Tag Archives: transformation

Why the Church Needs People with Disabilities

 

science-tv-dr-who-daleks-cartoons-punch-magazine-birkett-1981-08-05-235
This is the cartoon on the front of my students’ syllabus!

Over the past five years or so, this blog has taken a massive shift in trajectory toward exploring the lives, needs, and gifts of people with disabilities, in China, in our local church, and through my own experience with my daughter.  (In fact, I’m realizing how much I need a new tab for disability on here!  Coming soon…)

What I’ve found as I’ve only just begun to embrace this collision of my anthropological, theological, and spiritual life is that our theologies, when it comes to understanding disability, are quite limited.  They’re often not broad enough to consider the gifts of the Spirit people with disabilities possess, because they’re caught up in a rhetoric of healing, medicine, suffering, or overcoming.  Or they’re plagued by an anthropology that makes disability some surface form of neoliberalist inclusion rather than a deep paradigm shift for us all in what diversity and its value really confers.

We human beings are searching for theologies of disability that ring true when it comes to the light, challenge, and wisdom people with disabilities bring to life–theologies that confront our hollow concepts of both diversity and God.  But we need to learn and hone and witness to these theologies through practice rather than mere intellectualism, recognizing the transformative experience of life lived with other and with God.

I’m excited about being part of a recent series on Youth Ministry and Disability organized through The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary because the authors are making the case that the Church needs people with disabilities rather than the another way around!  I think this is a really exciting moment for the theology of disability, and I hope you will read all the posts and leave your comments and continue the conversation.  I’m including mine below, but please do swing by this one from my colleague, Joel Estes, and one of the great theologians of disability, John Swinton, among others!

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On Being Transformed

“You never know. Maybe she will get up and walk. Maybe she will be able to eat and talk like other kids…maybe someday she will be normal.” 

I have often heard these well-meaning words from friends, colleagues, and church folk about my daughter, Lucia, who was born with a progressive genetic disease of the brain. From the time she was just a couple months old, from her seizures, to her feeding tubes, and onto her diagnosis, our family has been confronted with the idea that Lucia is abnormal. But perhaps especially because she’s our first child and we know no differently, or perhaps because my husband and I have learned so much from her, I bristle at statements that suggest life would be better for us or Lucia if she would conform a bit more to the standards we hold for other kids. As a person of faith, I often wonder what God would have to say about our ideas of normal and how God might use children and youth like Lucia to fight against a culture that (perhaps un-self-consciously) worships ability and regards disability as a problem.

Keep Reading at The Institute for Youth Ministry…

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Finding your discomfort

Yesterday as I drove to church I heard the news that a gunman had opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando; it was a beautiful, breezy morning here in New Jersey, and on our way into worship we joked that it was the kind of weather we might find in the Florida Keys.

The sermon this Sunday was on Genesis 12, the call of Abram, and my colleague invited us to see how Abram builds altars along his journey to an unknown land, and to stop and notice what God is doing and what God has done with our lives.  We made a list of the adjectives that come to mind when we think of our own church community, recognizing, as she said, that we were different last year and that we would be different a year from now.

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Camels and Cairo on the horizon.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But I couldn’t help being drawn, as she spoke, to a slightly different message.

As she remarked that Abram was near 75 years old when the Lord asked him to up and move to an unknown land, and that he didn’t know where he was going, I was struck, as I have been so many times before, by how being Christian does not have anything to do with being comfortable.  Flipping back through the pages of Genesis to the flood just a few chapters before or forward to the epic journey in the wilderness in Exodus, we find a God whose challenges far exceed his comforts.

What I find so powerful about this message is that while God is always instructing us to get up, to go, to go do something, or greet someone, or explore something, God does promise to go with us.  God often promises to go before us, but it’s pretty clear from scripture that we can’t experience the grace and the goodness of God just on our couches.

I think this message was so poignant to me, because I have been someone who has traveled to faraway lands many times in my life, and I’ve often associated my purpose or calling in ministry with that type of journey.  But for those of you who have been reading my blog, these past few years since we returned from China certainly smack of a more stationary season, and I’m not sure I realized until yesterday how important it is to find our wilderness even if we’re close to home.  In Abram’s story and the countless other narratives of transformation in the Bible, I see God reminding us that while some journeys take place closer to home, all journeys toward God involve some discomfort, some wilderness, and a lot of disruption.

comfort-zone

So my question to you (and my question to myself) this morning is where is God leading you, disrupting you, pushing you, and prodding you?  Where, like Abram, is your unknown land, the journey that will be long, involving pit stops and altars, and probably fear and regret?  But where will you go, not because you want to and not because it’s fitting, but because God is leading you there, and you want to be transformed?

When I turned on the radio after church, there was special programming from NPR about the shooting confirming that over 50 had died and now this is the worst shooting in our sordid national history.  On social media, my peers cried out for answers, mourned in solidarity, and wondered how things might ever change.  This morning, I’m rather certain that things won’t change swiftly, comfortably, or easily for any of us, but that real change, as it does in the Bible, will require uneasy, disruptive, totalizing transformation, that our country has clearly resisted since my childhood.

I pray desperately that we as people of faith may not just sit on our couches any longer but leap toward our zones of discomfort, following God and not our complacency, seeking disruptive love rather than cheap and easy respite–we can’t wall ourselves off from parts of our country or parts of our history that are dark.  We need to go toward them, scrutinize them, and even embrace them, in order to change.  

These were the words from a prayer in our bulletin this weekend:

 

Turn over the tables in our hearts, minds, and churches, and make room for your grace to dwell.  We pray in the name of the One who disrupts the world with love, Jesus the Christ.

Amen.

What God Did

A few weeks ago I sat in the pews as my colleague and senior pastor led the prayers of the people, and I lifted one for Lucia’s upcoming surgery.  My voice wavering, I asked for prayers not just for the doctors, for health, and for our little girl, but for my husband and for me.  I explained that in facing another surgery that could have mixed results, I’d grown a bit weary and leery, and my faith was faltering.  It’s so hard as a parent to make decisions for your child that involve both risk and reward.  Lucia was doing so well, and I wondered whether another surgery was the most faithful decision.  Could the congregation be my faith, could they lift prayers for us even as we were feeling weak? I wondered aloud.

Mind you, I’m one of the pastors of this church, and I wasn’t sure how prayers for faith from one of the spiritual leaders in their midst would be received.  But not a person came up to me that Sunday scolding me for my weakness, my fears, or my lack of faith.  Instead, I remember lots of assurances that prayers would be lifted, many looks of concern on their faces as I spoke my prayer, and many knowing, earnest nods as I let them know that even for a pastor, sometimes faith is hard to come by.

PTS Snow
Fresh snowfall on the Princeton Seminary campus.  All photos are mine.

Several weeks have passed, and Lucia’s surgery has not only brought her incredible comfort from reflux, but she is now feeding into her stomach (instead of her small intestine), an intervention that seems to bring her the satisfaction of feeling full and the comfort and freedom of having natural breaks from feeding throughout the day.  However, it is hard to describe the extent of the intangible transformation for her and for us: it feels as if there’s a part of her spirit that has been set free, and we are all growing closer, as she’s more alert, communicative, and joyful.

As I reflect on the miraculous results of this surgery and this transformation, I am left with no other explanation than that God did that.  This summer I felt that Lucia’s intestinal feeding tube had provided her unprecedented comfort, happiness, and tranquility, but these past few weeks, a transformed Lucia has smiled up at us, and I am in awe and so deeply grateful.

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Blue skies and the grad tower peek through the snowfall.  

But God didn’t just surprise us by transforming Lucia; rather such transformation is apparent in us as parents because of the faithful who love Lucia for who she has been, will be, and who she is.  I’m writing this today because it’s so important to talk about what God has done and what God can do even when we struggle to believe, how God’s faithfulness transcends our wildest imagination.  And I believe that those people in the pews who love Lucia so unconditionally are part and parcel of who I know God to be.  What a gift it is to be part of a community of faith who accept me for my weaknesses, who pray for my child, and who do these things not because they expect results or know what’s in store, but because they desire to trust God–they are the faithful.

And I am so grateful that in faith, we don’t have to go it alone–that God’s transformation happens through people, through prayer, and in us.  I am so grateful that after all these years God is still full of surprises and one of those is that even when you falter, there’s faith enough for the least of these, for the faithless, the weary and the leery.  In a world which doesn’t always recognize Lucia as fearfully and wonderfully made, it’s kind of miraculous that I’m surrounded by people who actually keep reminding me of that.

And the fact that God did all that–well, these days my faith runneth over!  And you can borrow it when you need it someday, I’m deliriously humbled and happy to owe you all a prayer or two.  Perhaps that how faith works: we owe it all to God and to one another, but in being bound to one another, we are set free.

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One of those sweet smiles that makes the world stop!

 

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Our church is quirky and I love it.

It’s a place where people show up late, they won’t stop greeting each other during the passing of the peace even when the pastor’s screaming to get their attention, and just about anything goes.

We also do cool things in the liturgy.  Our prayers of confession aren’t staid and silent, but often full of passion and hope.  This Sunday, as we read the following words, I realized something:

In this place of confession we are shaped by hope:

In our brokenness, we know your blessing.

In our pain, we touch your promise.

In our longing, we discover your love.

You are making things new in our lives and this world.

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I realized that God’s love is transforming, because God makes weakness holy.  God doesn’t just give meaning to our suffering, but God enters into it and makes something new from the residue of despair, longing, and pain.

That’s why we Christians are people who live, especially in this season, with deep hope.  We know that it is not up to us to change the world or its brokenness, but that God, despite appearances, is already redeeming all this messed up humanity and making things new.

It’s really hard for me to trust that on these dark days of injustice, but I imagine it was equally hard for the shepherds and the wise men and the Jews.  This season I’m asking God to give me eschatological vision: to believe that in great longing, there is great love, that in pain, there is promise, and that in brokenness, we will know blessing.

This week I have been struck by how deliciously novel Advent feels, despite it being the 33rd year I’ve celebrated it, and the 2014th year the world has done so.  I take this as evidence that 2014 years later, God is, indeed, doing a new thing.  We may not perceive it, we may not see it, but I’m praying that God will help me to believe, and to trust that our weaknesses will be made holy once again.

Amen.

There are typos in my dissertation

When I finished typing the last few words I set aside my dissertation for about a week.

I was afraid to read it, because I knew there would be typos amidst that sea of words.  It’s just impossible, not matter how many proofreaders, no matter how much time spent, to produce something perfect.  And while I know that, I didn’t want to experience the pang of how those mistakes would mar the crisp, white pages.  I wanted to believe that there was some way that all my hard work would pay off with perfection.

Like I said, that lasted about a week, and then I had to face reality.  I read through it, in preparation for my dissertation defense, and there were many typos.

And it was still okay.

One of my last dissertating sessions.  My photo.
One of my last dissertating sessions. My photo.

In fact, the typos reminded me that I’m not in pursuit of something perfect, but something human, something meaningful.  What’s more, I could see beyond the typos to those people in China who changed my life.  As I read, I was humbled to see and know that despite the congratulations that would be heaped on me and only me after the defense, this dissertation, was truly the work of many hands.  The typos reminded me that despite the perfection that’s so idolized in academic fields, we academics are imperfect people who rely heavily on the minds, kindness, and generosity of others to produce our knowledge.

There were moments where the typos made me wonder whether I had any business defending a dissertation toward a Ph.D., but I’ve also realized that it’s great to recognize that while you have learned a lot, you still have much more to learn.  It’s not so bad to see typos and be humbled and recognize that you’d rather be transformed and human and vulnerable than perfect and magnificent and independent.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful, in all circumstances, for typos, for friends, for family, for foster families in China, for dissertations, for new journeys, for imperfection, for growth, for love, for peace, and for God.

What about you?

Where is the joy?

I’m nearing the end of my Lenten devotional, Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, so besides needing another short book to fill the rest of April (any suggestions, guys?), I’m also finally starting to discover the meaning behind the curious title.

As Foster writes, “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives.  God brings about the transformation of our lives through the Disciplines, and we will not know genuine joy until there is transforming work within us…Celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed” (Foster 193).

Plymouth, MA.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Plymouth, MA. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Foster describes how we can’t take a shortcut to experiencing and exhibiting joy, but we can certainly experience joy through seeking God in prayer, confession, service, and worship, and it is God who is the source of this great gift.

That last line, “celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed,” reminds me of a reflection I read this morning from Micha Boyett where she discusses the ordinary tasks of readying her two boys for school alongside the rather extraordinary miracle that Jesus does by turning water into wine.  Boyett’s pastor described the miracle as Jesus “replacing the joy,” and then points to our own lives, saying, “Look where you’re frantic and that’s probably the place where you’re trying to find joy.”

But the challenge is that finding joy, requires little of us and so much of Jesus, that we often spend the better part of our days scouring and scrubbing only to miss the promise of the dirt, the simplicity, the ordinary holiness of our bent up, misshapen lives.

Foster goes onto discuss a spirit of carefree celebration where we rely completely on God, and experience radical joy through our trust in God’s greatness rather than ourselves.  I look at the last few weeks and this controversy over World Vision’s decision and retraction for hiring gay staff in committed relationships, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look around me at churches working arduously and desperately to spawn last ditch ministries to save themselves, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look at each of us going about our busy lives, failing to truly see those in front of us, to listen, to love, and to rely on God and one another, and I don’t see strength or independence or carefree celebration, but fear and greed and angst.

I certainly don’t see joy.

The Sonoran Desert.  Tucson, Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The Sonoran Desert. Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The Church in America is in need of God’s joyful transformation.  We need less of us and more of God, less of our will and more of God’s grace and love and mercy.  And it’s only by way of the cross, that we are found by grace, and the we experience such true, unadulterated joy.

We don’t often think of Lent and the journey to the cross as a journey toward joy.  We often place the story of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus’ death on the cross in two completely different literary categories, but what if we are called to live out the whole of our faith as ordinary, yet joyful people?  What if the transformation God enacts on the cross and in each one of us amounts to replacing the joy of humanity, and we’ve been missing something as we try so hard to just “get things right?”

We need look no further than our ordinary lives to answer the question, “where is the joy?”, and yet we struggle against what God has done for us.  We need look no further than the cup of wine to remind us of both Jesus’ holy sacrifice and great joyous celebration.  Let us accept the joyous transformation that Jesus brings to our lives, and let us live with great reliance on God, great grace for one another, and above all, great joy.

A photo so full of joy.  Bridal party at my friend's wedding on Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A photo so full of joy. Bridal party at my friend’s wedding on Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Amen.

 

 

Transform Me

Looking back at my sermon the other day got me pondering transformation and God’s transforming power in our lives. I’ve also, like many of you, have recently faced the complexity of being a Christian in today’s world. Some of my friends have blogged really poignantly about how we as Christians are called uniquely, for instance, to react to the death of Osama bin laden, and how we can show light to others in a powerful, genuine way.

But when I turned to Romans this afternoon, I was refreshed to find that “the marks of a true Christian,” while exceedingly difficult to live out, are remarkably clean and clear cut. In short, the transformation Christ enacts within us should be clearly exhibited in our daily lives:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21

And yet, the marks of that transformation are rather unexpected, totally countercultural, and have a lot more to do with blessing those who persecute us, patiently trusting in God’s slow work despite suffering, rejoicing and weeping with those in need, hanging out with the lowly, and choosing peace, nonviolence, and love above all else. To me, when the world looks at America and sees us rejoicing in the death of those who persecute us, we are not showing the truth of this transformation. We need to go further, we need to go beyond our first reaction, what is comfortable for us, as Americans, and become Christians first, the kind who bless their enemy rather than curse them.

This is hard stuff.

And so today I pray, as I must everyday, God, truly transform me, from the person I am, to the person you have called me to be. Make your transformation complete. Make your light show in me, and help me to humbly live because you live in me.