"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Would Jesus say, "WTF?"

Well, I guess it’s time to resurrect the old WWJD bracelets.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, news comes that a Roman Catholic parish in Minnesota has banned a 13-year-old autistic boy and his family from attending Mass. Reportedly the church fears the boy is a physical danger to others in the pew.

There’s probably a lot of back story that we’ll never know, but on the surface this looks like a blatant, patently un-Christian move on the part of the church’s “pastor.” Yea, I use the term loosely, as a true pastor looks after his (and in other denominations, her) sheep, making sure they are not expelled from the flock.

Literally for Christ’s sake, how many times in the New Testament do people bring afflicted friends and family members to Jesus for healing? Palsy, demons, leprosy… Jesus was often the one person who was not appalled or disgusted by the sick. And when queried by the Pharisees for dining with objectionable members of society, Jesus quipped: “It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12)

Sad to say, I have seen a church subtly drive out a boy with Down syndrome by disapproving of some of his behaviors to the point where his mother eventually took him elsewhere. This young man was spiritually alive and demonstrative in his faith. His charismatic expression made people uncomfortable.

Some exclusionary tactics in the church have played out on a very public stage. In my own Episcopal denomination, congregations around the country have torn themselves apart over homosexuality. Some still question the legitimacy of women at the altar. Here in Kansas, the Roman Catholic archbishop recently asked our governor to refrain from taking communion because she is pro-choice. A parish in Arizona reportedly refused communion to a disabled child because he could not properly swallow the host. It’s reminiscent of the line from Hannah and Her Sisters, when the character Frederick (played by Max von Sidow) disgustedly says, “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up!”

Some inhospitable tactics are not so obvious unless you are looking for them. I know a congregation that insists it is warm, welcoming and friendly. The revolving door of visitors and short-timers belies that. Plenty of people who are EGRs (Extra Grace Required) have been run off over the years, while the same “old guard” remains. Such congregations become insular, isolated, stifled and shrinking in their dysfunction. They say they want to grow, but they can’t because they are stunted by their denial.

A few years ago, in that particular parish, there were two very faithful, terminally ill members—one a very affable guy who had cute kids and was fun to be around; the other a theologically brilliant woman, a tad needy, a little less attractive, but dying none-the-less. She was probably in even greater need, because she had no family to care for her. She was truly alone. Guess who the people rallied around? Who got more rides? Who got more meals? Who made people feel warm and fuzzy about their charity?

I recently visited a mission church in Tallahassee. Sitting in front of me was a woman who was clearly mentally ill. Even worse, she was riddled with head lice. It was shocking, sobering and very sad. Admittedly, I did not want to get too close. A few people actually moved away from her during worship. Afterward, a couple of the staff discussed what they could do to help her. This woman was exactly where she was supposed to be—in church, where people are supposed to love you and accept you and help you through your darkest times, even if you’re not pretty or funny or popular or young or healthy or rich.

The work of the church universal is to extend the healing and compassionate hand of Jesus to all of God’s children, regardless of how repulsive or scary or dirty or sick they are. The true Christian work of that Minnesota parish with the autistic boy should be to embrace and support that family, not to get a restraining order against them. If it means a bunch of parishioners leave, so what?

Wouldn’t it be something if the “pastor” of that church found himself in the news for sticking with those folks instead of sticking it to them.

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