Continuing to Open Our Eyes to Disabilities in the Church

I awoke on Thursday morning a bit blurry eyed as I headed out to teach our Men’s Morning Bible Study but thought, “This will pass.” It didn’t. More accurately it was my right eye that was blurry and it took a quick
trip to my opthomologist to recognize something was very wrong. Having already survived a diagnoses of testicular cancer in 2000, I had a good understanding of how things worked. When specialists like a “Neuro-opthamologist clear their schedules to see you, you know something is really amiss. But when the MRI Center takes you IMMEDIATELY? You know that you don’t know anything and that is a scary place to be.

I was diagnosed with Ischemic-optic neuropathy, a swelling of the optic nerve in my right eye due to a vascular condition. Thankfully, there was no sign of a more severe condition, though we were told it could occur in the other eye. Almost exactly a year later, it struck my left eye. A trip to the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia offered us only a confirmation of the condition and no hope of healing treatment through medicine.

According to field of vision tests, I am nearly half-blind. I do maintain legal vision in my left eye so I might drive, but just barely. Suddenly, I found myself in a different world, a cloudy, unfamiliar world that I began to learn about through the internet and Vision Rehabiliation Services in Cobb County. I have worked some to learn Braille, been trained in the use of a cane, I’ve learned to navigate public transit and have received gifts of Closed Caption Video Readers. And yes, I have also been prayed for by prayer ministries and had verifiable Christian healers pray for my healing as well with no improvement.

What are we to make of this? I have had both friends and family come to me struggling with their own faith in God because of my disability and how it has changed my life. Today as you heard my story, I suspect, only because of experience, some of you wonder as did the disciples in John’s gospel:

"Rabbi, why was this man born blind? Did he or his parents sin?" (3) Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. Instead, he was born blind so that God could show what he can do for him. (John 9:2-3)
You may well wonder about what sins I must have committed. I have heard one preacher say, “The reason bad things happen is because people take Jesus off the throne of their heart.” And some of you are wondering about faith: my faith or the faith of those who have prayed for me.

Read carefully to the Parable Jesus tells in Luke 14:16-24 of the Parable of the Banquet…

The words of this parable have been shared for centuries. Like most Parables, we have come to see there are often times more than one interpretation, more than one meaning. Today, I want to draw your attention to what the Banquet Host tells his servant in Verse 21: “Bring back the poor, the handicapped, the blind, and the lame.”

It is not healthy who are called and it is not the rich who the hosts asks for in this third invitation. The truth in here is simple:

“In the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the wounded and worn are brought to a table that cannot be bought by health and wealth.”

Healing is not a litmus test of one’s worthiness anymore than one’s health or wealth. What one has or has not does not make a seat at the table. The seat at the table of the Kingdom of God, is the seat prepared by Jesus Christ for any and all who will say, “YES!, to the invitation the host extends.

“In the Kingdom, the wounded and worn are brought to a table that cannot be bought by health and wealth.”

My disability has, pardon the pun, opened my eyes to what others face. This spring, our family spent a day at Little Five Points enjoying lunch and shopping. At one point, my son and I were walking on the sidewalk and I stepped, stumbled, and fell hard onto the sidewalk. My son was gracious to help. Me? I was hurt and embarrassed. What had happen? It has to do with what the Rev. Dr. Doug Gilreath, Pastor of Covington told me. Doug’s vision disability is far more severe than mine and has been with him since childhood. He said to me, “You have it more difficult because you do not know your limits yet.” He was right! I my vision couldn’t process all the data because I couldn’t see everything and in the end, it was a small corner of concrete that had shifted by a tree root that caused me to fall.

“In the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the wounded and worn are brought to a table that cannot be bought by health and wealth.”

The parable Jesus tells the people reiterates the explicit command of verse 13. In that verse Jesus tells plainly the followers of God are to “…(13) invite the poor, the handicapped, the lame, and the blind. (14) Then you will be blessed because they don't have any way to pay you back.” So where do we get the idea that Kingdom of God is to be grown in the suburbs? Where did the idea come about that we need financially well to do people to grow God’s Kingdom? Is it not James who calls us out?

James 2:2-4 GW For example, two men come to your worship service. One man is wearing gold rings and fine clothes; the other man, who is poor, is wearing shabby clothes. (3) Suppose you give special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say to him, "Please have a seat." But you say to the poor man, "Stand over there," or "Sit on the floor at my feet." (4) Aren't you discriminating against people and using a corrupt standard to make judgments?

“In the Kingdom, the wounded and worn are brought to a table that cannot be bought by health and wealth.”

You need to know that the American Disabilities Act and our Book of Discipline are not a hindrance to the ministry of the Kingdom. The very model of the Kingdom that Jesus describes should have us going far beyond these laws and requirements. Simple accommodations of larger fonts on video screens, brighter lighting and large print hymnals are helpful. Ensuring wheelchair ramps are available and doors wide enough for them is not costly, it is hospitality! Making people aware and comfortable with those on various spectrums of autism or learning disabilities should be a priority. Reaching out to families in need of respite is a vital step but it also means we recognize that those with disabilities are of sacred worth and worthy of hearing the Gospel in a way that they can understand.

“In the Kingdom, the wounded and worn are brought to a table that cannot be bought by health and wealth.”

At another dinner gathering recorded in Matthew 9:11-12 it says, “…the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

What if we began to not and recognize the Gospel of Jesus is for us all and there are many who have not heard because we have not said in the language of their disability, “On behalf of Jesus, I invite you to the table?” What if we quit fearing what we don’t understand and instead ask, “How can we do this better for you?” What if we asked simply, “What do you see? What do hear? What do you feel?”

What if we believed and acted on the truth Jesus tells us, that in the Kingdom, the wounded and worn are brought to a table that cannot be bought by health and wealth?” Me? I believe, there would be more healing of souls and those bound by disabilities will know the truth that they too, can be made free at last.

(This is the sermon text written for the opening service of the Mission u Conference 2014 hosted by Mission Committee of the North GA Annual Conference and the United Methodist Women in Athens, GA)

How I've Succesfully Organized My Gmail Inbox For Good

Many of my friends have "LIKED" my empty Gmail Inbox on Facebook. It has been over two months now and after making it through the 3 week challenge of establishing a habit, my Gmail inbox is clean and organized so I can get to most every valuable e-mail I have. I spent a great deal of time reading and researching after reading Ken Zeigler's book, "Organizing for Success" (which I highly recommend).

The fact is most of us our running at the whim of messages and apps as they ding and sing at us all day.  It may even seem odd, as I usually talk about more "spiritual" topics.  But the truth is, most spiritual teachers, Christian and other, talk often about how we use our time so keep that in mind as you read.  Before you tackle your Gmail, I encourage you to tackle a few things first, in this order:

1. Plan your day first. Whether you're a FranklinCovey person or not, take the time and plan YOUR day. If you don't it will get planned for you. Whose gonna do that? Your technology.

2. Turn off the sounds! You don't need them for every cotton-picking text and message you get.

3. Commit to using and checking messages a few times a day. Really, you can do this and the world won't end. Do it in the morning, AFTER you've planned your day. Before or after lunch. Before you leave work. AND, if you must, do it an hour before bed.

4. Okay, now you're ready to get that Gmail Inbox cleaned-up and Jesse Chapman will tell you how here:  The Best Way to Organize Your Gmail Inbox.  If it seems too complicated, print off the copy and read through it and mark it up till you understand it.

- You may think you need more labels than he gives you. And you might, BUT don't add them UNTIL you've set-up your new system and get use to it.

- Just like paper, don't keep holding out filing e-mails. Do it when you get them.

- Divide and conquer. Organize your Gmail box first. Then take a break BEFORE you start deleting and filing. It took me a few hours to delete/file/unsubscribe so don't try to do it all at once.

-Enjoy. If I can help in anyway, let me know!

Practicing Awareness Means Trusting That God Can Speak To Others

My daughter and I hiked for seven miles this morning as we prepared for and extended backpacking trip.  We got on the trail around 6am, it was still dark but the sun was just beginning to influence the lighting.  What was unique was the rain and water left over from the evening thunderstorms.  It was the same  trail as other mornings and yet, it was completely different.

The trail was more slick than usual in some places.  The spider webs glistened with rain drops.  Our sweat clung to our shirts and shorts in the Georgia humidity.  It was all different.  It was all the same.

Here at Bethelview United Methodist Church, I find myself in what is a new office to me.  It is a new building and sanctuary and new friendships are beginning to be formed.  That is what I am aware of right now.  For the people of this church, it is different too.  A new pastor is here in the pulpit.  I bring a different style and different ideas.  It is all different.  It is all the same.

My vision disability requires of me to be more aware of what is going on around me.  I have to be more aware when I drive and when I walk.  Going up stairs or down a trail, I must be more aware of certain conditions.  My daughter, while hiking on the trail, was aware too.  She pointed out the inchworm climbing his string.  She got to laugh at crazy squirrels running about and the massive snail making his own way up the trail.  I was not aware of these things, not until she pointed them out.  We were on the exact same trail but it was all different and it was all the same.

Awareness is a practice of attentiveness.  It can include all our senses or it maybe we need to only use one of them.  Being aware means we also can benefit from other people’s senses, on their awareness, on God’s voice speaking to them (this can happen only if we believe truly, that God might speak to another person).  In the book of Acts, in chapter 9, we find that when Jesus was speaking to Paul… “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (Acts 9:7).”  I suspect Jesus didn’t intend for them to see him but do we know for sure?  We find at the tomb Mary didn’t recognize it was Jesus after the resurrection (John 20:14).  Even those who knew Jesus were found to be unaware it was Him!

In this day and time where we face so much division, is it not surprising we are not aware when Jesus is in our midst?  Is it any wonder that we resort to frustration and anger?  It may well be all the more important for us to be about the spiritual practices and learning to listen to God and one another.

We are all different.  We are all the same. 

We all yearn to hear God.

Five Questions I've Learned from Vision Loss that Improve Awareness

Over this past year, the upper part of my eyes and vision, has grown stronger and adapted to being able to read better. Because reading is such an important part of my work, I have effectively given up reading for pleasure. Your eyes really can get tired!

I have also found that movies and television can allow my eyes a chance to relax. Movies are really great because everything is so big and the theater is dark, so my vision doesn’t have to strain. So with no new episodes of The Walking Dead right now, I’ve picked up watching two detective shows, Longmire and The Glades. While the shows are very different in their design, settings, and characters, both main characters are very aware of everything and everybody.

From the details of crime scenes, behaviors of suspects, and in the searching out for evidence, these two detectives are almost hyper aware of what is taking place. They are always observing, always questioning, and always learning. And like any good character (really the writers) knows, it is not just about the crime, they also have to be aware of themselves.

Just how aware are you of you? 

Because of my vision loss, I have to be hyper-aware of the
environment, people and traffic around.  I have found most people are completely unaware of others around them and it could be easy with low-vision to get upset when others are not paying attention.  I can get mad at myself for not being more prepared too.

As I have learned to be more aware of my environment and that has led me to consider my spiritual awareness.  Think about this five questions:

  1. How aware are you of your motivations, your passions, your thoughts, your questions, or your behaviors? 
  2. How aware are you of your responses to other people and are you aware of what assumptions you are making regarding them? 
  3. Are you projecting previous experiences onto a new experience? 
  4. Are you projecting your motivations onto other people? 
  5. Are you doing all this with God too?

I am pretty certain, even after 2,000 years, we don’t fully understand or have learned all there is to know about the Sermon on the Mount. It is at once liberating and convicting. Jesus is on a roll of examining the fulfillment of the Law when He says, "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:26-28 NASB).” Just how aware are you of this inner orientation? Adam Clarke’s words on this verse (and the passions), call us to being aware of our reality:

         Many would abhor to commit one external act before the eyes of [people], in a temple of stone; and yet they are not afraid to commit a multitude of such acts in the temple of their hearts, and in the sight of God!

Is it possible we are, at times, too quick to think the best of motivations of others and ourselves? Are we really aware of our inner condition or are we quick to think so well of ourselves we miss the ancient truth of Jeremiah that, "The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (17:9 NASB)”

The desert fathers and mothers went to the desert, in part, to be away from the distractions of the world so they might become more aware of their passions and to wrestle with demons in their various forms. The practice of bands and class meetings of the early Methodists was to ask questions, to use these methods to be aware and be accountable. Sometimes we miss our motivations because we don’t take the time to be aware of ourselves.

This is part of what I think having a process of ordination does for the Church. My intent isn’t to cast stones at other traditions. However, we need to realize the Board of Ordained Ministry is more than just a gate-keeper in the United Methodist Church’s process. I think one underlying principle might be expressed this way: Those in ministry need to be aware of their own motivations, passions, and demons.

I do not always agree with the process or the decisions made by these boards who examine. What I do know, looking back on my process, was how being deferred made me more aware of myself and what God was preparing me for the work of ministry. I needed to be more clear, more aware. I needed to ask better questions.   I needed to know myself better.

This same awareness is what spiritual direction offers. It gives us

opportunity to have someone listen to the Holy Spirit with us, so we might be more aware of God’s voice and God’s leading in our lives.  I have found an experienced spiritual director makes a huge difference but this could be in accountability or even just daily time set-aside to be more aware of God. It is so much easier to be blissfully ignorant of the spiritual nature of our world. We can just tune it out as many have done or just crank the volume up and drowned out the Spirit’s silent voice as others have also done.

There is a hunger and desire in us to treasure the unique and the rare. To know ourselves and voice of God, we must make time to be aware.

Sit Down and Shut Up: Learning to Be More Aware

“Sit down and shut up!”

Every day of the school year, we’d get on the bus and hear our bus driver, Doug Crow, shout it out to us.  Sometimes it would be just him looking in the mirror.  Other times, he’d pull to the side of the road and get up, red faced and ramped up, and give us the line, speaking each syllable with the force of a semi-truck willing to incinerate anything in it’s path by shear force.

I don’t know if he graduated college or just finally got a better gig, but one school year, on the first day, Doug was gone.  His memory wasn’t though.  He is one of those who is forever present in my thoughts of growing up in Mississippi.

“Sit down and shut up!”

The story has been passed down from the early church that tells of a monk who went to Scetis to visit with Abba Moses.  He had gone to ask him for a word.  The desert father said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ (pg 139, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

“Sit down and shut up.”

One of the great gifts I have experienced in participating in the Upper Room’s Academy of Spiritual Formation experiences has been the gift of your “cell.”  Don’t confuse it with a prison.  In our day it might be a “prayer closet.”  For the monk or the desert abbas and ammas, the cell was where everything was kept even though that “everything” was  not usually very much.

For me, the cell, my living space for a week, was a treasure.  It was more than just a hotel room or retreat space.  It was a space where I could be aware.  Awareness, writes Joan Chittister, is what we are practicing when we ask, “What do I see here of God that I could not see otherwise?  What is God demanding of my heart as a result of each event, each situation, each person in my life? (23, Illuminated Life).  It is a practice of not just hearing the words of another, but of listening to their soul and to the word of the Spirit of God.  It is a time to engage ourselves in what God is doing around us.

I think this is part of what Elijah is doing in 1 Kings 19, of being aware enough to hear God say, “What are you doing here?”  For Elijah, the cave was his cell, the place where he could be aware of God.  To be attentive, fully, not to what others are saying, not the noise calling for attention, but to be able to hear and know the voice of God; this is the practice of awareness.

So many voices seem to be claiming to speak for God.  There is pressure and influence being placed for people to choose sides for this issue or that issue. 

“Sit down and shut up.”

And so Abba Moses speaks again. 

May I Ask:  Who has told you recently you need to “Sit down and shut up?”  What maybe preventing you from being more aware?

May I Suggest:  If you’ve got time to read this blog, or watch a movie on Netflix, you’ve got time to sit down and shut up.  Just try it.  If nothing worse happens, you might just get a good nap.

The Cost of Trust: One Behavior Being Ignored In Our Talk of Schism

Like many other clergy and laity in the United Methodist Church, I’ve been reading the proposals and responses again and again related to the idea of schism, the talk of dividing the church.  For some time now, I have been listening to discussion and the varying points of view.  I’ve tried to remove myself from my own beliefs and convictions to try and hear all sides with fresh ears (it has been difficult).  I’m still not done.  I still have people I want to talk with about it, clergy and laity both, as well as United Methodists and those outside.

This week however I put my finger on something that had just been gnawing at me.  I
think it had a lot to do with my son going before his Eagle Board of Review last night (which he passed and is now an Eagle Scout).  Each week in my High School years, I stood, held the Scout sign and repeated the values Scouting seeks to instill in boys starting with the first words, “A scout is trustworthy…”  For a number of years now, I’ve stood and done the same ritual, believing those are values which are timeless and I wanted to pass on to my son, “A scout is trustworthy…”

Quite honestly, it hit me hard.

Like others I'm sure, I was impressed by Dr. James Howell's appeal for the UMC to stay together.  Among other articles I read, I read Dr. William Abraham’s post from a few years back, “United Methodists at the End of the Mainline.” In his comments he references a sermon from a clergy in the Reconciling Movement who spoke about his position and the Reconciling Movement.  The message of that preacher went…

“Now it is our turn to get honest…We have moved far beyond the idea that the Bible is exclusively normative and literally authoritative for our faith. To my thinking, that is good! What is bad is that we have tried to con ourselves and others by saying ‘we haven’t changed our position.’”

           Then yesterday there appeared an article in The Daily Beast, a very thought provoking article I might add, entitled “Were Christians Right About Gay Marriage Along?”  In it, author Jay Michaelson, speculates that to some, gay marriage isn’t the end nor was it ever the goal.  In truth, their goal is to do away completely with marriage.  Michaelson writes,

“If your agenda is liberation, then the vision of same-sex marriage, in which gays become domesticated and live happily ever after, is a kind of nightmare. It is, at best, the squandering of a revolutionary potential, but at worst the growth of exactly what we were supposed to have shrunk: repression, patriarchy, convention, religion.”

      Is this really the end game for some in this movement?  And if the one is true, how far away is the other?  Can I even take your word if you told me you are against the second statement if you agree with the first.  I pray this is not shared within the UMC as a desired outcome. 

      I can’t help hearing those words, “A scout is trustworthy…”  I guess some could care less what comes to my mind.  You may think Scouting is a waste.  Fine.  But I think it is a critical, and clearly understated or entirely ignored part of the conversation.  Like scouts who stand and proclaim at their meetings regarding what they value (even though they are just starting to learn it), we clergy do the same thing in essence during our ordination processes.  We give our word, confirming our commitment to the polity and discipline of the church.  Our approach, I think, is very much in keeping with Jesus' words on giving our word too (see Matthew 5:36-37).

           In the book, “The Speed of Trust,” Stephen M.R. Covey describes giving our word or keeping commitments as the “Big Kahuna” of all trust behaviors.  He goes on to write, “…when you make a commitment, you build hope; when you keep it, you build trust (214).”  Throughout the book which reflects an extensive study on trust in organizations, Covey also notes the impact of betraying trust and the impact on relationships.  He often notes Warren Buffet’s famous quote, “It takes twenty years develop a reputation and just 5 minutes to destroy it.”  

     To break the bond of our word is what we are talking about when we speak about the breaking of our covenant vows of ordination.  I get we have disagreements of conviction, theology, and psychology regarding the issues related to sexuality.  I am of the conviction still to listen and learn what else we are not seeing clearly in the debate at hand.  But I’m also of the conviction that we have given our word, we have established a bond of trust (and we have a polity which says how we conduct debate and change) and some have chosen to break it.

           I am not ignoring the conviction and belief of those of you who see this as a justice issue.  I can respect you see it as worth the sacrifice to break covenant to bring the argument into the open, to try to change the perception and beliefs others hold regarding sexuality.  I want us all at the table but I find myself with a trust betrayed.  I don’t think this is a “straw-man argument.”  I am also not for the break-up of our denomination, I want us to be in connection but a trust betrayed is far from being quick to heal.  If you feel the sacrifice of betraying trust is worth the price, realize you still have sacrificed.  

I Want What I Want When I Wants It. Striving for Simplicity

Simplicity is more than just scaling back what we buy or going through and cleaning house (be that literally or figuratively). I think, in part, it is taking the time, no, let me change that: making the time to get back down to the most basic levels of life.

I have long been captivated by Jesus image of
the “birds of the air and flowers of the field (that would be found in Matthew 6:26-30),” yet I feel at times I must clearly be the only one. As a 21st century Christians living in the affluency of western civilization, we do not take Jesus seriously that God cares for our needs so intimately. And before we pull out the political and economic cards, this is not a Republican, Democrat or Libertarian argument nor is it a capitalist versus socialist issue. We can each live more simply REGARDLESS of politics. The question is will we choose to do so? If you think government needs to tax more, fine. Write the government a bonus check. If you think churches or non-profit orgs are the ones who can work better at caring for the needy, great! Log in and start giving away online with your credit or debit card (I recommend supporting UMCOR by the way.)

No one is stopping you from giving. No one is keeping you from living more simply than yourself.

I think Maslow’s Theory on the Hierarchy of Needs really hits on Jesus’ point. The most basic level of need in a human being consists of meeting a person’s biological and physiological needs such as; air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep. Sounds a lot like what Jesus was implying when it comes to what we ought to be worried about. Maslow’s theory has since been examined and the website link above will do a great job of explaining things.

As a present for finishing middle school, we have given our kids smart phones (I should say, upgraded. They had flip-phones that worked just fine). It wasn’t anything fancy but it is the same phone I have. As we set-up my daughter’s phone, I thought about my own phone, “hmmm, mine is a year and a half old. Should I trade it in?” I caught myself and was like, really?!? There is NOTHING wrong with what I have! It does far MORE than I even use it for anyway and the little computer brain probably wishes someone else owned it.

The salient point is this: I didn’t NEED a new phone. Period.

But I started thinking about some of the things I have been using to live simply, some of the guide posts I have put in place.  Ultimately, I think living simply means we have to make some choices:

1. Talk to Yourself. – Do I need it or do I just want it?

2. Live the Bottom Line. – Stop spending and living beyond your means.

3. Trading up or staying put? – Does trading up benefit the Kingdom of God? What part of your life does God get?

4. No Remorse. Ever buy something and then wish you didn’t? Only buy what you need and even then, schedule the trip and make a list.

5. What Matters? This one really takes work. Jesus seemed to keep putting that question to people in different ways. I think He still is doing it but do you listen?

Maybe those might help you or maybe not. Try one or all or maybe they just seem stupid to you. I get it, doesn’t hurt my feelings. I do like what Brother Lawrence said though. He, the simple cook and banger of pots and pans said simply, “That our only business was to love and delight ourselves in God. (The Practice of the Presence of God. 21).” Pretty hard to argue with that but if you want to do so, go back to number 1 above.

Nobody and nothing is keeping you from following Jesus; from beginning the work of casting off what you can’t take with you anyway.

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