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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Walk by faith not by sight

In 2 Corinthians 5:7 we read the phrase that we "walk by faith not by sight." Lately I have been thinking about how knowledge focused the Christian church is. Just think about the way we do everything from the worship service to Sunday School, to Bible study and it is all about knowledge. You might respond, "Duh...it is called Sunday SCHOOL and Bible STUDY." But I would respond that perhaps we have the focus of Sunday school and Bible study, and even the Sunday morning worship service wrong. You see, like you I have heard "walk by faith not by sight" probably a thousand times to the point that it just rolls off my tongue. I get it that I am supposed to have faith. But it struck me that I wonder whether I really do get it. "Walk by faith not by signt." What does that really mean? Is my church teaching me to walk by faith?

Well, we are to live by faith not by sight. But everything the Church seems to do from an educational perspective is all about walking by sight. We have an emphasis on knowledge which is simply a form of sight. We have an emphasis on knowledge development/sight develoment over faith development. We act as if sight and faith were the same thing. But Paul clearly distinguishes the two. How does one develop one's faith over just developing one's sight? Well I develop sight by increasing the ability to see things. I can help people to understand things by for example parsing out or unpacking scripture. But I wonder about the degree to which this unpacking leads to faith development. The assumption is that it does. We look for pastors who can explain the scriptures to us clearly. People with advanced degrees in theology.

The verse, however, seems to say that we don't live on just what we see, we don't live on just what we understand, we don't live on just what we can explain to others. As someone who is 52 years old and who has been in church and a Christian all my life, there are few things I can hear in a sermon that are really brand new. I delight when I learn something new, but new knowledge doesn't mean a sudden boost in my faith. I just think, "Oh, I hadn't thought about that before."

Faith development is harder it seems. It challenges me to do things that I perhaps would not choose to do, or to be consistent in doing things that I would rather not be consistent about. I do those things because I know they will develop my faith. They will take me to a place in my walk with God that I haven't been to before. Attending church can be one of those places of consistency, however, I think the church has missed all it could be in taking that consistency in attendance and truly making it into faith development in the lives of the attenders. It is almost like we treat people like they are going to school rather than attending church. Additionally our measures of faith seem misguided by notions of knowledge, of living by sight.

People speak of blind faith as kind of the ultimate put down of those who are religious. Clearly we are to have the knowledge to explain the "hope that is within us" but there is an aspect of faith that is experiential. If my experience with faith is like school, then I should expect that I am developing as a person who is living by sight. If my experience with faith is faith challenging or faith facilitating, or causes me to step out "blindly" I will develop as a person living by faith. When was the last time that your church challenged you to really step out in faith in anything other than your giving money to that church? Is that all faith relates to? Why am I not challenged to step out in other areas related to faith development, like loving people who are really hard to love, like bring people to church who will make others uncomfortable, or people who will make demands on me? Why are churches always begging for Sunday school teachers? These experiences at least in part point to the same thing. We are too often developing people who live by sight and not by faith. What is in it for me (sight)? How will this cause me to grow (faith)? The questions that people learn to ask are very different if they are living by faith.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Christmas" "Comer" "Bible"

There is a man in the group at our church named Eddie. He is a person affected by significant cognitive disabilities. Because of this disability, he has limited language, although based upon his language you would easily tell that Christmas is his favorite time of year. He uses words like, "Christmas tree" and "Santa Claus" and "presents" among a few others. Recently, however, Eddie added the word "Bible" to his cadre of words. When he would approach me he would now not only say "comer" or words associated with Christmas, he would also now say "Bible." I would respond, "Would you like a Bible?" and he would shake his head yes. Well, I finally got with it and found a Bible for him. I am actually in the process of reviewing picture Bibles to determine what one I would recommend as being the most appropriate for adults with cognitive disabilities. Most of them are very childish in their presentation (they are largely designed for children) or include stories that are not very applicable to adults (or even kids for that matter...one depicts Absalom being yanked from his horse, by the hair, by a tree branch, and another Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem being surrounded by lions).

Anyway, I arrived at one that seemed the most appropriate in the short term, removed some of the childish aspects of it and wrapped it up for Eddie as a Christmas present. He opened it up last week and literally sat for most of the half hour we met just looking through the pages. As I watched him, I wondered what the meaning of all of this was? His requesting a Bible, then receiving one, and then enjoying it.

I can recall at past Christimas parties Eddie would want a book as a Christmas present so perhaps there is an interest in books overall. It could also be that because many others in our group do bring Bibles perhaps he noticed them as well. When we are sitting at tables for the Bible study part of our group, others around him also would open up books as I was talking. So somewhere that interest developed and grew. I am unsure of how he he learned the word "Bible" although the fact that he did is a good sign, I think. It is indicative of the environments that he finds himself in (see http://disabledchristianity.blogspot.com/search?q=bert posting for a very different environment and how the words used by a person with severe cognitive disabilities reflect that environment). People around him be they those of us at church, or those in his home where he lives have used the word sufficiently enough that it has appeared on his radar screen and now is a part of his vocabulary. He knows what a Bible is (I suspect his understanding is that it is a book that people look at) and he wanted one based upon the request he made to me. Interesting from a special education perspective that he has learned to come to church, come to me and say "comer" and I would give him a donut or something. He then comes to me saying "Bible" with the assumption that I would also give him a Bible. I wonder what the next new request will be?

There is also a membership component of wanting a Bible. The people around him and he himself are all a part of this group. It is a group that he gets into his van, and travels for 15 minutes to go to. They are friendly to him, they interact with him, the listen to him, they seem to like him and they give him good food to eat. But perhaps he noticed that they all had something that he didn't have, a book called a Bible. So in order to be a full member of this group, he needed to have one of these Bibles as well. It is like the initiation into the group.

On a deeper spiritual level, I am unsure what this is all about. Isaiah 55:11 says,

So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me
empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter
for which I sent it.

That is something that we know. So God's word in the form of a picture Bible is accomplishing something, I would hope. I trust in that promise, however, I also use what I know about pedagogy to facilitate spiritual development in people who have the characteristic of an intellectual disability. I use the knowledge that people have gained to provide the best Christian education I can without exclusively relying on miracles for someone to learn something. God can use our efforts whatever they may be. However, we should not ignore the knowledge we have about how people learn and rely exclusively on miracles as the way people learning anything about God. Our creedo should not be, "Come to our church...it will be a miracle if you learn anything!"
Finally, it is interesting how Eddie, arguably the person who experiences the most significant disability of our group is in some ways providing leadership in this area. I have already heard from at least one other person, "I want a Bible like Eddie's." It is my plan to work through the various picture Bibles as I have said above and provide the best of the group to anyone who would want one, but I may have to speed up that process because of Eddie's example of relishing in his new Bible

It was also funny how once he had it, he would not share it with anyone, even to look at it. I don't know how he will be in the future, but he really valued his Bible, and kept it close like a prized posession even though he probably didn't understand what all the pictures meant, or what the Bible even stands for. It is my prayer that I, as someone who does know what the Bible says, and who can read it to understand it even more, that I may value it like Eddie does; a man with limited understanding.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sitting at the feet of people with down's syndrome

I have been writing about and wrestling with and reading articles on the topic of inclusive Christian religious education. As I have thought through issues, obviously one lesson we should be teaching in any form of religious education is love. People need to learn how to love. The Bible is largely a book about the love of God for people. In religious education circles, we do learn things about love and we do study love. But it feels to me like we study and learn about love like we would learn and study about baseball. I can know a whole lot about baseball and still be a lousy baseball player. To become a good baseball player, or good at anything for that matter, requires practice at that thing. For the Christian, the idea is not to simply learn about love, it is to practice love and become good at love. To sit at the feet of people who really do love their neighbors.

It also struck me recently, what the well known passage in 1 Corinthians 13:2 says,

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all
knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I
am nothing.

Isn't it interesting that Paul would juxtapose knowledge with love? He puts two things together which I can only assume have the potential of being confused. That is, I can have all knowledge, but without love I am nothing. So people can become confused thinking that knowledge is more important than love, that the development of knowledge is more important than the development of love. Note also that the opposite is not true, "If I have all love, without knowledge I am nothing." In the church, particularly as it relates to religious education, I think we have gotten this one wrong.

I once had the honor to meet Jean Vanier. I asked him, "How is it that the church has missed people with disabilities in terms of ministry and inclusion?" He responded something to the effect, "The church has been focussed on the rectitude of doctrine when it should have been focussed on the rectitude of love." He too saw he church's confusion about the focus of their efforts. What are the greatest commandments? Jesus said to love God with all your heart mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Once again it is important to note that he didn't say, memorize 100 Bible verses, and read the complete works of the Niebuhr brothers. That is not to say that those things are not important things. It is just that they are far and away not the most important things.

So where might I go to learn love, to see it acted out? I would honestly say to go to a place where there will be people with down's syndrome. I should "sit at the feet of a person with down's syndrome" because it is there that I would learn about loving other people. I wish I had the love of most of the people with down's syndrome that I have known in my life. They may not entirely understand love but they sure do love well. We criticize their love saying that they are disabled, that is why they aren't as discriminating as we who are not intellectually disabled. So we put ourselves in the position of criticizing someone who loves his neighbor by saying he should discriminate more. That makes a lot of sense.
If I have all knowledge and not love, I am nothing...

If I could have the knowledge of a theologian or the love of a person with down's syndrome, what would I choose? Wrong answer again, Church and Christians and world. In our world today, we not only choose to not learn love, we choose to kill those who might teach love to us by their example. We go so far as to prevent them from even being born. We have such a rabid desire to not change that we will even prevent the birth of those who might change us. In our lives, knowledge trumps love and that is a mistake.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"Missing Christ"

Tony Woodlief starts off his brief article "Missing Christ" (World Magazine, Nov.24, 2007) like this...
I saw Christ on a street corner in Washington, D.C., disguised as an alcoholic
felon. I don't often notice Christ. I can sit through entire church services and
not see Him. I'll notice which worship songs are individualistic pablum; I'll
remember if the sermon is more about what the Bible doesn't say, or if the
pastor is bent on setting people straight. But I'll miss Jesus, occupied as I am
with criticizing on His behalf. So it was unexpected, this Christ-sighting.
(visit http://www.worldmag.com/articles/13529 for more)

That is the case with many churches, many Christians I believe. We come to church hoping to see Christ, and pass him on the way. Over time, we get so used to not seeing Christ at church that we think that is the way it is supposed to be. But getting used to things the way they are not supposed to be, is much different from enjoying things the way they are supposed to be. Both can bring a level of comfort and relaxation. Its just that one is not the truth and the other is. Woodlief goes on to say,
For I was hungry and you gave Me food, Christ called out to me as I passed. It
was late; I just wanted a meal and my comfortable hotel bed. But I made the
mistake of eye contact. "They spit on me!" he shouted. It was so unusual that I
stopped. He was crying with frustration. Someone had given him spittle instead
of money.

We do that in the church although hopefully not with actual spittle. But people wait in need, families wait in need, and we pass them by on our way to church and in the process of "doing church." We have been doing church in a way that is different from the way it is supposed to be and even though we know there are hurting people in the world, relative to this blog people with various disabilities, we get used to our comfortable yet wrong way of doing things. The least of these, those who Christ says are his embodiement in the world right now are passed by. So we walk by the real Christ to worship a fictional Christ. A Christ of comfort and wealth and plenty and safety.
Woodlief ends his article like this:
I wondered who blessed whom on that street corner, and if Christ will ever
tire of coming to me in these ways, given how unfaithful I am in coming to Him.
Tough words which should give us pause. Jesus said that whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me (Matthew 25:45). No symbolism, no beating around the bush here. How much clearer, how much more direct could he have been?

You better watch out...


Saturday, December 01, 2007


Our group periodically has a "movie night" where we rent a film, get a bunch of pizzas and bottles of coke, sit in chairs or lay on the floor and watch the movie.  We have found that the more slapstick, the better.  Well we had a movie night last night, and with the Christmas season here, we decided to watch Elf.  It was a big hit and everyone enjoyed it.

It is funny, though, because a lot of the comedy revolved around Buddy (the elf) who although he is pure and loving and kind, struggles because he doesn't understand the social behavior of life in New York.  He is friendly and open and loving, but that doesn't always work in New York City. He finds his father (who is on the naughty list) and becomes his "redemption" (I assume he now moved to the nice list).  So all the slick sophisticated people move through their lives in a kind of funk while Buddy sees beauty, sees excitement in all that is around him.  He is also brutally honest with himself and others about his environment.  In the end, the environment changes, his brother likes him, his girlfriend believes him, his father takes a greater interest in his family.  It is obvious the connection with adults with cognitive disabilities who are often very similar in their honesty and their loving nature.

The family is also confronted with the choice of changing to adapt to Buddy, or rejecting him. This is the choice I see for the church, change and adapt to persons with various disabilities or reject them.  The mother in the family advocates for the family to change while the father advocates for rejection.  Ultimately, the father confronts Buddy and does reject him.  Once again, this is a perfect illustration of the two options the church has before it.  Acceptance or rejection.  As an outsider you understand the father's frustration, but you resonate with the mother's and the brother's acceptance.  Only a Scrooge would side with the father in the rejection of Buddy in spite of the difficulties he brings to the family because of his differences. But all too often, we as the church have sided with the rejecters (those on the naughty list I might add) rather than going through the changes necessary to accept a person who is different in some way.

At one critical point in the movie, the son, Buddy's brother says to his father, "Buddy loves everybody.  You only love yourself."  I see that sometimes in the church.  The person with mental retardation loves pretty much everybody.  We as the "non-disabled" love mostly ourselves and our own comforts.

At the climax of the movie, people sing Santa Claus is Coming to Town as an indication of their Christmas spirit (which could be another complete blog entry) and Santa's sleigh is lifted into the sky.  As we rode home in the van, the men in the car one by one, broke out in a mostly unintelligible (as far as the words go) version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  One of the men, Tom, didn't know all of the words.  He just sang over and over

You better watch out
You better watch out
You better watch out
You better watch out

Good words for any Christian, any Christian church to remember.


Thursday, November 29, 2007


Well I finally got fingerprinted so that the group home I had been visiting would not get into trouble. Believe me, I totally understand the need to protect persons with disabilities, particularly those with cognitive disabilities from people who would take advantage of them. I want them to be protected. However, I also realize that the fingerprinting is another hurdle in the way of friendships between people with disabilities who live in group homes and community members who might potentially befriend them.

In a conversation with a woman who represented those who were evaluating the group home, I asked what might be done to make it easier for people to be involved with group homes and not have to pay the $61 for fingerprinting? She indicated that the group home could reimburse those who were fingerprinted for the costs. I can only tell you that not all group homes are interested in paying money for anything extra let alone just to have someone be a friend to a resident. Then there is the issue of multiple people being involved. One group home I was involved with probably had as many as 10 people involved with the residents. Would the group home pay $610 so that those people could be involved with the residents? I would seriously doubt it. In addition, what if there were turnover in those from the church who were involved with the group home. How many times would the group home be willing to ante up the $61 for a new friend to have visiting rights after fingerprinting?

No, this is an example of another barrier to community integration of persons with disabilities instituted by the human service systems who, with the best intentions, contribute to the problem of isolation of adults with cognitive disabilities.

The woman I spoke with from the agency said that the law would need to be changed for there to be a change in the fingerprinting requirement. Understand me that I am not trying to get the protection of vulnerable people removed. I am trying to protect people while at the same time facilitating their integration into the community. I am planning to contact my state legislator's office to explore the issue. Perhaps a solution is a much reduced cost for such fingerprinting and an expedited system. If people aren't interacting with persons with disabilities when they don't know the hoops they have to go through to do so, what would their reaction be if they understood the requirements that they would have to meet to be a friend.

This will have a particular impact on the church where there could be many who would be involved with people with disabilities. I can't even imagine what might be required. For example, should an adult with cognitive disabilities go to a church, how many of the people in the church have to be fingerprinted?

Perhaps it is time we pushed the envelope a bit in a kind of a preemptive strike such that that excuse would be removed as a reason for no involvement.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Exercising your love muscle

I haven't worked out in probably 3 months.  I am not looking forward to starting up again, but Monday is the day.  Anyway, it is tough getting into shape.  You recognize how you have been a slug, and your body rebels.  It hurts for a while, but ultimately once you get into shape it is great.  You look forward to your workout each day.  But until you decide to do it and then stick to it, your muscles will always hurt because you are always starting over again.  Once it becomes a pattern in your life, it is easy.

Love is like that.  If you always love people who are easy to love, it is like sitting on the couch all day.  You never push yourself, and anytime you are confronted by someone who is in any way difficult to be with or to love, it "hurts" and it is hard.  Perhaps people have poor social skills, or are unkind or make demands on you because of some need they have.  Your choice is to say, "This is too hard, I quit" or to stick with it and like exercising a muscle, it begins to get easier.

I can tell you that after 30 years of befriending persons with cognitive disabilities, loving them is much easier for me than it would be if I had never had any interactions with people with such differences.  The answer is to be with people with differences as you will be stretched. You will learn to love people who may be different than the typical.  You will grow and develop and over time it will get easier.

But for love to happen, the decision has to be made that I am going to love other people even if it is difficult for me.  If I am committed, over time it will get easier...it is a principle that can be counted on.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

99 Balloons

My wife Kathi, turned me on to a wonderful video entitled 99 Balloons which you can view at the website listed below.
In a nutshell, it is the story of a young couple who via prenatal diagnosis discover that they are carrying a child with trisomy 18, a chromosomal difference that causes children to have severe intellectual disabilties, and who typically die within their first year of life. This couple, the Mooney's, however, do not take the route of abortion, thereby "preventing" the birth of the child. They have the child and take you on a journey with them through Eliot's short life. It is a wonderful video, very life affirming.

It reminded me of a book I read a while back called Defiant Birth which I wrote about in this blog on 8/11/06. In that posting I wrote the following:

In the book Defiant birth: Women who resist medical eugenics the author
Melinda Tankard Reist takes on the notion of prenatal diagnosis leading to
abortion through the stories of women who having received the diagnosis that the
child they were carrying was determined to be disabled, chose to have the
child anyway. Of course she relates stories of those who were misdiagnosed,
however, the thrust of the story is the experience of women who gave birth to
children who were born with various disabilities. These disabilities include
anencephaly (a disability which typically takes the life of the newborn within
hours or days) and of course down syndrome. There are many amazing lessons to be
gained. One, for instance relates to carrying a baby with anencephaly to term.
Overwhelmingly, doctors would advocate for abortion of such children as they
will die soon after birth anyway. Tankard Reist, however, says that if you knew
your child would die in an hour or a day, would you choose to kill your child or
would you enjoy the hour or day you had remaining with your child? Mothers spoke
of their child living his entire life in their arms, of celebrating the 1 day
birthday, or the trip home from the hospital. They also spoke of the impact for
good the birth of the child had on their lives.

These types of stories are an affront to too many in the medical profession who advocate prenatal diagnosis and abortion. In an Animal Farm kind of way, they describe this procedure with words like "prevention" but we are talking about the killing of an infant. It is particularly insidious to me that people, particularly women who are in a very stressful, very unsure position are not given all the information in order to make their "decision." Even the notion of a "decision" as to whether someone should live or die reflects a position in favor of death. I don't get to make decisions about the people I work with because that is immoral, and should I make a decision to take someone's life, there is a good chance that justice would prevail and I would loose my own. Yet in the case of a newborn with severe disabilities, we have engaged killing by couching it as a decision. I have had many interactions with the medical profession which supports my feeling that they are morally and ethically lost.

I once worked with one of the top physicians in disability in the country. This doctor is known for his work on behalf of children with disabilities. However, I often accompanied him when he would tell parents or teach students to just tell the family who have received a prenatal diagnosis of disability to "abort and try again." That is all that life is...abort and try again. Could I cheapen the value of a life any more than to dismiss it by saying, "kill it and have another baby." This is wisdom in the eyes of many in the world, and many in the medical profession.

In another instance I was a medical student taking a class in Genetics. After you have watched the 99 Balloons video, consider this. The professor speaking specifically about trisomy 18, what Eliot had, told the medical students, "You can reassure the parents that the child will die in the first year of life." Once again, I am struck by the perception of the lives of people with disabilties as perceived by the medical profession. It is portrayed that their deaths are a blessing for themselves and all those around them. We can relax, and be comforted by the knowledge that they will soon be dead.

Videos like 99 Balloons and books like Defiant Birth are critical strikes in the war for life. They are an attack on the supposedly conventional wisdom about disability and we need many more of them. We also need people with severe disabilities to have a presence in the church.

I remember in the whole Terry Schaivo incident, whenever reporters were filmed at the scene, in the background, there were many protesters holding signs which often had a Christian message. Christians are quick to condemn the taking of innocent life as they should be. But I also wondered how many innocent lives of persons with severe disabilities were present in the churches of those protesters. You know, it is one thing to talk about fighting home invasion and quite another to invade my home. I will fight to protect the life of children, but I will go much further when it comes to my own children. If people with severe disabilities are in our churches, our fight for their lives will become more heated, more urgent. As it is, we are fighting for an ideal, not for our friend who sits in the pew next to us (imagine if persons with severe disabilities were actually in the pew next to you...I pray that God will make it happen).

May God bless this little family who had the courage to bring their severely disabled child to life, to love him for 99 days, and to have the wisdom to film their experience such that we can all be edified by it.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Inclusion in the public school

One of the main reasons given for including people with cognitive disabilities in regular classes is for the purposes of developing social skills. I have been thinking through that idea lately and I am not sure that I agree with that. The assumption is that social skills cannot be learned unless someone is with people without disabilities which to my knowledge is a question that has not been addressed by research. Yes, people can learn social skills in a general ed setting, but that is quite different from saying that they cannot be learned in a special education setting.

Another issue is that through inclusion programs, we are supposedly preparing people with cognitive disabilities to live with people without disabilities. That is, they will need the social skills to be with people without disabilties. Well, the best that I can tell, there are a lot of people with cognitive disabilities who do not spend much time as adults with other adults who are not disabled, that is, other than those who are paid to work with them. So there is a fallacy in that argument. In addition, why would the focus of social skill development be to facilitate inclusion with persons without disabilities? It is like a person with a disability hasn't lived until they are integrated with a person who is not disabled. That is the feeling of people without much more than people with disablilities. I think that persons with disabilities are much less discriminating (in the most positive of ways) about their friends than are people without disabilities. My cognitively disabled friends see friends, less often discriminating between those with or without disabilities...they just see people. I, on the other hand, seem quick to categorize people as disabled or not, which is my problem.

In reality, the main justification for inclusion programs if one looks across the life of persons with cognitive disabilities, would be to change the enviornment, to change people who aren't currently experiencing a disability. They will gain a great deal in such relationships, they will grow and be softened.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

From Sunday School to Seminary

I have been doing some writing lately related to the topic of inclusive religious education. I will keep you posted as the publication I am working on with a wonderful group of experts is made available.

Anyway in working through some of the ideas, I thought about religious education "from Sunday School to seminary" in relation to people with disabilities. Rarely are children with disabilities included in Sunday school to the degree such children are present in the community. In interactions with Chrisitan kids at church, I have asked them where they have had experience with children with disabilities, and most often they will say in their class at public school. Some will relate experiences with children at church, but most experiences are not had at church. The same would be characteristic of Bible study groups of young people in Junior High School, High School or College. Few if any contacts with persons with disabilities as members of those groups, as the focus of ministry in those groups, or as a topic for discussion in those groups. They are ignored. In college, students study the Bible, or church ministry. Once again, it is as if people with disabilities have never existed. Even in Bible classes, where you would think people might be impressed by the text of the Bible (particularly the Gospels) that they are studying, little if any mention of disability or people affected by disabilities. In Christian ministry programs (I have personally spoken with directors of several) when asked if disability is mentioned in any of the classes, the response is either "No" or as a point of discussion in some ethics, or bioethics class. Finally, in seminary, perhaps the highest level of training of people preparing for leadership in the church and in ministry, once again there is little if any discussion of people with disabilities.

I have stated this elsewhere in this blog, but the US census says that nearly 20% of the population are people with disabilities. But to those in education in and around the church it is once again as if people with disabilities do not exist.

As I have thought through this, it tells me something about Christian religious education. To me at all levels, Christian education has a serious flaw. That people with disabilities would be overlooked on every level tells me that all levels of Christian education are wrong. They are wrong because they overlook some of the most needy, the poorest, the most disenfranchised people in the world. How could any group that claims to be Christian be so blind as to miss this group? To miss such a group in the light of the Gospels and the example of Christ is so wrong. Have those who do Christian education never met a person with a disability, never met the family of a person with a disability and recognized the societally imposed travails those people face? I don't know which would be more disconcerting...that churches have met such people and have ignored them, or that they don't know about such people. In either case, the response evidences a lack of caring. It causes me great concern to witness such blindness at every level. My concern is that this oversight is symptomatic of a pervasive lack of caring. This lack of caring is evidenced at every level of Christian education and that is disgraceful.

I have heard dozens of excuses from money, to training, to "I just didn't know" and all them are inexcusable. So God would tell us that those are all good reasons and would excuse us from caring? No, do something and find out what it would cost. Do something and learn in the process if you don't have training. Do something and find out how the life experience of people impacted with disability is the same or different as those not affected. Once again, if you really "just didn't know" what does that tell you about the religious education you have received at every level...I should probably include sermons in this discussion.

Additionally, every day we visit bathrooms that are handicapped accessible, or walk past handicapped parking spaces. Who are all theses handicapped parking spaces and bathrooms for? Are they for figments of our imagination? Has the government lost its mind, or is it actually true that 20% of the population is disabled? No, things have to change in the Christian church. Christian education needs to become caring and particularly aware of the needs of the devalued members of the community.

May God forgive us for our practices at every level of so called "Christian" Education, from Sunday School to Seminary. No excuses. Just start doing what is right and teach about the caring that is or at least should be a critical aspect of the Christian faith. Otherwise we perpetuate a system that reproduces numb Christians with a significant flaw.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Leading worship for adults with cognitive disabilities

Eric Boyles is a friend of mine who helped me to see worship with adults with cognitive disabilities in a very different light. He is able to elicit participation in worship (or at least showed me that such participation is just below the surface with adults with cognitive disabilities). Eric would come to our Light and Power company group, and lead music/worship once per month. I remember one week, as he was beginning, just playing some chords and plucking strings on his guitar, he said something to the effect, "I feel like there are people who would like to give praise to God. If you would like to give praise to God, please do so." Very spontaneously, people across the group, representing all ability levels, would chime out. "I praise God for my family" "Thank you God for my job" "I praise God for Light and Power class" this went on for perhaps 10 minutes with Eric doing little more than asking the question, setting the occasion for the release of praise. I will admit that I had underestimated the folks in thinking that they would or perhaps could do such a thing.

At other times, Eric would elicit other forms of expression from the group, be it singing or suggesting a song, or prayer, or praise, or just being silent as he would lead. I learned a great deal about the level of participation one might facilitate with little more than praying and then setting the opportunity. Eric's appearance seemed to set the occasion for a deeper level of worship among those with disabilities. As he would express, he just tries to get out of the way and let God's spirit work.

He and I have also had interesting discussions about how persons with cognitive disabilities can set the example of freedom in worship. People with "social skill deficits" by definition, are largely unaware or unconcerned about how they appear to others. This is a real benefit when it comes to worship. If they want to raise their hands, or clap, or dance, or whatever, they feel the freedom to do so. Their presence opens things up a bit in terms of stretching the envelope. They are an example to the congregation.

Eric has also described to me how they are unimpressed with him as a worship leader. Perhaps a better way of stating that is that they are equally impressed with whoever is the leader. I am reminded of my grandmother, who when I told her that I received my Ph.D. said, "That's nice. I hope that makes you happy." She didn't demean me but she wasn't overly impressed. If people are not overly impressed with me as a leader, they once again facilitate my being able to get out of the way and allow God's spirit to shine through.

I asked Eric to write a song to go along with our current series of lessons on the book of Psalms, based upon the sit, stand, walk statement of Psalms 1.
See http://jeffmcnair.com/Biblelessons/Psalmslessons.htm
He wrote the wonderful song, "Sit, stand, walk" which you can see him performing in the video at the right. It is once again a perfect example of treating adults in a manner that is not juvenile. The song is simple, but at the same time profound. It is also a prayer which people can pray by learning to sing the words.

I will be giving Eric some questions to address in the near future, but if you have any questions about leading worship with adults with cognitive disabilities, I would invite you to ask them as well. You can either email them to me at mail@jeffmcnair.com or you can use the comment funciton of the blog to ask the question.

Be watching for more on this issue, and for more input from Eric who has thought a great deal about these issues.


The church of the "big butt"

There is a friend of mine, a friend with cognitive disabilities who regularly will go up to our pastor, shake his hand, and say, "I love this church!" Our senior pastor as well as any other pastors he has commented to have shared with me that they love hearing that comment. That is, not "I love this church, but..." but just, "I love this church!" Now most of us would probably qualify as members of the former of the two statements. We love our church, but we are critical of this or that. We love our church but we wish this or that would be different. Our buts add up into a large butt. We even might demean the unqualified love of our church by our disabled friends, by saying "Yeah, he has a cognitive disability. He doesn't understand the nuances of what his statement means. He isn' t really saying the loves EVERYTHING about the church, he just doesn't have the cognitive ability to differentiate." We, however, with our normal intellect would not be demeaned when we say, that we love the church except for the, music, style of biblical interpretation, noise, type of donuts, and so on and so on. You see, we arethe normal ones. It is normal to be the church member with the big butt. It is NOT normal to be the church member who says, "I love my church" without qualification.

But if you think through it, who would be the one who might have the actual reason to qualify his love for the church with buts? Would it be the university professor with a good income and respected position in the church? Or would it be the member of the devalued class, living in poverty, whom the church has largely ignored for centuries?

To use the metaphor of the big butt, if a person has a big butt, it implies that they have something they would be better off not having. That is if they excercise and eat right, chances are they would shed their big butt. A big butt may imply laziness or self-centeredness. Now if you have a big butt, I apologize if this offends you, but stick with me. Our qualification of love for the church with a but statement, says more about us than it does about the church. We are quick to nit pick and do nothing. We are unwilling to have the involvement that would exercise our faith perhaps causing us to loose our big but.

In my experience, it is those who are most familiar with the foibles of the church who love it. You could read this blog and accuse me of being a hypocrite in this area. But I will tell you that I love the church without qualification. It is God's chosen body for His Son, Jesus Christ. It is because I love the church that I want to see it become all it could be. It is my hope that buts in this blog are not, "I love the church, but I hate this..." Rather that "I love the church and it can become this..." Let me say that if the church made no changes whatsoever to what it is now doing, it would still be the best option for persons with disabilities. If only because their presence would wake it up to all it can and will be. It is like dormant seeds in the soil that just need water. Because it is God's choice, God's way of doing things, it is and always be the best option. Will it fail? Absolutely it will fail. I still love the church.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Curriculum and adults with severe cognitive disabilities

I had a discussion with a leader in disability ministry the other day.  We were discussing what curricula might look like for an adult with a severe cognitive disability.  The person I spoke with indicated that they will use stuffed animals that the adults can manipulate while they are teaching about the story of Noah's Ark.  As I listened, it struck me that the approach was misguided on many levels.  Please understand that I bless that person and the work that they are doing, however, I also understand, I think, alternative means to work with that particular population: adults with severe cognitive disabilities.  Lets consider a few aspects where I believe this approach is wrong.

First, in all of our interactions with people with disabilities, we should treat them in an age appropriate manner.  If we are not age appropriate, we stigmatize people.  Adults treated as children are trivialized and dismissed.  So the first problem is age appropriateness.  When classes for adults without disabilities start using stuffed animals to teach Bible stories, or have adults color pictures, or do whatever else children do but adults don't typically do, when that happens, then I will consider doing that with adults with cognitive disabilities.

Second is the whole story of Noah's Ark.  What relevance could this story possibly have to the life of adults with cognitive disabilities?  These are people who struggle with the most basic of understanding.  Yet we will teach them about Noah, and assume they understand that that is the name of a man who lived a couple of thousand years ago.  The assumptions here, boggle the mind.  The assumption is that they will generalize the fact that these little stuffed soft things represent real live animals, when we know that a characteristic of people with severe disabilities is that they cannot generalize such information.  Need I go on?  The animals enter in groups of two...what is a two?  They are male and female...what is male and female?  The world was destroyed by a flood...what is a flood?  Because of the sin in the world...what is a world and what is sin?  The disconnection between the story and the life and understanding of a person with a disability is staggering.  Yet we dutifully teach the story of the creation, or Noah, or whatever.  I remember being in a Sunday school class one time where the lesson was about how David could have killed Saul but didn't, just cutting off a piece of his robe.  Or a lesson on the fact that God is eternal.  I can barely understand that one myself.  That lesson was particularly memorable as when the teacher said "God is eternal" a dear woman with down's syndrome turned to me and said, "What is this God is a turtle stuff?"

When I called the teacher on these things, the response was that "The Holy Spirit will fill in the gaps."  So I am to teach with my plan being that God will do a miracle every time because I am unwilling to teach in a way that works with the people at the level they are on.  That I should plan for a miracle for their to be any understanding for a severely cognitively disabled person in a Sunday school class.

But you might say, "Well what would you teach about then?"

I am not sure I would deliver any specific content, knowledge to people with severe cognitive disabilities.  I think that is part of the problem with the way we do most things at church.  Everything is knowledge based.  So when it is time to teach the severely disabled people, we have to be knowledge based.  Well that is pretty silly to my way of thinking.  Maybe I would tell them that Jesus loves you.  They may not understand who Jesus is, but to teach a person that someone loves them is a good thing.  If a person could only repeat the phrase "Jesus loves you" would be a good lesson to learn.  But as I said, I might not even do that.  My current efforts in a church program that includes people with severe cognitive disabilities, is to let them know that I love them.  That I am glad to see them.  That I call them my friend.  Then we eat a lot of good food together, and hug each other and enjoy a few minutes together.  They learn that they are a part of something where they are loved and they are welcomed. 

One man in our group (I have mentioned him elsewhere in this blog) is a great guy named Eddie.  Because I know Eddie, I know the few words he speaks.  When we are together, I use them with him.  So he might initiate a conversation with me, or I with him using his words.  So I say to him "Christmas" and he replies "Christmas."  He then says "Ho ho ho" making a characteristic gesture, which I repeat.  He says "Toys" to which I respond "Toys, you like cars." He responds, "Cars."  He is with someone who is listening to him and he is listening to me.  It is funny because as I am teaching a lesson to a group of perhaps 70 people, he will leave his seat and come up to me, and we engage in this conversation.  He has complete access to me at any time, and we talk about the things that are important to him.  In addition, although the topic of our conversation is somewhat juvenile, our conversation is not juvenile.  If you couldn't hear what we were talking about, you would just think we are a couple of old friends having a good time talking together.  It is interesting that recently he has infused the word "Bible" into his conversation so I am on the lookout for a good picture Bible.  He has noticed that people open a book when we are in our group, and they call it a Bible.  He wants one too, so he will get one.  But not because I plan to impart any Biblical knowledge to him other than that "Jesus loves you" and that "I love you." 

I still look to God's Holy Spirit to help, but the assistance is that Eddie will know that I love him and that Jesus loves him.  Not that he will be able to engage in Biblical interpretation and application.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Power of Professional Opinion

I was told of yet another situation where a human service professional made a pronouncement about what a person who is disabled would never do. We have all heard those pronouncements...
"He will never walk"
"He will never read"
"He will never have a normal life"
and the worst of all
"He will always be a vegatable"

Each of these statements are offensive and cruel in their own right, but they are particularly hurtful as they come from people who are perceived to be "in the know" about something. They are the professionals, the experts. However, I would contend that they are definitely not either professional or expert because someone with the life experience to go along with professional training would never say such things. When I hear of such statements, my response is not that the person making the statement is a professional. My response is that the person making such statements is a mess. He is a person using a position of power to destroy the hope of desperate people; be they the individual about whom the pronouncement is made or that persons loved ones and family. How can one respond to such pronouncements with other than grief?

But we probably all have known people who were told they would never walk, or never speak, or never whatever who are now walking or speaking or doing the thing they would never do. Because we believe the professionals, we call the fact that the people can do what they were not supposed to do miracles and I don't doubt that many people do experience miracles in their lives. I would be the last one to tell you that if you have been healed of something or are now able to do something that no one thought you would be able to do that you have experienced something miraculous in your life. But I would be the first to say that the pronouncement made by supposed professionals which may have led you to believe that your natural healing (which in itself is a miracle of sorts) have a good chance of being flawed.

I personally know, for example, a person who a doctor said was in a "persistant vegetative state" (I hate that phrase...calling someone a vegegable only provides an excuse for that person to be treated as something other than a human being) and was supposed to remain in such a state for the remainder of the person's life. Well, that person is a very active individual right now. Sure there are remaining evidences of the original disability, but if that person is in a vegetative state, than he is the first green bean that I have ever met who can communicate, respond to God, lead others to understand God and disability through emails and personal discussions, take care of their needs, and do a myriad of other things.

I could write all day on the whole idea of professionals, particularly medical professionals and down's syndrome. Man, is there a lot of misinformation being given about people with down's syndrome by medical and other professionals. Particularly those linked to the abortion industry. As one of my professors, Dr. Bob Henderson, used to state about ill informed people, "unencumbered by knowledge, he speaks with great authority." But I may have never known a person with down's syndrome personally, yet I can make all kinds of prounouncements about who people with down's syndrome are.

I will also tell you that there have been a couple of times in my life when I have been in the presence of someone making a pronouncement about what someone will never do. The last time was when I was discussing how a teacher could help a young man with severe cognitive disabilities develop some basic speech. As the child stood before us, the teacher said, "He will never be able to communicate through speech." I went off on the teacher. In a nut shell, I said "How dare you say such a thing! How do you know what Johnny (not his name) will or won't do! I suspect as well if he does not develop the ability to speak while you are his teacher it is probably your fault, not his!..." Anyway, the teacher apologized to me and to Johnny and I think that was a teachable moment. How much easier if the teacher has responded, "I would love to help Johnny to communicate through speech. How can we make that happen?" How hard would that have been?

But it is true with all of the "he will never..." pronouncements. Why not say, "Here are some ideas of what you might do to help him so that he might be able to walk again, or speak again or whatever again." "Here are some ideas of things you might do stimulate or potentially engage your family member who is in a comatose state." In none of the statements did I say that the person would get better. All I did was present the possibility of improvement and gave both the individual with disability and the family some hope. If the were to ask me, "Will Johnny ever walk again?" My response would be, "I really don't know. There are some people who have been able to recover, but they are very rare. Here are some ideas of things you might want to try to help him."

The other side of professional opinion, is the incredible good which can come from what a professional may say to people to encourage or praise them. I have experienced many occasions where I will have made some comment to someone that literally impacted their lives. Perhaps I said to an instructional assistant in a special education classroom that she has a knack for working with children with autism and ought to consider becoming a teacher. Five years later that person approaches me to say that that small comment was the spark that caused her to go back to school to get a credential. Or perhaps something is said to a person with a disability, or even a simple act of kindness, something that you don't give a second thought about, that impacts someone for the good.

Those of you who are professionals who might be reading this must remember the impact you have on people by the things you say. Now obviously you shouldn't tell people things that are not the truth. But you must also temper what you say with the fact that you do not absolutely know what will happen in the future for a person, so if you must err, err on the side of being hopeful.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The importance of language

I have been thinking about the importance of the language we as professionals (those of you who are professionals) or those of us who are just in the know (those of you who are in the know) in our interactions with persons with cognitive disabilities. We can contribute to the devaluing of people, or we can assist in minimizing their devaluation simply by the language we use.

I have a particular responsibility as a trainer of teachers of students with severe disabilities. I am in the sometimes unenviable position of training community experts (teachers). I love that opportunity, but there is great responsibility that comes with that opportunity. I have to be very circumscribed in the language I use, because it will be copied by the community experts I am training, and then modeled for the community. I am therefore very, VERY sensitive about issues of language.

Don't get me wrong, I am constantly joking with my friends with cognitive disabilities. We call each other turkey or old goat. It was particularly fun when I learned the ASL sign for turkey cause now I can tease friends across the sanctuary during church! We tease, but I am careful to tease in a way that does not demean, or particularly in a way that might be misconstrued as being a jab at their disability. If I err, which I sometimes do, I am quick to apologize to the person and to those listening.

I personally also do like to use the phrase, "people with___" when necessary to describe a person with a disability. There are those who reject the phrase as being politically correct, or not being a correct use of the English language. However, I embrace the phrase, I embrace its cumbersome nature, because it once again reminds both me and those listening that I see the person I am speaking about by using the phrase as a person first (the reason for the phrasing).

We also don't want to give people permission to use demeaning language by laughing at their jokes, however well intentioned, or not calling them on their use of language. I remember once getting into a cab in the pouring rain. I was soaked. When I got into the cab, I said to the driver, "I am sorry I am getting your seat all wet." He responded, "Well at least you aren't a (racial slur)." I responded, "Pull the car over I'm getting out" and did so. Perhaps in the future he would not be so quick to assume racist comments were acceptable.

However we do similar kinds of things in our language about disability. In the previous entry, I pointed out a video where the speaker explains the use of the word "retard" or the phrase, "don't be retarded" as derogatory phrases basically equivalent to ethnic slurs. However, it can be much more subtle than that. Jokes about about low intelligence can be subtle, but should not be tolerated. But if we don't speak up about such uses of language, we can be sure that no one else will. We are the experts. We should be setting the tone. If nothing else, negative language will be curtailed or at least apologized for in our presence, and both the speaker and listeners will be exposed to the potentially damaging nature of language.

Finally, language may be considered "juvenile" but must be taken with the seriousness with which it is communicated. I had a delightful time riding home from the beach this past Sunday with a friend. He is a man about 45, but his language is limited to phrases like "Santa Claus" or "Christmas" or "toys" or "cars" or "candy" or "comer" or "Ho Ho Ho" or "Christmas tree." Obviously he is someone who particularly enjoys the Christmas holidays based on his language alone. As I sat with him I had a 20 minute discussion which centered on these phrases, but was as adult as possible. I didn't treat his discussion of "toys" as cute or juvenile. I discussed toys with him in the same manner I would discuss the Lakers with another friend, or music with another friend. It was like I attempted to validate his language choice by my interest, my participation in his language and the seriousness with which he discussed the subject. He was very intent on cars for example, and would literally grab my face to turn it toward him to tell me the word cars, and he wasn't laughing. My response was to have that discussion with him in a respectful adult manner. I am sure people around me thought the whole thing a bit ridiculous, but at the same time, he had my undivided attention. If someone tried to interject something, I would respond, "Excuse me I am talking to Eddie." The importance of his perspective, his preferences, his opinions was validated by my interest.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Defining the meaning behind the word "retard"

I found a video at a weblog called Kei Unlimited. It describes the use of the word "retard" from the perspective of the brother of a girl with down's syndrome. The speaker's name is Soeren Palumbo Fremd.

I thought I would share it here. You can view it at the bottom of the page.

The weblog address is,



Tuesday, October 09, 2007

300 postings at disabled Christianity

The following is from the first posting I made on this blog...

I was recently visiting another blog (nicea.blogspot.com) where there were
discussions about Barth's ideas on election. These postings caused me to wonder
about election as it relates to individuals with mental retardation. There are
those who would say that by virtue of impaired cognitive abilities, these
individuals have been elected and are on the salvation fast track. Interesting
that biological conditions could have such spiritual implications.

Let us assume two things, for a moment. First, that people are created by God in God's image. So when God tells Moses, "who makes the mouth of man" (Exodus 4:11) He is implying, "I made your mouth the way it is." In the case of Paul who asks for a disability to be taken from him, his "thorn in the flesh" God's response is "My grace is sufficient for you my power is perfected in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). So first, people are made the way they are, they are not mistakes. Secondly, if people with severe cognitive disabilities are automatically saved by virtue of their impaired condition, a view held by some, then salvation efforts on our part are unnecessary (a reason I have been given at times for a lack of involvement by the church towards such people). Now obviously you may not agree with either of these propositions. Maybe you think disability is not an expression of God's creative range. You might also think that people with cognitive disabilities, particularly severe cognitive disabilities are not saved even though they have limited cognitive ability restricting their ability to respond to the gospel message. I will give you both of those points. I will give you that the issues I am describing in a very cursory fashion need much more research and thought.

However, if God has placed among us, people that He designed, who He plans to "save" simply by virtue of the fact that they have a limited opportunity to respond, well, it just seems to me that I might pay attention to those people in order to understand what God is telling me about Himself and about myself by putting people with such characteristics in our midst.

If people are not given a pass regarding salvation, then how would a loving and just God facilitate salvation for such people? Could there be a kind of a community component to salvation for such people? I note in the passage where the paralyzed man is lowered through the roof (Luke 5:20) it says "Seeing their faith, He (Jesus) said, Friend, your sins are forgiven you." Seeing the faith of those who lowered him through the roof, he forgives the disabled man of his sins. Very interesting. He doesn't say, "friend you are healed," he says "friend your sins are forgiven you." He does later say, "get up and walk" but only to illustrate that He has the power to forgive sins. So it could be that God is looking to us those around people with disabilities to show our faith such that even something as powerful as the forgivness of sins might be seen in another.

Finally, whether or not people with disabilities, particularly those who are born with disabilities are reflective of God's creative range, all disabled people are people who must be respected as people who are equal as people, who are loved as people, and who are valued people. I remember many years ago when a light came on for me that everything in the Bible that I cling to as a Christian applies equally to people who are disabled as well. I had so "othered" people with disabilities, that I didn't see the Bible as even applying to them. I think many people still do that today. They do that in their actions, they do that with their questions. A good friend asked me the other day "How do you deal with people with disabilities in counseling when they 'play games' in counseling using their disability as a crutch?" My response was, "How is that different from any other person who plays games in counseling? How would your response be any different for the person with a disability than any other person?" Can you see how that question sees a person with a disability as something different than just a person?

I have grown to believe that people with disabilities are designed to be as they are because they are critical, they are an essential part of the body of Christ. People with disabilities change the people around them and the enviornments around them, and I think those changes are far and away mostly positive changes. That is not all they bring to a social environment, but it is an important part of what they bring to a social environments.

So after 300 postings at this blog, I still wrestle with the questions I had at the beginning. But God is teaching me and I am gaining new insights. May God grow us all such that we see people as He sees them.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

The confrontation of disability

People with disabilities in the church will not allow us to be something other than something much more of what we should be. Not by specific efforts on their part, but more by their simply being. By them simply being themselves. If we want to be what God calls the church to be we can have them everywhere, or nearly everywhere, or we can be something that is not the church. We will be a church, but we will not be the church, at least not as the church God meant us to be. It will change us...we cannot be what we currently are, we cannot remain as we currently are. We will have to change.

How do we come to understand what it means that we have not yet changed? What do we do with the knowledge that inspite of knowledge about disability, we refuse to change? We can take an exhortation to heart and become something different, or we can kill the exhorter; even though he speaks to us in a righteous anger that strikes us at the heart of our traditions, at the heart of the way we have always done things, or at the heart of the way we have come to do things.

Jesus faced this question when he entered the temple at Jerusalem and saw all the money changers and sacrificial animals being sold. At face value, he might have said, "These church leaders are simply trying to make things easier for those who are here to worship." But he saw what was actually happening. He saw the sin that is so much a part of who we are that we are not able to see what we should be. We embrace our sinfulness to the point that righteousness is rejected because it not even recognized as it stands before us. What else could the reason be for the rejection of persons with disabilities? Particularly in the light of information about the treatment of people with disabilities by society.

In a whole variety of ways, people with disabilities confront people around them by their very existence. They cause changes in their environment, but only if the environment chooses to accept them. If they are rejected, no change is necessary.
A child with a disability is born and is sent to an institution.
A mother is pregnant with a child with down's syndrome and has an abortion.
A child is born with a disability and the father runs away from his family.

The church and its agents have to change...
A man with mental illness comes to a church and is rejected.
A girl with down's syndrome comes to a junior high youth group and is rejected.
A woman has a mild disability and is rejected by the Bible study.
Mothers of children with disabilities come to a nationally known Bible study group and are rejected. The leader is confronted but the rejection continues. Rejection not only continues... rejection is embraced by the leadership.

The confrontation of disability should cause change, and the change would move us in a direction which would lauded by God himself. Jesus would turn over the money changing tables and drive out the sheep. We gather the sheep up, set up the money tables again and kill Jesus.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Saving people in groups

I have talked elsewhere about the John 9 story of Jesus healing the blindman (see April 26, 2004 blog entry for one). However, I was touched recently by a passage further on in chapter 9. The blind man who was healed was being questioned by the church leaders.

24A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. "Give glory to God,[b]" they said. "We know this man is a sinner."
25He replied, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

This is really powerful to me. The blind man apparently did not know who Jesus was, but he is ready to come to his defense. Not because he had come to faith, or because he was convinced by some spiritual argument, but because he was blind and now could see. It strikes me that we as the church have missed a lot of such opportunities in the lives of disabled people. Not that they will necessarily be healed, but that we can be loving and caring to them. I can hear the following conversation...

"You know those Christians are judgemental and intolerant. They are
religious zealots and dangerous. They believe in a nonexistent god."
He replied, "Whether they are what you say or not, I don't know. One
thing I do know is that I was alone and now I have friends. I was excluded
and now I am included. No one loved me and now people love me."

That is the type of opportunity we are missing. Like my posting in 2004, the Glory of God is seen in what we do. "I don't know who their God is, but I am willing to find out because of what they have done for me."

Later, Jesus finds the man. Look at his response to Jesus.

35Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do
you believe in the Son of Man?"
36"Who is he, sir?" the man asked. "Tell me so that I may believe in him."
37Jesus said, "You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you."
38Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him.

I have known people with disabilities who have been accepted instead of being rejected. They have actually responded something to the effect, "Who is he so that I may believe in him?" That is the power of what we do when we reach out to rejected people. We help them to see the Glory of God in the way they are loved and accepted.

One other thing I note about this story is some of the things mentioned about the parents. It doesn't say that the blind man was begging. It just says that Jesus saw a blind man. Jesus says that the parents' sin was not the reason for the man's blindness. The parents tell the leaders,
"Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews.
I find these three facts/quotations interesting. At least according to this account, the man must have been cared for somehow if he wasn't begging. Perhaps it was his parents. They were not the reason for his blindness due to sin, perhaps in the form of lack of attending to him as a boy, or abuse, or something else they may have done. Also, they say that he can speak for himself. Actually, he speaks very well for himself. I suspect this blind man when he was a blind boy was well cared for and taught well to be able to interact with the church leaders in the way he did. I also note, however, he knows what a prophet is (thats what he says Jesus is), and his response to the church leaders is very telling about his upbringing.

27He answered, "I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you
want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?"
28Then they hurled insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's
disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as
for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from."
30The man answered, "Now that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
The church leaders didn't believe he had been born blind so apparently for whatever reason he was not really known to them. But he knows how to exactly hit their buttons by asking if they want to be his disciple and by the statements he makes about who God is. His confidence as a blind man must be from his upbringing. The limited knowlege he has about God must have come from his family. When confronted about their son, the parents are scared, however, it appears they did a pretty good job in taking care of their disabled son. He is cared for, intelligent, and self-confident.

Additionally, he was waiting, on some level, to be told who the Son of Man is so that he might believe in him. First, someone needed to get his attention by addressing the thing that had separated him from the rest of the community, his disability. Jesus heals him, but we can at the least, accept people and refuse to make disability their defining characteristic. We can love and accept people. One other thing, what do you want to bet that as a result of Jesus' intervention into the man's life that his parents who appeared to care for him also became his followers. That is something that we must remember. It could be that when you love and accept people with disabilities, people get saved in groups, as families who are desperate for acceptance for their children and themselves.

PS Happy Birthday Kathi!!


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Teaching with pictures

In the movie Amistad, the story is told of how the African slave receives a Bible, and through studying the pictures learns the basics of the story of the life of Jesus (pictures from Hollywood Jesus website). Although there was a language barrier and a cultural barrier, the message could be shared via pictures.

I suspect this is perhaps one reason for pictures being placed in Bibles...they assist the reader to visualize the subjects of the text.

But what if you couldn't read at all? How might you be able to study the Bible? It occurs to me that the use of good pictures might be very helpful. Carefully selected pictures, be they photographs, or paintings could be taught as Christian study tools for people with learning disabilities to cognitive disabilities. Those who can't read, or perhaps can't even understand Bible passages being read, might be taught to study pictures.

Should a teacher choose to use such a strategy to teach Biblical content, it strikes me that there are several important points to consider. First, the picture will be THE Bible to the person studying the picture. If the picture is not Biblically as accurate as possible, people will misunderstand in the same manner as people would misunderstand if they read a poor translation of a passage. Biblical correctness must be ensured as much as is possible. Second, the picture should be detailed to teach subtleties of a particular part of the Bible. Henri Nouwen authored Return of the Prodigal Son, which is basically about what he learned from studying Rembrandt's painting, Return of the Prodigal Son. It is fascinating the depth of meaning he learned just from studying the painting. Third, the picture should be appropriate for the age of the individual using the picture as a Biblical study aide. We should avoid cartoons, or unrealstic representations because the unrealistic nature of the pictures will communicate that the story is perhaps unreal. Persons with cognitive disabilities are very much realists and therefore must be confronted with realistic images. They can be very sensitive to the age inappropriateness of materials used with them instructionally. Fourth, an engaging picture will bring in those in the enviornment to assist the person understand the meaning within the picture. If I am studying a cartoon while sitting at Starbucks drinking my coffee, people will think me juvenile. However, if I am studying a famous painting, people will be engaged by my interest, perhaps ask questions, or perhaps provide interpretations which might help me in my understanding, my study of theological concepts via the picture. Fifth, in the same way we help people to pray through scripture, we can help people to pray through the pictures, so again using the example of the Prodigal son, we pray to be forgiving like the father or we pray to be humble, or asking for forgiveness like the son. People's memory's are prompted with such pictures. Sixth, is the potential universal design benefits of the pictures. It is often the case that accommodations made for people with disabilities don't just benefit them. An example is curb cuts for wheelchairs. Curb cuts are also great for bicycles, or people who just have trouble stepping down from the height of a curb. Designed for wheelchairs, they benefit others. Teaching students to study pictures has the potential of benefitting everyone's understanding of the Bible in the way that it assisted a priest and scholar such as Henri Nouwen. (Return of the Prodigal Son picture from 123 posters.com).

I have actually used Return of the Prodigal Son with adults with cognitive disabilities with some success. I used the picture and taught them the story. I would then ask questions about what they learned using the picture as a prompt. People in the class would view the pictures and be able to relate various points I was attempting to communicate.

So I am hoping to see curriculum developed (not necessarily by me) that uses these and other principles to teach spiritual truth to those who would perhaps like to study to some degree, but are unable to do so because of their inability to read or listen to Scripture. Well chosen, carefully chosen, pictures chosen with consultation from someone like a church pastor to ensure they properly represent the passage being taught could prove very useful in teaching persons with cognitive disabilities.


Monday, September 24, 2007

"I don't pass to girls"

When my daughter was younger, she played basketball, and me being a father who wanted her to play and enjoyed her playing, would often coach her teams. I remember when she was maybe 9, I was coaching her team at the YMCA. It was the first game of the league. Amy was the only girl on the team. I remember that at the start of the game, she would often be open, waving her hands, but the boy playing guard on the team would not throw the ball to her. This happened several times, Amy open, but no pass. I finally called a time out, and brought the team over. I asked the little guy playing guard,

"Did you see that Amy was open under the basket?"
He said, "Yeah."
I asked, "Then why didn't you throw the ball to her?"
He replied very matter-of-factly, "I don't pass to girls."
"You don't pass to girls?"
"No, I don't pass to girls."
I responded, "Well we have a place for players who don't pass to girls.
It's called the bench."

Shortly after that interaction, probably before the end of the first half, he went back in the game and started to pass to the one girl on our team.

I believe there is a lesson here for us. In the game of YMCA basketball, you can pass to girls, or you can sit on the bench.

Fast forward 10 years. I had a conversation with a pastor who related that some of the people in leadership in the church, particularly people in leadership of small Bible study groups felt uncomfortable with people in their Bible study groups who were disabled, or didn't have perfect social skills. He wondered what he should do? I think the question was perhaps related to how he might limit the numbers of disabled people in a group, or change disabled person involvement in such a way that the leader didn't feel so uncomfortable. My response was that basically if you are a leader who can't handle disabled people, you probably shouldn't be a leader. You don't pass to girls, you get benched from the basketball game. You don't accept people with disabilities, you are disqualified from the leadership, you are benched.

Here is a further example.

OK, pick an ethnic/racial group, any ethnic/racial group. Imagine your leader coming to you and saying, "I don't like people from this particular ethnic/racial group in my Bible study." Your response would be:

a. "Yeah, I don't like those kinds of people either"
b. "You are benched"

Sure we could add another potential answer, like, we will provide you training before we put you in a position of leadership, or help you to get to know people, or whatever. That could be another option. But basically, the only responses are "a" or "b."

You might say, "But it is different if the people are disabled." I might even agree somewhat. There is no reason for people with profound mental retardation to be in the Bible study group. But anyone who has the potential to understand even minimal levels of the content should be there. Anyone who would benefit from the social aspects of the interactions could be there as well. But social skill deficits are not a reason for excluding involvement. Particularly if they are minor.

Unfortunately, the Christian church's response has too often been "a." Look at the involvement of people with disabilities in churches, look at the involvement of people with disabilities in Chrisitan schools, look at the lack of information shared about disability on Christian colleges, in departments of Christian ministry, in seminaries, look at the lack of sermons on disability that have been shared from the pulpit, look at the number of ministries to persons with disabilties at churches.

Matthew 23:23 says, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

"Yeah, I don't like those kinds of people either"
Apparently, that is a statement some church leaders would attribute to Jesus Christ...

I think he would tell the leaders,

"Well, we have a place for leaders like you. It's called the bench."


Friday, September 21, 2007

Being shrewd

The pastor of my church, Dr. Gary Inrig, gave a very interesting sermon last week about being shrewd (based upon Luke Chapter 16). I must admit that it was probably the first one I have ever heard on the topic, but it is something that more people should think about. One thing I have noted about Jesus himself is that he was shrewd in that he was never predictable. Just when someone thought they had him, he would come up with an answer or response that would totally surprise them. But he was not just clever in his answers, he was also shrewd.

We occasionally see Christians being shrewd. I remember when there was to be a huge Promise Keepers meeting in Washington D.C. one of the organizers was asked by an interviewer why Christian men should be trusted by women, be they Christian or not. His response was something to the effect, "You shouldn't trust us." The interviewers were surprised. "You should test what we say by what we do, by our actions." They were expecting some self righteous justification, he agreed with them and as a result, he scored points with them and the audience listening.

As I listened to the sermon, though, I must admit I got caught up in verse 15 of the passage. It says,

You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows
your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.

Its true. We justify ourselves in the eyes of people, we look to the community for our approval too often, and at the very least, we look to the community for the methods we use in churches. There are too many business principles being applied to churches for my liking. Church growth can be come a formula. Finance campaigns can be slick. People are judged and valued on the basis of what they can contribute to the church. Jesus says that what is valued among men is detestable in God's sight.

So I should step back and look at my church to see the things that are valued by men as they might actually be detestable things. I might also reverse the proposition and step back and look at the things which we think are "detestable" or at least less desirable, or problem causing, or whatever our negative feelings are, and ask whether they might be something that God delights in.

Is the exclusion of people with minor social skill deficits (or major ones for that matter) something that is valued by men? Is is something that people typically do? Do churches, and pastors, and adults, and teens, and children reject people on the basis of social skills? Is this accepted practice in the church setting? It is definately accepted practice in the world of business or women's groups, or colleges, or high schools, or junior high schools, or elementary schools, or any other group. Social skills are definately something that is highly valued by people in the world.

But I want to be shrewd, by God's standards.

You know I have related this before in this blog, but I often wonder why I see the things that I do relative to people with disabilities and the church. I am not the sharpest tool in the shed as the saying goes, and I also guarantee you that I am not a particularly shrewd person. I amaze myself quite often with how clueless I often am. But I feel like I am an investor in the 1970's who has heard about this thing called Microsoft (I might have my years wrong, but stick with me). So I see this amazing opportunity. In this case it is not an opportunity to make money. It is an amazing opportunity to correct the course of a Christian church which has not been going in the right direction. It has been "off course" in many ways. I see this opportunity to be obedient to God in ways that the Church percieves as entirely new ways. I see this opportunity to really learn what love means through loving people who some consider difficult to love. I see this opportunity to serve people who haven't been served, and provide wonderful opportunities for service.

If you are shrewd perhaps you will see it too.



Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Making their cry my own

Jean Vanier makes the following comment in his book, Community & Growth: Our Pilgrimage Together :

Often a community stops crying out to God when it has itself stopped
hearing the cry of the poor, when it has become well satisfied and found a way
of life which is not too insecure. It is when we are aware of the distress
and misery of our people and of their oppression and suffering, when we see them
starving and sense our own inability to do anything about it that we will cry
loudly to God: "Lord, you cannot turn a deaf ear to the cry of your people;
listen then to our prayer." When the community makes a convenant with poor
people, their cry becomes its own. (1979, Paulist Press, p. 124)

Obviously all people have problems of a greater or lesser degree. I find, however, that the problems of persons with disabilities are at times very difficult to solve. They can be difficult to solve for me personally, because to solve their problems implies a time committment on my part. I have to change my priorities to include them when I would rather take my ease, watch tv, or read a book. But I don't think I am called to take my ease as much as I would like when my brother or sister is in need. It truly is not about me. At least it is not about me, or should NOT be all about me, if I am a Christian.

But another aspect of this is that when I see human need, I also seen the insolvable nature of human need. Don't believe what the politicians or anyone else tells you...we will not be able to solve the problems of a fallen world because it is well, fallen. Sure I can help and I can lessen the pain of those around me by God's grace, however, I have come to believe that one of the reasons that there are people in need in the world is so that we will cry out to God. That we will seek God's wisdom, God's help for seemingly unsolvable problems. In my own little perfect life, with a good marriage, good children, good job, good income, good place to live and so on, I may loose the desperation of my need for God. I have become intoxicated by my blessings, and rather than look to the source of my blessings, or look to see if others have blessings or need blessings, I go home and watch the football game on tv. But bringing myself into contact with those in need, those who are alone, those who may even be suffering, reconnects me to my helplessness without God in this world.

This is yet another reason why the church needs people with disabilities. They have challenges in their lives and the lives of their families which can only be addressed by a cry out to God. We truly do "sense our own inability to do anything about it that we will cry loudly to God" if we are aware at all. We are brought to a point where we sit without the answers, in deep distress, calling out together to God. I think that is a place God wants to take me, to take us. He wants to challenge our securities with insecurities so that we will be forced to rely on Him rather than our own resources. He wants us to step back and look at our resources, be they emotional, intellectual or monetary and physical, and be a part of the solution for others.

When I am in an uncomfortable situation with a person with a disability because I don't have the answers, or can't communicate clearly, or am reduced to simply praying because I don't know what to do, I inwardly smile a bit as I recognize God is challenging me to cry out to him on behalf of this person. God is wanting to grow MY faith and the faith of the person I am attempting to support. Once again God has connected me to a hurting person and given me the honor to share in that person's frustrations.

But remember, the solution is not to reject those who make us feel uncomfortable. The solution is to get in there with them and share their experience, share their struggles, and perhaps make others uncomfortable through our allignmentment with a disenfranchised person. The typical response is to reject, to exclude because involvement requires change on my part or the part of the institutions I am a part of. The answer, however, is to work through the uncomfortable feelings, to reflect on them and understand them and to change with them as appropriate.



Monday, September 10, 2007

Child find

Perhaps the most pivotal law in special education in the United States, is PL 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. There are several important precedents that were set by the legislation, however, in order to serve the children with disabilities, they first needed to be found. One critical component of the law, therefore, was called "child find." I can remember posters that were placed around the community that said something to the effect, "Do you know a child with a disability who would benefit from a public school education. Please refer them to ..." and so on. So as the government got into the business of providing special education services it had to first find the children to be served.

Fast forward 30+ years. The church should be in the "child find" business when it comes to children with disabilities. There should be signs around our communities saying something to the effect, "Do you know of a child with a disability, or of a family with a child with a disability would enjoy worshipping at a Christian church? Come to --- church where you will be welcomed and embraced. We want you and your family member with a disability to feel welcomed, and loved. You have a church home!" How about that for child find? Better yet, lets just call it person find... "Do you know a person with a disability looking for a church home?" I plan to approach people at my church for permission to put such signs in my community.

You see, there are churches with disabled members. Some have become disabled during their tenure attending a particular church. Some people with disabilities will arrive at a church, and the church hopefully tries to figure out how to include those people.
I want my church to be one that recruits people that other churches do
not want to recruit.
I want my church to be the "child find" or "adult find" or just simply "person find" church. Let people start with us. We can then not only serve them at our church, should that be their desire, but we can also talk to other churches to get the other churches to serve those individuals as well. So if a person from the Catholic, or Baptist or whatever faith comes to my church, I can say, "You are welcome here!" If they respond, "I wish there were a Baptist church locally that would serve us" we can respond, "Let us help you to become involved in that church." We could then contact that church. If they are open, great. If not, the people are welcome to stay at our church untill the Baptist church in the community is more open.

Why did the state have to find children under PL 94-142?

Because the state hadn't been serving the disabled population in the public schools.

Why does the church need to find children, adults, people with disabilities now?

Because the church has not been serving people with disabilities.

People with disabilities and their families probably as a group think that they are not welcome in churches. For us to sit back and say that we would accept them if they came is insufficient. We need to demonstrate to them our change of heart through our efforts to ask them to come. We have to go to them. We have to ask them to come.