Pain is the acute sense of self.
I didn’t make that up. It’s a line from one of the Top 5 all-time greatest TV shows, M*A*S*H. If I remember correctly, a medic—not Hawkeye, or B.J., or Maj. Houlihan or Col. Potter—provided that succinct and accurate definition. He spoke it in a classic episode shot from the perspective of a young infantryman injured in combat and delivered to the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital via helicopter.
“Pain is the acute sense of self.” When you’re in pain, you can’t think of anything or anyone but yourself. Simple. Brilliant.
That definition has been on my mind lately. That’s because (a) Joanna and I have been watching M*A*S*H reruns during dinner, and (b) I’ve undergone several medical procedures and thought entirely too much about the right the side of my face and neck.
Like a magnet
Pain is like a magnet, drawing your attention to where it hurts. When you focus on pain, you can’t help but focus on yourself—your body, your spirit, your soul. Or whatever it is about you that hurts.
What I love about this definition—in addition to its accuracy and simplicity—is the fact it implies a key prescription for alleviating pain: Focus on other people and things.
Laughter may be the best medicine, but empathy and compassion do their part to induce healing.
You can see the inverse of this in people who, we might say, have too much time on their hands. Free from other responsibilities, they can chew up huge chunks of the clock thinking about themselves, their families and their concerns. With nothing to attract their attention, worry takes over. Pretty soon, they’re in agony.
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But when they get busy—volunteer at church, in a neighborhood school or with a local ministry; take a part-time job; serve on a board or committee—they feel much better soon. Even people who suffer from painful medical conditions acknowledge their pain abates when they spend time thinking about and, better yet, helping others.
This principle applies to churches, too.
A sacred privilege and responsibility of serving and working alongside Texas Baptist congregations is witnessing the pain many of them endure. In communities all across our state, churches suffer the ravages of time. Demographics shifted. Good jobs moved elsewhere. Schools declined. The faithful died off, and no one replaced them.
And so, churches suffer the pain of comparing what once was to what now is. Every time members pull into the parking lot, they notice crumbling pavement and empty slots. They rattle around worship centers like BBs in boxcars. They think about who’s not here anymore. They can’t figure out how to get the folks who live around their buildings interested in their church.
And they lament. The pain of absence and decline is decimating.
Fortunately, much of their pain is reversible. Month by month, churches have faced similar situations and found joy, purpose and redemption. (I know, because we’ve told their stories in the Baptist Standard and CommonCall.)
The common denominator? They turned their attention outward. They made courageous commitments to focus on the spiritual and physical needs of people outside their walls instead of the sadness and loneliness and pain endured by dwindling numbers of members who cross their threshold week after week.
Some launched new ministries scaled to their means and ability. They opened food pantries or clothes closets, or they adopted a school or an apartment complex. They reached out to other ministries and made their facilities and maybe even their time available for the greater good. They merged with another church that struggled under similar circumstances. Some gave their facilities to another congregation, often peopled by a different racial or ethnic group, sometimes from a different denomination.
They turned their attention to others. Their pain eased. They rediscovered joy.
A version of this editorial originally appeared in CommonCall, the Baptist Standard’smagazine. CommonCall explores issues important to Christians and features inspiring stories about disciples of Jesus living out their faith. An annual subscription is only $24 and comes with two complementary subscriptions to the Baptist Standard. To subscribe to CommonCall, click here.
Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknoxbs