Thursday, September 17, 2015

Neurodiversity and the Church

If you haven't been paying attention to NPR NEWS, the LA TIMES or TED TALKS, you may have missed the strong discussion occuring today among some leading figures in the Autism community who are paving different path into the future.

Steve Silberman burst onto the scene recently with NeuroTribes and  Dr. Thomas Armstrong released Neurodiversity.  The overarching theme is that people have brain differences, yet their gifts can and must positively impact our society-- if only we take a moment to listen.

 Ron Sandison, a pastor identified with Asberger's Syndrome desires that people within the church hear these voices.  His upcoming book A Parents Guide to Autism: Practical Advice, Biblical Wisdom (CharismaHouse) attempts to do just that.

I look forward to reading these books and seeing how the church will listen!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Reflections on Day 3 (Thursday) #SITD15

Erik Carter introducing Mark Crenshaw
The third day of #SITD actually started a half an hour earlier than the last few days… unfortunately, most of us were dragging a little bit!  But the speakers were well worth it.  Bishop David Talley of the Atlanta Archdiocese, Barb Newman of the CLC Network (and a frequent Friendship Ministries collaborator) and Mark Crenshaw, our host at Georgia State University and Director for the Center for Leadership in Disability.

Bishop Talley addressed Humility and Service as part of his own spiritual journey.  A former Baptist and seminarian dropout who finally studied canon law in Rome, he was challenged to action by a mother years ago.  Since then, he has made serving people with disabilities a non-negotiable as a local parish pastor and now in his present responsibilities as bishop.

A dynamic speaker, several of his comments stuck with me… 
  • As a member of the clergy, if I am to serve you, I must know how you learn and process.
  •  A life of humility is both a gift and a learned art  -- only then can we move from arrogance and isolation to joy and connection.

There is no question that Bishop Talley is prophetically speaking to congregations unwilling to move towards full worshiping participation.  He juxtaposes the isolation that is often experienced by people with disabilities, with the isolation that will occur when those in the church find they are not living out God’s path.

Barb Newman walked through several chapters of her new book Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship and concentrated on Vertical Habits – encouraging us to take the skeleton of the liturgy and dress it with musculature that is universally accessible (Talley’s description).  Her approach from a special education consultant gave practical ideas (fidgets, rubber bands, visual schedules, early warnings, assistive tech) for people to access the curriculum in kinesthetic, visual, and physical means.  The challenge for many (as evidenced in twitter conversations) is to utilize her ideas outside of the reformed ordered worship setting in which they originated.

Mark Crenshaw, in Recipients Towards Bearers, exegeted the blind Bartemeus story, telling it from the perspective of the subject who engaged Jesus, interrupting the crowd, and obtaining what he needed.  Mark reflected that the greatest gift he has to share (as a connector, often in religious communities) arose out of some of his most painful experiences of disability within the church.  He also reminded us that until we exegete and understand the community and context and are finally trusted to do work on behalf of the community, one may not belong yet.

In the discussion afterwards, we were reminded that a formal weekly liturgy is actually just the template for the real liturgy which occurs during the lifecycles of the rest of the week.
All three speakers revealed that all people with disabilities have gifts.  It is often those of us without current disabilities that must get out of their way in order for those gifts to be realized.
One critique leveled against the speakers this morning was the danger of imposing a particular spiritual communities voice upon those without the communicative capacity to reject that voice.  A danger may exist in that we often may force the presence of G-d or a sign of his into a situation where it does not exist. This is a danger that clergy members – and the larger community of faith – may need to guard against.


Negotiating Boundaries - Dr. Priscilla Oh #SITD15

Dr. Oh recently completed her PhD at the University of Aberdeen in Practical Theology with Dr. John Swinton. Originally from Inchon, Korea,  her auto-biographical theology on mental health reflects upon her years as a roommate of a friend with manic mental health.  (See Stanley Hauerwas Hannah's Child for a similar sketch)

I enjoyed her presentation, but really was enraptured by her use of free verse poetry to encapsulate the emotions, relations, similarities, and differences in their mutual relationship over time. The prose has the power to proffer healing.   I look forward to the time when those will be published.


From Pig Farmer to Pastor #SITD15

I had a chance to chat with Pastor Dan DeVries for a bit between sessions at the Summer Institute.  A common question asked as part of introduction around here, is what brings you to the table of disability?

Dan currently serves as the Religious Services Coordinator for Hope Haven in Rock Valley, IA (near where my own parents were raised).

But his journey to get there took him through several different career paths.  A degree from Iowa State in agricultural, several years serving in world relief, a stint as a pig farmer, a distance seminary education (Western Seminary - RCA) and finally a call to serve people with Intellectual Disabilities.

The journey God calls his people to, wraps us around the world and utilizes all of our gifts.


Meet Dr. Evelyn McMullen #SITD15

I got to meet Dr. Evelyn McMullen,(D.Ed.Min, Columbia Theological Seminary) on Tuesday at the Summer Institute. She has been a leader in Friendship groups and her church for years in the Lakeland, Florida area.  Recently she has launched Bright Threads Ministries where she is helping churches and communities weave together intentional faith relationships with each other.   I'm also happy to report she has agreed to help author some of the new Friendship curriculum!


Reflections on Day 2- Wednesday AM #SITD15

Reflections on Day 2

This morning was a moving session – in tribute to one of the early pioneers of disability theology.  Dr. Nancy Eiesland (1964-2009) was known for her liberating work in disability theology with her groundbreaking book The Disabled G-D.   Julia Watts Belser, from the Jewish tradition paid homage to her legacy in an excellent lecture, by delving into the Hebrew Bible’s texts on disability and the life hereafter (eschaton) and then exploring the related rabbinical tradition.

During the post-lecture session, several key questions were raised that highlight the differences in Jewish and Christian (among its various forms) handling of these texts and of Eiesland’s work.  Dr. Hans Reinders pointed out the prominence of Eiesland’s Christological emphasis in her work and inquired how the work can be utilized outside of the Christian tradition.  To be sure, her contribution allowed others to access the texts (and G-D) through previously unthought ways.  Several ensuing twitter posts indicated that many found hope and substance in Eiesland’s work and could now think of a Disabled G-D without having to focus on the disabled Christ.  While I am glad her work has served as inspiration to others outside the Christian tradition, I too conclude with Dr. Reinders that it is the Christological piece that sets her work as viable within the Christian tradition – without it, it (in Pentecostal parlance) loses its power.

I am grateful for the insights that Julia Watts Belser gave – yet it also clarified for me the fundamental worldview perspective difference between the two religious traditions.  Dr. Becker, post lecture, also revealed that for her the eschaton is not nearly as important as the here and now.  For many evangelical Christians, the eschaton is the focus – often in my opinion, to our detriment of the social injustices present in the now. 

Why is the eschaton critical? – because of the role imagination plays with our self-identity and mutual relationship with the G-D-head in the future.  Identity body politics are important and can not be easily swept away.  The graveyard image of a person moving out of a support device  (wheelchair) is liberating to some who have not yet created a new identity (new creation?) in relationship with the disabled G-D, yet confining to those who have found their new identity melded with metal and plastic.  Perhaps, as Monica Coleman stated, people with disabilities will have a choose their own adventure experience as we reflect on our identity in the hereafter with our G-D.


Meet Bishop Talley.. #SITD15

I had the privilege of meeting Bishop David Talley of the Archdiocese of Atlanta this morning (Thursday).  As he told me of his long time ministry leading Toni's Camp -- a faith formation experience for people with ID with high school senior volunteers, I could tell he was a passionate servant.

He then volunteered to help me relocate the display table I was at too another room -- and quickly picked up the other end.  Together we made something small happen.  An accumulation of small changes eventually transform the world.

His work in Atlanta is unmistakable.  A fully architectural accessible parish so everyone would have access to the full life of community.  A commitment to serving all people as mutual co-laborers for the gospel. A passion for young people to live out the gospel message.  I look forward to hearing him speak later today.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Thoughts from the Summer Institute on Disability #SITD15

Welcome to Atlanta!

This week I am attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability #STID15.  This annual conference brings together an international array of theologians, educators, thinkers, writers, activists, and advocates from around the world.  Every habitable continent is represented. The attendees range from many diverse denomination, religious, and secular traditions.  One goal of the week is to find out our where interests overlap so we can advance change in our society.

This year, the first day was set aside for local area clergy and other representatives to get a taste of the upcoming week and attend practical workshops.  It fascinates me that the many of the local people I interacted with were from conservative evangelical traditions, seeking to further their knowledge of disability ministry; yet notably absent this year were the voices of many of the conservative evangelical American leaders and writers.  I know they had been invited, but many opt not to have their seat at this table, to our mutual detriment.

Several intriguing discussions arose during the day.  As theologians are prone to do, words are re-purposed to fit a category of thought.  Catchy phrases, which I live tweeted through the event, do not necessarily have the same weight in different parts of the country.  I’m finding that our uncommon language among regions and disciplines make for great journal articles but have little impact on local ministries.  At the heart of this issue is that no matter how we term it, before full inclusion, belonging, or becoming can ever take fully hold (past mere access and integration), mutual relationships must be formed with the other.  This is the true hospitality – which by definition should pull even the most progressive one of us into uncomfortable situations.

As a Christian, I desire to be challenged in my faith formation – it furthers my development towards the full image of Christ.  As an outgrowth of my personal faith, I am unable to comprehend disability ministry as anything but originating from the heart of Christ – that is what drives me.

As a Classical Pentecostal who acknowledges that occasional abuses occur by mortal humans attempting to find their place within the economy of faith, I am not quite as willing to throw away the doctrine of healing.  I will confess, however, that my doctrine of healing does not begin nor end with it being defined solely as a cure – yet I am willing to allow the gap in time and space (Reinders) to have a place for the miraculous.  Furthermore, as a Pentecostal who hears the critiques of others, I fully understand the cry to pray for the gift of ears for JUST listening, over that of tongues.  But I have never found them mutually exclusive.  In fact, in my Pentecostal tradition, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the often accompanying glossolalia allows me to be even more attune to the lament of God’s people.

I look forward to another day of stretching, growing, and thinking!

I invite you to help me grow!

Rev. Marvin J. Miller, D.Min (cand)
T: @MarvinMiller


Saturday, April 04, 2015

Happy Easter! He is Risen Indeed!

For those affected by disability who are unable to attend a service today, please feel free to connect with the FRONT DOOR -- Key Ministries Hosted Interactive Online Church for Families with Disability.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Beyond the Letter -- Inclusion and Varsity Letters

In the last few days, a news story on varsity lettering and inclusion in a local high school has been the top trending topic in Wichita, Kansas.  While focused on the education sector, this presents an opportunity for us in the church to re-examine our own inclusion practices. 

  • Are we including all students in our churches?  
  • What church traditions which were once progressive, now serve as barriers for full inclusion?
  • How can we welcome those with hidden disabilities?
  • What church systems are in place which make it harder for our families with disabilities to engage in meaningful worship and discipleship?  How can we remove those?

For more information on inclusive church practices, please check out Key Ministries' Inclusion Fusion web archives.  A number of Christian disability ministries are also available to help you transform your church into an inclusive community which celebrates every unique ability God has provided.

For those looking for my public comment presented at the 30 March 2015 Wichita USD 259 Board of Education meeting, the text and a pdf file is provided below.




My nearly teenage daughter has Down syndrome.  When we moved into Kansas five years ago, we met with special education officials to discuss our daughter’s specific needs.  Because of their helpfulness, we opted to purchase a house in the Northwest high school area.  Over the years, I have had positive interactions with many special educators, volunteers, and others who have helped our daughter progress.  I would like to thank the district for being attentive to our needs in the past and hope they hear our communities concerns for the future.

Recent news stories have revealed an opportunity for the greater Wichita community to embrace the special needs students who are often present, yet ignored or not included in our society.  Inclusion is about social capital, maintaining a sense of belonging, and developing meaningful relationships with peers. 

As a varsity high school letter holder myself, I am grateful those with special needs who enjoy sports have an outlet provided to show their school pride.  They are as much of an athlete as the East High state championship basketball team we are proud of and the Shockers we root for.  Yet so is the tuba player in the marching band practicing on a hot field 3 hours a day, or any number of other students who put in extra hours in clubs and while representing their school.  My question is this – what is the purpose of a letter?  Is it not to indicate accomplishment and express school pride?

I also understand we have a large city, comprised of younger and older schools, all with their own traditions – which is why local building policy is often a good thing – it allows us to celebrate our diversity.  Some schools have letters for KSHAA approved sports and allow clubs to design their own.  Other sites use one letter for all sports and clubs.  I have been informed, letters had already been approved and are in the design phase for the Tri-County special needs league (comprised of numerous schools from several districts) this year and were to be presented at the end of the season.  These processes take some time, but seek to be fair to all.

Are any of these policies intrinsically wrong?  -- Only if the letter is used as a marker to promote exclusion.  If this is the case, then absolutely, there must be a district wide policy.  If not, I am fairly confident that our student stakeholders, as evidenced by the online petition we see, would come to the same conclusion – because we’ve done a good job of educating them.

I would suggest that the board of education encourage local buildings to put together a task force of all stakeholders, students, teachers, and administrators involved in all lettering activities and re-examine any lettering or dress code policies which do not equally treat students who demonstrate school spirit.

Whichever decision this board makes on the lettering issue, will it automatically address all our inclusion issues?  Probably not.  We haven’t even begun to address our medically fragile students who expend more physical effort just getting dressed every morning. The frenzy that has surrounded this topic will move on to the next bit of sensationalist reporting.  As a parent, I have observed that it is easier for students, educators, and the community at large to like something on Facebook, rally for a local cause, yet never take true action. 
  • For every student that signed this petition – have you sat down at a lunch table, or attended a game, or become a friend of a person with special needs outside of class?
  • For every educator that “leaves their work” at school, have you sought to include persons with disabilities in your own neighborhood?
  • For every member of the public who rallies here tonight, have you sought inclusion in your work site-- because our high school graduates need a place to earn a living and co-workers to hang out with.
  • For our legislators who say “give the letter”, have you not recognized that slashing the educational budget actually makes it much harder to create environments of inclusion and will hurt our special needs students?

It’s time to take this conversation beyond the letter.


Rev. Marvin J. Miller
Parent Member, KSDE Special Education Advocacy Council (SEAC) – District 10

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter are mine and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency or organization with which I am associated.

Beyond the Letter (pdf)