Multiple Choice, please

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Last week I was sharing a lunch table with Amos & Alma Yong discussing disability, parenting, food, education, committees, and a variety of other topics. We were at the Theology: Disability and Ministry conference held at Fuller Seminary SW. A small group of us having been meeting since Winter and it was an amazing time! Dr. Yong was the keynote and it would be an entirely different post to mention all of the other great people involved.

Among many thoughts still marinating for me is this…Dr. Yong came to discuss his thoughts and writings on disability. He is know for writing on Pentecostal perspectives. He is currently blogging on the Holy Spirit. He had an article come out last week regarding evangelicals and heresy. His interests are wide. He has taken the time in a variety of areas to research, reflect, live, think, and formulate thoughts as well as articulating them for the rest of us. I am struck by how human this is.

In the last several months I have read and been drawn into a few conversations with people who are singularly focused. I have even had conversations with publishers who ask/say things like “what is the ONE thing you are known for? That is the only area where you should be trying to write.” I am realizing that while there is something to say for having focus and knowing something well but, there is a danger too. It seems to be bringing out the worst in a host of people. There is an arrogance and a blind, mean spiritedness that is present. There is a further sense of who is in and who is out. There is a stifling of the beautiful complexity of humanity and simply being interested in more than one thing. There is a building up of walls around racism, sexism, ableism, violence, abuse, youth, ministry, music, and well…you name it.

I have long said that when it comes to identity, our identity in Christ, we must stop pathologizing particularities. We can celebrate diversity and name it as important and needed. It keeps us humble. It opens conversation. And quite frankly, it makes us much more interesting. My hope is that as we move forward, writers, teachers, pastors, bloggers, and all of us are afforded the space to be more holistic. To not feel the squeeze to be “that” person who has opinions on only one topic.

I’m grateful for that one lunch; For a quick introduction to someone whose writings on disability I already admired, but who as a person I appreciate more. I am encouraged that my discussion with the publisher was off… I don’t have to find my ONE thing. May we all learn that sooner than later. It’s how we can connect and learn instead of building camps that refuse to speak because your thing is not my thing. Maybe it’s because as a theologian, a mom, a teacher, a wife, a minister, and a writer I am always multitasking. Or maybe because I am finally settling into my own skin and understanding what it means to be human that I am rejecting the singular expectations from others.

Props to Toys R Us

I learned a great lesson this fall…when becoming really sick, something has to go and for this fall, it was just about anything that wasn’t immediately pressing each day. The up side, I have a great back log of ideas just waiting to be shared!!

I also greatly appreciate the words from my friend Bethany…she said she actually likes some of the blogs that don’t have posts every day because she knows when they do, they have something to say. Not sure she quite meant a two month hiatus but that’s what it became and I’m taking her words at face value.

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So today I do have something to say. In the midst of consumerism and my typical leanings away from big business and corporate greed, I have to give props to Toys R Us for one very particular bright spot! Whether it is for Christmas, birthdays, or just because you want to give a gift, the choice can be stressful. This can be even more so if you are buying for a child with special needs. Toys R Us offers a toy buying guide for differently abled kids.  It offers concrete tips on questions to ask, realistic expectations, and how to consider a variety of elements that can best communicate to a child and his or her family that you were thinking about them and not just grabbing anything.

Oh how I wish the church had this much intentionality. We are getting better but too often we assume a one size fits all ministry for anyone with a disability. We forget they have differing abilities, likes, wants, needs, and preferences. I know, the store is trying to make a profit and the cynic in me realizes this. BUT… at least they recognize there is a need. They have had the conversation and are trying to offer what they offer in the best way possible. BTW- they even say at times NOT to buy things if it is not a good fit.

So for this season, if you are shopping for someone with a disability, be intentional.

Perhaps we can take just a little hope and model in our churches the same kind of thoughtfulness offered here.

Proximity and Violence

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Yesterday was the International Day of Peace. It’s been around since 1981 in case you missed it marked on your calendar. This is a day declared by the United Nations to be dedicated to world peace, in particular the absence of war and violence. International Justice Mission sent a petition around asking for signatures to urge the United Nations to protect those in poverty from violence. It’s as simple as this, those who are poor have less power and fewer resources and experience an inordinate rate of violence every day.

For Christians fighting poverty and violence should be a part of our every day existence. One way to do this is to move from proximity to embrace. I explain what I mean below in an excerpt from a paper I wrote for an upcoming conference. What it boils down to is this, we do violence to others when we think our not harming them personally is enough. We do violence to others when we refuse to listen or get to know anyone because we assume we already know their story. We do violence to others when we turn our heads and declare they don’t exist in our community because we don’t want to see them. We do violence when we settle for proximity instead of imitating Jesus and throwing our arms around others in embrace. It is difficult and it will change you. But isn’t that part of what Jesus has asked of us?

The conference is on Religion and Education in The Unmaking of Violence. While my paper focuses on disability, the principle is for everyone.

 

Embodied theology must also be lived out, requiring actual, real time interactions with one another. It must be more than creedal statements or vague declarations. The church needs more than proximity to those with disabilities for violence to be prevented. Arne Vetlesen argues, “there is no necessary correlation between human proximity and moral conduct…Proximity interacts with a number of factors; it does not by itself bring about, does not by itself account for, moral conduct or lack of it.”[1] We in the church must not only talk about including others, we must actually do so. Miroslav Volf discusses the inclusion of others at length in Exclusion and Embrace. As we seek to live an inclusive embodied theology we must understand “the will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”[2] Moving relationships from hypothetical declarations to proximity to embrace is a process but one necessary to unmake violence. Further, Volf assumes “that the struggle against deception, injustice, and violence is indispensable” as the will to embrace becomes a priority.[3]

The move from proximity to embrace establishes reciprocal relationships where those with disabilities aren’t just tolerated but truly integrated.”

[1] Arne Johan Vetlesen, Perception, Empathy, and Judgment: an inquiry into the preconditions of moral performance, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1994), 275.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 29.

[3] Volf, 29.

Talk about discrimination

lestinnocentbloodJust because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I talk with youth workers all the time about inclusion. Inclusion is woven into our very jargon when we speak of the gospel being for everyone. What we say officially however does not always match functionally.

As Ferguson has permeated the news, conversations of racism have risen again. A tragic reason, and long overdue, but the conversations are needed. What I am hearing from many young (african american, asian, hispanic, native american and white) leaders is that they know racism exists but that it is not their battle or that they just don’t see it. I couldn’t make this up. As I proceed to name a few places where I see it with them, it is as if a veil is being lifted. And then the floodgate is opened. Frustration or anger often follows. They begin to realize that they had be so socialized to see something as “normal” that they didn’t even see it as discrimination.

I hear this same comment when I bring up including people with disabilities. “Oh, yes, that is important but we don’t have anyone with a disability in our youth group / church / school / community”.

I hear this same comment when talking about including women in leadership. “Oh, we don’t have any women who are interested / qualified / called”.

And again when I talk about the gospel and those with different gender or sex orientations. “Oh yes, that is a huge issue in The church, but not my church. We don’t have anyone identifying / struggling / living with any of those issues.”

Inclusion demands that we talk, openly about all of these possibilities. Inclusion demands that we talk long before we know someone with a disability or can identify racism. You will do it imperfectly, do it anyway. You will make mistakes, do it anyway. You will receive pushback, do it anyway.

One of my very favorite books is “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie. It is the story of a small village named Le Chambon in France during the Holocaust. In this village, conversations of peace making, of the gospel’s inclusion for all had been taking place for 400 years. Long before they knew that they would be put to the test, long before they dreamed they may have a chance to extend life to anyone…Jewish refugees and Nazi soldiers…they talked about inclusion. It will blow your mind to see what a difference their deep seeded beliefs made when faced with a real life situation.

We are late to the party. We don’t have the luxury of 400 years of history shaping us to push hard for inclusion of all, to work for peace, to fight discrimination for a variety of people. To be imitators of Jesus inviting all to the table with welcoming arms.

Late to the party however still means that the party is going on. It’s not over and indeed, in this case I would argue better late than never.

What we do have is a choice of how to respond today. Our junior high and high school students see issues of discrimination every day. It is a part of the fabric of their lives. It’s time we adults figure out how to better model what God actually intended. It is time we learn to navigate the waters of discrimination on a variety of fronts so that all may know Jesus actually brought good news for everyone.

 

Parent focused abortion

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Having a baby is never supposed to just be about the parents. In fact, for many people the constant conversation becomes how they are going to do everything possible to bless their child in countless ways. But what happens when we make it more about the parents than the child or even the newly formed family?

Richard Dawkins tweeted that he would abort a down syndrome fetus. He then went on to clarify and expand on his position of aborting a Down’s syndrome fetus as not just an ethical choice, but the ethical choice. Sonoran Theological offers thoughtful insights reminding us all that our morality comes from a very different model. For more on this story, link below:

“Certainly, raising a child with Down’s Syndrome will alter the life course for the parents. Dreams will change. Careers may go unfulfilled. Social groups may shrink or change or both. Yet, such a life of service to another is cut from the same cloth as the call Jesus makes on all of our lives.”

Building a community

I’ve been thinking about Janelle’s post last week and a conversation I had with a friend at church yesterday. “Jake” (not his real name) is most often in a wheelchair. He can walk short distances with one leg braced but it is painful and on some days unbearable. He has thousands of small tumors all over his body. It makes him sit awkwardly at times and his muscles are not as strong as they should be for a young man his age.

He told me that my daughter came over and asked about his leg brace. She asked, “why is that on your leg?” He responded, “So I can walk”. She then showed her Sunday School craft to him. A seemingly mundane interchange but here is what he then said to me.

“She wasn’t freaked out. It was really weird, and nice. Usually kids… people don’t even stop to talk to me. She did. She asked about me then showed the craft she made to me.”

Jake and I went on to have a conversation about how so many people ‘see’ him but don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. Or worse, talk to him like he’s a child. He said that when he is in his chair, people speak really loud like he’s deaf. Still others look right over him or past him. They are so afraid of offending him that they’d rather ignore him. It leaves him isolated and not in conversations nearly as often as he’d like.

And then there’s Jesus. Jesus speaks to those who everyone else looks over, past, or through, or flat out ignores. Jesus doesn’t seem to be afraid of offending. In fact, he engages, challenges, and invites all people into conversation.

Perhaps Janelle’s invitation for conversation on a variety of topics begins in actually engaging the people and communities most impacted. Engaging neither in fear nor with a colonialist approach. Engaging while In a posture of learning, friendship, and with the belief that we all have something to offer. We may need to confront biases and prejudices in our own lives, name them, own them, and ask for help changing them. And however difficult, we need to engage in those awkward, messy, difficult conversations.

I imagine Jesus rolling his eyes… a lot. And at lots of things. But this one in particular. How is it that so many adults get wrong what a child gets so right? Somewhere along the way, children learn to politely ignore the disabled community and to give wide swath to those of different races or ethnicities or religions or political views. And we call this being polite.

But, it is incumbent upon those who want to follow Jesus to unlearn these things.

I hope my girls never stop reaching out to others, to those with disabilities (whether the disability shows and not), to build relationships with people unlike themselves, to get to know people genuinely and share genuinely about themselves. Last time I checked, that’s the beginning of building community.

Lenten Pick up 1- Kids don’t want to be seen as different

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In the season of lent where the conversation circles around inclusion, around Jesus being included and Jesus including others…there is still a community often missing from youth groups. It is the community of teens and their families impacted by disabilities. What I now hear most often is that a youth pastor doesn’t want to harm or insult someone with a disability. Their response then becomes to ignore that person. I’ve got news for you, that is harmful! Option B seems

to be to point out just how “different” that teen is. And by different, what gets left unsaid is wrong or disruptive. Steve Grcevich addresses this beautifully here Kids don’t want to be seen as different. 

This lenten season, let the eyes of Christ be one of the things you pick up. Just like every other teenager wants to be included, so do those with disabilities.

When Jesus is the only one who makes sense

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 “To people who are beaten down or befuddled by religious rules, Jesus offers something that no one else does: rest.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” he says.

And he sums up the entirety of complex and confusing religious laws with this: “Love God, and love your neighbor.”

Beautiful. Even children can understand that.

The Bible tells a story about a man who approaches Jesus and admits that he has faith, but also strong doubts.

“Help me in my unbelief,” he asks Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t blast him. He loves him. To me, Jesus is the only one who really makes any sense.”

Sound like this could apply to you? Check out the entire post here…Fantastic!

Years ago I was asked to write a statement for a ministry which specifically included friends with disabilities. I thought then that I was writing something that would be unique to that ministry. What I quickly learned was that I wrote better theological pieces for everyone when I had those with disabilities in mind.

The article referred to above is written by a man with Aspergers. It is written about his experience with church, Christians, and, ultimately, with Jesus. He may have thought he was describing something unique to the Aspergers community. From my perspective, he just wrote what many if not most people who have chosen to be a part of the Christian community experience. As people, we get it wrong all the time. We mess it up and make each other feel awkward. At the end of the day, we are doing the best we can. And in only the way Jesus can, awkward, messed up moments become transformative and holy for all involved.

Humility is alive and well in youth work

I was blessed to be asked to be the speaker for the first Young Life Capernaum Metro Wide leader training in San Jose. What this really means is that I got to hang out with really cool staff and volunteers who do ministry with teens with disabilities. As we went around the room and shared our name, where we were serving and nicknames from HS one thing became very evident, I was woefully underqualified to be there in any capacity for teaching.

There were 30+ people around the room. There were three who were in their first year of ministry. Several in the first 3-5 years. Over half had served in youth ministry for more than a decade. Several for more than two decades, a few for more than three and one for 51 years!!

James 3:1 was ever present with me. What could I possibly teach this group that they did not already know? How could I possibly offer something of worth or substance when some of them have been serving in youth ministry longer than I’ve been alive?  (And it has been a LONG time since I was considered a young leader.)

Add to this that the very first club kid the founder of Capernaum ever had is now a volunteer leader. His story is one of lifelong disability, difficult speech and amazing devotion to Jesus. For many, he is easily passed by. It takes great effort to hold a conversation and lots of patience to keep asking for a repeat of what he has said. Oh but when you do take the time! He has a wicked sense of humor, a deep devotion to his wife matched only by his devotion to God. He was the embodiment of being perfectly capable but invisible. He has lived what I only feel at times. He has learned to listen to the truths from God where I often drown in my own self degradation. He has learned to be joyful in the moment when I too often seek situations that bring joy.

I did speak throughout the weekend. I offered what I could and each person was so gracious in their response. What I took away however was priceless. A room full of people who are well qualified, talented, dedicated and serving the Lord but not a single ego in sight. There was no posturing. There was humility. There was a deference to God and gratitude for getting to serve. There was a beautiful spirit of getting to share faith without having to prove your own worth along the way.

Younger leaders and older leaders, seasoned veterans and rookies, those with disabilities and typically bodied people…all together, all learning and leading.

James 3:1 does say that not many should be teachers. In this room, every person was and they are exactly the people you want teaching and leading in any ministry, anywhere. I learned that weekend that it’s not always about what I teach, but what I get to continue to learn when I speak. I had it modeled for me. I pray I am able to do the same.

P.S. A bonus for anyone reading who is at the beginning of this ministry journey. Did you notice how many people I mentioned who were serving for 10, 20 even 50+ years? Hang in there!! We need you for the long haul!

 

A tale of two camps: including friends with disabilities

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What if we spent more time asking “How do we?” instead of saying “We can’t.” What if we asked “What can we do?” instead of saying “We’ve never.” What if inclusion were the norm and exclusion bewildered us?

I’ve been to two different camps this summer. At the first, a junior high girl was sent home not for being disruptive, not for sneaking out, bringing alcohol or drugs, starting a fire, or  having sex. She was sent home because she was born with FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome).

She was the right age. She had a counselor who was both a little overwhelmed yet excited to be with her. She needed extra attention and came across as younger than she was…but she was there. She could tell you exactly what was happening in a conversation even when it seemed she wasn’t paying attention. But she was sent home.

I ached for this girl. I ached equally for the family who trusted their child to a church camp, a Christian community, an extension of the body of Christ only to have her turned away. I have researched and interviewed hundreds of families who have shared such stories with me. Most left the church. Many walked away from God. This was the first time I was at the camp to see it happen. The leaders of this camp made the decision to send her home without the counselor’s input or mine.

I want to be careful, these are good people seeking to serve God and simply felt they were not equipped, that this young woman was a distraction to others and that she was not getting anything out of being at camp. They decided that they were not the ones who should be doing this.

But maybe it wasn’t about what she would get. (Though I believe the Lord was speaking clearly to her and she was much more aware than most realized.) Maybe it was about what she brought to the table. About what she could teach the leaders and campers. Maybe it was about the camp and its staff being a light on a hill to her family finally welcoming one of their beloved in. Maybe. But it wasn’t. The only answer was “we can’t.”

At the second camp I’ve attended this summer, I had the privilege of helping to greet group after group after group of teenagers whose needs went far beyond needing a little extra attention. Roughly 100 special needs friends came to camp. Travel alone was demanding. Flights, long drives, extra helpers for wheelchairs, meds for days…and with every new challenge, the question became “what can we do to be a friend to this person?” “What do we need to build?” (as in ramps), and “How can we accomodate?” This was not because everyone there was trained. In fact, for many it was the first time meeting a friend with special needs. It was because there have been people who weren’t afraid to change the question. They moved from “should we?” to “how do we?” and never looked back!