slowly and gently

I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of¬†accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.

In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.

Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes,¬†‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.

Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.

But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.

The rubber meets the road

Some days are like that: the sense of the unfairness of the world is overwhelming. I have been following the story of a former student. She's 29. She's a Methodist minister. She is married and has two little girls. She has Stage IV renal cell cancer. Look it up.
 
Doesn't seem fair, does it? I teach theology. Every year, I know which lecture is going to be the hardest. It's the one in which, however the topic is named, we deal with the 'Why?' question. Why do bad things happen to people who don't deserve it? Why does God allow people to suffer? Why? It is the hardest lecture because there are no easy answers. I gave that lecture to this young woman. And however difficult it is to talk about it in a classroom, it is inconceivably more difficult to wrestle with the question when you meet it on the street. There, it lies in wait. It ambushes you. It knocks you down and stands over you, daring you to get up again. It seems–however well you might have coped with it in front of the whiteboard–stronger than you are. You can't answer it.
 
I am amazed, again, by the faith of my students. In the months I have followed her diagnosis and treatment, I have seen an incredible strength and courage, and a refusal to let the 'Why?' question get the upper hand. I often say that my students have the difficult job–to go out, to be the face of Christ in ministry. I teach, and I love teaching; when my students leave the classroom, most of them go out into a world that doesn't know how deeply it needs healing. And when people do seek God, they don't come looking to me. They look to them. I am conscious of this responsibility, and it is humbling. More humbling still, though, is knowing that whatever I have to give pales in comparison to the faith, hope, and love that are the real gifts that the minister requires. All I can do is point to the source, and hope I have gestured accurately and clearly, that I have helped and not hindered the process that began long before students walk into my classroom. Not surprisingly, I pray for my students, all of them, because I know that everything I say and do is useless without the grace of God, without the Spirit of God being poured out into their hearts.
 
And their faith is nothing to do with me–the testimony of so many, especially my cancer-fighting former student. I taught her years ago; now she's teaching me. Next time I give that lecture, I will have her in my heart. I will be more humble in my approach. I will say, 'It's a mystery' with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. But I will also say it in hope, in faith, and with love, because the mystery of the unfairness of the world is the same as the mystery of love that redeems the world. Her faith reminds me of that, reminds me that in the face of the question on the ground, faith still flourishes.
 
Amazing.
 
 

all quiet

Some days are like that. All quiet except for the sound of the rain, then hail, then rain again on the skylights. Sometimes it’s a happy quiet. Today, not so much. I’ve been thinking about tragedy. Not Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, but disaster and loss. Because the ethics essays are in, and two of them are about abortion, I have been thinking about that, too. It’s all of a piece, really: tragedy. When things go awry, terribly awry, and things fall apart.

My position on abortion has always been the same: it’s not for me. Beyond that, it’s complicated. It’s complicated because my reasons for not having an abortion are not universal ethical principles. Yes, I do think that the growing baby in my womb (no, not now!) is a baby, whether it’s a baby at the embryonic stage or further along. That’s not a universally acknowledged truth. It is a narrative: it is the story that I tell to describe what is happening. I wouldn’t terminate a pregnancy not because I think an embryo or fetus has ‘rights’. (Does the embryo have the same claim on my care as my four children? On what grounds could I decide?) Rather, I wouldn’t terminate a pregnancy because I take life as it comes. I look for remaking, not un-doing. Pregnancy happens. Ok, now what? I look forward. My story changes. A new character appears.

The ball is in my court. How do I play it? In my story, just passing it back, or grounding it (to switch to an American football metaphor) isn’t an option. I have to be creative, flexible, discerning and focused, to be generous, and move the ball forward.

I have to improvise. There’s no script, just my sense of the movement of the plot. This isn’t what I planned. Not at all. But life happens to us when we’re making plans, right? This life.

I appreciate that not everyone lives life in the same way. Pregnancies disrupt our routines–and not just the timetable, but the rhythms of our lives. Bad things happen. Rape happens. Domestic violence happens. What then?

That’s when it gets complicated. My story doesn’t involve either of those tragedies. It does involve a child with trisomy-21, one wanted but extremely badly timed pregnancy and one truly unwelcome, shock-to-the-system, life-altering, body-damaging pregnancy. A pregnancy so disruptive to my whole world that I thought maybe it would have been better if I had lied about the test being positive and quietly terminated the pregnancy. Why didn’t I?

Because that’s just not the way I play it. I improvised. And I came up with a sheared pelvis and the costs of daycare and a horrible 18 months of depression and sleep deprivation…as well as an absolutely delightful little girl.

My story has changed.

I realize that not every story has a happy ending. Miscarriage, infant deaths, children dying of cancer and all the trauma and tragedy in the world remind me of that constantly. We can’t undo it. I read the tragic stories through tears. I pray for the parents and the children–those I know, and many, many more I don’t know. I only know a very tiny corner of that grief, but I know a little bit about everything falling apart. I know that space and time and grace and healing are oh, so necessary and sometimes so impossible to seek, or even to receive. I pray for strength to remake, to mold something new out of the shards and the tears. I pray for hope to hold together the hearts of the survivors, the life-bearers.