“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.