A Dimly Burning Wick

Isaiah 42:1-9


42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:  I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"  But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

 “A Dimly Burning Wick” 

One of the privileges of preaching is that it forces me, no, it offers me the opportunity, to sit with a passage long enough to find something to fall in love with: a word, a phrase, an idea, an image.  Perhaps I don’t notice it the first time I read through the passage, but on the second, third, or tenth reading something reaches up and grabs my attention; it pesters me, popping up here and there throughout the week, whispering in my ear, watching me as I sleep, nibbling around the edges of my consciousness.  And before I know it, that “something” is quietly growing roots in my religious imagination, pushing all other plans for a sermon or preconceived notions I may have had about a passage aside.   The thing that grabbed my attention this week was the image of a “dimly burning wick.”  What I fell in love with was the phrase “…and a dimly burning wick God will not quench…”

Isaiah writes of the servant of God who will come to set things right.  In describing the servant, he is describing God.  “Imagine God,” the prophet Isaiah says, “as the One who tenderly cups Her hands around a guttering flame until it stabilizes and flares up again, burning bright and strong.”  God will not be one who sees a candle about to extinguish itself and snuffs it out.  I suspect this view of God was a shocking reversal for Isaiah’s audience, many of whom had come to view God as wanting to do nothing more than to kick their butts.  Parts of the book of Isaiah were written before and after the Babylonian exile: the defeat of Israel where their temple was destroyed, a kingdom left in ruins and their best and brightest taken away in captivity.  Much of the prophetic message had espoused the notion that their exile to Babylon was their fault: they hadn’t been faithful enough to Yahweh, they had broken the covenant they had with God, they had failed God and each other in every way imaginable.  

The prophets had hammered away at the guilt theme so hard that the people had crossed over from feeling bad about what they had or had not done to feeling bad about who they were.  The people had moved from guilt to shame.  Remember the difference between guilt and shame?  Guilt is feeling badly about something you have done or not done.  Shame is feeling badly about who you are.  Shame doesn’t say “I’ve done something bad,” but “I am bad.”  Shame is that thing that sees the dimly burning wick and seeks to snuff it out.  And to a people mired in shame, feeling horrible about themselves and hopeless about their future, Isaiah now writes a word of hope, which holds up this descriptive image of them as a dimly burning wick, “all but one of their fires out.”[1]  “The servant of God, God’s own Self, will come to you,” Isaiah promises, “A dimly burning wick God will not quench, God will not snuff out that last bit of you.”  This tender image of God tending that little flame is enough to make me fall in love with God all over again.

I know that I talk a lot about shame in my sermons, and once again, I think this passage is about a God who comes to heal us of our deepest, most profound, exile making, life wrecking shame.  Many here have struggled to move beyond a view of God as judging, harsh, rejecting, demanding, in short, a God who keeps us in line by constantly shaming us, reminding us of our profound unworthiness.  Many are kept away from church because when they walk through those doors all they experience is rejection of who they are and all they feel is deep shame. 

I mentioned Brene Brown[2] a few weeks ago in my sermon on joy and I’ve referred before to her TED talks about her work as a shame and vulnerability researcher.  Her first TED talk in front of 500 people went viral when it was put on YouTube.  In that talk she spoke of having a breakdown or “spiritual breakthrough” when her research led her to conclude that vulnerability was the key to courageous living.  She admits that she had a terrible “vulnerability hangover” the day after giving that talk, fearing that once it went up on YouTube that 1 or 2,000 might see it.  She wasn’t prepared for 4 million viewers.  In her second TED talk, Dr. Brown says that the only way we can get to vulnerability is to first deal with shame. 

Shame, “that swampland of the soul,” is the thing, Brown says, that inner critic, that pipes up whenever we step out to do something risky and says: “You are never good enough,” or “who do you think you are?”  Dr. Brown suggests that we are experiencing an epidemic of shame in our culture, and that her research shows that shame is “…highly correlated with violence, aggression, addiction, depression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders.”  She says that if you put shame in a petri dish along with secrecy, silence, and judgment that shame will grow.  But if you put it in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it will not grow.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brown suggests that if we are to live wholeheartedly, embracing vulnerability as a strength rather than rejecting it as a weakness, then we have to learn to tolerate shame.  Now remember, shame is not all bad, if we can’t feel shame about anything then that would make us a sociopath.  But learning how to move beyond toxic shame, that which cripples our capacity to live fully, requires practice in developing shame resilience.   Brown spells out the four elements of shame resilience as first being able to “…physically recognize when you are in the grips of shame and try to figure out what triggered it.”[3]  Then you have to “practice critical awareness,” which is the attempt to respond to the emotional hijacking of your brain by thinking about the messages and expectations that are driving your shame.  The third element of shame resilience is to connect with yourself and others by “owning and sharing your story” and the last element is to “speak shame” by talking about how you feel and what you need when you feel shame.  By developing “shame resilience” we increase our ability to tolerate and move through shame to a place where we can be vulnerable, honest, and live wholeheartedly.  

Brown’s call to wholehearted living looks easier on paper than in reality because acknowledging the power shame has over us means that we have to feel shame’s icky feelings.  Knowing how shame affects us involves noticing how we react when caught up in feelings of shame, and how we defend ourselves against shame by either withdrawing into hiding, silence, and secret keeping, by trying to seek approval and please others, or by being aggressive toward others. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Brown’s suggestions that we change shame’s power over us by talking about our shaming moments, being kind to ourselves when we feel shame, and owning the story of our shame.  So I am becoming more aware of when I am in the grip of shame. 

So here’s one of my “little stories” about a shame experience.  On Christmas morning I was slicing a loaf of my famous cinnamon raisin bread to make a bread pudding to take to my in-laws for Christmas dinner when I accidently sliced across the end of my little finger.  I wrapped it in a paper towel to stop the bleeding; making sure the bread pudding did not become blood pudding.  But the bleeding didn’t stop, and when I took a look, it was a deep, gaping gash.  When it still didn’t stop bleeding after quite a few minutes, I realized I was going to need stitches, so I announced to my family that we were going to have to take a little trip to the Emergency Room.  On Christmas morning.  Suddenly I found myself gushing not just blood, but apologies: “I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I did this, it was so careless of me, I’m so sorry.” “What an idiot,” I said, using a word I won’t let my daughter use.  “How stupid,” using another word I won’t let my daughter use for herself.  I felt like an imbecile, spouting apologies for my very existence, when I suddenly stopped myself and said to my husband: “I am having a shame attack.”  And my sweet husband said: ”I know you are,” and took me in his arms. 

Shame ambushes us when we least expect it, especially when we are feeling vulnerable.  When we are sick, or injured, or at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control, when we are dying, when we take a risk and fail, when we are uncertain about our abilities or our contributions, when we allow ourselves to be seen with all of our faults and failings…shame, that sense of “wrongness” about our very existence, rises up to flood us with the most unpleasant of emotions, and our brain is hijacked and we can’t think clearly or function non-reactively. 

And we shame each other all the time and are not even aware of it.  At the Emergency Room, my finger still bleeding, the nurse asked: “On a scale of 1-10, one being the lowest, what is your level of pain.”  “Maybe an 8,” I said, my voice wavering a little with the drama of it all.  And Nurse Ratchet said: “A 10 is childbirth or the loss of a limb.  So what’s your level of pain?”  “Five, four?” I offered.  There was no place on the admitting form for anyone to note: “Along with a lacerated finger, this patient is also having a shame attack so be careful not to shame her about her pain level.”  Now this story is about a trivial incident, but shame’s power to flood us should not be underestimated nor its insidious nature be ignored.  The poison of shame can destroy lives, families, cultures, and societies.  Unacknowledged shame can kill.

Shame is not just an intra-psychic or interpersonal dynamic, but it also serves to maintain social structures and to fuel all of the “isms” of a culture or society.  We can’t address any of our societies justice issues without encountering some level of shame.  Shame fuels heterosexism, sexism, racism, able-ism, and classism.  I suggest that all you fans of “Downton Abbey” re-watch last week’s episode with this question in the back of your mind: “How does shame serve to reinforce the class structure in that society?”  Once our eyes are opened to the prevalence and the power of shame, we see it everywhere. 

This sermon has been emerging this week alongside my grieving.  Patrick, the organist at a church I often attend where I live, died last week.  Patrick was talented and a brilliant musician and incredibly funny, people adored him.  So everyone was stunned when an email came from the church last Saturday night stating that Patrick had died the night before of alcohol poisoning.  Perhaps we may never know if his death was accidental or intentional.  And I’ve been wondering all week what part, if any, or to what degree, shame may have played in his death.  Growing up gay in a Catholic family who struggled to accept him in Georgia surely left its mark.  His heartbreaking and tragic death calls us to take another look at the power of shame in our lives.  There is so much at stake as far as shame is concerned.  Shame can kill. 

And our faith narrative invites us to temper shame’s power to diminish us by being open to a God who loves and accepts us.  Isaiah’s promise that God will not extinguish the dimly burning wick of our soul by shaming us is a powerful antidote to shame’s power to erode our deepest sense of self.  We see God’s tender and compassionate embrace of humanity so clearly in that moment at Jesus’ baptism when God bathes Jesus in the light of loving acceptance.  Perhaps the miracle of Jesus’ baptism is that he, being also fully human, could actually receive the message that he was beloved child.  Can we hear God’s voice speaking the same message to us through Jesus?  O that we could believe that God looks at each of us and says: “You are my beloved child, I am pleased with you.” 

So we’ve got a lot of work to do, friends.  We have a message to share with the whole world.  God’s unconditional love for us is a message that silences the shame that shrilly tells us that we have no worth.  Choosing to bring our shame into the light of God’s love can be a matter of life or death.    So share this image with the world: when we feel that we are a dimly burning wick, the hand of God will not snuff us out, but will cup a hand of love around us until we can burn brightly once more.  AMEN.

[1] Dylan Thomas.  1952 Recording: Caedmon Audio.  A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

[2] Brene Brown.  Ted Talk: March 16, 2012.  “Listening To Shame.”

[3] Brene Brown.  2012.  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  New York: Gotham Books.

  • Pastor Meg Hess