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Dave Brisbin

Saved from Shame

Thirty-some years ago, I was at retreat with a group that booked the same weekend every year. I’d just go, get a room, and participate in whatever was going on. Or not. This weekend was a large group of older men, and the retreat director, a Chinese-American Franciscan priest, was leading the session. I mention Chinese, not because he was first generation or could write beautiful Chinese script, but because he stood squarely between East and West in his approach to life and faith in a way that changed everything.

He was increasingly frustrated with this crusty old group, finally asking why they thought Jesus came to us humans. Hands went up and answers came right out of the Baltimore catechism: he came to die for our sins. The director let out a near wail of a no…clapping his big hands over his shaved head as if to hold it together. What kind of father sends his son to die? He sent him to live, to show us perfect love. He then said something like, if you are going to come here year after year and never change—next year, just stay home.

It took years for the full significance of that exchange to sink in.

About the same time, another priest introduced me to Brennan Manning’s new book, The Ragamuffin Gospel. Here was another Franciscan, now lapsed and married, a struggling alcoholic writing about grace and love in a way I’d never heard or experienced. Brennan was open about the shame he collected as an abused child, his drinking, failings, inconsistencies, and yet he never ceased to see himself as God’s beloved.

All these years later, if I were to raise my hand, I’d say,
Jesus didn’t come to save us from our sins.
He came to save us from our shame.

Saving from sins is legal, a transaction that leaves us unchanged. Saving from shame is relational, the experience of a love we can never lose. It’s a longer way home, but to lose shame is to lose the fear of disconnection that makes all our sinful behavior necessary. Only unlosable love overcomes fear. To know we’re beloved not because we’re lovable, but because we keep showing up to Unlosable Love is all the salvation we’ll ever get. Or need.


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