What is my worth? We live in a culture that prizes worth and worthiness. Some stories:
Late last year and early this year, I passed through several tiers of a vetting process in applying for an executive level position for a Christian organization with more than 850 churches across North America. In January, my application process reached the stage where it was clear the selection committee was seriously considering me as a viable candidate for the post.
To be honest, I was shocked my resume even piqued their interest. My educational background was sub-par, I was relatively new to the organization (hardly anyone knows who I am in this organization) and my most recent role with them was about as low on the vocational ladder as you can get.
Nevertheless, in the interview several stages later, the key decision-maker actually said to me: “The fact that you have made it this far in the process means we can see you doing the job. Even if we don’t offer you the job, we will be calling on you so we can draw on your expertise.”
The experience was a source of both exhilaration and tension; so, to help myself remain centered, I reached out to a few trusted advisors to learn how I could present my best self to the selection committee. Significantly, each one said to me to just be myself. After all, if I try to be someone I’m not, it will end in frustration for me, for the team and for the organization as a whole.
I trusted their advice, so I decided I was going to make sure to be true to my deep-seated convictions about…the nature and value of playfulness. I have come to think of play as my “voice.”
The paradox of play is that we don’t do it to “get something out of it” but rather we do it “just for the fun of it.” Play is wasteful.
But it is so, so valuable.
As a Christian minister, I am in the process of articulating a theology of play. I’m not the first one to try to do this, to be sure, so I’ve been reading other scholars on play and faith. One of the key components of a theology of play involves creation. The Bible opens with a portrait of a God who makes the world a good and beautiful place: light and color, sky and sea, land and plants, sun, moon and stars, animals and people.
One scholar (Jürgen Moltmann) delightfully engages this text by asking the question all children ask about it: “Why?” Why did God make all this?
And the child’s answer (which is the best answer, I do believe) is, quite simply: “Because God wanted to do it. That’s why.”
I feel this is the best answer because it reminds us that God’s happiness about creation is not dependent on what it can do for him or how he can put it to use…but rather just because it is good. In fact, many Christians often miss the fact that God does not call the creation good. He simply sees that it is good. He notices its intrinsic value, apart from its usefulness.
The implication: God loves people not by how they can be put to use but just because they are people. Everyone, no matter their level of skill or intelligence, is valuable just by…being. All life is precious.
Recently, a friend of mine (whom I will call Derek) posted what I assume is something he learned at the Global Leadership Summit which is running today and tomorrow. The Summit is an annual conference that attracts almost half a million people in various locations around the world to learn how to be better leaders from many of the world’s top-notch leaders. To give you an idea: in the past, the Summit has hosted leaders like Bill Clinton, Melinda Gates and Patrick Lencioni.
My friend is attending this year’s Summit at a satellite location and here is what he posted: “Your core values are what make you valuable to others.”
His statement both resonated with me and repelled me. Here’s why:
His daughter (whom I will call Lisa) replied to his statement about our “value” with these words: “And also that you are my dad and you are awesome!”
In other words: “Dad, you’re not valuable because of your values—you’re valuable to me just because you’re my Dad.”
What is the true worth of a person? What is it, truly, that makes someone “valuable” to another?
My experience in applying for a job confirms what my friend originally posted. Organizations tend to value those individuals who have clear values…a clear sense of “self.” Employers want employees who are self-aware; they want employees who know what their strengths and weaknesses are and individuals who bring something distinctive to the group that truly adds value.
So, yes: “Your core values are what make you valuable to others.” Be true to yourself.
But there is a limit to this. If we only value people because of their (presumably, shared) “core values,” we need to do some soul-searching as to whether our values are really very valuable, after all.
Last night I was in Indianapolis with a small faith community called Diakonos (meaning, Servant). I admire the people of Diakonos because they are particularly skilled at befriending folks who are homeless (and those who are vulnerable to homelessness). In fact, when Diakonos holds their weekly meeting, they do so in a particular place so they can be close to where some of their friends without homes live.
Before the scheduled part of the evening began, I had the privilege of visiting with a young man (whom I will call Tim). Tim lives in a house-group setting now and he is on the road to recovery.
Prior to this, he lived in one of the camps in Indianapolis where homeless people gather to set up a makeshift village. While there, he was using heroin and he suffered from alcoholism. Life in the camps can be okay, he told me, if you are living with the right kind of people who know how to get along. But sometimes people show up who just want power, so they make overtures to become “mayor” or “president” of the village. Often, violence erupts in the scramble to secure power.
Tim told me that sometimes he’d get so drunk he’d wake up in the morning with blood crusted on his face and not remember who (or why) he fought the previous night. Thankfully, he said he was doing better now that he was pursuing recovery.
I asked him, “What has helped you change?” And he told me that the moment he tried to kill himself was one of the big turning points.
He felt worthless, so he tried to hang himself. He said that as soon as he made the move to do it, he instantly thought: “I don’t want to die.” But it was too late. The rope was tightening around his neck as gravity was doing its inexorable work.
He said he doesn’t know exactly what happened because he blacked out, but when he woke up he was on the ground and it appeared the tree branch had broken.
While he was lying there some people came by and took his wallet and some other personal items—until, finally, someone called for help and he was taken to recovery.
My friend Leon visited Tim while he was recovering and Tim credits Leon with his commitment to recovery today. Leon had known Tim at that point for at least a year because Leon visited Tim in the camp when he was still using heroin and getting drunk. Tim says he remembers Leon telling him, “You’re a smart guy. Why are you doing this to yourself?”
In Leon, Tim saw unconditional love—because, in Tim, Leon saw a value beyond mere “values.”
In my work with children I have become keenly aware that they just want to be loved, to be seen and heard and respected. Children learn surprisingly early the sting of rejection, what it feels like to not “measure up” to the expectations of others.
I have dedicated my life to Christian ministry because I am convinced there is inside all of us a yearning to be loved not because of anything we have said or done but simply because we all have intrinsic worth that can never be diminished.
In a world where we often have to “sell ourselves” to others, I experience the unconditional love of God as my saving grace—a great relief when I feel like I don’t measure up or can’t measure up.
While it is true that I do well to live by my values (to be true to how God has made me), I am thankful that my ultimate value is not dependent on my values.
Is there any greater gift we can give to someone than to value them just for who they are, just because they are?
Last night, with Diakonos in Indianapolis, I told a story that portrayed God by several metaphors: a Gardener, a seed, a Shepherd, the bread of life and the light of the world.
When given the opportunity to respond freely to this story, Tim chose to respond by drawing a picture. He picked the image of the Good Shepherd and I feel it is little wonder he did so.
Is there any better news to someone like Tim than to know he has a Good Shepherd—than to know someone like Jesus-in-Leon came searching for him in the wilderness? Is there any better news than to know God wants you to live just because you’re valuable—just because you’re loved?
There is no better news and we really need nothing else.
I must be honest: I am growing weary of all the talk in Christian ministries that borrows language from the business world and corporate culture that stresses a person’s value boils down to their values. I can think of little else that seems to me now so antithetical to the Gospel: God loves you just because he loves you just because he loves you—not because of any so-called “values match” with an “organization” he is (probably not) building. If the Church is to truly be the Body of Christ, it is time for us to reckon with just how counter-cultural the Gospel is. Grace is prophetic: the Good News of grace disrupts the corporate system that measures a person’s worth by their skills, experience (and values).
When the deepest cry of the human heart is to be named worthy just because every person is loved, I have to wonder why we put so much stock in mere “values-assessment”?
We can never look in the face of another human being and not see the image of God in them. That’s why God only has one measure for us: the measure of measureless love. People are not to be classified in terms of “valuable” or “not valuable.” People are to be loved. My heart’s prayer is that we would just learn to love as God loves. Amen.