By Nate Mason
Recently I preached on the Book of Judges. Before prepping for my sermon, I cannot remember the last time I dove into that particular book of the Bible. Most of us Mainline Protestants stay safely in the Gospels while occasionally venturing into the Epistles or Acts, but I was in the mood for something different. Since I’m still in the honey-moon phase of my new appointment, my congregations let me get away with it. I had forgotten how much I love the story of Deborah![i] Deborah breaks the mold from the rest of the judges in many ways. She never expresses doubt like Gideon did. She didn’t stray from the righteous path like Sampson. She had a much deeper narrative than the footnotes that talk about Jair and Tola. Oh yeah, and she was a woman!
God empowered Deborah and Jael to defend the people of Israel using their own skills and abilities. Deborah rallied the people with her charisma and fiery prophecies. Jael used her unassuming and seemingly submissive position to “drive her point home” with Sisera. I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In that time there was a “Girl Power” movement in movies and other media. The underlying theme was “girls can be just as tough as men.” Take GI Jane for example. Demi Moore could be as good of a marine as any man. Or Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver could be as good of a space marine as any man. This trend may have been well intended, but it came out as accidently sexist. These movies didn’t celebrate women empowerment, it celebrated the roles and jobs that men do and hinged a woman’s worth on her ability to act like a man. That’s not how God empowered Deborah and Sisera. Deborah didn’t find her worth in being a better general than Barak. Deborah stuck to her own nature. Jael didn’t defeat Sisera by being a better fighter; Jael exploited Sisera’s vulnerability in a poetic twist of fate.
The Bible is full of great stories where God empowers people to succeed by going their own way rather than conforming to convention. David didn’t overcome Goliath by entering into “honorable combat.” David won by being David: a young boy who rejected a silly Greek tradition. Ehud[ii] didn’t liberate Israel from Moab by being a better warrior or general, he did it his own “sinister” way.[iii] Most importantly, Jesus was not the traditional concept of the Davidic Messiah. He was the Prince of Peace who rode a donkey, not the conquering king who came in force. If the Bible is full of atypical people doing great and wonderous deeds in the name of God, then why do so many of our ministries and worship services expect congregations to conform to a comfortable norm?
There’s a concept called neurodivergent. “A neurodivergent person is defined as one whose neurological development and state are atypical, usually viewed as abnormal or extreme. The term was coined in the neurodiversity movement as an opposite for "neurotypical" — previously the term "neurodiverse" was sometimes applied to individuals for this purpose.”[iv] In the past terms like “learning disability” was used to describe neurodivergent people, but that misses the spirit of how God made us. ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism are common conditions under the neurodivergent umbrella. All of these conditions come with their own special powers, and are only “disabilities” if these individuals are forced to conform to a standard that doesn’t enable them to thrive.
When I was 35 I was diagnosed with ADHD. If you’ve ever had more than two conversations with me in person, the only surprising part about that sentence is “when I was 35.” I exhibit all of the stereotypical ADHD traits: high energy, enthusiastic, easily distracted, poor time management skills. Once I received my diagnosis, a lot of the previous 35 years started making a lot of sense. Suddenly I realized why I was late all the time, why I struggled to juggle all the little details in life, and why I could never find my glasses or car keys! After research and counseling I began to see how ADHD also helped me to be good at the things I love to do. For example, I often experience hyper fixation, or as I like to call it “time traveling.” When I find something I’m interested in, I get so focused on studying it that time flies. I am not sure anybody can go through the Book of Judges without something like hyper fixation! ADHD encourages non-linear thinking. If you ask somebody who is using linear thinking to describe the alphabet, they will respond with something like “Well the alphabet goes A,B,C,D…” If you ask somebody using non-linear thinking to describe the alphabet they will say something like “A,E,I,O,U, and sometimes Y are vowels. H often modifies the consonants before it like H,G,S, and T…” ADHD helps me observe things other people miss, make connections that others don’t see, and passion to pursue what I love. That’s not a disability, that’s a superpower that has a kryptonite downside.
I can only speak to one part of the neurodivergent spectrum, but each differability (as opposed to disability) has its blessings and challenges, so what are we doing to include those blessings in our worship and ministries? Low end estimates claim that 1 in 10 Americans are neurodivergent. There is without a doubt somebody in your church who is neurodivergent but have been conditioned to be ashamed of their unique nature and are hiding it. I encourage you to begin conversations within your local church setting about how we can be more inclusive in our practices.
In addition to neurodiversity, the world is in desperate need of exceptional people ministries. “Exceptional people” is the preferred (and I would argue Christian) term for people with severe cognitive and/or physical disabilities. During the pandemic, the struggles of nursing homes and hospitals have been at the front of our collective psyche, but we failed to see that exceptional people group homes are facing those same struggles. Not enough staff, under paid staff, not enough medical attention to a vulnerable population, isolation of residents, exceptional people have been hurting more than most during the pandemic. Exceptional people ministries might just be the mission that will bring new life to the church. Just look at the Matthew’s Ministries at the Church of the Resurrection (CoR).
When I was in my first year of Course of Study at CoR, I relied upon their in-church coffee shop. Normally, I would be militantly opposed to charging for coffee in a church. Coffee is the unofficial third sacrament. You may as well charge for communion! But the coffee shop was mostly staffed by exceptional people. After my third day there, I told a lady who appeared to be in charge that I thought it was really great how the coffee shop was so inclusive. I had no idea that I was talking to Ann Joyner, the mother of Matthew for which the ministry was named. Ann shared her story with me. Of course you can see her share her story at the Matthew’s Ministry website.[v] Back when CoR was still meeting in a school, Ann took Matthew to a worship service. CoR was still so small at the time, that Adam Hamilton was still visiting all the new attendees himself. When Rev. Hamilton stopped by Ann’s house with the complimentary welcome kit, she broke down into tears. The opportunity to worship and be part of a church was such a beacon of hope to her family. Rev. Hamilton promised to start an exceptional persons ministry, even though his church was still small, even though they didn’t have the resources at the time to take on such an undertaking. That radical act of inclusion and service has given hope to thousands in the Kansas City area. So my question is, why aren’t we all doing this?
Here’s what we can do right now to serve our exceptional brothers and sisters. First of all, contact your local service agency and see if there are any volunteer opportunities. Additionally, connect with them and see if there are any group homes currently under quarantine. These homes need help with shopping, feeding, and socializing with their residents. That’s right, I said “feeding” in there. I have done the missions and ministry forms for ten different United Methodist Churches, and every single one of them has had a passion for feeding people. Friends, this is the moment for which we were made! Feed the people! My father, Delvin Gene Mason, has dived into that ministry headfirst. Every week, Pops makes 300 cupcakes to support the staff of Black Hills Works. I clearly got my love of baking from Pops. Furthermore, his little quarter time pastor church, Open Heart United Methodist, provides daily meals to several houses under quarantine. If Adam Hamilton can do this, if my dad can do this, we can all do this!
Wesley Woods has an annual Exceptional Peoples Camp. This camp fills up faster than any other camp in Iowa! They would love to grow and provide more opportunities for campers, but they need more volunteers. Due to the nature of the camp, they need one volunteer to one camper. The only thing we can do to grow this ministry is to show up and serve. Contact Wesley Woods for more information.[vi]
Finally, by mandate of the Book of Discipline, every conference needs to have a Committee on Disability Concerns.[vii] By and large, most conferences CoDC focus exclusively on accessibility concerns, and that is super important, but there is a huge lack of guidance on how we do ministry with exceptional or neurodiverse people once we get them in the building! If you have the passion, or the skills, think about volunteering for this committee. Is there anything more Methodist than being on a conference committee? I think not.
We have been “GI Jane”-ing our ministries for way too long. We’ve only been celebrating diversity when diversity can act and look like us! It’s time for us to get back to Biblical expectations. God has made a gloriously diverse world, and we are all enriched when we celebrate God’s children just as they made them.