Buster Scruggs, Babies in Jars, and the Dignity of Frederick Boyce

The Coen brothers are geniuses. Their latest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is an anthology of tales set in the Old West that is violent, funny, even profound. It gripped me from the first frame. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says, “The gallows humor of their fatalistic Ballad allows the filmmakers to do what they do best: laugh in the face of death.”

It is cold laughter, indeed! There are three segments that filled my veins with ice. One of them is “Meal Ticket,” the story of a freak show huckster (Liam Neeson) who sets up his wagon in frontier towns. His attraction is a limbless orator, the “Wingless Thrush.” Neeson props the young man’s torso on a chair, where he recites passages that include Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address. It is haunting to hear his eloquence, to watch his rouged cheeks and expressive eyes in the flickering gaslight. It is even more vexing to witness his abject dependence on his handler, a drunk whose only motive is profit. Eventually, the crowds thin. What happens next is not only tragic, but entirely believable.

Why did this affect me so deeply? Partly because I have a son whose disability may be different (intellectual), but who could have been born in a crueler era. The fight for “handicapped” civil rights has been long and tortuous. I recently read The Story of Intellectual Disability: An Evaluation of Meaning, Understanding, and Public Perspective, by Michael L. Wehmeyer. With penetrating scholarship and a journalist’s ear for storytelling, Wehmeyer chronicles how intellectually disabled people have been treated throughout history, including:

  • The practice of infanticide, even in “enlightened Athens,” where “defective” children were left in jars near temples in case someone took pity and adopted them.
  • The demeaning theories of both scientists and theologians, who regarded these “idiots, morons, and imbeciles” as part animal or part demon.
  • Nazi concentration camps for flawed children who were ripped from their families, gassed, then incinerated.
  • Mass incarceration and virtual slavery in “institutions for the feeble-minded.”
  • Forced sterilization as a standard practice in many parts of the U.S. until the 1970s.
  • Substandard education and crippling segregation.

Wehmeyer also highlights individuals who championed the cause of dignity for themselves and others.

One of them is Frederick Boyce. In 1942, at age seven, Boyce was confined to the Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, an institution for “idiots.” He was given mandatory labor, received scant education, and was housed in a dilapidated dormitory ruled by a harsh attendant. Because he was well-behaved, he and a few other boys were invited to join the “Science Club,” where Quaker Oats and MIT researchers secretly served radioactive oatmeal as part of a study on calcium absorption.

Even with those atrocities, the worst, according to Boyce, was the indignity of being labeled a “moron,” a term that stuck with him as he struggled to find employment after discharge. Finally, he began working at carnivals and fairs, operating games of chance. He bought his own booth and traveled the amusement circuit all his life.

In 2004, Boyce and six other Fernald alumni petitioned Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, to expunge the word moron from their records. They also wanted a formal apology.

In May of 2005, at the age of 63, Boyce received a letter from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation stating that he “was not mentally retarded.”

He died of colon cancer three days later.









Yes, There Is a Plan – A Thanksgiving Shout-Out to God

In the film Simon Birch, loosely based on John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, there’s a scene that knifed my heart. Simon, born with dwarfism, goes to his local church seeking spiritual guidance. He enters the pastor’s study and struggles into a chair.

Simon: “Does God have a plan for us?”
Pastor: “I like to think so.”
Simon: “Me too. I think God made me the way I am for a reason.”
Pastor: “Well, I’m glad that, um, that your faith, uh, helps you deal with your, um…you know, your condition.”
Simon: “That’s not what I mean. I think God is going to use me to carry out a plan.”

Later, when Simon gets discouraged, he returns to that same pastor.

Simon: “I want to know that there’s a reason for things. I used to be certain, but now I’m not sure. I want you to tell me that God has a plan for me, a plan for all of us. Please.”
Pastor (shifting in his seat, obviously uncomfortable): “Simon…I can’t.”

Sitting in the movie theater, I almost stood to shout my objections. If that pastor had lived nearby, I would have made an appointment the next morning to speak my mind. “Listen, if your doubts have undermined your calling to proclaim Good News, why don’t you take a break or consider a new line of work?”

In my 31 years of ministry, I have struggled with tragedies that rocked the foundation of existence. Stillborn children, a young man killed just days before his wedding, suicides, overdoses, floods and fires, cancer that wrenched parents from their children. I always refrained from unsolicited platitudes like “God has a purpose for this.” Those words are hollow, even insulting, as we cry out against injustice or suffer from breathtaking loss.

However, if someone sincerely asks me that question voiced by Simon, I don’t hesitate to answer.

Yes, I do believe God has a divine purpose, a plan that works its way through our days. And though none of us can fully fathom the mystery of God’s providence, we can experience it numerous ways.

God’s purpose appears as divine appointments. With deep gratitude, I think of meeting my wife, Donna, when we both needed love and companionship. I think of how she and I have helped each other rise above our common disease. I think of counselors and mentors who entered my life exactly when I required their wisdom.

God’s purpose grips us with a love that brings order and healing. God is love, says the famous verse in John’s first letter, and as we move from asking “why?” to “how?” this love becomes an experience of God’s design. It drives us to spend ourselves for justice, to comfort the lonely and outcast, to be a conduit for unity and peace.

God’s purpose compels us to exercise our gifts. We all have something unique to contribute. It is what Simon meant when he said, “I think God made me the way I am for a reason.” Thousands of years ago, David rejoiced with these famous words from Psalm 139: “I praise you, for I am reverently and wonderfully made!”

Friends, on this Thanksgiving 2018, I have a shout out to God. Thank you, Creator, for not only giving us loved ones on this journey, but for also being with us, offering your purpose that illuminates our path. May we experience your active presence—and our unique part in your plan—more clearly every day.

Thanksgiving blessings to all of you!




Accept. Forgive. Love. (repeat) – by Carolyn Venema

I’m no guru. But I am learning that, for me, true gratitude is authentic expression within the act of living – even amid challenges, personal, interpersonal, global. It’s easier when I am centered and at peace; the challenge, of course, lies in finding that space when unsettled or disquieted, overly-stimulated or simply on autopilot. It’s too easy to be bombarded by suffocating, all-surrounding violence and anger right now it seems, making it difficult to breathe sometimes, let alone find the way to peace.

But I’m also learning there’s a reason why the sun sets everyday. As stuck as we might feel sometimes, we are, in essence, transient beings, nomads seeking peace: that centered space of peace and love. Acceptance has to be a part of finding that peace. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation or apathy as a response to the personal world in which we live; rather, acceptance is personal responsibility.  What is the personal responsibility for me in each moment that I find so suffocating?  Is it a call to personal action? Is it a call to be still? Is it a call to forgive?  Is it a call to dive in deeply into the moment to learn from it, be bathed, be refined by it, as much as we want to turn away or hide from it? I think, in each case, it is a call to let it go – to let the sun set; for a new day is guaranteed to follow.

I’ve always loved the way poet  e.e. cummings expresses it:

let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to

let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go

so comes love
– e.e. cummings

So comes love.  So comes peace.  So comes that space we seek where gratitude is an authentic expression of living fully. Rich blessings for a Thanksgiving where we find that space of acceptance, peace, love.

Carolyn is an educator and learner at heart. She is mom to two young adults and holds46297033_479452082561332_808117119152553984_n every moment as a precious gift. Without one specific religious or spiritual affiliation, she is an open, present, continual learner in spiritual practice.

Black and white sunset photograph, © Carolyn Venema, 2018

You Can’t Be Hateful and Grateful – by Steve Nootenboom

Somewhere in my childhood, I got the notion that it was OK to complain. Looking back, I’m amazed at how many years I let the blessings of my life go unnoticed. I now see gratitude as 100% choice. It has nothing to do with my external situation. But it wasn’t easy learning this lesson.

My wife and I were mission workers in the Philippines. One day we went to a poverty-stricken village where people lived on a garbage dump, making their homes out of scrap. We came across a woman who had just birthed a baby in the midst of that squalor. I gave her all the money I had left, some pocket change, and my wife gave her a pair of Levi’s and a Bible.  The woman’s joy at our meager gifts was incredible.

That was a sobering incident, and I wish I could say it transformed me. But my life didn’t change much after that; I was just haunted for years by those scenes of poverty.

In 2008, I survived the market crash better than most, but in 2009 our beautiful home was taken from us through the shady manipulations of a bank. I was angry to the point of getting physically ill. I had no sense of gratitude for anything, and I was filled with a growing bitterness that bordered on hate.

Then, an acquaintance who had lost everything in 2009 told me that she had never been happier. She had begun a simple discipline. Every day, she would not only list the things for which she was grateful, she would also speak them out loud.

With nothing to lose, I started my own list. Honestly, on the first day, I could only think of two things. First, I still had my wonderful wife in spite of losing just about everything else. Second, I still had respect from my children.

From there, slowly, my daily list began to grow, first with obvious things, then with small details I had too often overlooked. I even started timing myself to see how quickly I could bounce back after getting a disappointment. When I first started this new behavior it would take an average of two or three days before I could lift my head and start seeing the benefit of something gone terribly wrong.

That brought me to the loss of my home. I remembered something an old cowboy friend of mine told me, “Steve, never waste a good crisis; learn all you can from it.” Eventually, even though it was painful, I came to feel grateful for the theft of my home, because it has given me so much freedom and mobility.

Today, I’m able to spring back from disappointments more quickly than I ever imagined.  One of my little jokes when people know my situation and wonder how I can be joyful, is this: “The bank that burned me on my home drop kicked me through the goal posts of Zen mastership!”

I am the main beneficiary of learning to choose gratitude, but the benefits spill over to everyone around me. No one wants to hang around with someone who is ungrateful. It’s a bummer!

When I show gratitude, it’s like a magnet that draws healthy people to me. It’s irresistible. Being grateful brings me into the moment, the “now.” The past is regret, the future is anxiety, but my “now,” my present, has become wonderful and I AM GRATEFUL.

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Steve Nootenboom is an artist, filmmaker, and builder. He and his wife, Tanya, have been married 36 years and have four children and six grandchildren.  Steve and Tanya have pioneered two churches and aided in mission efforts to China, the Philippines and Mexico.  Steve still enjoys rock and ice climbing, sailing and hang gliding. The two of them are living a migratory lifestyle visiting their children and grandchildren. Check out Steve’s Facebook gallery page here.

No More Jam on a S_ _t Sandwich – by Cyndi Wunder

I was sleepless last night. You know those nights, when you wake up at 2 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep? For me, lately, those have been nights of deep gratitude. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.

I get busy, super busy, and I overthink. Sometimes I get busy so I won’t overthink.  There is always something that needs doing. There is always an old memory to ruminate over to remind myself how I messed up. My mind climbs up on its hamster wheel and off we go.

So, this middle of the night thing? When I awaken slowly enough, and the overthinking is caught off guard, I become aware of this deep thread of love which underlies, supports and sustains my life. If I am smart enough, or tired enough, to just stop and notice, it’s incredibly lovely.

When I’m able to be still, I find myself resting in this gratitude. This gratitude shows up when I allow myself to be vulnerable to love. That sounds easy, but we all know it isn’t. It’s hard because love touches us deeper than anything else, and when it isn’t answered by love in return, or when there is loss, oh wow, that hurts! It cuts so deep.  It feels so vulnerable that I want to pull away from it. I start up my overthinking and consider all the ways love is lost, hurt, injured, or bereft. You know, so I’ll be prepared, my heart and soul armored and hidden away, just to be safe. It takes stillness and surrender to just sit and let it be, to let myself be loved. I don’t know that I could do it without the stillness, the comforting dark of night. So these long nights of deep solitude are transformed, and they are transforming me.

I have never been able to engage in the positive thinking so often recommended. It has always felt like a little jam smeared on a shit sandwich. It is too often the advice given to someone who is hurting. “Oh, it’s not so bad, you ought to practice gratitude,” as if that will make whatever is hurting OK. Gratitude is not an antidote to injustice. It is not a fence to ward off grief. The pain of life is real, and gratitude is not here to erase it. Gratitude is the tender awareness of a love so deep it slips into the dead of night, into every crack and crevice where pain and loss threaten to bring despair and hopelessness.  It is the moment you taste the beautiful sweetness of the breath you draw—when everything is squeezed out of you and you aren’t sure you can take another.

This gratitude is not created by willing myself to notice all the blessings I have. I’m adept at finding painful things, too. This gratitude shows up when I notice that even the painful things are suffused with love. It shows up when I notice that even the most awful things are still held in this love and that somehow, even against my will sometimes, I am sustained by this love. This gratitude shows up when I surrender and accept that this love is really, truly, for real, and it just keeps showing up, really, truly, here for me.


Cyndi Wunder describes herself this way: “I am a country girl with a can-do attitude, and I pastor a small church in Lodi, WI. I spend most of my free time with my dog Sheamus and my horse Tango.”


Church Celebrates 40 Years of “Special” Ministry

Each Sunday as I looked out from the pulpit, theirs were the first faces to greet me—the FISH Class, a weekly gathering of intellectually challenged adults at Ridglea Presbyterian Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Following their Sunday school support group, they attended worship and always sat in the front pews.

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of this compassionate ministry. It was founded by a trio of women: Catherine Beard, Hazel Reed, and Helen Luckett. Hazel had a special needs daughter; Catherine, a grandson. Together, they asked Helen to play piano for the class’s weekly singing time. The name FISH was a simple reminder that Jesus calls us to be “fishers of people.”

Eventually, Helen took the helm, and now, at 94 years old, she is still there alongside four original members. The class calls Helen “Sunshine” because of her bright smile, but also as a tribute to the illuminating counsel and support she gives them through all the seasons of their lives.

Ridglea recently went through the painful sale of their historic building, which was just demolished. They are now leasing space as they proceed with plans for new construction. In the interim, all ministries—including the FISH Class—remain on track, and Helen looks back over four decades of service.

“When the class first started,” she says, “most of the members of our church did not know a mentally challenged person unless they had one in their family. It was an era when there was almost a sense of embarrassment or shame. People kept their special loved ones out of sight, out of mind. At first, our members were uncomfortable and would even avoid contact by walking on the other side of the room or sanctuary. But today, they are as much a part of our church family as anyone else.”

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As a former Senior Pastor at Ridglea, I testify to its warm inclusion. My special needs son, Kristoffer, now 21, was instantly embraced by these gracious folks.

I have other fond memories. I loved those Sundays following a Special Olympics event, as we had a chance to celebrate the victories of FISH Class members. When you see special needs adults standing before you, proudly wearing their medals on their chests, you understand the motto of the Special Olympics: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

The FISH Class influenced me another way; they helped mold my approach to preaching. I began to ask myself a critical question. Would I be able, at least in part, to share a message that touched hearts and minds across a wide range of intellectual abilities? It gave new meaning to Jesus’s admonition, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Helen is currently training a protégé to succeed her. I asked her to name the greatest lessons she has learned while serving these 40 years.

“Patience, patience, patience,” she says with a chuckle. “But also a joy for living! They have given me a wonderful sense of purpose all these years.”

The FISH Class has received accolades from numerous organizations in their community, including The Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens), and the Presbyterian Night Shelter. A few times a year, the class makes sandwiches for the shelter’s homeless residents.

“Until you have made sandwiches with the FISH class, you have not lived,” says Helen, laughing. “It’s total chaos. Everyone has their own method, but in the end it somehow works. We don’t have to do the things the same way!”

I pray that Ridglea Presbyterian and the FISH Class will continue to demonstrate this message of love and inclusion for another 40 years!



I Am…

I am an old man with false teeth, my face like a blade in the wind.
I am a radiant saint, my feet barely touching the earth.

I am an immigrant mother, clutching my child at the border.
I am Gaia, shedding tears for all humanity.

I am a priest who serves in obscurity.
I am the one who thrills to His hands washing my feet.

I am a baby born addicted and alone.
I am the orphan who sees adoptive parents peering through the glass.

I am the palsied man hobbling across the finish line.
I am the special Olympian, resplendent with my medal in the sunlight.

I am an Unknown Soldier, the unsung soul in countless watery graves.
I am a drop in the ever-swelling tide of Redemption.