“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Sunday, April 24, 2005

A hero's perspective

I picked up a copy of Beowulf at a used book sale. It is a story I love because of the way it portrays heroism in the face of absolute despair. The Danes of the story, were literally just waiting for Grendel to come and eat them in the most hideous manner. Beowulf, however, comes onto the scene, and well, without giving away the ending, is the hero. In describing Beowulf, the book says the following
"Beowulf was the rare kind of person who makes strength of his own weaknesses. His eyes being poor, he determined to see not just as well as other people, but better than most. He did this by cultivating habits of quickness and concentration that enabled him to be truly seeing where others were only looking. And this matter of the eyes was typical of his whole manner of being. Beowulf had made the best of all he had, putting each imperfection to work in the service of his integrity. Thus, his real strength lay in the balance of his person-which is, perhaps, another way of saying that he was strong because he was good and good because he had the strength to accept things in him that were bad." (from Beowulf A new telling by Robery Nye,1968)

In understanding his weakness, Beowulf determined to be better than most in his area of weakness. Weaknesses can cause us to throw up our hands and give up, or can spur us on to work through those weaknesses. Weaknesses can become excuses, or can cause us to see things in a different way, solve problems in a different way, to the point of out doing those who don't experience our weakness. I think about this with small churches. One of the excuses for not engaging in ministry to persons with disability from small churches is the supposed cost of such ministries, the resources required, etc. Taken to its logical conclusion, small churches are not responsible for ministry until they become big churches. But God calls us to be sheep, not goats, and there are no caviats for the service He requires. Does Jesus anywhere say, you know, when you have sufficient resources, then you can begin to be involved in service. But until then, you don't have to do anything.
Actually, I think that small churches have many advantages over other types and sizes of organizations. Relative to persons with disabilities, I wonder whether they have taken the time to find out what those advantages might be. It is interesting in the literature on employment of persons with disabilities, for example, that small mom and pop work places are often desirable over larger corporations. Why? Because the workers with disabilities become more pivotal to the functioning of the business. They begin to be seen for their strengths, and are relied upon. Larger corporations have the luxury of many employees, and therefore don't need to depend upon individuals quite as much. Small churches, therefore, might hold the greatest potential for integrating persons with disability and really tapping the depths of the gifts they bring.

Beowulf also wanted to be able to see in areas where others were only looking. I live on 5 acres and have a big time gopher problem. That is, until I started trying to see them and shoot them with my .22 rifle (I know, it sounds very red neck, but I am getting pretty good at it and my yard isn't as swiss cheesy as it was). Anyway, I have gotten to where when I look at my yard, I can detect the tiny movements of the gophers, whereas before, it seemed I never saw a gopher, just the hundreds of holes which told me they were there. You can be in a setting, even looking around in that setting and never see the setting. I am delighting in students of mine at California Baptist University, who have been looking at their churches and seeing the absence of persons with disabilities. They are gaining Beowulf's eyes in seeing what others are only looking at. I would argue that they are gaining a glimpse of God's perception of the setting. They are seeing the absence of persons whom He loves.

Finally he worked at putting each imperfection to the service of his integrity. This is an interesting notion, which is actually scriptural. We know of passages where we hear that faith is perfected in weakness, or in Paul quoting God, "My grace is sufficient for you." Do we know how to put our imperfections in the service of our integrity? Do we have even the faintest notion of helping others to put their imperfections in the service of their integrity? I am often impressed by the faith of persons with mental retardation whom I know. They are by all measures, cognitively impaired. Yet they often have what Christ says that I need, the faith of a child. I get hung up on doctrine, and experience. I get confused by my normal intellect. They have the faith of a child. I am not prepared to say that people experience "disability" so that they can put their "imperfections" to the service of their integrity, however, there is that potential, and the church is the perfect agent to facilitate that understanding of disability. But people with disabilities need to be in the church, and we need to be prepared to help them to connect the dots to make sense of their life experience, particularly for those with disabilities acquired later in life.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The log in my own eye

PRISM ePistle [epistle@esa-online.org] is an emailed newsletter which speaks to social issues of our day, and is related to Evangelicals for Social Responsibility's Prism magazine. The epistle dated Wednesday, April 20, 2005 began with the following "Thought for the day," a quote from Soren Kierkegaard. It caught me off guard with its directness and cut me to the quick.

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."
- Soren Kierkegaard, from "Kill the Commentators" in PROVOCATIONS

Wow. I see that sentiment in myself. The New Testament is scary in the demands it makes on a person. Without the forgiveness of Christ it would indeed be "dreadful to be alone with the New Testament." As a man with a family a job and other responsibilities I have chosen, embraced in life, I wonder if I, myself am who I should be. I could easily spend myself, pour myself out like a drink offering. The opportunities to do good, the venues for service, the people I could touch are weighed over against the decisions I make. I think back on the Tolkien reference I made in the last entry:

"They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed."

I pray that I see the enmeshed ideals in common human interactions.God forbid that I should pretend to be unable to understand or even ignore what I know that I should do, because I know very well that the minute I allow the realization of understanding, that I will be obliged to act accordingly.

I will continue to exhort the church, but as Bob Bennet says in his song, "may the words of my mouth fall to my heart."


City Council/Group Home

In the city in which I live, Redlands California, there was a city council meeting last night. One aspect of the meeting was a discussion of a group home for medically fragile, developmentally disabled adults which was scheduled to go into a neighborhood in Redlands. It was an interesting barometer of the sentiment of some people towards persons with mental retardation. Kathi and I left there feeling like we had a inkling into what community discrimination on the basis of race might have felt like.

Anyway, one person got up and chided the City Council that when an adult from the group home runs out into the street and gets hit by a car, it will be their fault. Another person dramatically waved at her baby (who perhaps,lucky for her was not disabled, but probably will be as a result of growing up with that mother, at least attitudinally) during her remarks about how it will be dangerous for her daughter if mentally retarded people live in the neighborhood. A man stood up and related how the group home developer had told him not to make eye contact or say hello to the residents because they will not leave you alone. I would hope a group home developer would have better sense than to say something like that which could hardly help but inflame the fears of the persons having homes around the group home. Next a woman spoke up wondering where the churches and religious people of the community were on this issue. That the community needed to be more accepting. A speaker from a state agency spoke about group home regulations, and in some ways added to the irrational fears rather than allying them. A mother of a man with disabilities spoke from her experience and hoped that a man like her son would be accepted by the community.

At that point I was called on and went forward with two of my friends who were adults with developmental disabilities living in group homes. Joyce is a woman with higher cognitive abilities and Josh a man with lower abilities in that area. Joyce told that she worked at Baker's Restaurant and her recent trip to Las Vegas to see Tom Jones, and I described Josh's work at an adult day care center. Anyway, I introduced them, spoke briefly about the fear of the unknown, how when families have a child born to them they are suddenly struck with the discrimination of the community (of which they may have been a part in the past) and expressed my desire to get into the face of the group home developer about his comments regarding not interacting with the adults who would live in the group home. I was reminded of the statistic that says that many adults with developmental disabilities only know one person without disability in the community and many none. No doubt the warnings of people like the group home developer fuel such lonliness. It also made me wonder about the fitness of the developer to have group homes if he was that misinformed about who persons with mental retardation are. I concluded my remarks (3 min) by saying the reason that he probably made the comment about not interacting is that the adults would try to develop a friendship with their community neighbors. At that point, Susan Peppler, the Mayor of Redlands graciously commented that they would be good people (the group home members) to develop a friendship with, or something to that effect. The audience applauded briefly, and Josh became very animated, making the "raise the roof" gesture. The audience loved it and we left.

Obviously the church is not responsible for every societal ill, and cannot cure everything. But I couldn't help but wonder how the discussion might have changed if the church had had a greater presence in the community toward persons with disability. I particularly wondered in a city like Redlands, where there seems to be a church on every corner.

"O man, He has declared to you what is good. And what does Jehovah require of you, but do do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)


Friday, April 01, 2005

We must work the works: John 9:3-5

Nearly a year ago, I related the following in a blog entry:

John 9:3-5 says,
"Neither this man or his parents sinned" said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work" (NIV).

Jesus said this in response to his disciples asking about a blind man they encountered, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" They were wondering who's sin caused the blindness.

Merril C. Tenney, the Bible scholar wrote that this passage might be translated in a different way. Here is Tenney's translation.
"Neither did this man sin, nor his parents" said Jesus. "But that the works of God should be made manifest in him, we must work the works of him that sent me, while it is still day; the night cometh when no man can work."

One of Tenney's points with his translation is that the works of God are made manifest in persons with disability by the things those around them do. The works of God were not made manifest solely through the healing of the man by Jesus. An interesting perspective to consider. An interesting plumb line for evaluating the response of the Church to persons with a variety of disabilities.

This morning, Kathi and I had the pleasure of having coffee with some friends who are parents of a daughter with down syndrome. They related the story of how their daughter will engage in a game of "keep away" with a couple of boys in the neighborhood. Invariably, the game becomes those two boys keeping the ball away from their daughter until the game finally ends. Independent of whether or not the gal with the disability recognizes that she is being taken advantage of in the game, it is obvious that those two boys are not working "the works of him that sent me while it is still day." Now its not that the boys are being particularly evil or something, but they certainly are not being kind to the girl. Working "the works of him that sent me" would probably look a lot less competitive in this case (I have nothing against competition), and reflect, I don't know, fairness, encouragement; evidences of works of God.

People with disability in our midst, provide us the opportunity to work the works of God. Don't hear me wrong. They are not in existence so that I might gain some brownie points with God. That would belittle the importance of their lives and accentuate the importance of my life. I see no evidence from scripture that I am to do either. However, as with the opportunity to help any person who needs it, the chance is provided to work the works of God. At times I will work the works and at other times I will receive the benefit of someone else working the works. The take home lesson, I believe, is that we are all surrounded by opportunities to serve others and we need to take advantage of those opportunities. We are all equal before God.

In response to a letter about his Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien penned the following,

Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to
the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. there weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgment (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God (emphasis added) (From Carpenter & Tolkien (1981), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #246, pp. 326)

There is a depth to the situations of my life. I may not be attending to the depth but it is there nonetheless.