Oh how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of everyone!
And they were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Nothing can ruin a good night’s sleep like suddenly remembering that one crushingly embarassing thing you said, five years ago. You can be peacefully drifting off, and that memory can jolt you like an electric fence. Then you’re wide awake for hours, while your brain berates you with all the times that damn you really messed up that time, didn’t you? And that other time? And ooooo I’ll bet you forgot THIS one!
And then if you’re lucky, you’ll finally fall asleep and dream about forgetting to prepare for an important talk, or realizing that you didn’t go to class all semester and now it’s time for the final, or the evergreen classic, being on stage – stark naked, in front of everyone.
Shame doesn’t even leave us alone when we sleep.
Being naked on stage is such a ubiquitous dream because it cuts to the heart of what shame is – being totally seen and exposed, unable to cover up, all our bumps and lumps exposed under harsh light, in the sight of everyone.
So our impulse is to cover up, and run away! If only we could get out of sight of people, we would be protected from shame! We move further and further away from people, because shame feels so bad and “taking refuge” means covering up from everyone’s prying eyes. Some of us do this by not making close friends, or not having many intimate relationships. Some of us do this more subtly, when we bring our performing self instead of our authentic self into relationships. Nouwen calls this “the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things” (In the Name of Jesus, 28). That self is a “safe” self, because it is well covered and not exposed. As long as people are only seeing our performing selves, they will never see us at our worst. Being seen at our worst is the kind of exposure that scares us all.
It seems like the solution to shame is to move further and further away from people. Like the metaphor for Hell in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, our houses move further and further away from each other, keeping up appearances and hiding our worst sides. We perform, we cover up, we move further away, so that we will never be exposed in the sight of everyone.
But this metaphor is a metaphor for Hell for a reason. Our deepest fear is being fully seen, but our deepest desire is also to be fully seen. When we move further away from others, through performance or isolation, we call it “refuge” from shame, but this windowless cell is a terrible refuge that comes at a terrible cost.
Psalm 31 is about shame, and it is about refuge. It’s full of metaphors that make our shame-burdened hearts ache. Oh Lord, I need a refuge. I want to be covered under the shadow of Your wings. I want to have my feet firmly planted on a rock. Oh Lord, where is that place, because that is where I want to be.
We think of refuge as a fortress far away that we can barricade ourselves in. If only we can get away from the prying eyes of others, we can be safe from shame!
Listen to Psalm 31, though.
“Oh how abundant is your goodness…for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!”
Who take refuge in You, in the sight of everyone.
What does it mean to take refuge in God, while still in the sight of everyone?
It means that the refuge of our God isn’t far away from the crowd, but right in the certain of the crowd. It is a refuge inside our own souls, even in the sight of everyone.
Our refuge is a traveling fortress, a moveable feast that sustains us no matter where we are. No matter who is seeing us at our best or at our worst, our lives are hidden in Christ. Our hidden life, our refuge from shame, the secret garden in our souls where we walk and talk with Jesus – that is a refuge that God gives us even in the sight of everyone.
We are accepted in the eyes of our God, and we are Beloved. And this is our refuge.
Right under everyone’s judgy noses, y’all.
Which means we can move closer to people. We can risk being our worst in front of our communities. We can move towards others, because we have first moved deeper into ourselves – into the refuge of the love of Christ. We stop striking out for abandoned way-posts to avoid the shame of being seen and known. We start moving our houses closer together, rubbing up against people and maybe being uncomfortable with what we’re learning about ourselves in the process. We carry our protection every day in our soul, in our knowledge that we are Beloved exactly as we are. We are seen by Christ and loved and affirmed and we will never, ever be rejected by Him.
You might be your worst fears about yourself. You might be just as bad as you’re scared you are. And Christ looks at that version of yourself and will never, ever turn away from you. Ever.
And that is our refuge, in the sight of everyone. That is our courage, in our weakest moments. That is what gives us power to move closer to the Other. That is what protects us from shame, even when we feel vulnerable and exposed. Our fortress right in the middle of the chaos of people’s opinions, and judgments, and affirmations, and adorations, and criticisms, is the refuge of Beloved self that is hidden in the love of Christ.
Freedom from shame isn’t something we can find by escaping other people. It is what we find, in our secret hearts, when we know that no matter what people see, we are loved and Beloved. Amen.