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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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.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Recently I was asked some questions about special needs ministry. The questions were birthed from the sincere desire to provide excellent pastoral care but originated from a heart with very little knowlege and almost no relationships with people who have developmental disabilities.  I have been in relationship with people with developmental disabilitis since my childhood and a professional in the field for over 35 years.  I sometimes forget that assumptions, myths and old-school ideas may be all the information that a person or a faith community has for basing ministry with people with developmental concerns. Sometimes I incorrectly assume that the person I am in conversation with has more knowlege or experience than they actually have.

So, let us get back to the basics!

What is a developmental disability? The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines developmental disabilities as: a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas; these conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime. In layperson’s terms a developmental disability begins in utero, at birth or in childhood; the disability may impair the body, learning needs, communication and/or behavior; the disability will likely be lifelong.

The term ‘developmental disability’ is a very broad term that includes people with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, many chromosomal aberrations and those who are diagnosed within the autism spectrum, and a myriad of others who have delays and disabilities of undiagnosed origin. The disability begins in childhood and remains throughout the person’s lifespan. For example, a child with Down syndrome will grow to be an adult with Down syndrome; she will never out grow her medical diagnosis. However, while she will always be a person with Down syndrome, she is first and foremost a person with gifts, talents, dreams, purpose, depth, relationships, knowledge and life experience that all combine to make her an amazing person.

Of interest to me regarding our on-going conversation about faith and disability is the knowledge that while disability impacts a person’s body and learning or thinking processes, it does not touch a person’s spirit! A person’s spirituality is their expression of their broader values and beliefs— “beliefs and practices that connect [them] with sacred and meaningful entities and emotions (1).” A person may have profound developmental disabilities and still be a perfectly whole and sound spiritual being!

In future blogs in this series we will explore spirituality, faith and disability with an eye for laying a firm foundation of the basics of understanding them.

(1) Alzheimer’s Association, Learning Institute, Rochester, NY

Fairytale or Real?

The story unfolds in such beauty that it seems like a fairy tale. Perhaps it is just a fairy tale, or perhaps it really is a true unfolding tale that will someday end with, “and they all lived happily ever after”.

Once upon a time a charming prince wanted to go somewhere to learn more about God and make friends. He visited a church with lots of smiling people. He enjoyed the lovely music and the opportunity to make new friends; but, alas, there was a problem. You see, the prince does not talk and when he is happy he likes to bounce in his wheelchair. His bouncing wheelchair makes noise. The music and the smiling people made him very happy so he bounced in his wheelchair to share his joy. Sadly, this was not a place where people bounce when they are happy and they did not like it when he bounced. The prince left and stayed at home and listened to joyful music by himself.

One day a kind maiden in the kingdom invited the prince to visit her church so he could learn about God, make friends and be free to bounce when he was happy. He went with the maiden, but he was unsure if he really would be welcomed. Would people shake his hand at the exchange of peace? Would people turn and shush him when he sang? Would he be asked to leave if he was happy and bounced? He was surprised to have a delightful time! The smiling people from the church helped him off his horse drawn carriage (a.k.a. a wheelchair accessible van), and held the doors open for him as if they already knew that he was royalty. The maiden proved herself to actually be his ambassador as she introduced him to her friends. The smiling people seemed genuinely happy that he was there, but would the smiles disappear if he started to bounce? He quickly learned that no, the smiles would not disappear and the shushes would not happen! He was free to be himself! The pastor even said during his sermon that he was happy to have the prince present!

Now, almost every week the prince goes to church. Friends from his church visit him at home and share their music and hearts with him. He has his own offering envelopes so that he can help make a difference; he sings as only he can sing, he prays, he listens, he bounces, and if he cannot be there on a Sunday morning than the people tell him that they missed him.

Is it too soon to write, “and they all lived happily ever after”?