That’s what my friend, Simara, said during a Lent meditation over Zoom: They nailed love to the cross. They killed love.
I’m used to hearing things like death was nailed to the cross and our sins were nailed to the cross. But love? Simara is a gifted woman who speaks the words of the Holy Spirit. So I’ve learned to listen, especially when those words catch me off guard.
Surely they did nail love to a cross…or more accurately: Love. Because Jesus is love personified. I find it easier to think about nailing sin and death to the cross, than to consider that, in their depravity, people nailed Love to the cross. Because “they” is me and why would I kill Love?
One day, many years ago, I became acutely aware of my personal participation in the crucifixion of Jesus. I was outdoors, kneeling before a large wooden cross at our old church, when God revealed the deep resentment, hatred even, that I feel toward Him. I saw that even though I wasn’t physically at Calvary 2000 years ago, I was guilty of wanting to destroy God. Some call this original sin – a base opposition to the Lord, a desire to be one’s own god. Some call it pride. But maybe it’s more complex than that.
Maybe the death of Love is rooted in our shame and separation from God.
Shame. It’s an awful feeling: a hollow yet lead-heavy sensation in the gut, a stomach full of spoiled milk, a million needles piercing your skin, overwhelming self-loathing, the need to run and disappear, and the rumblings of self-destructive, all-consuming rage.
That’s how it feels to me, anyway. But what is it? Shame is the core belief that there is something inherently wrong with one’s own person. For me, shame sounds like this: I am inherently defective, flawed, less than, unlovable, irredeemable.
I’ve dealt with my shame a lot. In prayer. In therapy. And I’ve come a long way from the days of believing I trespassed my way into existence; so far, that I can now say (and mostly mean) that I am legitimate, I am good, I am enough, I am worthy of love.
One question: WHY AM I STILL SO DAMN ANGRY?
Me, just last week, texting friends: I am filled with unquenchable rage. Friends: Why? Me: 🤷🏻♀️ Menopause?
Yes, I’m kind of young for menopause! That’s beside the point. The point is, rage lurks within me like a fire-breathing dragon, and early-ish menopause seemed a valid explanation. Until a few days later. When God, in His ever so gentle way, pointed out that my rage is actually connected to unresolved issues of shame.
That was exciting; I mean who doesn’t love to revisit shame issues? <<<insert sarcasm here
Of course, when something is disturbing enough, like say unquenchable rage, you find a way.
I suppose it’s no coincidence that last week I came across the article Rage, Shame, and the Death of Loveby David Cloke. Fair warning: after reading it, I felt like someone had turned me inside out, body and soul. It hurt like hell, but the truth often does.
Here are a few highlights:
Shame often begins in infancy when healthy familial attachments are thwarted for one reason or another; or it may begin later in life when a person is exposed to abuse, significant loss, or other trauma.
Shame is excruciatingly painful and therefore ends up buried deep within the unconscious. When something triggers buried shame, a person typically responds by doing whatever is necessary to stop the pain. This can take many forms such as distracting oneself in healthy and unhealthy ways, avoiding shame-inducing people or circumstances, seeking revenge, etc.
Shame often stems from “rejected love” (when one’s love and affection is spurned by another) and leads to a “now despised urge to love” (when one hates one’s own desire to love). In Cloke’s own words this “evokes destructive feelings that attack the very thing that is desired, often precipitating an inevitable death of love.”
Shame is often part of a shame/envy/rage/guilt cycle. For example: A baby experiences some form of abandonment and that excruciating pain is thrust into the unconscious. Later in life, the child sees another person getting what she wants (attention, affection, praise) and feels envious. This triggers unconscious shame, setting off a rage response (according to Cloke anger and rage are different). Some children will be frightened by their rage, which could lead to rejection and further abandonment, and therefore they try to hide it. Other children will act on their rage. Both will likely feel guilt and an increased sense of shame as a result of their choices.
People experiencing the shame/envy/rage/guilt cycle often create a “redemption fantasy” in which they believe certain people or circumstances will magically relieve their shame. I will use myself as an example again. While growing up, I viewed every boy as my potential rescuer; I believed his love had the power to save me from my shame, that his love would somehow make me lovable. Yet I eventually came to despise them all – even the ones who treated me well. My reasons for hating them always included a common thread: I judged them all as weak. Ultimately, this perceived weakness was really about their inability to rescue me.
According to Cloke, shame-based rage may have several intentions including: “magically changing the other person, creating in the other person a shame feeling…as a form of empathy, to penetrate the other in a powerful way, or to seek revenge.” People experiencing shame-based rage may lash out at their offender in various ways ranging from snubbing to slander to murder, and everything in between.
There’s a lot more to the article, but that’s a solid recap. Rather than tell you all the ways this affects me personally, I want to focus on something more universal, something that, I hope, will speak to us all.
I nailed Love to the cross. Not death. Not sin. Love. And pride doesn’t kill love. Shame does.
Shame has been my constant companion since my days in the womb, when I was first called “illegitimate”, when my existence was a burden, and my presence was feared. Life got messier after that; it doesn’t matter how or why. Shame has many fathers. What matters is that shame lives inside me like a sleeping dragon, and when she wakes no one in her path is safe.
I am not alone. According to many mental health experts, including Bill Cloke, Brene Brown, and Daniel Amen, nearly everyone experiences some level of shame, even those who have relatively healthy childhoods. Why is that? Father Thomas Keating, founder of Contemplative Outreach, says that the real root of shame is our perceived separation from God.
Woah. Let’s think about that for a minute: God is our Source, our Father, our Mother. Yet here in the fallen physical realm, we experience separation from our perfect Parent and the Love we so desperately desire. This is no small matter. It has rent the very fabric of the universe, left a gaping chasm in every star and leaf and rock and atom, even to the very depths of our souls. The separation is excruciating. All of creation cries out in pain. We feel cut off from God, abandoned, exposed, naked…and ashamed.
What if shame is the universal lie that blinds and binds? Telling us that we are lost, alone, unlovable, and irredeemable, that our pain is incurable and our rage is unquenchable? Telling us that our only options are to run and hide or to attack and destroy?
What if our opposition to God stems from that shame and our fear that we’ll never be good enough? Adam and Eve hid. The Pharisees judged. Cain lashed out in rage.
What if we hide from, judge, and lash out at God because, as the unattainable object of our deepest desire, He is also the source of our greatest pain?
What if this is why we nailed Love to the cross? Because we came to believe that Love’s destruction was the only way to end our unbearable suffering?
What if we nailed Love to the cross not so much because our hearts are evil but because our hearts are broken?
I nailed Love to the cross. And I have murdered Love in my heart a thousand times since then.
But what if Love still pursues me? What if Love is running after me, not to harm me, but to heal me? What if Love picks me up, spins me around and says, Go ahead. Put your hand in my side. Feel the scars in my hands and feet. Yes, I am still here.?
What if Love sinks Himself deep into my dragon lair of shame, builds a fire, and puts the kettle on for tea?
What if Love says, Do your worst, Nichole. I am here to stay.?
(a paraphrase of Psalms 23, 73, 91, 139 and Zephaniah 3)
Where can I go to get away from You? Where can I run, that You are not already there? If I go up to the heavens, You are there And if I descend to the depths of despair Even to the grave, there You are
You are with me when I am flying high, soaring through life But if I land in an unfamiliar place where no one knows my name or speaks my language, still You are holding on to me
If I grieve and weep and wail with bitterness in my heart If I stand before You like a brute beast, acting without understanding If I throw a tantrum like a spoiled child Or hide under the table trembling in fear If I shut You out like an angry teenager If my body fails me Or my mind becomes weak and I cannot even remember You Nevertheless, You are with me Your right hand will hold me fast
You have shattered glass to rescue me Shaken mountains Torn down walls To get to me To set me free
As the song goes, “You don’t give Yourself in pieces”* So I won’t give myself in pieces either and “You don’t hide Yourself to tease us”* So I won’t hide myself from You
Actually, not even darkness can hide me from You You see through every darkness Even the darkness of my heart Even the darkness that hides in darkness You see the real me
The spark of my soul rests in Your heart Untouched by human hands, my being hides in You
I will rest in You like a baby bird beneath the shadow of her mama’s wings Even in the presence of my enemies You will feed and nourish my soul You will sing to me with joy
We are one You and me Inseparable, free Your love will never let me go
The contemplative spiritual journey is a journey into the unknown. The more I know God the more I realize how much I don’t know about God. This can be frightening and frustrating, or we can allow it to fill us with wonder and awe. The mystics refer to this as The Cloud of Unknowing. We are all called, like Abraham, into this unknown and it is there in this cloud of unknowing that we experience God in pure spiritual faith.
Yet few of us want to step into the unknown. In fact, in my experience, “knowing” is one of the pillars of the western evangelical Christian tradition. We are taught that we can know God, know our destiny, know the Bible, know how to pray, know right from wrong, know God’s will in everything. We know so much there’s no room to wonder, doubt, question or debate.
There I was, a little girl standing before Jesus, with a basket in my arms. My basket of loaves and fishes. Everything I had to offer was in that basket.
As Jesus stretched out his hands for my basket, I hesitated. Dipping my chin, I took one last look at my offering. Suddenly, shame covered my small frame like a wool coat five sizes too big.
I had worked hard to fill that basket. And while I felt the weight of all my attempts to get it right, to do something good, to bring something special, my basket was filled with nothing but moldy crumbs and eyes and scales and bones. It might as well have been empty.
I wanted to run, to disappear, to make excuses – but there’s none of that nonsense when you’re face to face with Jesus. Shaking and uncertain, I looked up at him through tears. What would he say? What would he do? Would he be disappointed? Or angry? Would he yell? Or shake his head and pass me by?
I close my eyes and see my feet on stone, the landscape around me rocky, colorless, empty. Where is my love for You, Lord? I catch a glimpse. So thin, so fragile, this gold-leaf love. Floating away on a zephyr created by my own reaching hands. I cannot grasp it. Cannot feel it. This precious, flimsy love. I’m so hollow, I have become a question.
With eyes still closed, I explore this vision. Words of revelation come to me:
I am standing in the ruins of a faith built on ideas.
A faith built not on God, but on ideas of God.
I thought I knew Him, this God of Jacob. I was not a foolish girl. I had heard He was a God who could not be bought, a lion who would not be tamed. But I didn’t know Him until He dragged me into the wilderness and refused to answer when I called.
He tore down mountain after mountain, rearranging hills and valleys until the landscape was unrecognizable. Both my physical family, after the loss of my brother, and my spiritual family, after a challenging season, were shattered. And the greatest sting was not experiencing God’s absence. The greatest sting was knowing that the all-powerful God of the universe was right there, witnessing everything, and doing nothing to stop it.
I think I understand the disciples better now. How they might have felt as they watched Jesus submit to death on a cross. As they pried His bloody hands from the nails and carried His lifeless body to the tomb. As they laid him there and said good-bye, turned their backs and walked away. And He, their Messiah, their conquering King, Israel’s Salvation and Deliverer, did absolutely nothing to stop it. (Matthew 27:57-60)
They thought they knew Him, this son of David. Thought they’d built their faith on Him. But they’d built their faith on ideas of Him instead.
We, too, can build our faith on ideas of God. Like the disciples, we can fashion scripture into formulas and platitudes that fit our own understanding, if that helps us sleep better at night. Like the disciples, we can lean on teaching that reduces our walk to a step-by-step method for successful living, if that helps us feel more in control.
Or we can persevere like David, wide-eyed, wide-hearted, refusing anything but the true, untamed heart of God. We can hold on fiercely to God like Jacob, wrestling with Him in the midst of our trials, until we get to the good stuff…the real stuff…blessings that change us, alter our journey, even if that means we walk with a limp. We can reject platitudes and shallow teaching like Job, and brave the whirlwind of God’s mighty presence, that we might also say, “
Like the disciples, I carved myself a God of my own design. But now, as the dust settles and rumbling quiets, I see Him and I hear Him saying “Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you.” (Isaiah 54:11)
I am so empty I have become a question. But like the vacant tomb, I am a question of freedom and of hope. A witness to the Truth. And I, like Mary Magdalene battle-worn and broken, run crying in the streets, “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:16-18)
*The above post was written for Wintonbury Church as part of the Stations of the Cross 2019 booklet.
**Digital photographs of original charcoal drawings by Kate Tortland. These two drawings are part of her 14-piece Stations of the Cross collection which depicts Jesus’ journey from the Garden of Gethsemane to His resurrection. The collection is on display each year for Good Friday at Wintonbury Church; and an accompanying booklet with photos of the artwork, scripture, and meditations written by church members is provided for guests.
I’ve seen this quote popping up in my feed a lot lately and I’m not feeling it.
A few years ago, I probably would have adored this quote. But now….not so much.
Here’s why: Much about the way this is worded implies that “she” (a symbolic “she” with which all Christian women are invited to identify) “she” is not lovable, is not worthy of forgiveness, and is not good enough to be a child of God. And people…especially women…often accept that as truth.
There was a time when I would have agreed with this quote and not without good reason. God created us, loves us, and forgives us because of who He is. There is nothing we can do to secure our right to exist, earn His love, or deserve His forgiveness. We are a people who found ourselves separated from God by our sin and without any means to close that distance between us, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Everything we are and have is because of Him. That is true.
Along the way, however, that truth often becomes twisted: ‘I can’t earn God’s love’ becomes ‘I’m unlovable.’ ‘I am a sinner saved by grace’ turns into ‘I’m not good enough.’ ‘I can’t earn love or forgiveness’ becomes ‘I am not worthy of love or forgiveness.’
See how that works? Take the truth, twist it just a little, and you’ve got yourself a powerful lie. Typical, and oh so very destructive. That’s how the enemy rolls.
Over the last several months, God’s been speaking to me a lot on this subject. Here’s what I believe He has to say: You are enough. You are good. You are worthy. You belong here.
One night, while enduring said chorus from a church lobby, a young woman said to me, “What about all those people in there who feel like God has let them down?” I responded with something equivalent to, “Preach it, sister.”
Then, because it was, after all, a worship song, we had to suffer through about 5,763 more rounds of the chorus….which was long enough for me to compose most of this blog post in my head.