Friday, August 5, 2011

Institutions or People?

By My Anonymous Friend

Recently we watched the movie, "Patch Adams" again. It is based on the true story of a medical student (played by Robin Williams) who rebelled against the institutional medical traditions and barely was able to graduate even though his grades were at or near the top of his class. Hunter "Patch" Adams'  basic frustration was that medicine did not treat patients as humans. He believed that quality of life should count for something as well. He founded a clinic named  the Gesundheit Institute in W. Virginia that treated people free of charge. In real life, at one point 1000 physicians were on a waiting list to serve in this facility. Its purpose is to revolutionize the medical industry by replacing greed and competition with generosity and compassion. In recent years it has expanded its scope to offer a variety of holistic kind of care as well.

This movie resonates strongly with me. In my view any institution must recognize the  danger of losing sight of its most important work – people!  Over time, tradition and ritual often bring about a change where instead of being a servant of the mission they become the mission itself. The administrative work of running an organization becomes all consuming. Organizations lose sight of serving people.

Another example concerns a life saving station established on the rocky ocean coast in New England. Its clear vision and purpose initially was to rescue persons suffering shipwreck in the turbulent waters in the area. After some years the life saving station became a club. Money was raised to buy more boats, the station center was enlarged and furnished more exquisitely. Every year, fewer and fewer people were actually rescued. However, more and more people were members of the life saving station club!

Canada once had two airlines competing with each other. One was the "institutional" airline. The other was private. Eventually the former bought out the latter. It could simply not compete because the playing field was not level. The "institutional" airline received more government favors and tax advantages. After the two merged I once asked an employee who had worked years for the now defunct airline about the differences between the two. "The answer is easy," he said. "One airline had in its mission statement the concept of serving people. The other saw itself as simply a mover of products!"

Jesus fought this trend during his earthly ministry. His chief antagonists – religious leaders, were much more concerned about rules and regulations than about the real needs of people. When the disciples of Jesus were hungry and ate some grain on a Sabbath, religious leaders were alarmed that a Sabbath regulation had been violated. Jesus pointed out that hunger was a higher priority than proper Sabbath observance. An adulterous woman dragged before Jesus so He could pronounce judgment on her, was given new hope while her accusers disappeared with embarrassment. Lepers, blind people, military leaders, Samaritans, tax collectors – all were friends of Jesus. He found time for them.

I have spent most of my adult life working with or in a bureaucracy or "institution". I was a pastor and a denominational executive. When I look back today I sometimes wonder how much I did that was of real value. How many lives did I truly impact for the better?  Today I honestly believe God has given me the opportunity to directly touch the lives of many more people. People who are hurting for a variety of reasons can approach me because I am a "safe" person to talk to. Often they approach me because they have no confidence in the "institutions" to help them deal with their pain. Some of this hurt has come from self-inflicted wounds or bad judgment. Some of this hurt has come from institutional bureaucracy and indifference. But it does not really matter. Hurt is hurt and pain is pain!  I am extremely thankful that by the grace of God I have been able to come alongside people like this. I wish I could do much more because the needs are enormous.

What are your thoughts here?  Are you spending your time truly touching the lives of people?  Are you mired in organization and details to the point where you simply do not have much time for people?  At the end of your life will you be able to say confidently that your life meaningfully intersected with the lives of others?

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