Celebrating the birth of Jesus: the God who became disabled in man.

It is hard for me to conceive of the god of the philosophers.  You know this god – omniscience, omnipresent, omnipotent and all other “omni” type monikers.  Weakness, contingency, and other creaturely traits don’t fit within the vocabulary, which speaks of this god.  The unmoved mover was Aristotle’s chosen name for this deity, last Thomas Aquinas would Christianize that name and use it as proof for the existence of God.   But the unmoved mover is just that – unmoved, the cause of all causes.  It doesn’t even watch the world as it goes spinning into chaos.  Plato, in his Timeous, went to great lengths to construct a world where this god wasn’t touched by this world, a world of decay and imperfection.   Moral and spiritual darkness, a world in decay without hope or joy shouldn’t impinge upon or concern the god who is.  If, and that is a big and unbelievable if, this god should become, heaven forbid, god incarnate he or she would take on the form of superman, perhaps resembling Nietzsche’s uberman, if not certainly Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man.  He or she would be without defect, without blemish, the sum of physical greatness and mental perfection.

Yet, this is not the God we celebrate on Christmas.  We celebrate the God/man who took on the flesh of a baby born in scandal to poor Jewish parents.  In the broadest of terms, he was born into a socially disabled family.  Disabled by income and by the premarital pregnancy, Joseph and Mary had found themselves at the margins of religious and political life.  Born into the world, the baby Jesus was at the mercy of a teenage parents and even the vary empire who had forced his parents to travel so far for a census.  No one can look at a newly born baby and say this is the sum strength, power, and magnificence for even babies born to be king shit their diapers and suffer colds.  But to celebrate Jesus’ birth isn’t merely the celebration of the birth of some king, it’s the celebration of God coming to earth.

God!  The God who is the ground of all being.  The God who encompasses all of space and time with room to spare, the God who created existence with a word, that God took on this flesh.  Our creeds tell us this was an equal parts event both fully God and Man.  How to explain that event escapes the capacity of language.

For that God to take on this flesh meant that self-imposed limitations must have taken place – limitations not from necessity but out of love for the creature.  How else could we explain it?  Limited God, dare I say it (?), became disabled for our-sakes.  Isn’t that what Paul is getting at in Phi. 2:6-8?  It says,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8 he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Jesus gave up the privileges of being God by taking on flesh.  True, unlike those who have disabilities, God chose to enter our world in this way.  For all “able bodied” are disabled spiritually and are unable to see the Light.  God brought the Light to us, as close to us as possible.  Jesus came to us, a tactile God, so that we might feel, touch, hear, and be given ears and eyes once again to see and hear the good news that God has come into the world.

If all of this is true, then any pretense of coming to the level of those with disabilities is demolished not reinforced.  It is demolished in that our disabilities prevent us from seeing correctly. Only in Christ’s divinity, is he both able to meet us as we are and yet see us as we truly are.  That is to say, he meets us in the flesh, in our weakness and contingency.  He smiles, cries, becomes angry, and lives the life of a human being.  But unlike us, he sees us.  He sees us for who we truly are.  We cannot see each other for we cover ourselves up with lies and deception.  The clothes we wear are more than the ones we put on everyday.  Our vision of one another and God is at best only partial.  We need one another so as to share with one another the partial, fragmented vision of God we each hold. The vision God has given us is a mosaic and we each, no matter what physical or mental capacity one might have, hold a fragment of the mosaic.  We cannot know what the full picture might be until we are all tied to one another, bound in the bonds of friendship.  Friendship, that’s what Christ gave to us.  The god of agnostics or the god of philosophers or the god of deists remain foreign to us as strangers but the God who became incarnate 2000 years ago came to be our friend.  So let us this Christmas not give in to the demands of consumerism but free ourselves by entering into friendship not merely with God but with Jesus who became disabled for our sakes.  Perhaps if we can accept friendship with God, we can accept friendship from those with disabilities.

My first exploration into the world of theological ethics and disabilities.

In the following, drawing upon scripture, tradition, practical reason and experience, I will argue that friendship with those who have severe and profound disabilities offers a way of living that inculcates the virtues necessary for the Church to be the Church. Implicit in this statement is that there is an “us and them” dichotomy and because there is such a split necessitates this paper. As Stanley Hauerwas rightly reminds us, we are all on a continuum of disabilities.[1] Communities such as L’Arche do not populate the Church world. They stand at the margins of Church ministries. Though doing wonderful work with people who have disabilities, these types of ministries signify the brokenness within the Church and underwrite the “us/them” dichotomy. Drawing from scripture, tradition, and personal experience, I hope to show that rather than being at the margins our friends with disabilities should sit at the heart of the Church.

My own experience with our friends who have special needs derives from a few sources. Most personally, my father was in a motorcycle accident nearly a decade ago, which has caused long-term physical and mental impairment. In addition, my home church had a vital ministry with people who have disabilities. A church I served as an associate pastor some time later had little in the way of ministry for or with those with disabilities. Finally, the tradition I belong to, The Wesleyan Church, has in its Discipline the doctrinal statement that those with severe and profound disabilities are saved. It states, “It is unconditionally effective in the salvation of those mentally incompetent from birth, of those converted persons who have become mentally incompetent, and of children under the age of accountability.”[2] However incompetent may be understood, the implications for such a doctrine are outstanding. Within a Wesleyan theological framework, those who are fully competent are not fully saved until fully in heaven. It stands to reason that those who are understood be fully saved should be those to whom the church would pay the most attention to with their resources and attention.[3] Yet, a thorough search of The Wesleyan Church’s website yields little in this regard. Out of my own experiences, reflections and this odd reality within my own tradition has caused me to search for ways in which the church may remedy this discrepancy.

Scriptural Witness: The Gospels, Paul, and David

Scripture is replete with both narrative examples, laws, and commands concerning people with disabilities. In fact, scripture can be as helpful as it can be hurtful when thinking through these issues. In the OT, proverbs and parts of the law in the Torah speak of sin causing the physical and mental impairments. In the NT, Jesus says of the man born blind that his blindness comes not from sin so much as it does so that God’s glory may be shown. God causing disabilities so that God might receive glory helps navigate the treatment of our friends as much as naming moral sin as the cause. The causation then of disabilities appears to be in dispute and whatever the cause, social interaction remains the scope of this investigation. Knowing that those who have disabilities by and large live within the margins of societies, the key then is to look at how stories of marginalized characters were treated. Beginning with Jesus, then Paul, and finally a look at a Mephibosheth, I will show that in Jesus, God has shown a preference for those who live on the confined spaces of society.

Despite religious categories of clean and unclean, Jesus gives attention to those who sit at the confined spaces of society. John 4, Jesus takes time to rest near a well while his disciples go on to get supplies. This well, the narrator tells us, is in Samaria. Good Jews do not associate with Samaritans. Jesus finds himself very comfortable speaking to this woman, comfortable enough to speak about her dubious past. This woman, like Samaria, is on the margins as she has had multiple husbands and lives with a man who is not her current husband. Day time soap operas are made of such stories. He asks her for water, and he offers her eternal water – water that cures your thirst. Jesus chooses her to reveal to first that he is the promised messiah. He does not condemn her or engage in divisive rhetoric about religion. He meets her where she is at, and she is changed and consequently her entire village changes too. Jesus bewilders his disciples by such acts and he continuously bewilders us today. What is interesting in this exchange is that Jesus and the woman offer to each other gifts. There resides a mutuality and trust that makes possible life. She trusts him with knowledge about her life and Jesus trusts her with the knowledge that he is the promised messiah.

Those who lie on the outskirts of society, who live in institutions, suffer from fear, hurt, loneliness. The woman at the well was socially disabled by her past. However, she is the one who brings salvation to her village. Jesus overcame her feelings of isolation and hurt through her inclusion into his story. The disciples, who knew more about Jesus than the woman, were still left in the dark about the identity of Jesus and his true identity. Fellowship with the vulnerable allows for possibilities of understanding Jesus, which would not be otherwise available.

More than using such occasions for teaching opportunities for the disciples, Jesus befriended the marginal. The religious and political leaders, the antagonists in the Gospels, label him a drunkard and a glutton because he has spent an extravagant amount of time with the outcasts of the religious society. The story of Zacchaeus exemplifies this.[4] Zacchaeus, a tax collector and, therefore, an unpopular and marginal character, eagerly awaits Jesus’ visit to his town. He climbs a tree just so he could get a good seat at the parade. Jesus responds to his enthusiasm by joining Zacchaeus for dinner. At the meal, Zaccheaus becomes so overwhelmed that he declares that he will return a majority of what he has taken from the people in his tax dealings. Jesus then pronounces that salvation has come to his house. What is most extraordinary about this story is the table fellowship. Table fellowship for Jews is an intimate space where only friends and family are allowed. The table fellowship, which Jesus participated in, allows for questions about who is at the table. Who is allowed? Who is invited?

Jesus not only associated and privileged the marginal he taught that they should be so. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells of what will happen in the last days.[5] In this particular passage Jesus says that those who serve the under resourced are serving not only the under resourced but Jesus himself. Behind the eyes of each person who finds themselves on the margins lies Jesus’ presence. The actions towards the under resourced, whether for or against, are taken into account by God in the final judgment.   How we treat those who find themselves on the outskirts of society whether that is financially, socially, or physically, Jesus resides there.

We have looked at Jesus to make the case that Jesus befriends those on the margin and also that how we treat them matters deeply to our relationship with God, but what about the rest of the witness of scripture? In I Cor. 12, Paul argues against the privileging of only one gift. He argues that each person has been given the manifestation of the Spirit that has been given for up-building of the church. Furthermore, he states, “On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member…”[6] Those within the Church who appear to be of lesser importance or incapable of giving to the up-building of the church are the very ones who are to be treated with honor and dignified. In relation to the body, Paul says we honor our reproductive organs by clothing them. Now relating people who have special needs with the reproductive organs of the body is not flattering. However, with some thought, the powerful point opens up that those who are thought of being unable or incapable of adding to the life of the Church are the very ones who make possible life.

This way of thinking for Paul, honoring and giving importance to the weaker members, is the very way God operates in the world. Earlier in I Cor. 1-18-31, Paul assaults the very notions wisdom and power of the world. All that the world has thought to be power and wisdom was shown to be foolishness by God through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. God chose to do this and God chose the weak, the foolish, and the marginal to announce the Gospel to the world of supposed power and wisdom. God operates by and through people whom the world considers to be unable to do that very thing.

This logic finds itself through the entire witness of scripture. One final story comes from the OT in II Samuel 9. Mephibosheth, Saul’s only remaining heir, lives in Jerusalem disabled by lame feet. Rather than have him killed, the now king of Isreal, David invites Mephibosheth to daily join the meals at David’s house. He is not only an honored guest but a part of the family. Surrounded by great warriors and accomplished politicians, Mephibosheth ate and shared table fellowship with them all.

Friendship, honor, dignity, mutuality and table fellowship characterize God’s treatment of the marginalized. Each theme fuels the imagination for possibilities ministry that create centralized space within the walls of the church for people on the margins, specifically those with disabilities. These themes will take on flesh in the following section on practitioners.

Practitioners: Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier and L’Arche

As it currently stands, L’Arche symbolizes the contemporary scene for effective ministry with our friends who have disabilities. That is to say they operate apart from and outside of the walls of the church. L’Arche, though begun by a Christian, takes no doctrinal stand so that it may operate within a diversity of cultures. Not only are there Christian oriented L’Arche communities but there are also Muslim operated L’Arche communities.[7] In the following, Henri Nouwen and Jean Vaneir, two of the most well known members of L’Arche, will offer examples of contemporary significance.

Adam: God’s Beloved by Henri Nouwen offers for us a glimpse into to the world of L’Arche. “L’Arche is an international federation of communities, based on the Beatitudes and founded by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964.”[8]      Jean Vanier initially started them when he invited two young men to live with him. Out of that experience, L’Arche was born. Important to note is that he had no other plan than to invite these new friends into his life and to live with them. “L’Arche believes that ‘people with a mental handicap often possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity, and directness’ and that ‘they are a living reminder to the wider world of the essential value of the heart’.”[9] Nouwen, a well-known Catholic theologian and spiritual leader, who taught at Harvard, moved to Day Break Community in Toronto, part of L’Arche, to live with the community. There he was asked to devote part of his daily schedule to helping Adam.

Adam, at the time in his 20s, had been born with epilepsy. Later it would be discovered that he had hearing impairments too. Moreover, he never learned to talk. Because of these disabilities and the doctor missteps, Adam was totally and completely dependent upon others to care for him.[10] His parents, who had another child with disabilities named Mike, spent most of Adam’s life trying to find a community that would care for Adam as they aged. They could not even find a place for Adam in their local church.[11] Finally, after many prayers and years of searching, they found L’Arche.

Adam had only been living in L’Arche for a short time before Nouwen came to live there. In Adam, Nouwen found a spiritual leader. According to Nouwen, Adam had few distractions and attachments as well as few ambitions to fill his interior life, Adam was free from what otherwise inhibits spiritual growth. This detachment from worldly desires of ambition and achievement produced within Adam an inner light. He says, “Like Jesus, his belovedness, his likeness to God, his mission of peace could be acknowledged only by those who were willing to welcome him as one sent by God.”[12] In attending to Adam, Nouwen found that the urges inculcated by society for success based upon appearance, material wealth, and intellectual success quieted down. Adam allows space for Nouwen to see Nouwen for who he truly is, the beloved of God who is unconditionally loved. For Nouwen, Adam would ground visions of grandeur and speculative theology.

He recounts that caring for Adam, dressing him, feeding him, brushing his teeth, and spending time with him was difficult at first. Over time, this became easier as Nouwen began to learn Adam’s language. “Adam was communicating with me, and he was consistent in reminding me that he wanted and needed me to be with him unhurriedly and gently. He was clearly asking me if I was willing to follow his rhythm and adapt my ways to his needs. I found myself beginning to understand a new language, Adam’s language.”[13] Language becomes key for entering into the world of our vulnerable friends. Language, like all new languages, takes time and immersion into that world. In learning Adam’s language, Nouwen underwent an inner change where he saw Adam as his spiritual guide and discovered gifts within Adam necessary for the Church.

Jean Vanier, in From Brokenness to Community his recorded lectures at Harvard, underscores much of what has been pointed out by Nouwen. He states, “And I come here to tell you how much life these people have given me, that they have an incredible gift to bring to our world, that they are a source of hope, peace and perhaps salvation for our wounded world, and that if we are open to them, if we welcome them, they give us life and lead us to Jesus and the good news.”[14] Here, Vanier further specifies the possible gifts the vulnerable have to offer to the Church. These gifts no less entail the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love necessary for the Church to be the Church within the World. What connects “us” to “them” for Vanier is the need for communion, compassion and community.[15] This need is an emotional need and one that is felt by all. The more able-bodied person finds success, the more lonely they become. This becomes all the more powerful when those whom we consider to be the broken reveal to us our own brokenness.

Vanier picks up on what Nouwen learned in his time with Adam, language matters. The language spoken by those who have severe and profound disabilities is an unspoken language. Knowing body language and what the body communicates opens the doors to the community to which the Church is called to. To know that language must mean that the Church spends time with and be with the vulnerable for long periods of time. Learning a language means learning culture. In learning the culture, those who live in a context that seemingly demands constant flux to keep ahead of the competition will learn the need for constancy of place and space.

That language can also be the language of those with mental disabilities whose speech patterns may be different from ours. Hauerwas tells of Gary who happened to have mental disabilities and how the local church Hauerwas attended included Gary in the worship service.   “Gary also read Scripture. It would take a long time. However for the church to learn to wait for the lesser member to speak in the Pauline sense is to witness to the world a different way of living in time. We live by slowing down and saying with our lives that the world will not be saved by frantic activity. If time has already been redeemed by Jesus, we learn to wait on the salvation of the Lord by taking time to listen to our weakest members.”[16] Learning the language of our friends who happen to have disabilities may also be learning the practices that announce salvation to the world.

Lastly, Vanier also points out that there are three practices that make for the community. The first is eating together around the same table. The second is praying together. And the third is celebrating together.[17] These practices easily correspond to the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Church gathers at the table, prays together, and then celebrates what God has done through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Knowing the language of our friends aids us in knowing if each participant would want to partake of the Eucharist or rather receive a blessing. Knowing their language includes and opens up doors of participation.

Friends, like Adam, open up new possibilities for understanding how we do Church. It implies that the Church becomes multi-lingual. The grammar of faith includes multiple languages and with it multiple groups of people. Adam also ensures that the Church is not to be caught up in the need to compete with the World by slowing down the Church in its practices. This is achieved through learning new languages. Vanier reminds us of the necessity of community that is defined by prayer, eating together, and celebration. This would include the regular practice of the Eucharist. Those who speak different languages gathered around for a feast celebrating the gift of life and community.

Practitioners Cont.: Refining Friendship

The project thus far could run the risk of using those who are most vulnerable to further the ends of the Kingdom of God. In other words, what safeguards the vulnerable from those who want to profit from their vulnerability? Surely, while sin remains the temptation to exploitation of the vulnerable will always be lurking but that is not to lapse into a skepticism that inevitably falls prey to apathy and despair. Christopher Heuertz and Christine Pohl in Friendship at the Margins; Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission explores the concept friendship and with it hospitality as a mode of mission for the Church. [18] Here, I will explore more the concept of friendship as they have presented it knowing that good friendship entails a certain degree of hospitality.[19] Practicing friendship and hospitality with our vulnerable friends will help to safeguard the Church’s practices from exploitation.

Pohl and Heuertz write, “Jesus offers us friendship, and that gift shapes a surprisingly subversive missional paradigm. A grateful response to God’s gift of friendship involves offering that same gift to others— whether family or strangers, coworkers or children who live on the street. Offering and receiving friendship breaks down the barriers of “us” and “them” and opens up possibilities of healing and reconciliation.”[20] The authors begin at the right place; that is Jesus. God through Jesus offers to all friendship. Friendship is at the heart because reconciliation is as the heart of what Jesus is doing in the entire world.[21] That unqualified friendship to all goes against Aristotle’s notion of friendship based upon equality of virtue. Aristotle envisions a friendship based upon complete equality. Befriending someone who cannot share in exact and equal ways does not fit this paradigm. The friendship offered to the world by Jesus does not offer a quid pro quo. It is a gracious act to the other. What is most remarkable is that those who Pohl and Heuertz offer friendship to them. Even more remarkable is the friendship offered by people like Adam to others. Certainly, this is an act of grace. These friendships refuse to manipulate the other in hopes that they will believe or act in some such way.[22] These friendships, rooted in the model established by God through Jesus, accept the other in hopes of establishing a relationship of trust, truth-telling, and mutuality.

Pohl and Heuertz reflect deeply upon the incarnation and that God dwelt amongst us. For them, this deeply challenges cause/driven models of mission. “Cause-driven models of mission, advocacy and relief often allow contributors/ donors to provide help at a distance, captured by the concern but disconnected from the actual persons most affected by it.”[23] These relationships create a dependency model and lead to manipulation. Heuertz’ challenges the “grant-giving culture” that offers conditional relationships that run contrary to the model offered to us in Christ. Heuertz’s commitment to his friends protects himself and his friends from relationships weakened by manipulation and. Models of mission and ministry based on friendship characterized by fidelity and trust allows for an ongoing community of love.[24] Friendship of this quality is by nature vulnerable and open. It risks manipulation, hurt, and pain in hopes of creating community.

This friendship also feeds into advocacy within the larger world. That is to say it is a political act. Advocacy for justice becomes a personal matter when it is our friends who are in trouble. For Heuertz and Pohl, that means advocating specifically for those who are financially under-resourced but can be easily expanded to include our friends with special needs. That advocacy includes fighting for their existence in society to be sure but also that there are adequate resources available for their flourishing. Moreover, it challenges us to rethink how we spend our time and our resources. Friendships undermine our tendency to locate the problem “out there” and to try to fix it at a distance. “… Friendship gives an urgency to our work for justice, to our search for ways to affect the decisions of multinationals and governments. Friends who are poor challenge our lifestyles of consumption when they build generous and gracious lives out of very few material resources.”[25] In other words, leaving the responsibility of care and happiness of our friends with special needs solely to any government betrays our commitments to them as friends and loved ones. Changing the church budget to accommodate the needs of our friends further underwrites the commitment necessary to live with one another as friends.

Fundamental to these friendships is mutuality and trust. If only one person in the relation feels that they have gifts to offer to the other then, the relationship will not reach its fullest potential. True friendship allows for both to offer gifts of hospitality, resources, and spiritual nourishment. This is best expressed in sharing a meal together. Table fellowship allows for these friendships to be nourished and breaks down social boundaries.[26] The authors rightly note that, ” An important spiritual discipline around meals is to ask ourselves regularly, With whom am I eating? Who is invited, and who is left out? Our meals become kingdom meals especially when people who are usually overlooked find a place— a place of welcome and value.”[27] Returning to an early observation, the Eucharist as the Church’s meal offers a way to ask these same questions. Who is at our table? With whom are we eating?

If the friendship is about hospitality and mutuality, the way we order our space and time will greatly be affected. Our vulnerable friends who participate in worship need constancy in the order of life. They live their lives, but structure, and drastic changes to that structure greatly affect them. This goes against the grain of church growth models that promote continuous change in the order of service, décor, and technology so as to stay relevant and interesting. That structure forms their lives, and if heeded forms the lives of all who participate in the constant order of worship.[28]

Bringing it home: Ways Forward for the Church

John Swinton rightly grounds ministry to those who have severe and profound disabilities. He states, “Negotiating the world of disability and the world of people who don’t consider themselves disabled can be tragic, frustrating and deeply joyful all at the same time! However such encounters carry the potential to transform our friendships, our politics and our spirituality.”[29] This observation helps to curtail any idealist notions of working with our friends who have disabilities. The stories of the practitioners from which I draw upon would all agree to this observation. These friendships go beyond notions of inner satisfaction knowing that you are doing some good. Rather, these friendships are political acts that make possible a world where time and space are reordered that challenge the Western World’s priorities of efficiency and effectiveness, producer and consumer, and need for achievement.

When I was just entering my teenage years and my father was pastoring, my mother had a wonderful yet unnerving idea for our church’s annual Christmas play. “Let’s have those in our special needs class be the stars of the show!” The script was written; the parts were cast, and the play was rehearsed. My mother strategically included people from other adult Sunday school classes to also participate so as to include all. When Mary, played by Brenda (who happened to have downs syndrome), along with Joseph, (another special needs class member) arrived at the inn, they were met by the innkeeper played by Dennis. Dennis had autism and Tourette’s syndrome, and was often quite vocal when changes occurred in the service. With the whispered prompting of my Dad, (his close friend who stood next to him as support), Dennis loudly proclaimed, “NO ROOM IN THE INN!”, but had first interjected “Turn down that damn light?” The spotlight in the balcony was blinding him! We all chuckled at his simple blunt honesty.[30]

What this story suggests to the church is that the friendship with those who have disabilities means spending intentional time outside of Sunday’s service. Friendships cannot be built within an hour a week. It signifies that participation within the life of the church must also be intentional and imaginative, going beyond what is taken as “normal”. Dennis’ outburst reminds us that professionalism does not necessarily triumph, but community does. Community too is made possible by truth telling.

I served as an assistant pastor at a fast-growing church in Williston, North Dakota. When I left the church to come to Duke, they were near 800 in average attendance, and yet Stephen was the only one in all the church who had a disability! The church building was new enough that it was accessible for all, and yet there was only one disabled person out of 800! Having or providing accessibility does not imply attendance. Nor does having a large and growing church necessitate a healthy ministry to the vulnerable.

In contrast, my home church had a rather large group of special needs friends. This was accomplished in part by the relationship established with the Black Hills Workshop. The Black Hills Workshop provides semi-independent living as well as training and jobs for those who have disabilities. Black Hills Workshop would often bring some residents over to participate in worship. Most every week congregants would go and pick others up, as the church provided a Sunday school class for them. What stands as the starkest of contrasts is that, unlike the church in Williston, my home church was not very accessible for those with handicaps. It was a two-story building built into the side of a hill, without an elevator. Those with wheelchairs and walkers had to go outside of the church and walk around one end of the building and down to access the lower level. And yet that Sunday school class was “a hit” – important not only to those who attended but to the entire church body, as well.

In Jesus’ prayer, in John 17, right before he is betrayed by Judas and sentenced to crucifixion by Pilate, he asks that we might be one as he is one with the Father. That in that unity, the world, would see the love of God. L’Arche offers a profound witness to the world and to the Church. The witness it offers to the Church is that it is not united with its friends. If they are the saved and are found more at home in communities that lie outside of the walls of the Church then, it is with little wonder that the world does not see the love of God within the walls of the Church. Friendship, which entails table fellowship at the Eucharist, offers a way forward for the Church to become united to friends such as Adam and Dennis. If, and only if, these practices are made primary will the Church grow in the virtues necessary to reflects to the World the reality of the resurrection and the salvation to come.

Works Cited

 

Nouwen, Henri J. M.. Adam; God’s Beloved. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, 1997.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Approaching the End; Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and

Life. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, 2013.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Dispatches from the Front; Theological Engagements with the Secular.

Duke University Press. Durham, 1994

Hauerwas, Stanley; Jean Vanier. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of

Weakness (Resources for Reconciliation) (Kindle Locations 45-47). Kindle Edition.

Heuertz, Christopher L.; Pohl, Christine D. (2010-02-25). Friendship at the Margins:

Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (Resources for Reconciliation). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

 

The Discipline of the Wesleyan Church. Wesleyan Publishing House. Indianapolis, 2012.

Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. Paulist Press. Mahwah, 1992.

[1] Hauerwas, Stanley. Approaching the End; Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, 2013. Pg. 222   In the chapter titled Disability: An Attempt to Think With Hauerwas states, “The challenge for anyone who would try to reflect on the suffering of those who are described as disabled is that they must do so from the presumption that they are not disabled.” Perhaps the bodies of the disabled do not work as well as ours but their souls are fully functioning and our souls gasp and grope for life in a world that reduces us to consumers who must prove their worth by efficient and effective production of goods.[1] It seems as if our abilities are what ultimately disable us. He continues on to develop an account of vulnerability drawing from Xavior’s work on Jean Vanier and Fr. Thomas Philippe. Vanier and Philippe frame the discussion around vulnerability. All people find themselves, either early on in life or near the end, to be vulnerable and at the total care and dependence upon others. Though one wonders what gains can be made in calling people vulnerable rather than disabled. On the one hand this appears to overinflate the category making it impossible to actually address what is at issue but on the other it causes the us/them reality to disappear. What will be seen is that friendship is more determinative for the relationship than relationships determined by physical and mental capacities.

[2] The Discipline of the Wesleyan Church. Wesleyan Publishing House. Indianapolis, 2012. Pg. 17

[3] In no way should this “anglelize” our friends which would be another form of dehumanization. Rather, the attention to our friends with disabilities should be that of the attention given to those whom we consider living saints in the able bodied world.   They are approachable, fallible humans who have a close connection with God. From them, one can learn what it means to be a friend of God.

[4] Lk 19:1-10

[5] Mt. 25:31-41

[6] Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), 1 Co 12:22–24. Italics mine.

[7] At this one point, a critique could be made against L’Arche in that they are not a confessional organization. By not taking a confessional stance, L’Arche risks losing its identity and its roots in the One who made possible the desire to live with and care for those with disabilities. But places of ministry, which find themselves outside the walls of the church and in the wilderness of the world, survive by their God given wits and wisdom, like Abraham and Sarah journeying towards the promised land.

[8] Nouwen, Henri J. M.. Adam; God’s Beloved. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 1997. Pg. 27

[9] ibid. 28

[10] Adam did not learn to talk, had hearing impairment, epileptic seizures. “Adam’s father remarks, ‘I think he suffered much, but we never knew because he could not tell us.'” Pg. 24

[11] “Adam was not fully recognized in his church, and it was painful for his parents when they learned that because of his handicap Adam could not receive the sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation with the other children of his age.” Ibid. 24

[12] Ibid. 31

[13] Ibid. 48

[14] Vanier, Jean. From Brokenness to Community. Paulist Press, Mahwah, 1992. Pg. 9

[15] Ibid. 10

[16] Stanley Hauerwas; Jean Vanier. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Resources for Reconciliation) (Kindle Locations 326-329). Kindle Edition.

[17] Kindle Locations 268-269

[18]Heuertz, Christopher L.; Pohl, Christine D. (2010-02-25). Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (Resources for Reconciliation)

[19] That friendship has to be explored as to what makes true friendship is indicative of our world where friendships are established at a click of a button. The nature of friendship that exists between my many Facebook friends and I and the friendship in which I will advocate are at odds with one another. Social network sites symbolize the decay of true friendship marked by community and hospitality.

[20] Ibid. 30

[21] For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Col. 1:19-20

[22] Befriending someone merely so you can tell them the gospel is a form of manipulation and a violation of trust. Ibid. 42

[23] Ibid. 29

[24] Ibid. 42 “Such love is self-giving and vulnerable; it puts the other person first”

[25] Ibid. 66

[26] Ibid. 81

[27] Ibid. 81 They further go on to conclude, ” … A disturbing number of congregations make it clear that they do not really want people whose lives are a mess (especially after they’ve become Christians), who aren’t cured of their problems quickly and completely, or who don’t successfully escape troubled circumstances. Our limited patience is evident in how we hide from those with ongoing troubles, how we avoid people with chronic disabilities and those who are dying.”

[28] “Constancy of place seems to me imperative if we are to be Christians who don’t abandon one another in the name of greater goods. You cannot be constantly going and coming as an assistant at L’Arche. Core members love routines, and routines create and are created by familiarity. Familiarity is what makes place “a” place.” Stanley Hauerwas; Jean Vanier. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Resources for Reconciliation) (Kindle Locations 348-350). Kindle Edition.

[29] Stanley Hauerwas; Jean Vanier. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Resources for Reconciliation) (Kindle Locations 45-47). Kindle Edition.

[30] On more than one occasion, when my dad was not preaching on a Sunday morning, Dennis would loudly say, “Ah, shit! Who is this damn preacher…” This would not be so distracting to the rest of the congregation if it were not for the fact that Dennis sat three rows from the front! Dennis gave us the gift of humility and truth telling. Without him, our Worship services could border on the edge of pretentiousness.