For decades, I have warned people about the dangers of interpreting Scripture through the lens of our experience. Though experience is a powerful teacher, it is not always a reliable one. It is far better, I have argued, to read our experience through the lens of Scripture. After all, experience, too, must be interpreted, and what better guide for interpreting our experiences than the unchanging message of God.
Recent events, however, have given me a new appreciation for how difficult it is to do what I have suggested. When we experience trauma, it almost invariably impacts how we view the world. True enough, it sometimes confirms what we have always believed (for good or for ill), but sometimes it turns our mental frameworks upside-down. The explanations which once soothed our anxious hearts no longer seem sufficient to address the pain and uncertainty we now confront, and we wonder if everything about our lives up to this point has been a lie.
I am walking through a season a little bit like the one I have just described right now. As many of you already know, my wife has been diagnosed with cancer, and her diagnosis has forced me to confront some questions I should have addressed long ago. Admittedly, my vision (no pun intended) is clouded by fear, and I have been warned in prayer not to make bold pronouncements when I am in such a state. Still, I am thinking about life and ministry a lot lately, and I cannot help but think I have gained some new—and needed—perspective.
One of the questions I have been wrestling with has to do with the meaning of dignity. More specifically, what is required for a person to live a life of dignity? Of course, this is a question which haunts much of our public discourse about end-of-life decisions, but it isn’t just a question for the dying. It is a question for those of us who are left behind.
Some would define dignity, perhaps, in terms of a person’s ability to obtain the things they need in order to survive (food, clothing, medical care, etc.). Others, following the lead of both Scripture and psychology, would point to the ability to do meaningful work as a sign of dignity. Both of these answers have their merits, and so they need to be part of any discussion of what it means to live a dignified life.
But my mind has been drawn to another way of thinking about dignity. It seems to me part of living a dignified life is having a place of worth within one’s community. It is being thought of by other people as an indispensable part of the group. It is having a role to play which no one else can play, and it is being valued for that role.
As those of you who read my blog “Diminished” from a few years ago already know, the sense of being dependent upon others can erode one’s sense of dignity, but I think what I am arguing is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Someone can be dependent upon the group (or individuals therein) and still be considered a treasured member of the community.
With these reflections on dignity in mind, I have also been thinking a lot about how we as Americans do church. More specifically, I have been thinking a lot about what we mean when we talk about ministry.
I remember being in seminary and hearing someone talk about the typical Wednesday night prayer meeting. This person, not entirely wrongly, described these meetings as “gripe sessions” for everyone with some kind of ailment, and he observed, “It is no wonder younger members don’t come.”
I understand what the speaker was driving at; I have sat through more of those recitations of the community’s medical needs than I can remember. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder if such sentiments are really just a way to avoid the suffering that is the lot of most people, especially as they age. Rather than dispelling the illusion of eternal youth, some of our churches seem to be intentionally designed to perpetuate that myth. And as we ignore the suffering, the disabled, the poor, and the disenfranchised in our midst, we do our part to deny them the dignity of having a place to call their own in our faith communities.
That is not what Jesus did. Think about the healing of the demon-possessed man in Mark 5:1-20 (and its parallels). Jesus did not simply set the man free from demonic oppression and put the shattered pieces of his mind together. He also gave him the tools to be reintegrated into society. He even gave him a job to do.
I still believe worship is central to our identity as churches. I still think our mission revolves around making disciples for Jesus. But I wonder how our rituals, practices, programs, and culture would be different if we took it upon ourselves to make sure everyone had a place in our congregations? How would we evaluate ourselves and our churches differently if we understood the command to love our neighbor as a call to promote her or his dignity? How could we be a light in an increasingly frustrated and fragmented culture if we turned our eyes away from the glamourous life we all wish we could have and focused our attention on the suffering which is the lot of so many?
Lots of Fear, Not Many Answers
I do not have a lot of answers to the questions I have posed. With all the fear coursing through my veins, I’m not sure any answers I came up with would have much coherence, anyway. But I think it is worthwhile to put the questions on the table. Doing so is part of my own journey of repentance—a journey away from self-promotion and self-preservation and towards genuine care for others. But it is also part of my ongoing attempt to understand where we are in American Christianity and where we need to go if we are going to be all that Christ has called us to be. Hopefully, I can play some small role in making the church a safer and more hospitable place for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the blind, the lame, and anyone else who needs a home and a family to call their own.