When, God, When?

My heart is broken. Again. Once again I have heard the pain of a person with autism. Pain caused by the Church. A person who wants and needs a church home but cannot find one.

A person who just wishes someone would walk alongside and try to understand.

A person who has a deep desire to serve others and yet finds only the expectation of being served.

No understanding that everyone brings a needed gift to the Church, the Body of Christ.

No willingness to receive that gift but instead only concern and fear that this new person will be just another drain on time, energy, resources.

No acceptance or willingness to include.

Just another door shut in a face.

Just another closed heart, connected to a closed mind.

“Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Can you imagine? Jesus is knocking on a door and the response is “Sorry. Not interested.” The door stays closed.

Can you imagine? That what is being delivered is a part of Christ’s Body and the answer is “Sorry. Not interested.” The door stays closed.

The Body stays incomplete. And the world stays the same because the Church is not able (disabled!) to serve, to resurrect, to save, to transform?

Because the door stays closed to someone with great gifts. Because all the Church sees is the negative. A negative which may not even be real.

Fear turns us toward the negative.
Christ came to shine light on the positive, and yet we still don’t understand.

The Church needs everyone. Everyone, EVERYONE! When will we learn to open the door and let EVERYONE in?

When will my heart be healed, never to be broken again?

When will the Body of Christ be complete?
When will we be ready for the transformation of the world to begin?

My prayers arise even as my tears fall.

 

Advertisements

Reality Not Satan

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’~Mark 8:31-38 NRSV

Many times in Christian tradition we hear Jesus referred to as the “Great Physician”. In this week’s lectionary I think we see Jesus the Great Physician, in rare and honest form. Jesus is giving his disciples a very clear prognosis. Peter, like so many of us, responds with denial –the first stage of grieving. Peter is so like us.

I remember sometime in late 2002, I sat in a orthopedist’s office. He spoke to me about the MRI of my spine. He used words I did not, yet, know.  What I most remember is “by age 40 you’ll be using a wheelchair or in need of spinal surgery.” NOOOOO! My brain, like Peter’s could not process it. I could not conceive of what he said. My mind shot out firecrackers of um so I worked my way through years of painful, confidence shattering physical and speech therapy to cope with Cerebral palsy, and now you are telling me that I am going to need to use a wheelchair anyways? Then what has been the point of all the work everyone told me was necessary and good? What then has been the point of my life if not to exceed expectations? If I can no longer do that who am I?  His words could not possibly fit into what I knew of life.

Peter rebuked Jesus not out of stupidity, although the writer of Mark sometimes portrays the disciples that way. Peter’s reaction to the news that Jesus would die was not really inspired by Satan, but by the very human experience of not being able to connect new information to what was expected based on a very real and human understanding of the world. Peter could no more conceive of the Messiah dying on a cross, then some people can conceive of a woman who used to have a speech impediment preaching. Peter is not very different from the families I meet who can not believe that their loved one on hospice is actually dying.

We live in a society that teaches us that physical change and decline is unacceptable, that it needs to stay hidden or be “put away” somewhere. But that is not how real life is. We are born, we age, we decline, and we die. Jesus is stating a very matter-of-fact truth about human life. Still like Peter we resist it. We resist change. We don’t want to believe that the real plan might be different from our plan. The influence of the Greek cynics is strong, we hear it from the men who die along side Jesus “Physician, heal thy self” / “Save yourself if you can”. That is what Peter expects–triumph against the world and the expectations of history.

Jesus, however, invites us forward into the very history we resist. Jesus calls us to the new. When my chronic pain started in 2002, I hated it. I wanted to go back the time when life itself was not a struggle. I took me a while to learn that was not going to be an option. Life became the unexpected. Somewhere somehow I realized that the pain might change my life but would not end it. I lost the competitive swimming, lost some ability to do the physically taxing book art that I loved, and lost some of the activeness I was known for. It seemed like I lost me. In time I realized that was all wrong. My acquired disabilities invited me out of the shadows. I could not hide my chronic pain as I had learned to compensate for and hide my cerebral palsy. A nun who had spent most of her career working with people with developmental disabilities, and was my supervisor, thought it was great fun to fold her arms over her chest and point out to me my very CP personality traits. Then there were the old ladies who sat behind me at church, who saw how much it hurt for me to stand or hold the hymnal in worship. They forced me to try a cane. I did not like any of it, but recognizing my real needs helped. It was when I could accept my acquired disabilities that I stopped denying my native disabilities. I learned to accept myself. It has made all the difference. To come out as who I am as a disabled woman has also allowed me to become an advocate, to make the world a more welcoming, accepting, inclusive world. That is not the work of Satan, it’s the work of accepting reality and following Jesus wherever he has us go.

Maundy Thursday: Who Do You Say That I Am?

Genesis 12 ; Gospel of John 13, 18

I miss read the lectionary for today. I went to Genesis rather than Exodus. But that is when I realized something I had never thought of before.

It occurs to me that Sarai, the wife of the patriarch Abram, has something in common with Jesus. Both had their identities betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.

Earlier in this Lenten season we found ourselves confronted by the call of God to Abram to leave Ur, when we follow that narrative to Genesis 12 we find Abram and Sarai called again to leave for a new land. This time they are traveling from Haran into Egypt. Verses 10-20 are often left out of the lectionary which stops at verse 14. It’s almost as if the lectionary is trying to avoid the issue of true identity as it is fully raised in the text. You see, in the narrative Abram asks Sarai to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. Thus, Sarai briefly becomes one of the wives of Pharaoh. When Pharaoh discovers this he returns Sarai to Abram and sends them on their way richer than when they arrived. So the patriarch seems to pimp his wife for wealth and power. Why would the lectionary avoid that!?

We don’t hear Sarai’s thoughts on these events. We can imagine what a wife might say to a spouse who asked her to pretend to be a sibling rather than a spouse~I’ll share my popcorn we can watch the show. But that is not in the text. What is in the text is that Sarai’s husband had to the power to change her identity, to say who she was. Furthermore we see that the redefinition of Sarai’s identity leads her to yet another whole identity completely.

It is Maundy Thursday, one of my favorite days of the Christian year. (Should I offer a prize for the reader who can guess my other favorite?) Jesus has gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover feast, to wash their feet, to proclaim that his body and life are given for them (and us), and to proclaim his coming betrayal. The text tells us that it is as Jesus does these things that the decision is made in Judas’ heart to betray the Master. Jesus even tells Judas to go and do what must be done. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, one of Jesus’ trusted friends is the one who betrays him. It is Judas who must decide who he thinks Jesus is, and then Judas based on that decision will collude with the powers that be. It is Judas who will signal Jesus’ identity with a kiss in the garden.

In both these texts the issue of personal identity are the key issues. In both of these texts someone else decides whom the other is and takes action that will radically alter the both the life of the other, the life of the decider, and the unfolding of history.

As a woman with disabilities, many of which are hidden, I know what it is like to have others decide who I am. I know what it is like to be “in the closet”, having relationships in which there is little knowledge of my disability, and the anger others show when I come out of that closet and let my full identity be known. I know what it is to be vulnerable with others to let them know the depths of my experience and have to trust that they will know with whom and when to share that knowledge. I know what it is like to feel that trust betrayed. To watch at the annual school-house parent night as your parent outs you sharing with the teachers about your disabilities in front of classmates and other teachers. I know what it is like in the workplace when co-workers sense there is something different about you, but not knowing what it is decide they will name it–and I know what it is like when others redefine your identity so far from your known truth that it disrupts and utterly re-routes your own sense of self. With disability it is not so much identity politics as it is identity of individuality/self that is intertwined with experience of living in a body so different from the norm that with world around you is rife with barriers that disable. Life with disability is asking each individual you encounter, in some way–who do you say that I am?

Loving God, You who know me better than I know myself. You who created me to be fearlessly and wonderfully made. Help me to know myself, to share myself, and delight in the friends I break bread with. Empower me to raise my face even when others define me in ways that threaten my identity or life. Grant me Your strength and love, to always know myself, and to do Your will. Amen.

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

The Man Born Blind, The Pharisees, and Jesus

John 9

Preached at New Hope UCC, Deland,FL on January 19, 2014

 

I want to start by thanking you, and your pastor, for inviting me to speak today. I recently meet your Associate Conference Minister, Sara Lund. When she learned I would be in your Conference, she asked if I would willing to preach and speak about UCC Disabilities Ministries, the UCC Mental Health Network,and the UCC’s  commitment to be “Accessible to All” or A2A. I told her that I would.

I bring you greetings this morning from the UCC Disabilities Ministries Board. I also come to you as a person born with mild cerebral palsy, which mostly manifests as a mild speech impediment; as a person who has acquired disabilities; as a person who has been a caregiver for people with disability; as one who has been a support system for persons with mental health concerns. And I come to you as an ordained minister, a hospice chaplain, an activist, a scholar, and yes, there is yet more they I could say. I share these aspects of myself not to toot my own horn, not only to give you some introduction of who I am but also to show you that no one person can be described in any one way.

When it comes to our text for this morning the notion that people are very complex and have many attributes to share with the world is something we want to keep in mind. Our scripture this morning is a very complex text. It was traditionally a text used to teach about Baptism in the early church (1). But what kind of text is it? Is it a healing story? Is it a miracle? Is it about a sinner being being saved? Is it about blindness? I think those are all good questions. However, I do not think those are questions I will strive to answer today. Instead I would like to talk with you about who the people in this text are. The man born blind, the Pharisees, and Jesus. All of these persons are complex, just as we are.

Let us start with the man born blind. We know more about him than we do about most of the people whom Jesus encounters in the gospels. We know he was born blind.

We know that he was at least of an age to be considered an adult. We know both his parents were alive—they too appear in the text. We know that he begged for a living.

We know that he was known to the community even though he was excluded from the community because he lived with blindness, thus his need to beg. And we also know that through this encounter with Jesus this man had a spiritual conversion and came to understand who Jesus was.

But there are also some important things that we do not know. We do not know if he had ever heard of Jesus before this event. We do not know if he wanted to be sighted–This is one of the few instances in which Jesus heals a person without first asking permission, or being asked, to do so–and we do not really know what happened to this man after he became sighted.

For many people with disabilities, the things we do not know about this man are very important to think about. In the UCC we talk about churches becoming “Accessible to All” and while this means that we want our worship spaces to physically accessible, it also means that we want our church congregations—our people to be accessible, and welcoming to people with disabilities as well. In this sense A2A is as much about the understanding and hospitality with which we greet one another as it is about our buildings.

One of the mottos of the disability rights movement which you will hear in the UCC is “nothing about us without us”. This means people with disability want to be consulted about the things that affect them. So we wonder how did the man born blind feel about becoming sighted? He was not consulted before hand. We do not know how it changed his daily life,the text does not tell us that we only know how it changed his spiritual life for he proclaimed Jesus a prophet to the council of Pharisees. Which was a very bold thing for someone of his social standing to do. Some say his response to the Pharisees shows his wit and intelligence traits he had that were not related to his disability or that he developed as survival mechanisms living with blindness. (2) Perhaps one of the most important things this text tells us about the man born blind is that it was his encounter with the person of Jesus, and not his physical healing that led to his conversion and understanding of who Jesus was.

It is through the man born blind’s discussion with the Pharisees that his understanding of who Jesus is made clear. So who are these Pharisees? The Pharisees in the text are the religious authorities who are expected to uphold the laws and traditional customs. They question not only the man who had been born blind, but his parents.

It seems strange to us that after talking with the man himself the Pharisees call for his parents but it may be according to social custom. There are many places around the world where to this day people with visual impairments are not qualified to be legal witnesses because they are blind and it is assumed they cannot identify the perpetrators of crimes against them (3). This may play a role in why, globally, women and girls with visual impairments are statistically the most likely to become victims of sexual violence. (4)

Certainly this group of Pharisees is behaving as a legal board, for they call the man born blind back a second time. This is when the story turns sour—at least as I read it.

After the Pharisees question the man and his parents, this time they start with an imperative command “Give Glory to God!” It is a statement which puts a knot in my stomach not because the man is being asked to Glorify God, but because it sounds like a self-righteous command. It was the role of the Pharisees to see that all things glorified God, but the text bothers me because there is no dialogue here. In the text, it is a council of authority ordering around a person whom the community considered to have no legal standing, because he was blind, to do something.

This interaction of the man and the council of Pharisees reminds me of a youth in San Diego who maintains a blog and documents each time someone comes up to him in public lays hands on him, prays, and demands that he stand to walk. (Most people don’t realize this still happens, it does.) Not only when the Pharisees issue this command but when they go on to suggest that the man born blind was born in sin we should feel uncomfortable. For this is a clear example of bullying a person because of their disability and the text tells us it done by the religious structure itself.

To often we sit in church, we read parts of scripture that are uncomfortable and we think, thank goodness we don’t do that in our church. The problem is we do. Well meaning church going people too often find themselves bullying others especially people with disabilities. One Sunday, when I was still using a cane and preaching at my home church one of the trustees, who I’d know for years, came up to me and said “stop using that cane, you don’t need it”. He did not know the specifics of my medical needs. He was a bully.

Last summer I was on the delegate floor at the UCC Synod. One of the resolutions we were to vote on at Synod was becoming an anti-bullying church one of the other delegates who knew I was representing UCCDM at synod said to me “you don’t really have a disability, but its nice that you speak up for those who do.” I told him I did have a disability his reply was “no you don’t”. So we had to have short tense conversation. I told him he was a bully.

It did not feel good to me to have that conversation at church. But it reminded me that even in our churches we are not as aware of the hidden disabilities of our church members as we should be. When you know the small needs of another you are truly in community.

There is another person in this text—its Jesus. It seems to me that in this text we see one of the stranger things Jesus does, it is a Sabbath day when no work is to be done, Jesus walks up to blind man and puts mud on his face and tell him to go wash in the pool known in Hebrew as “sent” (5). We understand why the early church may have used this text to talk about baptism.

But then Jesus disappears for much of this text. It is not until after the man born blind has been questioned and driven out of the  community that Jesus reappears. And what Jesus does is sit with the man who had been born blind Jesus welcomes the man and sits in community with him to tell him about the Son of Man and Son of God.

Jesus soothes the stings of exclusion. Jesus’ words about the those who see becoming blind seems to be an admonition to not be so self assured, to not be so self-righteous that one becomes exclusionary.

It is Jesus in this text who shows us the way to be church, the way to be loving and community minded. It is Jesus who is not only welcoming but seeks out those excluded because they may have a history of disability, or any other reason. It is Jesus who reassures the man that he too has a place in the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus has come into the world to assure him of this.

It is Jesus my friends who calls us to radical hospitality and radical welcome. It is Jesus who sends us all in search of new vision. It is Jesus who comes to be with us when we feel we have been driven out for following proclaiming his work in our lives.

So my, friends, it is because of Jesus’s work in our own lives that UCCDM seeks to encourage all settings of the UCC to be “accessible to all”, to include people with disability and mental health issues, not only in our building but in our fellowship and leadership. It is because of Jesus that I ask you to join in this work to open the way to full inclusion in your local church for the local church is the heart of the church. This where inclusion welcome matters most.

So thank you for including me today, thank you for thinking about your building, and thank you for considering all aspects of accessibility (A2A) and joining in this journey to inclusion with us.

####

Endnotes:

(1) Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability. (Abington: Nashville, 1996.) 76.

(2) Ibid, 72.

(3) Ibid, 70.

(4) Women with disabilities presentation at the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network Pre-Event, General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea, October 29, 2013.

(5) Black, 68.

 

Lenten Graces–Second Sunday in Lent

“If Abraham, by what he did for God, got Got to approve him, he could have certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is ‘Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”  ~Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, (NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1993) Romans 4:1-5

It seems exceedingly difficult, this text. There is the message that there is some inherent goodness in our being who we are over and above all of our anxious human doing. (It must an important lesson, we read it over and over throughout the Bible, starting with Genesis.)

It seems nearly impossible to those of us living in a consumer-driven commercial world. This notion that you can not do anything to earn all of what God has to offer. It’s an affront to American culture and a reversal of the American Dream.

We can do nothing for God’s approval, nothing to gain merit or entrance into the Kindom* of God. Paul is commenting on that old struggle between works and grace.

It is a difficult text, but an important one as we move through the Lenten season reflecting on how we long for a deeper connection with God. As we give up the barriers to our spiritual life, give up our creature comforts, or as we take up practices we hope will enable us to walk closer to God’s will, we are very much consumed with the  doing aspect of living out this text.

There is something about grace which the post-modern world seems intent on annihilating. We are told if we work hard we will have all we need; that has not been true since 2009 and possibly before. The idea that we get the material goods we deserve based on our hard work in the world is roughly equivalent to the 1980’s notion that neon colors were fashionable. 

The NRSV words verses 2 and 4 as  “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.”**  Here, Paul seems to come down squarely on the side of grace.

Paul’s teaching in this text brings memory to my mind many of persons I interacted with as a hospice chaplain. At some point in life we all reach the stage where the most we can do is simply exist. [This is particularly true for persons with dementia and the other brain disorders associated with aging.] At some point in our adult lives we may need others to feed, bathe, and clothe us just as we did at life’s beginning. Being is a form of Grace. Being as Paul reminds us is all God asks of us is to do. Some religious and mystical traditions insist that there are spiritual lessons which can only be learned in the later stages of life. I know that as I spent time with persons who had become too ill to care for themselves towards life’s end, I learned that how they continued to interact and how they continued to teach others was through a subtle way of being who they were as they were in the world. It is a way of being that trusts and relies on God.

This way of being ourselves and being in the world as we find it is a type of trust and type of remembering that in the end it’s not about us. There is certainly our part, but in the end it is God’s story. Perhaps being us enough to discern God’s story from our own is the ultimate Lenten practice. Learning to accept grace~practice that.

*”Kindom” is a well-known feminist respelling of Kingdom designed to highlight the mutual relationships in the Kingdom of God rather than the hierarchical relationships of the patriarchal system; see the work of A. Isasi-Diaz and Rosemary Reuther.

**from http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+4 [on-line] accessed, March 15, 2014.

Over Thinking: First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Much has been written on the tree of Good and Evil. I believe I have even blogged on it before. But in this season the text appears afresh. As I look at the full lectionary for this week of Lent these are the lines that stand out to me.

Sometimes, I wonder if our post-modern world has taken all the beautiful gifts that God has given to us and analyzed them to death. That is not a slam against science or inquiry, I believe both are important. Science is helps us understand the things we can not see, things that may be to tiny for us to touch or to big for us to comprehend. Last Thanksgiving my husband and I took a trip to Monterey, California we drove through the Carrizo Plain, a geological wonderland where you can see the fault lines of the earth on the surface of the ground. On the plain is what is called “Soda Lake”, it is essentially a lake of baking soda and I found it fascinating. The place is a natural wonder. When we arrived at Monterey we went to the famous Monterey Aquarium and again I found myself in awe at the complexities of nature, and even more in awe of the One Who Created it all!

If the world we live in is so amazing, I have to wonder about all the people we live around. I know we live in a twenty-four hour news cycle that always seems to be negative. It is a cycle that fuels our fears of “the other”–the immigrant, the person of a different religion, the person who speaks another language or has different speech, the person who looks or moves through the world in a different way, and it seems like there has been an intentional effort to separate ourselves from those who experience reality differently then we do–the ones who live with mental health issues.

God created the world and the people in it and called all of it “good”. Isn’t that our story? As I come to these lines of scripture today, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t also telling us don’t over analyze it just go with it. Over and over again God tells people to “go”, “let go”. Jesus tells people “follow me”. We are never asked to analyze or judge. We are asked to accept, to go out and work with what we find. This scripture is a warning to us that if we over think things we may lose the ability to be and act appropriately in the world. It is a command to not stigmatize, for when we do we lose something of ourselves.

This Lent as I reflect on my ministry, and my journeys into the world, I want to examine if I have always been as open as God has called me to be. I want to work to undo the over-thinking. I want to work against the stigmas that separate us one from the other and to live into the prayer that Jesus offered in saying good-bye to his followers…”that they may all be one”.

Ash Wednesday: Lent, Sin, and Liberation

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel 2 12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.  

The season of Lent is upon us again. It is the season of introspection, reflection, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Of course what tradition calls us to reflect upon in this season is our sin.

Sin, we all know what it is. Theologically, much could be written about what sin is, and who is responsible for it at which times. Its seems I read several books explaining this in seminary. Practically speaking, however, we know that sin is it is the difference between “right” and “wrong”. Despite all the clamor of theologians, “sin” is a basic concept we apply to explain the breaks in our relationships with other people and with God. It should be a simple thing, right, I mean we teach children to get along so they don’t have fractured relationships, right?

Perhaps sin should be a simple concept. Alas sin has never been a simple concept–whether we are talking about the notions of sin and purity in the Hebrew Bible or what sometimes seem to be convoluted discussions of sins of ancestors and forgiveness of sin in the New Testament.

Discussing the nature of sin, however, is important. Particularly when we want to welcome and include people with disabilities and persons with mental health concerns in the lives of our congregations. For centuries, and still in some regions of the world today, disability and mental health concerns were attributed to the result of unreconciled sin. For centuries humanity confused theology for science. There are scriptures that do equate disease with sin, we should not ignore those scripture but wrestle with them. There are also scriptures that assure that disease is not the result of sin (read Job).

In this scripture from Joel, the prophet is calling for repentance. However, the prophet is also teaching and reassuring us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”. As a woman with disabilities there is great liberation in hearing from the prophets that God does not punish, much less inflict disability, and that indeed God waits for all of us “rend” our hearts and turn to God. There is a time to wrestle with the hard scriptures to search out the meaning and nature of suffering, this is not something I shy away from. However, as I start my Lenten journey of searching myself for what I can do to bring forgiveness and healing into the world, the God who is “gracious and merciful, …abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” seems like a far more welcoming travel partner  to me then a God who may break my leg in retribution if I trip along the way.