On God and Disability

Dan Vander Plaats was interviewed by the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. The interview was conducted in preparation for a presentation (by Dan Quist and Dan VP) at their annual Symposium on January 31, 2014.

Farmers and gardeners notice how often the Bible talks about taking care of the land. What Bible stories or promises stand out for people with disabilities?

You naturally notice verses where Jesus comes across people with disabilities. Lately I’ve been drawn to verses that have nothing to do with disability, such as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Both are about encouraging and equipping believers. Why I’m drawn to them is that there’s no asterisk, for instance “*unless you’re poor, disabled or have a mental illness.” These verses apply to everyone. So, a church that is only equipping those who are polished is not fulfilling God’s call to build up believers.

The ‘building up’ is not always what God is doing in the life of a person with disabilities. It’s also what God is doing in you and your church to enfold, support and connect with people who have disabilities. If we believe these are covenant children, as we said at their baptism, then how are we making it obvious that everyone belongs?

You can read the rest of the interview by clicking here. Thanks for sharing the 5 Stages!

Not as Much of a Blessing as You Might Think…

Living with disabilities is not as much of a blessing as you might think.

A few years ago I was at an event at the local Christian college, and afterwards I was speaking with the wife of the college president.  They had a child who was a student in Elim’s school program.

There were several conversations going on at Elim at the same time. The kind of conversations that you have when you are wondering what your organization is about and whether or not it’s relevant and whether or not you’re talking about the right things when you talk with donors and people from the community.

One of the things that we were talking about was what it meant for people who had disabilities to be a blessing to other people.  It was an easy conversation to have.  It seems like people understood it, especially those who had experience with people with disabilities, but one of the factors that goes into that discussion is what does it mean to be a blessing to someone else.

I remember talking, in all my naïvete, to this wonderful mom (the wife of the college president), and she was talking about her experiences with her son, and when I told her that we at Elim are talking about people with disabilities as being a blessing to other people, she didn’t exactly bristle, but her response could not be characterized as warm.

She said that she did not like it when organizations and people simply talked about people with disabilities being a blessing, and there’s a reason for that.  It’s not that people with disabilities can’t bless other people, but it is simpleminded to expect that they are a blessing at all times and in some cases, to perceive them as simply being a blessing because they are disabled.

There are many times when people I know have claimed that people with disabilities teach us more than we teach them or that they simply love more than we love, that they understand more than we give them credit for.  Each of these comments, while perhaps true to the experience of the person who utters them, is patronizing in many ways. 

For instance, we can deify the person with disabilities, extending to them qualities which are extra-human, marking them as a super-crip.  In such a way, you could argue, we even demean them by doing that, by saying that there are different expectations of someone with disabilities.

Now these kinds of comments about people with disabilities, that they’re more of a blessing to people than we are, that they love more, that they understand things that we don’t give them credit for, they’re not always untrue, but they are indicative of a perception of people with disabilities that they aren’t expected to do what we do, that they aren’t called by God to the same calling that we have.

I suppose that’s why when I think about what it means to be a friend of someone with disabilities, I can understand that one of the aspects of that friendship is valuing that person and really defining where that value comes from.

Now we can talk about and argue about “value” all day long, but this is a central, core tenet of what it means to have a Godly attitude towards people with disabilities.

What this mom was pointing out to me was that looking at people with disabilities and extending to them some kind of extra-human characteristic was robbing them of the character that they actually have in God.  If we are talking about how to value people with disabilities, as Christians we always associate that with someone’s value in God, but when we say that a person with disabilities has a greater capacity for love or that somehow they teach us more than we teach them, then we are saying that where their value lies is in what they can teach us or how much they love and how much better they actually are than we are.

These are false characteristics.  That isn’t really where their value is.

What this Elim mom was telling me is that  we don’t look at our children who have disabilities or our adult friends who have disabilities and claim them to be something more than what they truly are.  They are fallen like us.  They are called like us.

The expectations that they should play a role in the kingdom of God should be no different from what is expected of us.

A lot of that is dependent on the value that we place on their lives, and if we expect more of them than what they capable of, we’re not assigning them a fair value.  If we say that they not capable of doing anything, then we not assigning them a value that God has placed on their life, and finally if we assign to them some kind of extra-human characteristic that they are simply more loving and more in tune with God’s kingdom than we are, then we’re also saying that that’s what is expected of them and we’re making that their job description in God’s kingdom when their job description is really the same as ours.

If we do anything else, we’re actually being condescending.  We’re patronizing.

No one is exempt from the call that God places on our lives.  It doesn’t matter if you are more loving and more knowledgeable or whatever, you still have the same calling – to humble yourself before God, to serve at his pleasure, to serve at his mercy in his kingdom, for his glory.  That call is the same for me and for you and for people with disabilities, for people who are poor, for people who are disenfranchised.  For anyone who calls on the name of the Lord, the calling is the same; we are all called to serve his kingdom.

We’re also called to do something that is perhaps is difficult for us to understand.  We have to rid ourselves of the notion that God has placed a call on us because we’re normal, we have capacity, we have capability.

We are not the only ones who have been called to service in God’s kingdom.

When God says, “Encourage each other into every good work,” when he says, “Go into the world and baptize men and women in the name of God,” when we are called to do those things there is no line between people who are non-disabled and people who are disabled.  There’s not some imaginary line between them.  Everybody is subject to that call, everybody has been called by God, everybody has been gifted by God, and our job is to encourage and equip each other into every good work, those works that God has prepared in advance for us to do.

 

danvp_avatarDan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.

 

 

 

Praying for Healing for the Wrong Person

Brad has served at Elim for almost three decades, and like many of us, he never expected to be here for very long. Something about Elim, though, draws you in.

Also, like a lot of us, Brad started out wishing for a better life for those we serve. After all, life with disabilities seems a grim prospect, and you at least wonder if there’s the possibility that something more could be done with their lives if only they weren’t all disabled.

So it happened that Brad would find himself praying for healing, not for himself, but for the adults with disabilities to whom he tended each day. One day, he was in the middle of this prayer, when Liz began to sing a hymn she had learned in her church.

When Brad told me this story, he said it was an eye-opener for him, perhaps literally, since he had been praying at the time. But figuratively too. Maybe it was God’s way of showing us that He doesn’t need us to be normal to show His love.

That raises a question for me, because I normally think of God in terms of His power, and that’s where a lot of this disability talk gets tripped up. Most of the people I know at Elim, who have a disability, will never have power. But what they often possess, and share freely, is a love that shames my own expression of this chief character of God.

But this, too, is an area where I have to be careful, because God did not make people with disabilities more loving than He did with me. They are just more uninhibited in sharing His love, and that’s probably what makes their expression of it so much more powerful than mine.

 

danvp_avatarDan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.

 

 

 

From Brokenness to Community

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frombrokennessToday, we share a brief quote from the book From Brokenness to Community, by Jean Vanier:

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.

It is my belief that in our mad world where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality, and oppression, it is people who are weak, marginalized and counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals as well as our world.

If you are looking for a great, short book, you will be hard-pressed to find something more thought-provoking, inspiring, or quicker to read than this brief booklet. In it, Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, weaves stories of his own experiences into a broader presentation of the impact that weakness and brokenness have on the Christian community.

Here too, though, Vanier points to the age-old question of value. What determines our value. As stated in other posts, our value comes not from our weakness, or from our differences, it comes from the way in which God redeems those aspects of our lives to His purposes. You can read more in our blog post about value.

What do you think? When people come into relationship with those who have disabilities, something powerful happens. What is that? Why does that happen?

 

danvp_avatarDan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.

 

 

 

Our Value Comes Not from Accomplishment, or from Need, but from God

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imagodeiOur value as human beings is determined by an external source. It is not we who define our value, or the value of others. Our value is only determined by our Creator, by a God who has fashioned us in His image.

And yet, that is an incredibly difficult thing to say. That’s why I really don’t want to write this, because I know it will be a great challenge to clearly communicate the important points here.

But it needs

 

Struggling to Stand Up for Others

I don’t always remember to stand up for others, even though I myself have a disability.

I was standing in line at the local hardware store. The mom in front of me had her pre-teen boy in tow, and it seemed pretty obvious to me that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He was not very communicative, nor was he behaving in a socially appropriate manner.

But he also wasn’t being rude or bothering anyone either, he was being a young man who had autism – that’s all. I watched and kind of smiled as the woman tried to work with her son and pay for her wares at the same time.

When she finished her purchase, she and the young man walked out the door, and I smiled after them, always happy to see parents who aren’t afraid to take their children with disabilities and integrate them into community life.

“That just annoys me,” the lady behind the counter said.

I didn’t acknowledge her comment, but she continued anyway. “People with kids like that should just leave them at home.”

In that moment, I knew it was wrong to let her comments pass without saying anything. I knew I was being a complete hypocrite.

But my worry –my insecurities and fear – they paralyzed me. I did not know what to say in response, and even if I had, my first inclination was actually to sympathize, to conform to the pattern of this woman”s life, and to actually agree with her comments.

Instead, I said nothing. I knew it was wrong; I knew that had been my chance to stand up and do something. But I failed. I could have advanced the cause of people with disabilities, but it was easier not to do that. A friend assured me today that perhaps my saying nothing (instead of actually agreeing), was in itself a statement of dissension. Perhaps the sales clerk somehow got the drift that I did not share her assessment.

I kind of doubt it, though. I know I should have done more – actually said something. At the very least, I could have made a much more effective response than I did. For example, one of my other friends mentioned, I could have said “Thirty years ago, that was me. I’m glad my parents didn’t keep me at home.”

I could have asked her to explain herself. I could have told her I worked at Elim, where we have the exact opposite view of people with disabilities. I could have done any number of things, but I did nothing.

I paid for my stuff, walked out to my car, and sat down. I knew I should have said something, but now I couldn’t, not anymore. The moment had passed and would from that point on be marked with regret.

I share this not to get it off my chest, but because few things bother me more than pretense. Even for someone who is always exposed to disability, and is often reminded of his own disability, it is not easy to equip others. It is not easy to always be an advocate, to keep advancing the cause of disabilities. Despite being committed to this cause, I could not even speak up in one small situation where I could have prompted someone’s heart-change toward people with disabilities.

But a moment like that can also serve to harden resolve, that constant sense of regret is also a reminder. God is restoring this world, and He has called us to advance the cause of people with disabilities as part of that restoration. We are called to do this not just by serving people with disabilities, but by also equipping them to serve – to fully participate in God’s restoration of the kingdom.

Have you ever had the opportunity to speak up, to stand up on behalf of people with disabilities? How did you succeed in doing so, or how did you fall short? Share your stories in the comments below.

On the Passing of Harriett McBryde Johnson

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hjohnsonThere are so many things we can learn from Harriett McBryde Johnson, who died earlier this month at the age of 50 from a congenital neuro-muscular disease. Surely, she was a champion for the rights of those with disabilities, but she was much more than that. Here is a sampling of the truths we can learn from her, all from the Wall Street Journal article:

  • She challenged philosopher Peter Singer by saying “The presence or absence of a disability doesn’t predict quality of life.”
  • She worked with groups like “Jerry’s Orphans” who challenge the Labor Day telethon, and she also worked with Not Dead Yet, a disability-rights group formed to challenge the assisted suicide movement.
  • Her work has encouraged our society to question “the rapid near-disappearance of people with Down Syndrome. Between 80% and 90% of women who find out they are carrying a child with the chromosomal abnormality (which can be tested using amniocentesis) choose to abort. A Harvard medical student who surveyed 1,000 women who were pregnant with Down Syndrome babies reported that many were urged by their doctors to terminate their pregnancies; one woman’s physician told her that her child would “never be able to read, write or count change.” This at a time when new developments in medicine have nearly doubled the average life span of people who have the condition to 49 from 25 years. As a culture, we have made what Amy Laura Hall of Duke University Divinity School calls a “democratic calculus of worth” regarding Down Syndrome. And that calculus has resulted in a society hostile to people who refuse to make the culturally acceptable choice of ridding themselves of a disabled child before she is born.”

Yes, we can learn much. But as with all truth, and she definitely had latched into a truth, it comes from God and belongs to God. A society that values people with disabilities does so for reasons other than the fact that they can ‘enjoy happy, productive, and fulfilled lives.’ This is true whether you believe in God or not.

But for people who believe that God did create people in His image, it is easy to understand why people with disabilities are important: because they, like us, reflect His image. They, like us, are conceived with an intrinsic value – not because of their disability, but because God is glorified in, through, and around their lives.