God Calls and Makes His Mark

stig-muh (singular) or stig-mah-tuh (plural)

In general:
In the singular especially, it is a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.

a. a mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease: i.e., the stigma of leprosy (or cancer, or STDs, or many contagious diseases), of homosexuality, of mental illness, of birth defects, ……..whatever is perceived as the antithesis or even marginally differentiated from the majority’s “norm”.
b. place or point on the skin that bleeds during certain mental states, as in hysteria. (or the mental state of extreme devotion to Christ, the condition of being perceived as privileged to bear the mark of Christ himself! This can be viewed as a mark of righteousness and interpreted positively among religious community members, as it is evidence of extremely close identification with the suffering of Christ himself, generally believed to be a gift from God.)

How appropriate that the cultural negative interpretation of “stigma”, which is more often interpreted through the lens of its emotional impact on the individual toward whom the shame of stigma is imputed, is also closely associated with the mystical presentation of what is generally viewed as a blessed physical condition in the eyes of those of devout and mystical faith and implies such a close identity with Christ that one’s own body bears the mark of Christ suffering!

It seems that the difference between positive or negative perception is all in how it is interpreted by the individual and culture as defined by the conditioning of the dominant group(s). Many things that once had the power to induce a sense of shame from bearing a stigma no longer are so culturally conditioned. Under circumstances of healthy self regard and being well grounded in one’s sense of one’s values leads to the expectant hope of being able to achieve one’s goals in life without being persecuted, thwarted, rejected, or isolated by stigma. What if all predominant or residual stigma-generating conditions could be stripped of the negative interpretations (often born of fear or the presumed superiority or advantage granted to the judging group) by achieving greater understanding both by the bearer of the condition and by those who would presume to judge such conditions?

Is that possible? Can Christ work that kind of miracle- transforming a “stigma” in the eyes of people into a “stigmata” that represents a mystical identification with Christ- in the hearts of people? Well, he’s done it more than once in the heart of this woman and I’m inclined to think it is a function of one’s surrender to the heart, mind, and will of Christ and not to any inherent capacity for reasoning through the differences, experiencing the empathic pain of others, or of having the power to break the back of traditions that support the stigma.

May 2, 2016

Part of my call to ministry and passion in gifting is in addressing the social and institutional stigma directed at individuals with mental health diagnoses of depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, unresolved grief immobilization and other life-limiting dysfunctions. I was blessed to have wonderful support and loving community when my world was rocked by depression nearly two decades ago. It has given me a desire to educate, influence, and advocate on behalf of others who find themselves alienated or misunderstood because of temporary, periodic, or chronic mental health challenges. Too often those experiencing mental health challenges encounter suspicion, impatience, avoidance, ridicule or rejection even among those who profess to love God and follow Christ.

Relationship with individuals with mental health diagnoses may require education, empathy, patience, a commitment to persevere alongside them at times, and trust that God is at work even in the midst of distressing times when adaptive coping skills are stressed or medications are being adjusted.. Where better to promote and assure the necessary acceptance and support than within the Body of Christ where the Gospel mandate exists to not only love others as one loves one’s self, but to love even further as God loves- unconditionally- and as Christ loves- sacrificially?

Individuals with mental health challenges can generally succeed in competent employment, participate in healthy relationships, enjoy meaningful worship individually and corporately, serve with purpose, and experience joy in life. They may require understanding support and accommodation from time to time as they adapt to changing physiological or psychological dynamics. \Christian history and the legacy of godly servant leadership in the past, including people like Henry Nouwen and others, have taught and demonstrated by their lives the value of empathically embracing the woundedness of others and leading from a posture of one’s own woundedness.

Even so, there continues to be stigma and prejudice that results in aloof distancing of the church from the opportunity to utilize the giftedness and blessings born of suffering that such people can bring to ministry and community in the church.

Such bias and stigma has no place in Christian community and should be identified and remedied. The right of all people to be valued for the strengths they have and accommodated and complemented through supportive community in their weaknesses is something that I believe Christ honors, teaches, and requires of those who call themselves “Christian” and is especially true for those whom he calls to ministry.

My “passion” is born not only of personal experience of an acute depressive episode with temporary psychotic decompensation, but it is also something that God created in my heart and personality and has allowed to be developed through experience and training to assure that all of God’s children hear the invitation to “Come to me” where they can find rest, healing, and belonging. The disciples themselves attempted to prevent the least among God’s children from coming to Christ- whether they were limited by their youthfulness, their social isolation from “uncleanness”, their sinful past, their gender, their mental status, or other conditions of perceived unworthiness. Christ did not permit it then and he does not endorse or allow it now. If it is allowed in the church, then that church has failed to be the compassionate and loving Body of Christ.

It is my assertion that the call to deacon where God has put me is valid for the purpose created and uniquely qualifies me for the ministry of healing for which I have been privileged to train and in which I have walked now since 1998 in lay ministry and since 2008 in vocational ministry. I shall continue until God tells me to quit.

Furthermore, in keeping with the spirit and not simply the letter of the apostle’s inspiration to establish the servant-focused diaconate in Acts 6:1-6, the instruction to meet the needs of the people is designed to free the elders to continue their particular work, as well. The needs of the community today are greater than ever, to feed the poor, to assist the disadvantaged, to provide healing and palliative care for the sick (physical or psychological), to visit and care for the imprisoned and infirm. Deacons do not seek to supplant but to support the work of others called to different ministry.

It is my expectation, and I believe it is Christ’s expectation, as well, that those called to the ministry of exhortation, teaching, order, sacraments, etc. would support the ministry of deacons fully, heartily, and graciously. I will advocate for the diaconate, whether I participate in it in a formal way or not. Because that is my call and gift.