revgunnar

Thoughts and Musings from a Progressive Christian

Religious Freedom Laws and Disabilities

Recently there has been much ado about states proposing legislation with the intent to “restore religious freedom.” Arizona is that latest to gain attention for such legislation, but they are not alone. Several states (Kansas, Utah, etc.) are engaging in this practice, including my own state of Ohio. “The language of Arizona’s law allows exemptions from requirements that “substantially burden” an individual’s exercise of religion–something that could allow almost any kind of discrimination as long as it is based on sincere religious beliefs.” (http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/religious-freedom-or-discrimination)

As the parent of a child with a disability, this language is precisely what scares me. Persons with disabilities and mental illness, and their advocates, have worked very hard over many years seeking full inclusion in all facets of society. They have had to fight to overcome stigma and stereotypes. They have had to lobby for the ADA, and special education and coverage under health insurance.

The passage of Religious Freedom Laws will not just protect religious conservatives feeling forced to interact with LGBT persons. Such laws also place the equality and inclusion of persons with disabilities and mental illness at risk, opening the door for discrimination to once again openly exist. If you believe that serving, hiring or educating a person with a disability is against your religion, then you are exempt from the requirements of disability laws.

Consider the history of people of faith when it comes to persons with disabilities. Biblical texts have been used to stigmatize persons with disabilities. These texts have also informed the way some have practiced the Christian faith as well, so that persons with disabilities have been viewed as cursed by God, as a punishment for sin, and persons to be avoided and excluded from the faith community.

Leviticus 21:18-20 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.

Deuteronomy 28:27-28 The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind…

Deuteronomy 28:59 then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies.

Luke 9:38-42 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Luke 13:11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Mark 9:17-20 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

These texts have been understood and informed faith in hurtful ways, leading “Christians” to not only stigmatize, but persecute persons with mental illness and disabilities. History has seen the marginalization of persons with disabilities in the ancient Near East to persecution of persons in the Puritan communities (remember the “witches”), to eugenics under Nazi Germany and removing persons from society through institutionalization in the 20th century United States.

So, under these laws:

  • IF a person’s faith is founded on reading the Bible literally (as fundamentalist and conservative Christians are proud of claiming)
  • and IF that person claims that they believe the Bible as inerrant,
  • THEN that person might also (even in the 21st century) claim that persons with disabilities are cursed or possessed
  • Therefore they might believe their religion prohibits them from touching, serving or even being in the presence of persons with disabilities or mental illness
  • AND therefore they could claim that following the ADA, etc. would substantially burden them, from which they would be EXEMPT based on sincere religious beliefs!

Granted, many in Christianity have done some VERY GOOD theological work around understanding disabilities and mental illness in ways that include instead of exclude. But that work is ongoing in a culture and society which still promotes ability and “accommodates” disability and in which “normal” is still the dominant ideology.

We have come too far to go back in time. We do not need laws which pave the way to undue the progress we have made to provide persons with disabilities and mental illness equal access to services, buildings and better lives. We certainly do not need to legislate “religious freedom” laws which reopen the doors of discrimination. And we should speak out against the passage of such laws when they are proposed.

My voice may not carry weight in Arizona, but I will certainly raise it in Ohio.

Will you raise yours?

Blessings Emerging from Struggles

Blessings Emerging from Struggles

Genesis 32.22-31

I would like to share three stories with you as we begin this morning.

In spring of 1997, runner and triathlon competitor Bob Molsberry was riding his bicycle as part of his training for the summer racing season. Struck from behind by a hit-and-run driver, he was left in a coma for six weeks. He neither saw nor heard the vehicle that nearly killed him and that made him a paraplegic.  And Bob acknowledges that recovery was not an easy journey—for he had to wrestle spiritually and emotionally and “attempt to regenerate the pieces of my life, to find meaning in the new me who emerges, and discover insights along the way.”[1]

On March 23, 2001, John Alex Lowell (an IT specialist with two undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley) was jogging on a sidewalk in San Francisco, toward an intersection, thinking of anything but religion, when a minivan ran a red light and struck him, sending him twenty feet into the air. Trauma surgeons told Lowell’s parents that the damage to his skull was so severe that if he survived, he likely would remain in a persistent vegetative state. Not only did he survive, he underwent strenuous and lengthy mental and physical rehabilitation.[2]

Nancy Eiesland was born into a North Dakota farm family, with a congenital bone defect in her hips that necessitated a full set of leg braces and crutches by the time she was seven. She once wrote that her father observed—as she emerged from the prosthetics workshop of the Crippled Children’s School in Jamestown, North Dakota—that she would need a job that kept her off her feet, ruling out work as a checkout clerk.  Later in life she would share “The poise I learned in telling my story…often came at substantial personal cost as my body became the lesson, and the words I was schooled to say were uncomfortable beliefs about me.”[3]

In each of those three stories, each person knew themselves in a certain way, wrestled with their identity and emerged with a new understanding of who they were and how they were empowered. 

In the text we heard today, Jacob is on his way to meet his brother.  In the dark of the night, he encounters another being—perhaps God, perhaps an angel, perhaps another person—who takes him by surprise.  So Jacob engages in a wrestling match.  As Claus Westermann writes in his commentary on the passage: This wrestling “is meant to suggest a surprise attack…we are not dealing with a wrestling match agreed to by both parties.”[4]

And while we could spend time debating whether it was God or a person with whom Jacob wrestles, I wonder if another approach might be helpful.  Elie Wiesel, in his commentary on the story from a Jewish perspective, contends that Jacob wrestled with himself, the other Jacob, hidden from view: weak, vulnerable, and dependent… He met and wrestled with the one who felt unworthy of everything he was and had…Jacob wrestled with a lifetime in one night.[5]

The outcome is that Jacob perseveres in the struggle with the “dreaded stranger in the night”[6] and emerges stronger because of it. The attacker has lost his power[7].  In other words, that which besieged Jacob and left him with a disability no longer has power over him.  In a twist, the wrestling match empowers Jacob.  It is a turning point in Jacob’s life and something happens in this transaction that is irreversible, a new being has been called forth.[8]  The encounter will not permit a neat summary of roles.  While Jacob will spend the remainder of his days with a disability, he emerges from this struggle in the dark night with a new self-understanding and a new identity with new possibilities before him!

Though we find it hard to perceive a whole community of people within the story of the patriarch Jacob, this is the implication of the narrative.  From this turning point in Jacob’s life springs forth the Israelites, the community of the people of God.  And I think this is important, because when we hear the Jacob walked with a limp the remainder of his days, it may also illustrate that people with disabilities have always been included in the community of the people of God.

As the sun was rising after that fateful evening, Jacob was asked “What is your name?” And Jacob tells him.  But, in responding, Jacob not just saying his name, but stating everything he knows to be true about himself… Stating his name is an act of confession. And he is at once- free to take on everything God has destined for him to become.

And as an acknowledgment of the new identity to come, Jacob is given a new name… “From now on your name is no longer Jacob- but Israel…” No longer will Jacob identify himself in a way that is anything other than his new identity—a member of the family of God!  Can you imagine doing that in your own life—unable to identify yourself or talk about yourself in a way that was anything other than a child of God? How empowering would that be?

So many times we hang on to the names and perceptions of who we are that are given to us by our parents or our peers.  We hear of the handicapped or disabled person—where identity is interwoven with disability.  As a society- we get so caught up in our identity; in what we call ourselves, or are called by others, or the bad ways we act or think, or the things we have done… that we miss the fact that God has already given us a new identity- a new name… Through Christ we leave our “Jacob” identity behind and have been given a new identity in Christ.  In claiming our new identity we live out our lives as the people of God—gathered no longer as the children of Israel but as the body of Christ, the Church.

I started this morning with three stories of persons who had to wrestle with their self-understanding and identity.  As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story.

Bob Molsberry went on to write of his experience in his book titled Blindsided by Grace: Entering the World of Disability and has served the United Church of Christ as a pastor and as our Ohio Conference Minister.  Speaking of his book, he offered “I offer it hoping that it will be useful to others facing catastrophic change. If it’s valuable at all the value should transfer to anyone who is adjusting to new imposed limitations, including those who grieve losses in their lives and those who are aging….”   

John Alex Lowell has gone on to found the Differently Abled Student Union at the Pacific School of Religion seminary, become a United Church of Christ Minister, and provide leadership with UCC Disabilities Ministries.  Nancy Eisland went on to become a seminary professor, publishing the book The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, which invited the church to think about persons with disabilities in a different way.

The question remains—who are those among us who have had to wrestle with their self-esteem, vulnerability and understanding of self, through the dark night, and emerged with a new identity, new self-understanding, a new name and new possibilities?  How have those persons been blessed and what blessings do they bring to us? 

As the church, we are a people of struggles and blessings.  We have been called to be the place where pain, difficulties and weaknesses can be revealed and wrestled with, and where someone who uses a scooter, wheelchair, walker or cane can feel empowered to find a new identity.  And we have wrestled with this calling through the years.  But our new identity as the people of God will be found when we can recognize that image of God which lies within every person.  When we find that identity, we will no longer live in the past, but will emerge into our new day of possibilities.

Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis: Interpretation Commentary Series. Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press.

Pinsky, M. (2012). Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion. Herndon, VA: Alban.

Rad, G. V. (1962). Old Testament Theology Vol I. New York: Harper and Row.

Westermann, C. (1987). Genesis: A Practical Commentary. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock.

 


[2] (Pinsky, 2012, p. 192)

[3] (Pinsky, 2012, p. 207)

[4] (Westermann, 1987, p. 229)

[5] Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. 123-124

[6] (Brueggemann, 1982, p. 266)

[7] (Westermann, 1987, p. 230)

[8] (Brueggemann, 1982, pp. 268-9)

Needing to “Fix” our attitudes

“The redemption of the people of God would include people like the [Ethiopian] eunuch and Zacchaeus [too short], not “fixed” so that they can conform to our social standards of beauty and desirability, but just as they are, precisely as a testimony to the power of God to save all of us “normal” folk from our discriminatory attitudes, inhospitable actions, and exclusionary social and political forms of life….the redemption of disability doesn’t necessarily consist in the healing of disabilities but involves the removal of those barriers–social, structural, economic, political, and religious/theological–which hinder those people with temporarily abled bodies from becoming welcoming and being hospitable to people with disabilities. Hence it is that Luke’s physiognomic hermeneutic results in an inclusive vision of the redemption of Israel and the reign of God!
–Amos Yong “The Bible, Disability and the Church: A New Vision for the People of God” pg. 69

Poolside with the Blind, Lame and Paralyzed

Based on John 5.1-9

If you put together two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen and what do you get?  Water.   It is simple, yet powerful and both life giving and healing.  Water provides far-reaching benefits to the body and mind. Just ask Penny Linder, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 26 years ago and has been using aquatics, or water exercise, to help relieve chronic pain caused by the neurological disease.

Although Linder may not be able to jump freely into the pool like she did as a child, she values aquatics for what it can provide her both physically and mentally — a chance to feel healthy despite a disability that has gradually curbed her energy.  “I don’t feel disabled in the water,” she said. “I feel stronger and more healthy in the pool because I can do things there that I couldn’t dream of dong on land.”

Because water eliminates the effects of gravity on the body, pain and stress on muscles and joints are greatly reduced. As result, Linder and others like her, can stretch and strengthen weakened arms and legs within their full range of motion. While standing in a pool, they can also use the weight of water to help correct problems in gait and balance with less effort than on land. Therapists often supplement a patient’s rehabilitation program with aquatic therapy because warm water has been shown to help increase flexibility, decrease pain, relieve muscle spasms, and improve circulation.  (WebMD Health News July 19, 2000 — http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20000719/aquatic-therapy-people-disabilities )

Rewind 2000 years.  Jesus had been travelling around the countryside where he met the Samaritan woman at the well and healed the son of a royal official.  So having extended his grace to people outside of the religious community, Jesus travels back to Jerusalem and the Temple.  As he approaches the courtyard, he encounters a group of people.

We don’t know much about these people.  We don’t even know their names.  All that we know, which is that they are blind, lame and paralyzed.  As is too often the case, they are identified, described, defined and known only by their disability.  You have heard it before, like when people describe “that group of disabled people in the group home.”

Well, that group of disabled people—blind, lame and paralyzed—all without names, was hanging out at the poolside, that day when Jesus met them. Why were they poolside, instead of going to Temple?  Aside from the fact that only those without “blemish” or infirmity could enter the Temple, they were poolside for healing.  See, according to an old legend, the Bethzatha Pool was supposed to have healing powers whenever its waters were troubled and agitated, presumably by an angel. So, many people with disabilities were lying around down by the poolside waiting for a chance to get in the pool when the waters were agitated so they could be healed.  Apparently, the blind, lame and paralyzed knew about aquatic therapy 2000 years ago.

Then the story zeroes in on one of those individuals—a man who had been ill for 38 years.  What were you doing 38 years ago?  What have you done for the last 38 years?  This man had been going to pool for relief from his disability.  And here’s what the text says. Listen again.  “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him “Do you want to get well?””  Now, given the cultural anxiety over talking with people who have disabilities, I don’t know if Jesus felt nervous as he approached the man, because the text doesn’t tell us.  But what we do hear in the text is that whether or not he felt nervous, he took the time to see the man and talk with him.

I imagine the man was shocked!  Sure, Jesus often talked with those who were treated as less than fully human in his day.  But this was a bit different, because Jesus asked him what he wanted!  Instead of assuming he knew what the man needed or wanted, which is what many of us often do when it comes to persons with disabilities, Jesus asked.  He gave the man a voice and a say.

So the man replies.  He tells Jesus “Sir, I don’t have anyone to put me in the pool when the water is agitated, and if I try to get in by myself, someone else beats me to it.”  Think about the concern the man raises.  It is as if he is saying “I don’t have anyone to help me when I need it.  And when I am trying to do it myself, as society expects me to, other people who are worried only about themselves, rush by me, preventing me from accessing the healing water.”  And if you listen, really listen closely to his words; you can hear the frustration of his painful experience as he shares it with Jesus.

A couple of years ago I heard a phrase which has stuck with me: “The Kingdom of God has always been ADA compliant.”  Unfortunately, the frustration the man expressed to Jesus that day, still exists today.  Although we tend to think that the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, made life better for individuals, accessibility barriers still exist today.  We may overlook or be unaware of the obstacles, but they are still there.  And being involved with Disabilities Ministries I have had the blessing of hearing many stories of pain and frustration, stories which gave people their voice and helped me to understand better the challenges around us, both in and out of the church. 

For example:  I recently announced a fall study on the book The Bible, Disabilities and the Church.  In my announcement, I assumed that people would be reading the book, after it was ordered and purchased, and then we would discuss it.  I thought everything was fine, until I received a message from my friend Bill.  I was gently reminded that I might let people know the book is available electronically through Amazon, which provides text to speech.  This would allow those with vision difficulties to access and participate in the book study.  And I had to admit, that in my desire to make a difference, I rushed right on by the needs of my friend, so that he couldn’t get to the pool.   I have also learned that I still make mistakes, but am thankful for my friends who help me learn.

How do we act when we are outside of church?  Let’s say we are going to a restaurant and there is a person in a scooter, walker or wheelchair about to enter.  Do we rush by or acknowledge the person?  Do we assume they need help—or don’t need help—or do we ask if we can be helpful?  When the person at the table next to us makes a comment that the print on the menu is too small and hard to see, do we ask if he or she would like help?  In other words, do we overlook or help overcome the barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities?

 “Do you want to be well?” Jesus asked.  It is a question for all of us to answer.  We are all at the pool in need of the one who can take us to that holy and healing place.  Sometimes that healing and holy place is here in the church—and sometimes, it is outside in the courtyard of the church.  That’s exactly where Jesus went—to the poolside with the blind, lame and paralyzed.   And that’s exactly where the man found healing through Jesus that day.  Jesus met the man where he was and didn’t pass him by.  He took the time to acknowledge and talk with the person who had disability.  Jesus asked the man what he needed and wanted, without assuming.  And I think we can go and do likewise.

I wonder what it would look like if we all started hanging out poolside with the blind, lame and paralyzed.  Imagine we are on our way to church on a Sunday morning and there is a gathering of folk on the bank of the river, just a stone’s throw from the front entrance to the church.  What would it be like for us to stop and talk?  What would it be like to ask how we could help support them with a Christ-like care?  What would it be like to listen to their frustrations and painful stories?  What would it be like to be a part of a life changing experience for them?

 I think that would be like the Kingdom of God.

Limits and Loopholes

Based on Luke 10.25-37 “The Good Samaritan”

I recently took a fight out of state.  One of the things I like about flying is that when you are in the air, you have a chance to look out the window and get a “bird’s eye view” of an area.  As you look down upon the landscape, you do not see the details of individual buildings, or properties, or even territorial lines which divide us.  Indeed, flying at 30,000 feet, you see the big picture instead of the details.  Sometimes, I think we approach the parable of the Good Samaritan in the same way.  We see the big picture and think we see the overview of what it has to offer.

A man is travelling along a dangerous road, is mugged and left for dead.  Two religious persons pass him by, on the other side of the street and do not stop to help him.  A third traveler, who is an outsider, stops, binds his wounds and makes sure that he is cared for.  And Jesus says this is the man who was a good neighbor.  We have heard it so many times, that we offer the story a moment to remember that we ought to help people we don’t know and that we should do good deeds.  But in one sense, while this parable needs to be viewed like the broad landscape absent boundaries and dividing lines viewed from the window of an airplane, it also needs to be viewed from the ground level without missing some important details.

Today what I would like us to do is pay some attention to an important detail in the story.  Or maybe I should say the introduction to the story.  A religious man is questioning Jesus, one who is well versed in the faith and traditions in which he was raised.  When Jesus questions him, he answers well, perhaps like many of us would do.  But then there is this interesting twist.  The religious persons want to go a step further, and we hear Luke tell us that “wanting to justify himself” he presses Jesus a bit further and asks “just who is my neighbor?”

There it is.  “Wanting to justify himself.”  This question is the reason why Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  The story is not an object lesson about being a “do-gooder,” but a response to someone who wishes to play with the definition of neighbor, so that he can say that he has done what he is legally obligated to do within the doctrine of his faith.  He is looking for an excuse, explanation or some other way to rationalize his ideology, beliefs and/or motives.  He wants to be selective, by defining those who are neighbors and those who are not.  Who do I need to love, and who can I “legally” leave out?  Who has to be included and who can I exclude?  With whom, exactly, should I act neighborly, and, which people can I leave to their own devices and just rewards?  In other words the man is, as Eugene Peterson writes in The Message, “looking for a loophole.”

People generally find ways to do what they want to do, right? And they justify their actions by making what they want to do seem acceptable to themselves.  Example: We want a new car (emotion), and so we rationalize the purchase by telling ourselves that we’ll save on maintenance (logic), or get better gas mileage (logic), or the new car will have more room (logic). One emotional urge, backed up by numerous “logical” reasons, all designed to make the action seem understandable, allowable, even necessary. Ultimately, we’re just rationalizing why it’s reasonable to do… what we want to do.[1] Likewise, we can rationalize what we do NOT want to do.

“Who is my neighbor?” the man asks. And his hope is that Jesus will say something to the effect: “Very well: henceforth a neighbor (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part) shall be defined as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence, unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbor to the party of the first part and one is then oneself relieved of all responsibility of any kind to the matters hereunto appertaining.”[2]

Well, if you are looking for a loophole to maintain the fiction of your perfect love for God and neighbor, then that type of reply would help a great deal indeed. The people who would then count as your neighbors would be restricted to a handful of folks whom you already know and probably also already love. And it is the type of definition that allows boundaries to remain among Jews and Samaritans, or the Montagues and Capulets, or the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Jets and Sharks. But to state the incredibly obvious, Jesus does not give a legal definition.

Instead, Jesus turns things around and asks, “Now, which of the three passersby acted as a neighbor to the mugging victim?” This is a subtle shift in emphasis, but it is powerful! You see, we tend to think like this lawyer: we think that what we need to do is scan the society around us to see who out there counts as my neighbor. But here Jesus says that justifying your position, rationalizing your beliefs, defining your limits and seeking loopholes, is far less important than making sure that you yourself act as a neighbor to everyone you meet. Who those other folks out in society are, how they treat you, what they look like, whether or not they seem like folks with whom you have some stuff in common is not nearly so important as making sure that whoever they are, you are their neighbor.

Jesus sees right through the religious man’s attempt to justify himself, and holds him accountable.  The same still holds true today.  Jesus can see right through us when we try to identify loopholes too.  And in modern times, just like ancient, we are held accountable by God.

Now that last statement is not intended to make anyone feel guilty.  Rather it is simply a statement of faith, that God can see our hearts and right through our attempts to justify ourselves and see instead our true intentions.  And so…as Jesus has been our neighbor, our friend and our brother, we are held accountable and invited to set aside our ideologies, biases, prejudices and justifications, limits and loopholes.

Some folk say that people on food stamps abuse the system, rationalizing a desire to not let anyone have a free ride.  Some will say that people on welfare are too lazy to work, justifying their feelings that they do not want such people to be included in their definition of neighbors—just to name a couple of current examples.  In other words, who do we define as the the others in our society? Who do you think are the despised and hated, with whom we can find loopholes we do not need to count as our neighbors, like the Samaritans in Jesus’ day?

God is Still Speaking, and Jesus still replies with the parable we heard today.  All of the people we have named vocally and in our hearts are considered others. They are despised and unloved. Jesus tells us to reach beyond ourselves, to reach beyond our comfort zones, and to love the others in our society. And this parable is not just about helping someone.  It is about letting go of our limits and loopholes, and actually having a change of heart.  How are you loving the others?

The theme of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod recently was “God’s Vision.”  All around the convention center there were many signs with one word tag answers: Inclusion, Compassion, service, love, justice, and the lists go on.  So what is God’s Vision in the story we heard today? It is all of the above, summarized in the challenge of Jesus:  “Go and do likewise.”

A Father’s Tears

A Father’s Day sermon based on Mark 4.14-24

It may be no surprise to you that today is Father’s Day, which we set aside to honor Fathers.  It is a day when we see an abundance of merchandise, such as t-shirts and ties dedicated to dads worldwide.  Typically, we speak of the positive attributes of fathers and hear stories of how wonderful and formative father figures have been in our lives.  What may have surprised you is that the scripture we heard today, on the surface seems like a father’s day story only in the way it depicts a father’s encounter with Jesus, and certainly does not fit the traditional mold of talking about how wonderful accomplishments of the father.

A father brings his son, who suffers from a neurological disorder, to the disciples.  In other words, the father brings his son to a community of faith.  The disciples, however, are unable to alter the boy’s condition.  They are unable to cure or reverse his disorder. 

Many parents today, when their child is diagnosed with a neurological disorder or disability, will undergo a similar journey.  There might be countless visits to doctors, specialists, physical therapists, occupational therapy, speech therapists, and the list goes on.  And while these professional might help in different ways, all too often the result is the same; the condition, while more manageable, still exists and the difficulties of life are still present.  Indeed, there are some conditions which the modern day disciples of Jesus are still unable to cure.

So the father then turns to his faith and asks Jesus to intercede.  Although we heard the story from Mark’s gospel this morning, it is one that appears in all three synoptic accounts of Jesus.    In Matthew’s account the fathers asks Jesus to “have mercy on my son,” while in Luke’s text we hear the request as “look at my son; my only child.”  Mark says I brought you my son.  And Mark is the only one in which the father exclaims “I believe, help me with my unbelief!”

The father asks Jesus to have compassion on ‘us’ and help ‘us’.  “The plural ‘us’ includes at least the father and his son, and perhaps the whole family and their friends.  And while we can debate the meaning of the word ‘us’, what I think is more important here is that it illustrates that the neurological disorder from which the boy has been afflicted for years, affects more than just the child, it affects the whole family and social circle.

Jesus asks the father how long this situation has been occurring, to which the father replies “from childhood.”  At first glance, it may appear that Jesus is gathering more information, which is a valid way to read the text.  But I think there is a bit more to it than simply information gathering.  See, Jesus is taking the time to engage the father in conversation.  Jesus invites the father to say more about his situation.

The father could have simply answered with information: since childhood.  Yet he provides Jesus with an extended answer, as he describes further what life with this disorder is like on a daily basis.  He says “it has often cast him into the fire and water, to destroy him.”  Imagine how sad, anxious and overwhelming it must feel like for the father, that this disorder constantly places his child at risk of being destroyed!  It is no wonder then, that one commentator notes that “Jesus experiences a loving father who is at his wit’s end.”

The text continues, offering: “immediately the father of the child cried out ‘I believe, help me with my unbelief.”  There is a footnote to the text, however, which offers that other ancient texts read with tears.  So as the father of the child describes the lifelong situation to Jesus, he does so with tears. 

Perhaps, through his tears, the father is expressing the reality of how difficult it is to journey through life with faith, when you have a child with an incurable disorder that seeks at every turn to ‘destroy’ them.  Maybe we can hear the father saying, in tears, “I have faith, but some days are so overwhelming that it is hard to hold on to my faith.  I do believe that you can make a difference, Jesus.  Please help me to remember and believe that in the most trying of times and the darkest of days.”  So according to one commentator (Donahue; Sacra Pagina: Mark) Jesus intercedes in the situation, not only to bring healing to the boy, but also to bring peace of heart to the father. 

I think this insight is significant, if we consider the father’s tears up against the message many greeting cards fathers will receive today—on Father’s day.  Greeting card messages such as “world’s greatest Dad,” “#1 Dad,” or “Super Dad,” able to fix anything, able to endure all things with a steady disposition, always able to stay strong in the face of adversity, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 

Yet, compare those greeting card messages to a survey completed by Florida State University, which indicated that fathers of children with disabilities experienced greater stress in daily parenting hassles, family life events and changes and health stress. Another recent study noted that “Fathers want someone to talk to from outside the family about their worries and concerns, but are not very good at seeking for this type of help or support.”

In contrast to those cultural and greeting card images, the father in our scripture today approaches Jesus with vulnerability—in tears.  What can this mean?  Maybe, in the presence of Christ, fathers are freed to be themselves instead of meeting the cultural expectations of being strong at all costs.  And the father’s cry captures the mixed character of faith within the experience of most people.   Life situations will, at times, overwhelm us and the best we can do is hand it over the one in whose hands our eternal restoration is assured.  The significance of this text is that despite the pain, grief, tears, struggle, and isolation fathers (and mothers) face in raising a child with a neurological disorder or disability, they can find new horizons, new hope and healing through faith.

And that’s where I think we come in to the story.  As the church, the body of Christ, we are called to exemplify the ministry of Jesus in the world today.  As Kathleen Bolduc writes in her book A Place Called Acceptance, the first step is for a community of faith to meet a family where they are and hear their story. Jesus brings a non-anxious presence that heals and empowers not only the boy, but his father as well.  The church can do this too.  As we strive to become a more open, welcoming and inclusive faith community, we can come alongside not just persons with neurological disorder and disabilities, but also their parents, family and friends. 

Yes, we can start by asking how long they have been enduring their situation, but then we can go deeper by inviting them to share their stories and struggles with us.  We can affirm that it is not only their child who is affected, but them, their families and friends too.  We can enter into their situation and journey with them toward healing.  Instead of reinforcing cultural expectations, we can give them sanctuary—a safe place and space to be vulnerable, even to the point of sharing their tears with us.  We can be there for them not only in their faith, but especially available in those difficult times of unbelief. God in Christ can work God’s healing will in and through us. 

Jesus gave the father of the boy with a neurological disorder a gift that day.  He gave the gift of his compassion in inviting the father to share his story instead of telling him to be strong.  In the midst of a father’s tears, healing was found.  That same gift may be the greatest one the church can give Dads for Father’s day, Moms for Mother’s day and families every day.  Amen.

Who Told You That You Were Disabled?

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  He [God] said “Who told you that you were naked?” Gen 3.8-11a

You may recognize the above passage as coming from the “temptation” or “fall” narrative in Genesis.  One way to understand the temptation was explained well by Old Testament Scholar Claus Westermann, as he described Adam and Eve as listening to an outside voice instead of the voice of God.  We hear this in God’s question: who told you that you were naked?

Listening to an outside voice is something we all fall prey to in our lives.  Who told you that you were not good enough?  Who told you that you couldn’t do, or try, what your heart was set on doing?  And I would even go so far as to offer the following:  Who told you that someone (or yourself) was “disabled?”  Who told us that we are “able” or “normal?”

In our culture, we listen to the voices, definitions and frameworks that are handed down to us.  And after we hear them, we adopt those frameworks to define others as well.  When someone looks or behaves different from us, we are conditioned to categorize or define them.  In some cases, that defining takes the form of “abled” or “disabled” (in clinical terms, we pathologize persons).  In her book The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy Eisland wrote “the locus of the problem of disability is neither the psyches nor the bodies of individuals with disabilities, but rather it is the system of social relations and institutions that has accomplished the marginalization of people with disabilities as a group.” (pg. 62)  What she describes is that outside voice: who told you that you were disabled?

Yet before the temptation narrative, we hear that God created Adam (in Hebrew = the human) in the image and likeness of God, and God declared the creation of humankind to be very good.  The voice of God claims we are very good, while human voices talk of “abled” and “disabled.”

Persons with disabilities are first of all persons.  Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God.  And each of us has gifts and graces.  The temptation we often still face today is to listen to the voice of God instead of the external voices.  And I think one way we can resist such temptation is that when we look at someone different from us, instead of hearing the external voice which tells us “this person is disabled,” we hear instead the voice of God which whispers “this is my child with whom I am well pleased.”

Bond Issue promotes “Ableism”

So our local school district has a new bond issue on the ballot today. And because I am concerned about our kids–I voted NO.

You heard me right, I am concerned about out kids and I voted against the bond issue. Although that may seem like a paradox, here’s why:

The bond issue hopes to use taxpayer funds, based on homeowner property values, to improve buildings and, get this, build new athletic fields. That’s right, athletic fields.

Now, I agree that school buildings could use improvement. Especially when it comes to the fact that they are minimally accessible for kids with physical and intellectual disabilities. Have you seen how may stairs and few elevators are in these schools? Absolutely, the buildings could be drastically improved and modified to promote inclusion and accessibility!

But there are those athletic fields, because the football team feels that the one they already have is not good enough. Or the baseball/softball teams need artificial turf too.

The problem I have is that this priority reinforces “ablesism.” Those who are “able–which is the dominant culture–determine what is needed in society. And these fields are built for those who are “able”, they will not promote inclusion. Rather they perpetuate the thought that those who are able deserve more than those who are disabled. That is not inclusion, it is exclusion. And when the funds come from the general public, then it is also discrimination.

So improve the buildings. Modify them to include ALL kids and improve accessibility for education. But let the booster club hold bake sales for astroturf.

From Grief to New Life

(Based on Acts 9.36-42)

The story of the Holy Spirit raising Tabitha (also known as Dorcas) from the dead, through the discipleship and prayer of the Peter is not a new story when it appears in the book of Acts.    We hear a similar story in 1 Kings with Elijah, in 2 Kings with Elisha, in the Gospels with Jesus when he raises Lazarus and the young girl, with the resurrection of Jesus himself, and now again in the book of Acts. Indeed, it is not a new story.  Rather, it is a story which illustrates God’s Continuing Testament of being a God who has been, is and will continue to be life giving.  God’s actions in the world and relationship with God’s people cannot be overshadowed or overcome, even by death itself.

When we read these stories closely, there is another common theme, that of grief.  In each one we hear the grief of family and community over the loss of their loved one.  Perhaps the most poignant are the words of Martha when she says “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” (Jn 11.21)  In our story today, when Peter arrives, we hear that “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” (Acts 9:39)

We still observe a similar tradition in our grieving process today.  When a loved one or pillar of the community dies, we gather together in a church or funeral home.  We gather to weep.  We share memories, pictures and stories together, mementos of the life the person shared with us.  We remember the life contribution that person made, which made a difference in the lives of others.

When we grieve in such a way, we are also acknowledging a difficult reality.  Because of our loss, life is going to be different.  We may not yet know what the “new normal” will be, but we do know that life as we knew it will not be the same. And that realization is painful.

Grief is a difficult process for us and it is also not relegated only to physical death.  Sometimes we grieve over the loss of anticipated hopes and dreams.  Sometimes we grieve over the loss of traditions which have been meaningful and life giving for us.  Sometimes we grieve over the loss of a way of life.  In my personal life and in my work as a minister, I have experienced the grief process in many of these ways—and I am sure that you have also, for grief knows no boundaries and makes no distinction among persons.

Several years ago, my Grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.  The last few years of his life were especially difficult, when he no longer remembered us and required care around the clock.  We began to weep and share mementos and stories long before he finally passed.  As a family, we all experienced anticipatory grief, as we mourned the loss of the gifts and person we knew him to be.  As we gather together as a faith community today, I wonder how many of us share similar experiences.

As the parent of a child with a developmental disability, grief came early.  When our son was diagnosed, I had to face the difficult reality that my hopes and dreams for his life might not come to be.  Dreams like being a football star or the president of student council.  Many parents have similar hopes and aspirations that for their children.  As I have talked with other parents, we share a common bond of grieving over the loss of those hopes and dreams.  Together as a disability community, we share stories together, weep together and seek to understand what our “new normal” might look like together.

Christianity has faced its own share of grief as well.  For years churches have been lamenting the loss of full sanctuaries.  Traditions like Christmas Bazaars, sewing circles, women’s guilds, etc. have either declined or passed away from the life of the church.  Congregations themselves are facing stark realities of decline, death of lifelong members, loss of a culture that values what church has meant for many over the years, death of congregations themselves, and the fear of what may lie ahead for those remaining.  Together we share stories of how wonderful life was together in the past.  We share mementos of the life we shared together when the church was thriving.  We grieve over the loss of the church as we knew it and share a common anticipatory grief over what may come to be of the church in the not too distant future.

In all of these diverse experiences of grieving, where is the good news?  Peter represents the early church in the book of Acts.  And through Peter’s actions we catch a glimpse of how God, people of faith and the church bring good news to those who are grieving.

The first way in which Peter responds is to listen to the tears and grief of the widows in the story.  He enters into their situation and listens as they share stories and talk about the mementos and gifts Tabitha/Dorcas gave to the community.  As people of faith, we can model this covenant when we too enter into the experience and walk beside those who are grieving.  We can share the stories of the devotion, good works and acts of charity given by those who have gone before us.

The second way in which Peter responds is to pray.  Peter pauses in the midst of the situation to pray with and for those who are grieving.  And he enters into his time of prayer after listening to the grief of the community and before he does anything else.  Peter seeks the presence and guidance of God who hears the cries of God’s children, knows their sufferings and enters into the human situation to redeem them.  And following Peter’s prayer, it is God who intercedes with hope and new life in the midst of grief and death.  And we hear in the text how this became known throughout the area and many believed in the Lord.  As people of faith and as the faith community, we can remember and model that before we do anything; we seek God through prayer and affirm that it is God who brings hope and new life into our experiences.

The third way in which Peter ministers is through going to those who are grieving.  His is an active rather than passive ministry.  As we read the text, Peter was nearby, but in a different location from the grieving widows.  They were in Joppa, while Peter was in Lydda, near Joppa.  Peter did not wait for them to come to him; he went to where they were.  As Peter represents the early Church in the story, we are invited to remember that God brings the good news to those who are hurting.  And God brings this good news, this hope in the midst of grief, not by anticipating that they will come to us, but by calling us to be on the move.  God calls us to be active and take our ministry from where we are to where they are.

The Church today is in a place similar to Peter in Lydda.  There are people hurting in Joppa.  How will we respond?

Here is the good news today:  God continues to act through our discipleship.  When we go to those who are hurting and listen to their grief, when we enter in to their situations and covenant to share their experiences, when we remember to pause, pray and seek God’s involvement, then God breathes new life into loss and death.  When we encounter the diverse experiences of death, grieving over loss of life, hopes and dreams, traditions and our former ways of life, it is God who lives and moves among us.  God works through us to be a very present help in times of trouble and calls us to an active, portable discipleship as people of faith.  God can bring us through grief, as persons of faith and as a church, to a place where death has no power over us.  Only one question remains.  Are we willing to take the journey?

Tired of Awareness

Well, here we are again.

April is Autism Awareness Month.  What started as a good idea has become, in my opinion, cliche.  And I think it has lost it’s uumph.  Some of the latest statistics are either 1 in 88, or 1 in 50 kids will be diagnosed with Autism.  And thanks to the work of non-profit advocacy agencies, the work of awareness has progressed.

But here is where I have a difference of opinion.  It is time to move beyond awareness.  Don’t get me wrong, awareness is important.  But I think people are aware.

I know that I am.  I am aware of Autism. So are my family and friends, my church and my circles of influence.  We live and breathe Autism Awareness.  Not just in April, but every day and every minute of every day.  That is what happens when you have a kid on the spectrum.  And we are also acutely aware of how isolating, and frustrating the journey has become.

Awareness is not the issue anymore.  While our culture is aware of autism, our kids are still marginalized.  They are still separated from full participation in society.  They are still not provided the supports they need to excel, while “typical” kids are.

Awareness is not what we need anymore.  Acceptance is what we need.  And equality.  And integration.

Acceptance that kids with Autism are created in the Image and Likeness of God, and do not need to be fixed, but affirmed.  Acceptance that they need to be given an equal chance at success with educational methods and supports that build them up and encourage them.  Acceptance that they can fully participate in society to the best of their ability, when they are integrated into the workplace with jobs where they can use their God given graces, talents and skills.

I am also aware that I write these words on Easter Sunday, as an Ordained Christian Minister of the Gospel.  My faith tells me that today we remember that Christ rose from the dead, which among other things means that he defeated the powers of the world which would marginalize and separate people.  His was a ministry of acceptance, to which we are called to participate.

So, how about we change the conversation.  Let’s make April “Autism Acceptance month”, and really work for some change.

Because our kids deserve more than awareness.

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