What Does it Look Like to Have a Posture of Grace?

Riots. Wars. Terrorism. Military Brutality. Division.

If there ever was a time for grace, it doesn’t look like it’s now. It looks like it’s time to get some armor, put it on, and grab some friends.

But that’s not what we’re taught. We’re taught that a gentle word turns away wrath, and a harsh word stirs up action. (Proverbs 15:1) How we can we be gentle when we feel threatened, hurt, and angry?

The truth is that it might be New Year’s Eve, but 2014 isn’t going to end. At least, the issues of 2014 aren’t going to end. And it’s because we’re still learning a lesson. We’re going to have to learn, or we’re going to implode.

We, the people of this world and this time, need to learn the lesson — the intentionality — of the posture of grace.

The conflicts between tribes and nations, churches and people groups have now existed so long that we’re in a proverbial “what came first, the chicken or the egg” situation. What-belongs-to-whom, and who-started-what, and who’s right are questions that still need answers, but questions that don’t matter for the hour. Because we’re all waiting and expecting something from other people that they can’t give. We’re asking for an apology, hoping for restoration, and that just isn’t how this life works.

The nurse who administers too much medicine to her patient can’t bring them back to life with an apology. The rapist who apologizes can’t take away the life of terror they ushered in their victim’s mind. The nation that follows a diluted, narcissistic leader can’t rebuild villages with the words of regret expressed by a newly installed leader.

Pause.

I’ve been married for a short time: a decade. But I can tell you that when bitterness and hurt, even between two people, has kindled in the heart for a long time, thinking through the past isn’t helpful anymore. Even an apology doesn’t fix the depth of offense. In fact, an apology can make things worse. It takes grace to accept an apology. And if the grace isn’t there, an apology can just make the blood boil. In a small conflict, the only way you can move forward, is to offer grace: is to offer forgiveness before the other person even knows that they need to apologize. Only then can you really think through questions like “what’s best?” And “were do we go from here?”

Resume.

I don’t know if it’s possible to ask the tortured victim of some police/army/militia to let go of what’s been done to them. I don’t know if it’s  realistic to ask a country to think well of invaders and build bridges of peace with those who will still like to decimate them. And I for sure don’t know if I could utter the words “preemptive forgiveness” to a mother who lost a child due to someone else’s fear, anger, or bigotry.

But I do know that we’re lacking. As a human race, we’re lacking in grace, especially in the less serious offenses. We’re lacking in the ability to be hurt and offended and just let it go, rather than demanding a punishment. Because a life of grace upon grace takes a person who is willing to do just that — to not be offended.

We somehow believe that justice has to be served before grace has been offered. But as Christians, that’s not the model we’re given. Grace first. Then justice.

If you’re offended by that notion, I understand. I feel it, too. But I’ve got my marching orders. And they are calling for strong, resistant, constant grace.

What Pastors Need to Know About Children with Developmental Disorders In Their Congregations

This post is out-of-place on my blog. I usually write about spiritual formation for adults. However, I get questioned so often from pastors about how and why their churches should care for the autistic children in their congregations that I want to write the answer down permanently. Hopefully, someone, somewhere finds it useful.

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In the United States, one in six children have a developmental disorder. (That’s roughly about 17%.) Those complications range from speech and language impairments, to autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual delays, and other serious impairments. Because of Christian charity, I would venture that the values for churches would be even higher.

Of these special need groupings, one of developmental delays that has risen dramatically over the past couple of years is the number of children on the autism spectrum. In years past, maybe one or two families in a congregation would be challenged to care for these children. But, in the past decade alone, children diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorders has risen SEVENTY EIGHT percent. What this means is that while one of two children may have needed some extra care in past years, now you may be able to have a whole classroom full on any given Sunday morning.

Pastors and other church leaders have always had a couple of choices when it came to addressing the needs of these kids. They could ignore, belittle, or isolate the families until they left the church. They could personally attend to the families, who often needed more time and support than others in the congregation. Or they could make inter-church/inter-denominational programs that met on days other than Sunday to give these families a half-a-shot at fellowship. But with the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders and other special needs on the rise, these cannot be the options anymore. You will have to love and serve these families, there will be too many to care for individually, and shoving these families off to other churches will say something about your church.

While it is true that these children’s needs can make it more difficult for other children to learn, for teachers to plan activities, and can even make the space feel unsafe to other kids, the good news is that modifications for autism spectrum children often benefit all children. It really is a win-win situation. Your special need children can be seen as canaries in the coal mines, warning you of the dangers of poor programming.

I try to avoid practical step-by-step, numbered approaches, but for clarity’s sake, that’s exactly what I’m about to provide. If you want to help the special needs children and benefit the other kids in your care, you need to pay attention to three things: time, space, and expectations.

TIME

The first question parents ask their children when they get out of a classroom is: What did you learn today? And if you want to help the kids in your ministry, you’re going to have to think through how that question gets answered differently. In particularly white, wealthy, highly educated churches, there is an expectation for children to excel in the church classroom as much as any other class. But jam-packing the schedule is detrimental for special needs children, who are often overwhelmed by the non-stop action, and who transition poorly. Multiple transitions in one to two hours can make their little brains explode. Other children may often feel pressured during this time, but they’re just not reacting as strongly as these other beauties. But following a schedule that benefits your special need kids provides everyone the space and time to absorb the important components of your programming

When planning children’s time, there should always be a transition time to start, and if you have the area to do it, a transition space. This should be like a holding area where they can see their classrooms, but they don’t have to go into them yet. This is an opportunity for the children to independently adjust to the children’s space. Don’t require them to play. Don’t require them to participate in a  group game. In fact, if they want to lay on a rug, by themselves, or walk around the classroom 15 times, that’s just fine. The goal of this time is just the idea of welcoming. This space is your space. You are a part of this family. This is your church home and it should be comfortable.

Next, there should next be a time for them to move their bodies and increase what’s known as their gross motor skills. Studies show that all children, and especially children on the spectrum, learn more if they are physically active before a lesson. (Children even speak better if they do a couple of push ups before trying to engage in conversation). Again, for children affected by sensory stimuli, you might need to let them sit this out. That’s okay. The goal is that they feel a part of the group, not that they participate in the ways we want them to. Sensory avoidant children might even absorb more if they are allowed to sit in the back with adults, being quiet.

Next, there should be a short, clear, and concise lesson. Children don’t even develop the ability to reason before 12, if they reach that stage at all. Asking children to break down bible stories, apply it to their own lives, and work through how it compares to a 5 point gospel model is really tough. you’ll often leave most kids feeling confused, stupid, condemned, or having receiving wrong information. At this stage, telling the story is enough. It really is. You don’t need to apply it for them you don’t need to make a  point. You don’t even need to challenge them. Don’t worry, if you tell the story, Jesus will use it, interpret it, and apply it later. (Remember the verse: Raise a child in the way they should go and when they GROW OLD, they won’t depart from it.)

If you must have a small group time, and you must ask questions, then learn to break apart reasoning skills. Give these kids step stones to understanding. Children on the spectrum barely grasp why and how questions, and many young children join them. For example, if you’re teaching children about the time in the wilderness, don’t ask questions like “How did God provide for the Israelites in the wilderness? What does that tell us about how He’ll provide for us?” They may be able to tell you – God provided food. God will give us food. But I guarantee, they’re not grasping the concept of provision. Instead, ask questions like:  “What did God give the Israelights? What does God give you? What does it feel like when God gives you ____? What do you feel when you give people gifts?  Do you give people gifts? What makes you want to give gifts?” It will take longer, but all the things we understand as adults will start filling in the spaces that children often have blank through our direct, linear questioning.

Lastly, there should be a planned time for children to transition before their parents pick them up.This should be thought of as the closing stretches in a well executed exercise program. If you don’t do it, you can cause damage. Don’t just let kids run around. Don’t just finish up art projects. Have a calm, group inclusive game or activity planned.

This plan of only a short time to talk about the bible and Jesus goes against what many would consider “good stewardship,” but this is exactly what works well for children to grasp, understand, process, and remember information.

SPACE

We all know that shoving a bunch of kids into a room with no toys and nothing comfortable isn’t the best plan for children’s ministry. But the space you design and prepare for your children is super important. You don’t need a room full of cute, Ikea crap. It might make the parents feel more comfortable, but it’s not what your kids actually need.

All humans respond really great to color coding, but special needs children and young children especially respond to color coding. It might be cute to call your 2-4 room: Activity Climbers, but it would be better to just call it: the Blue group. As children advance, there is far more excitement to reaching a new color stage than a new name. And bonus: knowing that they have the same color around them each week makes hem feel safer, which means they will open up more.

The space should also pay attention to sensory information: touch, smell, auditory information, visual interpretation, and taste. If you know the kids will have to sit on a floor, provide a color-coded, appropriate rug and allow them to bring blankets. If your children meet in a basement, make sure to run dehumidifiers at least 24 hours before they get there. And don’t spray perfumes or plug in strong deodorizers. If you must, use a Renuizit odor eliminator cone. Any children with sensory sensitive systems will not be able to focus if there is a strong smell.

Worship is a huge part of the American church. We love to have little children rocking it out for Jesus. We want to see their little arms raised. But we have no idea how hard this is for many kids to deal with. If you must have your children listen to loud, rock and roll music for Jesus, then make sure you have sound proof head phones for your special needs kids. They’re cheap, and it can allow them to actually participate in worship. But, I would also still advise that you only do one or two songs, at most, and that you limit the number of songs you’ll present in a year (under 10 songs, for sure). While your little ones are worshiping, make sure to care for your sensory avoidant children. Don’t make them stand. Don’t make them sing. Even if you get them to stand and sing, you’re not getting them to understand the importance of worship. You’re assaulting their systems and they are associating worship with feeling scared, frightened, and intimidated.  If you have sensory seeking kids, make sure to provide a safe space that they can dance and move while worshiping. For them, receiving auditory information without being able to work that through movement is just torture. And lastly, try not to have lights and lasers going.

Other visual accommodations include making sure that views to the outside and other groups are blocked off, so there are no distraction or triggers to their systems. Also, think through what the children are looking at. Would you be able to look at a felt board for 15 minutes without becoming distracted? Then why wouldn’t they? Would you be able to stop watching TV and just jump into the next activity? Then imagine how much harder it is for them. Could you look at an activity that’s really enjoyable and then not do it? Then why do you have the markers, toys, etc. in their eyesight while you want them to learn a lesson? Get on your knees and look at what they are looking at.

Lastly, taste is an important element for children to experience in church. Jesus didn’t leave us with a liturgy. He left us with a meal. Children connect, learn, and develop more through conversation around a table than they do anywhere else. So don’t just hand them a cup full of goldfish crackers. Have them pump a bit of Purell into each other’s hands. Have someone say grace. Have another present the cups to each person. Enjoy and talk to each other during the cracker eating. And then clean up the space together. The structure will do awesome things for your special needs kids, but it will help all of the children to feel part of the family.

EXPECTATIONS

The most important lesson I ever learned about evaluating the behavior of special needs children is to always, always, ALWAYS, ask the question;

“Is this behavior defiant?”

Special needs children get a bad rap for being behaviorally challenged. But often, their ‘bad behavior’ isn’t. It isn’t defiant. It isn’t rebellious. It’s, largely, out of their control. Take this description of a day in the life of a child with sensory avoidant sensory processing disorder for example: (Note: I didn’t write this. I’m not quite sure where I got it from.

Today, I am so sensitive to be touched. It’s like this everyday. I don’t like to be hugged. Sometimes my Mom has to remove the tags off of my shirts. I can’t wear socks or underwear. Today, I don’t want to brush my teeth or have a shower. I’m sensitive when I hear things and the louder it gets, the more it hurts me. It makes me want to cry, and sometimes I will have tantrums, not because I want too but I lose control, it’s just too much. I always have a melt down because my food hurts my mouth, I can’t eat very much. I yell a lot because I don’t like how these things make me feel. I can’t sit still. When I’m at school, I can’t do the same work as my friends. I don’t have many friends, just two. Sometimes they play with me at recess, sometimes they don’t. I am aggressive because there’s so much information coming in and I don’t know what to do with it all. When the lights get too bright. I yell at my Mom to turn off the lights. It hurts my eyes. I sometime hit my Mom or I’ll break her things even though I don’t want to. 

The expectation levels for our children have to be changed. We can’t expect authoritarian structures to work, even if our churches are authoritarian for adults and it works well at that level. We can ask and encourage our kids to be kind and be safe. If you have those two rules, and you explain what they mean, you have a great chance of hitting that goal almost 100% of the time. If your goal is for warriors to walk out of your classrooms, warriors who will fight for the kingdom before they’ve experienced it, then you’re going to unknowingly develop something in these children that you don’t want: pride, superiority, and self-righteousness. It would take me another long blog post to explain the hows of why that happens, but it’s highly predictable.

 

So, that’s it. If you have any follow-up questions, let me know. 🙂

Love,

Pam

 

 

 

 

Practices of Looking – Final Edition – Making Space for Beauty

This is the third, and final, installment on a series on Creating a Practice of Looking. The first post talked about the effect beauty has on us as humans and why we are so moved by what we deem beautiful. The second post argued that if beauty is affecting us, then we should stop and pay attention to what is considered beautiful and how we are being moved by it. This third post, then, is a practical approach to making space for beauty instead of just being pulled along a current of needs and desires.

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From the missionary who has seen far too much, to the pastor who lives in the heartache of others’ lives; from the mom who can’t get a moment to think, to the lawyer who blows out his pre-frontal cortex with non-stop analytical thought, we all are in need of a great big pause — time and space to both think through the 86,400 seconds we live, and move, and have our being in — and also to surrender to not thinking at all. We all are in need of the Beauty that says “I see you and hear you and understand you” and yet, who also exists with us. So, how do we do it? How do we connect to this source of Beauty?

It’s not a coincidence that I write this post now, the days leading up to Christmas. Our cultural conditioning makes us long for storybook endings and perfectly placed flurries of snow and gleaming, bright grins. These are the days we want beauty the most. We want it in twinkling lights, decorated trees, and human beings who suddenly have perfect character. We want something to connect to our weary hearts. Maybe even more so this year. Because this past year has been a blast of worry, fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, lament, heartache, and shock. When you live in the midst of destruction like that, it’s really hard not to hate the silver lining type of talk, and you start to doubt whether beauty can exist.

But beauty is there. It’s just riskier and less consumable than we thought it was.

Real beauty isn’t something that we can fake or conjure up. Beauty isn’t something you merely create. It is the by product of a relationship. And that’s not something than can be trapped. It’s something that takes a part of you. You have to lean in, give a little, and have a little bit of ridiculous faith for. Because the artist who puts stroke to canvas knows that things might not turn out the way they want, but they lend their ideas to the canvas nonetheless.

If you want more beauty in your life, you have to stop, look, and value the sacrifice of others, and you have to be willing to take a step yourself to create something better than all the cynicism you see.  That’s why the Ebola caretakers are beautiful. It’s why the struggling single mom is beautiful. It’s why the special education room always has a bit of unexplained joy flowing from it. It’s why the counselor who sits in the mud feels so fulfilled at the end of the day. It’s why it’s easy to see beauty in a dirty house, a fractured soul, or a simple jar. Something happened in these lives and places. Something was offered and something was taken. There’s a story of sacrifice. There’s a story of giving of one’s self.

Because beauty might not be about us creating, but it is, for sure, about co-creation. It’s about being invited, beckoned, by a need, desire, or belief, and then responding with ideas that better the world you live in.

That’s why Christians’ story of Christmas is the most beautiful idea to them. A God saw and heard their need, and didn’t have to respond, but did. He came as a little baby, who allowed Himself to be molded and shaped by the people that He was trying to create a better life for. And eventually, it took a great sacrifice — something that  looked like failure — but something that solidified relationship. “I am yous, and you are mine,” He said. And then He stood, and still stands by this thing they created together. Selah. Beauty.

Do you want to have more beauty? Then commit to co-creation. Commit to looking for something you can join in on. That can happen in a dance. It can happen as you ride your bike, bending on the curves of a trail. It can happen as you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, or counsel the brokenhearted. The only way it can’t happen is when you stay in your own self-controlled bubble, insisting that you have created enough, loved enough, shared enough, or are right enough.

Merry Christmas,

Pam

 

 

 

 

The Biggest Miracle I Saw This Year Involved a Catholic Priest and a Bunch of Southern Baptists

I saw something I never thought I would see this past year, and six months later, it’s still moving my heart towards compassion and love. It was such a move of God that I’ve struggled to put it into words for fear of lessening the beauty of the moment, but I’ll try to explain.

Although doctrinally I now fall squarely in the protestant camp, I grew up as a devout Roman Catholic. I know that some have horrible memories of a church that taught a foreign, almost Satanic God, but that was not my experience. I was raised in a thriving parish that taught me that God loved me, that I was a sinner, and that He saved me, and that I needed to accept His payment for my debts. I was also was taught that I should read and study my bible, serve my neighbor, and confess my sins, not only to a priest, but to other believers who would walk with me. That’s why I never understood why, when I would go to Christian conferences, or listen to Christian radio, other believers would hate me. (Because that’s really what I received as a child: that other Christians had disdain for me.) I loved and served the same God as them, and hoped to be reunited with Him, both in life and death, the same way they did. Why did they think of me as less-than?

I loved both of these camps so much though, that from a very early age, I began praying that they would love one another. I wanted them to see that they were brothers and sisters, not enemies. I realized that it would probably take my very life and body to help bridge this gap. (I also balanced my mom’s checkbook at five, so this level of depth and concern wasn’t out of the ordinary for me.)

I didn’t realize how hard this task would be though, or how many other saints had been called to it. The most discouraging experience I had was in 2003. A very prominent pastor in a very prominent church (and yes, you would know both of their names), held a workshop on the difference between Catholicism and Evangelicalism. I watched as this assumed man of God took an entire audience who was eager to love Catholics and share their knowledge of Christ with them and transformed them into people who thought that Catholics were the scum of the Earth. I’m not exaggerating. I watched as love was replaced with hate, and curiosity was transformed into fear and loathing. I walked out angry, hurting, and lamenting. Ironically, that was also my husband and I’s first date: him a non-denominational Christian who had been taught that Catholics were dangerous and to be avoided. And I, a Catholic and Evangelical lover. We almost didn’t come together because of this gap, for don’t you know, that would be becoming unequally yoked?

Although in my own life I was able to persuade my husband to love Catholics, and I eventually became a protestant myself, I never thought these camps would come together. Not in an act of poor euchamenism  — not in some weak “let’s believe nothing so we can hug it out way” — but in a show of understanding that we sit at the same table and eat the same food. We are brothers and sisters who are very different, but siblings nonetheless. Siblings that need each other. I didn’t have faith for this family reunion until this past June.

I was at a conference that was talking about why, it seemed, that God was using ideas like Sacrament and Liturgy to do a new thing in the Evangelical church. The presenters argued that those things seem like they should produce death, but instead, evangelical churches were finding that they had some resurrection power for their churches. The group of attendees had Mennonites and Southern Baptists; Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Catholics; Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Each of these groups had people who were supposed to fight with one another. Instead, we learned together, confessed our sins to one another, and prayed together.  It. Was. Glorious. But the best part came when we went to break bread with one another.

An Anglican priest prepared communion for all of the protestants. But, the leader of the conference acknowledged that some Catholics in the audience may not feel comfortable receiving that communion.So, he shared that a priest would also be available to give a blessing.

“Some of you protestants could use a blessing from a Catholic priest,” he joked.

We lined up, each feeling the sacredness of sharing a meal that we probably won’t be able to share again until heaven. As I sat in my row, and then stood in line, I watched as something spectacular happened. Almost all of the participants were willing to go to the priest and let their brother bless them. I may have been shocked, but the priest was downright moved. I saw, as he blessed each of them, that his armor was melting away. He, like me, believed that these people would hate him, ignore him, belittle him, and instead they humbled themselves and chose to believe that they belonged to him — and he to them.

I wept.

I couldn’t do anything but cry. If you’ve never seen a family reunited, you won’t understand. But if you have, you know that there is weeping and rejoicing that is unparallelled in this world.

I feel the need to note that the protestants didn’t become Catholic in that moment. Nor will they. We each went home to our own tribes and our own camps that day. But, many left finding out that they had a brother that they never knew they had.

What I saw was downright miraculous. I’ve worked for it, but I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.

The church is so much bigger than we allow it to be. We all have wrong doctrines, and wrong beliefs, and I look forward to the day when we don’t argue anymore. I’m expectant, and joyful, and hopeful for a day when we all know who was right and who was wrong, and we can drop our misconceptions, and love and serve Christ together. I wait for a day, when instead of arguing, we love with all of our heart, soul and mind. It sounds romantic, maybe even sentimental, but after living a lifetime of doing it, I can say that it’s gritty, and strong, and hard, and completely looks like Jesus. For, as a catholic priest once told me, FAMILY means

Forget. About. Me. I. Love. You.

 

An Advent Medition: the Incarnation

The prayers of my childhood have been coming back to me a lot lately. One of those prayers is especially on my mind this Advent: the Angelus. In school, we would recite this prayer at noon everyday to help prepare ourselves for what it means to receive Christ. Roman Catholics insert the “Hail Mary” between each set of statements, but I’m finding myself just meditating on the words of the stanzas.

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

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As I think about these words, I’m broken. Mary was told God’s will, and immediately life began growing in her body.  I have to ask, when God declares that He wants to share Himself through me, do I immediately allow Him to conceive — to start growing — good within my very body? Do I allow Him to increase and allow myself to decrease? Do I allow His good creation to break into reality?

Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Be it done unto me according to thy word.

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Mary’s response was that she was the handmaid of the Lord. Do I think of myself as the handmaid of the Lord? Or do I think of myself as the spouse of the Lord, who gets to converse with Him about upcoming plans first? Do I allow Him to live and move and have His being in me? Or do I wait, holding back the good God has because it’s too sacrificial?

And the Word was made Flesh.
And dwelt among us.

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When we got to this stanza, we always paused for ten seconds. We honored, with Thanksgiving, that Jesus wanted to be with us. I wonder if that’s how Mary felt as she held the infant Jesus? If she silently held him, in thanksgiving and awe that He would choose to be with her? I think of how many times I’ve felt a tug of prayer — a tug to be intimate and alone with Jesus — this year and how I’ve brushed it away. I think of the gift of intimacy with Christ and how it becomes a reality. How this relationship with Christ becomes more real than any human relationship I have. I think about what it feels like when my Best Friend walks with me and dwells in my everyday life. And how very grateful I am that the veil between heaven and Earth doesn’t hold Him back. And unexpectedly, I’m reminded of how much I love Him, and how much He loves me.

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ Our Lord.

The church prays for grace to pour forth — Grace to know and understand and believe that God has come and is coming again to inhabit the world. That Goodness, and Grace, and Light, and Love will reside with us in Immanuel. I’m so tender to that hope, and yet, until I meditate on that truth, I am so prone to forget it.

I hope this 12th century prayer helps you connect with the God that knows you and loves you today.

Peace,

Pam