Give People Dignity the World Has Taken Away
Before entering the hospital room I pulled the patient’s chart from the nurses’ station, so I knew I was about to enter the room of a 54-years-old male with multiple arm, shoulder, and facial fractures. I had been conditioned by my chaplain supervisor to silently repeat a phrase whenever I held the handle of a hospital room door: “When I enter this room I represent the presence of God.” It was an intimidating and ill-fitting role for a 26-year-old, like wearing someone else’s suit—someone with more gray hair and gravitas.
I entered and introduced myself as the chaplain. Bill was immobilized, his arm and shoulder in a cast and his face badly bruised and swollen. He gently turned his head to look at me.
“I can’t talk very well,” he said through clenched teeth. “They’ve wired my jaw shut.”
“I understand you took a nasty fall yesterday. What happened?”
“I don’t remember,” Bill said. “I was drunk.” His speech was difficult to understand, so I drew my chair closer to his head.
“You’re young,” he said. He suspected I was wearing someone else’s suit, too.
“I’m a seminary student,” I said. Bill looked away, his eyes wet. I assumed his pain meds were wearing off.
“You’re here to talk about God?”
“If you’d like to,” I said, “or we can talk about whatever’s on your mind.”
“I used to talk to people about God,” Bill said. “I’m a pastor.” I tried to hide my surprise.
He was now crying steadily. I moved the tissue box closer to his mobile arm.
“When I was your age I never thought I would end up here—like this. I’ve lost everything. Everything. My ministry, my marriage, my kids.”
Through tears and clenched teeth, Bill confessed his sins and his alcoholism. Despite my training and experience with hundreds of patients, including any number of alcoholics, I was lost for words.
“Take a good look at me,” Bill said. “Don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t end up like me.” With almost no prompting, he began to share at length about his life and his struggles, laced with warnings and advice for the green seminarian at his bedside. Maybe he opened up to me because I had never known Pastor Bill the strong Christian leader. I only saw Alcoholic Bill the broken hospital patient. Unlike his congregation or family, I could only assume what his life used to be, and maybe in his mind that made me safer and my unspoken judgments slightly more tolerable.
“Are you married?” he asked. “Yes,” I said.
“There’s nothing more important than your family,” he said. “The church is not more important.” He talked about his experience as a pastor, the stresses he faced, the pressures of running a church, and the solace he sought in alcohol. As I listened to Bill’s advice I felt that he wasn’t really talking to me but to a younger version of himself. He looked at me and saw his past. I looked at him and wondered, AmI looking at my future?
How many times had he stood authoritatively before a congregation to lead them in worship? Now he lay helpless in a hospital bed of his own making. How many people had looked up to him with respect and admiration? Now he was looked down upon with pity or contempt. How many divine truths had he boldly preached from the pulpit? Now his mouth was wired shut with only confessions leaking out in muddled whispers.
Over our hour together, I saw that Bill’s bones were broken by more than a fall, and his life was fractured by more than alcoholism. There were deeper forces tearing on him, and they weren’t finished yet. His story was filled with self-loathing and shame. He was deeply embarrassed. He saw the sum of his life as nothing more than a warning sign, a tragic morality tale to keep other ministers on the straight path. All of it pointed to an invisible wound no orthopedic surgeon could mend. Bill had lost his dignity.
This sinful world inflicts a lot of damage, but its most insidious evil is to rob us of our dignity. Every other attack is won outside a person. It can throw hatred, injustice, poverty, or physical pain at us, and the strong may endure these trials without losing their sense of worth. But if the world can convince people they are worthless, that they are undeserving of love, then no amount of external wellbeing will repair what has been stolen from them.
That’s what I sensed in Bill. He saw himself as worthless, a failure, and utterly deserving of his pathetic circumstances. He certainly was not the first, nor the last, patient I met with a shattered sense of dignity, but what made him particularly tragic was his decades within the church—the very place where broken souls ought to find rehabilitation. And even worse, Bill was a leader within the church. How could a man with access to so much theology, so much Scripture and sacrament, and so many helpful resources not have found restoration?
When Bill finally finished talking it felt like it was my turn to speak, to offer advice, to minister. I stayed silent. I could feel myself shrinking even more within my borrowed chaplain suit. Looking for an escape from the room and the awkwardness, I spoke timidly.
“Thank you for sharing so honestly,” I said. “I appreciate your advice.”
Bill looked away as I rose and moved for the door. Like everyone else in Bill’s life, I knew I’d be more comfortable once I didn’t have to look at him anymore, once he was invisible again. It wasn’t until I grabbed the door handle to exit that I remembered my calling. “In this room you represent the presence of God.” I was not there to represent the chaplaincy office of the hospital. I was not there to represent a young seminary student named Skye. I was there to incarnate the presence of God, if only for a few minutes, to an utterly broken man who had lost his dignity.
I looked back at Bill and was reminded of Peter’s encounter with the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate. “I have no silver or gold,” the apostle said, “but what I do have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). I had no advice or wisdom for Bill, but I did have the presence of Jesus. I could give him that. I returned to my chair by his bed.
“Bill, I don’t know how to help you,” I said, “but I’d like to stay here if that’s okay.” He took my hand tightly in his and began to weep. So did I. I don’t know how long we cried, but our weeping was a liturgy without words. The tears were a silent sacrament containing confession and absolution, condemnation and compassion, burial and resurrection. I knew Bill wasn’t clinging to me—he was clinging to God, just as I wasn’t merely crying over Bill’s sin—I was mourning my own. The moment was utterly human and yet mysteriously divine. It was ministry.
Our calling as pastors is to rehabilitate, to give people back the dignity the world has taken away. That happens when we carry the presence of God into every room we enter and into every life we encounter, and there announce the good news that they are created in the image of God and are inherently worthy of love, and that God has revealed the extent of his love for them through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
To be a pastor is to freely give what we possess, which is nothing the world values and yet is the most valuable thing in all the world. The world values what is useful, but all we have is Jesus. To be a pastor is to say, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give to you.”
Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained pastor living in Wheaton, Illinois. This article is adapted with permission from Immeasurable: Reflections onthe Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Moody, 2017).