Do you have a stigma?
You might ask, “What actually is a stigma?” Our wonderful dictionary (yes, they do actually still exist) defines stigma as the following: stig ma – a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person
Stigmas can be subtle, and stigmas can be bold. Sometimes stigmas are self-induced, and other times they are placed upon us, often against our will. Many of us are born with a stigma, and some of us inherit them. We are also masters at creating them, putting ourselves in situations where they are given life, grow and are harvested. Stigmas can be personal; stigmas can be cultural; stigmas can physical, political, spiritual, emotional…. you name it, you will find stigmas.
Stigmas are often the source of the pain we see in our marriages, families, communities, places of work and even our churches. Stigmas can create much divide and much emotion; sometimes they even become our whole identity – we actually become known by our stigma.
I ask again, “Do you have a stigma”? Time and silence helps us find them, and when we do, its often not so pretty and can be painful. Ouch! I think that is why we may often ignore the fact that we have a stigma, or if we have identified a stigma, we may cope with it in some unhealthy ways by defending or befriending them. I speak not just to you and me as individuals, but also to us as a society.
What is my stigma?
I have come to the conclusion that I do have a stigma. Actually, I would argue I have several. Perhaps over the years I have become an avid collector of these stigmas. For example, my mother and my father (who has passed) were exceptional parents. I had a wonderful childhood where I was introduced to my faith in Jesus at a very young age, exposed to diverse cultures of the world, well-educated and cared for. My parents were pillars in our community, sat on boards, spoke in public forums, were sought after for advice, hosted gatherings and were incredibly well respected wherever they went. I love my parents, and they remain my heroes to this day. However, my parents were not perfect and late in life divorced. Why did they divorce? That is for them to answer, but I know that the situation became a stigma for me. My amazing perfect parents weren’t perfect anymore and became another statistic.
Lisa and I discussed this as we were married for twenty years at the time (now 32 years and going strong) and wondering if marriage failure was simply inevitable and we were on a slippery slope ourselves? I sensed a stigma now, my parents who were a model marriage and family were not so much anymore.
I have more: several of my siblings have gone through divorce; our first grandchild (the most amazing young man) was born into a situation where his parents are not married today; Lisa and I started a business in our twenties, a surf shop, and “dude that was an epic and gnarly” failure….I have a lot more.
I have read many times in the Bible where the subject of leprosy is brought up. I always imagined some zombie type creatures walking around with limbs falling off and moaning. I must be honest and say that I had no interest in ever meeting a leper. They would freak me out. We have all seen the movies and pictures. However, I remember having the privilege and honor (I use these words specifically) of visiting a leper colony in the Dominican Republic on several occasions. I was nervous as we were approaching their home, for all the reasons mentioned above. What I found was anything but. I found sweet, gentle and loving men and women who had lost functionality of some of their limbs, lost their eyesight and in some cases become unable to move around on their own.
They were isolated in a community where they were loved and cared for by these wonderful Catholic nurses. The amazing angel nurses loved these men and women as their own family, demonstrating the love of God to them, moment by moment. These men and women belonged because a few precious people loved them dearly. I saw what love does to a man or woman that has a stigma…..in these cases a very obvious one.
I recently read this story where Jesus was approached by ten lepers as He was walking. The disease had isolated them. They had become unfamiliar with the gentle touch of a human. The odor of leprosy and visual appearance from being dirty and unwashed made them unwanted. The culture at the time regarded a leper as non-human, a scourge of society, an embarrassment, an unwanted being. Sound familiar to how you feel sometimes? Sound familiar to some of what we hear in our cultural narrative today? Do you think these lepers had a stigma? The lepers started yelling out and asking Jesus to save them, help them, heal them. So, he did!
The life of those ten lepers were forever changed; their stigma vanished and everything associated with it. They had a life now.
Imagine your stigma, my stigma, our stigma vanishing. How would our lives be different? Would we experience a little more joy, less embarrassment, less anger, less resentment, less shame and greater love? Perhaps. I know for a fact that it would change my reality. I have learned from my stigmas, and I can say that they have helped me develop my character. I am a better person as a result, but would I prefer life without them? Yes, I would.
Sin is our ultimate stigma, and yes, sin is something we all have, and yes, it is what Jesus has saved us from. I can walk confidently in my life, knowing that the stigma of sin has no longer a hold on me. I am clean, just like those lepers were made clean, and now I can have a real life.
What is my response to this new reality? I noticed that when the lepers were healed by Jesus, only one came back to say thank you, and based on Jesus’s reaction, it appeared He was a little surprised. Jesus quickly did his math and noted that if He had radically healed 10 and only one had come back to say thanks that apparently there were nine out there somewhere who hadn’t bothered to say thank you. Jesus was puzzled. Jesus lives in a world of gratefulness, mercy, peace, joy. He sees what could be and what is and receives great joy raising us up from our hurt, pain, shame…. our stigmas. The result is that we can live a life like His, with a sense of utter gratefulness. Jesus is so generous with His love… It’s His identity. I must say that I love receiving the love of Jesus, but I am not very good at saying, “thank you.”
Therefore, as I ponder on my stigmas and I ask my Jesus to help me, I must not forget to say thank you, a lot. One of my stigmas is ungratefulness, and that can easily change by seeing all that God is and has and simply saying thank you. Worship is a great healer of stigmas. I can’t dwell on my stigma and worship God at the same time. So, yes, I have stigmas, and yes, I ask Jesus to help and He does. Today I say thank you…and again tomorrow and the day after that until I take my last breath.
Stephan N. Tchividjian is the president and founder of the National Christian Foundation South Florida. Visit southflorida.ncfgiving.com to learn more.