Discussion of issues related to Christianity/theology and persons with disability, hosted by Jeff McNair, a Special Education professor.Jeff and his wife Kathi have been involved in ministry with adults with intellectual disabilities for 35 years.With the idea of developing maturity through asking the question is small steps toward a goal has grown out of the article they wrote.
As had been mentioned before in this blog, my wife and I lead a ministry to adults with disabilities at my local church. Its called the Light and Power Company. Each week we have a typical bible lesson to the 50-80 adults who are present. This past week, we studied the passages from
Luke 6:6-11, Matthew 2:9-14, and Mark 3:1-6 where Jesus healed a man's right hand, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue. The story is interesting on a variety of fronts. But the aspect that struck me this time, was how the leadership would refuse to see the obvious positive nature of Jesus healing the man's hand. This was no doubt a person in their community, familiar to them, who perhaps experienced hardship because of his impairment. To their credit, he was in the congregation, hopefully not just invited on this one occasion to try to "trip" Jesus up.
When Jesus does heal the man's hand, their response it to want to kill him. Their theology is wrong on so many levels. Wrong in not loving their neighbor, wrong in putting their traditions over the commands of God, and wrong in their response to Jesus doing an obviously beautiful thing for the man. But Jesus' actions didn't fit into their tradition straight jacket they had been conditioned to believe. Because we have not done something in a particular way, because I haven't be trained about this response, perhaps as with the Pharisees I have been trained to think this change in tradition is wrong, I will resist it.
We continue to stand at a crossroads in ministry. Will we love all our neighbors and embrace the changes that need to occur to love them and include them? Or will we, like the Pharisees, literally conspire to do evil in the process of resisting change. Hopefully we are not plotting the kinds of things the leaders in Jesus' time were, but we can still engage in evil when we exclude people on the characteristic called impairment.
Its sad how we can see the blindness in the Pharisees when they can't see something clearly presented, but cannot see our own blindness. A similar story could be told about where some of us are in our stranglehold on tradition.
In the last month, I have had the opportunity to travel to two places which are quite different when it comes to social skills. In France, I was at times greeted with a kiss on the cheek. In China, I learned a new meaning of "personal space" in that people will get very close to each other, even strangers. It occurred to me, if I kissed a man in China on the cheek, or stood as close to someone in France as people did in China, I would be considered quite strange because of the social customs of each place. There is nothing at all wrong with the social customs in either of these places. If I were to stand close or kiss on the cheek, I am not doing anything wrong...from a moral perspective. However, because of social traditions, I would be very wrong in either place.
Can we make this connection with those with disabilities who do not understand social skills? They are like the French person who kisses the Chinese person on the cheek, or the Chinese person who stand too close to the French person. They have done nothing wrong. They have only carried their tradition of social behavior to a place where the understanding of social behavior is different. As soon as we understand that people are from different places, we will likely forgive the misunderstanding and even enjoy or embrace it. When we go to those places, one of the things we enjoy are the differences in culture we experience. Are we willing to do the same for people who are not from a different culture, but just don't understand the social skill demands of the place where they are?
Social skills are too often the reason why person are excluded or rejected. As stated elsewhere in this blog, we hold to our traditions and reject the command of God to love our neighbor (see this posting on Disability Ministry and Traditions). How refreshing it would be if we were more accepting of others and their differences, particularly those which are simply social skill differences. May God help us to not let small things like social skills get in the way of loving our neighbors. McNair
I have been thinking a lot about relationships involving individuals, the community and God. See this link for some of my thoughts. Recently in putting together a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12, the following occurred to me.
"Like the Corinthian church that Paul addresses, we face the same issues of disobedience that they did. We need to look at ourselves in the light of his exhortations. Because we have ignored or excluded individuals with disabilities, we have not become all that the Body of Christ should be. But we actually do not know what we would become if parts of the body that have been excluded were now included.
God in his sovereignty, has created individuals and his church. The way both of those are reflects how he wants them to be. Under his sovereignty, people are the way they are for themselves, for the community and ultimately for God. If someone is rejected because of personal characteristics, this reflects a misunderstanding of people, community and God. It is a threefold mistake. People aren’t able to express their God given purpose. The community or the Body of Christ will never become what it was meant to be, and arguably we are disobedient to God’s sovereign purpose."
I recently heard someone say that rejection of people is a "sin against the Body of Christ." I agree with that, that is how serious it is. This threefold mistake is so basic. It calls so much into question.
From Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger (1976) "When legalization of euthanasia comes, it will come in the name of six favorite deceptions and disguises. They will say (as I can clearly document) that putting a person to death is good medicine and good science. The second disguise will be mercy, love, humanism and honesty. Thirdly, religion: remember that Satan pretends to be God. This is his favorite disguise at all times. So we will be, and have been, told that it is good Christianity to put people to death. The fourth one is the denial of the value of life, the claim that certain lives are not worthy, perhaps invoking cost-benefit issues. Fifthly, of course, and maybe the most obvious one, is the denial of humanness of a person and that, therefore, murder will not be murder. Sixthly, euthanasia will be good law. It is essential that we should recognize those six signs, because they have much persuasive power." ( The Prophetic Voice and Presence of Mentally Retarded People in the World today, 1976, p 30).
In all the discussion revolving around the NY, Virginia and Vermont laws, there seems to be the underlying idea that infanticide/euthanasia is particularly ok if a child is born with a disability. Somehow, #5 above is always in play because if someone is disabled their lives are not worth living. It is crazy that the same people who would support the taking of the lives of children with disabilities, claim to support children and adults with disabilities. I wonder how long that will last if we move down the slope of infanticide. If it is ok to murder newborns, why not ok later in life. We have seen in Europe the permission to euthanize children up to age 4 (autism is often not diagnosed till age 30 months or later). Is that the next step that will be advocated in the name of "women's health?"
We all have heard of Roe vs. Wade, but have you heard of Doe vs. Bolton? This is the law that basically permits late term abortions for just about any reason. Don't believe me? Search the law.
"In a Los Angeles Times analysis, David Savage explained: ""[Supreme Court Justice Harry] Blackmun had said that abortion'must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician.' So long as doctors were willing to perform abortions - and clinics soon opened to do so - the court's ruling said they could not be restricted from doing so at least through the first six months of pregnancy." During the final trimester, "It soon became clear that if a patient's 'emotional well-being' was reason enough to justify an abortion, than any abortion could be justified." (https://secure.mccl.org/doe-v-bolton.html more information is available on this website).
Could the "health" of the mother be considered as a reason for infanticide if it is use as a justification for late term abortions? Seems like a logical next step. Mothers will often experience emotional stress at the birth of a child with a disability. Get ready for the horror of the next likely step.
Please wake up Democrats and Republicans too if it applies to you as well! Do not support this evil. McNair
So often, when we consider the development of ministry to persons in some way affected by disability, we focus on our perceptions of the situation. We have customary ways of doing things that have become comfortable and ingrained. Then someone comes to us who either cannot or will not participate in those customary practices. During the times when we don't reject them, we tend to think about our perceptions of the situation. What do I need to do? How am I feeling? How can I help these people? It strikes me that although these are good questions to ask ourselves, they only reveal half of the equation.
I wonder what people with autism perceive when they come to church? What do they perceive when they enter a social situation? It would be interesting to begin by trying to understand their perspective.
Imagine someone with a disability, say autism or intellectual disability, riding in a car on the way to church. What are they thinking? As they get out of the car and walk toward the door of the church or the ministry, what are they anticipating will happen or are hoping will happen? As they go into the worship service, do they understand what that is about? When people around them are singing and raising their hands, what do they perceive that activity to be? If we were to explain to them what worship is, would they feel they have worshiped? Do we know the answers to these questions. When the class/ministry/church experience for the day is over, would the person say, "Yes, I received today what I was hoping to receive from my experience at church."
In part, the answer to this question goes to the culture of the church or ministry. If people have different perceptions of the world due to disabilities that impact their intellect, are the activities that impact those without those types of disabilities touching them in the same way?
Take for example something as "intuitive" as friendship. I have a man who is a friend of mine who is autistic. He seems to be constantly always on the lookout for a friend. He will attempt to reach out in friendship to others, people with intellectual disabilities, and although they might respond in a friendly manner, they seem to not be providing what he is after. His perception or understanding of friendship seems in some ways to be different from theirs. And like many people without disabilities, they either don't understand what he is after or are not interested in engaging in the type of completely appropriate relationship that he is seeking.
I think it would do us well in ministry to attempt to understand how those we are seeking to serve perceive us, what we are trying to do, and whether to them, we are being successful. What we learn would not only impact what we do in ministry, but potentially also impact recommendations we would make on how these same individuals might be socialized in their upbringing. McNair
I have been thinking and writing a lot lately about the ways in which the Christian community's culture needs to change in order to better love our neighbors, in particular those with disabilities. In that process, I ran across this amazing quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. He said,
"On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." (“A time to break the silence,” 1967)
I think this is particularly relevant in the context of developing an inclusive church culture. People can be fooled into thinking that the answer to ministry to persons with disabilities is some form of segregated ministry whether it is at the church or in a different place. This is the "haphazard and superficial" approach to disability ministry. We have meetings on days when few people are at church. We have segregated programs for every age group. These make us feel like we are doing something but in reality we are not doing what is needed.
As Dr. King instructed us, we need to change the edifice that causes us to settle for flinging a coin to a beggar, but changing environments such that the changes that are required are implemented. This is the hard work of disability ministry. We reflect on how we do things, our traditions, etc. and then seek to change any edifices that cause us to be straight jacketed into "solutions" which may actually exacerbate difficulties for those we are claiming to assist.
Flinging the coin to the beggar won't keep him from living in poverty. Segregated ministries will not cause the church to become what it needs to be if it wants to truly love its neighbor. McNair
A religious leader was asked, What was the most important thing for a church to do?"
He responded, "What do you think it is?"
The questioner responded, "You should love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul and mind and you should love your neighbor as yourself."
"That's correct! A church should reflect the commands of God."
The questioner responded "What does a church look like that loves its neighbor?"
The religious leader responded with a story.
A man with a disability went to a local church. He went to the worship service of the church. While he was there he was totally ignored. No one so much as spoke to him. It was as if he wasn't even there. He left as he came, a person devalued, without worth.
The man then went to another different church the following week. He went in and was greeted. When he asked whether the church assisted people with disabilities, like himself, they were gracious. However, they said that ministry to people with disabilities was not a priority because they are doing so many other ministries. They did ministries to the poor, and evangelism overseas. So they couldn't take the time to include those with disabilities as a focus of ministry. But they noted that there was another church just down the street that had made ministry to people with disabilities a focus so they felt like they didn't need to address this group of people. They told him to just go there.
The following week the man went to the church down the street the other church alluded to. As he entered, he walked past the handicapped parking spaces and up the ramp into the building. When he used the men's room he noted that there was a wheelchair accessible stall. There was an elevator that went to the second floor and there was a section in the worship center where people who used wheelchairs could sit. During the sermon, the pastor passionately stated, "We are not really impacted by disability, but we will love all people who come to us!"
The religious leader then ask the questioner, "Which of the churches was one that loved its neighbor?"
The man replied, "The one that had the accessible building."
The religious leader replied. "That is not correct. None of the churches were loving their neighbor. The first church ignored people with disabilities in the community. The second church skillfully sidestepped their responsibility toward persons with disabilities. The third church made modifications to their building in response to government regulations. We must not confuse compliance with mandated, government regulations with loving your neighbor. Additionally, it is fine to say that a church will welcome only those who come, but in reality they may not be welcoming to persons with disabilities because so many do not have the ability to come. Either they have intellectual disabilities that prohibit them from getting a driver's license or they have physical disabilities that would make it difficult or impossible to drive a car. So to say we welcome all who come is not sufficient."
So the man in the story with the disability just kept looking...
I often mention Mark 7 when I speak to groups about disability ministry. The passage highlights how traditions can get in the way of obeying the commands of God. The two most important commands being to love God and to love your neighbor. When we are confronted with having to love our neighbor or keep our traditions, too often we and our religious leaders are like the religious leaders Jesus confronted in that we hold to traditions and eschew the commands of God. It is interesting how Jesus points out three ways we avoid the commands of God, for our purposes, the command to love your neighbor. In Mark 7:8 he says,
"For you ignore God's law and substitute you own tradition."
Our first dodge is to act like we don't know what we are supposed to do. To ignore implies that you know something is there but you pretend like it isn't. So we know we are to love all our neighbors, including those with impairments, but we ignore it. In Mark 7:9,
"Then he said, 'You skillfully sidestep God's law in order to hold on to your own tradition."
When we can't ignore our responsibilities anymore as they begin to intrude upon us perhaps both intellectually and physically, we come up with ways to sidestep our responsibilities to love our neighbor. So clever ways of minimizing the demands placed upon us like segregated ministries, or those that meet on different days when no one is around are ways we can sidestep loving our neighbor. Finally in Mark 7:13 Jesus says,
"And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others."
So finally, when we can't ignore or sidestep, we just cancel the word of God. In a recent trip to the Philippines, I was working with a man who works with pastors. He told me of an occasion where he was talking to a pastor about including people with disabilities in the church. The pastor's response was, "I know we should be doing this but we aren't going to." That is the place where some leaders have ended up. When they can no longer ignore or sidestep, they just decide to cancel the word. As I have come to understand this section a bit more, it has helped me to move leaders almost in a progression from canceling to sidestepping to ignoring, to doing what they should do to love their neighbor. McNair
Every few years my church will hold a disability celebration Sunday. The last time the Sunday was recognized, a couple of parents came to me between services with the question, "What is there to celebrate?" It was easy to see the pain and struggle behind that question. The experience of disability can be incredibly difficult. In preparation for this year's celebration Sunday, I mentioned my interaction to our pastor. In his short tenure so far as our pastor, Rev. Todd Arnett has been incredibly supportive of our ministry. He was hardly at the church a month when it seemed he knew the names of everyone who attends our Light and Power Class ministry (I am not sure I can always be counted on to remember the 70+ people's names).
In his call to worship for this year's service, he drew something out of 2 Corinthians 12 that I hadn't quite put together before. In speaking of his "thorn in the flesh," Paul says,
"Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness" So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me...For when I am weak, then I am strong." (New Living Translation)
Todd made the point, that to say that "I am glad to boast about my weaknesses" is not unlike saying I will celebrate my weaknesses. This is hard. This is not intuitive for us. But Paul blows up our focus on strength by celebrating his weakness and how it drives him to rely on God. As I have stated in this blog before, our self reliance is a figment of our imagination. To think that I do anything by my own strength is little more than an expression of my uninformed pride. When I recognize this, and I finally see how dependent I truly am on God, it may be a hard thing, but Paul encourages us that to see it and embrace it as a good thing. Why? Because I understand that I do anything, only through the power of Christ working through me.
The day that I recognize this truth, whatever causes me to come to that recognition, is a day worthy of celebrating. McNair
The way we have always done things is a significant barrier to change. What might be called "precedents of practice" can be reason enough to eschew change. Sure there are reasons why practices develop as they do. Many of those reasons are Biblical reasons and we should embrace those firmly. The Bible should be taught. We should sing praises to God. We should welcome strangers. We should assist people in need. We should love our neighbor. We should observe communion. We should bring tithes and offerings. With each of these statements, you probably have a specific practice in mind as to how each of these are done. We need to do these things but we needn't do them in a manner that reflects an immutable precedent.
Our precedents may be sinful (see previous post on the sin of the environment). As I quoted in a post from 2007, there is also this fact.
Collective unconsciousness can be so vast that even the most global societal policies may be undeclared, unexplicated, unacknowledged, and even denied. Thus for many people to all work toward a bad thing requires no deliberate or conscious conspiracy. While this is well-known by social scientists, most citizens are not aware of how they themselves can be totally unconsciously acting out undeclared, large-scale, societal policies in their own daily lives. (from "A leadership-oriented introductory social role valorization (SRV) workshop, February 27, 2007)
When we simply accept our practices, whatever they might be, without being reflective about them in changing times, we risk doing wrong things. Church cannot look the same as it did in 1930 or 1960 or even 1990. We reflectively learn, hopefully mature, and continue to grow. Precedents of practice might need serious change. Disability ministry has been one of those bright lights that has shown on our traditions and practices. If we dare to look at what that light is illuminating, we should own any ugliness that we now see and seek to change, creating new precedents which will no doubt need to be revised again as we continue to mature.
I believe the worst thing we can do is stubbornly dig in our heels and refuse to change. If you do reflect on precedents, you realize that the main need for them to be changed is how they keep us, in a comfortable way, from loving our neighbors. The spotlight of disability ministry on precedents of practice make us uncomfortable because of the demands precedent changes would bring.
I am reminded once again of 1 Peter 2:19-21 which says, "But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you and example that you should follow in his steps." We need to embrace the discomfort and feeling of insecurity when we change our traditions that need to be changed. If we reflect on our precedents of practice, perhaps out of obedience we will begin to move in a different direction leading to a different practice. McNair