Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Opinions Are Like...

I was asked my opinion on an issue that a local news outlet had posted.  The article centered on the topics of physical accessibility, human dignity, and financial responsibility. Those subjects were offered in the context of the needs of one student with a medical condition. My introduction to the article was a big headline about a lawsuit with a primary visual being the offending building and a secondary, smaller, poorly composed image of a student that appeared to be harvested from a social media channel.  The bias was immediately established.

Issues aside, the thing that smacked me in the face were the responses that people offered on the motives, needs, and realities of physical difference in our society.  If a society is truly judged by how it cares for the least of its members, then this small society of opinions is doomed.   Now, I know better than to ask a crowd a complex question, and while Malcom Gladwell takes pride in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I see crowds as inherently, generally, foolish.  

I decided to take each response apart in terms of the value that it was seeking to support and found that my crowd was using the same logic that one might use when shopping for a used car.  Cost was the main driver (this accessibility issue is the price of an elevator) and that cost was evaluated against a larger bet of value-over-time, just like car shopping. Imagine the questions that come to mind when shopping for a used car: “does Sally really need such a new car?  Can she simply take the bus?  It’s only got to get her through high school and high schoolers don’t take care of anything”. My favorite: “I didn’t have a car in high school, she doesn’t need one either”.

I considered each of the value statements that the opinions offered; thought of them in terms of Bethany.  Bethany can take the bus. Bethany should use the stairs. I’m a whiner if I think Bethany should have an elevator; I should teach her to walk independently. Bethany should simply get used to functioning in society with her disability. It costs too much to support Bethany in our cash-strapped society.  I added the last opinion but given the direction the crowd was going, it’s only a matter of time before we got there.  People love Bethany but if they knew the annual cost to support her and if they amortized those cost over 10 years, their love may depreciate as quickly as the value of the used car they were considering buying. 

The article spoke briefly of living with dignity, made a brave mention of the student wanting to “be like everyone else” but the author had already inflicted too much damage and the likelihood of these feeble markers carrying any credible influence was already shot.   In short, the author unknowingly created a mob.  We’re all like that author; we create mobs every day by evaluating life with the same value streams that we use to evaluate Coke or Pepsi, choose gas from Mobil or Speedway, buy expensive shoes or cheap ones.  We assume that for a price, we can make things normal or we should get exactly what we pay for.  We construct complete models of the future in our minds that rely on the assumption that we understand what others go through every day of their lives because we know someone “like that”.  We soften it with statements like “we all carry silent burdens” and “pain is relative”.  We make decisions based on what we know, not on what we believe.  I too am guilty of this with my opinion on the article reflecting what I know AND what I believe:

I know of no braver individuals than those who live with disability.  I know of no other species that has learned to live with the reality of their condition more than those who “can-not”.  I know of no other people-group who deserves our attention more, not because of their need but because of our need to learn the lessons that they know.

I believe that we are all created equal.  I believe that love shows no boundaries.  I believe that there is more happening around us than we’re aware of.  I believe that we are capable of great things that edify the disabled, prosper society, and solidify our values in actions if we put our minds and hearts towards those efforts.  And lastly, I believe we have a long way to go.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Being Fed With Stone Soup

The quiet surgeon went on to explain how his life had gone from being the doctor to being the patient in a span of about 60 minutes.  One moment he’s a surgeon doing what he believed God had designed him to do, the next moment he’s looking at his own x-rays which reveal that he’s now a cancer victim with less than 3 years life expectancy.  Somehow, at the end of all this he was able to say “I thank God for the cancer”. 

From that sobering testimony, the pastor turned to face a tent full of individuals who have their own sobering realities stuffed into bodies that are “imperfect” by conventional standards.  He was able to face them and with words that defy logic, speak how each developmental difference was in fact more special than different, more a gift than a curse.  That one set me back a bit.  The tent was alive with human movement but little of it would be welcomed as special in most of the world.  Jesus’s absurd metaphor came to mind, the one where he says “no loving father would give a stone or a snake to a hungry child who asks for bread”.  None of the people in this tent asked to be here, none asked to have the dis-abilities that they carry.  Most have prayed not to be cured but perhaps to limp a little bit less.  Most of their caregivers prayed not for healing but for relief and from what I could see at the moment, the answer to the prayer seemed to be conditional.  The enormity of it all began to overwhelm me as I sat there with a broken daughter on my left, a heartbroken, widowed father on my right, and my still-exhausted wife cautiously handing fruit snacks across an empty seat to my left-hooking daughter.

I looked across the noisy tent and boldly used the word dis-ability in my mind as I wrestled with this.  I tried developmental difference and while it felt less offending a term, I knew that it was only putting a nicer face on an ugly reality.  These people were broken and the broken-est one was sitting right next to me trying to punch her mother. 

Then I saw his face.  The young man was a visitor and he too suffered from dis-ability.  He was dancing around with joy as he held onto a vacuum cleaner, dancing and running and pushing the thing like it was the greatest invention that life could offer.  One of the other broken people knew that this man loved vacuum cleaners and brought it to the tent for the sole purpose of affording him this joy.  Then again, I saw his face.  I looked at his eyes from 30 feet away and I saw absolutely nothing.  I saw no pain, I saw no confusion, I saw nothing but gentle love for everything that he encountered.  I closed my eyes and listened to the cacophony around me for a moment, trying for the life of me to reconcile it with the thought of someone asking for the snakes or stones.  I couldn’t logically connect the two, surely no one would ask for this.

Again, I saw his eyes.  He’d moved further into the tent, having surrendered the vacuum cleaner for two plastic rattles; the props had changed but the eyes were the same – full of gentle love for whatever he was encountering.  Something about those eyes and the fact that they were here at this point in MY time was starting to mesh. I nearly laughed as the image of Charleston Hesston playing the movie role of Judah Ben Hur popped into my mind: “I know this man”!  My silly mind made a dramatic, Hollywood connection – those eyes.  I was beginning to wonder if those two people were destined to travel all this way simply to teach me a non-verbal lesson?  That lesson was becoming clearer each time I saw his eyes. 

Somehow his soft expression taught me that it’s not my job to understand broken-ness.  It’s not my job to fix broken-ness.  It’s not my job to judge broken-ness.  The only job I had was to be here in this tent, on this evening, with these people, for this moment.  My job was to see this young man’s eyes – to see his mother’s smile and to know that of all the broken things in this tent, I was the broken-est.  Me, not Bethany, not the surgeon, not the visitor, me.  His eyes were perfect, mine were occluded.  His eyes taught me that all are broken, even the perfect one was broken and I was guilty of having begun to look at the world “with and not through the eye”. 

This tent on that night became the most beautiful place on earth because to be broken is to surrender to a power that is far greater than mine.  The people in this tent know that surrender and they feel this power; they’ve mastered seeing through the eye and they know that  “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me”.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Guy Named Bob

I glanced down at my watch as I waited for my ride and by the time I looked up, Bob was standing in front of me.  Bob had done me a small service that took roughly the amount of time that I’d spent glancing down and making a note of the hour.  By the time I’d seen midnight on the dial, Bob had shooed away a wild-eyed, homeless man who who came bounding across the street and was about to hit me up for money, point out where he lived, and warn me of the impending apocalypse; or at least in the millisecond that it all happened, that’s what I think he was attempting to do.

Bob calmly told the gentleman “hey, wut-chew botherin’ deze fellas for? Wut dey done to you? Go on down da street and bodder sommin’ eltse”.  Bob looked at me for a moment then continued scanning the ground for plastic bottles and metal cans.  He had on a large backpack and carried a garbage bag full of cans over his shoulder and it was clear that he’d not seen an easy life in a good, long, while; if ever.  Bob continued to look at me once his bottles were accounted for and while he never directly asked for money, he did make mention of the service he’d just provided.  I reached in my pocket and discreetly handed him a dollar in the same way you’d feed a single pigeon in a park.

Bob smiled and began telling me about his turn-around in life.  Home in Dallas, parole for another 18 months, now on the verge of finally attaining a coveted “cooking license” which was something that to him seemed to be a previously unattainable goal in life.  He was so proud of how close he was to achieving what in his world must have been the equivalent of an MBA.  It was his ticket to a steady job, respect, and a life on the straight-and-narrow.  “Been havin’ a bit of trouble in my past and I ain’t lookin ta go back to dat, no-sir; not goin’ back”.  I congratulated him on his pending success and encouraged him to continue pursuing goals no matter how crazy they seemed.  I asked him how long he’d been out here on the streets and this is when his past in Dallas came up along with a clear distinction of his condition as compared to the others who were beginning to flock around us.  Someone must have seen or sensed the buck I handed out.  

I asked him his name, shook his hand, and introduced myself.  Bob was proud of the fact that he had “late-entry” privileges at the shelter where he lived.  I mentioned that, given the hour, I was surprised that any shelter would let him in or even have space available.  “I haz special priv-lid-ge, since I’m cookin’.  Dey let me come in late but I’m still up at 5:30, gettin’ ready for the day”.  Bob reached around and set the large backpack on the ground in front of him.  He stooped down even lower to open the top zipper and explained how he’d just found this pack, abandoned somewhere up the street.  “It’s a nice pack, gotta’ full sleepin’ bag in it too!  Giz chilly here at night and Iz lookin’ fo someone who needs a blanket or summin’”.  Bob had a servant’s heart and his situation made it no less important to share that gift of his.  I went on to once again congratulate him on his cooking certificate, reminding him that even if he should fail in his new endeavor to pick himself up, and try again.  He seemed to know exactly what I was speaking of and while I thought I was counseling him, he was in fact, teaching me a lesson.

My ride came and I wished Bob the best. I offered him a prayer as I left but he seemed unaffected and inattentive by it and to it. I told him that I’d keep on praying for his continued success - I warmly touched his shoulder and headed towards the car and as I sat back in the seat, I couldn’t help but see Bob as he’d already moved on, offering a woman his newly found backpack.  She wanted neither the warmth of the bag, the generosity of the offer, nor the sincere friendship that Bob was offering her; she wanted money.  Bob appeared to take no offense to her loud demands for cash.

I have no doubt that there are Angels that roam the streets, Devils as well, and it’s nearly impossible to identify the two if the eyes to your heart are closed.  Late last night, I met one of those two, perhaps both; I don’t really know.  As I rode along I could’t help but think about how a small girl with little vocabulary and virtually no vision, from a  remote region in a far away country, taught me to see and listen far beyond what my eyes and ears are capable of allowing.  Perhaps Bob was the reason for my business trip in the first place, not that I should serve him but that he would direct me.  Big lessons in small packages is what I’ve been afforded and I’m thankful that I have a chance to grow from it.  I clearly, haz special priv-lid-ge; been havin’ a bit of trouble in my past and I ain’t lookin ta go back to dat, no-sir; not goin’ back”!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Empty Rooms, Full Hearts

In her bedroom I can still smell the scent of her shampoo; I run my fingers along the top edge of the Dutch door and remember seeing that little face laughing out at me in the middle of the night.  At that time I was more emotionally than physically tired from trudging up and down those stairs for any one of a million reasons, and for nearly as many times.  Sometimes on those trips I’d have to negotiate things that had been ripped off the walls and tossed out the door and down the stairs.  I’d crawl over pictures, bedding, clothes, diapers, and confront a half-dressed, hysterically laughing face.  Pure delight, largely on her part.

Now I look at those stairs, that door, the pretty pink walls.  I look at the window that I’d replaced after the night I heard glass break and ran up those same stairs to see a little hind-end pointed at me while her upper-end leaned out the window and joyfully ripped flowers out of the flower box, laughing as she dropped them to the dark ground below.  I look with eyes that are as sad as they are happy.  I look because most of the time I intentionally avoid this room as is represents an emotional closet that’s stuffed full of memories and I fear that if I open the door, they could tumble out and suffocate me in either joy or sorrow; sometimes the gamble is simply far too great.

This room holds a lifetime of complicated learning for all of us, important information that sometimes held the criticality of life or death.  Now that she was gone, my worst fear became realized; what happens when we finally have to let go of that little hand?  Only weeks before, our daughter Bethany had moved to Benjamin’s Hope, an adult foster care facility that on paper seemed too good to be real.  It is a place that emphasizes the beauty of all individuals, the dignity that belongs to them, the care and relationship that underpins the belief and values of not only all of the staff whether direct care or loosely connected, but equally so by all of the residents who live there.  The facilities alone are so beautifully sited that they made me long to live there.  I’m a marketing cynic, the result of years of over-promised and under-delivered sales efforts.  This place however, seemed to hang it’s hope on a promise from the Bible rather than from the spin of a Director, my cynicism began to soften.

Honestly speaking, we always privately assumed that we’d live forever so that we could care for her.  The realization was quite different.  After 19 years of endless, repetitive, 24/7 care, my wife and I were beyond tired.  The energy that we had and the compassion and love we held came from a residual blessing of a loving Lord who promised he’d get us through this and that her life was His plan, we were merely support instruments.  Beloved and special instruments in His eyes, but instruments none-the-less.  For us to let go of her hand, to entrust it to another, and to potentially end the day-to-day burden (or joy as the Apostle Paul would proclaim) of caring for Bethany was a fearful, welcome, horrifying, and joyous occasion. 

Interestingly enough, the very thing we feared became the thing that helped us accept the change: the residents.  Our fears would be put to ease by people who had no idea of our fears but were uniquely gifted to help us learn; these were the people who are Benjamin’s Hope, they became our hope.  How could anyone care for and develop an intimate, loving, relationship with our largely blind, non-verbal, incontinent, tiger-shark of a daughter; this complex puddle of emotion and biology that we know as Bethany?  My ignorance was to be quickly and gently corrected as the residents;  they know blindness here but it’s the blindness of the soul they work on.   They know non-verbal here but it’s the inability to speak from the heart that they tackle.  They’re fully aware of incontinence but it has little to do with briefs, they know how the soul should be incontinent with the emotion of joy.   They taught us this with loud, joyful greetings when we walk in the door, with endless hugs that invigorate the soul, with direct-to-the-heart questions when they sense that we we’re struggling with something.  They have a gift for healing while they themselves are being healed.  While the staff may be the heart of Jesus, the Residents prove time and again they are the hands of Jesus. 

The staff are gracious guides who assist and encourage, they offer assurances of creativity and control, community and activity.  They are people who have a gift as well but the real gift of healing comes from the very people who, in my ignorance, I assumed were there to be served.  They, in fact were to begin serving me by first answering my question of “who” will take that little hand, then by showing me how to live.  That little hand is now usually quick to shove us out the door after a visit.  Some of her best and brightest laughter comes through video snippets, or photographs shared by staff who have fallen in love with her.  At times it pains me so to see her so happy, so engaged, trying new things, always smiling.  I jealously watch and with a full heart give praise in a confused prayer of thanksgiving. 

The pink bedroom that smells of her shampoo is eerily silent, not unlike when I’d sit alone in it, bathed in warm sunlight while she was off at school.  No school bus will rumble down our driveway today, however.   Nor tomorrow.  No giggles will be heard from over the top of the Dutch door in the middle of the night.  We let go of that little hand and entrusted it to a power far greater than ours, yet He allowed us to keep one small fragment as a “thank you” for preparing her for His ministry: He left her little hand forever on our hearts.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Praying With One Eye Open

I pray with one eye open at these services, as I fear that I may miss a significant event such as a tossed toy, a runaway resident, a pinch and a shove, or even the return of the Lord.  Any of those have an equal chance of happening if I close both eyes to pray. 

We’ve been attending church here for about 3 months and honestly; it’s a beautiful experience.  Imagine mashing the spiritual passion and activity of a Pentecostal church* service with the unpredictability of live television.  Perhaps that’s what’s missing in most mainstream Christian churches today, passion and unpredictability. 

Here, in a service designed for Special Needs individuals with as broad a range of needs as you can imagine, The Holy Spirit not only has, but exercises free range and while I have no doubt that [He’s] present at all the other churches, I think His preference is here, with the people who love him unconditionally.  They love Him with screams, slurs, and wiggles.  They love Him through plastic microphones that they brought from home, plastic toys, and rattles, occasionally lifting up an empty DVD case as a testament of total surrender to His power.  Some clutch a dollar bill in their tight hand, waiting for the collection plate to be passed, others hide in the back.  Some worship him through song, bolting from their chairs and leaping onto the little stage at the first few chords of a familiar song.  They wrestle the microphone away from the worship leader and launch into their own interpretation of the song – unaware of our conventions of inappropriate behavior. 

It’s beautiful, the mismatched clothing; neckties worn over tee shirts with shorts, black socks and dress shoes, all easily overlooked when you see the most important feature in the set:  the huge smile and full-body engagement between singer and song.  I’m witnessing a real-time, direct pipeline between man and Maker.  The cacophony is unnerving, frightening, and distant for those who can’t see what’s really happening here but for me and for the moment, numbers are meaningless, logic is a farce, hope is unneeded, and love in its truest sense is pouring through. 

Times like this I feel silly and ashamed about the things that consume my life.  My work worries seem so insignificant, my assumptions about personal power, status, and meaning, finances, you name it – anything that has to do with me; they all become a drone of chatter in a world full of impotent noise.  I suddenly feel somewhat vulnerable for having placed so much faith in myself and I’m not sure how to move forward, yet another reason to keep one eye open.

In that uneasiness I hear a rush from the back as one resident sees the bread and grapes that are intended for the communion service that was yet to happen.  Communion in the church is a sacrament, a Holy action that involves the eating of one little piece of bread and taking a small sip of juice or wine. It’s done as a reminder of the sacrifice that Christ made – offering himself to save us.  People who partake of communion are to do so with a “glad heart”; this resident shot down the aisle when no one was looking, grabbed a handful of bread and shoved it in his mouth.  Had no one stopped him, he’d surely have made short order of the grapes as well (rather than messy grape drink they offer a single grape).  Another reason to pray with one eye open.

The invitation is given to take part in communion and row-by-row, the attendees make their way to the front of the church.  There are no straight lines here and only a mild semblance of order.  Some are able to walk, others are unable to walk and roll their wheelchairs, walkers, and other devices forward, and more still are reminded to only walk.  At the front, communion’s offered in bread or gluten free wafers by a patient, warm-eyed pastor whom lovingly whispers: “this is Christ’s body, broken for you”.  A typical response from the worshiper is: “Glory be to God”…not here though.  From one worshiper a loud, booming voice yells out: “Yeah man!” from another comes a sheepish giggle, and yet from another, a loud scream.   “Yeah man”… dare I ever show such exuberance at worship?  I fear not.  Lesson learned, this time with both eyes open.

Bethany is with us as we take our turn at the table, it’s the first time Bethany has ever taken communion.  Typically in the church, you have to make a confession of faith – the public admission that Jesus is your Savior; from there you’re allowed to join in the sacrament.  Bethany will never be able to utter such things nor will she hold our concepts of what God is, in her thoughts.  Come to think of it, it’s the first time Bethany has ever been with us this long in church.  Most places frown on screaming, and rarely does the crowd openly giggle and smile when an audible and impressive fart is offered. For these very reasons, she’s spent her entire spiritual life out of the sanctuary, something that one day I’ll be held spiritually accountable for.  For now though, she’s here and it’s her turn.  She gobbles down the bread, eats the grape, punches no one, and cheerfully walks back to her seat with us. 

This time, in our seats I give thanks.  I drop into a heartfelt, deep prayer thanking God for placing Bethany in our lives.  I thank him for the struggle that this has been and the struggle that it continues to be, how it’s shaped our lives, how she as an instrument of His grace has moved so many people’s lives and how through her blindness, so many have learned how to see. 

I prayed this time, long and hard – experiencing that direct line with God that I’d seen earlier in the service. I didn’t care any longer about what I may miss, if something would hit me or if someone would run off.  This time I prayed with all my heart and saw more than I ever could have imagined; with both eyes closed.

*Pentecostal churches place an emphasis on direct, personal, experiences from God which may result in attendees suddenly speaking in different languages, experiencing bodily transformations, performing acts of Devine healing, and other metaphysical activity not common in West Michigan.