Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
My reaction to that Bible verse is typically something like: I’ve got to do more today, be more focused, squeeze more out of the too thin margins of time I normally leave for myself. But like a lot of scripture, I kind of get the meaning backwards. I think about things from a natural human perspective, when what I really need is God’s perspective.
For one thing, God mandates rest. He created my body to need it, daily. He commanded that I not work seven days a week. Somehow in those times of rest, times when my brain is used to do other things, I get more done in the other six days.
In one of the social media groups that Key Ministry manages, I recently shared the following quote from Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life Encyclical Letter dated March 22, 1995, speaking of our modern 24/7 world,"The criterion of personal dignity - which demands respect, generosity, and service - is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they 'are,' but for what they have, do and produce.” In other words, the desire for efficiency, even in ministry environments, can easily become a soft version of tyranny of the strong over the weak.
So I think numbering my days correctly isn’t so much about the volume of what I accomplish, but the quality, and the purposefulness of what I do. It’s not merely what I do in ministry that matters, it’s also what I let ministry do to change me. Have I let Christ change me so thoroughly that I see the image of God in every person? Am I willing to spend the time to befriend and minister to a person who just needs someone to listen? Without anyone reminding me, do I actually see the personal dignity of every person?
Individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities can be incredibly effective for the kingdom of God. The ministry poured out in service to such a person is compelling testimony of the high value God places on every life. The indispensable role displayed by such lives, and the great love their families pour out for disabled family members is a testimony to the image of God imprinted on every person. But many people living with physical or intellectual disabilities are quite capable of serving others as well. Such service captures the image of God, in that all people have gifts to give.
Mental illness may seem like the gray-area exception to the idea that God can and does use anyone for His purposes. Consider the persistently negative self-talk that runs through the heads and often comes out of the mouths of the anxious and depressed, the desire for isolation that often accompanies mental illness, the perseveration on personal interests to the exclusion of the interests of others that is common with autism. None of these things nourish friendships. Sadly, in a recent conversation about mental health ministry, a pastor scoffed at the difficulty and purpose of providing special mental-health ministry just for a few people.
But what if my struggle with depression is the thing God uses to draw me close to Him? What if my almost-autistic brain gives me the ability to think deeply and look at sin and circumstance differently, and explain each in a way that resonates powerfully yet uniquely? And what if God allows my mental illness to be a point of contact, that one tangent connecting me and another person? What if my weakness is the key to connecting the dots in my understanding of scripture and God’s love for me?
Oops, I wandered into talking about myself and my relationship with Christ for a second. Please forgive me.
Years ago I read a book as a guest reviewer. Initially I didn’t enjoy what I was reading, a compilation of short stories. But I often find myself thinking of the underlying implications of the stories. One of the most poignant was about a mute, intellectually disabled young man who lived on farm in Germany in the early 1940’s. This young man was given menial jobs, but he had no family, just a kind farmer who had taken him in as a stable helper. The Nazis invaded the nearby village, and several of the villagers traveled to the farm to hide and strategize against the takeover of their land. As the military leader approached the farm, a few of the armed villagers prepared for a gunfight.
Across the farm, a solitary shot rang out from a gun wielded by the disabled man. The commander of the Nazi squadron was felled, a single bullet carving a crater in his forehead. Shots were immediately returned, and the mute farmhand was killed in return. His act of courage, so unexpected and unexplainable in someone who seemingly did not understand the looming war, provided a shock to the advancing German squadron. With their commander so swiftly brought down, the small band of soldiers turned and ran.
What’s the takeaway from this story? Don’t let your assumptions about another person’s value get in the way of God’s purposes. Efficiency is a dangerous idol, and an obstacle we need to remove as a goal for Christian community entirely. In no way do I recommend inefficiency, but I’m suggesting that professional ministry may need to take a different approach when thinking through disability and mental health ministry. The sooner anyone bearing the label of “Christian” backs away from insufferable superiority, the better. God gives, and God takes away for His plans and His purposes.
Catherine Boyle is Mental Health Ministry Director, Blog Editor and Social Media Manager for Key Ministry. Follow Catherine’s work here and at www.catherineboyle.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.