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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Value added

I had a discussion this morning with several friends who also are persons in leadership within a local church. They described difficulties they were having regarding their efforts at integration of a person who is mentally ill into the youth group. In the course of the discussion, they related how the person monopolized the discussion, implying I guess that content wasn't able to be covered and that others did not have the opportunity to participate as well. There were other issues relating to the hostility of the person when offered help and the frustration among other members of the group my friends were trying to serve. Their concerns were all legitimate concerns.

However, when I had the opportunity to chime in, I spoke of how in my experience, persons with disabilities change those around them, and changes them often for the better. In Jean Vanier's "Becoming Human" he states,
That is why it is dangerous to enter into a relationship with the Lazeruses of our world. If we do, we risk our lives being changed (p. 71).
Persons with challenging disabilities surely do change those who aren't currently experiencing disability. Take this youth group for example. At the moment the person has changed the group by causing much concern on the part of the leadership. The person has caused the leadership to look at the person and make the determination of whether the person is worth their efforts or not. It has caused the members of the group to wonder whether they want to continue to be a part of the group. The person has caused the leadership to make a judgement of whether the content or the person is more important. The person has caused the leadership to wonder how far they are willing to go. All this just because of the person's presence there.

But I think a significant part of the problem that people have in these types of situations is that they see the person who doesn't fit in easily as a detriment rather than as a potential value added. As a man of 50, I can tell you that I remember very little of the content of the Bible studies I have participated in (even those I've led!) but I remember a few of the people in the groups. The leadership is very hung up on the content of the Bible study/youth group, but I will guarantee you that what the members of that group will remember for the rest of their lives is the person with mental illness in their group. Potentially they will also remember how a group of people in leadership treated that person, made that person feel like a part of the group rather than as a crazy person who needed to be tolerated. Perhaps they will learn how to interact with such people in the future because of the experiences they gained while in the youth group.

Perhaps the leadership might see the presence of this person as an opportunity to grow themselves and change the group members. You see, this perspective sees people who present challenges to the status quo as a value added rather than a detriment. I have the opportunity through the enfolding of an atypical person to promote real changes in the lives of those who want youth group to be only what they want it to be. I have the opportunity to challenge others with the trials and blessings of ministry. I have the opportunity to help others to understand service. These are the value added in addition to the obvious benefit of loving and supporting a person who is disenfranchised from all of the culture including the Christian subculture.

As is typical, however, rather than taking the opportunity to really change lives for a lifetime in a way that people will remember for a life time, I choose to lead a Bible study or youth group in the manner in which it has always been led. Oh we will have video games and lights and great music and great teaching. But instead of really demonstrating and thereby teaching others the benefits of truly loving others, those who are difficult to love, who won't get better and who will always be social skill deficient, who will always be mentally ill, I choose to make sure I get through Biblical passages about love and caring and acceptance.

One of my friends said that whenever someone tries to help the person with mental illness in the group, the person grabs a hold of him or her like a "freaking vise" (my translation). Well, duh? If I have been rejected because I am difficult to understand and someone finally shows me a little compassion, how would you think I would respond?

Please don't get me wrong. I am NOT saying that ministry to people with mental illness is in any way easy, because probably most often it is not. What I am saying is that the church must not reject those people, particularly when their behaviors are not dangerous, just annoying. I, we must model acceptance and see people who challenge us as those who most likely have been rejected by everyone (including us), those who need to be loved, and those who have much to offer to us, if only opportunities for growth.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Joni and Friends "Through the roof" conference 2006

This past weekend was the Joni and Friends "Through the roof" conference. There were 2 excellent keynote presentations as well as 3 breakout sessions across the day
Saturday. But for me, the highlight was Joni's presentation on Friday night. I have had the opportunity to hear her on several occasions and she is always great. However, this past Friday night, she was simply amazing. She riveted me as she spoke about ministry to persons with disabilities as being or becoming a "life and death" matter. She cited efforts at prenatal diagnosis and abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. She was very powerful as she informed her position with life experiences from her own life as well as those to whom she has ministered over the years. Anyway, I am hoping that either a recording or the actual text of the presentation will be made available. I actually felt as if the presentation had significance historically, particularily if it is made available to a larger audience.

It was reported that there were over 300 attendees from 21 states and even a few foriegn countries. It could actually be that the Church is waking up to the needs of persons with disabilities although there is still a very long way to go. I always feel encouraged after attending the conference both in that there are co-workers in attempting to open the church, and that people are experiencing the same frustration that I sometimes experience.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you should consider attending the Through the Roof conference when it comes to your area of the world. Check out the Joni and Friends organization website http://www.joniandfriends.org/ to find more information or to contact them.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"It was easy to see us as people that Jesus loved then and loves now"

I have a good friend named Toby (visit his weblog). He is a man who has significant physical disabilities as a result of being attacked several years ago. He sends emails to a group of people several times a week which are very encouraging, and reflect his thinking about God, Christianity, disability, among other issues. Yesterday he sent out the following email, which I have reproduced here with his permission.
Monday, October 9, 2006 Addition
I think my desire for friends and people that I can identify with has come to a wonderful end. Yesterday, with my Sunday school class of handicapped adults, we got together and went to Huntington Beach and spent the WHOLE DAY at the beach. None of us is perfect, in the normal human sense, but each of us was good company.

I simply cannot understand what people are saying, so I often sit quietly for hours at a time but that’s OK. I don’t even notice when a long period goes by.

There were a number of other adults there who could do other things like get my food for me, get my pills, take me to the restroom, barbecue hot dogs, make smores, put sunblock on me, etc.. I watched them and none of them seemed to think less of us. So it was easy to see us as people that Jesus loved then and loves now.

So you bet your life, I felt at HOME.

A Servant for Christ,

This is the face the church needs to have towards all people, including persons with disabilities. Toby states, "It was easy to see us as people that Jesus loved then and loves now." One might conclude it was easy for him to see, but hopefully it was also easy for those around he and his friends at the beach to see as well. Matthew 9:2 says, "And seeing their faith..." he then goes heal the paralytic on the mat.

Is it easy to see that Jesus loved all people then and loves all people now at your church, at my church? What would it take for that to characterize the captial C church?


Monday, October 09, 2006

Disability studies from a Christian perspective

There is 20 year old academic discipline (it has been developing over the past 20 years) called Disability Studies. For those who might not be familiar with disability studies, the following is Society for Disability Studies mission statement:
The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) is an international non-profit organization that promotes the exploration of disability through research, artistic production, and teaching. Disability Studies encourages perspectives that place disability in social, cultural, and political contexts. Through our work we seek to augment understanding of disability in all cultures and historical periods, to promote greater awareness of the experiences of disabled people, and to contribute to social change.

I am asking any readers of this blog to please share with me places and programs where disability studies is considered from a Christian perspective. I honestly believe that the Christian perspective has much to offer form a positive perspective on the understanding of disability. I am aware of websites like the following which list disability study programs across the country. However, I am particularly interested in programs from a Christian perspective.

Finally, it is sometimes a criticism of disability studies that it doesn't address or include people with cognitive disabilities/mental retardation. So I would also be interested in disability studies from that perspective.

Thanks for your help


Saturday, October 07, 2006

More from the Aberdeen conference

As I related, I recently attended a conference at the University of Aberdeen. There were two featured presenters, Dr. Jean Vanier and Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. Both of these men are professional heroes of mine. I could not believe that I would have the opportunity to meet them both at the same conference, particularly as the second day of the conference was with an intimate group of about 30 people with Vanier and Hauerwas.

Much of the focus of the conference was on the work of Vanier, particularly through the L'Arche communities. The second day of the conference was specifically dedicated to what the L'Arche communities have to say to the church. Dr. Hauerwas gave a presentation that day, in which he lauded Vanier's work, and the example of L'Arche as in many ways prophetic, as prophesy to the church. Allusions were made to L'Arche as in some ways being similar to a kind of monastic community. A question from the group of 30 particularly made that connection, which Dr. Hauerwas affirmed had occurred to him.

I then asked a question which I will have difficulty repeating here exactly, although Dr. Hauerwas' response will be much easier to reproduce. I asked something to the effect, "Although I have tremendous respect for Dr. Vanier and the work of the L'Arche communities around the world, don't you think the manner in which people in these communities interact with persons with disabilities should be like the "normal Christian life", the way in which we all should interact with such people? I mean, to set this community up as approximating a monastic model, only implies that it is not for everyone, as I for one will not be joining a monastery. Most people will not. Shouldn't this be the way we all should be interacting with persons with disabilities, within the churhc?" I actually thought I was asking a kind of a "soft ball" question, but his response shocked me. He said something to the effect, "I don't know, you have to ask Dr. Vanier." I can only assume I was misunderstood. I hope I was misunderstood. Otherwise, the love and compassion evidenced by people at L'Arche towards persons with disabilities, causes a world renown theologian and philosopher to reply basically that he doesn't know if that is the way Christians, or the church are to act towards people with disabilities.

A light came on for me.

This was a perfect example of what is wrong with the Church today. A brilliant man, one of the few theologians who has taken on disability and has written pretty powerfully about it, didn't know whether we as Christians, within the church, should be showing the love and caring demonstrated in L'Arche communities towards persons with disabilities. Maybe he was thinking of people living together in the manner of L'Arche, I don't know. But his answer was almost breath taking for me in illustrating how disconnected the church is about people with disability and who they are. Perhaps he needs to know more people with disabilities, perhaps he is afraid of people with disabilities. Clearly he holds those like Dr. Vanier who have done incredible work in this area in high esteem, but that can be a big part of the problem.

I have shared with the classes I teach that I have been told many times by a variety of people how wonderful I am because I work with persons with severe disabilities. I am a bit sick of that praise, however. I am at the point where I am going to respond, "If it is so wonderful, why don't you do it too!" Don't praise me and dismiss yourself. I wish you wouldn't praise me at all. Just you do what you can, so that all of us loving and supporting people with disabilities will become the normal Christian life.

And theologians will not be stymied by the question of whether I should love my disabled neighbor.


The ALL principle

It is funny how our human vanity impacts our theology. I look in the mirror and have little difficulty understanding that I (in my vanity) am "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). Or I look in the same mirror and with little difficulty affirm that I (in my vanity) am created in the "image of God" (Genesis 1:27). Or I look in the mirror, and think about the delight that God must have experienced when he, "knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13). I mean, c'mon, look at me, isn't it obvious?

But then I look at someone born with a severe physical or cognitive disability and all of a sudden I am unsure about the whole fearfully and wonderfully made stuff, which never occurred to me when I was looking at myself. I wonder about the knitting together as clearly God would not knit like that (thinking about people born with disabilities). I may think like that, but God has something to say to me as well. "Don't think more highly of yourself than you ought to think" (Rom. 12:3).

I wonder about the impact of vanity on theology, in terms of 1)thinking I am a day at the beach and 2)in thinking that people with disabilities are a NOT a day at the beach. There are so many scriptural principles which include the word "all" but I have missed what I call the "ALL PRINCIPLE" as I am typically focussed on persons without disabilities, people like me.

Scripture doesn't say, using the examples above,
"some of us are fearfully and wonderfully made"
"some of us are created in the image of God"
"some of us God knit together in our mother's womb"
Scripture also doesn't say,
"some of us have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God"
"some of us are loved by God"
"we are to love some of the people around us"

All the teachings, all the promises, all of the scriptures, the reasons for Jesus' sacrifice, the whole thing is for all of us. Actually, it is for all of us or it is for none of us.

I honestly think that the church does not believe in the ALL PRINCIPLE. It takes most of what is in me to believe in the ALL PRINCIPLE. I have been socialized by society and by the Christian church to believe otherwise. It takes courage, because disability has been constructed by society and the Church to be something other than it is. I recognize that I am stepping out in faith when I believe in the ALL PRINCIPLE. I will meet with opposition whenever and wherever I stand up for the ALL PRINCIPLE.

It is crazy but it is true.