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

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Faith Structures

I am in the process of finishing up an article about faith formation in individuals with disabilities. For those who are not affected intellectually by their disability, perhaps most of the questions one might have about faith development are pretty much the same. There might be additional questions about God's sovereignity, about what might be expected of the Body of Christ in terms of support and understanding, and generally the social consequences of disability. These aspects of life need faith answers in addition to just life answers. When one is the recipient of negative social attitudes one wonders where God is in all of it. Even in the best of social situations, one wonders about the difficulties one faces on a daily basis, and leans heavily on God for support.

I have heard Joni Eareckson-Tada say something to the effect that when she wakes up some mornings, she prays hard that God would give her a smile to give to her care provider to start her day. That beautiful smile does not always come naturally and I think Joni would agree that at times it is the result of supernatural intervention.

So there are aspects of faith development that are unique to persons with disabilities that are not related to their intellect.

At the same time, as I have been thinking about faith development as it relates to people with intellectual disabilities, particularly severe disabilities, I have wondered about what the research literature sometimes refers to as the structures of faith. Faith development research often uses these structures to measure faith development. Lets put aside, for a moment, that these structures are somewhat generic which in and of itself may be problematic as they may imply that the content of faith is somehow less important in faith development than the structures are. Obviously for the Christian, nothing could be further from the truth. But what if you were really unable to comprehend the content of your faith or your faith group. How might one develop "faith" in these people?

As I have thought through this, I think that I have come to the position that I will work to develop faith structures as the focus of faith development for these individuals. What are these structures? Things like loving other people, participating in traditions, being a member/a part of a larger group, and receiving love and acceptance from people within the group. These things which are related to faith might provide the best evidence of whether one is growing. I will admit that one might grow in these areas independent of the content of one's faith. I will also admit that I trust God in the lives of persons with severe disabilities, and I try to understand the lesson of Luke 5:20's statement about Jesus seeing "their" faith and the impact of the faith of those around the disabled man on his own life. Perhaps in some way, the faith of the body impacts the development of the faith of the intellectually disabled person although it might only be measurable in faith structures.



Stephanie @ Ralphcrew said...

I hear people talk about the perpetual "innocence" of people with certain intellectual disabilities. I'm not sure what to think of that. My son with Down Syndrome displays the same "sin nature" that I've seen in my typically developing children. I can't wait read more from you.

Lida said...

I am very eager to read your findings. I serve with and for many people with profound intennectual and physical disabilities.

I often question the effectiveness of the ministry I provide due to no way to ascertain effectiveness. My questions to them go unanswered; I can't gague their spiritual growth; I can't answer their unvoiced questions and ponderings. They offer no audible or visible reflections on a sermon.

However, I can measure their attendance and volunteerism; I can attempt to measure levels of peace or agitation during a service or a devotional time. I can count the number of people who include them and use their name in greeting, in the time of greeting during the service.

As always, a thought provoking blog post. Thank you.

Erik said...

This was quite an interesting post! I was greatly intrigued by its topic primarily because I have thought about similar issues in the past but have not taken the time to really delve into the topic. I think it is a rather important issue to discuss or to at least choose a side somewhere because ultimately, what we think about the salvation of people with disabilitis will necessarily direct our actions toward them. Although many people may never have wrestled with this issue, their actions may be quite apparent: I do not know how to include persons with disabilities into the church or even to share Christ with them, so God must be taking care of their situation. While there is a slight possibility of truth in this statement and God most definitely takes care of individuals in need, from what I've learned in your class, this is such a wrong attitude. People with disabilities are children of God much like you or I and He sent his son to take on the wrath of God that should have been poured on you and I as well as disabled individuals.

But the question still remains: "what does spiritual growth in a severely disabled person look like?" Is it getting them to do good things? James does state that a faith without works is dead but as you also stated that good things can come outside of the context of faith. It's a tricky question that i will continue to wrestle with but never be ok with the common outlook of mainstream society. I love the story from Luke that you bring up about the faith of the disabled man's friends. Perhaps this is a very real way that the church is supposed to be involved in the lives of the disabled. Never should I doubt the impact of simply being there for someone who may have a disability and loving them for who they are. In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about the church be a body with many different parts all necessary for it to function. One very real roles of disabled individuals could be to teach us how to love. If the rest of the body surrounded them, who knows how God will work in their lives as well. I am quite thankful for the thought provoking post. This is something that I will continue to mull over for the rest of my life.

Anonymous said...

I think a major element of faith is that it is the "assurance of things hoped for". We are not meant to understand every obstacle God places before us, but we are called to have the faith that He will use our struggles to further His kingdom. I do not know why some people are intellectually disabled, but I do know that God does not make mistakes. His purpose for the intellectually disabled is unknown to me, but I know he has a purpose. Even if peple have an intellectual disability we should be worried about their salvation in the sense that we help develop their faith in Christ.

Lindsay said...

This is a great post! I am very interested as to what you will find in your research. This is very interesting because, from the lectures in your class, I have recently been thinking about the same thing. I have never worked one on one with a person with a disability, but I do question whether or not a person with a severe disability would understand the complexity of the gospel. But then I have to stop and think...is this me questioning the work of the Lord? God has made everyone PERFECT in His image. He has made these people like this, and He would not create someone who can not understand the Gospel!

I really like what you said about Joni Earickson-Tada. Of course, mass evangelism is a wonderful thing. However, as christians, we need to remember that it is the "little things", such a putting a smile on someone's face by showing them God's love, that matter the most.

The faith structures that you mentioned seem fantastic to me. Just as I stated above, it is the "little things" that matter...which are not little things at all. I believe that those structures would definitely be a foundation for a faith in Christ. I am anxious to read more about your findings!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post and think it is a very interesting topic. I wish that we could fully understand everything that God does, but we cannot. On that note, even though we don't understand the things God does and why he makes certain people the way he does, my faith is that he has a plan for us. What does spiritual growth and understanding look like for persons with disability, we won't know for sure, at least not on this earth. But God has a plan for these individuals and perhaps one day when were all hanging out in Heaven we can ask God how this all worked out and how he called that person to himself and how they put their faith in him. For now I say we continue to do the work of God and keep ministering to the people around us and trust that God is way bigger than anything we will ever be able to do.