Last spring, when your pastors Bruce and Barb invited me to come be with you I didn’t realize that I would be with you on a momentous day. For today is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended The First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So before this service is over we will have reached that centenary. Continue reading
One of the stranger symptoms resulting from the traumatic brain injury I got 17 years ago is my tendency to cry at odd times, such as while watching sappy jewelry commercials on TV or foolish pet videos on Facebook. Continue reading
I’d like to thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I have great respect for ministry as a high and holy calling, and I enjoy the company of ministers. I am proud to be a minister, and this year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. And it is good to be in the Connecticut Conference. I never served here, but my daughter, Rebecca Floyd Marshall, is an ordained minister here in CT, serving in Westport. If you bump into her at a Conference meeting introduce yourself.
My talk today is entitled “Taking the Long View” which was the title of a UCC STILL SPEAKING Daily Devotional I wrote for March 14 of last year. I see it was re-printed in your newsletter. I’m going to share with you some of my personal back-story behind the writing of this particular devotional.
I began the devotional with an anecdote about Ralph, a congregant of mine in my first church, who owned an apple orchard: “I drove over to see Ralph at his hilltop orchard a week after I had presided over his wife’s funeral and burial. He was well into his nineties and they had been married for seven decades. I was all of twenty-seven. It took me awhile to find him, because he was out planting apple trees. He seemed glad to see me and said, “You may wonder why I am planting trees that I will never live to see bear fruit. But it’s what I have always done, and I am not going to stop now. There were apple trees in this orchard when I came here that somebody else had planted, and there will be apple trees here after I’m gone.”
I’ve held onto Ralph’s words for forty years, and lately they have helped me as I think about what it means to be a retired minister. That hasn’t been easy for me. Because when I left my role as a pastor it seemed, at first, and for a long while, like the loss of my calling as a minister. Now I have come to realize that, although I am no longer a pastor of a congregation, I am still a minister. When I turned 65 the UCC Pension Boards mailed me a good little book by Paul Clayton entitled Called for Life (Perhaps you all got one, too). I love the play on words in the title, and I do believe we are “called for life” in both senses of the phrase. Continue reading
Ten years ago tomorrow I went over the handlebars of my bicycle and landed on my head. I have written about that day elsewhere. Since that time I have been grappling daily with being brain injured. Of course, before that day I grappled daily with being human, an enterprise that continues, but brain injury complicates it considerably.
In fact, “a complication” has been a useful way for me to think about brain injury. My injury is, of course, in common parlance, “a disability,” and the Social Security Administration has recognized mine as such. It is a credential I would have preferred not to have needed, but it makes me officially disabled.
Yet, I don’t really think of myself as a disabled person, any more than I think of myself primarily as a white person, an ordained person, or a male person. All these realities inform my identity but do not, even in the aggregate, constitute it.
I have always had an allergy to identity politics, and question whether it is helpful for one to think of oneself as primarily identified by race, gender, sexual orientation, or for that matter, disability. If pressed for an identity I would pick a really big one, such as “created in the image of God,” and its new creation correlate, baptism. I say this because I believe that any identity that ignores our relationship with God is bound to be too narrow, and lead to some form of self-deception.
But I understand why people with disabilities often choose to make their disability a primary identity, because other people certainly use disability as a social marker, just as they do for race and gender. If you are in a wheelchair or walk or speak differently that will be part of what defines you. And many people can’t look beyond the obvious. People have a fear of disability, that if that can happen to you, it could happen to them. I think there is also a tendency to distance oneself from the disabled by blaming them for their disabilities. They must have brought it on themselves by bad behaviors. This helps us maintain the illusion that we can have control over protecting ourselves from becoming disabled by being careful. And sometimes it is true that persons acquire disabilities from poor life choices, but most times that is not true.
My disabilities are largely hidden, since I am able to walk and speak. Nonetheless, enough people in my community know about my accident and its aftermath that I find myself in awkward social situations where people aren’t sure how to approach me. My memory is largely unimpaired (and was good to begin with), but the assumption is that brain injury is largely about memory loss, so I find myself in these painful (and sometimes comical) encounters in the supermarket where people are trying to tell me a story but filling in huge amounts of unnecessary back-story (like the names of their kids that I baptized and have known for over twenty years.) Others talk really slowly and enunciate carefully, and I must resist the temptation to say, “I’m brain injured, not stupid.”
Many people just want me to recover and be better, though I will always have a brain injury. “How are you doing?” they ask empathically and I really want to say fine, but, of course, I am not fine, so I resort to something like, “I am doing OK.” Sometimes I say, “For a man in my condition, I’m in great condition.”
A lot of dealing with injury is self-care, and it is frustrating how much of my time and energy goes into just keeping healthy. There are many things I could once do but now cannot. One of the reasons I resist disability as a primary identity is the temptation to use it as an excuse to do less than I can. For I can still do many things, and need to do them, even when it is hard. The daily challenge is to find the sweet spot between too much and too little activity, and of course, when you live with others, this balance is not always completely under your control. Sometimes I choose to overdo just because the thing I choose is important enough to me to pay a price for several days. But I can only do so much of that or I risk my health, which is easier to protect than to restore.
There is also a level of dependency involved with disability that is very hard for me. I rely on my wife and children and family for love and support and a great deal of care-giving. So in some very real sense my injury is a family affair, something that has to be factored in to all our interactions. I want to be strong and brave and independent, but have to face my reliance on others. The positive part of this is that I often experience their care for me as grace, that is, as something freely given though undeserved. And I am often in awe of their patience and forbearance with me, for I am not always the easiest person to be around, especially when I am tired, which is much of the time.
Even before the accident I was powerfully moved by the pathos at the heart of the Christian story: how God’s power is made manifest in the weakness of the cross of Jesus Christ. I have recounted often before that my mother died when I was 18, and that my return to Christian faith as a young adult was the result of a struggle to make sense of a world where such losses (and others) take place. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I became a theologian of the cross, which I see, not as a symbol of violence and brutality, but as the place where God’s reconciling love encountered human sin and overcame it.
These last ten years have made me more acutely aware that faith lives in the midst of weakness. Disability has sharpened that awareness for me, but one doesn’t have to be disabled to experience human weakness. As a pastor for over thirty years I learned that people undergoing a crisis of loss or humiliation could often hear the good news of the Gospel in fresh new ways, or even for the first time. In such moments God speaks. Perhaps only when enough of us is cleared out of the way to silence our own voices can there be the space for us to hear God.
My injury and its deficits also complicate my spiritual life, and that too, has made me aware of faith as a gift that I can’t create in myself. “Grace,” I once heard James Forbes say, “is where you find love in full bloom in a climate where it is too cold to grow.” I’m not very good at faith anymore, so it seems even more of a grace when it is there at all.
During my long ministry I was privileged to spend many hours with the aging and dying. They have been my teachers, helping me prepare for my own aging and dying, and also for disability, which shares many of the same features of limitation and loss. In all these challenges of living one relinquishes features of your previous experience of living. This is painful, but faith can enable us to exercise “a holy relinquishing,” that is literally “graceful.” I have been blessed to witness this again and again among those who retain a wonderful dignity in the face of the indignities visited upon the old, the sick and the dying.
Ultimately, grappling with the complications of disability (or just humanity through its life stages) exists within a horizon of hope. This too, is a gift of faith. I have stood at hundreds of funerals and proclaimed, “‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ said the Lord,” and that promise gives me hope.
I don’t know what that new reality will be like, but I cling to bits of Scripture that give us hints and clues. Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. ”(1 Corinthians 13:12)
The scripture that speaks to me most about disability comes from the vision of John the Divine as reported in the 21st chapter of Revelation. John looks up and sees a new heaven and a new earth, and a New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven. He says, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
I take comfort from this promise that God’s ultimate intention for us is a community where we don’t suffer pain or death or loss. That would have to include disability. No more sleepless nights, no more depression, no more chronic pain, no more anxiety and fear, no more shame. No more of all the things that beset us in this earthly life. Quite a vision!
This horizon of hope often allows me to bounce back from my set-backs, to experience forgiveness for my failings, to face the challenges and complications of each new day, and to enjoy the quotidian little (and sometimes not so little) graces that visit me unbidden and unexpected.