Part of Our Calling as the People of God

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The following is adapted from devotions that I led for Christian Reformed Classis Central Plains on February 27, 2016. I am the Regional Disability Advocate for that classis. 

Thank you for the opportunity to represent Disability Concerns, as Regional Advocate.

Denominational Agencies are started to fill a ministry need. Disability Concerns has been communicating with churches for over 30 years, with a message to encourage congregations to provide accommodations for people with various disabilities including hearing and visual impairments, social anxiety and those with physical access limitations.

I’ve gleaned ideas to share from various authors: Chris Smit, John Cook and Sheila Yoder.

We all face limitations in every area of our lives. Some people live with limitations to the degree that we call them ‘disabilities,’ but limitations are part of what is means to be human.

A lot of people think of disability as a deviation from the human condition, when in fact disability is part of what it means to be human. Instead of hiding or stigmatizing disability, we should recognize and celebrate this aspect of what makes us human.

ARE YOU ON BOARD … when it comes to dealing with people who have particular disabilities? Every congregation has them!

The stereotype is that to be a successful disabled person you have to overcome your disability rather than live through it. An important distinction can be made between “healing” and “cure.” Don’t let “cure” be the stumbling block between you and the person with a disability or between you and God.

Many people think that anyone with a disability wants to be cured of their disability. While true for some, searching for a cure is a low priority, particularly for those with a long-term disability. I live with a first-hand example: My wife acquired severe respiratory and mobility limitations 42 years ago, the result of a rare disease, and lives with chronic back pain.

We no longer expect God to cure her, but she has experienced healing. “Healing” means “being made whole” — a matter of contentment based on a relationship with Jesus Christ — not the absence of any deficiencies in our bodies or lives. Her “healing” did not come through “cure,” but from a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a sense of value. Belonging, purpose, and value cannot be accomplished on one’s own, but must come through involvement in a community.

What better community for this to happen in, than among the people of God? It’s part of our calling as the people of God!

There are currently 12 congregations in this Classis who have a Church Advocate ... Synod encourages all congregations to adopt a church policy on disability and to appoint one person in the congregation to serve as Church Disability Advocate. Churches that have a policy and an advocate, are more likely to take the necessary steps to take their congregation beyond the minimum requirements of caring for,  but also developing friendships with, learning from, and working with people in their midst who have disabilities.

As was mentioned earlier, belonging, purpose and value cannot be accomplished on one’s own, but must come through involvement in a community. What better community for this to happen in, than the people of God? It’s part of our calling as the people of God!

Disability Concerns wants to help you! Remember: Everybody belongs, Everybody serves!

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Community Builder

 Once again I got the impression that this classis is still at the breast milk stage when they should be eating meat.  In other words, they still need to have basic concepts explained to them, and the author only talks about physical disabilities.  What would it be if he were to discuss mental illnesses?  One of these days some preacher in that classis, or in the whole denomination for that matter, should undertake to debunk the Health and Wealth Gospel for good and show it up as the bullcrap it is.  It's a shame that people in this denomination that prides itself on being more knowledgeable than other churches still believe that nonsense.  I can think of at least two passages off the top of my head that contradict its assumptions: Job 42 :7,8 ; and John 9 :1-5.  And there are probably other ones that could be found if someone did a thorough study on that subject.  How about it? Anyone up to the challenge?

Guide

Michele, yes, a lot of people still need the basics explained to them. That's why I love the continuum, the 5 Stages of Disability Attitudes, because it assumes that people are all over the map, encourages people to identify where they are on the continuum, and suggests what they need to do to move forward toward more biblical attitudes toward people with physical disabilities. I'm afraid there never will be a "once and for all" debunking of any false gospel. But you are right, the health and wealth gospel is still alive and well. One time, someone (not a CRC person, though I'm sure you are right that that attitude is among us as well) told me that our daughter lives with multiple disabilities because my wife and I don't have enough faith. She went on, "If you had faith in God, your daughter would be cured of her disabilities." Not only is this not the gospel, it's hurtful. That's why the work we do as advocates is so important - to speak the truth in love. Appreciatively, Mark

Community Builder

 Mark, as long as some people in the CRC will continue to consider mental illnesses as spiritual problems rather than brain diseases we'll be dealing with the health and wealth gospel.  Those people claim that people are more than chemical reactions.  Granted, but the brain is a very complex organ, where a lot what happens is caused by chemical processes, and because it also happens to be the seat of our mind and personality, when faulty connections happen they manifest themselves as mental illnesses.  In fact, I think I'll add this to my power point presentation.  To dismiss mental illnesses merely as spiritual problems is to dismiss the possibility that the brain as an organ can become sick, which is absurd. 

Participant

Hi Michele. I live with a mental illness myself and appreciate the considerable theological and social challenges that this can contribute when participating in a faith community. I can't speak for CRC churches since I am from a different denomination (though I follow this blog regularly) but I suspect our denominations are not that different as regards creating welcoming and safe spaces people who live with mental illnesses. An important part of my work is dismantling the stigma of mental illnesses in faith communities and in this regard we have a long journey ahead of us. You might be interested in a video talk on our website in which I talk about the stigma I've experienced and the ways we can interpret the Bible to reinforce or challenge stigma. Here's the link: http://www.adnetonline.org/Blog/Pages/From-Cure-to-Community.aspx 

Guide

Christine, thanks for reminding us of your talk: "From Cure to Community." I listened to it shortly after you gave this talk and was blessed by your honest sharing. As people like you, Michele, and many others share with others your journeys with mental illness, you open the way for others to share too, even if not so publicly. I can only imagine the feelings of vulnerability at this risk you are taking, so thank you . . . to both of you! 

Community Builder

 In the CRC it depends on the individual classes( regional groups of congregations).  Some, like the one where I serve as Regional Advocate, are fairly open and receptive, and others are still at the stage where they tell people to confess their sins and the symptoms will dissipate.  At the spring meeting of Classis Eastern Canada one minister made a presentation on a pilot project to provide leave of absence for pastors suffering from a mental illness that was well received, and the next day I made a presentation about my experience with schizophrenia, and the only question I was asked when I asked if there were any questions was to know if I were willing to go make presentations to individual congregations.  And as long as my expenses are paid I have no problem doing that, but I live on Disability Income, and can't afford to travel much.  So you see, it's very uneven.  The elder who drove me to Ottawa (ON) for the meeting said that there had been several Art.17 separations between congregations and their pastors based on mental health issues, so I guess they decided to address the problem.

 

Guide

Michele, that's very good news that you have congregations wanting you to make presentations in your area. Disability Concerns has a number of people who are part of a mental health speaker's bureau who will do the same. We have speakers in Toronto and Hamilton areas in Ontario; Edmonton Alberta; Northwest Iowa; Central California; and west and northern Michigan. I'll send you a note in case you would like to be added to the list.