Tag Archives: Jesus

On “special” needs and ministry

The Sunday morning crush–those moments after worship lets out and as a pastor you spiral through the gauntlet of requests, cordialities, and pastoral care where in a matter of condensed minutes nearly everyone wants a piece of you.  Across these moments I struggle to keep track of all of the information, making mental notes, hoping against hope that I won’t lose the important stuff amidst the sea of bodies and sounds and breaths.  And then, just as suddenly, one of our congregants with special needs descends upon me, with increased intensity and concern.  She has seen something on the news that is bringing her to tears; he becomes angry as he struggles to remember what he just said to me; she can see nothing but darkness through the thick depression that plagues her.

I do not mean to paint disability here as unilateral or un-diverse, but many of the people in our congregation with special needs where their hearts on their sleeves.  They plough into me, a person who’s a bit sensitive to touch, with eager, forceful hugs.  They launch into detailed descriptions and litanies–lists of weekly activities without warrant and ad nauseum.  They foist their feelings upon me in thrusts of emotion, seemingly without warning or reason.

And in so doing, they are deeply needy.

Their bare, disruptive, palpable need right there in the midst of more palatably, socially-aware displays of contained emotion, less barrier-breaking touch, and less audacious requests clashes with my own sensibilities.  It’s too much, I think to myself, this business of trying to minister to folks with special needs alongside more “neurotypical “folks, which is the dance in which our church has become messily entangled over the past few years.  I can’t help but think about the imbalance special needs present not just during Sunday morning but within the life of a church–how I, as a pastor, can’t shirk the sense that in attending to these needy folks other more subtle needs may be lost.  In trying to provide classes and worship and counsel that is suitable for all modes of learning, my colleague in ministry, church leaders, and I may be spreading ourselves thin, engaged in some cruel, impossible quest to meet needs that are unreasonable and insatiable along others that are more comprehensible and predictable.

Sainte Chapelle
Stained glass at Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But in pondering neediness I am reminded of the poor, elderly foster mothers whom I met in China and the way their vulnerability rocked and assaulted the sensibilities of the orphanage monitors.  Such women, many of whom had been abandoned by their own biological children, so desperately relied upon and needed their orphaned, disabled children to recreate life-giving family bonds in contemporary China.  In their need, they reminded middle-aged orphanage monitors of their own failures to care for their aging parents or their neglect of their only children.  They reminded these orphanage monitors, powerfully, uncomfortably, and disruptively of their own human and yet deeply repressed and seemingly inappropriate needs for love, compassion, and care.

And here I do mean to compare the need of these foster mothers to the need of folks with disabilities and to the needs we all have as human beings.  I am reminded of Jesus’s ministry to deeply needy people–to the perceived inconvenience of the poor, disorderly women, especially those pouring lavish ointments over his head and touching the hem of his garment.  I am reminded of the metaphors so often associated with need and disability–the unclean, the contaminators, the sinful–and I am aghast that in erecting divisions between people with disabilities and myself, I find that I am the one who is fragile, human, and sinful.  I am suddenly aware that the crush of bodies on Sunday morning and these raw emotions, hugs, and pressing needs that seem so inconvenient and disruptive are both deeply human and deeply holy.

And I begin to see that ministry and life (for in Jesus’s life), were not and are not about balance or containment or arbitration, because then life becomes about division.  Then I am led to believe that some people are needy while I am not or that need isn’t so fundamentally human, that it’s not part and parcel of Jesus’s incarnation and ministry.  So I try and I struggle and I pray to let go of my economist tendencies and submit to such a mysterious ministry of mercy and care and love.  I try not to mediate the crush; I try just to pay attention.  

But I am also reminded that it’s not just paying attention, and how painfully aware I become in these moments of my own need–my need for self-acceptance, other’s acceptance–and my need for Jesus.  And I become thankful that there are some in our midst who aren’t necessarily having such divisive thoughts or harboring such divisions, some who are so deeply, honestly, beautifully needy.  I become happily convinced that “we” have gone about this ministry all wrong, for “we” have so much to learn.  I become convinced, so richly and powerfully as I do over and over because of God’s ministry to us, that it is not I who is ministering but it is I who am being ministered to.

Crucifix
Crucifix in Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.
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On unconditional love

Since Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about unconditional love.  

Do you have someone in your life who loves you unconditionally, for whom you could do no wrong, or even if you did, every wrong would be and is forgivable?  Do you have someone who knows all your faults and flaws and seems to love you the more for them?  Do you know someone whose love for you is constant, not based on what you do or what you achieve, but comes from a seemingly endless and otherworldly source?

If so, how do you respond to such love?

As I continued to ponder unconditional love, it occurred to me that there seems to be but one human response to it, which is fear.  When you discover that someone loves you unconditionally, you also discover that such love cannot be earned, achieved, or repaid, and it’s a scary feeling to find  yourself forever indebted to another.  That fear can turn toward denial and betrayal as we try to run as far away from such love as we can, in order that we can establish our own independence and find a life free from obligation or humility.

It’s what happened to Judas, Pilate, even to Peter.

Spring on the Princeton University campus.
Spring on the Princeton University campus.

But if we recognize our own humanity, our own futility, and instead of running, revel in the awe and wonder that such love exists, and turn to acceptance as opposed to denial, the only response to such love is praise.

We are not like the women at the tomb that morning who did not know that he had arisen and yet, faithfully returned.  We are children of the promise, filled with the knowledge that his command to love one another at that fateful last supper would be fulfilled by his ultimate act of unconditional love on the cross.  

We love because He first loved us.  May we spend our lives pondering not only that love, but how to serve Him with a life full of praise.

Crumbs, interference, and sincerity

One of the things that comes to mind in reverse cultural shock, or in this life of faith, especially for me, is a struggle for sincerity.

I’ve mentioned that cultural shock for me, thus far, has been marked by a listlessness, a restlessness, a disturbing but incoherent ‘feeling out of sorts.’  And that makes sense when you consider that the gifts and the fruits of living life in another country, in another culture, and learning to love those who are different from you are not necessarily all that useful or relevant to what’s familiar.

Stunning rice terrace landscape in Guangxi.

But I also know that coming to terms with that restlessness, that incoherence, involves acceptance that things won’t be perfect and an openness to experiences and moments that may seem totally unfamiliar on the outside but smack of transcendence and truth when I simply let them be.

For instance, in my advisor’s office this past week when I began to tear up over the people and the places and the life I miss in China, she echoed my emotions and her own eyes welled as she recalled her time in India and her research.  “Those were some of the happiest, best moments of my life, even as it was so hard,” she said, “or just holding someone’s hand, seeing them smile back at me so purely brought so much joy.”

I’m thankful for this woman in my life who hasn’t been afraid to treat me like a real, whole person, and interfere in my life a little bit.  Perhaps we Americans, in our busyness and our importance and our struggles, often do this work of insulating ourselves, when all we really want is for people to interfere.  

The foster mothers I studied in China interfered in my life in ways I could have hardly imagined: they thrust their snotty-nosed children into my arms because they didn’t have enough hands to boil rice, shoo away the chickens, and shuck corn at once.  They called me with requests I couldn’t fulfill, they asked me to adopt their kids, they held my hands and cried on my shoulders, and they pleaded with me to teach their children English.

And somewhere in the midst of that life I made in China, it started to feel right and good to be needed, to be imposed upon, to be a part of someone else’s life.

This morning, in downtown Princeton, I heard a sermon on the Syro-phonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30) and the varied scholarly efforts to justify Jesus’s brusqueness toward her.  And then the pastor suggested that as Mark seems to intend, we make the focal point of the story not Jesus, but this woman, to whom the crumbs for the dogs would suffice.  And the pastor asked us whether we can live that promise, that just a morsel of the gospel will produce life-changing power.

A foster mom and her daughter in Guangxi.

And I couldn’t help but think of these women in China, who truly live their lives beneath the table, scrounging for crumbs, and yet to them, these children, abandoned, disabled, and broken as they are, are not just enough, or will suffice, but to them, these children are priceless.  And I think it is because of them, I can live with bold conviction that there is redemption for us all, and that God’s goodness is not just for a few.

This learning to live sincerely though, in a new place, will take time.  Because these women have humbled me, interfered in my life, and I am changed because of them.  They have made me believe that in such crumbs, lies abundant life, and God’s claim on that life, when it comes to mine, couldn’t be stronger than in this moment.  

And yet, I’m learning, the hardest part, ironically, is that living a life that honors what those foster mothers have taught me, that rings sincere, seems to involve letting others interfere in my life in this new place.

Families in a church in Yunnan province. Photos by Evan Schneider.

And so I take a deep breath, let my eyes water, and gasping through prayers in my heart, I extend my hand to a few people on the way out of church, all the while thinking of those foster moms, those kids, and somehow feeling strangely whole like I did in my professor’s office that afternoon, and I expectantly pray for God to make me whole over (and over) again.

Abide in me…

I sat in silence last night for the first time in far too long.

My practice of Centering Prayer has been so gratifying in China, especially in a bustling city teetering on 7 million or so, I crave silent time with God, and yet, I am so distracted by the day’s tasks, and I make excuses to avoid meeting God just when I need God most. This evening the meditation I read was on Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha and this business of being distracted, or rather, choosing to be distracted.

Centering Prayer itself is an exercise in releasing ourselves from the things that distract us everyday (for me, it is often the thought that I need to start my work immediately in the morning, so therefore, I don’t have time to pray; or, it might be the thought that my Chinese is inadequate, and therefore so am I and all the plans God has for me here; or, simply, the thought that is more pressing than the words coming out of my husband’s mouth), and repeating a prayer word to remind us of God’s presence and our intention to dwell within that presence as our mind inevitably wanders (as mine just did in the above parenthetical!).

For years my prayer word has been grasp, and the word has held great meaning and a powerful reminder for me that just as I am grasping for God, God is always, ever intently grasping after me. Since I arrived in China, though, I have felt compelled to discover a new prayer word, which is no small task, given that I have literally lived and breathed the previous one for over six years.

However, the word, abide, has gently, but firmly marked my silent prayers here in China. And tonight as I was imagining myself at the feet of Jesus, looking into his eyes and straining to hear what he has to say to me, alongside Mary and Martha, I stumbled upon two things.

One is the sense in which distraction is really a choice, and not a force to which we are passively and powerfully subjected.

Martha feels trapped by the tasks which she finds a great distraction from Jesus, but I think Jesus himself implies that distraction is a choice, when he says of her sister, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I recently read an article in which a brilliant professor who is busy with multi-million dollar grants and projects had the revelation through spending about a week in nature away from computers, text messages, and the like, that he could, indeed, stand to become a better listener.

And I hear God saying to me that I can choose to be distracted and let my life pass me by, or I can choose the best thing, the only thing, which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I can choose to listen to others, and I can choose to be fully committed and fully attuned to things that really matter.

The second revelation was to do with this prayer word abide.

It occurred to me this evening that there is nothing modern about the word abide, because it harbors no sense of time, contemporaneity, or measurement, but a sense of longevity, eternity, and perpetuity. The phrase I often repeat as I pray and process the distractions in silence is, “abide in me, as I abide in you,” (John 15:4), and tonight as I repeated it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time.

I realized in my spirit that abiding is the opposite of distraction: abiding is the experience of dwelling with one another, of being content, of listening and relishing silent presence. I was sitting with my knees propped under my chin as I began to pray, and for the first time that day I noticed the tightness in my shoulders, but as I repeated my prayer word, dwelling, abiding at Jesus’ feet, far away from the distractions, the kitchen where I had previously been alongside Martha, clamoring away, I not only felt the tightness dissipate, but I felt almost as if there was a hand upon my back supporting me, and I allowed myself to lean back into it, resting, abiding, and relishing God’s presence.

Thankfully, this choice to abide, to choose against the distractions of this world, and to choose ‘the better part, the only thing’ comes also with God’s promise to support us, to hold us up as we go on living, and that can ‘never be taken away from us.’