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

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jesus Christ, not so Superstar

Last night my family went into LA to see a musical play.  It is our tradition to do so during the Christmas holiday.  This year, we saw Jesus Christ Superstar.  I haven't seen the film, or the play before, but back in the 70's I had the record and remembered all the songs.  My theological IQ has improved a bit in 30 years and as I watched, I had to just shake my head.  Jesus was depicted as somewhat effeminate, pure white, and not a little strange.  Whenever he was not talking to a person, he appeared to be talking to himself, or maybe he was praying.  He also was portrayed as amazingly weak.  He was always tired and tempted and pretty much overwhelmed with the word he was in.  

The theology of the production was pretty trite although there were moments when various things would pop through that would make me think.  For instance in the scene where Jesus is overwhelmed with people asking to be healed, the people were not portrayed as individuals, but more as a kind of human mass with various heads.  They asked for healing for a variety of things, but once again they were just a mass of suffering which had faces as you would get a bit closer.  And of course, Jesus was portrayed as being overwhelmed to the point of frustration with this mass of humanity.  I wondered whether that is who people, who even consider who Jesus is, who do not believe in him, think he is about.  Unfortunately I think the church sometimes reflects this.  But Jesus made the world, for goodness sake, and is not overwhelmed by his creation.  Through faith, we have access to Jesus's power for blessing in the world.  It is through faith, however.  Without faith, we will be overwhelmed by the suffering mass of humanity.  With Christ, in faith we wade into suffering and become his hands working his purposes.

At intermission, my son and I had a conversation with a couple who sat in front of us.  The woman was somewhat drunk and the man very smug.  They spoke of how well the play portrayed Jesus's not so positive characteristic of being so self-promoting.  I wondered aloud to them, "Where do you get the idea that Jesus is self-promoting from the Bible account of who he was?"  I think they liked the Superstar account more and in some ways treated that as the truth about who Jesus was.  I guess when they go to Lion King, they think animals talk to each other and have political motivations they act on in order to gain power.  But what about the church would cause them to think otherwise?

Do we portray a wimpy other worldly Jesus, who is tired, and tempted and overwhelmed?  Was Jesus someone that hadn't really thought through the events of his time and his life such that he screwed a lot of things up as in the line "Every time I look at you I don't understand, why you let the things you did get so out of hand."  The life of Jesus is portrayed as my life often is and  sometimes feels: just putting out fires, running from place to place.  They don't see the plan in what Jesus did and who he was.  The church's response to people with disabilities is like a textbook example of something happening that we are unprepared for and not in accordance with any plan.  "How could God allow..." fill in the blank.  A tired, tempted and overwhelmed God can be expected to mess up and miss some things some times.  He is a God needing my forgiveness or at least my understanding.  "Cmon, God is doing the best he can!"  The JC Superstar form of God is up in heaven uttering an occasional "Damn it" when he messes up yet again.  Our response to him is "just rest tonight."

No I don't worship Jesus Christ Superstar, or at least the one portrayed.  People experiencing disability are not just a big mass of anything.  They are individuals whom God loves whom he knows intimately, who are a part of his plan.  If the church doesn't see people as unique creations whom God loves, they support the myths.


Friday, December 12, 2008

The regular life

A friend of mine contacted me this week.  She is a someone with a disability who told me about her feelings of loneliness and being stressed about regarding other aspects of her life that she is currently going through.  Hopefully, I can try to do better in terms of calling or visiting, but it is difficult.  I work full time, I have a family.  These responsibilities force choices on my time that I often don't like to make but I must make nonetheless.

An aspect of the empowerment of people with disabilities whereby they take on typical lives are the consequences of living typical lives.  My friend was living in a group home where there were other adults living.  She was unhappy there because of many of the restrictions that go along with living with others, particularly in a group home setting.  She made the decision to move out on her own.  She is now living independently, and largely doing very well.  However, when you live by yourself in an apartment, a natural consequence is that your friendships must be developed by you.  If you want people to come to your house, you need to invite them.  A natural consequence of living by yourself, is that if you do not make efforts to get out, to meet other people, to invite people to your home, you will be lonely.

This illustrates a critical principle in our efforts to facilitate regular lives for people who have been denied regular lives.  That is, regular lives are not perfect lives.  My presence in the community, living independently, does not mean that my life is suddenly filled with things that I necessarily would not have if I had less independence.  A critical aspect of a regular life is that I am largely left alone.  I find this in my own life.  I have many friends, however, unless I invite them to do something with me, I spend a lot of time alone.  Now I have the benefit of being married, but a regular life is a life of independence and aloneness if I rely exclusively on others to just come by on a whim.  Those living regular lives who don't experience a disability don't typically expect such a thing, so what does it imply about the "regularness" of the life of a person with a disability if they expect to be catered to in a way different from those not experiencing a disability?

 I am acutely aware of the restrictions on the lives of those who experience less independence.  They have neither the ability nor the understanding of how to facilitate friendships with people outside of the facility in which they live.  I therefore make an effort to come to them to bring the regularness of a friend stopping by for a conversation.  I go, for example, to a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities and have a coke and some ice cream while we just talk about what is going on in their lives.  If someone didn't do that, then their lives would largely be filled with people paid to be with them or people with equally regulated lives experiencing similar disabilities.  My presence brings a wild, off the reservation, kind of regularness.  When I visit, they stay up later, they eat foods that are fun (and not necessarily "good" for them or on the diet plan developed by a nutritionist) in larger quantities that they wouldn't typically eat, they may travel with me to someplace in the community they wouldn't otherwise be able to visit, they meet new people who are interested in them but not paid to be with them, have experiences typical to the average person, but not to people with regulated lives and so on and so on.

The person with disabilities living independently may live in poverty, but they are independent and pretty much have the opportunities to move about the community that anyone has.  But I find an expectation in a subset of people with this experience that I don't see in those who live in  more restricted settings and I admit that I am not sure what to make of it.  I am confident that some do not know how to make their own lives less lonely.  I also try to do what I can to enrich their lives and when someone tells me they are lonely, I feel a responsibility to reach out to them.

I guess I just also want to tell them "welcome to the regular life."  Regular life is often loneliness.  It is often making what you can of your own life.  It is maximizing your opportunities and not relying exclusively on others to make your life for you.  Obviously, there are people who have such significant disabilities that they have to have people in their lives, volunteer or paid, to do the simplest of things.  However, if I have achieved a "regular life" and I simply wait at home for other people to make my life into something when I have the ability to do most everything for myself, I may be proclaiming that I do not want a regular life.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

From "Surprised by Hope" by N.T. Wright

I have been reading Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright with some friends. I have found it a fascinating book. As the subtitle states, it deals with "Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church." Here is a quote that grabbed me.

..."To hope for a better future in this world - for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world - is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God's ultimate future into God's urgent present, is not distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it. Mostly, Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him saving people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a salvation, the message for which they had longed, that would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. But the two were not unrelated, the present one a mere visual aid of the future one or a trick to gain people's attention. The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future...

The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throught the letter (1 Corinthians), is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God's people are called. What you do in the present - by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself - will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether...They are part of what we may call builting for God's kingdom. (pp. 192-193)

I want to pull a few sections out of this passage and touch on them a bit. Wright says, "Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing." This is so important in the life of a church in relation to disability issues. You can criticize me all day long about being closed minded or intolerant, however, if I am working to love, encourage and befriend people with various disabilities, well, it might just cause you to be silent. Unless completely foolish, people are still impressed by what others do over what they say they will do. Wright says that a significant reason that Jesus himself got a hearing was because of what he was doing. Why should people listen to you or your church? Is there any reason that a family member or friend of a person with a disability or a person with a disability herself should listen to you on the basis of what you are doing?

"The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future." How does what you or your church doing point to what you are promising long-term in the future for persons with disabilities both on Earth and in Heaven? Are you promising them a future where they will be a full member of the Body of Christ or are you promising that there is no place for them in the Body of Christ, in the Kingdom of God? We have the ability to provide a glimpse of the future even if we are not seeing a person physically healed. We bring glory to God by providing a glimpse of a future where disability is largely irrelevant. I say largely irrelevant because it appears that there will be vestiges of our Earthly life in Heaven (eg. Jesus' stigmata). My love, my acceptance, my caring, independent of your personal characteristics are a glimpse of the future. It is no wonder if people with various disabilities are not drawn to church. We give them a picture of a future without them through their experience of a present without them.

Wright also states that, "These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether...They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom." He makes the point that our physical bodies are redeemed. Our existence is not merely a spiritual existence because this cannot be supported by scripture. So he claims there is some kind of a link between our physical bodies now, and the new bodies we will receive in the New Heaven and New Earth. I am confident that I don't understand what this means. However, there is a long term aspect of the things we do as people if we will only be aware of it (see April 10, 2005 blog entry). I think the effects are multifaceted for our own lives and the lives of others. They build God's kingdom in myriad ways.