"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
She sat in my office one afternoon. She shared with me her story. If it was not the most sordid story I had heard, it was certainly sordid enough. She had a past: a difficult and painful past. A past filled with what she had been assured was sin. A past that filled her with shame.
She shared with me that she had, and knew she had, “low self esteem.” In her case this was understatement. “I try to be a good person, but I always hear, ‘But….’” But, it’s not good enough – she’s not good enough.
As I listened to her history I was quite conscious of mine. It was not like hers. I had not suffered anything close to what she had. Still, I was conscious of my history. Where I work, that has a particular importance. I am a chaplain Board Certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC; link in the sidebar). Two of the Standards of APC to which I am responsible are to “identify one’s professional strengths and limitations in the provision of pastoral care;” and “articulate ways in which one’s feelings, attitudes, values, and assumptions affect one’s pastoral care.” To meet those Standards one must have explored one’s own history. More than that, one has to have learned from one’s own history. (I have found over the years that ministers who have not learned from their own pain are at best useless, and at worst harmful.) Indeed, when I was Certified the Standards were more explicit on that very point, referring to understanding how one’s own history affected one’s practice of pastoral care. And so, while my history was not hers, I was aware of my history. And when I told her that I knew something about shame in adolescence leading to self-destructive, self-negating choices, I could do so with integrity.
My own history? Well, let’s just say that nice girls wouldn’t go out with me. When I was in seminary I went to a Christmas party while back home on break. Those present were friends from high school and college. I was approached by a young woman I did not know who asked me, “Are you the real Marshall Scott?” I answered that I was the only one present, and asked why that was important. She said, “I heard that Marshall Scott decided at 14 that he would be a minister, and so decided he would experience every form of sin so that he could understand it.” Friends sprang to my defense. My answer, however, was, “I have not experienced every form of sin. I have experienced a number that I do not recommend.”
I remain conscious of my sins, whether I can “recommend” them or not. I’m not obsessed with them. I have come to some understanding of, appreciation for, grace. I have come to that myself through times of fear and anger and anxiety, long nights in despair, screaming at God, wishing that God was better at conversation. Relevant to this encounter and others like it, I have come to that through times when I leaned heavily on the faith of the Church, the faith of my sibling Christians, because my own was weak. When I could not imagine God’s grace for me, there were those who could, primarily out of their own histories. And when I could not believe, I was sustained knowing they could. And this was an expression of Christ’s love for me: that I should be touched, sustained, by members of his Body, members who knew that he believed, even when we could not.
She sat in my office and told me her story. And a large part of her story was how she had lost faith – indeed, had had it burned out of her, in part by harmful church people, and in part by her own shame. “I don’t know how to pray. I don’t know that God does care – that God can care – for me.”
And I said to her something I have said to others. I said, “I believe that, with all you have experienced, you are a beloved child of God. I also understand that you can’t believe that right now, that with all you have experienced that doesn’t make sense. So, I will not ask you to believe it. But, can you believe that I believe it? Because I do believe it. I want you to hold that, shelve it perhaps in the back of your mind. That way you’ll have it; and when you can’t believe that God loves you, just as you are, you can recall that I do. I believe that God loves you; and when you can’t believe that, then believe in me, and believe that I do.”
Each of us, if we’re honest, if we’re prepared to acknowledge our history and learn from it, will acknowledge times when we don’t believe. In those times, it is not the content of the faith that can carry us. It is the experience of the faith lived, of the love shown, by those who do believe. When we can share our own experiences of grace, our own experiences of the God’s love in the midst of our own shame, we can offer that experience to others. And if that means not simply sharing another’s faith, but carrying it for them, well and good. After all, that is one of the ways in which Christ has loved us.