Local news programs now have a graphic for it with dramatic music at the intro: Crisis in the Commonwealth. It covers stories of two officials who worn blackface several decades ago and a third accused of inappropriate behavior. No matter your position on these allegations and the seriousness with which they should be taken, each has changed the way we look at the person accused. Now, when our current governor passes away, the headline of his obituary most likely will reference something he did at a Friday night party while he was in med school.
A week or two after these stories broke, USAToday published an article chronicling what it had learned by examining more the 800 yearbooks from across the country published during the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. They discovered dozens and dozens of photos we deem today to be racially offensive. They ranged from partiers wearing blackface to an entire fraternity staging a mock lynching. Thankfully such events are not tolerated today, but they do speak of the environment in which we have been shaped, from which God continually beckons us toward the Kingdom.
While we here tonight may not share the same perspective on these events, there is one thing about them linking us together. They give each of us cause for concern – what if that thing I did back in the day comes into the light of day in today’s world? I sleep easy knowing there is nothing hidden in my past that could land me in jail. Nor is there anything in my past that might cause my holy orders to be suspended. But if made public there are a few things that would change the way you look at me: “I can’t believe when our priest was x years old, he _______.”
I suspect there is not a person alive who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in the closet. Some are things we did, but outgrew. Others are mistakes we made and have learned how to live with. Some are behaviors, attitudes, and actions acceptable (or tolerated) back in the day, but today are completely unacceptable. Others might be things never permissible or even thinkable. And for some, the mistakes reside not only in the past, they preside in the present and have the potential to do significant damage to us and to those we love if exposed.
I remember long ago having a conversation about the difference between shame and guilt with the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church. Guilt, he observed, is something a person feels regardless of whether or not anyone else knows what you have done. A child who regrets stealing from a candy store even though no one knows about it may experience guilt and confess to a parent. Or, the child may be perfectly at peace with his actions until a parent walks into his room as he stuffs his face surrounded by empty wrappers. In this scenario, the child feels ashamed only when his actions come to light. Guilt has something to do with how you feel about your actions. Shame has something to do with regretting how you appear to others.
Perhaps you live in fear… fear of being found out. Fear because there is a time bomb ticking in your past and one of these days it is going to explode. Or maybe you are riddled with self-recrimination... how could I have been so stupid? Maybe you believe there is no way you can wipe the slate clean, no way you can remove the stain and pain of your own actions and behaviors.
We gather on Ash Wednesday to remember our mortality… to remember we are but dust. And there is plenty in the liturgy to remind us just how dirty our dust is. The truth is we are the product of a sinful world and we are sinful people and we do more damage than even we realize. This moment invites us to make peace with these truths. It invites us to accept our human frailty: to acknowledge the log in our eyes, the wart on our face, and the skeleton in our closet.
We respond to this invitation not groveling like the Prodigal Son in an attempt to earn our forgiveness and not with trepidation, fearing the consequences of being exposed, but by knowing we are enveloped in a relationship of love. No matter how dirty we are, God embraces us with loving arms.
Someone once said to me, “Keith, you are not defined by the worst things you have ever done.” At the time I was dealing with the consequences of something hurtful I had done, so this comment was tremendously helpful and healing. It didn’t mean I could run away from my actions and the impact they had on others. Mistakes are mistakes. Wrong is wrong. Sin is sin. But it did mean I did not deserve to be thrown onto a garbage heap and banished for the rest of my life. And as damaging as my actions had been, the most significant harm was internal. I really struggled to live with myself and love myself. The thought of what I had done was like an anchor dragging me under. Accepting I am not defined by my worst moments has been like a life-line to which I fiercely cling.
The season of Lent has real value in that it calls us to examine our lives and to repent. However, we can do real damage to ourselves if we engage this process apart from the truth we are loved for who are, as we are or if we believe our worst moments speak most clearly of our lack of value and worth. Only in the light of these truths are we able to stand before God bearing open the darkness in our hearts and in our past. In the light of these truths, we are able to live into our best instincts, to serve as God has called us to serve, and to hope all we do that is good and gracious will be a blessing to this world.
I think about our governor – a person I do not know firsthand. There is absolutely nothing he can do to erase a picture on his yearbook page. Still, my assumption is he has grown in his ability to respect the dignity of every human being. Like all of us, he is guilty of being mortal; of trying to do his best and at times falling short. I will think of him throughout this season of Lent, not as a person who has fallen short, but as a fallen short person who has much to offer – way too much to be defined solely by something from his distant past. I will think of him as being not that much different from me, and not that much different from anyone else here this evening. And I will think of how God sees us as something much better than the worst we have ever done and how God calls each of us to something even better.