Grace trumps justice

Elly sent me this video today of a woman tumbling 300 metres down a snowy mountain and (spoiler alert) ending up with no more damage than a sprained finger. By comparison, I fell an innocuous metre and broke my neck. Not that I’m wishing an injury on this woman, but …

It goes to show, if you didn’t know it already, that life isn’t fair.

It’s the injustice of life that, at least for me, makes the concept of grace so compelling. Justice is an ancient concept, a virtue that says that one should give to a person what is her or his due. It’s one of the four cardinal (or linchpin) virtues that is meant to colour the decisions and actions of a good person. This explains why many ancient religions applied the notion of justice to God, assuming that if God was good, then people must get what they deserve; the righteous prosperity and the unrighteous damnation.

The problem, as the psalmists and the author of the book of Job noted, was that the logic didn’t seem to work. Evil people prospered and good people suffered.

Some theologians conclude from this that people do get what they deserve. And what everyone deserves is divine wrath, because we are all depraved and utterly corrupted by sin. That anyone at all is “saved” is grace, which is undeserved favour. The problem with this way of thinking is that it makes grace as unfathomable as injustice.

A larger view of grace, however, recognises it as a gift of God’s love that is evident in the goodness, beauty, and wondrous fragility of creation. Grace is said to be both natural and supernatural, the former because the orientation to the good is in all of us, and the latter because the orientation to evil is also in all of us, so we need God’s help. Grace is God’s favour toward us, most potently experienced by his presence in the darkness that is an inevitable part of life.

That this woman survived her fall is testimony to grace. That I am able to flourish with a disability is thanks to grace. That we discover hope in grief is possible because of grace. That we are loved and accepted as sinners is amazing grace. That we find joy in the love of family and friends, who accept us warts and all, is the power of grace.

Life isn’t fair, but if you didn’t know it already, grace can make it beautiful.

 

Joseph Prince, distorted grace, and mental illness

It’s World Mental Health Day on Saturday, a day intended to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by providing mental health education, awareness, and advocacy. I thought I might contribute to those goals by highlighting the destructive attitudes to mental illness that are far too common in contemporary charismatic Christianity; the view that mental illness is a result of lack of faith and can be completely healed by right believing and thinking (an idea mirrored by positive thinking proponents in secular society).

PrinceTo that end I will focus on the message of Joseph Prince, particularly as set out in his New York Times bestselling book The Power of Right Believing: 7 Keys to Freedom from Fear, Guilt, and Addiction.

The book is directed at people suffering mental illness; those “bound by severe insecurities, trapped by eating disorders, or gripped by constant fears and recurring panic attacks…, held captive by years of chronic depression, fighting suicidal thoughts that stripped them from their ability to function in their everyday lives…, caught in in the destructive cycle of addiction” and so on. Prince is certainly to be applauded for addressing mental illness, a topic that often goes unacknowledged in society in general and the church in particular. Unfortunately, the approach that he takes – to set faith over and against psychological treatment – is flagged on the first page:

They all long for freedom and have tried everything, including psychological and psychiatric treatment.… Many of become financially drained from seeing psychiatrist after psychiatrist, doctor after doctor, counsellor after counsellor, spending thousands of dollars every month on consultation fees. They’ve taken all types of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, in addition to trying quick fixes of every imaginable kind. And they are no better.

Thereafter, in a book almost 400 pages long, Prince makes no reference to the insight of experts in the field of mental health, and instead relies on simplistic and slogan-esque strategies that he insists will enable us to walk in divine health, both physical and psychological. The logic that frames the entire book is the insistence that the answer to mental illness is belief:

Right believing always produces right living. If you believe right, you will live right.

In referencing right belief Prince is not referring to theological categories, but to beliefs about God’s grace and favour toward us. Prince is well known for his emphasis on grace, which he defines as “unearned, undeserved, and unmerited favour.” And many people have felt liberated by his insistence that divine grace frees us from condemnation and religious obligation.

The problem is not his assertion that grace is unmerited, but that he misrepresents grace by connecting it to prosperity and complete health.

His principal metaphor for understanding grace draws on the idea of God as father – as “Daddy God.” For Prince, God is like a sugar daddy, who gives his children everything they want, ask for, and believe in. If you can “play the right mental movie” and learn to see as God sees, then breakthrough is certain. As he repeats, again and again, “The key is to receive his grace as unmerited favour and believe that same unmerited favour is what transforms you.” Or looked at the other way round, “the hindrance then between you and your victory is your wrong beliefs. The battle has to do with your beliefs. This is why when you start believing right, you will step into your breakthrough.”

Prince may well emphasise grace, but it’s a distorted grace. Grace is not the promise of perfect mental health, but the radical idea that God is present in the good times and the bad, in and through our suffering, even at those times when he seems most absent.

What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.

The book recounts story after story of people that have experienced total freedom, almost always after they have listened to Prince’s sermons or read his books. Some of these stories are plainly absurd – such as one businesswoman who prayed for a rise in the Dow Jones sharemarket index, and a few hours later the index had risen by 18%. But almost all of them are reductionist. There are no stories telling of the complex and recurring hardships of people with severe depression, bipolar disorder, debilitating anxiety and so on, except where right belief has facilitated complete freedom. But anyone who’s been involved with the real-life of people with a mental illness will recognise how unrealistic these stories are.

Prince’s promises are explicit:

I promise you that sin, addictions, bad habits, fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, and any condemnation will drop off from your life when you’re absorbed and occupied with the person of Jesus. They simply cannot coexist in your life when you’re occupied with Christ and not yourself.”

What he believes he is doing in promoting this message of grace is freeing people from condemnation, but his insistence that a life of faith entails perfect mental (and physical) health ads failed faith to the suffering of people with mental illness. This is because the very nature of that illness is that sufferers are unable to control their thought processes; so Prince’s remedy is inevitably unworkable. In his boringly repetitious advocacy of right believing – of taking control of our mental images – Prince reveals his complete failure to understand the illness for which he is recommending a simplistic cure.

You might wonder whether I’m being too harsh? Perhaps I am. After all, isn’t Prince’s message of grace liberating even if overstated? Maybe it is. Isn’t there obvious truth to the general principle that thinking rightly about God’s grace will improve our thought processes and have a positive impact on our life? Well, Yes. But even so, the hardship of mental illness is too substantive, and the number of people affected too many, to allow a message of distorted grace to go unchallenged. Rather than slogans, the church needs to be a place where people suffering with mental illness are accepted, understood, valued, encouraged to seek professional help, and supported through the crises that are likely to recur over the long run. Insisting on a person’s healing and providing unrealistic promises isn’t grace.The church mediates grace only when it become a community that embraces people that suffer.

 

Shane Clifton is Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College in Sydney. his memoir, Husbands Should Not Break, reflects upon On the challenges of adjusting to an accident that left him a quadriplegic. It is a reflection on loss, disability, faith, and the possibility of happiness in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.

cover

The positivity myth: a belated response to 60 minutes and the Curtis Landers story.

Curtis Landers

60 minutes report: http://video.au.msn.com/watch/video/curtis-landers/xwf16yz?from

I hate watching television reports on spinal cord injury, which normally to follow a predictable two-part pattern. Part one provides pictures of neck braces, helicopters, ventilation machines, and shocked families, all of which is a visceral reminder of the horror of my own injury, bringing back memories I’d rather forget. Part two describes a person’s inspirational recovery, in which she or he refuses to give in to disability, and so reaps the rewards of determination – eventually stepping out of his or her wheelchair.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love to see people who incur a spinal cord injury recover. I don’t feel bitter or jealous and I am genuinely happy for any and all recovery. My best friend in hospital, Sid, began as a quadriplegic and now walks. I recently had the joy of hearing him tell of his return to skiing on the snowfields where he had his accident. Recovery from SCI is something to be celebrated.

But – and this is my point – many people don’t recover. And they aren’t any less determined, any less (or more) inspirational, any less hard-working, any less newsworthy. Yet time and again media reporting celebrates those who recover and ignores those who don’t (or worse, implicitly demeans them), as though their permanent struggles (and achievements) with disability are too embarrassing to talk about.

So I came to the Peter Overton’s 60 minutes report on Curtis Landers with some reluctance [which is why this blog post is a week out of date]. I have to say that I was mostly pleasantly surprised. Curtis is a 15-year-old boy who injured his third and fourth cervical vertebrae while playing rugby league; an injury that would ordinarily render him a permanent quadriplegic. While at the time the story was aired it was still too early to know the full extent of his recovery, what the program was able to show was his remarkable improvement. Curtis has been able to regain function in his arms, fingers, and legs, and when discharged from the hospital, triumphantly left his wheelchair behind. The program rightly celebrated the rapidity and extent of Curtis’ recovery. It also applauded the achievements of his first aid worker, whose ministrations on the football field immediately following the injury minimised the damage to the spinal cord.

This good reporting notwithstanding, 60 minutes couldn’t help but perpetuate the positivity myth. Speaking about Curtis’ recovery, Overton noted that “in his mind, it was never a matter of if, but when,” and followed up with the standard question “was there ever a moment, in all honesty, when you thought ‘I will never walk again?’” Curtis gave the expected response, although with some reluctance “not really, I was planning to play [football] this season again, so walking wasn’t a worry.” This exchange was followed with video of Curtis at work in the gym, taking tentative steps, while John Newman & Alex Clare’s inspirational “Not Giving in” played in the background. And surprise surprise, the report ended with Curtis stepping out of his wheelchair as he left the hospital.

Let me be clear. I have no issue with Curtis; he answered the question honestly, and his positive attitude toward his circumstances is commendable. His recovery is wonderful news, and it should make headlines. What I take issue with is the question Overton asks, which is deliberately framed to imply that believing in something with sufficient faith, and never giving in, will bring it to pass. The reality, though, is that in the early stages of rehabilitation, many people with an SCI hold on to the belief that they will recover, but ultimately have to come to terms with permanent disability.

The fact is that belief has very little to do with recovery from an SCI. When a person incurs a spinal cord injury, the long-term damage to the neurological system is indeterminate, and it takes months and years to find out the extent of the damage caused by the initial trauma. In Curtis’ case, he regained movement in his arms and legs within a week of his accident, and was walking within months. This means that his spinal cord had incurred less damage than his doctor [Jonathan Ball**] initially thought when he apparently suggested to Curtis’ parents that their son would never walk again. To do Overton justice, his 60 minutes report made this clear, before undoing its good work by defaulting to the positive thinking myth. Curtis’ wonderful recovery had nothing to do with his expectation, faith, or positivity, and nor was it a product of his “defying his doctors.” These attitudes might well have helped him deal with the emotional trauma of the injury. But mostly, he was lucky (blessed, if you prefer). If the damage to his neurological system had been more severe, no amount of positive thinking would have kept him out of a wheelchair.

The positive thinking myth has obvious correlations with the naïveté of Christian prosperity/faith healing. Both place too much emphasis on individual faith. Both focus on those who experience healing, ignoring and implicitly denigrating those who don’t. And both fail to recognise that suffering and disability are an inevitable fact of human life, not something that can be believed away.

I hope that 60 minutes and Peter Overton continue to tell the stories of people with a spinal cord injury. There is too much horror in the media, and we do need the encouragement of stories such as that of Curtis Landers. But is it too much to ask that these good news stories be framed more carefully, perhaps by referencing accounts of those who don’t regain any neurological function, who never get out of their wheelchair and walk again, but who nevertheless manage to make a go of life with a disability?

 

** A comment on Dr Jonathan Ball. I was especially disappointed by Doctor Ball’s comments on the program. He observed of Curtis’ recovery that, “It is astonishing. It is inspirational. Across all neurological operations there are a handful of patients that you remember, who are the people who keep you doing what you do. And Curtis is in the handful of patients who are the inspiration to keep me doing what I do.” This may be true, and neurosurgery may well be a largely impersonal discipline – and no doubt Curtis is a memorable young man. But whether he intended it or not, what Dr Ball implied was that none of the other patients that have been in his care are worth remembering (or even worth operating on). I, for one, am glad I had more compassionate doctors supervising my recovery.

There’s nothing like nudity to cement friendship

On Thursday and Friday of last week I was invited to speak in Melbourne at the CBM/Luke 14 conference, Honest Conversations: Disability and Authentic Christian Community. Its highlights were too numerous to mention, so let me instead tell the story of my Saturday.

I woke up to the phone alarm of my carer, Lauren, who was sleeping in the bed nearby. A little strange, perhaps (at least that’s what her boyfriend thought – but I’m really not much of a threat), but it’s both cheaper and safer to have someone to share the room. We were staying at the Ibis, Glen Waverley, one of the few motels that could accommodate my needs. But the disabled room was crowded – a single and hospital bed, a hoist, wheelchair, commode, and suitcases – so that Lauren had to play a game of Tetris, moving the detritus around to get me out of bed. My teenage boys call Lauren “the hot carer”, and she is short and slim, especially when measured against my lanky and overweight frame; 45 kg to my 100. It beggars imagination that she can womenhandle my body around, but she’s more powerful than she looks, and has proven up to the task on the previous two days.

Today, though, she looked tired, queasy even, but got on with the task without complaint. with the covers ripped off, I was rolled one way then the other, and the sling was placed behind my back. Then I was hoisted, and Lauren dragged me, straining, across the carpet to the commode. Without warning, she bent over, groaned, ran to the bathroom and puked.

She returned, and we both knew we were in trouble. We were in another city, on our own with no other carers nearby, and I needed to get up and ready, but how could Lauren struggle on? And then I had a flash of inspiration. Last night, I’d eaten dinner with a few friends, including Jay McNeil. the two of us had formed a unique friendship online, but hadn’t met face-to-face until yesterday. Jay is the father a child with cerebral palsy, so I figured he must be used to disabled bodies and bodily fluids. I gave him a call and immediately he agreed to come and help (my thanks to his wife, Helena, who sacrificed a hair appointment to let him come).

In the meantime, Lauren managed to get me to the bathroom and soldiered on with the business of my bowels; I’m sure the smell and her sickness was intolerable, but she is courageous. Toilet, shower, and then Jay turned up, and I could see the look of relief on Lauren’s face. He took over the hard slog of pushing the commode and hoist, and helped me get dressed. There is nothing like a little nudity to cement a friendship!

Before long I was in my chair and ready to make something of the day. Leaving Lauren to go back to bed, Jay and I headed down for breakfast, and then arranged to meet his family at a nearby cafe for morning tea. Jay and Helena have beautiful twin nine-year-old girls; Jasmine and sunshine. Jazzy was rugged up, and wearing cat ears, and she was delighted to see pictures of our pet cat, with whom she shares a name. Sunshine (the daughter with CP) was strapped comfortably into her chair, and at first seemed a little overwhelmed by the hubbub of the crowded cafe. She was in constant movement, her arms and head disco dancing, and before long she cave me a full faced smile that matched her name. We held hands, and I felt like I was in the presence of an angel.

We chilled for an hour, although it seemed like minutes, before Jasmine got justly restless. Helene gave Jay permission to waste his day with me, and we decided to head for the city. I was booked in to lead a “fireside conversation” at Fitzroy North Community Church later that evening, so Jay and I had a few hours to kill. We rode the train to Flinders Station, and then made our way over the padlock bridge to South bank for lunch. It was raining (as it had been all week in Melbourne –surprise surprise), so we got a little wet, but discovered the cosy PJ O’Brien’s pub, and hunkered down with a bowl of soup and a thick black Guinness for lunch. I noticed a small puddle of water under my chair, which presumably came from our dash in the rain. No big deal.

It’s hard to explain the quality of the friendship that has formed between Jay and me via email and blogs, but our conversation was both light-hearted fun and deeply meaningful. We talked disability, parenting, God, work, social justice, and writing. Jay gave me the outline of his forthcoming novels, and I was inspired by his creativity and passion.

As is my habit, I checked on my catheter, and was surprised to find it empty. I then noticed the puddle on the floor had grown. God no! I was soaking in piss. The bloody catheter had come undone at my thigh, and my pants and chair were soaked. We (sheepishly) left the restaurant, and there was nothing for it but to head back to Glen Waverley. Before jumping on the train, we found a bathroom, and Jay stuck his hand down my pants to reattach the line. Nudity, wee, and hands down pants, all on the second date.

We arrived back at the motel at around 4.30 PM, and found Lauren still in bed. She was feeling a little better, although physically drained, but offered immediately to help get me cleaned up. Together the two of them stripped me off, gave me a shower, and then left me in bed while they washed and blow-dried my seat cushion. Of course, I was a lazy sod while they did all the work, and by 6 PM, diva that I am, I  was in my chair and dressed in my second outfit for the day – God forbid I be seen in the same clothes morning and evening!

Leaving Lauren again, Jay and I called a cab and headed back into the city. I think I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I hate wheelchair taxis, especially at night. I’m seated high and at the back, with my head above the top of the windows. This means that all I can see outside is the blur of concrete road as we bounce along the tram bumpy streets of Melbourne. I had no choice but to shut my eyes, rest my head in my hands, and pray for a quick trip.

We got there, eventually, and were met by the engaging Ben, who directed us to the wheelchair entrance. The building, recently refurbished, is fabulous; the main auditorium is enclosed by a high arched timber ceiling and modern stained glass windows, and leads to a smaller room that is hosting the evening’s festivities. And “fireside conversation” it was to be, with the cosy room oriented toward a fireplace that I was surprised to discover is gas – it sure looked real to me.

Shane Meyer, who has organised the event, rushed over and gave me a hug. Shane is a Kiwi, and he and I have been friends for years –before my accident. He noticed I was flagging (it’d been a big day, too much travel, and it was nearing my bedtime), and offered cheese, biscuits, and mulled wine (have I mentioned this church is spectacular?), while he sent Ben off to scrounge us up some food. Before long he returned with a chicken roll, and I managed a few mouthfuls before it was time to start.

I was chuffed to learn that the event had “sold out” (they capped the numbers at 30), and the room was full of energetic and intelligent young people (in their 20s and 30s, which seems young to me). Our talk was on the scriptures, and was introduced by Shane as follows:

I’m aware that many people, in a community like ours,  have moved on from an oversimplified fundamentalist view of Scripture, but in that process it’s been easier to drop it altogether. While often it takes a complete disengagement from something to be able to re-engage in a healthy way, I get the sense that a lot of us are somehow stuck in the twilight zone. We know how not to approach Scripture, but we haven’t yet found a way to re-engage that feels safe, life-giving and authentic.  I wonder whether there are two levels of disconnection here: technical and emotional, Feeling ill-equipped, Feeling traumatised

Wow, I know of few churches that would be bold enough to introduce a discussion on the scriptures in such an honest and open way. Suddenly felt a bit nervous, but there is nothing like mulled wine to help you talk about the Bible. And so I rambled, and we all entered into conversation, and time marched by, and before I knew it, it was 9 PM and my taxi was at the front.

It was way past my bedtime, I was exhausted, and I had another bloody taxi ride. I shut my eyes, gritted my teeth, and eventually we made it to Glen Waverley. Jay steered me to the room, and for the third time that day saw me nude, helping Lauren strip me down and wrangle me into bed.

As my eyes closed I reflected briefly on the day. Sickness, piss, exhaustion, and a thoroughly enjoyable time.

The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing

My latest journal article, “The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing:,” Pneuma 36, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 204–25, has just been published by Brill. if I can be forgiven a boast, I received the following response to the paper:

I have to say that in the twelve or more years I’ve been copyediting Pneuma, this is the best article I’ve ever read. Nancy de Flon, PhD

To give you an insight into its content, the abstract reads:

  • This paper explores the relationship between disability and pentecostal theologies and practices of healing. First, it draws on the testimony of people with a disability, describing the challenge of being the “elephant in the room”: the obviously unhealed in a social space in which supernatural healing is understood to be connected to the gospel, a reward of faith, and a central part of a life and ministry of the church. Second, it deconstructs pentecostal theologies and practices of healing, identifying their potentially alienating effect. Finally, it proposes an alternative orientation, replacing the emphasis upon divine healing with a focus on well-being. To this end, it draws on the holistic intention of the pentecostal Full Gospel and relates this to the virtue tradition, with its concern for long-term flourishing in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.

I know that journal articles are not everyone’s cup of tea (especially in this era of five-minute attention spans), but I do hope that some of you take the time to read it– available here. I’m certainly happy to engage in any discussion/criticism in the comments section below.

Providence?

Last week I wrote a blog entry describing problems with my bowel and “small moments of grace.” As I reread that blog from a different vantage point today, it really does seem like the author is a super spiritual sanctimonious twot. Isn’t he wonderful, such a man of faith in the face of hard times? Vomit.

The author of this current entry (perhaps an alien has exchanged the brain in the body that looks like Shane Clifton) cannot see any grace in the midst of godforsakenness. He spent three days last week in bed and thought the issue was over. Monday, he went to Prince of Wales (outpatients visit with Dr, physiotherapy, MRI, x-ray – nothing like a day at hospital to turn the skin green). Tuesday he went to college, taught a class in the morning, but at two o’clock in his office his tummy rumbled and out came the poo. Off he went to the train, but missed it by 15 seconds. Another half an hour wait on the platform, and for good measure his bum opens again. Gets the next train, and of course the movement brings more crap – which manages to find its way onto the floor of the carriage. He stinks to high heaven, and like the toddler who covers his eyes and imagines he is alone, he pretends that the carriage is empty. He makes it home eventually and his carers turn up at 5 for a horrendous cleanup.

Wednesday (today) he is woken, taken to the toilet, showered and put back into bed. Two hours later he is on the phone to his friend and, surprise surprise, the body leaks. Another surreal experience, a phone poo.

Providence? Faith? Moments of grace?

And as he finishes another appalling blog post (sorry if it hits your inbox when you’re eating), he asks again, why is he writing and publishing this? I suspect he just needs to vent, to shout into the void. So don’t pity him and don’t kid yourself that he is anywhere near being an inspiration. Just pray a quick prayer (Daniel and Bianca, you can light a candle). He doesn’t have the faith right now to hope it will make much difference, but he likes to be prayed for. There is something comforting in the thought of friends in prayer, whatever its connection to the providential workings of God.