This was a difficult week. I was told I had to discharge a woman for ‘non-compliance’ with program rules. The actual problem has little to do with non-compliance, and a lot to do with cultural and language barriers. I have cried with and prayed for this woman, who has shared her whole life story with me in a crazy mix of Spanish and English. We have laughed a lot. She loves God and His Word with all of her heart, in spite of her struggles with addiction.
I read an excellent book for an anthropology class a few years ago. It’s called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman. It’s a wonderfully written story about a Hmong refugee family who’s youngest daughter is born an epileptic. The author does a masterful job of telling the experiences this family has with the American medical system, and how the most well-meaning and qualified professionals were frustrated, trying to get the girl’s parents to comply with their recommendations. Like our relationship with God, trust provides the foundation for both life-change and compliance. (Obedience.)
In our desperate attempts to make people follow the rules and fit into our boxes, we sacrifice excellent patient care on the altar of “The Program”. I hate it. I’m an employer’s worst nightmare, because I question and examine everything. I’m not a great counselor, but I am a realistic one. I hate that my diagnosis of you is based on how much you are Not-Like-Me.
I also make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes it’s because I’m tired, and sometimes it’s because I don’t feel I really know what I’m doing, or what is expected of me. Charts, forms, summaries and reports pile up because I never know which box to check. Just because a client hasn’t ‘made progress’ according to the little boxes, doesn’t mean they haven’t made any progress. There are no boxes to check for most of the changes these people are trying so desperately to make.
I was sitting in a staff meeting (I hate staff meetings) a short time after starting this job. While listening to the director and the other counselors discuss and dismiss the people who come to us for help, I suddenly realized that this is how I have been discussed in other people’s staff meetings. And just as suddenly, I was overwhelmed with shame, embarrassment, and fear. While going through the most confusing and terrifying times in my life, professionals and church leaders have dissected my mental and emotional health, my internal motivation for change (“She really must not want help”) my mental stability, and potential for change. Basically, “is she worth our time and effort, and what possible value could someone like her have?”
Years ago, while going through my divorce (a period of time during which I was admittedly unstable emotionally – in my opinion, a sign of mental health, given the circumstances) I was talking to a woman who was known as a prophetess in our church. Because she had prayed for me several times and God had used her in a powerful way to minister to me, I looked up to her and trusted her opinion. While standing at the altar one day after service, she made the following statement: “No matter what everyone else says about you, God told me to never give up on you.” The implication being that she continued to talk with and pray for me in spite of the fact that the leaders in the church had already said there was no hope for me. (Come to think of it, I never did find out what they were hoping for.) Anyway, I learned something that day: prophets and teachers, like everyone else, are both subject to and influenced by what used to be called gossip. I also learned that just because someone has a prophetic gift and anointing, does not mean that everything that comes out of their mouth is a direct word from God. Whether they stand in the office of prophet, pastor, or teacher, they are still human beings, and much of their counsel is filtered through the grid of their own experience and understanding. Where God holds me responsible is to know the difference: to take what is said to me by others, and lay it out before the Lord alone to sift, weigh and measure. And somewhere in that, healing happens. So does growth, and real, long-term life-change.
So what does this mean in practice? It means that unless I read and study the Word for myself, I am subject to the opinions of others. It means that I will be double-minded, confused and unsteady; “driven with the wind and tossed” as James writes in his letter to the early church. What a word-picture, because that’s exactly what it feels like!
So, I’m off to work to finish up notes and summaries. God, help me to remember that these little boxes represent people (“sheep”- who need prayer, protection and guidance.) These statistics and regulations do not take note of death, divorce, grief, suffering, shame, embarrassment and fear. They also don’t take note of strengths, value, progress, and there is absolutely no place to write “Does this person have any eternal hope and value, and what is my God-ordained role in their life?” And please help me to not get fired. Amen.
Okay, the coffee pot is empty. Have a blessed and productive day, people.