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

Friday, December 29, 2006

Lesson from Wilberforce

I have been reading some brief booklets on famous people. These are put out by The Trinity Forum. The first one I read was entitled, William Wilberforce: A man who changed his times by John Pollock. In the Foreward, J. Douglas Holladay reflects on Wilberforce's life, and develops a summary of the "seven principles that illuminate what it means to live a life of significance today." He states,
Wilberforce's whole life was animated by a deeply held, personal faith in Jesus Christ...
Wilberforce had a deep sense of calling that grew into the conviction that he was to exercise his spiritual purpose in the realm of his secular responsibilities...
Wilberforce was committed to the strategic importance of a band of like-minded friends devoted to working together in chosen ventures...
Wilberforce believed deeply in the power of ideas and moral beliefs to change culture through a campaign of sustained public persuasion...
Wilberforce was willing to pay a steep cost for his corageous public stands and was remarkably persistent in pursuing his life task...
Wilberforce's labors and faith were grounded in a genuine humanity rather than a blind fanaticism...
Wilberforce forged strategic partnerships for the common good irrespective of differences over methods, ideology or religious beliefs...
Wow, if we could only live a life as significant as Wilberforce. His issue was largely stopping the slave trade. Our issue disability and the church.

The one principle that really jumped out at me, however, was the one which states, "Wilberforce had a deep sense of calling that grew into the conviction that he was to exercise his spiritual purpose in the realm of his secular responsibilities." How does one excercise spiritual purpose in the realm of secular responsibilities? Wilberforce was a politician so he used his political platform to unabashedly champion against the slave trade, informed by his Christian principles. I am a special education teacher, or a rehabilitation counselor, or a parent who works in the business world, or a pastor or Sunday school teacher. Do I see my secular calling as an opportunity to exercise a spiritual purpose? Note, I am not necessarily talking about sharing the "four spiritual laws" every day during lunch. Rather I am talking about expressing the need for people religous or not to care about their brothers and sisters who experience a disability. I am particularly calling on those who have a secular responsibility based upon their training, or experience, or knowledge to express that secular responsibility in the climate of a spiritual purpose.

I have often spoken to secular groups of special education teachers, or caseworkers, and asked, "When was the last time you did something for someone who couldn't do something back for you?" Something, that is, for which you weren't paid to do. You see, I think that like pastors, we confuse the things we are paid to do with the things we are not paid to do. Yes as the Wilberforce statement makes clear we are to work toward a spiritual purpose through our vocation, however, we should not allow our vocation to be the only place where we use the training we express in secular responsibilities to be evidenced. The world is desperate, I believe, for people who care for their neighbor, just because they care for their neighbor. They don't care because they are paid to care.

Churches are desperate for Christian professionals to express their secular responsibilities in both the secular world and the religous world, the public square and the church. In both places, spiritual purposes need to be achieved.

What if we could soften the church and soften the secular world toward individuals experiencing disability?


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Doing God's work alone

This past Sunday, a group of us went to see a showing of "The Nativity Story." I was impressed by the movie, and really enjoyed it. One thing that hit me that I really hadn't thought about before, was how alone Mary and Joseph were in their knowledge about the Christ child that she was carrying. To the degree that others did know that she was pregnant, their responses would be largely negative. Ultimately when they left for Bethlehem, the were once again alone with the knowledge of what was happening to them, to the world. Obviously they had both been visited by an angel, but as far as human support, human encouragement, only Elizabeth was in any way encouraging to Mary, understanding to some degree what was happening to her. Nevertheless, on they went to Bethlehem, alone, responding in obedience to the direction of the Lord. Ultimately, they received affirmation in the form of the Wise Men's visit from the human world.

I was encouraged in regards to working with people with disabilities from that interpretation of what was shown in the movie. Often we work alone, with little encouragement or understanding. Yet we are responding to the call of God. In the same way that Mary and Joseph finally received affirmation from the
Wise Men, from people, but they relied on the Lord for their affirmation their encouragement. We must learn to do the same. Ultimately we will receive affirmation for our work, often alone as we are being obedient to God. But we must learn that in spite of what people do or do not do to affirm or encourage us, we must continue our work knowing we are doing the will of God.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Second class ministers

Those of you who read this blog, know that I have at times spoken of the need for a movement of lay professionals to change the church. That is, professionals in special education, rehabilitation, social workers and others to step up and call for the development of disability ministry in their own local church.

Recently Kathi and I were doing an inservice for a local Christian school about why Christian schools should want special education generally (a future blog entry) and specifically how to do curricular modifications at the Christian school to allow students with various needs to be successful in the general education program. In the process of delivering the inservice, I got talking about the priorities that churches place, that pastors and leaders place on ministry to persons with disabilities.

It occured to me that one of the reasons that professionals in areas of disability have not stepped up is that over the years, they have been made to feel that their work, particularly as it relates to the church is not very important. People will often say how wonderful it is to work with persons with disabilities, talking about how much patience it takes, however, they don't make the connection to applying those skills to the Christian church. I think that because there is little mention and little priority on ministry in the church, professionals may feel like second class ministers if they are involved in such ministries.

Churches see ministry to chldren or high schoolers or developing small groups for adults as very important. Disability ministry is less important in their eyes. So my desire to do such ministry is less important. I would be willing to bet money that at least one professional in disability attends every church in the United States. However, there is not at least one disability ministry in every church in the United States. Why might that be?

It could be that there is a disconnect in the minds of disability professionals between their work and potential ministry. I am sure that is often the case. However, I am equally as sure that pastors are not calling those professionals to use their gifts and their training in such ministry. There are people out there like me who arriving at a church with a Ph.D. and years of experience in disability ministry were told, "Its not a priority at this time." That is one way of telling someone that your ministry desires are second class. Another way is to have a highly trained person in your midst and see her expertise as irrevalent to the work of the church. Its like, "Its nice that you paint pictures" or "Its nice that you play basketball" or "Its nice that you have a BA, MA, PhD, or whatever in working with people who have been ignored by the church for hundreds of years." Its nice but it is irrelevant, in their minds.

That is why when Kathi and I were told that disability ministry was not a priority, I turned to her as we left the pastor's office and said, "It soon will be." We began to bring people with disabilities to church, sought them out in the community, and the ministry has become more of a priority. I think people think it is nice, but often don't know what to do with us. I wonder what would happen to the ministry at our church if we suddenly disappeared from the scene. It is getting better as regular members begin to open themselves to those with disabilities and begin to like the changes those people make in them. They find out the big secret that we in disability ministry already know...Its fun and people with cognitive disabilities (our particular focus) are really great people.

So you lay professionals out there, don't allow your church or its leadership to make you think that disability ministry and disability ministers (potentially you!) are second class ministries or second class ministers. If we believe that all people are of equal value in the sight of God, our churches should reflect that fact. Our ministry priorities should reflect that fact.

And to you pastors who might be reading this, you need to confront disability professionals with their responsibilities in the church. You need to bring people with disability into the Church and support the efforts of those who do the same. Did Christ see people with disability? Very often these people are also poor. Did Christ have any interest in the poor? We read the stories of the extent to which Jesus went to minister without considering the context or the effort on his part to get with these people. Jesus’ interactions with persons with disabilities are breath-taking, and they were intentional on his part. We trivialize these interactions when we use them simply as illustrations of spiritual principles. These were real people confronted by a real God, and these confrontations with real people by a real God are ubiquitous in the New Testament. So don’t miss the priority Christ gives to these people as an example for you as a church leader in terms of the priority you should give to these same individuals who are living in your midst today. If you say that people with disabilities are not a priority, you devalue people, you indict yourself and you diminish the service of those who do work with the disenfranchised and people experiencing disability.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mental Illness in the Church

Here is the slightly edited text of an email I sent to some folks who are attempting to integrate a person with mental illness into their church group. I provide it as several of the ideas might be worth chewing on.

You guys have sure been giving your best in trying to integrate --- into the group activities. I really appreciate your efforts on her behalf.

In the midst of the difficulties, I hope you are debriefing with the rest of the group so that they can understand your heart in this matter and why you and the others have gone to the extent you have to try to make integration work. Perhaps the group may themselves come up with something that would work to include her to some degree. Ultimately, I think we must have a place for people like --- in the church. As people evidence more disturbed behavior, however, those places will become more circumscribed.

Should you decide to offer her a more circumscribed place, please try to come up with a place where she can regularly be with her age peers. Perhaps she will not participate in all activities, however, I would recommend that there should be some place where she might be able to participate. Communicate to the group that a major part of the goal of that group might then be to act kindly toward her and people like her, attempt to overlook her negative or disturbed behavior and love her. It will not be easy, but it would be a stretching activity for those who would attend that particular meeting. I suspect the leadership themselves might feel less stressed about the situation as they are not attempting to offer the typical meeting or Bible study. They are offering a setting where Christian people are trying to reach out to a person who atypical, difficult to be with and possibly mentally ill. Because the rules for that sort of a meeting change, those involved in the meeting will also change their expectations. We will guage our successes or failures differently. We will be looking at how a particular group member grows in her ability to interact or accept a person who is difficult. We will look at how people are becoming tougher in their ability to show love to difficult people. It would be understood that we are here in large part, to include a person who is difficult to be with and who will evidence difficult behaviors. It is a ministry. I taught kids with serious emotional disturbance for a while, and I know myself that if I am prepared to go into a situation with a person with emotional disturbance, for example, I am much more able tolerate various behaviors as I recognize that it is the disability that is being evidenced. I recognize that in this situation, I am doing my best to love this person in spite of his difficulties. Obviously not everyone would choose to participate in this particular activity/class/or whatever. However, you might find many who would be willing to step up.

I recognize your significant efforts to integrate --- and truly do appreciate them.

I honestly do believe there is a place in the church, or at least should be, for everyone who would want to attend, even if they are mentally or emotionally disturbed. To create those places, however, causes me to see my involvement in the church differently. So I don't always go to a Bible study group just to study the Bible myself, I sometimes go to be a part of a place where people with mental illness can go. I help to create a space where a person evidencing difficult behaviors can come and study the Bible. I recognize that I am in ministry by creating that space. I may not be leading the study, or even participating to a great degree, however, my being present, being accepting, not being so fragile or brittle, I am in ministry because I have created a place of acceptance for people who are largely deemed unacceptable. I fight the urge to just kick the difficult person out, out of obedience to God. God wants to love the difficult person WHETHER OR NOT THEY GET BETTER and he wants to do it through his church, through me. It causes me to see my involvement in church differently. As Rick Warren says, "Its not about you." It truly is not about me as the focus. It is about me as the servant.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Social looseness

Have you ever been to a dinner with a person to whom table etiquette is extremely important? Now I am not talking about wiping your mouth on the table cloth, or grabbing food off of your neighbor's plate, or spitting or swearing. I am talking about the fine points of where the fork needs to lie, or how to hold your glass while you are drinking, or how you cut your piece of meat. I get really impatient with people in such situations. I think they are focussing on things which comparatively aren't really important, particularly when the points of etiquette are used to judge. I find I would rather not eat than have to eat with people who are constantly judging me on my table manners (which aren't that bad, I don't think).

I think some people with cognitive disabilities must feel that way about their church or other community group experiences for that matter. They are constantly being judged on their social skills (which are often not quite there because they do not understand the subtleties of many social interactions). I must say that the more I am with such people with cogntive disabilities, the less their their lack of understanding of social structures bothers me. Now I am not talking about moral rigor. We should as a church and as individuals hold the line on issues of morality because that is a point of obedience to God. However, the social creations to which we have been socialized need more looseness. Particularly in the church, our social structures should be loosened in the name of acceptance. The environment needs to be softened because out of love and acceptance, your presence is more important to us than a particular socially derived pattern of social behavior.

Why do I say this? Solely because such social structures are used as a point of exclusion.
A person talks out in a group too much so he can't be a part of the group (obviously we should be quiet when in groups)
Someone misunderstands the level of familiarity he should display, so he is excluded (obviously I should not stand too close to people)
I am more open/less guarded with my verbal expressions so I should be excluded (I shouldn't express that I love you or that I am angry with you because we just don't do that sort of thing)
I cannot understand your subtle expressions of rejection so I should be excluded (you try to avoid me, and I just don't get it)
I talk to you about my work and you just aren't interested so I should be excluded(you try to move away and I follow you)
I repeat my comments about things which are really interesting to me and you get tired of them so I should be excluded (you tell me I have already talked about those things)
My nose runs and I don't wipe it so I should be excluded (you are tired of handing me tissues)
I need assistance with many of the things which are a part of being in a group so I should be excluded (I just take up too much of your time when you want to also be with others)
All of these are like the person at the dinner table judging my eating while I am doing my best, just trying to be a member of the group eating at the table. I want to be there because I want to be a part of a group, I want to be loved, I want to love you. You turn me away because I don't hold my fork right, or lay my knife on my plate in the right way.

I am reminded again of the verse in Romans 12:2 which says, "Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will" (NIV). We should not reject needy people, particularly on the basis of what is tantamount to table manners. Could it possibly be God's good, pleasing and perfect will to reject people on the basis of their social skills, their table manners? NO. Could it possibly be God's good, pleasing and perfect will to become a bit more socially loose, and overlook the social skills of others in the name of love and acceptance of those who truly need love and acceptance? ABSOLUTELY. I need to once again reject the patterns of this world and once again be transformed by the renewing of my mind.


Thursday, December 07, 2006


Obliviousity (n) the state of being oblivious, as in being focussed on one's self, and unaware of others around (The obliviousity of the Christian church is disconcerting). Obliviousity ranges from the person who in the checkout line with 37 items while the person behind him has 1 item and doesn't offer to allow the 1 item person to move ahead in line, to the person who blocks you from the right hand turn lane because he has positioned his car in the middle of the lane, to the person who reads his book in the only bathroom while others are waiting, to the person who is totally unaware of the challenges of those around him, be they challenges of disability, or any other challenge of life. Obliviousity may be deliberate "Those people are not a priority," to being characterized by the statement, "I just didn't know" when any human concern is raised having to do with anyone besides the person who is oblivious.

In an attempt to address the problem of obliviousity in this country, people have begun wearing ribbons, or placing facsimilies of ribbons on their cars. So we see breast cancer awareness, or aids awareness, or most recently autism awareness or down syndrome awareness. These banners may have the effect of raising the awareness of those who display them, but they only make those who see them wonder what the new color ribbon is about. The displaying of the ribbon, also may make those who display it feel they are actually doing something. However, there is a difference between "awareness," being aware of something and what may be called "doness" (pronounced do-ness) that is actually doing something. As the singer Bob Bennett says in one of his songs, we "mistake the sympathy we bring for the doing of the thing."

Somehow we must break through obliviousity and help move people to awareness but then also move them to doness.

Obliviousity is quickly cured when someone has something happen to himself. So suddenly I have an interest in persons with disabilities when a person with disability is born into my family. I then quickly see how oblivous others are to the needs of persons with disabilities. But even if disability visits my family, I may remain oblivious to the needs of other families facing similar issues.

Somehow the church needs to break through this barrier. Churches are beginning to reach the awareness phase. I pray the doness phase will come soon.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Friendship House

The Friendship Ministries newsletter had an article about what is being called "Friendship House." The following is an excerpt from the article.
When a ceremonial shovelful of dirt was dug from the site of Friendship House on September 12, ground was broken in more ways than one. The Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI) project, named in honor of Friendship Ministries, is an innovative new Christian living community that provides inclusive housing for seminary students and adults with cognitive impairments.

Eighteen seminary students and six adults with cognitive impairments will live together...An essential contribution to this environment will be a weekly Friendship Bible Study group which will meet in the house. (Winter, 2006-2007)

This is amazing! Think of the sensitivity these seminary students will have toward persons with cognitive disabilities as a result of participation in this program. We need to be watching this development. What a great idea. God bless Bob and Deb Sterken and their son Rob for their innovative idea, and hard work to make this happen.