Embracing All God’s Children, Part 3: Whole, holy, where does sin enter the picture?

Embracing All God’s Children, Part 3: Whole, holy, where does sin enter the picture?

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As the parent of special needs children, church was often a challenge for us.  While most   of our time was spent serving smaller military chapels, a trip to a parish usually promised to be stressful – as my husband was serving in the altar and there were 5 children to tend to.   With children on the autism spectrum, sometimes they were just in perpetual motion  – much to the dismay of some parishioners around us.

The following is a serialized version of a paper I wrote for my M.A. in Religious Education at Fordham University:  Embracing All God’s Children:  Orthodox Theology Concerning Disability and Its  Implications for Ministry with Special Needs Youth in the Orthodox Church.  The full paper can be found online: fordham.academia.edu/WendyCwiklinski

 

Part 3: Whole, holy, where does sin enter the picture?

“Being fully human means becoming whole and holy”[1]

In her book Same Lake, Different Boat, Stephanie Hubach summarizes the attitudes regarding disability as follows:

  • Historical View:  Disability is an Abnormal Part of Life in a Normal World
  • Postmodern View:  Disability is a Normal Part of Life in a Normal World
  • Biblical View:  Disability is a Normal Part of Life in an Abnormal World[2]

To illustrate the Historical View, she provides a quote from a well-known disability advocate, Norman Kunc:

Throughout history, people with physical and mental disabilities have been abandoned at birth, banished from society, used as court jesters, drowned and burned during the Inquisition, gassed in Nazi Germany, and still continue to be segregated, institutionalized, tortured in the name of behaviour management, abused, raped, euthanized, and murdered.[3]

In contrast to the Historical View, to illustrate the Postmodern View that Disability is Normal, Hubach gives another quote from a speaker at a Down syndrome conference:

Having a disability is a difference like any other human characteristic.  It is not a deficiency.  It is by no means a tragedy and does not deserve pity or benevolence or charity.  Now is the time to recognize and celebrate disability rather than ignore, devalue or use it as justification for lower expectations.[4]

The Biblical view that Hubach presents is in line with Orthodox teaching and theology:  human experience is affected by the fall:

On every level of every dimension of the human experience there is a mixture of both the blessedness of creation and the brokenness of the fall.  By God’s common grace, we participate in the damaged but not obliterated blessings of being created in God’s image and being endowed with purpose.   At the same time our experience is permeated throughout with the effects of brokenness.  This is true for every person.  Yet much of our energies in life are directed toward denying reality.[5]

Sin and Disability

Western Christian teachings regarding sin differs from those of their Eastern Christian counterparts.  Simply put, the West contends that there is personal guilt and that sin is passed on genetically–so one could deduce that invisible disabilities are passed on from generation to generation as a personal “punishment.”  Teachings on this are more concrete, reflecting a scholastic approach to theology.  In contrast, the Orthodox teaching is that there is suffering as a consequence of original sin, including mortality and illness, yet God’s image and likeness is preserved and our human condition is redeemed by Jesus Christ assuming our humanity.

It is not uncommon for people to make these kinds of remarks:

  • It saddens me to see people with disabilities in our church. It is a reminder that we do not have enough faith
  • You must have done something wrong for God to give you a child with a disability
  • Your child is possessed, you need to pray more or have an exorcism

In the Gospel of John, Jesus confronts the notion of inherited sin when he restores the sight of a man blind from birth:

“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’” (John 9.1-3)

Jesus is clear that the disability of this man was not due to either his sin or the sin of his parents.  His blindness happened, Jesus said, “so that God’s works might be revealed.”  In this situation, Jesus healed the man, and the man became his follower, drawing attention to who Jesus was.[6]

Despite the clarity of Jesus’ words, the guilt and stigma of having a child with special needs is still present within the Christian community.  Guilt can be ever-present in the mind of these parents – and coming from both a spiritual and a secular influence.

The third statement regarding possession is common in many Christian traditions.   There are several passages in the gospels where Christ drives the demons out.  But even the Church Fathers recognized that some forms of mental illness had an organic cause.[7]

Now that we are officially in the 21st century, we know so much more than the Church of the New Testament about genetics, the causes of brain disorders like epilepsy or schizophrenia, how diet can affect our brains and the rest of our body.  Even with this kind of knowledge, the nagging questions of guilt still present themselves:

  • What did I do while I was pregnant to cause this?
  • Did the legally required immunizations bring this on?
  • I have a history of _____ in my family, I should have known better than to have children
  • Why did God give me such a challenging child?
  • If only my parenting were different…..[8]

There are doctors and therapists who are also quick to blame the parents for their child’s condition, somehow implying that “better parenting” can overcome physical dysfunction, especially in those with invisible disabilities.

Dr. Sigmund Freud developed theories of the psyche that still hold a heavy influence on modern thinking.   Guilt is a major underpinning of that theory – and that perspective of guilt continues to influence perspectives in the treatment of those children with special needs to this day.  A disciple of Freud, Dr. Erik Erikson, defined “normal”, influencing American education in particular with his theories regarding the development of children.   These theories were embraced by followers, and is embedded in our culture, not only in the secular world, but also in the world of religious formation and education.

Limitations of Erikson’s developmental theories:

For some parents of children who are out of the “normal” range of development in some areas of their lives, there is a love-hate relationship with these psychological theories.  For these families, “normal” is usually been best defined as a setting on the washing machine!  It is interesting to note that Erik Erikson, whose theories are so widely read and interpreted, was himself the father of a child that did not fit the “normal” definition—a child that he decided to institutionalize.  He was indeed a product of his time, a father who, according to his daughter, was not overly involved in his own household or the raising of his children.[9]  In this light, Erikson’s theories are clearly “Do as I say, not as I do!”

One of the drawbacks of these theories that have become so entrenched in our social and educational system is that it sets up expectations that are not realistic for every child.  For examples, a child who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome has a physical appearance appropriate for their chronological age, but social development can be years behind—leading many teachers or other adults to deal with them in ways that were ineffective.   They may look 16, but have the social thought process of a 13 or 14 year old!  It is only in the past 10-15 years that therapists and medical professionals have begun to consider that there are real, medical issues that are at play with some children, especially those on the autism spectrum.   How can one move through the developmental stages successfully if their brain is not wired in a way that allows that success?

While Erikson’s observations are valid in general, it is interesting to consider how deeply entrenched his developmental theories have become in every sector of our lives, especially in the areas of religion, occupation, education, even in negotiating personal relationships.  It will be interesting to see how Erikson’s theories continue to be incorporated in the training of future generations, especially professionals who deal with children.   One of the criticisms of Erikson’s works is that his conclusions are not based on significant research investigation, but are formulated largely from personal and subjective interpretation.[10]  Robert Coles wrote that Erikson “is ever the artist, shedding light amid shadows, struggling for and with form against the sure knowledge that truth (what is seen, reported) is each person’s particular response to his or her surroundings. “[11]  Unlike Freud, Erikson did not consider his theories absolute:  when a student asked Erikson a question about one of his books, he replied:  “Look, what you get out of it is yours–and may differ from what anyone else finds useful or valuable, including me.”[12]

Fred Rogers, the creator and central character of the children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, studied with Erikson, Dr. Margaret McFarland, and Dr. Benjamin Spock and his contemporaries during his work at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center – part of his studies at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.[13]  While Erikson’s works sought to define normal, Mr. Rogers celebrated the uniqueness that each child held.  In testimony to a 1969 Senate budget hearing on funding for public broadcasting, Mr. Rogers summarized his mission:

….[A]nd this is what I give. I give an expression of care each day to every child, to help him realize he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you.  And I like you just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.

Why include Mr. Rogers here?  His books and television shows still reach millions of Though Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, “His words and work—his entire life—are imbued with a spirituality that transcends denomination or religion”[14]  In his biography Life’s Journeys, he spoke of how he reached his understanding of the importance of compassion and the care of others:

I sought out stories of other people who were poor in spirit, and I felt for them. I started to look behind the things that people did and said; and little by little, concluded that Saint-Exupéry was absolutely right when he wrote in The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” So after a lot of sadness, I began a lifelong search for what is essential, what it is about my neighbor that doesn’t meet the eye.

“Let on you don’t care, then nobody will bother you.” Those who gave me that advice were well-meaning people; but, of course, I did care, and somehow along the way I caught the belief that God cares, too; that the divine presence cares for those of us who are hurting and that presence is everywhere. I don’t know exactly how this came to me, maybe through one of my teachers or the town librarian, maybe through a musician or a minister — definitely across some holy ground.

My hunch is that the beginning of my belief in the caring nature of God came from all of those people — all of those extraordinary, ordinary people who believed that I was more than I thought I was — all those saints who helped a fat, shy kid to see more clearly what was really essential.

Seeing those around him as special was just the way Mr. Rogers was.  There is a story about him visiting a child through a foundation.  The child was so nervous that the mother had to take him to a separate room to calm him down.  As the story goes, Mr. Rogers talked with the boy and asked him for a favor:

Rogers said, “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?” Although baffled by the request, the youngster said yes, via his computer. So Mister Rogers asked if the boy would pray for him. This time the boy was astonished. No one had ever asked for his prayers; he had always been prayed for. He finally told Rogers that he would try. According to the boy’s mother, her son kept Mister Rogers in his prayers.

Mr. Rogers was later complimented for us understanding of this young boy’s needs, that by asking for something “gave that child a purpose as no one else had ever done.”  With a puzzled look, Mr. Rogers replied:  “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”[15]  What an amazing statement, to hear the consideration of the “less than perfect” as holy!

  1. (Jeannine K. Brown, Carla M. Dahl,Wyndy Corbin Reuschling 10)
  2. (Hubach 24-27)
  3. (Hubach 25)
  4. (Hubach 26)
  5. (Hubach 28-29)
  6. (Scottie May 314)
  7. (Larchet, Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings from the Early Christian East 8)
  8. See also Appendix A: Parent response to personal questions of guilt
  9. (Bloland)
  10. (Biehler 124; Biehler)
  11. (Friedman 16)
  12. (Friedman 16-17)
  13. (Margaret Mary Kimmel, Mark Collins 12)
  14. (Margaret Mary Kimmel, Mark Collins 3)
  15. (Margaret Mary Kimmel, Mark Collins 32)

Appendix A: Parent response to personal questions of guilt

 

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Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski

Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski has Bachelor’s degree in Instrumental Music Education from Northeast Louisiana University. She studied at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and recently graduated from Fordham University with a M.A. in Religious Education, with an emphasis in Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She is married to Fr. Jerome Cwiklinski, who recently retired from serving as a Navy Chaplain. They are the proud parents of 5 children, who have explored the country during their military moves, living in California, Chicago, Washington DC, Alaska, and Rhode Island. Their last move to Southern California has lasted for 15 years!