answers were only slightly more similar than fraternal twins’, and twins raised together gave much more similar answers than twins raised apart. If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.”

This is good news. In fact, it’s pretty close to The Good News. It’s basically 1 Corinthians 13:1, the parenting version: If I am a wise, patient, financially secure mom who guides my children patiently through creative craft projects and keeps the house immaculately clean and orderly and always disciplines positively using natural consequences and gives specific praise instead of saying horrifying things like “You are smart,” but our house isn’t a place of love and harmony, then I am just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. In the long term, and not even in the very long term—say, by the time my kids are 25—everything but the love will fade away, but the love will remain always.

Or, from a different angle: You might say the wrong thing, live in the wrong neighborhood, be a poor housekeeper or a bad cook, never do a single craft project, or tell your kids they are smart, but if your home is full of love, you’re doing everything that matters. “Love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4).”

(To be clear: love can’t cover the mortal parenting sin—abuse—because abuse leaves a child incapable of believing that they are loved and lovable. But surely love covers the venial sins of parenting—the raising of voices, the false accusations, the flared tempers, the fast food dinners, the poorly chosen words—along with the limitations we have through no fault of our own.)

All of which means I can relax, accept my children for who they are, and love them, knowing that their future is in God’s hands and theirs, not mine. I can be still and delight in them, and delight in having another one.

Like so much of the Gospel, though, this is easier said than done. Children are hard work, no matter how you look at motherhood or fatherhood. Even if I manage to surrender anxiety about their future and stop trying to mold them in some sort of image, they still drive me to the edge. Dealing with children, especially between the hours of 5pm and 7pm, can be crazy-hard, and adding another to the mix—what are we thinking? I might not look at the socks scattered across the floor or hear the rude demands for help (why must they call me like I am a disobedient dog? “Mom, Mom, MOM!”) and think, “What will become of you if I don’t instill better habits?” but I do think, “I can’t take this! You must stop that NOW.” Anger and frustration remain.

But if I keep my powerless to do anything good and lasting apart from love in mind, maybe fear doesn’t remain. And that’s the important thing, because perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). The opposite is also true: when I am fearful and anxious about my children—who they are, their limits, their habits, their future—my fear temporarily drives out my love for them. My worst anger toward them, the poisonous, uncharitable kind, is always driven by fear and anxiety. There’s a big difference between “I can’t stand it when you do that,” and “What is wrong with you?!” Only the first is compatible with love.

Truth be told, I’m still a little fearful about the fourth child. But love will, over time, drive that fear away. And even if I end up locking myself in the bathroom at 5pm every day? Zero effect on them. Zero.

Just for kicks, I might even tell them they’re smart.

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Shame, Guilt, and Easter


I haven’t written much lately, and I have something to say about that.

Until last year, I didn’t do social media. I didn’t feel any need for it, and I didn’t understand what I would want to share with that many people. Still an academic at heart, I didn’t like to communicate by broadcast—I preferred to choose my words carefully and tailor them to my audience, in part to look smart and avoid embarrassment or shame. But then I started blogging and writing and I needed to broadcast, so I went onto Facebook and Twitter and developed more of a public presence. It has been good to write for more people, but as a result of going public, I have opened my life to insults, personal attacks, and nasty criticism. And I don’t like it.

I thought I had developed a thick skin. When I was a grad student and an assistant professor, I did my share of job talks and delivered my share of papers before skeptical audiences peppered with people hoping to look smart by taking me down a notch. But none of this ever touched me. Actually, I enjoyed the intellectual combat. The difference is, back then I was talking about history. My subjects were all long-dead. Nothing I said could conceivably be mistaken for a personal attack or threaten anyone’s most deeply held beliefs. And, most importantly, these events occurred face-to-face. And so no one attacked me personally. Sometimes they said things like, “I don’t think you are right about that,” but never “You are a liar/idiot/poser.” Now they do, and it turns out my skin isn’t so thick after all.

So if I am going to keep writing about current events, I need to develop a thicker skin. Clearly. More importantly, though, I need to reject shame.

When I am insulted, I feel shame, which isn’t the same thing as guilt. Guilt I know how to deal with. When I get insulted or criticized, I always look to see if I did something wrong. Did I make an uncharitable assumption? Did I stretch the truth? If so, I know what to do. I apologize, I make amends, and I go to confession. And I am healed.

Shame is different. Guilt says, “You did something wrong,” but shame says “There is something wrong with you.” When I get personally insulted online, I feel shame. I worry that I actually am shallow, judgmental, dishonest, or uncharitable. When I feel that way, I lose all desire to write. I think to myself, who am I to write, to have a voice at all? If I stay quiet, I can at least minimize the harm that my sinful self can do.

Shame is a far nastier beast than guilt. In his New York Times column, David Brooks recently argued that we are moving toward a shame culture, one in which moral life is about inclusion and exclusion rather than right or wrong. In a guilt culture, he explains, you know you are good or bad by your conscience, but in a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what others say about you. In Brooks’ words, “In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” A guilt culture allows us to love the sinner while hating the sin, but a shame culture doesn’t differentiate between action and actor. It judges by mocking, dehumanizing, and excluding.

The fact that we are moving toward a shame culture is bad news. But there is good news, good news that I am hereby laying hold of, good news that makes me long to write again and fills me with a holy courage.

In His infinite mercy and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God has given us a way to put guilt behind us. But shame? God doesn’t give us a way to rid ourselves of shame. He simply tells us that we WILL NOT be put to shame. If we have died with Christ and live in Him, then, like Him, we can be spat upon, mocked, harassed, beaten, and derided, but nevertheless, we will not be put to shame. The suffering servant in Isaiah says, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Paul writes that anyone who believes in Christ will not be put to shame.

Shame is an illusion. It’s like being handed a bag of crap as a gift—you do not need to accept it and you shouldn’t accept it. It’s not yours. If you feel shame, then stop and think, is there anything here that points to something I have done wrong? Am I guilty of some sin? And, if so, apologize, make amends, take it to God in the confessional, and accept forgiveness. But shame? It is not for you. It is not yours. It cannot touch you.

Believe in the Resurrection. Our Lord’s shame was an illusion, but his Resurrection is real.

He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia, Alleluia!

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