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

Friday, June 19, 2009

Come without your "competence"

My daughter Amy graduated from Seattle Pacific University last weekend. She had a wonderful experience there.

On Sunday, we visited University Presbyterian Church and heard an excellent sermon by Pastor George Hinman. He told how he is not a very good golfer. But when he is playing on occasion with friends, he always is worried at the first hole because there are always a lot of people standing around waiting to begin their round looking on. He shared how he wants desperately to get off a good first shot, in spite of the fact that he is not a good golfer (I have felt that way too..."Please God, let me not miss, or totally hit it sideways"). Relating that to his and our problem with pride, he said something to the effect that, "the point of greatest pride is wanting to present myself as something that I am not." In the case of his story, he goes to the tee, and wants to present himself as a good golfer so that he will not be laughed at as a bad one, and that he will get praised by those looking on who might think him a good one. His point in the golf analogy was that we should come to God, without our "competence" at least our self perceived competence.

I immediately thought of my friends with disabilities and how they model that for me. My friends with severe physical disabilities cannot fool me into thinking that they have great physical abilities. My friends with intellectual disabilities cannot fool me into thinking they have great intellectual disabilities. One friend in particular who because of his intellectual disability cannot read, tries desperately to impress those around him with an ability to read, and although we attempt to help him, or point out correctness when he reads something right, we recognize that he is fooling himself and those of us around him see that.

What competence do I think I am impressing God or those around myself with? I guarantee I may be very impressed with myself, however, God looks on and probably "shakes his head" pointing out to me how I sometimes get things correct, but also recognizes that I am fooling myself in thinking that I am something that I am not.

But the pastor also made the point that it is not God's desire that I live in despair at my lack of competence. No, God frees us from the burden of despair by always giving us hope. Not hope within ourselves, but the hope that faith in Christ brings. I have a hope of forgiveness through Christ. I have a hope of acceptance through Christ. I have a hope of growth in obedience through Christ. I have a hope of being used by Christ. I have a hope of a life together with God through Christ. That hope makes me smile! I come to God as I am, he sees me as I am (maybe I sometimes see myself as I am, too), and we move on from there.

One last point on the church in Seattle. Beautiful service, wonderful music, powerful sermon, friendly people, however, those at the information booth knew nothing about a program including people with disabilities that we were told was a ministry of the church.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jean Vanier on Lazarus

Jesus' friend Lazarus, may have been a person with a disability. That is what Jean Vanier (L'Arche communities) suggests. He states the following
Lazarus, loved by Jesus
This is one of the simplest and most beautiful
chapters in the Gospel of John.
It reveals how profoundly human and totally divine Jesus is.
It is about Jesus loving people and raising from the dead
a man who had already been in a tomb for four days,
whose body was starting to decompose.
It is about Lazarus, who was sickly (asthenes).
In the language of today, we would probably say
"who was disabled."
The Greek word asthenes can be translated as
"sick," "without strength," "feeble" or "insignificant."
Lazaurs is deeply loved by his two sisters
and Jesus has a special relationship with him.
At one moment his life is in danger,
so the two sisters send word to Jesus:
"Lord, the one you love is sick." v. 3
And the evangelist tells us:
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. v. 5
Later Jesus says:
"Our friend Lasarus," v. 11
and further on in the chapter,
when people see how Jesus is deeply moved
by the death of Lazarus, they say:
"See how he loved him." v. 36
This is the first time in the Gospel of John
that we hear of Jesus' love
for individual people,
the first time that John, speaking of Jesus,
uses the Greek words agape and philia.
(from Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, 2004, p. 195).

There are clues in passages about Martha and Mary and Lazarus that might give you the impression Vanier suggests about Lazarus being disabled. In addition to the use of the word asthenes in reference to Lazarus, we see in Luke 10:38 that Martha is the head of the household, with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus. Culturally speaking, one would suspect that at that time if Lazarus was the brother in the family, he would be the head of the household. He isn't which raises some questions as to why he might not be. Additionally, we note that neither Martha nor Mary are married although elsewhere we get an impression of Mary's past (John 11:2 perhaps pointing to Luke 7:36). John 11 says Jesus loved Martha, her sister and Lazarus, he once again listed last in the passage. The name Martha means lord or master.

I do not have the ability to study the language or culture of the time to determine the validity of Vanier's suggestion about Lazarus, however, it is interesting to think about. Jesus' friend, the one who he wept over at his death just may have been a man with a disability of some type.


Monday, June 08, 2009


Im going to Graceland
Poorboys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I've reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

Paul Simon says that this is the best song he has ever written which is saying a lot. My son, Josh, got me a DVD about the Graceland CD that I recommend. It talks about South Africa at the time, how some felt that Paul Simon was exploiting the racial discrimination there and so on and so on. Simon hopes that the music may have contributed in some way to the positive changes that have occurred there over the past 25 years.

But as I was listening to Simon talk about Graceland, and the lyrics were swirling in my head, a connection was made for me. Graceland was apparently named after a woman named Grace, but Simon saw a different connection in the name perhaps related to a future for South Africa. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Nelson Mandella and Bishop Desmond Tutu in so many ways made the name Graceland a truly fitting name for a country fighting to shed itself of racism, using the incredibly powerful weapon of grace. I shake my head in amazement and disbelief every time I read or think about the grace shown largely by the black leadership of that country. The awesome power of God's forgiveness was and is on display in South Africa. It is a lesson for the generations.

The church should be known as Graceland. That song title and some of the lyrics could be or should be how the church is known. "Poor boys, and pilgrims with families" are the people the church should be reaching out to. People who have been broken "my traveling companion is 9 years old, he's the child of my first marriage"
independent of who they are. I think about people with disabilities. When we think of the Christian church, we should be thinking, "But I've a reason to believe we both will be received in Graceland." Wow, can you imagine people on a pilgrimage, people who are disability imigrants, traveling to a Christian church thinking 'I have a reason to believe that I will be received.' I can imagine people who feel like imigrants feeling like they are coming home when they come to the church.

But we have much to do to be a place where people will have a reason to believe that they will be received. It begins, I think, with a decision that we want people with all types of disabilities in our churches. If I decide that I want you, the rest becomes pretty much just logistics in terms of how do we make adjustments, make changes, do whatever is necessary in order for you to be welcomed. If I as a beginning point do not want you, I will communicate that in my practices. I will communicate that you are "putting me out" with your presence which I think is how many churches make people with disabilities and their families feel. Yes there are those who literally say, "Go somewhere else." But perhaps more often, we blurt out in exasperation, "All right, I'll try to figure out how to make a place for you" said with the expectation of great appreciation being the response on the part of the people with disabilities and their families.

But that is not Graceland.

When people come to our group, I try really hard to communicate that any changes that we may need to make to include them are, will be, or were easy, were effortless, independent of how difficult they may have been. We do that because that is what grace is.

Think about your salvation, Christian. All you had to do was to say, I am guilty of sin, and I look to Jesus for my salvation...I believe. What a comparatively easy thing for you to do. Why is it such? God may make it appear effortless on your part, however, think of the work Jesus needed to do for it to be "effortless" for you. I wonder about Christians who are unwilling to dispense grace to others. Are they not aware of the extreme grace that they have received? Jesus talked about this in Luke 7:36-44. If we understand that we have been shown so much grace, why can't we show a little more grace to others, others desperately in need of grace? I want the church to follow that example in the enfolding of all types of people. Follow the example of God, in that I am willing to do what it takes to make you a part of the Body of Christ. Come to this place known for grace in its fellowship, because it reflects the grace of God that all in the fellowship enjoy.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Peter Maurin: Wisdom from Easy Essays

Peter Maurin along with Dorothy Day were the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. Maurin is also somewhat known for his "Easy Essays" that were often in the movement's publication "The Catholic Worker". Here is one of them
Feeding the Poor at a Sacrifice
1. In the first centuries
of Christianity
the hungry were fed
at a personal sacrifice,
the naked were clothed
at a personal sacrifice,
the homeless were sheltered
at a personal sacrifice.
2. And because the poor
were fed, clothed and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
the pagans used to say
about the Christians
"See how they love each other."
3. In our own day
the poor are no longer
fed, clothed, sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
but at the expense of the taxpayers.
4. And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed and sheltered
the pagans say about the Christians
"See how they pass the buck."

What does the church's interactions with people with disabilities in the church, in Christian schools, in other forms of the church tell the world about what Christians think about people with disabilities?

In another Easy Essay, Maurin says,
Christianity Untried
1. Chesterton says:
"The Christian ideal
has not been tried
and found wanting.
2. It has been found difficult
and left untried."
3. Christianity has not been tried
because people thought
it was impractical.
4. And men have tried everything
except Christianity.
5. And everything
that men have tried
has failed.

The church as the whole, complete body has never been tried because the presence of everyone would imply change and change is difficult. Integrating people with disabilities has not been tried because it is thought impractical. The integration that people seek, particularly in the secular world of professionals for persons with disabilities is available in the Christian church. We, however, seem to think it easier to not try it, and leave the state to do it. But that is not entirely true. Do you know that research indicates that religious parents are more likely to see the care of their children with disabilities as their own responsibility while those who are not religious see it as the state's responsibility? So some of the church are trying. The research just seems to indicate that they are not being supported by the rest of us, by the body.
One more from Maurin.
Houses of Hospitality
1. We need Houses of Hospitality
to give to the rich
the opportunity
to serve the poor.
2 We need Houses of Hospitality
to bring the scholars
to the workers
or the workers
to the scholars.
3. We need Houses of Hospitality
to bring back to institutions
the technique to institutions.
4. We need Houses of Hospitality
to show
what idealism looks like
when it is practised.

The same could be said about individuals with disabilities as with the poor. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the "pagans" as Maurin puts it saying, "Go to such and such church and you will see what idealism looks like!" I would love my church to be accused of idealism in its interactions with persons with disabilities. Idealism in practical service. Idealism, through faith, in actually embracing Christianity in relation to people with disabilities to see what Christianity might actually be like. I get excited just thinking about that. Can you imagine what the church would look like if Christians actually fully embraced Christianity? It could be that people with intellectual disabilities in their childlike faith might be the ones to actually lead us there.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Disability natives vs. Disability immigrants

In his article, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" (from On the Horizon, NCB University Press, Vol. 9, No. 5, October 2001) Marc Prensky makes the distinction between what he calls digital natives and digital immigrants
"But the most useful designation I have found for them is Digital Natives. Our students today are 'native speakers'of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the net technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants" (p. 1-2).

I think this distinction might be applied in a similar way to the world of disability. Throughout history, societies have always seemed to be disability immigrants. We seem to be always surprised by people affected by disability. Children are born to us with a disability and we have no experience with them. People with disability come to church and we have no experience with them. People with disability enter the community and we have no experience with them. It seems individuals, families, communities and the church are constantly in the beginning stages of a learning curve. In spite of thousands of years of people being born with disabilities or being affected by disability later in their lives, we are consistently surprised by them and like a 30 year old sitting in front of a computer for the first time are totally lost.

But Christians, all Christians should be disabiltiy natives. This should not be the case for Christians. This should not be the case for the Christian church. The simple act of someone attending any Christian church should result in their becoming a "disability native" because the presence of people with disabilities there would be expected, kinda boring really in the same manner that the presence of children, or college students, or old people is kinda expected, kinda boring, kinda typical.
Before I had children I had a pretty good idea of what children were like because I was in places where children were. I saw them at church or in the community. I am a native when it comes to children.

I am confident that people who are new to disability enjoy their interactions with those who have experience with people with disabilities. Not to brag, but I am sure that I calm people who are new parents when I enter their orbit. I have a pretty good idea of educational ideas that should work. I have a pretty good idea of behavioral issues they will face. I even have a decent notion of what the future will probably look like for that individual based upon years of experience. I am not too bothered by disabled children with behavior problems. I am not a disability native, but I have been an imigrant for a very long time.

My prayer for the church is that we will raise generations of disability natives. People who are not afraid, or ashamed, or have goofy ideas about the why's of disability theologically. People with experience. People who are undaunted by just about anything that a person with a disability might do intentionally or otherwise. A church full of disability natives would be a softened environment for all. An environment that is relentlessly accepting of individual differences. My social faux pas would be more readily overlooked because the presence of people with social skill deficits would make the social environment less rigid. As I said softer, more accepting of difference. It is universal design applied to social relationships. The result of accepting people with social skill deficits is that I experience greater acceptance as well.

In the public schools today, there is some degree of disability native development. At least I can hardly go to public school without seeing other students with disabilities although I may not have meaningful social integration resulting in relationships with them.

But how I wish that were the case in the church.

Look at a youngster playing deftly with his hand held video game. He does it effortlessly as if he were born with the game in his hands.

Imagine a youngster playing deftly with his friend with disabilities. Imagine an adult at coffee with his friend with disabilities. The conversation flows effortlessly, speech impediments overlooked as if they did not exist. They do it fluently, smoothly, NATURALLY! Because it is natural for them. They are Christians who have grown up in a church, which means they are disability natives! Imagine.