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”.

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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.

Monumentally Mixed Day

Well, yesterday, was an interesting day! I wonder what the Holy Spirit thought of it? I wonder what the Holy Spirit did to relax at after such a day. A day of monumental gender justice equality. A day of monumental ecclesiastical politics mixed with hatred, fear, power plays, denial of justice, and human inequality. Yeah, what would any of us do after a day like that!

I had finished my day of chaplaincy and started the car for the ride home from the skilled nursing facility I had been visiting. That’s when I heard the news on the car radio that made me want to jump up and down. The Anglican Synod had approved a new rule to allow women to serve as Bishops!! It still has to be ratified but…Yes! That is wonderful! The first person to see the risen Christ, and thus become an apostle, was Mary…and now the church has decided that woman can hold ecclesiastical seats of power. Imagine that! Honestly I thought the news was so wonderful, despite my snarky inner dialogue, that I cried.

Later in the evening I sat down to check the news on Facebook, oddly there was no chatter about women being approved to serve as Bishops in the Anglican church. There was the news, however, that the Methodist Church in Pennsylvania had convicted one of their own Bishops for presiding at the marriage ceremony of his own son; the Bishop was convicted of showing the love of God in presiding over a religious ceremony because the two people being married to one another were men, and that is against Methodist law. It was an ugly act to convict a Bishop for celebrating love, particularly the love of his own child. It was an act of homophobia and hate to convict a man who had faithfully served the church for over twenty years for celebrating a marriage. It was an act of clergy abuse for the ecclesiastical structure to expect any individual clergy to choose the law of church over the needs of the clergy’s family. It was a power play to make an example of one clergyman and further the continuation injustice perpetrated towards an entire segment of humanity, a whole segment of the Christian church. I read this news in disbelief, how could the “powerful” and “influential” Methodist church do such a unloving thing?  I wanted to cry. I wanted to repent for having been confirmed in a Methodist church as a youth. I was ashamed for having been formed by a Methodist seminary. I was thankful to be ordained in the United Church of Christ where “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome”. I thought of Jesus and was sure that as throngs of people gathered to him, no one was ever asked about their sexual orientation before being invited in to the Master’s presence.

So there it was a monumentally mixed day–more liberation for women within the church and more discrimination against allies of GLBT Christians, let alone GLBT Christians themselves. So I sat there looking at the computer screen wondering how to react to it all. Because, really after a day of church news like that what does one do? Cheer? Mourn? Celebrate? Cry? I hope at the end of yesterday that the Holy Spirit had a glass of wine, or whatever spiritual energetic equivalent is available to her! Perhaps we should just all pray, pray that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the churches to justice and to peace for all people.

37% Is Not Enough. 2% Is Not Enough…. Reflection on the WCC Busan Assembly #2

Women being underrepresented in the leadership of the contemporary Church is not exactly new. However, in my lifetime it does seem that women having leadership in the church has become more common. True, as any church pastor can tell you, women have always held power in the church for women, particularly older women, seem to do most of the organizing and grunt work that enables church fellowship–this is a type of power. But when I think of church leadership, I am thinking directly about the leadership of theological reflection, church messaging, and setting the priorities of church witness and social justice engagement and in these areas it has always been more of a struggle for women to be granted leadership roles.

One of the things that I learned during the World Council of Churches (WCC) General Assembly in Busan was that the contemporary global Christian church still struggles greatly to include the leadership of women, particularly theologically trained women. The work of the WCC is guided for the seven to eight years between assemblies by the Central Committee, which is comprised of delegates to the General Assembly. While the WCC strives for a 50%-50% quota of women and men on the Central Committee this has not been achieved. Why? Because, despite the aims of quotas, the Central Committee make up must reflect the make-up of delegates at the most recent General Assembly. Delegates to the General Assembly are nominated and sent as delegates by the member churches of the WCC. Women made up only 37% of the total delegates at the Busan Assembly, this means that only 37% of the Central Committee governing the WCC for the next seven years could be women. While the nominating committee did present a slate to be elected to the WCC Central Committee that was 37% women, the majority of those women seemed to be youths. While developing the leadership skills of young women is vitally important, it seems to me that counting youth in the overall all gender balance is one way to dismiss the theological leadership of women in the global church.

How can women become more represented in the global leadership of the churches? It is up to individual member churches/denominations of the WCC (there are 345) to design their own delegation to the WCC, the diversity of delegates will be reflected in the leadership elected to the central committee. Lay persons, youth, indigenous people, and persons with disability are also underrepresented in the church delegations to General Assembly, and thus on the Central Committee engaging in global church leadership. This means that the churches need to be more inclusive not only of women, but of lay persons, youths, indigenous persons, and persons with disability when selecting their delegations to the assemblies. The WCC asks churches to send delegations that reflect the diversity quotas of the WCC, but the quota seem to be just a suggestion.–I have to say that the delegation to the Busan Assembly from the United Church of Christ, in the USA, of which I was a member, did meet the diversity goals of the WCC. The UCC sent one ordained man, a lay member/female youth, and two ordained women one of who is also a woman with disability to Busan as delegates impacting the percentages which leadership coming out of the Assembly had to reflect.

The Assembly in Busan is now complete. The Central Committee which has to be carefully, and very politically, balanced as to church family, denomination, region, gender, ordained/lay, youth, indigenous, and persons with disability has been elected to serve until the next General Assembly. The numbers are not as balanced as desired, but General Assembly Delegates we were told that the slate was as balanced as possible. There was an effort to create the most balance, while still reflecting the demographics of the delegation of the assembly. I have to recognize that one of the Orthodox Bishops gave up his spot on the Central Committee so as to include a female youth representative; I wish others on the slate had followed suit to allow for more balance. The Church itself is a work in progress, still striving to show the world that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one on Christ” (Galatians 3:28). So let’s be honest, in creating a committee to guide the ecumenical body of the global church…38% female representation in the leadership of the church is not enough; less than 5% indigenous representation in church leadership is not enough; 2% persons with disability representatives in church leadership is not enough! We have work to do, yet, to meet even the New Testament’s expectation of the church!

Exiles for Justice and Peace–WCC / EDAN #1

I am just returning from the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea! I was honored to serve as a North American representative to the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) Pre-Assembly Event and a Untied Church of Christ Delegate to the General Assembly. I hope to post a series of reflections on the events of the last two weeks as I process this unique experience.

I was asked to preach at the closing worship service for the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network’s Pre Assembly Event in Busan; below is the sermon I presented.

Dr. Arne Fritzon serves as liturgist at EDAN Pre-Assembly event

Dr. Arne Fritzon serves as liturgist at EDAN Pre-Assembly event

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7  1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (1)

“Exiles for Peace and Justice” sermon by Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas for theEcumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) Pre-Assembly, WCC 10th General Assembly, Busan, South Korea on October 28, 2013

Brothers and Sisters in Christ it is an honor to speak with you today. As we worship together now, let us consider God’s word for the context of our own lives.

Our text for this evening comes to us from the Book of Jeremiah.While I admire Jeremiah faithfulness I have always felt that much was asked of him. The prophet Jeremiah’s unenviable task was to convince the people that going into exile was the only way for their community to reestablish right relationship with God. We understand that his message that people needed exile likely did not make sense to those around him, but Jeremiah also gave hope. Indeed our text comes from the portion of Jeremiah in which the prophet is seeking to give hope to the exiles, hope that peace and justice would still come to the world.

Like the people that Jeremiah sought to console—we too have traveled far from our homes too seek justice and peace. However we are different than those Jeremiah spoke to. Not only are we far from home but we are people with disabilities, and we are allies who have had that conversion moment in which through the depth of friendship and solidarity there is understanding that people with disabilities experience the world and society differently than persons without disabilities.

The experience of disability is as varied as the people in this room. Disability is a social location experienced by living in the world in an individually unique way, and yet that experience of being uniquely different from everyone else is an experience that is shared by all people with disability. This solitary nature of living with disability intrigues me, for we may be individuals but collectively PWD are the largest minority in the world.

The North American theologian, Thomas Reynolds has written that disability “entails involuntary impairment and real suffering, much of which is the consequence of social alienation and exile”(2). As a person born with mild cerebral palsy which manifests as a speech impediment and as one who has acquired chronic pain, the suggestion of disability as exile speaks to me. Most of us have had, at some time, an experience in which our day to day life is so different from our friends and colleagues without disability, that as people with disabilities we may easily relate to the experience of exile in our text today. Perhaps from our social location of disability it is clear to us that we are currently living in a world that is not just towards persons with disability. A world in which all God’s children are not living in peace.

In my American context we have a perplexity. The ADA made many public spaces accessible but churches were exempt. As a result in America faithful persons with disability still find themselves exiles of faith communities, either because local churches lack accessibility or social stigma and social inaccessibility leads to a lack of opportunities for PWD to fully participate either as lay members or employed as clergy with disability—it is a lack of justice and of peace.

So what are people with disabilities around the world to do when the Body of Christ is not accessible to them or excludes them? Brothers and sisters, I want to suggest today that we are to take encouragement from the words that Jeremiah spoke to the exiles. We are to build the foundations of a new inclusive church, within the current church—we are to plant our hopes, and teach these ideals to the children. We are to seek the welfare, of the community in which we find ourselves.

As persons with disability we seek the justice not only of physically accessible churches but inclusion in the ministry of the church and opportunities to serve the church. We seek the peace of full social inclusion in the church so no person is made to feel less than the fearlessly and wonderfully made child of God that they are.

The words of Jeremiah call all of us to speak out about who we are, to be willing to be exiles for peace and for justice when we are called to do so. This is not easy work, particularly when the work of inclusion is ever widening the circle of God’s community. Indeed this work asks much of us, calling us to do new things to bring God’s justice and peace to the world.

For the past few years the disabilities ministries and mental health ministries in my denomination have been working together. It has not always been easy for the two exiled groups to act as one, but it is effective. We continue to teach the church, and we continue to learn from each other. One of the things I have learned from our partnership, is that as far from justice as the disability community is there are still others who need the disability community to welcome them into the church , into the pews, and into ministry together. We are a sprout of justice.

As we go forward into this week, discussing all manners of the ministry and work of the Church universal, I ask this group—the advocates and associates of the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network, to be attentive to how we may be called to use our perspective—to call the assembled body of Christ to new ministries of inclusion, even if in doing so the way to the future is, yet, unknown.

May God Be with Us and Meet Us as we work for justice and peace!

(1) “Jeremiah 29” (NRSV), Devotion.net, [on-line] accessed August 28, 2013 available at http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Jeremiah+29
(2) Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, (BrazosPress: Grands Rapids, MI, 2008) 21.

T-6 Days

Hello Friends!

Well its hard to believe that in less than a week I will be flying off to the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea. The theme of this Assembly is Justice and Peace. I still have things to do before I go. I am preaching while I am there. I will also be serving as a delegate to the General Assembly from the United Church of Christ and of the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network! Please keep me and all the delegates in your prayers as we prepare for this Assembly, as we travel, and as we deliberate and engage in intra-faith dialogue. (And I hoping to make friends with some Eastern Orthodox priests!)

Thanks, Rev. Kelli

Disability and Diversity-Access Sunday 2013

On Access Sunday this year I was invited to speak to a local congregation about disability and diversity. Below is the talk I prepared, I did not follow it completely in speaking but it is my thoughts on the matter. I am available to speak with congregations about accessibility and disability ministries.

I am Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas and I want to thank you for asking me to speak with you this evening. I was asked to speak with you this evening about the issues of disability and diversity—I am especially happy to have this talk with you this evening as today is what the UCC calendar calls Access Sunday, which is a day to celebrate accessibility in local churches; it is also the beginning of disability awareness week which concludes a week from today with Mental Health Sunday . So by further way of introduction let me introduce myself as a person with disabilities I was born with disabilities so I grew up with all the social stigma of disability but as I grew I was also well trained to pass as a person without disability; I have also acquired disabilities as adult and been a caregiver for persons with disability and mental health issues. So I come to speak with you about the diversity of disability as a person with disabilities. As I believe you were told in preparation for this evening, I also serve on the Board of Directors for the United Church of Christ Disability Ministries, for who I am the Secretary; and I am engaged in the ecumenical work of disability advocacy through EDAN a program of the World Council of Churches.

In many ways I am still musing about how to speak to you about the diversity of disabilities. (Because of our limited time I am going have to be rather general so please write down your questions to ask later.) Disabilities and all that is included as a part of that is a very broad spectrum, but that does not mean it is relative and we can say we are all somehow “disabled”. I say that up front because I think that as we look at what disability is there is the temptation to make it into something that includes all people, and it simply is not. Disability is a social location experienced by living in the world in an individually unique way, and yet that experience of being  uniquely different from everyone else is an experience that is shared by roughly 1 in 5 persons world-wide or 20% of persons. I also want to say a word about mental health. Mental Health issues affect 1 in 4 families, or 25% of American families. While disability does not guarantee that a person has a mental illness, often times the social stigmas, effects of bullying and/social oppression/discrimination that people with disabilities commonly experience lead to the development of mental health issues—btw I have read some statistics that suggest that bullying of youth with disability is more common then the bullying of any other youth, including GLBT youth. Similarly although having mental health issues does not necessarily mean that a person with mental health issues has another form of disability, many mental health issues have physical effects and may lead to temporary physical disability as part of the mental illness. I am going to talk about later about the specific work that UCCDM and the UCCMHN are doing together. But for now, I just want to underscore for you what these statistics mean—it means that for every 100 people in your church, 20 people likely have some type of disability and 25 likely have or are in a family with a person with mental health issues—and there is likely some over lap of these persons.

If we had more time I would ask you at this time to tell me what a disability is and I would write that all out for us to see, we don’t have time for that, so pull what it is you think a disability is up in your mind. Have you got it? Good, but we won’t have time to share that right now, but hold it for your small group discussions. There are two definitions of disability that I find to be very very useful.

1. “[a] firm definition of ‘disability’ underlies the authority of the ADA, which defines ‘individual with a disability’ rather broadly. A person may be considered disabled if he or she has (a) has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more of the major life functions, (b) has a record of such impairment, or (c) is perceived as having such an impairment. Even if the impairment is no longer present, the individual may still be considered disabled. [Arthur Shapiro, Every Body Belongs: Changing Negative Attitudes Towards Classmates with Disabilities, (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 1999) 263.]

 and, people with disabilities have developed the following definition of disability, which is used in the ecumenical movement

2. “Impairment: Lacking all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.

Disability: The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.” [Arne Fritzon and Samuel Kabue, Interpreting Disability: A Church of All and for All, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004), ix-x.]

We are still going to talk about what disability is for a moment but I want to start moving into disability  and the UCC. The UCC has been involved in addressing the issue of disability through an active disability ministry for at least the last thirty years. The most recent General Synod resolution about disability, called “The Called to Wholeness in Christ Resolution”, was passed in 2005 and it calls on all expressions of the UCC to become accessible in the spirit of the ADA. This means our Synod has called for local congregations to work for the full inclusion for all persons with disability–

This includes: Physical disabilities, Developmental disabilities, Mental/Emotional disabilities (including mental illness, brain disorders, autism, depression, anxiety, ect.); Mobility disabilities (arthritis, back issues, use of canes/walkers/wheelchairs ect.); Auditory/hearing impairments; Vision impairments; Temporary disabilities; Hidden disabilities (things people don’t/won’t talk about); Disabilities brought on by accidents or age; and anything else missing from this list.

Guiding churches in doing the work of becoming accessible and inclusive of all persons with disability is part of the work done by UCCDM. The UCCDM has a designation we call A2A. Churches who want to be A2A are asked to work through a curriculum/resource packet to help the congregation gain a better understanding the breath of the diversity of disabilities, how to be welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities, and how to be prepared to make appropriate accommodations when necessary. This resource packet is called “Any Body, Every Body, Christ’s Body” it is free and you can download it from the UCCDM website. The UCCDM Board acknowledged that while accessibility for churches often means making physical accommodations, the majority of work involved in becoming accessible is related to what we term becoming “socially accessible” to people with disability and this is a process of learning and integrating disability etiquette.

Many people do not realize or forget that up through the 1970’s people with disabilities were prohibited from public spaces under what were called “ugly laws”,  confined to institutions (sometimes w/o consent), denied the right to marry due to eugenics laws, and that people with disabilities were not guaranteed access to public education until 1973. As you can guess there is still much work to do in society before we reach the full inclusion of people with disabilities and persons with mental health issues—but there is actually more work for us to do in our churches. When the ADA came into existence it was supported by the churches, but most people don’t realize that the clergy supporting the passage of the ADA also worked to exempt churches from the implications of the law; the result is that in addition to churches being among the most racially divided places on Sunday mornings, churches have become the most inaccessible places in our communities.

The UCC and UCCDM have been heavily involved in area of civil rights for people with disabilities; just as all groups of people who go through a civil rights process seem to reclaim. language and even rename themselves as a group, the disability community has done this as well. The UCCDM through the A2A resources have sought to establish the use of what the disability community calls “people first language”, and that handout is on the table for you. People first language is language that names the person, or theologically the humanity, of the person about whom one is talking or writing before defining that person by their disability, as previous terms did. People first language is the standard within the UCC and within the disability community—I will tell you that some disability scholars with disability are using other terms and the language within the disability community is in flux, but people first language will not offend, so its safe as a rule to use in all settings.

So I just want to close with a very brief description of the larger work of the UCCDM. The UCCDM has fostered a renewal of the UCC Mental Health Network, which this summer changed their name to the Mental Health Network. Some of the other projects that the UCCDM is actively engaged in are….[this has been omitted from this post, please see uccdm.org for more information about UCCDM activities]

So that is just a little about the diversity of the disability community, disability history, civil rights, and how disability is part of the life the UCC. I am going to stop and open it up to questions.