A few months ago I saw a bizarre sight as I drove through the suburbs of a nearby town. A woman was walking down the sidewalk, wearing an oversized t-shirt with a hand-scrawled message across the back: "I made my boyfriend eat food with spit in it."
I surmised that either she had spit in her boyfriend's food on purpose, or for some reason or another, it was an accident. Either way, gauging from the outcome, he seemed to be the kind of person who maybe deserved it.
I pulled over to ask if she needed help or a ride. I could see the color in her cheeks rise as she shot a sarcastic reply at me. I could hardly blame her. I could tell she was a fighter, a survivor, and that her boyfriend was not her sole opponent. Shame was.
As I drove away, she flipped me the bird, which felt less like an insult to me than the only thing she could do to fend off her feelings of shame. My stopping to converse with her, although well-intentioned, had only served to make her more defensive because it meant someone else had actually seen her in her shame.
Though this is an extreme example, I know a bit of what she feels like. I've been half-joking that I've sometimes felt like I have a giant "S" emblazoned on my chest, but it doesn't stand for "Super", but "Split"...as in "Church Split".
Tart comments on social media, friends holding me at arm's length, people's inability to maintain normal eye contact in conversation as unspoken questions (and spoken judgments) dangle in the air--all these have served to paint an invisible, but conspicuous, scarlet letter across my front. Sometimes I feel the color rise in my cheeks along with the defensiveness in my spirit, and although I have not yet given anyone the national sign of displeasure, at times I feel a connection with that woman on the side of the road.
I have been on the other side. I have had friends leave a church, only to watch a flock follow them, and although we remained friends, in my heart I judged them--just a teeny tiny bit. I realize now that I judged them because I did not understand their decision. But now I do and I have vowed to never judge anyone who I do not understand again--not even just a teeny tiny bit. There's nothing like walking a mile or two in someone else's shoes to help you take that log out of your eye.
More importantly, I have come to terms with shame. It finally occurred to me that I, not the judgment of others, was giving shame all the power it needed. I learned to acknowledge my state and actions without apology, not because I did not think I needed to apologize, but because I remembered who I truly am.
I am not a victim, in need of sheltered coddling from the truth. The truth is I am a sinner, broken and imperfect, but completely paid for with the blood of One who is completely perfect. Jesus became my shame and hung on the cross and died so that, with him, it would die too. Do I wish things had turned out differently? Absolutely. But because they did not, I have the opportunity to live out the glorious reality of God's redemption.
So I no longer wear my "S" in shame, because I know that the label God puts on me is not "Split", but "Saved" and "Sanctified". I will no longer allow Satan to play the shame game with me, because Jesus went to far too much "trouble" to free me from those stupid, soul-ravaging lies. My broken and imperfect faith community is a "church split". And I love this community and look forward to the day when people will forget to add on the second word of that phrase because then it will mean that forgiveness has come.
For now, it is enough for me that Jesus has.