revgunnar

Thoughts and Musings from a Progressive Christian

Eden, Babel, and Wrestling with Autonomy

Over the last week I have been wrestling with the concept of autonomy. Actually, I should qualify that, I have been wrestling theologically with autonomy.

This wrestling has been motivated by the cultural debate sparked by the “Death with Dignity” conversation and the complex decision of Brittany Maynard to end her life through Physician Assisted Suicide/Death. For supporters of PAD, there is a desire to support the autonomy of individuals, including a person’s autonomous capacity to decide when and how to end his/her life when diagnosed with a terminal condition.

But in the conversation about autonomy, the consideration of limits is not frequently discussed. So I began to wonder, with such a high value on autonomy, what are the limits of autonomy? And while this question can be engaged within bioethics, philosophy and other disciplines, for me it is more about reflecting from my faith perspective.

We read in Genesis 3:22 that God is concerned about humans eating from the Tree of Life in the Garden, and decides to protect it. Later on, in Genesis 11, God is concerned about the humans building the Tower of Babel: “this is only the beginning of what they will do…” (11.6)

Walter Brueggemann (Interpretation Commentary Series: Genesis; John Knox, pg. 54) offers the following thought on the Eden narrative: “Our mistake is to pursue autonomous freedom. Freedom which does not discern the boundaries of human life leaves us anxious.” Claus Westermann (Genesis: A Practical Commentary; Wipf and Stock, pg.82-83) comments on the Babel narrative, offering “God is afraid that the building will lead to human autonomy; such a development would call into question human finitude, which is inherent in being created by God.”

Taken together then, perhaps we might discern that in our anxiety about human finitude, we exercise a greater desire for autonomy, pushing the boundaries of human life (and death). Instead of finding clarity, perhaps what we then experience is greater anxiety.

Does this imply that we should have no autonomy? Something within me says no. God does give us free will (the freedom to which Brueggemann alludes) and autonomy. But is autonomy then limitless? If not, then what are the boundaries of autonomy? In our pursuit of autonomy, when do we discern and accept our human finitude?

These are complex questions, just as facing death comes with complexity. And given the complexity of terminal illness, facing death accentuates human anxiety with wonderments of how death will approach, how painful it will be, how emotionally painful and financially difficult it will be for family members, and other deeply wrenching questions.

So, given the Genesis narrative, theologically is the autonomy associated with choosing Physician Assisted Death within the appropriate boundaries of human life, or outside of acceptance of human finitude?

Is It Time Yet?

Dear Church:

Is it time yet? Are we there yet? Have we yet come to the place when we might take a critical look at our guest list of people we have invited, and expand our invitation?

We have looked about and lamented over our declining church. We have wrung our hands, wondering why people aren’t joining like they used to. We have tried church growth strategies, and marketing schemes, and advertising campaigns, all designed to attract people to our church. We have tweaked our liturgy, and our worship style. We have written a plethora of welcome statements, designed web sites, set up “Facebook” pages and even opened twitter accounts—all in the interest of attracting people to our beloved, declining, church. After all of this, a few have come, but we are still a shadow of what we used to be—in the “glory days.”

Since so many people have not accepted our invitation, is it time—just maybe—to invite those whom we have not invited before?

Luke 14:16-21 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’

After all of the preparations had been made, and no one came, then the decision was made to invite the outcast, the separated, the stigmatized—the persons with disabilities. Those who had been overlooked and marginalized, were finally extended an invitation—and they came.

But before you think “A-HA, our next outreach strategy!” please be cautious. Persons with disabilities are not a strategy. They should not be invited as a mere means to grow a church. THEY ARE, however, persons who are longing for a spiritual home. They are a community longing to be invited and genuinely, authentically, welcomed into the life of the church.

Here are two stories which parents have shared with me and given me permission to share:

“My husband and I are members of a very large [deleted denomination] church…going on 8 years. After 5 years of not missing a Sunday or Wednesday, our infant son was diagnosed w/autism and a few other physical problems. Attendance started to dwindle as he was not enjoying all of the over-stimulation. One of us always ended up taking him out to the car and getting his stroller and pushing him around the large parking lot. We would alternate so we would each have a chance at a spiritual feeding.

It became difficult. Putting him in the nursery or toddler room without myself or my husband was never an option. We started to really miss being there as a family. Attendance dwindled more. If fact, I expect a letter any day letting me know our membership will be null and void if we don’t return. We absolutely
loved this church. It makes me sad. But it is probably the most unfriendly to someone with sensory integration disorder. We slowly gave up on spiritual feedings in public.” And the closing words of her story pained my very heart as she said “I miss the love.”

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a woman (we’ll call her “Sally”) in my office, and she was telling me about her faith. She explained that she has always had a strong faith and a strong connection to the church. When she and her husband had children, they were active in worship, and the kids were in Sunday school.

Their one son was diagnosed with a developmental disability. Unfortunately, due to his disability, his behaviors did not match those of “typical” children in church. In other words, he didn’t behave the way children should in church. He was deemed to be “high maintenance.” The looks and stares, along with comments, from members of the church became part of each Sunday worship experience. Eventually, Sally told me, feeling hurt and betrayed, felling judged as bad parents, Sally and her family left the church and searched for another.

They found a new church, one where everyone was excited to welcome a new family, so they started attending. After all, we all know how we churches rush to greet a visiting family with kids! Yet a few months later, it was the same situation occurring all over again for them in this new church. So Sally and her family searched for a new church, one that would welcome and understand their situation. They wanted to be included in a church family, and live out their faith. They tried a third church…to no avail. They tried a fourth church…

After four churches, their feelings of hurt, shame, discouragement and anger with their experience of churches became too much. They gave up. After trying four churches, they stopped trying. And they stopped going. Sally tells me that these days, she sits down at her computer and watches a sermon on the internet. That way, she says, she can nurture her faith without the worrying about the judgment.

The stories these two parents shared with me are not isolated stories. There are many more. One writer shared the following (see footnote below): “family members of many faith traditions, living with a disability…reported that their children remained marginalized within faith communities…” “Without fail, parents believed…that their children had a deep spiritual connection to God; that they had the capacity to develop such a relationship; or that through their active involvement and visible presence in the church community, they could enhance the spiritual lives of the members…nothing created so much sadness in the lives of parents as the failure of faith communities to value the spiritual connection or community role of disabled children.”

There’s just this invisibleness; they really don’t see you. Or they stare at you; one of the two. I want her to feel welcome. Not this invisible person. I don’t want her to be looked over like she’s just not there.

Matthew…has gifts, said his mother. He loves music. He can’t look a person in the eye, but he can sing like an angel, and he wants to be in the choir. Why couldn’t he be part of a choir? Because the pastor says he is too strange.

It was a shock for us when we were told that Gregory could only attend one more time in the classroom, and even then only if a parent would attend with him because they couldn’t do it. Do it yourself, they said.

Eight year old Carl’s mother was most anguished because she believed that her son had been “deleted” from church life: I really almost lost my faith over this whole ordeal, but it’s my faith and I won’t quit my faith because of a few rotten apples.

Persons with Disabilities, and their families, are longing for a church home. They are praying for a faith community in which they can feel welcomed, included and loved.

Is it time yet? Is it time yet to revisit the guest list, and instead of inviting all those who aren’t coming, invite those who want to be invited?

If not………then when will it be time church?

Rev. Gunnar Cerda, Parent of a child with a “disability”

Speraw, S. “Spiritual experiences of parents and caregivers who have children with disabilities or special needs.” Issues In Mental Health Nursing 27, no. 2 (February 2006): 213-230. CINAHL with Full Text, EBSCOhost(accessed October 15, 2014).

No More Hushing

Matthew 20:29-34 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

As we hear our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus is leaving Jericho and a large crowd is following him. Sitting by the roadside, separated from the crowd, are two persons with a disability. Wanting to be noticed, they shout out to Jesus for mercy.

The reaction of the crowd is striking. The crowd sternly orders them to be quiet. Two persons with disabilities are shouting out, wanting to be noticed by Jesus, wanting to be included in his grace, and the crowd wants them silenced. And this is not just a “hush,” this is a stern order, a strong reply designed to deny the voice of those with a disability. It is a response which illustrates that the crowd of followers wants to keep the persons with disabilities in their place.

My guess is that these two persons were used to the stigma. Unfortunately, they were accustomed to being treated this way by society. But in that moment, they had enough. This time they decided they would not be silenced by the crowd. Today, they decided, the crowd would not determine what they were allowed to do or say. So, refusing to accept the crowd’s denial of their agency, the two persons with disability shouted even more loudly: Have mercy on us Lord, Son of David!

Unfortunately, this story has occurred not only in Jesus’ time. As one author writes: “Within a society which uses the criteria of independence, productivity, intellectual prowess and social position to judge the value of human beings, people with . . . disabilities will inevitably be excluded and downgraded as human beings of lesser worth and value.” Even in today’s world, we hear persons with disabilities calling out to be included, only to be met with responses designed to deny their voice, agency and full participation in the community. Even the Gospel text we heard has been omitted and skipped over in the Revised Common Lectionary. Maybe it is not always a stern order to be quiet, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

What might it sound like today? We want to be able to access buildings! Oh hush, we already built a ramp. We want to be able to park and go shopping like everyone else. Oh hush, we already designated one handicapped parking space. We want the same education. Oh hush, we already hired one intervention specialist. We want to work. Oh hush, we don’t have any jobs which can accommodate your disability. We want to be able to participate fully in the life of the church. Oh hush, we welcome everyone to worship. Hush, hush, hush, we have already decided what accommodations we will give you.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a woman (we’ll call her “Sally”) in my office, and she was telling me about her faith (She gave me permission to share her story with you). She explained that she has always had a strong faith and a strong connection to the church. When she and her husband had children, they were active in worship, and the kids were in Sunday school.

Their one son was diagnosed with a developmental disability. Unfortunately, due to his disability, his behaviors did not match those of “typical” children in church. In other words, he didn’t behave the way children should in church. He was deemed to be “high maintenance.” The looks and stares, along with comments, from members of the church became part of each Sunday worship experience. Eventually, Sally told me, feeling hurt and betrayed, felling judged as bad parents, Sally and her family left the church and searched for another.

They found a new church, one where everyone was excited to welcome a new family, so they started attending. After all, we all know how we churches rush to greet a visiting family with kids! Yet a few months later, it was the same situation occurring all over again for them in this new church. So Sally and her family searched for a new church, one that would welcome and understand their situation. They wanted to be included in a church family, and live out their faith. They tried a third church…to no avail. They tried a fourth church…

After four churches, their feelings of hurt, shame, discouragement and anger with their experience of churches became too much. They gave up. After trying four churches, they stopped trying. And they stopped going. Sally tells me that these days, she sits down at her computer and watches a sermon on the internet. That way, she says, she can nurture her faith without the worrying about the judgment.

Persons with disabilities (and their families) are not defined by their disability, they are persons just like us, and created in the image and likeness of God, with the same spiritual hopes and needs we have. One author described it this way when writing about a person he had formed a relationship with: “Stephen doesn’t need to be judged, controlled or confined. He has as much right to have a valued place within society, as anyone else. He, like all of us, needs to be recognized as a valued person, loved and above all else understood. He needs people to take the time to enter into ‘his world,’ to sit with him, and together discover that the world in which he lives is the same world in which they live, even though the way he experiences it may be very different from the way many others do. Above all else he needs to be recognized as a person in his own right, with hopes, dreams and expectations for his life, and not a ‘disability’ that simply needs to be controlled, healed or overcome.”

As we heard in our Gospel today, Jesus did not hush the persons with disabilities. Instead, moved with compassion, he reached out to them. In that moment, their voice was heard and the Kingdom of God was seen when their life was forever changed. They found healing and the hush fell instead upon the crowd.

The good news is that Christ has redeemed us from our sins, and we can feel freed to move in new ways. Through Christ we are empowered to be the individuals who challenge stigma instead of perpetuating it. As a crowd who follows Jesus, we can be the ones who reach out to those who have been hushed, offering healing.

Martin Copenhaver, in his book titled This Odd and Wonderous Calling, writes of a situation he encountered while pastoring one of his congregations. He writes of how welcoming the stranger can be messy and tells the story of a gentleman named Bernie. Bernie was bright, well educated and had a true gift for music. He could often be found playing the piano in the sanctuary and you would think you were sitting in a concert hall.

Bernie also had Tourette’s Syndrome, an illness which causes a person to burst forth with involuntary exclamations, sometimes obscenities or something similarly inappropriate. In Bernie’s case, he had a tendency to unexpectedly bark. Yes, bark, like a dog. Due to his disability, Bernie could not hold a job. His family couldn’t handle it and turned him away. So he was homeless and had a disability. And then one day Bernie decided to join the church choir.

Martin confesses that the first time he saw Bernie in the choir, his first thought was not “thank you Jesus.” But despite how uncomfortable it felt at first, Bernie sang in the choir and he had a beautiful voice when he was not barking. And while the church had many discussions about “what to do about Bernie,” in the end they decided to do nothing but let it be as it was.

After a few weeks the congregation became accustomed to Bernie’s outbursts. The understood him and loved him and the gifts he brought. When visitors would come to the church and hear one of Bernie’s outbursts, they would look around and be amazed that no one seemed to be disturbed. What they saw was a community who accepted and included him. When they noticed the lack of response, they would often have a look on their face as if to say “what kind of strange place is this I’ve wandered into?” And Pastor Copenhaver came to the conclusion that perhaps that question is the highest compliment a church can receive.

My friends, people with disabilities are still shouting out today. And we are the crowd following Jesus. How will we respond—as “hushers”……or as Christ, moved with compassion?

Notes:

(Swinton 42); 2 (Swinton 34); 3 (Copenhaver and Daniel 97-8)

Resources:

Copenhaver, Martin B. and Lillian Daniel. This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2009.

Swinton, John. “Building a Church for Strangers.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health (Vol. 4 (4) 2001): 25-63.

Let Go and Let God

There are phrases that just stick with you. Like those 12 step phrases. Of course, the popular one is “One day at a time.” But another returned to mind today: “Let go and let God.” It came to mind thanks to the sermon I heard at church this morning.

Sometimes when I read a Gospel passage, I see, hear and identify with a person in the narrative. Today’s passage in Matthew 15.21-28 is one of those. There is a woman who advocates on behalf of her daughter, who has been possessed by a demon. Of course, sociocultural commentary teaches us that the ancient Mediterranean culture ascribed demon possession to unexplained conditions like disabilities and mental illness. And such persons were subjected to stigma—much as they still are in our culture today.

So we have a parent, advocating for a child. The disciples urge Jesus to send here away, because she keeps shouting after them. In other words, the mother is persistent, displaying commitment and dedication to advocating for her child. She will neither be silenced nor give up. And then she is so bold as to engage Jesus in a repartee. He says that he came for the lost sheep of Israel. In other words, in this passage (typical commentary about this displaying the humanity of Jesus set aside for now) he saw his mission as being for those whom were not the marginalized and stigmatized. Yet she persists, and Jesus accommodates her request. Here it is:

Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

So there I am thinking about how this passage really validates our role as advocates for our children who need to be included in our schools and culture. Here I am thinking that the interaction illustrates that when we parents of children with disabilities persist in shouting after the disciples (the church) for inclusion, we are justified through the actions of Jesus in this passage. Here I am thinking this Gospel passage is PERFECT for all that I am concerned about!

Then came the sermon. And the focus was on Jesus’ response “let it be done for you as you wish.”

Sometimes I find myself really challenged by a Gospel passage. “Let it be done for you.” Sometimes, you need to be still and know that God is God. Sometimes you need to hit the pause button in your persistence and advocacy, in order to give God some space to work. Sometimes you need to….well, let go and let God. He did not say let you do as you wish. He said let it be done for you.

It is about control. See, there are so many times with our kids that we need to be in control. There are schools to hold accountable to following IEP’s. There are politicians who haven’t seen the need to craft laws which include persons with disabilities—so we need to advocate. There are the dirty looks and stares from people who don’t understand and need to be educated. There are stigma to overcome. There are…well you get the idea. There is so much “we” need to do. But how often do we pause and let it be done as we wish? In all of our advocating and persistence, when do we stop and give God a chance to change people’s hearts. When do I hit the pause button? When do I stop “shouting after them” long enough to see what God has done for us?

So tonight I reflect on how I might seek a better balance. Holding in tension that I feel called to advocate, alongside needing to give God some space to work: when and where do I need to let go and let God? Oh, and maybe “Keep it Simple too….

The Touchy Language of Blessed

I read a HuffPost Religion Blog today (here) where the author said: “I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed. Like the “amen” at the end of a prayer…On the surface, the phrase seems harmless. Faithful even. Why wouldn’t I want to give God the glory for everything I have? Isn’t that the right thing to do?…we hijack the word “blessed” to make it fit neatly into our modern American ideals, creating a cosmic lottery where every sincere prayer buys us another scratch-off ticket.”

I agree with the author, but from a different perspective than he was exploring. The word blessed is often used to refer to life situations, like the parent who is talking about a child and says “I feel so blessed.” How could this be troubling when it sounds so innocent?

I remember reading an internet “Dear So and so” (like Dear Abby) site a few months ago, from a parent who wrote seeking some understanding when she wrote: “…it always feels like a slap in the face when people, knowing my situation, say they were blessed with healthy children. Are only the healthy and wealthy blessed?” The language we used, while it sounds harmless, can be touchy and hurtful.

Imagine for a moment you (or your spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend, etc.) are a person with a disability, mental illness, disabling chronic illness or syndrome, terminal illness, age related condition, etc. When someone says they “feel blessed” because they received a raise at work, or found the perfect house, or their child scored a goal in sports, how would that sound? How would that feel? And when those who do not experience whatever the “blessing” is, are they (or you) not blessed? If you are not blessed, are you then cursed?

Of course I pulled out a favorite book of mine (Social Science Commentary on the Gospels by Bruce Malina) and came across the following: “Contrary to the dominant social values, these “blessed are…” statements ascribe honor to those unable to defend their positions or those who refuse to take advantage of or trespass on the position of another. They are not those normally honored by the culture.” Another way to understand this might be that those whose life seems great, or encounter a windfall, etc. misunderstand the context, those things are not the blessings. The above makes sense in the context of the beatitudes “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn,” and so on.

While a thorough exploration of the theology and biblical contextuality of blessing would be helpful, it is beyond the space of a blog post. And while what it means to “be blessed” may be complex, I am not suggesting we strike the phrase from our vocabulary or culture. I do however think that we could benefit from refraining to use the word blessed so easily in our culture, and describe our situations in more sensitive ways.

Perhaps in the meantime we can simply pause and ask ourselves: how will another person hear it when I say I’m blessed and how will the other person feel hearing it?

 


(In)Justice and (Un)Fairness

As I sit here at my computer in this moment, I feel very sad. And angry. Angry with the injustice, unfairness and misunderstanding towards persons with disabilities.

To be up front, I feel sad for my son, for myself, for my wife and daughter. Because as I have written about before, my son is a great kid, who happens to have a disability.

Imagine how proud I felt when he got a job a few months ago with a local business, and how thankful I felt for the manager who gave him an opportunity to learn social skills, job skills, life skills and responsibility. All the things that all great kids need to grow in our world. I was so thankful for that manager, and her compassion for my son. And then, as happens in life, people pursue opportunities, as was the case for the manager. She moved on and a new manager came on board.

And then my son lost his job.

Just like that. You are no longer needed. You will feel uncomfortable when it gets busy. You will feel overwhelmed. This isn’t the right environment for you. Can I help you find a place to volunteer? Other people said you didn’t like working here…why, because he doesn’t express emotion and didn’t “act” excited every day? But you haven’t even scheduled him to work with you and assess his abilities yet. What about a job coach—we have arranged for a job coach to help. Well maybe you can use the job coach over the summer somewhere else and try again in the fall. But there is nothing for you to do here.

WHAT??!! We felt blindsided. My son (as well as he can articulate) feels disappointed and hurt. He had a job and now he doesn’t. How can I explain it to him when even I don’t understand? I’m sorry buddy, some people don’t understand what it means to have a disability. Some people don’t understand how to get to know you. Some people don’t understand how proud you were of your job. No, you didn’t do anything wrong. No, it’s not your fault.

And although I am angry for my son and myself, I realize there is a larger issue at stake here. The issue is how ALL persons with disabilities are treated in the workforce. Presumptions and assumptions are made. Paternalistic statements like “let me help you find a volunteer opportunity” send a message that you are not valued as employee. They send messages like “you don’t belong here.” They demean and belittle the potential and skills that a person does have. They lessen feelings of self worth. They reinforce the dominant ideology that persons with “abilities” have power over, and determine the opportunities of, persons with disabilities. They determine who is included in society and who gets “let go” from participation in the workforce.

But you can go volunteer.

How many persons with disabilities are told they can go volunteer somewhere? And how is that either Just or Fair?

I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, as he wrote to the Corinthians: The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you”… but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12.21-26) Did you catch that??

So I have to wonder, how many persons with disabilities have to have to suffer such demeaning treatment—being told they are not needed? And what do we need to do to help our society understand that it is beyond time that persons with disabilities feel empowered and are honored? It is beyond time to INCLUDE NOT EXCLUDE persons with disabilities from full participation in the workforce.

There is a bigger issue here. And although I feel hurt, I also feel that it is time to take a stand. On behalf of my son, because I am his Dad and will stand by his side no matter what. And on behalf and alongside persons with disabilities. Because where there is injustice, my faith calls me to seek justice.

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.

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