Sunday, April 27, 2014

Being Restored Through a Differently-Abled Christ

I preached in the Princeton University Chapel on Sunday April 27th on John 20:19-31. This sermon relates to the sermon I preached on April 1st, but it is not a follow-up per sé because the two sermons were preached in front of different audiences. 

Last week, we celebrated Easter with the glorious news that Christ was missing from the tomb, the sign that He had indeed risen. This Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear of the Disciples' encounter with Christ after His resurrection.

As someone who has felt like an outcast much of my life, I find a lot of hope in the resurrection. For years I have been struggling to find my place within the Christian body. As someone with a pronounced speech impediment, I have felt more often like an outcast than a beloved Child of God. I would frequently wonder: Does God really love me if God gave me this difficulty? Why am I not perfect like others around me?

Yet, as we look at the Gospels, Jesus does not have an easy life. From day one, people want him dead. But during his ministry he is defiant to the authorities and the upper class, yet loving towards the downtrodden. He meets with the outcasts of society, to the dismay of His own Disciples. He is clear that they are Beloved too. In the end, Christ is put to death for challenging the political and religious powers of first-century Israel. Yet, He rise again. His persecutors did not have the last word.

Looking back on my own life so far, I was tormented by taunts, treated unkindly and unfairly. But my tormentors do not have the last word either. I am using my voice, which has been mocked and discriminated against, to bring you this word of God today. That is one of the hopes that the Resurrection shows us. Good will always prevail over evil.

I also find hope in how Christ is embodied after the Resurrection. He did not come back with a pristine, wound-free body. Yet He bore the wounds He had suffered on the cross. Others expected this to be the case.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio c. 1601-1602

One of the disciples, Thomas, was dismayed by not seeing Jesus when the others first had. He doesn't even believe the others that they had actually seen him, so he says in verse 25: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

After seeing what horrors Jesus went through on the Cross, Thomas was under no illusion that Christ would appear without wounds. Furthermore, Thomas expected Jesus to bear the wounds He had suffered on the Cross. If he didn't, then he would not be convinced that Christ had actually appeared to the others.

When Christ appears with his wounds, showing his imperfect body, Thomas readily embraces him as Lord. Thomas was not grossed out by the wounds and Christ asked him to reach out and to touch the wounds. This scene is reminiscent of all the times in the Gospels where Christ would reach out and touch the emotional and physical wounds of the outcasted. By Christ bearing these wounds, we see a new take on what it means to be differently-abled, and that we worship a differently-abled Christ.

Often being disabled in our society has been a taboo topic. Until recently people with disabilities would be discarded from society and locked away in hospitals and schools, away from the larger society. Things are improving for people with disabilities. But still today disabilities are still regarded more as a sin than a blessing. Still largely outcasted, people with disabilities are often on the fringes of our society and are often treated more with pity than respect. People with disabilities faced much discrimination, especially within the Church.

In her book Disabled God, the late theologian Lisa Eiesland tells the story of Diane who was born without lower limbs and above-elbow upper extremity stumps. Shortly after Diane was born, her family
moved across the country to avoid Diane's grandmother, who accused her daughter, Diane's mother, of sleeping with the devil. She called Diane “the devil's daughter”. That was just the beginning of the torments she would face throughout her life.

But, like my tormentors, her grandmother was wrong. Diane and I are both beloved children of God, just as we who are gathered here today, are all beloved children of God.

Ascribing disabilities as sins is largely due to misinterpretations relating to passages in the Gospel where Jesus seemingly cures people of their ailments, of their disabilities. Instead, I see Jesus' witness in the Gospels as more about restoring outcasts to their communities, not about healing. The Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network contends that “The healing stories in the gospels, are primarily concerned with restoration of persons to their communities, not the cure of their physiological conditions

Later in her book, Eiesland writes that: “The disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin... Our bodies... are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”

Christ bearing those wounds proves this; we are whole just as we are, just as we are made.

Growing up with a speech impediment was not easy. Often I did not feel whole, because others treated me as if I was not whole, as if my speech impediment was a form of punishment for a past sin. I frequently dreamt about overcoming my impediment. But I see that longing as futile now, because I have been whole all my life. Because God made me in God's image.

We are each made in the image of God, yet we are each shaped differently, with different genders, with different abilities, and with different skills and talents. I thought about this concept when I was baking bread for communion last weekend. Over the last couple months, as I have been baking the communion bread, I have tried my hardest to shape them so that they would all look uniform. I could not! They each turned out to be their own unique shape.

This last time, I took another approach. I let them take shape as I pressed them out from the balls that I had formed. The balls themselves were similar in size and made out of exactly the same ingredients, but each one took a different shape and yet each one was just as good as all the others. They served well as the bread of Life, but none of them were exactly alike.

I noticed that is how humankind works. We are made out of the same mold, but we come out looking different, with different abilities and insights. We are all children of God that God can use as God see fit.

In celebrating a differently-abled God, we can recognize that the Resurrection is not about resurrecting perfect people but allowing us, imperfect people in an imperfect world a chance to be redeemed together through Jesus' ultimate sacrifice and ultimate victory. We do not need to be perfect to be in this community; instead we need to be faithful to the best of our abilities.

Our insistence on perfection is one of our greatest sins in our modern world. We strive to be perfect: To have straight A's, to have successful careers, to be the perfect spouses, to be perfect believers. But I do not see that as what God intends for us.

As I am ending my ministry among you in a couple weeks, I see that we are a beautiful diverse community. We are not uniform, but yet we are all children of God. Christ has formed us out of the same mold, but we are not same. None of us are perfect, but we can all strive to be faithful in an imperfect world.

Also within the Resurrection, I see a challenge within this hope. I see a challenge to love others who are different from me, who hold different beliefs from me, who have different interests from me. Yes we are not made the same and a lot of the conflict in the world comes out of the differences that exist between people. The hope is also the challenge. If we admit that we are imperfect people, we will mess up and make mistakes. We will fail to love our neighbor fully, we will fail to see another person's humanity when they cut us off on Route 1, and we will fail to see the light of God within someone when we feel betrayed by them.

But our imperfectness does not prevent us from being in a relationship with God. It proves that we are humans, who are called to be faithful, not perfect.

On this Sunday we, people of different abilities, are being resurrected as a community into the differently-abled body of Christ to have another chance to live out God's Kingdom here on Earth, where differences are celebrated and embraced.


Let's go forth from here today striving to be faithful, in celebration of our differences, and let's remember we are given this chance today only through Christ's Resurrection. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Worshipping a Differently-Abled Christ

Each Masters Senior at Princeton Theological Seminary is eligible to give the message during the weekday service. I gave my message on April 1. If you want to listen to the sermon or the whole service, you can. Here is the link to the sermon and the service before and after the sermon.

The passage for this sermon is John 9:1-5

Throughout my life I have been trying to understand why I have a speech impediment. Why did God do this to me? At first I thought it was a curse done to me because of past sins; just as the Disciples ask Christ about the man who is blind. Then I wondered for some time if it was a prank on me. One day, I would wake up and this impediment would be gone. Jesus would be appearing more like Buddy Jesus from the movie Dogma and He would say “April Fools!”

Most of my life, I longed for that day to be whole, to feel whole. Why God? Why am I not whole? Then throughout seminary I have tried to reconcile my speech impediment through looking at it as a gift, as Jesus seems to proclaim in John 9. Christ must have meant for this to happen. A way to use me in the world. In wrestling with this, I have come to see that this too is not true. Being a person with a disability is not a gift nor is it about sin. I have realized the reason that I have felt like an outcast has nothing to do with my relationship with Christ. The source of my pain has been the reactions of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ here on Earth.

Part of Jesus' witness in the Gospels is about restoring outcasts to their communities. The Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network contends that “The healing stories in the gospels, [like John 9] are primarily concerned with restoration of persons to their communities, not the cure of their physiological conditions.” This man who was blind was not welcome in his community and is only restored to his community after the miracle.

Furthermore, at the end of this story, Christ proclaims that people who can physically see are spirituality blind. Then the inverse must be true: People who have disabilities can be spiritually whole. This speech impediment is just a part of who I am, not a sin, not a gift. Our collective sin have been trying to reach an unrealistic perfection while living in an imperfect world.
  • Let's remember: We are asked to live faithfully, not sinlessly. 
  • Let's admit: We as humans err a lot. 
  • Let's confess: We will not be perfect as it is currently defined in the modern world. 
Lent is an ideal time to think about this restoration. The theologian Lisa Eiesland writes in Disabled God that after the resurrection in Luke, Christ appears with injuries to His hands and feet. By doing so, she claims that Jesus' disability indicates not a flawed humanity but a full humanity. 

By acknowledging this truth that we worship a God who is differently abled and yet still whole, we can admit that our faithfulness, not our perfection, bring us into the body of Christ. Therefore, the resurrection in two and a half weeks is a collective restoration for all of us. We each have different abilities and struggles. We all have gifts to offer each other and the world. 

Let me caution you all today too: People with disabilities are not here for abled body people to feel blessed or feel lucky. We are not here for others' self-realizations. We are here to be active parts of the body of Christ and to offer our own gifts and talents to the world. Attitudes of pity, judgement, and fear of people with disabilities interfere with this restoration. 

 This is the Good News! On Easter, we, as an imperfect people, will be restored back into this whole living differently-abled body of Christ.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lenten Reflection

I wrote the following as an entry in the Princeton University Chapel Lenten Meditation Booklet. I was assigned the following text: Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes)

Doesn't Jesus make the Beatitudes sound so easy? Who wouldn't want to live in these ways?

Just follow these simple words and you will be blessed by the Lord. Why would it not be easy?

Yet we all know that these words, easy as they sound, are a lot harder to live out. At Jesus's time, in the First Century AD, people of faith had become lax in their devotion and practice. Social injustice was abound in a community that claimed to worship God.

Doesn't that sound familiar? Look at our current world that is ravaged by a lot of societal ills, such as mass incarceration, war, gun violence, increasingly economic inequality. Our worship can sometimes become rote, instead of having spiritual richness. In many ways we are currently in a similar position as First Century Israel.

To confront this communal sin, Jesus issues a call for His followers to go deeper in faith. He issues standards of devotion that God expect out of the new followers. These same standards are still relevant today. Christianity is not supposed to be something that is only relegated to Sunday mornings. Instead, our faith should be lived out in our everyday actions.

Yes this is hard to do! Another thing about the Beatitudes: Jesus was talking to His Disciples, not to a single person. We cannot do this alone, separate from each other. As a faith community we should work together to improve the world around us, so we can all be blessed, not just some of us. But this work of transformation must begin with us.

This first step in this transformation is to support each other and hold each other accountable to live deeper into our faith to strive to be like the examples Jesus expresses in the Beatitudes.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Looking for Perfect Victims = Foolish Search

This past semester I took a class on the Book of Job. For the final project, I wrote a series of reflections looking at Job from a personal and societal liberation standpoint. Here is one of these reflections concerning the monologue of Elihu in Chapters 32-37. I might share other reflections from the my notebook on Job.
The Wrath of Elihu by William Blake (Source)
One of the reasons the Elihu rejects Job as being an innocent victim is because he doesn't resemble what Elihu think an innocent victim would look like: Himself. Daniel Berrigan, in his commentary on Job, writes, “Since Job drastically falls short of Elihu's estimate of a just one, a question occurs; What form would his “ideal Job” take? Elihu and his cohorts suggest the form rather consistently; the paragon would resemble—themselves,” (Berrigan 293). Often, then and now, innocence is only reserved for the judging parties, not for judged. Rarely will we ever find a totally innocent victim.

In December, my friend Nyle through sharing a post by Son of Baldwin on Facebook called my attention to an article of a recent horrific murder in Ohio. A 16 year old African American male teen, Dione Payne, was beaten up and violently raped by his killers because they, two white men in their older thirties, wanted to rob him of drugs and money. The hometown newspaper ran an article about the killing under the headline of “Dayton Teen Beaten to Death Had Trouble Past”, even though looking at the URL, it seems that the headline was at one time was supposed to be “Bond Set at $1 Million for Men Accused of Beating Teen.”

(Update: While editing this journal entry on December 20th for final submission, I discovered that the headline now reads “Bond set for Franklin men accused in teen's beating death” and there is no acknowledgment of the headline change or apology for the mistake. Also still no mention of the brutal rape he suffered before his death. A petition has also been started on change.org to pressure the prosecutor to add hate crime and rape to the charges)
Dione Payne in 2012 (Source)

Why did the headline change, if it did at all? Can a black teen with a trouble past not be a victim? Will the eventual court case put him on trial as much as the media has? Will the deceased be tried along with his killers as if his drug dealing compelled the men to savagely kill him as some sort of accomplice? Yes Dione was probably not an honor student and had a criminal record, but he did not deserve to die for dealing drugs, much less to be beaten and rape to the point of death. The point of the article was to tell about a heinous crime he was a victim of. With the headline and the focus of the article on the past, they make his heinous violent death into a passive one.

By looking for innocent victims, we want to ignore the complexities that come with faith and suffering. Neither faith nor suffering will ever be simple topics to deal. By maintaining an image of a perfect victim, we try to do this and not challenge ourselves on difficult topics. Let ask if we ourselves are really innocent before we try to convince others of their guilt. If we do, why do a majority of us Christians confess our sins each Sunday and ask for forgiveness? As Christians when we do this, we end up reducing our faith and the resurrection to a fairy tale and nothing to ever struggle with. Hence we will continue to believe in a shallow faith that requires no deeper inspection. This will just end up reducing the resurrection to a passive meaningless death. How will that reduction ever serve as a force to liberate the oppressed and the oppressors?

Let us not be foolish like Elihu in our presumptions of others and God!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Do We Worship God or America?

This weekend is the annual protest against the Western HemisphereInstitute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, located at Fort Benning, Georgia. This military institute has been known to train Latin American general in brutal tactics that have been used to silence the opposition in numerous ways. Some of the victims have been Catholic priests and nuns working alongside the poor.

Photo by Patrick Mulvaney of 2004 SOA Protest Funeral Procession
Read his recount here
The vigil is held the weekend before Thanksgiving annually to commemorate the anniversary of the deaths of 6 priests, theirhousekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on November 16, 1989, just eight people of the thousands killed by the graduates of SOA. About 15,000-20,000 people will attend this vigil. School groups, college groups, peace activists, Catholics, and Protestants from the US and Latin America comes to peacefully protest this institute. I went twice with fellow classmates from Earlham College. Every year the vigil ends in a giant funeral procession remembering all the people who have been killed by the graduates of the School of the Americas.

Yet, outside of a handful of Catholic and Protestant churches, will this protest get any attention this Sunday in our churches? How many churches will remember the victims of our military actions in their prayers of the people? Will there be any special services to commemorate this ongoing suffering tragedy?


I want to contrast this with what I saw earlier this month all over social media, in the news and with my own eyes. On the Sunday before Veterans Day, there were special services, invitations to military families, and prayers for our troops. Here is just one of many examples: Rick Warren's Saddleback Church had a special invitation to military families.
When will Saddleback Church make a special invitation to peacemakers and their families? Or any church for that matter?

When will churches give prayers for the victims of war in the Prayers of the People? When will we remember the deaths of our fellow Christians or even humans affected by our extremely large military? Even more, when will we recognize that we are all complicit with the military industrial complex that feed off a patriotic Christianity in the United States? This is one of our sins that we need to recognize!

I have seen pastors who are worried about saying anything to disrupt their congregants on Veterans Day weekend. If they didn't want to glorify war, most of them stay silent and did not mention their real beliefs. Veterans Day weekend in the Church should have been one of mourning. Yes, mourning that the War to End All Wars did not do accomplish that. Instead it continued a brutal and violent history. We should mourn how we so eagerly send off young people to fight to keep the Defense Industry wealthy, while we ignore veterans on the streets?

Sadly American Christianity is currently more interested in upholding American Exceptionalism rather than having a prophetic voice. When will we recognize that God does not just love us but the whole world? Until that point, American Christianity will continue to worship America more than God.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thesis Statement

People have been interested in hearing about my thesis. After a little research, here is a better statement describing of where I hope to go with this project. Thank you already for all the help!

I welcome feedback, tips, comments, suggestions, etc... you can email me at gregory.woods(at)ptsem.edu

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My Masters of Divinity Thesis, being written under the guidance of Professor Mikoski, will focus on re-imaging what short-term church mission trips could be. In this context, I am using short term mission trip to mean a trip primarily for teenagers and young adults going outside of their own community to do hands-on service projects in an economically-disadvantaged population for a short length of time, usually a weekend or a week, no more than two weeks. In its current iteration, these well-meaning trips have been problematic, often serving to reinforce stereotypes of poverty and minorities and establishing a helpee-helper relationship that creates an unhealthy power dynamic and fosters dependence.

 My main argument is that these mission trip experiences should be rooted in building interdependent relationships and by creating space for dialogue between groups of people that rarely interact in any meaningful way. Our society is so fragmented that even through we might live in the same geographical place as other people, we rarely engage with others from radically different backgrounds. These projects can serve as a way for us to answer the question that Jesus was asked, "But who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). Yet further these projects can challenge how to fulfill Jesus' second commandment of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39).

I will argue that a different model could be used. Short-term mission trips could be based on long-term reciprocal relationships that blur the lines between helper and helpee. These kind of relationships would allow for each other's gifts to be shared and appreciated. I will present case studies of existing reciprocal relationships and the best practices learned from these relationships. By presenting these case studies, I hope to further the academic research into these seldom-studied relationships, as well as provide examples for people wanting to start these kinds of relationships.

Throughout the thesis I will draw on my own experiences as a participant and leader of mission trips, recent scholarship and popular works on this topic, interviews with people around the world involved in all facets of mission trips, and the research undertaken last academic year in an independent study by Margaret Webb (PTS MDiv 2013) and me.
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If you are curious about Margaret and my research from last year, check out this website we built.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Debate about Teach for America

Yesterday I read a critique of Teach for America on Slate by a former alumna and now Professor of Education. 

Today I posted that critique to Facebook. A friend, an employee of TFA, sent me a critique of the Slate article by another employee of TFA, Justin "Juice" Fong. These two articles are getting a lot of comments on my Facebook wall and I want to get in more of a dialogue. I have friends who have done TFA and love it and I have friends who despise it. Please keep it civil. 


Below is my critique of Fong's critique:


I have read other posts by Fong before, so I am aware of him and his writings about TFA. Overall I think it is a good critique, but it raises more questions for me.


I am glad TFA is trying to get people to stay past two years. Why not do something bold and make it a five year commitment? I know of a program like that in Chicago. I talk to Princeton students who will go do two years in US and then go to graduate school or law school. They specifically do TFA because it will look good on resumes when they want to apply. 


Also I would argue that ending up in an education nonprofit is not the same thing as staying in a classroom teaching. I think that is what the Slate author is implying that people aren't staying in the classroom. I would love to see that data from RI about how many stayed in the actual classroom. Is it half of 70%? Or 3/4th? What will it look like in 10 years? What is TFA's goal for retention? Fong himself 10 years later isn't in a classroom. So are disadvantaged students supposed to accept having a new teacher their whole school career, just because they go to a school with a lot of TFA staff and turnover because of it? 


Another critique that I have heard and the Slate author alluded to is that TFA is more interested in Ivy League and top private school students than public school students. What are the stats? Yes it is good that the corps are getting more diverse but where are they coming from? Lets talk about the differences in privilege of a Ivy League student compared to a public university student. Also how many are education  
majors? Seeing posters around my college back in 2007, I received the impression that they wanted everyone besides education majors?


When a school district is downsizes, does TFA downsizes its corps accordingly? Or are long term teachers losing their jobs to TFA members? What is TFA doing in Chicago, for example? (My friend at TFA responded that some Corps members did lose their jobs as well as alumni in both Chicago and Philadelphia.) Is TFA sending less corps members there because of that, so there is room for new teachers who have MATs who want to teach there?


What about the Slate author proposal of having TFA members be co-teachers with a veteran teacher or teaching assistants for the first year? Wouldn't that help members receive more training and students to have an incredible education experience.


I think it is sad for Fong to compare SAT scores of Education majors with college GPA of TFA members. Really that is not the same comparison at all. So no one can be a good teacher if they didn't do well on a test in high school? One of my teachers in high school didn't complete college until late in life (if she ever did), but damn she was one of my best teachers ever and had other teachers' respect. Over my life, committed teachers have help me more and they probably were not always the top of their college class. Yes it would help to have more smart teachers, but I would want teachers who are passionate for the job too and in it for the long haul.

What do you think? Hopefully Juice will answer some of my questions because I would like to hear his responses.