If you have ever been to the deli counter of a grocery store or visited your local D.M.V. (Department of Motor Vehicles), you have – no doubt – had to take a ticket with a number on it. This number is used to determine who is “next” in line. The longer the line, the more important the number is to the holder. Nobody likes to wait in a line, particularly a long one. However, having a number and being treated like one are two different experiences.
Last year, I entered the doors of a local establishment and was given a number. In fact, to this day – I still remember it.
For me, this number was not merely a number. In fact, for three months of my life – it became my identity. Not only was I identified by a number but it is safe to say I was treated like one. Being treated like a number tends to be the experience of anyone who finds themselves incarcerated.
I have been called a lot of things in my life even respectable titles like “Dad,” or “Coach,” or “Christian.” One title I never thought I’d have attributed to me was that of “inmate.” One minute, I’m in a court room trying to plead my case to a family court judge. The next minute I am handcuffed and in custody. I may be guilty of a lot of things but no one will ever find me guilty of living a dull life.
Throughout the difficulties of life there are many among us who have found themselves associated with a title they never desired or expected:
- Cancer patient
Each title listed above automatically grants admission into a group one never wants to be a part of. No little boy wants to be an inmate when he grows up. No one at the marriage altar looks forward to the day they can serve divorce papers to their spouse. No child, at any age, is prepared for living life without a parent. The soldier who marches patriotically into enemy territory does not expect to come home without a leg. It is safe to say that nobody wants to be a member of any of these painful groups.
But then life happens.
Unplanned tragedies. Poor choices. Moral failures. Unwanted situations. Experimenting turned into addiction. Smoking turned into cancer. Diving into the lake turned into paralysis. Friendship turned into an affair. Suddenly, we all find ourselves in a group we never want to be involved with, whether we are the perpetrator, the victim or the innocent families of either.
Years ago, a close friend of mine had been diagnosed with cancer. After chemotherapy, radiation, dietary changes and prayer, she eventually found herself in the fortunate category of survivor and was invited to join a local support group. This group was unique and had two prerequisites for entry:
- You had to have cancer in your past medical history.
- It had to be completely removed or in remission. In other words, you had to be given “tabula rasa” – a clean slate.
Like it or not, we are all part of a group – even if it’s not one you want to be in. In fact, you are not alone. The biblical characters that came before you had membership in their own painful groups. Consider…
- Because of the sin of Cain, he and his family became “restless wanderers.” There are many out there today who relate to the feelings of excommunication because of their past behavior.
- Abraham & Sarah were in the “Parenting 101” group. Though they longed to be parents, they did not expect it to begin at age 100. Had it been up to them, the parenting group they wanted to join would have started 25 years before this one.
- Mary was in the unplanned pregnancy group, a scandalous membership – especially for her in the day and age she lived in.
- King David was a member (if not the President) of a number of terrible groups; adulterers anonymous, murderers-R-Us & the absentee dad group.
- Countless women (Michal, Anna, Hannah, etc.) knew the shame of barrenness and no woman of child-bearing age in that culture wanted to be in that group.
- Mephibosheth understood the difficulty of being in a handicapped group, especially in a world that did not have such convenient inventions like crutches, wheelchairs or walkers.
- Joseph, Peter and Paul (to name a few) understood the stigma of having a record, even if their crimes were not considered heinous.
- The woman at the well (John 4) knew her membership was secure in the immoral group she was in. Sadly, so did the rest of the village.
What group are you in? Are you there because of your selfishness or from the selfishness of others? How have you viewed your membership? If you’re like most people, you complain about the group God assigned you. Humanly speaking, it makes sense. Who really WANTS to be in a group known for losing a spouse? Who would choose to be a part of a group that’s missing a limb or handicapped in some way? Can anyone really be proud that they’re part of an anonymous group whether it be for alcohol, gambling or sex? The adjective “anonymous” reveals our shame. Most of us, if we are honest, want to be a part of the young, healthy, wealthy, no-regret groups and sadly those groups are small in number and few and far between – if they even exist at all. For the rest of us, we are part of a group that is difficult to admit to and even harder to attend.
My friend with cancer told me something interesting, months after being part of the cancer survivor support group. “Rod,” she said, “before cancer, I would not have been invited to join a group like this, but now that I have had it and survived, I’m able to encourage others who are afflicted in a way I never could have before.” Her cancer, she realized, was not just about her. She wasn’t in this group as a victim of a Divine punishment or as a result of a bad habit but rather as a representative of love and encouragement for those similarly impacted who desperately needed some help and hope from someone who truly understood their plight.
A few weeks ago I had an appointment in a local cafe with one of the waitresses. She had contacted my company looking for some health insurance and it was my job to meet with her and determine her eligibility. Before I could provide her with a quote, I had to ask a few personal questions. These basic questions, unexpectedly, began to peel back an onion of pain in her life. She was hesitant. She seemed uncomfortable. There was clearly something in her past that she did not want me to know. Instinctively, I knew what it was. A few more questions later and she finally felt comfortable to reveal her “group” – she had been incarcerated and that experience put her in a position that has made it very difficult to get back on her feet. As we met, there seemed to be a great chasm between our two worlds. She was a struggling waitress barely able to make ends meet. I appeared to be successful insurance salesman dressed in my professional business attire. Little did she know that a year ago I too was incarcerated. Little did she know that I too had come out of jail – virtually homeless. Little did she know that I understand what it is like to rebuild a life, wrestle with the stigma of being in jail and struggle on a core level emotionally, relationally and financially because of the life-changing experience. As the conversation continued, I could literally feel her shame. She had just admitted an extremely personal and embarrassing fact about her past to someone she thought may judge her for it. After my quote was finished and my work with her was done, I sat in the cafe for a few minutes and waited for my opportunity. This poor girl needed to know that she was not alone. I had to tell her that she was not the only one who was a part of this shameful group. She came back to my table and I asked her to sit down again. She assumed it was insurance related. It was not. It was time to bring some healing to her frightened soul. On my phone I pulled up a picture of myself – from my past. She recognized the image and immediately realized the implication. The picture was of my mug shot, my membership into her shameful group. Without words, she knew what I was saying. She understood that I understood. Her mouth dropped. Her entire demeanor changed. A enormous sense of relief came over her entire body. She was not in the presence of some super successful insurance never-made-any-mistake-in-his-life salesman. She was sitting next to an ex-con brother who understood not just her chains but her shames. She was overwhelmed with emotion and let out two words that seemed to sum up her relief,
We laughed, shared some stories and moved on with our day. The group we were a part of was now no longer a group of shame but one of encouragement and hope. That’s the beauty of the group experience. For many, it is the first time you come to realize: “I AM NOT ALONE.” It does not condone the reason you joined it – it merely validates your current membership in it. Once you’re in, it doesn’t matter how or why you got there. What really matters is how you are growing personally and helping those in the room with you. Some people need you. You will need others. If you are open about your presence in the group and lift the veil of shame long enough to admit you are a card-carrying member, much good can be done in the midst of it, for you and others.
What group are you in? A group of adulterers or the ones victimized by it? Is your group filled with parents who lost a child or ones who can not conceive one? Perhaps your group is filled with members struggling with a physical pain? Or a mental disorder? Whether you are a burned out Pastor or a used up prostitute, there is a group for you. Whether you are a recovering pornographer or a former Pharisee, there are others out there who relate to your past and situation and desperately need to hear your story. It’s hard to join a group associated with a painful past. It’s even harder to live without the support of others who understand it.
When the Apostle Paul was writing a letter to the church in Corinthians, he addressed, indirectly, the reason why we need groups like this. If you have been through “hell and back,” and wonder why certain things happened to you – perhaps this perspective will help. Maybe it was never just about you. Maybe you went through it simply to help another struggling soul get through it as well.
“Praise be to the God… the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
Embrace your group. Share your story. Comfort others. Repeat.