Shifting the Margins

Throughout my more than half century of ordained ministry, I have felt called to ministry and presence among “the marginalized.” The imprisoned, the poor, and the hidden people in our communities have been critical to my life and ministry as a pastor, bishop, and seminary professor.

A significant shift in my scope of ministry took place six years ago. My wife and partner in ministry, Linda, was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia, one of the neuro-cognitive disorders that fall under the umbrella we regrettably label dementia!

Since that dismal rainy day in November 2009 when we first heard the dreaded word dementia, my world and vocation have shifted. Losses have multiplied and the boundaries of engagement have significantly narrowed. I moved from bishop and professor to caregiver! Rather than the “world is my parish,” my family became my world!

The global became very local! Major concerns dominating the denomination and academia receded to the margins of my preoccupation. My daily relationships shifted from the hyper-cognitive and hyper-productive to the cognitively impaired and productively diminished! Life became a series of losses, a receding circle of relationships, and a restricted sphere of engagements and influence.

But being with people who live within the margins of the present moment, whose abstract thinking has disappeared, whose language is garbled, and who may not know their own names shifts the margins of one’s thinking about God, about life, about the church and its mission, about what really matters.

The motivation and name chosen for this blog is inspired by John Swinton, one of today’s premiere pastoral theologians. His book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, has reframed the way I view the margins and those affected by dementia. His book has become a theological companion as I accompany my beloved Linda on our mutual journey.  He provides a theological alternative to the dominant medical lens which views people with dementia in terms of their symptoms rather than their stories! And, he also helped me redefine the meaning of “marginalized.”

Swinton’s work reaches far beyond issues related to neuro-cognitive disorders. His theological perspective emerges from his experiences as a psychiatric nurse, hospital chaplain, and renowned academic scholar. He does theology through the lens of those whom society pushes to the margins but whom God claims as prime recipients and means of Divine Grace. Swinton writes:

 It is certainly the case that Jesus sat with the marginalized and it is also true that he offered them friendship, acceptance and a valued place within his coming Kingdom. However, it is not quite the case that Jesus sat with the marginalized. He certainly sat with those whom religious society had excluded and rejected as unclean and unworthy of attention. However, in sitting with such people, Jesus, who was and is God, actually shifted the margins. By shifting the margins with the pushed aside at the center, the religious authorities became the marginalized! They didn’t realize that Jesus had moved the margins to a totally different place.[i]

Where God is preferentially present becomes the center of reality! The Bible clearly declares that God chooses the most vulnerable—“the least of these”—as special recipients and means of grace! Indeed, Jesus so closely identifies with the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned that what is done to them is done to him (Matthew 25:31-46).

Could it be that those of us who separate ourselves from the most vulnerable and despised are the marginalized and  away from the center of God’s present and coming reign of justice, compassion, generosity, and joy? I know that Linda and the residents in the memory care facility where she now lives are pushing me to shift the margins of my thinking and living!

My daughters and a few friends have encouraged me to share some of my reflections as Linda and I continue “our long goodbye.” I do so somewhat reluctantly, for I do not wish to be presumptuous or in any way unfairly exploit our personal journey. I share in the hope that we all will be open to how God in Christ shifts the margins!

Ponder these additional words from John Swinton:

. . . God was with a totally different group of people doing something quite different: offering friendship and acceptance and revealing the Kingdom in and through that friendship. Jesus offered no “technique” or “expertise.” He simply gifted time, presence, space, patience and friendship. He befriended the tax collectors and sinners; he befriended the prostitute, the stranger and the stigmatised. He offered relational space and time to people for whom the world (and religion) had no time. In and through his friendships, he gave people back their names. Indeed, he gave them new names: “I no longer call you servants; now I call you friends.”[ii]

[i] John W. Swinton, “Doing Small Things with Extraordinary Love: Congregational Care of People Experiencing Mental Health Problems”, ABC Religion and Ethics, October 2014.

[ii] Ibid.