Thinking about Christianity and Disability

This post is a collection of thoughts and reflections on comments from Dr. Debbie Creamer, PhD, author of Disability and Christian Theology Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, during her lectures at Ministers Week at Brite Divinity School at TCU and University Christian Church.

Dr. Creamer’s first lecture addressed four modes of reflection on disability: 1) moral, 2) medical, 3) social or minority group, 4) limits model. These four models have strengths and weaknesses. They impose limitations and blind sides to our perceptions, while also shedding new and different light. They reflect normative views in our culture and over time. Dr. Creamer’s work, along with others referenced below, is to discover new ways to imagine and articulate disability and God and our relationship/experience of both.

Churches think of themselves as inclusive, when what they often are at best is accessible. Inclusive means that people have full access so that their involvement is not a bother or problem for others. They are not only invited and welcomed, but can initiate. We often provide cutouts in pews, but how often to we readily enable access to positions of leadership in worship, such as the chancel and pulpit?

From access to inclusion – the insights of Brett Webb-Mitchell in Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities

She then spent time “playing” (her word) with images of disability that might surprise and enlighten us.

“Disabled God” Nancy Eiesland – “The Disabled God”  the image of a God who uses a powered “sip/puff” wheelchair. Powerful, mobile, assertive. What would it feel like to imagine God as disabled?

Jennie Weiss BlockCopious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities  –

“Interdependent God” Kathy Black, Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability – dispelling the illusion that we are independent. What if God is interdependent as well. God tells us stories of community where Jesus relied upon and needed others in his life and ministry.

“Bold God” – Disability requires people to be more assertive, and in this boldness we may see the image of God.

“Authentic God” – what if we think of disability as normative, as what it is to be human? We all are or will be disabled at some point, unless we die young and suddenly. We are made in God’s image, and thus what we are somehow reflects what God is. There are things that God can’t do. Limits can be good.

This was a helpful conversation, and I commend Dr. Creamer and her work to congregations and others who are interested in exploring and responding to these issues and to discover anew our common experience of God in the world.

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A helpful brief article by Dr. Creamer is Theological Accessibility: The Contribution of Disability in Disability Studies Quarterly.

Launching Ministry Coaching

I am excited that today I get to formally launch my ministry coaching with a display table at Ministers Week at Brite Divinity School, TCU and University Christian Church. I am looking forward to hearing the stories of friends and colleagues and sharing words of encouragement and hope. Each of us need someone in our corner, someone who cares about our faith, life and ministry, who is rooting for us and praying for us.

Ministry is hard, even in the best of circumstances. And the best circumstances are rare.

We are, like all others, broken people in need of repair, wounded people in need of comfort, sick people in need of a physician.

We are also, like all others, beautiful people, created to reflect the glory of God in the world.  We are precious and good and worthy of being loved.
We bear the in-breathed Spirit of God.
We are miracles to behold, and

WE ARE CALLED!

But it is easy to forget the latter in light of the former. We receive negative messages from all around, telling us that we are not…

Ministry coaching for clergy, congregations, and all followers of Jesus, is designed to restore us to the integrated and synchronous life God intends for those Christ calls. It is about being transformed into mature disciples of Christ. Transformation is neither a quick nor an easy process – it takes time and energy and prayer.

Whether a single conversation, an ongoing process, individually or as a group or institution, coaching has a way of opening our hearts and minds to the insights that are most often deep within us waiting to come out. It then helps us claim who we are and live fully the life and ministry that God dreams for us.

And I can’t wait!

Set your face – the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent

Ash Wednesday
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
A day of repentance. The beginning of Lent.
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Perhaps the real meaning of Lent is found in this passage from Luke 9:51-62. Lent is about us turning and setting our face toward the cross of Christ that he bore, and the one which he calls us to bear. Jesus’ harsh words in vs 62 may actually be self-talk. Perhaps he is drawing into his inner thought life, his prayer life, and acknowledging that from this point forward, the journey will not waver to left or right, at least not for him. All of the apostles will abandon him in the garden, even Peter who swore he would never desert Jesus (Mark 14).

The structure of Lent, with forty days bookended by Ashe Wednesday and Easter, is certainly reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism and 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). This harkens back to the periods of 40 found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the story of the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights (Gen 7:12). Moses went on the mountain of the Lord for 40 days (Exodus 34:28). The spies, including Joshua and Caleb, spent 40 days spying out the Land of Canaan as the Lord instructed. When they returned with ten giving a bad report, the Israelites decided they would not go where the Lord was trying to lead them. And so God said that the Israelites would wander in the wilderness for forty years, one for every day spent spying the land. (Numbers 14) In fact, Moses’ life is marked by three periods of forty years – the first growing up as a prince of Egypt, the second in Midian tending his father-in-law’s flocks, and the third leading the Israelites toward the promised land. Forty signifies transformation, a shifting in way of life, a laying aside the old and taking up the new.

And that period of forty begins with one step. That is the point here. Ash Wednesday is that one step for us, the beginning of the journey of transformation for this year. It is worth noting that at his baptism Jesus did not set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. He seemed to wander randomly from town to town, with intermittent trips to Jerusalem for the festivals, for three years.

The beginning of his earthly ministry was in a sense the start of his path to the cross. Even so, a second decision was needed. There came a time when all that he was doing and saying up to that moment would coalesce into one singular vision – the cross. The cross represents Jesus’ final confrontation with self-centered power. Ash Wednesday (as figured in Luke 9:51) represents the commitment to walk that road and not turn back.

Repentance is a turning from one posture and direction in life to another. Repentance from sin is turning from a life focused on serving only self to a life directed toward serving God first. Jesus himself received the baptism of repentance from his cousin John. What this means, at least in part, is that Jesus was repenting of – turning away from – his life as a carpenter focused on his family and community obligations in Nazareth. Instead, he turned his face, not specifically toward Jerusalem, but more broadly toward the ministry of the Messiah who came to proclaim in word and work the inrushing of the Reign of God.

As we begin this Lenten journey, may we join with all who have followed the Christ, turning once again away from a self-serving life and choosing instead a life that embraces all as we are embraced by God. We enter anew into a process of transformation. We recognize that the life we have been living does not work. We turn away from the destructive habits (behavior and thought patterns) that have shaped our lives. We set our faces toward the New Jerusalem – the City of God that is descending, even now, as God seeks to dwell in our midst and redeem and restore all things.

Seeds on the Wind – Mark 4

NOTE: This is the final sermon I am to preach after more than ten years at Forest Grove Christian Church

Summary of Mark 4 –

Mark presents us with three seed parables about God’s reign, and then abruptly shifts to a story of a physically and emotionally exhausted Jesus falling asleep on the boat and not being roused by the terrible storm that erupted.

1-20 Seed/Word scattered without judging the soil in advance

21-23 Let your light shine

24-25 The measure you give is the measure you will get back

26-29 Partners with God: We have work to do, and God gives the growth

30-34 The tiny mustard seed produces a tree of safety for the vulnerable

35-41 Jesus stills the storm

I would like to explore for a few moments how these three seed parables work together, supported then by the two intervening proverbs, and finally encapsulated by a challenge.

The sower went out to sow seeds. The seed is the Word of God, the message of the Kingdom now and coming, the Good News, the Gospel of God’s all-encompassing redeeming love. The sower does not judge in advance whether the seed will likely be received, or how well it might grow. No. The seed is broadcast liberally, extravagantly, even wastefully – if we measure as a farmer would. After all, no good farmer would knowingly cast seeds on a pathway, or among the brambles, or in rocky soil. The farmer goes to great lengths to prepare the soil conditions BEFORE casting the seed, and then only in the places that are most likely to produce.

Not so with the Messiah. The messiah offers the gospel to everyone around him – the Priests and Scribes, the Sadducees and Pharisees, tax collectors, drunkards, sinners and the unclean, and even to the common folks in the middle. Everyone has equal access, ready or not, to experience the word of love offered.

There are at least two ways to interpret this parable. The first Jesus gives to the disciples – that the different kinds of soil represent people at different stages of readiness. So when the Messiah travels along the seashore teaching, in his audience are people who fit each of the four descriptions – some completely unreceptive, some quickly enthusiastic but easily burned out, some have too many other commitments that choke out the growth, and finally others are receptive and have good conditions for the seeds to take root, sprout and grow healthy and strong until they bear fruit of their own. Jesus does not generally take aside this last group and only teach and preach to them, only offer them healing and restoration and reconciliation with God, self and neighbor. The seed of God’s good news is offered freely to all, even though only a portion are able to receive it to full benefit.

A second meaning springs from this first. Just as at any one time a crowd will have people who represent each of the four types of seed, similarly each of us is at different times like the four kinds of soil. Yesterday you may have been so distracted by the cares of the world that you were unable to receive the good news that was offered. Today you may receive it eagerly, but in the heat and winds of life your enthusiasm may dry up. Perhaps tomorrow will you be like the rocky path, where the scavengers come along and steal away the good news? And finally, hopefully, at some point each of us will be like good soil that is ready to receive the Gospel and have it bear fruit in our lives. That is the goal, the dream.

Now, of course, we are all familiar with people who have been that good soil, but life just got too much for them. Too many rain storms washed away all the good topsoil. Too much inattention to spiritual things left their lives cluttered with brambles, or filled with people who would come in and steal their joy and peace. Perhaps each of us can relate to that experience at some point in our lives. This is not a parable about judgment from God on those unready to receive. It is simply a reality check, a true image of life as we know it. Some days we are more ready than others to follow Jesus and share God’s love and bear the fruit of the kingdom. Some days we have more energy and enthusiasm than others. Some days we are just so exhausted we could sleep through a storm.

The second parable picks up where this one leaves off. Paul reminds the church: 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1) So Jesus points out that though the soil is good, and the farmer does everything necessary, the means of growth is still a mystery. God makes things grow. We have a responsibility, certainly, whether for our individual lives, our family, our church, community or world. There are things we can and must do as caretakers of creation (GEN2:15), colaborers with God (1COR3:9). Even so, we do not get credit for the growth that results, or blame for its lack. God sends rain on the just and the unjust (MT5:45). Let us do what is ours to do, encourage one another, and then give God the glory for all good things (1CHRON16:34).

This Gospel word of Good News that is in us must shine forth from us into the world. Our lives hold the potential to bless others with light and warmth, and we must find ways to let that light shine. The amount of light and love we share with others determines the amount we will be able to receive back from God. The more stingy and guarded we are in loving our neighbors, the less grace we will experience from God. This is not because God will withhold grace or mercy or love, but because we will be unable to receive it because our hands and hearts will be filled with fear and focus on self.

When the seeds of the Good News of God’s Kingdom of redeeming mercy and love are planted in good soil, they become like a tree which gives shelter under its canopy. Jesus compares this to the mustard seed, one of the smallest seeds known in his day. Even so small an amount of faith, so small an expression of love, can take root and grow in the right soil so that in days to come the vulnerable may find shelter and sustenance. The birds of the air make their nests and raise their young. What a beautiful image of the relationship between our faith and God’s work to bless the world in and through the church. Does the church provide shelter for the vulnerable, the fragile, the wounded? Is the church a place of refuge from the storms of life, so that when they rage against us, we can be secure in the knowledge that the one who stills the storms watches over us?

These storms of life do come. How wonderful a gift to see our Lord so worn out that he sleeps right through. You’ve felt that way, haven’t you? Much remains to be done, but you can’t stay awake another moment. You are physically and emotionally and spiritually drained, exhausted. You must rest, and rejuvenate, be renewed by God. We can see ourselves in this and take comfort when we feel the same.

We also know how the disciples feel. We cry out with them and the psalmist 23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! 24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? 25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. 26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (PS44:23) At one point the psalmist is so frustrated as to compare God to a soldier waking from a drunken stupor (Psalm 78:65). We know this feeling, don’t we, of wondering where God is, whether God cares about how hard things are for us? “Lord, do you not care that we are drowning?” (MK4:38)

In response to our cry, the Lord first offers peace and calm to us in the midst of the raging storm. Then he turns to us and asks, in love, “Where is your faith? Why are you so afraid? Am I not with you, and am I not trustworthy? I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

There is one final thing here, the unspoken punch line of the whole chapter. The wind of the storm actually scatters the seeds of faith. Remember how in Acts 7 we read of the stoning of Stephen and the flight of the other disciples? And then in the very next breath Luke tells us: 4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word (Acts 8). The scattering of the faithful actually leads to the growth of the kingdom. God uses the storms of life to scatter seeds of faith, some of which will find good soil in us and our community, and grow and bear fruit for generations to come. Some we may never know. Others we may only learn about decades later.

I have just this week been reconnected with my best friend from high school. Jon was in a horrible car accident in the fall of our junior year, at the age of 16. He sustained a closed head injury which left him comatose for months, followed by years of rehabilitation therapy, and permanent damage to his memory and cognitive skills. Because of these deficits, his doctors believed he was better off not having any contact with him, so his family asked us to walk away forever. This was incredibly painful. It is one thing to lose a friend to death. It is something very different and strange to have him still alive, but cut off by injury. He will never live alone without supportive care. He is a 16 year old boy trapped in a 43 year old man’s body. And I’m his best friend – have been all this time even though we haven’t spoken since 1986. My care for him during our high school years has helped to sustain him through the unimaginable storms raging within and around him. I could not have imagined what it feels like to know that. He sent me two letters this week that looked just like the kinds of notes high school kids used to write to each other – back before texting and Instagram, of course. I had no idea, all these years, that those seeds of love and friendship were bearing fruit in his heart and mind, sustaining and encouraging him. We really never know how the light we shine, and the love we share, will be used by God to bless others, and eventually, perhaps, come back to bless us. We really never know.

Listen to a brief litany of the seeds scattered by this congregation over the last ten years:

  • Leader Development
    • Ministry Internship has trained three people for ministry
    • Six adults have participated in the Lay Ministry Training Program
    • We have provided scholarship money for people training for ministry
  • Community Service
    • We helped launch and have been an anchor church for Family Promise
    • We have raised money for local charities, including ACO, Food Pantries, Samaritan Inn, Children’s Advocacy Center, Hope’s Door
    • We have rehabbed housing in Trinity Park
    • We have participated in Habitat for Humanity
    • We have taken two mission trips
    • We have given over $10,000 to local families during times of need
  • Men’s and Women’s work
    • Ongoing participation in retreats
    • Regular meetings of fellowship and study
  • Senior Adult Ministry
    • Worship services led at Juliet Fowler Homes
    • Fellowship, communion, prayer and song led at Loving Care Homes
  • Children and youth
    • Over thirty children and youth sent to camps and retreats
    • Over 100 children involved in VBS here on our campus
    • Countless children blessed through the Boyd Park outreach which we helped start and keep going for the first several years.
  • Worship
    • We have offered multiple worship styles and done a lot with a few resources
    • We have given everyone an opportunity to grow in the use of their gifts
    • We have held over 1000 worship services together
  • Evangelism
    • We have given away almost ten thousand donuts as a simple expression of Christ’s love and our concern for those who work on Christmas Eve.
    • We have hosted concerts, Festivals, Carnivals, Car Shows, BBQs, Dances and VBS as ways to build connections with our community.
    • We won an award for Excellence in Evangelism for 2010 for welcoming 16 adults into the church.