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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cultural change based on Disability Ministry

I have been having conversations recently with people about the cultural change that needs to occur within the church. There are programmatic changes that would be good, and I am hoping to increasingly understand what they might be in order to advocate for change in those areas. However, the radical, cultural change that needs to occur is more interpersonal.
When I talk to people about what the endpoint, God's vision for persons with impairments in the church, I am sometimes cautioned. Friends will say, "Don't share the vision as you will scare pastors away from wanting to be involved in disability ministry." "We need to minimize the push back by not starting too boldly!" Those are the kinds of cautions I will receive. I get their concern. But let me be completely bold in describing the endpoint.  Are you ready?
The endpoint is that we would truly love our neighbors.
Sorry pastors if I now scared you away from involvement in disability ministry. But that truly is the endpoint. But that is so unbelievably radical, it should scare people.
Imagine a situation where I would sacrifice what I want in order to bless and love others. We hear this kind of language so often that it has become trite. So let me spell out an example. This is what loving your neighbor would look like.
  • I choose a friend with severe intellectual disabilities who lives in a segregated community setting and I visit him, every week, because I want to develop a relationship with him.
  • I find a friend with a disability who needs a regular ride to church in order to attend and some assistance while there and I both pick him up and accompany him while at church.
  • I develop a relationship with a family with a child with autism and a couple of times a month I go to their house and watch their child so that they can do whatever they need to do for a couple of hours.
  • I take a friend out for lunch once per week who although living independently in an apartment in the community, is basically living in poverty such that going out to eat is a big deal.
  • I have a phone call for 40 minutes one night a week where I talk to a friend with limited speech such that the conversation is me asking questions and he responding "Yes" or "No".
  • I bring a friend with a physical disability who has difficulty with transportation to a weekly Bible study that I attend so that she can both get out of the house a bit and grow in her faith.
I could mention dozens of other options. But these are sufficient. You see for a pastor to suggest this to congregational members is considered ridiculous, unrealistic, frightening, etc. You see, programs are great, but the promised land is relationships. I know I will step on some folks toes with this, but have you ever wondered why we need respite programs at church? Probably because there are people who do not having sufficient relationships with friends. Or there are people who have friends who are unwilling to provide respite for them.
It seems that that is too often the case. Program develop, at times, because individuals are unwilling to love their neighbors and do what that kind of love demands.
If my family member has a disability, whether or not I want to, I step up to support them, most often because I love them. But we have been socialized, trained as Christians to think that your family member with a disability is not my responsibility. I will refer you to state agency programs, to church programs, once again which are fine in themselves. However, I make no demands on myself as a brother in Christ to do anything. I have been socialized to think that I have no responsibility. So if I were a pastor and I told you that you DO have such a responsibility, chances are I would get a lot of push back or you would go somewhere else where no demands are made.
You see we minimize the end point that we should be advocating for which is loving your neighbor to the point that it costs you. It SHOULD cost you money, time, emotional peace, doing only things I want to do, comfort, etc. It will cost you all of these things. But that is what happens when you love your neighbor. If you are not paying the price of these things THROUGH THE CHOICES YOU MAKE in terms of developing relationships with people, then I would say you are not loving your neighbor.
It truly is as Kierkegaard  wrote.
 "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."
- Soren Kierkegaard, from "Kill the Commentators" in PROVOCATIONS

Yes the demands of the Bible are easy to understand.
Yes we are scheming swindlers.
Yes pretend to be unable to understand so we don't have to act.

We need to recognize this about ourselves and not accept this about ourselves.
Our leaders also need to get a backbone and tell us the truth!


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Overcorrections from 1 Corinthians 12:22-23

The phrases "seems weaker" and "we think less honorable" are both social determinations. Just to say "seems" implies a not entirely sound determination. Depending upon the task at hand, how I have been socialized, and my experience will determine how I perceive someone. However, there may be criteria for making this determination which are less than obvious or even unknown, needing to be discovered from a Biblical perspective, criteria may need to be taken by faith.
I have quoted this excerpt from The Letters of JRR Tolkien before, but it bears repeating (Carpenter & Tolkien, 1981, #246, p 326). He wrote...
Frodo indeed failed as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say simple minds with contempt; they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable, their weakness, however is two fold.
They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal is enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the world that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine nature). In its highest exercise, it belongs to God.
Complexity may be hidden in a variety of ways. However, complexity hidden is still present. There is hidden complexity in people who seem to be weaker being indispensable. Apparently if they are indispensable, they are not weaker on every level, though they may appear so on some or many. In one or more ways, they can't be done without. Apparently, however, people do not perceive this.
Weakness and dishonor may be thought to be related, and may be, depending upon the culture. When rugged individualism was the value in America (seems to be less so today), weakness would be equated with dishonor. So as can be seen, dishonor may be largely socially determined. In another culture, where community is valued, an over emphasis on individualism might be considered worthy of less honor.
Personal characteristics generally speaking, whether the result of choices that people make or personal circumstances out of one's control can lead to dishonor. For our purposes, characteristic which may accompany impairment can cause society to think one less honorable.
However, at the same time, "seems" and "we think" although entirely subjective, may still lead to actions/behaviors based on these subjective determinations. You needn't be weaker for me to treat you as such and my treatment may actually contribute to you not only seeming to be weaker but you actually becoming weaker. And my treatment of you may actually contribute to you not only being though of as less honorable but actually becoming less honorable.
For example, I think an adult with intellectual disabilities is a child so I treat him in that manner, as weaker in the same ways a child is weaker than an adult. That person then perhaps embodies that perception to the point that they become weaker, like a child, as a result of that treatment. Treating someone who is an adult as a child causes them to experience disrespect, dishonor in the thinking of those who are observing, leading to a similar dishonoring (at best) in the observer's interactions.
I spoke at a conference in the US recently, and many of those in attendance could not understand this. The idea of treating someone in an age appropriate fashion was alien to them, and they would not accept the FACT that they were contributing to the devaluation of another person.
To correct by saying the seemingly weaker one is indispensable, is actually a significant overcorrection. He doesn't say that the seeming weaker are "pretty strong" or "actually can do some things" he goes to the absolute other end of the strength/weakness continuum saying they are indispensable.
The same thinking applies to those thought less honorable. We don't show them some patience or a little, rather we give them special honor. Perhaps honor above and beyond what we would typically show any person. Once again this is an overcorrection.
Why these overcorrections? Perhaps this is an attempt to bring things into balance or perhaps this is to make a point. Perhaps to support the statement that begins "on the contrary." The result of this perspective change should be a significant change in behavior. It demands we treat others with special honor now, which is a change in ourselves but also a change in perspective towards others. If ind out I desperately need others when before I didn't realize that I desperately needed them. The implication in both of these statements is that I have to be told about this relationship because my behavior indicates that I don't understand it. What would be evidence that I do understand? A significant change in my behavior. If someone would look at me interacting with someone in a way that reflects these prescriptions, it would cause them to wonder what it is that I see to cause me to act so differently. It may be that I do see something different which guides my behavior. Or it could be that I change my behavior as a result of what I am told and either actually do see or by faith I hope to see the indispensable nature and hope to see the result of treating someone thought less honorable with special honor.
It is as Amy Carmichael said in Things as they are, "...we believe to see, and believing even now we see..."


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Amy Carmichael and cultural change

Amy Carmichael was the famous Irish missionary to India. In her book, "Things as they are: Mission work in Southern India" (1905) she quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem Aurora Leigh. The poem states, "It takes the Ideal to blow a hair's-breadth off the Dust of the Actual." Amy's response is, "It takes more. It takes God. It takes God to do anything anywhere" (p. 60). Later in the book she expands on this point. She was writing about mission work with Hindus. Think about this in context of our work with persons with disabilities within the church. She writes,
This custom as it stands is formidable enough. Many a man Indian and foreign has fought it and failed. It is a huge and most rigorous system of tyrannical oppression, a very pyramid to look at, old, immovable. But there is somthing greater behind it. It is only the effect of a Cause-the Dust of the Actual.
What can alter the custom? Strong writing or speaking, agitations, Acts of Parliament? All these surely have their part. They raise the questions, stir the Dust - but blow it off? Oh no! Nothing can touch the conscience of the people, and utterly reverse their view of things, and radically alter them, but God.
Yes, it is true, we may make the mose of what had been done by Government, by missionaries and reformers, but there are times in the heart histories of all who look far enough down to see what goes on under the surface of things, when the Sorrow takes shape in the Prophet's cry "we have not wrought any deliverance in the earth."
It is true. We have not. We cannot even estimate the real weight of the lightest speck of the Dust that has settled on the life of this people. But we believe to see, and believing even now we see; and when we see anything, be it ever so little, when the Breath breathes and even"a hair's-breadth" of that Dust is blown away, then, with an intensity I cannot describe, we feel the presence of the Lord our God among us, and we look up in the silence of joy and expectation for the coming of the Day when all rule, and all authority and power, yea, the power of the very Actual itself, shall be put down, that God may be all in all." (p. 68-69)

As I read this, I was touched by three quotes in particular. She says, "Nothing can touch the conscience of people and utterly reverse their view of things, and radically alter them but God."
Later she says,
"But we believe to see, and believing even now, we see..."
Finally she states,
"It takes more. It takes God. It takes God to do anything anywhere."

I was honored to be able to deliver a sermon last week at The Welcome, the church that Amy Carmichael started over 100 years ago. As I prepared for that talk, the above words really impressed on me the depths of the change we are hoping to see happen in the church. It is a dramatic cultural change. Something insidious underlies the "Dust of the Actual." We need to utterly reverse people's views of things. But we can't do that, no one can but God. At the same time, however, through faith, we believe to see. We can to some extant envision what that cultural change would look like. Yes we can work and yes we should work. But for the dramatic wholesale change culturally that needs to happen within the church, change of something tyrannical, and something old and immovable like a pyramid, our only hope is God. It is very unlikely people will embrace changes in the traditions of man in order to embrace the commands of God (Mark 7:8 & 13).

Let's begin to pray in that direction. We can do what we can but once again,

"Nothing can touch the conscience of the people, and utterly reverse their view of things, and radically alter them, but God."