I have decided to publish letters between myself and a parishioner of a congregation I pastored many years ago. When they were written, I was a young pastor with all my road before me. The congregation was bursting with young families and a host of kids. Those children are grown and gone. I’m gone from that church too. The woman who wrote them – I will call her Melanie – passed away years ago. Her widower gave me permission to share her letters.
In her letters, Melanie expressed struggles many people have but cannot name. They challenged and pressed my faith. Writing helped me think through the relevance of the good news – what we preachers call “the gospel” – of Jesus. I hope my letters helped her. I was young and confident and overflowed with counsel. I didn’t have the wisdom that life’s sadnesses and sufferings teach. Still, I did my best to share the real-world value of the gospel that I treasured then and still rejoice in now; that I knew then intellectually, but now know existentially; that I intensely believed then, and believe just as intensely but, I hope, more kindly. I have not edited her letters or mine. I can dare to be exposed because my shame is covered by the grace of my Savior. She see Him face to face in glory. I’m sure she does not care.
I also share them – if I’m honest – because I feel the incoming tide of inevitable death rising. Or to use the metaphor of the puritan preachers, I’m wading in the Jordan river. I can see the fair shore and sparkling lights of the heavenly city beckoning. Sometimes I think I can even faintly hear heaven’s songs. My hair is white. I feel my age. Where once I ran the race of ministry, now I plod. Maybe I publish these letters so that my heart will be engraved in ink; so that I won’t be forgotten, so that my memory will not be washed away, vain pastor that I am.
“Heavenly Father, you know the motivations of my heart. Yet you love me. Forgive that old sin of mine, my lust for glory. Use these letters to humble me. I offer them for the good of others and for your glory. I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ my Savior, Amen.
Melanie first wrote me during a sermon series I preached on the book of Hebrews. I started that series in Advent of 2008. For many years I had wanted to preach from Hebrews. In a conversation with a pastoral colleague named Dan something clicked. I saw the relevance of Hebrews for my people.
Dan had been a successful pastor at a church in Cincinnati, Ohio for seven years. Then he had been called to go the mission field. He told me about the litany of trials being a missionary had been: moving in with in-laws to save money; grieving the loss of their earthly possessions and the memories they represented; being displaced as pastor from the church they loved; learning a new job and not seeing much success at it; experiencing a degree of poverty; their kids having a difficult time adjusting; his own faith being assaulted like never before; the tremendous strain all of this put on their marriage; and the struggle of raising support as a missionary. One or two of these trials would have been difficult by themselves. But what happened to Dan is that they came at him all at once. His life began to fall apart.
Dan shared how he had been a Christian for twenty-two years and had never seriously considered leaving the faith until then. He had been married almost twenty-one years and had never felt such a terrible strain on their relationship. Dan explained that the gospel as he understood it just wasn’t working for him. It wasn’t helping him. It wasn’t healing him. Up to that point, Dan’s grasp of the gospel was limited. He understood it solely in terms of sin and guilt, forgiveness and justification: that Jesus’ blood cleanses our sin and washes away our guilt; that Jesus removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west; that Jesus takes our guilty record and dies in our place and gives us his perfect record so that stand holy and blameless before God.
Dan had preached the amazing truth of Jesus’ forgiveness every week. As a good presbyterian pastor he proclaimed to his congregation, “my sins for Christ’s righteousness! There is no hope for me or for you apart from this!” He taught that Christians that they were righteous not because of their good works but because of Jesus’ work on their behalf. That through faith in him, Christians were justified, declared righteous before God, based on the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to them. But in spite of all the preaching and teaching of justification by grace through faith, when this time of trial and difficulty came Dan unraveled.
Dan told me that he had had a conversation with a missionary friend that revolutionized his understanding of the gospel and revived his own spiritual life. Dan’s friend, who had served for over thirty years as a missionary to Muslims, shared with Dan that every culture and every person is motivated by one of three things. They see the world and perceive themselves and relate to others in one of three ways.
First, there is the cultural motivator of guilt/righteousness. A transcendent moral law, doing right and avoiding wrong based on that law, and a guilty or righteous conscience, has been the motivating force in the west for over a millennium. But as Christian consciousness wanes, less people are motivated by it. Fewer people will be able to hear the gospel if we present it exclusively in terms of guilt and righteousness. A second cultural and personal motivator is fear/power. This is to be motivated to do something because you are afraid of the consequences of doing otherwise. You fear the people in power. The fear power dynamic is prevalent in tribal societies and it is becoming pervasive in the west. A third cultural and personal motivation is shame/honor. Asian cultures are known as shame and honor-based cultures. In such cultures you don’t want to lose face or damage the family’s honor. Today’s “cancel culture” is another example of a shame/honor approach.
Dan’s missionary friend pointed out that as America becomes post-Christian, people won’t hear the gospel unless we bring it to bear on all three cultural and personal motivators. He said that the dominant culture in America is moving toward shame-honor.
As his friend talked, the Holy Spirit opened Dan’s eyes to see his own heart. He saw that at the deepest level he wasn’t motivated by guilt and righteousness, but rather by shame and honor. He saw that part of his shame was the feeling that people remembered things about him. They knew his deep, dark secrets – the sins, behaviors, compulsions, attitudes, values, and behaviors that he hated in himself and he hated himself for and that he hoped and wished that nobody would ever know. He felt shame.
Dan saw that he had totally missed how the gospel deals with shame. He had pronounced the forgiveness of sins from behind the pulpit of the church every Lord’s Day for seven years, but often it didn’t make much difference in his relationship with God. Often, he felt nothing but bondage, alienation, and isolation. As a pastor, he tried to avoid shame by doing things that he was gifted in and competent at so that he would be successful and so that people wouldn’t be able to say that “he didn’t measure up.” But in the tasks required to go to the mission field, he was not gifted in or competent at.
Dan’s fear of shame had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fundraising took them much longer and was much less fruitful than they had anticipated. Moving to a new church where they had no standing and had to take all of the initiative to build relationships left them feeling alone. When their mission agency moved them from the mission field they had originally planned to serve in to another, this left them temporarily without a place to minister. To make matters worse, during this time Dan had struggled to lead his family in worship and to nurture his marriage. This made him feel like even more of a failure. By God’s grace Dan saw he was covered in shame. The feeling that all of his troubles and failure brought was shame not guilt!
Shame is different than guilt. You feel guilt when you have done something wrong. Shame is the feeling that you are wrong. It’s not about a specific wrongdoing. It is a general, negative feeling of being wrong. It’s a sense worthlessness, inferiority, of lacking value, of being a failure in the eyes of others. Shame is negativity that sucks joy and life right out of you.
Dan had been a Christian for twenty-two years. He was appointed to be a movement leader on the mission field of an area almost the size and population of the United States! But he had been ready to throw in the towel. The gospel hadn’t seemed like good news to him because he hadn’t brought it to bear on his overwhelming feelings of shame. But now he had begun to apply the grace of Christ to his shame. I noted a joy and freedom in Dan, a new attitude and confidence that hadn’t been there before.
Then Dan said something that “clicked” and compelled me to preach Hebrews. He said that he had discovered the epistle of Hebrews addresses shame. The cultures of the ancient world, and, in particular, Jewish culture, was a shame-honor culture. Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were experiencing shame. As followers of Jesus, they no longer offered sacrifices at the temple. Now it seemed on the outside as if they might have made a mistake. The “real church” was the temple with its ancient and venerated the priesthood, the daily and annual sacrifices, the ceremonies and tradition, the “smells and bells,” the magnificent architecture of the temple itself. It looked as if the Christian church was a small, clannish, insignificant group devoid of buildings, priesthood, sacrifices, ceremonies. Besides this, some of their members were actually being persecuted – losing possessions and losing face – because of their faith in Christ. There was even the potential of a shameful death as a Christ follower. For these Jewish Christians, it seemed as if the temple might be the answer to their shame. They were seriously thinking of apostasizing.
The author of Hebrews insists that it is only Jesus who is able to cover our shame. He is God’s ancient and final Word much more holy and revered than even the temple. He is much superior to priests and the sacrifices. They are only shadows. He is the substance. Jesus makes it possible to go into the holy of holies, which was never possible in the old ceremonial system. Christians could have confidence, that is, be unashamed in God’s presence, because they were cleansed by the perfect sacrifice of Christ. He warned that to turn away from Christ is to be left in your shame.
Now I knew why I had to preach Hebrews! Shame and honor are motivators of my heart and I knew that shame was a pervasive and powerful, even if unconscious, motivating dynamic in my people’s hearts. I also knew that shame and honor were dominant motivators for my friends and neighbors who were not Christians. I began to study Hebrews. The letter came alive to me in a new way. It spoke to me with a new force.
After my first sermon on Hebrews – a general introduction to Hebrews – Melanie wrote her first letter. I wrote back. Each week followed this pattern. A sermon. A letter from Melanie. A letter back to her from me. At first, I saw myself as her pastor and shepherd. But over time, Melanie’s letters drew me out and forced me to look into scary places, the shame in my own heart. In a mysterious way, Melanie became a pastor to me.
My prayer is that these letters written so long ago would help those who read them track down shame in their own heart and apply to their shame the shame-covering grace and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, for whose honor I write.
Reverend Jason Dorsey, November 8, 2021
Author’s Note: I first drafted these letters between myself and an imagined congregant (Melanie) in 2008. I am putting them into final form now.