Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

A Clay Jar Glory: a book review

Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is well known among evangelicals. In 1967, at the age of seventeen, a diving accident left her as a quadriplegic. This led to struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts, and a crisis of faith. Two years later, Tada emerged from the darkness to become an artist, a Christian speaker and author. She is respected for strong and enduring testimony and she is a tireless advocate for the disabled. Her openness about her own struggles with depression, chronic pain and doubt has encouraged millions. Tada’s latest book, A Spectacle of Glory, is a 365-day, daily devotional designed to help readers put God’s glory on display, even in the midst of difficult, trying circumstance.

spectacleThese daily devotions consist of a Scripture verse reference (occasionally a version of the Bible suggested), a couple of paragraphs reflection and exhortation and a short prayer. The scripture references consist of one to three Bible verses for each day. As someone who enjoys studying the Bible, I don’t usually go for the daily-verse type devotionals; however the brevity of these devotions is one of its best features. I have friends who have suffered from chronic pain, Parkinson’s, or have undergone mind-addling medical treatment. This zaps their energy and destroys their ability to concentrate for longer periods. Reading long swaths of Scripture or doing deep study is not feasible. What they need is an encouraging word. in the midst of their circumstance.

And Tada delivers. With more than fifty years of faithful Christian service as a quadriplegic, she speaks with integrity about what it means to persevere, our strong hope and the robust character of Christian joy.  If you are in the market for a devotional in 2017, this may be a good choice.

Note: I received this book from Handlebar media in exchange for my honest review.

Bringing the Broken and Disabled Good News: a book review

Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace by Michael Beates

For all the talk we Christians make about the church being a community of mutual care, churches are often remarkably inhospitable to the disabled. We prize those who are strong, gifted, and well put together. We don’t mean to exclude the weak and the vulnerable, but they often disrupt the order of service  and the flow of worship. And so in subtle ways we push those with disabilities away.

In Disability & the Gospel, Michael Beates helps us come to grips with disability and our response to it and he lays out a Biblical theology of disability. Beates is on the board for  Joni and Friends (the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada) and is also the father of  seven children (one who is profoundly disabled and two others who face challenges).   Beates interacts with much of the theological literature on disability and helps us understand the ways disability (and the disabled) challenge us to greater dependence on God in all circumstances.

The book divides into four parts. In part one, Beates surveys relevant texts in the Old and New Testament which speak either directly or indirectly to the issue of disability. Part two provides a historical perspective on the issue, examining the issue of  disability in Greek and Rabbinic literature, the early church, the Reformation era, and in the early modern era.  The attitudes towards the disabled throughout church history is not always a pretty tale. In part three, Beates discusses what current secular and Christian voices are contributing to the discussion and in part four he provides some suggestions for Christian leaders and lay people on how to grow in our capacity to minister effectively to those with disabilities. There are also two appendices which offer a look at how God’s sovereignty relates to genetic anomalies and an example sermon from Beates on God’s love for the broken.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it challenges us not only to include the disabled in our faith community and be intentional about ministering to (and with) the disabled, but also to see disability and brokenness through a theological lens. We are all broken, weak and vulnerable people who are dependent on other’s and God’s care. The disabled among us hold profound lessons for us all about our common humanity, and we should not so easily shunt them away.  Beates also makes a strong case that God shows particular care for the weak and disabled and challenges us to do the same (though in an organic, holistic and communal way). I also really liked the biblical and historical data. I think there are other thoughtful authors (i.e. Amos Yong, Thomas Reynolds, Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, Marva Dawn, etc) who are wrestling with looking at disability through a theological lens,but what Beates brings to the table is attention to the Biblical text. This is an appropriate focus, well needed and grounds his theology in something more solid than the often contradictory and troublesome theological tradition reflecting on this issue or subjective experience.  Beates articulates a biblical vision of disability which emphasizes both God’s care for the weak and broken and God’s sovereignty.

So I think this would be a good book for anyone interested in getting involved with ministry to those with disabilities, either as ministry leaders or as a concerned lay person. Sometimes our inhospitality towards the disabled stems from fear of how to approach them. Beates offers good advice on that score. I don’t hesitate in recommending this one! It pushed me to think of the people who have taught me the most about depending on God and trusting in Him. For me, these weren’t the strong, talented, gifted and wise mentors but I can think of several friends who faced physical or mental challenges who learned dependence on God in their circumstances, providing a prophetic challenge for the rest of us.

I received this book from Crossway Books in exchange for this review.