Righteous Anger (part 2)

Writing yesterday’s post about what happened to a friend at church had its cathartic effect on my soul. Writing the words and mulling them over provided space for prayer. And the prayer has led me to mercy.

I am still angry about the injustice experienced by my friend and his peers. In my quest to be angry but not sin, I need to find a way for the anger to become an expression of love. God’s love is serious and strong, not sentimental and mushy. The Message bible says that “Love always looks for the best.” (1st Corinthians 13:6) My prayers, plus my musings about the nature of God’s love and how to express it in this situation, have taken me to the sage advice of a friend: see the innocence.

I absolutely believe that the pastor, who stopped his sermon to tell my friend that he needed to leave the sanctuary because his soft vocalizations were a distraction, did not intend harm. The pastor was not motivated by meanness. He likely believes that preaching and interpreting the word of God for a congregation is a very serious task and should be handled with utmost respect and decorum. His application of the apostle Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order” is that those who are gathered to hear a sermon must be respectful and that equates to silent. He and I disagree on how the words “Let all things be done decently and in order” are to be experienced.

I see the innocence on his part. I understand that he only intended to maintain a ‘decent and orderly’ service. I attended a church with that culture for many years when my children were young. I lost count of the number of times an usher quietly tapped me on the shoulder with an offer to carry the diaper bag for me as it was indicated that the fussy or fidgety child needed to leave the service to not be a distraction. I, and the other parents of restless little ones, understood the church culture. We were not dealt with in an embarrassing way or publicly signaled out as a disruption to an otherwise orderly service.

Very gradually the culture of the church my family attended began to change.  As I sifted through memories in search of why or when the change began I recalled an older woman who had Alzheimer’s disease. She continuously paced at the back of the sanctuary. Inclusion of her may have been the catalyst that led to a change of culture that engaged active, young families in the worship services. The desire to include a woman with a disability and accommodate her unique needs led to open doors for more people in that church 25 years ago. Today that church is a model of inclusive worship.

So, how does this memory and experience guide an expression of love for the pastor who humiliated my friend?  In attitude, I am attempting to be merciful and  see the innocence. In practice I am not sure, yet, beyond continued prayer. That developing wisdom may make a part 3 of Righteous Anger.

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Righteous Anger

I am angry. I am so angry that I hesitate to write while feeling what I am feeling. But, perhaps putting my anger into words will help me begin to simmer down and be angry but not sin. Righteous anger has its place (Ephesians 4:26).

What has happened to cause my anger? Injustice. Injustice to a friend of mine. I know, the world seems to be flooded with injustice right now, so what is one injustice to one man? One is one too many.

Okay, deep breath. Count to ten. What happened? In a nutshell, a friend, who has a disability, was told that he needed to be removed from the sanctuary in the middle of the service because it was felt that his soft, happy vocalizations were a distraction. My friend, his friends and those supporting them were humiliated when they were told, by the pastor using a microphone in front of the congregation in the midst of a sermon about loving all people, that he needed to leave. His communication style made him unacceptable. Did you get that? In the middle of a sermon about loving all people someone was told to leave.  And I am angry.

Yes, his vocalizations may have been a distraction. The support staff who were with him are professionals who are trained to understand how the people they support communicate. They are also trained to protect and promote human dignity. If my friend had been communicating dissatisfaction or discomfort the staff supporting him would have helped him quietly leave the service to address his needs. If they felt that the volume of his voice was a distraction they would have helped him quietly leave the service to protect his dignity in the eyes of his fellow worshippers. In their judgment his quiet, under the breath, vocalizations were not a distraction to the level that he was bothersome to those around him.

I am not angry that he was asked to leave the service. That quietly happens from time to time. I am angry that he was devalued as a person and humiliated in the process. Isn’t there a way that this could have been handled that did not humiliate him? Were his happy sounds so disruptive that the sermon could not be finished and then after the service have a quiet, private conversation to discuss the issue?

I am angry that this man, a  person created in the image of God, a man who loves Jesus with his whole body, mind and heart was humiliated by a church leader. I am angry that his friends, who also have disabilities, had to share his humiliation. I am angry that the support staff (who maybe unsure about this whole church and religion thing) felt the rejection and embarrassment as well.

I am angry that in a sermon about love for all people the real message that was conveyed was that disabled lives do not matter.

#disabledlivesmatter

A New Rhythm

Life has rhythms and cadences. Rhythms are comforting and soothing. Predictable. It is their predictability that makes them meaningful. Music, rain drops, bicycle pedal strokes, a child’s laugh, heart beats, firing pistons, lapping waves, foot steps, chewing, breathing, chanting, dance steps, hoof beats, skipping rope, swim strokes, clock chimes, labor contractions, sunrise and sunset, and prayer.

The rhythm of prayer speaks to generations of hearts. The rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer, unchanged for millennia:

     Our Father/ who art in heaven/ hallowed be thy name/ thy kingdom come/ thy will be   done/ on earth/ as it is in heaven/ give us this day/ our daily bread/ and forgive us our sins/ as we forgive those/ who sin against us/ lead us not/ into temptation/ but deliver us from evil/ for thine is the kingdom/ and the power/ and the glory/ now/ and forever/ amen.

While in Guatemala, worshiping at an indigenous Mayan church, I recognized the beautiful rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer during the service. The cadence was slightly different, but the rhythm, the rise and fall of the voices and the accented words, were familiar in the unknown language that surrounded me. My mother taught me this prayer, using the rhythms of it to break it into memorizable chunks that my five year old mind could remember. A familiar, comforting rhythm of voices, of connection and cadence with generations of pray-ers.

That is why a change in the rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer startled me one day when worshiping with friends at their church. I was so startled that I stopped praying, opened my eyes and looked at my praying neighbors who prayed as if there was nothing unusual about the change of the rhythm of their words!  What prompted their departure from the familiar rhythm? Love.

Love and determination to include a man who offered them the opportunity to change their rhythm so that he was included in their communal prayer. Love and the willingness to make an accommodation to include a man whose words of prayer were echoes of the words they prayed. Love and the knowledge that the presence of this man and his prayers enriched their community. Love and a desire to be the whole Body of Christ.

Our Father/father/ who art in heaven/ in heaven/hallowed be thy name/ thy name/ thy kingdom come/ come/ thy will be done/ will be done/ on earth/earth/ as it is in heaven/ heaven/ give us this day/ this day/ our daily bread/ bread/ and forgive us our sins/ us our sins/ as we forgive those/ forgive those/ who sin against us/ against us/ lead us not/ not/ into temptation/ ‘tation/ but deliver us from evil/ from evil/ for thine is the kingdom/ kingdom/ and the power/ Power/ and the glory/ glory/ now/ now/ and forever/ forever/amen.

 

 

Bartimaeus

bartimeus

I attend a church that follows a lectionary for the scriptural theme of each Sunday. The lectionary provides a framework for daily and weekly bible stories, music, prayers and preaching. Typically lectionaries revolve around a three year cycle, meaning that every three years the same scriptures come around again. So, in my years in a lectionary church I have heard the story of Bartimaeus and Jesus at least once every three years.  The story has become familiar to me, the story of “Blind Bartimaeus.”

This lectionary cycle, however, it was as if I was hearing the story for the first time! I noticed some elements in the story that were fresh and engaging. To me, as a person keenly aware of disability advocacy and faith-community inclusion for people with disabilities, I heard a story that models the way. (Jesus has a way of doing that, modeling the way.)

  1. “Blind Bartimaeus” is not the moniker that Jesus used to identify this man. It is the label that others have stuck on him, others who did not understand the harm that may happen when a person is identified by their disability instead of being identified first as a person. The interaction between Bartimaeus and Jesus, as described by Mark, is centered on the person of Bartimaeus, not his disability.  Jesus modeled People First Language and ideology before it existed!
  2. Jesus noticed a man who lived on the fringes of his society; Bartimaeus was a person who was culturally, socially, and economically  marginalized. By reason of his disability he was forbidden to participate in the daily life of his community, his hometown of Jericho. He was a person to whom it was acceptable for others to say, “shut up!” (Mark 10:38: Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.) Jesus noticed a person that others rejected; Jesus, again, modeled the way.
  3. Jesus did not impose his own opinion and plan on a person with a disability. He did not make an assumption about why Bartimaeus was calling out to him.  Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted, then he listened and honored the answer. By not assuming that he knew what another person wanted, Jesus models for us how to unprejudiciously listen to other people. Jesus was person-centered with his interaction with Bartimaeus. (In a nut shell, person-centered means putting aside personal agendas and plans for the sake of focusing on the desires and needs of another person. It is a term used in service and life planning with people who have disabilities).
  4. Jesus modeled the way of inclusive communities by not turning Bartimaeus away when he chose to become a follower of Jesus. I realize that I am making an assumption about Bartimaeus with this point, but I believe that there is sufficient information about the first century mid-eastern region where this story occurred to make this assumption: As a marginalized, disabled beggar who lived on the margins of his community, Bartimaeus did not have observable education, talent and skills to offer to the ministry of Jesus and his band of followers. But that did not matter to Jesus as he seemed to delight in including the misfits, tax collectors, zealots and others of questionable reputation to be his followers. Bartimaeus was included, just as was everyone else.

Jesus always models the way!

Mark 10:46-52 (NRSV)   46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Note regarding image- I found this using a Bing search with the key words “Bartimaeus,” “healing.” It seems to have originated from the University of Michigan, but no citations were attached to it. If this image is yours or you know any details about where it originated from please contact this author and it will be removed or proper citation added.

Special Needs Ministry for All

This is the third post in our on-going conversation about special needs ministry. Our most recent conversation defined what special needs ministry is: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons.
This raises a question- if special needs ministry boils down to including people, how is this category of ministry any different from general ministry? Isn’t one of the purposes of a faith community to include people? Isn’t a community intended to offer people a place to belong and to connect? A vital faith-community should be a place where all people, regardless of age, gender, size, ability, social status, employment or financial status, are welcomed.
A ministry directed solely at addressing the perceived needs of people with disabilities misses the mark of honoring the unique needs and gifts of all of the community members. The core values of special needs advocacy can be applied to every person in our faith communities.
One of the core values of people with disabilities is the necessity of their presence in the world. In the recent histories of humankind people with disabilities were hidden away in back rooms or locked behind tall institutional fences and walls, and dependent upon paid professionals for survival. In general, they were not allowed to be part of the greater world. As the wrongness of the institutional model of care and living became evident people with disabilities advocated for their right to be part of the greater society, to have a place in our communities, to be present and their worth honored. The core value of presence and worth of all people is rooted in the ancient Scriptures that tell us that God created humanity in His own image: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:27). People with varying and differing abilities are all created in the image of God. If all people are God’s image bearers, than should not all people be welcomed as unique expressions of God’s image ? As unique expressions of God’s image all people come to a community with unique abilities and gifts. All people should have the opportunity to be present. Presence is not ability or disability dependent.
Another core value of people with disabilities is the validity of their voices and experiences. Every person comes to our faith communities with personal stories, dreams, fears and gifts. Each person’s story that has brought them to our communities of faith has to be listened to. The stories may include exclusion and pain; they may be experiences of understanding and acceptance; they may be stories that are familiar and comfortable, or they may challenge our personal stereotypes of people with different abilities or social statuses. The stories and experiences are real and have shaped each person. The stories of all people need to be heard.
The final core value I want to touch on is the “nothing about me without me” mantra of disabilities advocates. Would faith community leaders make plans for youth ministry without including the youth of the community? What about senior citizen ministry or single parent’s ministries? In the development of intentional, informed ministries the voiced needs and desires of the target group are the guide. The same listening strategy needs to be employed if developing a ministry for people with special needs. Their voices and experiences have to be included, even if their voices tell us that they do not want a separate ministry, but that their experiences and gifts belong in the greater community of faith.

Special needs ministry and general ministry share a definition: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons. Special needs ministry is all people’s needs in ministry.

Celebrating World Autism Day

I thought about the title of this post for awhile before deciding on “Celebrating World Autism Day.” At first I was going to title this “Honoring World Autism Day”, which would be a correct view of the day, but I decided to use of the word celebrating. Celebrations are happy, joyous gatherings with cake and balloons. Celebrations are a joyous recognition of something wondrous, such as the birthday  of a loved one; so ‘celebrating’ is the correct word.  What are we celebrating joyously with cake and balloons? The joy of sharing the world with wonderful people who have autism.

What is autism? The autism advocacy group Autism Speaks defines it as “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Wikipedia describes autism as a disorder of neuro development. People who have autism interact with and interpret the world differently than more typical people. People who have autism are complexly different and complexly similar to other people. Today we are celebrating those differences and similarities. Today we are celebrating the lives of the 1 in 68 children who have autism around the globe.

What are we, as people of faith celebrating? All people are amazing gifts from God to each other. Today we are celebrating the wonderful gifts that people who have autism bring to the world. We are celebrating the opportunity that we have to journey through life with people who have autism, their families and their caregivers. We are celebrating the joy of sharing our faith with people who interpret the world differently. We are celebrating God at work across the entire spectrum of humanity.

People First Language

I visited a church that had some members who were interested in creating an outreach for people with disabilities. They proudly showed me that they had removed the last row of pews to make room for wheelchairs, “The wheelchairs can all sit here together.” Because I have a good relationship with the people giving me a tour of their church I knew that they could handle a bit of teasing as an illustration of people first language. I said something to the effect of, “So the wheelchairs sit here, where do the people who use the wheelchairs get to sit?” A blank stare was the initial response. I explained that a wheelchair is not the same thing as a person who uses the wheelchair, just like a pair of shoes is not the same thing as the person who wears them.  A wheelchair is not a person. A wheelchair is a mobility device. Thus we began a conversation about people first language.

People first language communicates that the person comes before a disability or impairment.  “The boy in Sunday school who has autism…” and “The autistic boy in Sunday school…” are two statements about a boy who has autism. However, one of the statements puts the boy’s humanity before the impairment.  “The wheelchair section” is a phrase that describes a place for wheelchairs; “the pew cutouts for people who use wheelchairs” is a phrase that describes where people who use wheelchairs for mobility may choose to comfortably sit. The humanity of the people is spoken about before their means of mobility.

People first language is more than semantics.  It is a concrete way of communicating the value of another person. Using people first language guides our thoughts to first see the person, the friend, the parishioner, the neighbor, the communicant, the confirmand or the colleague and not to first see the perceived limitation. 

Words matter in creating hospitable, inclusive faith communities. Children and adults who have disabilities desire to be where they are welcomed first as people, with considerations for their impairment coming secondary. The words they hear when they visit our faith communities will let them now if they are valued as people first.

The Family to Family Network is one of many places on the Internet to learn more about the importance of people first language. http://www.familytofamilynetwork.org/parent-resources/people-first-language

 

 

Marla’s Faith Journey

Family stories and connections are important to people. They keep us grounded and provide a place for our roots to bring life. Family faith traditions are an example of this rootedness.

Marla has a developmental disability and  lives in a group home with several other people. She is a charming woman who enjoys meeting new people. For years she weekly attended Catholic mass with her family. The faith traditions she grew up with were an important part of her life.  After the passing of her parents Marla found her faith connections even more meaningful. However, because she could no longer spend her weekends with her parents she stopped attending her home parish and began attending mass at a parish closer to her group home. This new parish seemed to be less welcoming of Marla and she began to become less interested in attending mass weekly.

One of the women Marla lived with invited her to attend her protestant church. Marla went and enjoyed the music and friendliness of the people. It was wonderful to see Marla once again eangaging positively with a faith community; however, there was a concern because it was not the faith tradition she was raised in and had enjoyed for most of her life.  Marla shared that she did not want to return to the parish where she did not feel welcome and that she enjoyed the friendliness, music and activities of her friend’s church.  Those supporting Marla wanted to be sure that she had all of the information and experiences she needed to make the decision about changing her faith affiliation from Roman Catholic to a protestant denomination.  Her support staff did some research and located a nearby large parish with young families, activities and a folk mass that was known for it’s friendly and welcoming environment.  This potential parish seemed to offer her the qualities she enjoyed in the protestant church and it was in keeping with her family faith traditions. Marla agreed to attend a mass to see if she liked it. It turned out to be a wonderful connection! Marla was warmly welcomed and invited into their faith family. She is now a faithful member of that parish and even found a cousin who is also a member.

Marla enjoys inviting her friends to attend mass with her. She wants to share this community of faith where she is loved.

Gilda Goings, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Heritage Christian Services

The Ties that Bind

The season of Lent is a time of devotion when we focus on strengthening our spiritual ties to God. Connective links to God include:
Prayer: Having a conversation with God and he hears you.
Meditation: Keeping still and listening (What, only a minute has passed??). He will answer you.
Fasting: Remembering that your body may have its frailties, but they don’t have to limit you.
Sacrifice: Having so many things you think you have to do, you can’t find time to work on relationships. Spending time with others requires time and effort; that’s why it is called a sacrifice-got it!
Service: More than attending Sunday worship; service is about meeting a need of another human being.

We work on our relationship with God, but how much effort do we put into our relationships with each other? Jesus said that what you do good for others, is the same as doing good unto him. My case for faith community inclusion for individuals with developmental disabilities is that people of faith, more than any other group, understand that we are all created in His image. Denying any individual access and/or opportunity to worship God and practice his/her faith, denies the same to Jesus. The fact is, God is the author of diversity. He said, “Love ye one another.” It is not for us to judge if an individual with a developmental disability “comprehends” the nature of God. It is enough that he/she wants to be in the house of worship.

My epiphany came the first year I was working with the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. I was attending a worship service on one of the (residential) campuses, when I noticed a young woman pacing back and forth; first touching a window and then walking over to touch a wall. With a “pastoral” eye, I thought she must be agitated, and was certain this was a distraction to others there to enjoy the worship service. However, after a few moments, I stopped looking at her behavior and observed her countenance. I saw pure joy and peacefulness on her face. She was in a moment of worship – connected to God. It was suddenly obvious to me. I didn’t need to use my intellect or check my theology to know it – I could just feel it!! Furthermore, I found that watching her enjoyment of the service made me enjoy the service even more.

Sometimes we miss what true worship is if we don’t break the attitudinal, architectural, communication barriers that can keep other worshippers out. We will miss so much if we assign some worshippers segregated services or seating in the back. We can miss opportunities and blessings if only the good singers are allowed to sing or only the good readers are allowed to read, etc. The tie that binds us to God is that we love HIM first and then love ONE ANOTHER as He loves us.

Reverend Catherine Patterson
NYS OPWDD Faith Based Initiative