Steam & shame: Unexpected gospel lessons in a 200 degree room

“My girls want me to “steam” with them today. AKA how people in the villages traditionally bathe. Together. In a 200-something-degree room. Did I mention: Together. As in: With. Other. People. Can we just talk about the fact that Jesus is pushing on ALL of my insecurities in Alaska?! I didn’t sign up for this. Help.”

While I understand that discussing public bathing may be running the risk of over sharing here, I beg you to stick with me…

You see, I sent that text message to friend back in Colorado last fall on the afternoon I was introduced to the “maqii” (or steam).

One of my sweet Native friends, Yvette, had come to TLC the week before to present for our Native culture night. She spoke to two very different groups within the ten or so of us seated around the table:

To my native students, she explained the intricacies and traditions of her people, the Dena’ina— a people group with incredibly similar customs to my Yup’ik and Aleut students. She told them the legends that her grandmother had told her—legends involving the ‘powers’ of bears and eagles and other wild creatures that are so intertwined with almost every aspect of Native culture. She told stories about growing up in the nearby village of Nondalton, as well as tales of the family legacy she carries on by drying and canning hundreds of salmon every summer and butchering moose in the fall. I sat at the end of the table and watched as the students I was just getting to know shook their heads and smiled their sweet, shy smiles of understanding and agreement as she spoke.

Then to those of us Alaskan newbs, she explained everything from Akutaq (Native “ice cream” consisting of frozen berries, fish, Crisco, and sugar), to what a normal day would look like for someone living in a traditional village. I leaned back in my chair, drinking in everything she said.

nativeculturenight
Yvette with the 2015-2016 TLC students

“Where I come from, and when I was growing up, all of the women and all of the men of a family would bathe with their respective genders, together in a steam bath.”

She paused to laugh at my awkwardness as I nearly fell sideways out of my chair from shock, then embarrassment.

“When I tell non-Natives that, I get really uncomfortable or horrified looks… kinda like the way Kacy’s looking at me.”

All of my students immediately glanced my way and smirked as I turned a shade of red I thought was impossible for Mexicans to turn. Thankfully Yvette let me off the hook and quickly continued on.

“The steam was a place of vulnerability—where the elder women would talk amongst themselves or pass down knowledge to younger girls. There wasn’t a single topic that was shameful or off-limits in the steam; that was how we were raised. But I’ve noticed that something has changed in the generations that have come after mine.

The younger women, they don’t want to steam with the older women any more. They find it more awkward and less of a part of our culture. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that young women have more pressure these days to be or look a certain way… And just like they don’t steam with the older women, the girls don’t talk to the older women the way we used to when we were kids. There’s a disconnect within our people between the generations. There is a segregation because of shame.

Our young women don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. They don’t feel comfortable enough with who they are (or aren’t) to ask the hard questions of life or receive the potentially uncomfortable wisdom of an elder. It makes me sad to see the way shame is stealing our people.”

As I processed Yvette’s words within the “honor-versus-shame” Native culture of TLC, my perspective and definition of shame began to shift. Over time I came to realize that at its core shame is a deep-seeded feeling of not being good enough, a feeling that proceeds to tell us that we are defined by our lack, rather than our bounty and beauty in Christ. A feeling that the enemy uses to steal our identities in Christ and lead us away from the Lord.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we all struggle with feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, thin enough, x-y-z enough everyday.

Some of this shame and our wrestle with “enough-ness” stems directly from lies that we’ve been told by our instantly photoshop-able culture. There’s an influx of subliminal messages about “health” standards (physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise) nearly everywhere we look and the temptation to compare ourselves, then shame ourselves when we fall short of these often unrealistic standards can be all-consuming.

But there’s another type of shame—what many counselors would call “legitimate shame”.

This feeling stems from engaging in activities we know aren’t healthy for us, or don’t fall in line with our morals or beliefs about who God is or who we’ve been created to be, then falling prey to hopelessness when we contrast our imperfections and shortcomings with a perfect God.

We all wrestle with shame (“legitimate” or otherwise) due to our sin and imperfect, fallen decision making and that of others. But, despite what the world or the one trying to destroy us may try to lead us to believe, Yvette’s poignant words have been a constant reminder that to me that as believers we don’t need to sit isolated in either of these types of shame.

Yes, as Romans 3:23 tells us, “we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God” because we’re sinners, but what I constantly need to remind myself is that the Gospel doesn’t end there.

Within our wrestle with sin and shame we have two choices:

1) We can allow our sin, shame, and fears to define and confine us

OR

2) We can trust that Jesus is who He says He is– the loving Savior of the world, sent to reunite us with our Heavenly Father– and trust in the grace He freely offered us on the cross while we were still messy and broken, drowning in the sin that rightfully shamed us. And by accepting, then living in His love, we can allow Him to loosen the bonds of shame that seek to keep us defined by our lack of perfection.

It’s easy (okay, easier) for me to express this a year, some perspective, and several steams after the fact, but as I sat around the TLC table, listening to Yvette speak about the cultural power of the steam bath and the bondage of shame last fall, I bristled internally and thought, There is nooooo wayyyyy I’m ever going to sit in a hot room, physically exposed for an hour, exposing the inmost fears and insecurities of my heart with other women. No. Way. After all, Jesus came so that I wouldn’t have to suffer through hell… and all of that sounds like my personal hell.

So, when my TLC girls asked me to steam with them last November, I’m fairly certain I made the same terrified face I’d made at Native culture night. “Suuuuuuuuure….” I hesitated, using all of my emotional energy to turn my grimace into a semi-excited smile. As my girls went to pack their bags for the steam, I immediately grabbed my phone and fired off the panicked text above to Kitty.

In that moment, the shame and insecurity I felt about my awkward, lanky body and my fearful heart being exposed was fighting to confine me and keep me separated from my girls and my new friend. This illegitimate shame based in insecurity had me sucked so far into my own brain that I couldn’t hear God gently telling me the same thing He’s told me everyday for the nine years I’ve walked with Him:

You are mine. You are loved. You are beautiful. I created you to be uniquely you. You are enough. Do you hear me? You are enough. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I have died for your sins. I have taken on your filth. You are clean. You are pure. You are my beloved bride. You are enough because of who I am.

And that is the truth that I am fighting tooth and nail to keep at the forefront of my mind these days.

Because the truth is we need not be ashamed of exposure and vulnerability– not before God and not before one another– because Christ has seen the depths of our sinful hearts and yet in His infinite love for us He still took on the weight of our sin and died, abolishing the line between us and God that allowed for sin and shame’s power to confine us.

So, brothers and sisters, whatever shame you are fighting today, “legitimate” or otherwise, may you know that in it you are unconditionally loved. May you know in the marrow of your bones that your sin is not what defines you if you have invited Christ to wash you white as snow. 

Your mess is His, and if I may be so bold, your mess can be mine too. You are I are both imperfect and insecure, my dear. We’re in this battle together.

And in that, may we be a generation of Christians who believe so strongly in the redemptive power of Christ that we offer our hearts and minds completely to Him, allowing Him to break the segregation and confines of shame in our lives. May we sit with each other over coffee (or in 200-something degree rooms) and confess our imperfections and insecurities, reveling in the fact that we, the beloved ones of a perfect God, have already been washed clean.

 

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