Monday, January 14, 2008
Understanding your experience
The following excerpt is from the book Adam by Henri Nouwen.
How did I come to realize all that was happening to me?
One day a few months after I had arrived at Daybreak a minister friend who had taught pastoral theology to many students for many years came to visit me. He arrived after I had completely shifted and forgotten my initial, narrow vision of Adam. Now I no longer thought of him as a stranger or even disabled. We were living together, and life for me with Adam and the others in the home was very "normal." I felt so privileged to be caring for Adam, and I was eager to introduce him to my guest.
When my friend came to the New House and saw me with Adam, he looked at me and asked, "Henri, is this where you are spending your time?" I saw that he was not only disturbed but even angry. "Did you leave the university, where you were such an inspiration to so many people, to give your time and energy to Adam? You aren't even trained for this! Why do you not leave this work to those who are trained for it? Surely you have better things to do with your time."
I was shocked. My mind was racing, and I thought but did not say, "Are you telling me that I am wasting my time with Adam? You, an experienced minister and a pastoral guide! Don't you see that Adam is my friend, my teacher, my spiritual director, my counselor, my minister?" I quickly realized that he was not seeing the same Adam I was seeing. What my friend was saying made sense to him because he didn't really "see" Adam, and he certainly wasn't prepared to get to know him.
My friend had a lot more questions about Adam and the people who lived with me in my home: "Why spend so much time and money on people with severe disabilities while so many capable people can hardly survive?" And, "Why should such people be allowed to take time and energy which should be given to solving the real problems humanity is facing?"
I didn't answer my friend's questions. I didn't argue or discuss his "issues." I felt deeply that I had nothing very intelligent to say that would change my friend's mind. My daily two hours with Adam were transforming me. In being present to him I was hearing an inner voice of love beyond all the activities of care. Those two hours were pure gift, a time of contemplation, during which we, together, were touching something of God. With Adam I knew a sacred presence and I "saw" the face of God. (p. 52-53)
Nouwen gets so many things perfectly right in this section and illustrates how others can get things so wrong at the same time. The Bible teaches about how all people have equal value in God's eyes. It teaches how interactions with the "least of these" are interactions with Jesus himself. It teaches how love is the greatest commandment. It teaches that we should pour ourselves out in service, in the same manner Jesus did. Surely Jesus had better things to do than wash his disciples feet. Surely there were smarter people he could have given his time to than a bunch of fisherman.
Noumen relates that his friend was a teacher of pastoral theology as a point, I think, of saying how the "experts" have gotten things all wrong. They may think themselves experts in pastoral theology but they have not done pastoral theology to the point of understanding it. In the church, we have knowledge but not love. I wonder how many professors, how many experts, how many church leaders, how many university programs have anything to say about disability? I met recently with a dean of a pastoral program (training leaders in Christian ministry at a respected university) who indicated that they don't talk about disability anywhere in their curriculum. Do we need to list the times that Jesus interacts with disabled people and stick it under their noses before they realize that these people were a priority for him? It is an example of what I have spoken of elsewhere regarding how Christian religious education, from Sunday school to seminary has gotten it all wrong. Ignoring people with disabilities when you claim to be an agent of Jesus Christ speaks volumes about your lack of understanding of what is really important. It is about loving people independent of their personal characteristics. At the moment, we appear to love people or not love people, care for people or not care for people, prioritize or not prioritize people on the basis of their characteristics and that implies a very basic misunderstanding of the Christian faith at its most basic point, love.
I had the experience once of being asked by a pastor to head up the men's ministry at church because "working with those disabled people is just a black hole for service." This church leader compared people with and without disabilities and not only indicated that one group was better than the other, he even ridiculed those who would work with persons with disabilities as if they are wasting their time.
Teachers of students with severe disabilities, whether Christian or not, have also had the same experience. If you were to ask a teacher of students with severe disabilities, "Has anyone ever told you that you were wasting your time, wasting your professional life because of the students you are working with?" they will no doubt respond, "Yes." Students have told me how friends, family, parents, other teachers have all made such comments. I don't expect those who have not yet committed themselves to Christ to understand these issues from a Biblical perspective, but surely we might expect enlightenment from those within the church, within the Christian academic community, from those in Christian leadership, but unfortunately it is too often not the case. And as Nouwen states, "I didn't answer my friend's questions...I felt deeply that I had nothing very intelligent to say that would change my friend's mind." Do you catch that point? It is once again the notion of knowledge. I need something intelligent to say change someone's mind. Paul says, "The man without the Sprit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). How foolish to waste your life with persons with severe disabilities. How very foolish. I will not say that people who do not understand these issues are "without the Spirit," however, I will say that if you, particularly as a Christian leader do not understand these issues, there is much room for spiritual growth. I continue to hammer on these issues, as did Nouwen through his life of writing, but I understand his feeling of not even being able to respond. You feel like the person who criticizes ministry to persons with severe disabilities doesn't understand the most basic of Biblical principles. It is a breathtaking lack of understanding.