welcome

The Dichotomy of Function Hides a Even More

 

By J.C. Mitchell

Years ago I remember sitting around a fondue pot with my friend Dick and many others.  Dick was at that time an octogenarian, and I was in my late twenties, and around the table were people of all ages in between.  One person observed how wise it was that Dick had friends of all ages and it was mostly through church he developed these relationships.  Dick had one rule: the word “old” and “young” were not allowed.  Older and younger were unnecessary, as age is relative.  This was a great lesson I have internalized.  Dick also mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth in a gallon container so Manhattans were easily at hand, but alas I do not have the energy to handle a Manhattan nightly, so I keep my vermouth and bourbon in their respective bottles in my cabinet.


So in the autism world you have heard the dichotomy of functionality.  Sometimes one is referred to as “High-functioning” and others as “low-functioning.”   It may seem descriptive but it is an arbitrary dichotomy that really does not say anything about the individual.  Using the illustration of age, one may call someone old based on their age, their fashion, their attitude, their appearance, or, based on the perception of the one saying the word, old.  This is the same with functionality, and it says nothing about a person with autism.


I must confess, having a son that barely communicates verbally, is far behind academically and socially  and is in diapers, I have desired to use the term “low-functioning” to make it clear what we are dealing with, but I remember my friend’s words about old and young, so I translated it to “lower-functioning” and “higher-functioning.”  But upon reflection this does not translate in the same way as age, for when you use these terms even as a descriptive it is only for those with the developmental delay and not for all people.  Thus even using “higher” or “lower” creates this artificial dichotomy just as much, and I was quite aware of it, but alas whenever talking to people about my son outside of the autism world (yes we have culture and it is just as nasty and nice as any other culture), I feel forced to use these overly simplified terms to help the person I was talking to understand as they felt comfortable.  


I knew it was a problem but until I saw a friend’s Facebook post that read, “Every time you say ‘High Functioning Autism,; I die a little inside,” I realized I had been badgered by the ableist mindset to use their terms, and even with my tweaking to say it more relatively I had been perpetuating the false dichotomy that is part of anti-autism mindset of our culture.  My friend makes it clear it is not a compliment nor a description that has any real meaning.  The only possible meaning is that one with autism who is given the descriptive high or low is not a normal person who simply proves how they function through other means.  The real dichotomy this functional classification is people who are autistic and those that are not, with an assumption those who are not are the most functional.

 
If we are going to say we welcome everyone in our churches (or anywhere) no matter their ability, let us not use language that assumes autism to be less a person.  And like me, let us learn from those that understand this dichotomy do have the voice to teach us, and not assume we understand from our biases. 

 

tip of the iceberg

tip of the iceberg

Ten Things You Should Know To Welcome People of All Abilities to Church

By J.C. Mitchell

1.    If you have had one or even a few people with special needs in your ministry, this does not mean you know how to welcome all.  Very often when I tell a pastor about my ministry at Open Gathering they start telling me their one success story (which I do enjoy learning from), but they do not seem to understand there is more to do to welcome all.  This is not unlike someone saying there is no more racism because Obama was elected president.

2.    Accommodation is important, but it is not in and of itself welcome.  Having a ramp at the back door may be a financial reality, but if the main entrance is accessible to all that is much more welcoming.  

3.    Having a cry room is great for babies, but children that are old enough to start learning to sit in the sanctuary may make noise. Suggesting that they should go to the cry room is inappropriate.  Yes, some parents would rather go to the cry room, even with a kindergartner or older child, but it should be their choice.  Many children with autism, for example, need to learn by doing the same thing, so going to the cry room the first time will become the way the child goes to church, creating an extra and unnecessary step in learning.

4.    Using person first language should be the assumed way of talking about a person with disabilities. (For more information check out Arc's Website)  Yes, there are some that use their different ability as a proud identifier, and if they desire to use a descriptive such as “aspie” of course use that when referring to them specifically, but one’s name is still preferred.  This is less about offending one with a different ability, but to help those to see the individual and not the diagnosis. 

5.    Do not diagnose.  You may be obsessive and compulsive, but that does not mean you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (if you suspect you do, you should get help as well as a diagnosis).  This goes with many diagnoses and when a person hears others being labeled incorrectly, you belittle those that actually live with that diagnosis.

6.    Avoid the word “struggles. “ Unless you say struggles as a descriptive of the way our culture accepts and includes people with different abilities.  

7.    Do know that life is harder, more expensive, lonely, and stressful for families with someone with special needs in the family.

8.    Never assume, as you know what that spells.  Thus keep this question in your pocket, “how can I help you?” rather than “do you want me to show you the cry room” or “Don’t you think your child may be happier to wait in the fellowship hall until Sunday School” (Most kids would be).

9.    Talk about this welcome openly and be open to places you fail.  It may be not possible to include every child in a program like VBS, but work with the parents to include all children.  Generally if you tell me, “Your son is welcome and we will figure it out” after I tell you he has a disability, I am much more suspicious than the church that asks specific questions with a desire to make it work, for the latter knows it is hard work.

10.    When a parent tells you their child has a disability or a diagnosis, refrain from saying, “That’s OK” or “I am Sorry.”  The latter to me is less offensive for it is honest, but the former is simply annoying, for who are you to tell me if it is OK or not?  I realize you mean well, but to say, “thank you for sharing” or bonus “thank you for sharing, and how best can I interact (or help) your child and/or you?” is ideal.  Often the reason we feel compelled to share with you that our child has a special need (or if one self-advocating) is that we think you should know, and we already know it is OK and at the same time awfully difficult.  So if you can go beyond the pleasantries, you will be much more welcoming.

11.    Bonus: Know that the work to welcome all will never be completed, and there is no program or book that will give you all the answers, but I do suggest these three books to develop a theology of inclusion:  

Vulnerable Communion by Thomas Reynolds

The Bible, Disabilty and the Church, by Amos Yong

The Disabled God, by Nancy Eiesland

 

Theology of Disability Brings Down the Roof

By J.C. Mitchell

I was on a dinner cruise with other Seattle area clergy.  Don’t ask me how it is funded or why, but it is a fun once a year event for the Baptist ministers in the area, and I am married to one of them.  Sure enough, I am often asked what I do, and I explain my passion of including everyone in the church no matter their ability.  That at Open Gathering we truly live out the hard welcome.

I will inevitably say that I am interested in the theology of disability, and I did so that night on the boat, and one pastor repeated it as if he never heard the term before.  I began to think of how do I answer the question of what is theology of disability.  I would suggest reading Nancy Eiesland, Amos Yong, and Thomas Reynolds to start with, along with many others, but the best place to start is with the Rabbi we call Jesus.

According to Mark 2, he was preaching and teaching in a home.  It was crowded and others brought a man on a mat who had been paralyzed.  Four of them carried him, and the scripture suggests there are more, but this group of faithful people with their friend who has a disability could not enter the home.  Please note that when Jesus told him to take up his mat later, there is no issue in vacating the house.  However, those that turned around and saw the man being carried by his friends just turned back to the lesson.  I even imagine the ones carrying their friend approached a window after the door, until one had the bright idea to climb on the roof and illegally break through the roof, to lower their friend.

Then, and even today, disabilities have been seen and interpreted as a result of sin.  It was clear that even the disciples struggled with this as they had to ask Jesus, according to John 9, about another man with a disability, “who sinned this man or his parents?” We know Jesus made it clear that his blindness was not a result of sin.  However, these questions still pop up in my reality: “What did I do to deserve cancer?”  “What did I do….?”  They may drop the word sin, but they are clinging to that theology.

So now the attention is on this man and his friends.  These friends did not believe the idea that just because their friend had ambulatory issues he should be ostracized and kept from accessing community.  They were so bold they even committed a civil disobedient act (to the point of property destruction) to create access and include everyone no matter what.

And Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5b).

How many have, historically and even today, read that as if it said, “Son I forgive your sins?”  This question assumes the idea that people with disabilities are being punished and are not whole people.  But Jesus states the observation he knows so well and saw in his friends.  He saw their faith, not in some sort of mystical magical way, but in their actions of being in community. 

There were no sins for Jesus to forgive, but he had a question for the Pharisees in the room, a question for all of us.  Which is easier, to make people not have disabilities, or to change our idea of sin?  This question is well asked by Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey, in his March 6, 2013 sermon "The WE in ME" (Mark 2:1-7)

Which is easier?  To cure the people with disability and woundedness in your midst, to just make them better?  Or to transform your inaccessible, prejudiced, limiting, stigmatizing theologies and practices.  Which is easier to do?  That’s the question.

And that is the answer to the question asked of me as well: the theology of disability is about changing our lens to include all children of God no matter their ability, or any other form of division, for God sees community and love to be our work on earth as it is in heaven. 



Wandering and Welcome

By Rev. Mindi

It had only been ten minutes at the most, maybe fifteen since I last saw him. I had looked outside the window as I was finishing cleaning the kitchen and had seen him playing in the yard. Then I had sat down at the table and I swore I could still hear him just a few minutes ago.  Then JC came upstairs and asked, “Where’s AJ?” I looked outside and couldn’t see him. “He must have gone around the corner of the house,” I replied, but I wasn’t worried. While there was no fence on that side, there was a lot of tall brush that would be hard to get through. Except that volunteers from the church had just come to do landscaping that day and had cut most of the brush down.

AJ was not there. We started calling his name as JC went over the side of the brush and into the front. I checked all through the yard and then went inside. Maybe he had come in while I was distracted? I looked through the entire house, then went downstairs and into the garage. No sound, no sight of him.  I came back upstairs and out the sliding door. Nothing.  I called over to our church volunteers and asked if they had seen him, and they had not. Then I pleaded with them to help us look, as I saw my husband begin to run down the side street in front of the house.  They seemed a little baffled that we were so frantic, as they were certain he couldn't have gone far. I grabbed my phone and called 911 to report that my son was missing.

While on the phone, I searched the entire house again as the operator asked me to check under all the beds and closets.  The operator stayed on the phone with me until an officer pulled up in front. I shared the picture of my son with the officer and a description of what he was wearing. Now some neighbors walking on the street heard us and offered to help search for our son. I had been fairly calm, just certain he was around the corner until I realized that ten, maybe fifteen more minutes had now passed.  The officer radioed the description of our son and that he was non-communicative.  And just as a second officer pulled up, JC walked up the street, carrying our shoeless boy.

The officer was calm and happy for us, and told us we did the right thing. So many children with autism wander and many are drawn to water (and our son does love to play in water if he can find it), especially ponds, steams, and swimming pools. My husband had found AJ just down the street playing in the backyard of a stranger’s house. JC would not have seen him had AJ not just stepped off the back porch for a moment and gone back up the neighbor’s steps. AJ had a scrape on his knee, probably from falling while jumping over the side of the yard onto the concrete, and since he could not get back up the way he came, had probably just wandered down and across our busy main street by our home into another backyard. He was not worried, nor was he crying, nor was he afraid. It was just another yard.

It was almost six months later when I connected our story of losing AJ for an afternoon to another, familiar story. Imagine a mother and father traveling with their extended family and neighbors, doing something they have done every year around the holidays.  They know their son is a bit different, but he’s still a kid just like other kids.  They are on the return trip home and it hasn’t been that long—only a day’s journey, when they realize they can’t remember the last time they saw him. Didn’t we see him at lunch? Or was that breakfast? Wasn’t he with his cousin? Or was he with the other cousin? The parents begin to be worried, and start looking among all their families and friends and realize their son is not with them. They head back to the city and search for him. The news starts to spread among their friends in the city and people are out looking for their little boy, but no one can find him. Another day passes, then two, then three. Then finally, they go into the temple and there he is, sitting on the ground with the teachers, listening and asking questions. It was just another day. He wasn’t worried, nor was he crying, nor was he afraid. Instead, he asks his parents, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Sometimes we imagine that Joseph and Mary must have been angry and upset in this moment. I wonder if they were just so glad they found him. As you might understand, this story resonates with me and other parents of children with autism. While it is true all children have a natural curiosity and may wander a bit, children with autism often do not understand boundaries and safety. They do not understand that going someplace that is unknown may not be safe, because what they have known is safe. They may not look back for a parent or guardian to be close by. And they may not know that they need to ask for help, nor be able to communicate that need effectively to others.

April is Autism Awareness Month and today, April 2nd, is World Autism Day. The numbers are staggering: here in the United States, the CDC just raised the rate to 1 out of 68 children, and 1 out of 45 boys are diagnosed with autism. We do not know exactly why the rates are increasing nor why is it so prevalent in boys but there are girls also diagnosed with autism.

There is probably someone in your church who has a friend with autism, or a grandchild with autism, or they themselves may have autism. We as the church generally have not done a great job of including and welcoming those on the autism spectrum. We have turned around and shushed children who cannot sit still or be quiet, and many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty sitting still or make spontaneous noises. We have told parents that they cannot leave their children in the nursery because they are too old or too big, and we have told them they cannot attend Sunday school because they are still not toilet trained and are a distraction for the other children and teachers. We have not included people with autism, or with other disabilities in general, into the life of the church beyond a general welcome to worship, and even then we may not feel entirely welcome.

In our congregation, as people have come to know AJ, they also know that he likes to head out the back door. On occasion I have to run from the front of the church, but most of the time someone is keeping their eye on the stairs or the back door now. AJ likes to explore and wander, but now the church recognizes him as one of their own, and they do their part to help.

We see Jesus welcoming the children when the disciples wanted to send them away. We see Jesus embracing the ill and disabled when the disciples wanted to ignore them.  We see Jesus turning to those who cried out to him when the disciples wanted him to move along quickly.  

But when I look to Jesus, I also see our humanity reflected in him. I see someone who loves, who grieves, who prays, who wonders, and who wanders. I see Jesus as a child similar to my own. I see my son’s autism reflected in Jesus. For Autism Awareness month, let us all see Jesus reflected in the children around us, and let us learn to welcome them and to help keep them safe and loved.

 


RECLAIMING CHURCH - REDUX

(Blue Text is an internet link)

(The first version of RECLAIMING CHURCH was published June 3, 2010) (It was the first [D]mergent article by Doug Sloan)

(all scripture references are NRSV)

Have you seen or used the following sermon illustration?

Firmly, I place my hand on the wall of the sanctuary. Loudly, I proclaim, ......"This is not the church!" ......"The building is not the church." ......"It is the people who are the church." ......"Amen."

Do we have any idea what was really just said?

Do we have any idea what it really means?

If the building is not the church, then why do we spend so much time and effort dealing with this physical structure? If the building is not the church, then why is the building so important to us? After our hand-on-the-wall proclamation, have we ever taken a far look in the direction we just pointed? What happens when we extend that thought even further?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, ......where moth and rust consume and ......where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, ......where neither moth nor rust consumes and ......where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, ......there your heart will be also. ........................Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters; ......for a slave will either ......hate the one and love the other, or ......be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. ........................Matthew 6:24

As he was setting out on a journey, ......a man ran up and knelt before him, ......and asked him, ............Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus said to him, ......Why do you call me good? ......No one is good but God alone. ......You know the commandments: ............You shall not murder; ............You shall not commit adultery; ............You shall not steal; ............You shall not bear false witness; ............You shall not defraud; ............Honor your father and mother.

He said to him, ......Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ......You lack one thing; ............go, sell what you own, and ............give the money to the poor, and ............you will have treasure in heaven; ............then come, follow me.

When he heard this, ......he was shocked and went away grieving, ......for he had many possessions. ........................Mark 10:17-22 ........................Matthew 19:16-22 ........................Luke 18:18-23

What do capital campaigns and 6- or 7- or 8-digit mortgages (or any mortgage amount) and sanctuaries with high vaulted ceilings and proper acoustic resonance and stained glass windows and basketball courts and dining halls and fully equipped kitchens and sculpted altars and carved pulpits and custom-built communion tables and decorative carpet and imported floor tiles and comfortable color-coordinated congregational seating and vast paved parking lots and meticulously manicured lawns and lavish landscaping have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do multiple annual fund-raisers and all the accompanying effort and bother and stress and time and finding workers and managing schedules and obtaining gaming licenses and liquor permits and additional liability insurance have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do praise bands and church orchestras and bell choirs and octaves of tuned bells and multi-rank pipe organs and grand pianos and synthesizers and drum sets and adult choirs and children choirs and choir auditions and choir robes and music folders and the search and review and selection analysis and purchase of new music and multi-line PA systems and multi-screen video systems and live broadcasts and recorded broadcasts and hours of rehearsal time and church bulletins and church bulletin art work and church bulletin paper and designer fonts and newsletters and mailing lists and advertising and advertising placement and multi-media web sites and visits by unique IP addresses and the use of and the presence on new media and follow-spots and theatrical lighting and entertainment values and spectacular presentations have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do membership drives and attendance numbers and baptism numbers and tithing pledge totals and expected bequests and sustaining endowments and liturgical employees and non-liturgical employees and salaries and benefits and committees and committee meetings and committee responsibilities and church boards and church board agendas and church board votes and the consequential and unavoidable church politics have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

Much of what we call successful church and successful worship and being a successful congregation has nothing to do with living and sharing the Good News.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and ......began to drive out those who were selling and ......those who were buying in the temple, and ......he overturned the tables of the money-changers and ......the seats of those who sold doves; and ......he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

He was teaching and saying, ......Is it not written, ............My house shall be called ............a house of prayer for all the nations? ......But you have made it a den of robbers. ........................Mark 11:15-17 ........................Matthew 21:12-13 ........................Luke 19:45-46

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and ......the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, ......he drove all of them out of the temple, ......both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and ......overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ......Take these things out of here! ......Stop making my Father’s house a market-place! ........................John 2:13-16

Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of largeness instead of largess; once we begin to think of our faith in terms of measurable success or significant achievements or community stature or statistically significant gains or business models or congregational models or appropriate budget processes or cash flow direction or generally accepted accounting practices or independent audits or administrative requirements or procedural transparency or proper leadership roles or managerial responsibilities and boundaries or membership trends or effective organizational structures or current and accurate and relevant identity/purpose/vision/mission statements or strategic and tactical plans or valid and useful performance metrics – at that point, we have become money changers and temple authorities, we have deformed from a community into an industry that requires exclusionary individualism. At that point, we have lost our faith and our spiritual direction and we have wandered off the narrow path. At that point, we are colluding with and siding with the Empire instead of the Kingdom of God and we deserve to be rebelled against and driven away for we are neither living nor sharing the Good News. We have become that which the Good News opposes and seeks to replace.

But if it is by grace, ......it is no longer on the basis of works, ......otherwise grace would no longer be grace. ........................Romans 11:6

Yet we know that a person is justified ......not by the works of the law ......but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, ......so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, ......and not by doing the works of the law, ......because no one will be justified by the works of the law. ........................Galatians 2:16

But God, ......who is rich in compassion, ......out of the great love with which he loved us ......even when we were dead through our trespasses, ......made us alive together with Christ – ......by grace you have been saved – ......and raised us up with him ......and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, ......so that in the ages to come he might show ......the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness ......toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, ......and this is not your own doing; ......it is the gift of God – ......not the result of works, ......so that no one may boast. ........................Ephesians 2:4-9

Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors. ........................The Shack”, William P. Young, pp. 188-189

The Good News has 3 inseparable messages: 1) The universal accessibility of 1)..the personal and persistent unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and 2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and 2)..the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and 3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual.

By living the Good News: We promote and provoke the unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God. We search for and find the .....hungry .....thirsty .....naked .....ill and hurting .....lost .....oppressed and enslaved .....excluded .....imprisoned and, both immediately and permanently, they are .....fed .....quenched .....clothed .....healed .....found and rescued and restored to participatory liberty .....freed .....invited and welcomed and included .....provided justice with a life repaired through rehabilitation and restoration ..........and, it is critically important that this is always included, .....all who are served are treated as members of the Community. We define ourselves as Individuals with .....inclusive hospitality .....joyous generosity .....healthy service to others "healthy service" means we understand and engage in .....healthy rest .....healthy nourishment .....healthy education .....healthy solitude .....healthy worship .....healthy relationship with those we serve ..........which does not include suffering or participating in or enabling ...............war ...............murder ...............abuse of others ...............self-destructive behavior ...............enslavement ...............the satisfaction of useless whimsical requests. In this way, we choose, join, become, live, share, and exude the Kingdom of God here and now.

What would happen if church universal assets – every congregational and regional and national property, every seminary, every camp – was sold and the net proceeds were consolidated with church investments and church cash to establish a trust fund endowment to support the services we provide to those whom we are called to serve?

When you want a new status quo – a new status quo so different that the current status quo will be relabeled as "old" – you are asking for revolution. When you desire radical counter-cultural transformation – you are asking for revolution. When you want to end the oppressive Empire ethos of piety, war, victory, peace - you are asking for the Empire to be dismantled and replaced with the Good News, you are asking for revolution. When the church is consumed and possessed by mortgages, capital campaigns, membership numbers, qualifications for membership or deacon or elder, the variety and format of financial reports, redecorating, ordination policies, the proper delineation of committee responsibilities, the aggregation and strengthening and protection of church hierarchical authority, the preference for political associations and prominence instead of being a voice and influence for justice and compassion, seasonal vestment colors, the abandonment and refusal to acknowledge congregations who dare to be excited by their proclaiming and provoking and living and sharing the Good News, the continual choosing and preoccupation with better organization over better outreach, or what styles of worship are to be offered – then it is time for an earth-shaking, stone-rolling, curtain ripping, hurricane-strength, fiery and noisy transformational revolution that will resurrect the Good News in the body and spirit of communities and individuals.

"Doing" has to be the new sole definition of faith. A "new definition of faith" will not be statements of identity/purpose/mission/vision or offering a variety of worship styles at various times and days or hosting church fund raisers that have achieved the status of popular civic events. "Doing" our faith will not promote isolation from people in need or from the present time or from planetary stewardship by valuing hope for an escape into a future post-mortal existence instead of being the response to the divine call to be justly and compassionately involved in the present reality of life. "Doing" our faith will not be glossy advertising campaigns; bigger capital campaigns; better communication and contacts between congregations and local, regional, and national governing boards; on-line seminaries and colleges; common language licensing/ordination policies; new carpet; or more affordable baptistery maintenance contracts. It will be specific activities; specific ways of gracious and grace-full living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity or Meals on Wheels or the Mental Health Association will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and it will be definitive of who we are. Supporting a free health clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless or hosting a community garden will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Taking a publicly visible and vocal stance of opposition against and non-participation in institutional or legislated injustice will not be an exceptional or cautious action; it will be a bold and expected response arising from a communal personality that yearns for and demands justice and compassion from all public institutions. Worship will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News - and it will be no less true and no less sacred because there are only 2 or 3 - and it will be no more true and no more sacred because there are more than 2 or 3. Indeed, "doing" will be about living and being the Good News. Worship can be and should be less of a scheduled repetitive activity and more of a community gathering to share and become better acquainted with the presence of God and to mutually seek a better understanding of the Good News.

"Doing" our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant, fearless way of living. Our faith is not to be institutionalized. Our faith is not to be measured by or expressed as largeness, cultural pervasiveness, political influence, authoritarianism, or a social or managerial hierarchy. Our faith is not to treat people with: conditional inclusion, tolerance, shame, scorn, ridicule, shunning, rejection, exclusion, or condemnation. Our faith is not to hate people. Our faith is not to ignore people or God. Instead, our faith is to value the presence of God and to value all people and to value God and people together as one community or, better yet, as one family. Our faith is to value knowledge over ignorance and value compassion over knowledge. The way we embrace and treasure and grow our faith is personal and intelligent and loving and divine. The way we "do" our faith is to be personally and intelligently and lovingly and divinely humane. Our faith is to be constantly centered in the love and grace that is the persistent presence of God. The ancient writings of our ancient faith ancestors are to be regarded as human expressions arising out of human experiences with the divine and the profane and the ordinary. Those ancient writings are to be neither considered worthless and ignored nor considered controlling and obligatory. Those ancient writings can be considered instructive and inspirational; providing examples of living either to emulate faithfully or to avoid strenuously; a foundational starting point upon which we build, reach out, move on, and grow beyond the original ancient understanding. Our faithful "doing" is to be rendered and delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committees or collectives. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and presence and not with more communication technology that is newer, faster, more pervasive, more invasive, environmentally expensive, and is used to increase personal remoteness and detachment and decrease personal involvement and presence.

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; ......and he had compassion for them, ......because they were like sheep without a shepherd; ......and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, ......his disciples came to him and said, ............This is a deserted place, ............and the hour is now very late; ............send them away so that they may go ............into the surrounding country and villages ............and buy something for themselves to eat.

But he answered them, ......You give them something to eat.

They said to him, ......Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, ............and give it to them to eat?

And he said to them, ......How many loaves have you? ......Go and see.

When they had found out, they said, ......Five, and two fish.

Then he ordered them to get all the people ......to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, ......he looked up to heaven, ......and blessed and broke the loaves, ......and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; ......and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; ......and they took up twelve baskets ......full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. ........................Mark 6:34-44 ........................Matthew 14:14-21 ........................Luke 9:12-17 ........................John 6:4-13

In those days ......when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, ......he called his disciples and said to them, ...........I have compassion for the crowd, .................because they have been with me now for three days .................and have nothing to eat. ...........If I send them away hungry to their homes, .................they will faint on the way— .................and some of them have come from a great distance.

His disciples replied, ......How can one feed these people with bread ............here in the desert?

He asked them, ......How many loaves do you have?

They said, ......Seven.

Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; ......and he took the seven loaves, ......and after giving thanks ......he broke them ......and gave them to his disciples to distribute; ......and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; ......and after blessing them, ......he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; ......and they took up the broken pieces left over, ......seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. ........................Mark 8:1-9 ........................Matthew 15:32-39

They devoted themselves ......to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, ......to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; ......they would sell their possessions and goods and ......distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, ......they broke bread at home and ......ate their food with glad and generous hearts, ......praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. ........................Acts 2:42, 44-47

Now the whole group of those who believed ......were of one heart and soul, and ......no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, ......but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony ......to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and ......great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, ......for as many as owned lands or houses ......sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, ......and it was distributed to each as any had need. ........................Acts 4:32-36

This way of living as a community of mutual sufficiency and support did not originate with the early church. It was a very old idea - first described in the written Torah.

There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you. ........................Exodus 12:49

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; ........................Exodus 22:21-23

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. ........................Exodus 22:25-27

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit. When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free. You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. ........................Exodus 23:1-11

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. ........................Leviticus 19:9-18

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. But if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned. If anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the right of redemption shall be one year. If it is not redeemed before a full year has elapsed, a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country; they may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites shall forever have the right of redemption of the houses in the cities belonging to them. Such property as may be redeemed from the Levites—houses sold in a city belonging to them—shall be released in the jubilee; because the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. But the open land around their cities may not be sold; for that is their possession for all time. If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. ........................Leviticus 25:23-38

Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there. ........................Numbers 35:10-15

“I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” ........................Deuteronomy 1:16-17

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ........................Deuteronomy 10:17-19

As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake. Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. When the Lord your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you. If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” ........................Deuteronomy 14:27-29, 15:1-11

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” ........................Deuteronomy 15:7-11

You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. ........................Deuteronomy 16:18-20

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God. You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. ........................Deuteronomy 24:10-22

These are only some of the verses from the written Torah that are concerned with and advocate and demand and require inclusion, justice, forgiveness, and compassion. These are not the only verses – the entire scriptural collection, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testament, repeatedly speaks of the same concerns, avocations, demands, and requirements. In this light, the scriptures are constantly calling us forward to a better and enlarging and more inclusive and maturing understanding of the will of God for us and for this world. God is always calling us from Exodus to the Promised Land. God is always calling us from Exile to return home.

The “will of God” – what God wants for us – is for us to: ......Be Free and Independent ......Think ......Be Curious ......Be Intelligent and Wise ......Value Knowledge over Ignorance and Compassion over Knowledge ......Be Creative ......Grow and Mature ......Live Long Healthy Satisfying Lives ......Live Non-Violently Without Vengeance ......Be Hospitable ......Be Generous ......Do No Harm ......Provide Justice as Healing and Rehabilitation and Restoration ......Be Forgiving ......Promote and Provide and Protect Reconciliation ......Be Good Stewards of all Resources ......Live Here as One Family ......Live in Loving Relationship with Grace-full God ......Be Transformed through Resurrection ......Be the Kingdom of God here and now

So how do we reclaim the Good News as the sole purpose for church? How do we reclaim the church for and as the Good News? How do we reclaim the church as a community and not as a scheduled activity with secondary social consequences? How do we reclaim the church as a community and not as an Empire organization based on and filled with hubris, sloth, and idolatry? How do we reclaim church as a place where people expect to grow and thrive emotionally, intellectually, theologically, and spiritually? How do we reclaim church as a community with a culture of love, grace, justice, compassion, affirmation, and encouragement for each individual?

There was a time when our choir, after singing the anthem, would leave their seats at the front of the sanctuary, move out into the congregation to be with their family, remove their full-length choir vestments, and sit down. A common tongue-in-cheek observation was that we were the only church in town (county? state?) where you could go to a worship service and watch people disrobe in public.

One way that the church can reclaim the Good News is to strip down to the bare necessities (deliberate song cue) - to start again with only God, Community, and Individuals. Remove burdensome structure - both administrative and physical. Remove all ecclesiastical hierarchy and all religious institutions. Remove all authoritarianism. If only for a month or two, meet for worship as a small group in the home of a member - and each week meet in the home of a different member. Collect offerings only for outreach. Eliminate the church governing board and board meetings. As detailed by Derek Penwell in Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church Organization, eliminate committees and committee meetings. It is time to seriously consider eliminating: musical groups and instruments and rehearsals, fund-raisers, capital campaigns, financial systems, buildings, properties, employees, clergy, and membership rolls. This is not a denial of their "practical" benefits - it is an acknowledgement of how they too easily, even inescapably, become worldly consumptive replacements for the fulfilling and regenerative divine Good News - of how they too easily, even inescapably, become fatal distractions to our living and being the Kingdom of God.

Regardless of the physical and organizational implementation of church reformed and redefined...

Always Imagine Church as worship, studying, sharing in word and service to each other and to the world.

Always Imagine Church as always living and being the Good News as individuals and as community.

Always Imagine Church as the Kingdom of God in this world here and now.

Amen

The Path is Wide!

I read a wonderfully interesting paper called “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism.” I believe the authors of this paper have scratched at the surface of a new field, as they state in their abstract, and I am open to more work in this field of cognitive science of religion.  People have often jumped to one negative conclusion that would fit in that field, with the statement “religion is the opium of the masses.”  This statement has me welcome the study of psychology of religion, for I am confident the researchers will not discover opium.  This is because I work in church and live as one who confesses faith.

The paper specifically interested me because my three-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and we hope it will be high functioning.  “We” are his parents, and are two ordained ministers, thus we are invested in the faith.  I encourage everyone to read the paper and understand, especially those that are active in a faith and love a person with special needs, that these authors are not attacking nor are they praising people with high functioning autism (HFA).  This is simply a paper based on two studies by researchers truly interested in this growing field.  Within these writings there are certainly important information for psychologists and neurologists, but I want to explore and reflect on what this may say to theologians and the church.

Church is sadly not always different from the secular world. Church is somewhere people feel different just as they would feel different in the secular world.   That is to say, our hospitality at church is not as developed as we would hope.  If a child and family do not feel welcome at church, or if it is a struggle to worship and learn with special needs, it will affect the relationship with the Divine.  I would be interested in the second study that asks about history and if it was asked about how church was experienced.  Was Sunday School welcoming?  Were people tolerated when they were a toddler with HFA, or did they start later? How were their questions handled by pastor, teachers, and family?  These are examples of  important questions about how church was, and therefore, how God was experienced, introduced, and sustained for these children of God with HFA.  Therefore, these are the questions the body of Christ, the church, need to ask constantly, and not wait for a study.

Upon reflection, perhaps apologetics has a greater place in theological discussion.  I enjoy C. S. Lewis, and not just because he goes by his initials.  However, I am someone who does not worry about faith being logical and reasonable.  I find many contemporary apologetics forget the great mystery and thus I do not share their conclusions when sharing my faith.  They seem to want to describe the lighthouse, where I am comfortable seeing the guiding light.  Perhaps as a pastor I need to be encouraging to those who explain God’s existence without the word “mystery,” as well as what works for me.  We must be aware of the many paths to confession of faith.

The most important message to theologians and the church is that people who do have HFA have thinking styles that are different.  Part of the difference may incline more people with HFA to embrace no confession of faith.   This is an important insight for us who do want to share the peace that surpasses all understanding we know as Love, that we call “God.”  The night before I started writing this I was at an event for Christian Piatt’s new books, “Banned Questions about the Bible” and “Banned Questions about Jesus.”  I bought both books and had them signed; I had one signed to my wife, and was going to have the second made out to me.  I then realized that I bet my three-year-old who (not unlike me) will want to ask the questions contained in these books, for many are very blunt and reasonable questions.  I know that some of the essays will answer with the word “mystery.” This realization made me ask that the other book to be signed to A.J.  So even though I read the paper on the two studies, I already worked on an assumption that the paper concludes, that people with HFA are going to look at religion differently and with preference to reason and logic.

I am reminded that Paul had an issue with a certain group of preachers who taught there was only one way to believe in Jesus, the way they had experienced Jesus.  For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the History of Israel; and Paul knows who Jesus is because of his understanding of the Jewish faith, and thus he writes:

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)

Emphasizing the relationship with Jesus is essential; it is not essential how he got there and so we should not force others into the same mold.

So the real lesson of this study is that people are going to come to faith differently, and we should be aware of the various paths.  We have been aware that there are people who are much more comfortable with theology than others.  I just hope the church continues to be a welcoming place for all, from logic to mystery, and everything in between.

Bored with Spiritual? Put on your Helmet

(Response to http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/spiritual-but-not-religious.html) I was riding my motorcycle just above the speed limit, nothing unsafe or extreme.  I came upon a convertible automobile that was far left in the lane going slow.  It looked like it may be turning left even without a signal.  So I slowed, even if the car was turning I would slow and then it was obvious the car was not going to turn, thus I slowed even greater, even though I could have easily passed on the right with the space and the power of my bike.  However, I have only my leather and helmet and would rather take a minute to insure the rubber side always stays down.  Well, apparently the driver of the car saw me coming and was concerned as well and assumed I would go around on the right unsafely and stopped.  So I stopped.   No big deal, I’d rather everyone be extra safe.   The driver seemed confused and  I waved her to go on, as she did technically have the “right of way.”  I thought nothing about it until the next light for now I was in the left lane to go straight and the convertible was the right lane to turn right.  I came to a safe stop and lifted my visor as I do at most stops, to hear the driver in the convertible screaming at me.  I was pretty sure I did not run over her cat and I know I did nothing dangerous and actually I was extra safe.  I was so confused at this irate barage of words.  I responded with my hand lifted up and saying, “blessings upon you.”   The light turned and I gently resumed my course.

I was upset that I was yelled at.  I even replayed the whole episode in my head a number of times, and I cannot figure out what I had done wrong.  It seems that my only mistake was to be on a motorcycle, a sportbike no less.  There had to be something in the angry driver’s past experience that made her react so vehemently.  I could do nothing correct, and even though I tried by following the rules of the road, I was screamed at, because I was something in her eyes.  She did not see all the other helmets, that is the “hats” I wear, such as husband, father, son, friend, and child of God.

I share this story for all of us Christians who meet people who see us the same as all other Christians, specifically ones that had hurt them previously.  I want to react as I did on the road, but I must admit I was in shock and only had a moment and I believe the Holy Spirit had me bless this hysterical driver.  But I must admit I am not always as good with people who learn I am a preacher.  They project their own past experiences upon me.  Luckily I have not been screamed at, but I have heard the line “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  I used to attempt to convince them that church was important and relevant and some of the conversations were quite interesting.  More than few times I had heard “I would go to your church.”  That alone is not a reason to go to church, but I must admit it would make me feel good.  I have found myself getting bored with these conversations, and honestly annoyed as well, because the assumptions I hear in those conversations is that my vocation is not needed and harmful.  So, yes I agreed with Lillian Daniel’s blog titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”  I thought it was a well written reflection with good humor and truth, yet the reaction I observed from people who were not clergy and/or active in the church made me reflect further.

Now those who have been abused, ostracized, and harmed by the church, I welcome hysterical screaming and I would be willing not only to offer a blessing but also an apology.  Most (not all) of those that tell me that they are spiritual and not religious were not directly hurt, but had not found the church relevant and they need to share this disappointment and misunderstanding of their lives.  Thus upon reflecting on Lillian’s reflection I have decided not to change seats on the airplane (unless there is a seat with more legroom), but rather put on my helmet and ask the hard question:  How did we, the Body of Christ, not make our church relevant?

As Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12) So when someone who has found Christianity irrelevant sees I am part of this Body, I must realize that they already see me as wearing a suit of irrelevancy.  To try to convince them to come to church may lead to an interesting dialogue for myself, but it confirms their assumptions; and to simply find them boring confirms the same assumption, the church is irrelevant.  I believe we need to listen, even if it hurts, and leave them feeling blessed and heard.  Hopefully, we will hear through our clergy helmets and learn how to make the Body of Christ more relevant.

Affirming All God's Children

The week we officially confirmed what we knew, that our son has autism, I had a funeral for a former pastor of the church.  A busy week to say the least and I should have reflected on keeping the Sabbath, but I am pretty sure I am no expert on that subject.  I can tell you that the hardest part of the diagnosis, from the team of doctors who lovingly examined and tested him, was the statement, “we hope it is high functioning.”  It is hard simply because it could be what is not hoped for; “functioning, or low functioning,” etc.  What will that mean for our son and for us, his parents?

I did not have time to think much about that disturbing statement, and certainly did not have the time to dwell on it because of the funeral.  During the family hour I was present with the family of the deceased.  The room was quieting when a lovely older woman and her husband came forward to give her condolences to the daughter of the deceased.  As usual I was introduced as the preacher, and I soon discovered that this woman considered the church I served her church.  She talked about how she was in that church since she moved to that town with her parents.  I figured she must have moved to another town, but I then heard her say they moved to another church for Billy.  Well, I was pretty sure that her husband’s name was not Billy, but sometimes names go right out the other ear, something I am working on.  She then said Billy is her son with Downs Syndrome.

I then shared with this woman that I just found out my son is diagnosed with Autism.  They are very different of course, yet there is a similarity.   I could tell she understood why I shared that with her.  Of course Billy was there but as he was 46 his parents had been going to more services which had been making him very nervous, which she shared with me.  Billy waited in the vestibule peeking around the corner.  So I discovered that she found a Sunday School class where he felt comfortable and included at another church years ago, when he was a young adult and thus moved to that church.

A little later after she left she came back in and waved to me to come to the vestibule.  She wanted to introduce her son.  We had a wonderful conversation and he even shared that he was scared.  I reassured him, and befriended him, as she mothered him.  It was a lovely conversation.

I was reassured that my angst about the statement, “hope for high functioning,” should not hijack my life.  If my son is very happy and loving in his own way, and if he is not able to function on his own, it does not mean it’s the end of the world.  It means we will have a different life that is certainly centered on love.  I could see in my new friends how their reality was a special reality, and it will be fine.  It was wonderful to meet a pioneer of raising a person with special needs (especially in a rural area).

Yet what interested me the most is how she had to find a new church for her son with special needs.  I do not know exactly why she moved her family, but I must ask the important question: how do we welcome children with special needs?  My favorite example is the leadership my wife, Mindi, showed as an associate minister in a church near Boston, for there was a family that had a child with downs syndrome in her youth group.   The family had been going to an open and affirming church, a church that took pride in welcoming everyone; however, the parents continually received reports that their son was a problem.  They did try to work with staff and volunteers, but it became too much.  I am sure that church was relieved that they went to the church my wife served.  They asked after a few Sunday School Classes and Youth Group, how he was doing, which my wife assured him he was doing well and making friends.  I am sure that was a gospel news to the parents.  To involve the youth in the worship service Mindi would have them read scriptures.  She would prepare them by making them practice.  She did the same with this boy with downs syndrome, and often he would do quite well and other times his pronunciation was not clear.  She did not give the assignment of the scripture that was being preached on to any youth that was not consistently clear and articulate, but she had all the youth who were willing read during a service.

At that church there were many retired ministers and professors of the seminary, and one day a professor asked Mindi, after an inarticulate reading by this boy, “There are people, including myself, that believe that it is not proper for him to read the scripture, as it ruins the worship experience.  Maybe I am wrong, but...”  Mindi interjected, “Yes you are wrong.”  That was the end of the discussion.

“[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5-6) To welcome all we most see ourselves, equally as adopted siblings.  We need to be the voice for those with special needs, thus I commend the professor, who spoke the prophetic words, “maybe I am wrong.”  There is great joy in being wrong when it opens the door for God’s Divine Light.

Why your small church should become Welcoming, Open and Affirming

Twenty years ago today (as I write this) I was baptized in Meier Lake, Alaska.  Our small church had no baptismal robes.  We didn’t have our own building.  I was just wearing my jeans and t-shirt when my minister led me into the cool August waters to be baptized.   A few weeks later I was given the Right Hand of Fellowship and became a member, and almost immediately, I became a member of the Deacon board.  All before turning 14.

I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska—yes, that Wasilla now made infamous by the media circus surrounding a one-time vice presidential candidate—not exactly the cradle of progressive Christianity.  The majority of churches in the area to this day are independent fundamentalist congregations.  A few have the word Baptist as part of their name.  Mainline congregations are in the minority in our area of Alaska, though you can find about every flavor—they just happen to be small churches.

Our church was no different.  A small, startup American Baptist congregation, at the most we numbered about 25 people on a Sunday evening (we rented from the Episcopal church).   We were just another mainline congregation until 1994, when we became a charter member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists.  The only Welcoming and Affirming Baptist congregation in the state of Alaska and the only affirming congregation of any type in our area.

From the early days of our church we had gay and lesbian folks attending worship, but our commitment from the beginning to being Welcoming and Affirming went beyond sexual orientation from the beginning.  Our congregation supported a housing unit for folks with mental illness.  We eventually purchased a building in downtown Palmer near the correctional center and often had guests on Sunday who were recently released from jail.  Our building houses eight different AA meetings and other twelve-step programs and some of those folks come to our church.

But for me at that young age, Welcoming and Affirming meant welcoming and affirming of me.  I was involved in the ministry of the church from an early age, before my baptism, and when I expressed a call to ministry at thirteen, I was invited and encouraged to preach and participate in the leading of worship.  My pastor invited me along to the weekly pastor’s Bible study when I was a senior in high school and every time I was home during college.

I know a lot of small churches wonder if they need to go through all the drama of becoming Welcoming and Open and Affirming, especially if they have few gay or lesbian members or none at all.  Being Welcoming and Affirming or Open and Affirming is not only code-language for gay and lesbian folks to know that your church is safe for them and their family, but it means that you are open to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer and questioning folks; you are welcoming and open and affirming of teens; you are welcoming and open and affirming of senior citizens and children and couples and single people; you are welcoming and affirming of people struggling with addiction or challenged with mental illness; you are welcoming and affirming of all people.

I met a pastor of a Midwest congregation that recently welcomed in a family that home-schooled their children, because they were shunned by their previous church for their family’s choice.  They came seeking not only welcome but affirmation for their family.  I know of families of children with disabilities are sometimes made to feel unwelcome by the Sunday school staff—they come seeking affirmation.  Couples that choose not to have children feel pressured by their peers in a family-oriented church—they come seeking affirmation for their family.

Why should your small church become Welcoming, Open and Affirming, even if you have no gay or lesbian folks (that you know of) in your congregation?  When you become O&A, you become open, welcoming and affirming of all of God’s children made in God’s image.  You are welcoming in all the people of God!  It is still crucial for congregations to be welcoming of LGBTTQ folks, for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, transsexual and queer and questioning people are still outcast by many families, churches and communities, but it is just as important for us to remember that Welcoming, Open and Affirming goes beyond the letters of identity and includes all of us, all of God’s children, in the variety of ways we identify who we are, how we live and how we serve Christ in this world.  For small churches, you are making a commitment to be open, welcoming and affirming of the people you already have.  Just as I felt welcomed and affirmed as a teen called to the ministry, so I hope all people, of all callings of God, are welcomed and affirmed at such a young age as a child of God.

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