March 30, 2014
1 Samuel 16:1-13
A recent article in Christian Century details the experiences of a World War II freedom fighter, Jacques Lusseyran, who was made blind by an accident as a child. In his blindness, Lusseyran discovered something remarkable – an alternate source of “light” emanating from all physical things that was only perceptible after he lost his sight:
“I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it” (Taylor, Barbara Brown. April 2, 2014. “Light Without Sight.” The Christian Century. pp.22).
Lusseyran was so attuned to this “light” source that he developed an uncanny capacity to navigate around his environment using it, so that “he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see. He could tell trees apart by the sounds of their shadows. He could tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body” (Taylor, Op Cit., pp.22-23).
I have also had the experience of meeting people who are blind, who perceived things in a way that I am completely unable. I once had the pleasure of attending the wedding of a couple who were both very accomplished professional musicians – and both blind. The wedding was one of the most breath-taking events I have witnessed. To begin with, the guests gathered were the most diverse group of people I had ever seen together in one place. All races, ethnicities and abilities were – as far as I could see – present. For all my vaunted talk of “valuing diversity”, I have to say that I cannot remotely claim as diverse a circle of friends as this couple had. Clearly, they were “seeing” something to which I was blind.
After the reading of the vows and the blessing of the marriage, the ceremony climaxed with the couple singing the duet “Make Our Garden Grow” to each other, from the musical “Candide”. The harmonies were so perfectly intertwined, the melody soaring, the joy of the couple so palpable, that I was in tears. Their love was being made “visible” in a way that no image could possibly contain.
This week’s (rather lengthy) Gospel reading is one of the well-known healing stories from the Gospel of John – the healing of the man born blind at the pool of Siloam (and Jesus’ interrogation by religious authorities afterwards). The easy interpretation of this Scripture is, of course, Jesus comes to heal those who are “left without light” – both physically and spiritually. That there is no illness or disability so great that faith cannot overcome it. However, such an interpretation is often hurtful to people with disabilities, as well as those who love and care for them. As Lee Hull Moses writes in the story of a faith community designed around children of multiple abilities, “To a parent of a child who will never be ‘healed’ of his illness, the stories of Jesus healing the blind man or the hemorrhaging woman are heartrending. They lead to bigger questions about what wholeness really looks like” (April 2, 2014. “Joyful Noises: A Worship Service with Children of All Abilities.” The Christian Century. pp. 30).
Perhaps what Jesus is really healing in this narrative is not necessarily blindness, but our assumptions about blindness – and the things that sighted people are incapable of perceiving. In First Century Palestine, people with disabilities were assumed to be so because either they or their parents had sinned. Indeed, in the Gospel reading, when the man who was healed of this blindness testifies to the religious authorities about how he was healed, “They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out” (John 9:34).
There are many ways in which we – intentionally or unintentionally – still drive people with different abilities out of church. Lee Hull Moses writes, “We are people of the word, we like to proclaim. We offer a word of prayer, we recite the words of institution, we read the words of the ancients scripture. But what does this mean to someone for whom words themselves are an incomprehensible language?” (Op.Cit., pp.27) – like, for example, someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder? Hull also relates the story of a child who had to wear a portable oxygen machine to church: ” …. as the hum and pulse of the oxygen machine could be heard during the quiet parts of the service, a woman sitting in front of us turned to them and said, ‘Could you turn that off?'” (Op.Cit., pp.28).
At the end of the Gospel reading, Jesus tells the religious authorities, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). Perhaps the “blindness” that Jesus is healing is not a matter of personal disability, but the assumption that disabilities make someone “less than,” pitiable, or a burden to us. Because our institutions are literally built around people who can say “We see” – and because we are convinced that seeing is the only way of validating our world – our sin of excluding people who cannot see the way we do remains. And our inability to attend to their physical and spiritual needs remains. And thus, we are the ones who are truly dis-abled.
Melissa Guthrie, a pastor and mother of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, provides the following guidelines to congregations on “Welcoming Children with Disabilities” (April 2, 2014. The Christian Century. pp.27). Maybe this list can serve as a starting point for some church discussions that might address our spirit-blindness around institutional able-ism:
- Use “person-first” language. Labels can be helpful, but our children are people first: Tommy, who has autism, or David, who has epilepsy.
- Ask us what we need. We understand that you may not be able to accommodate every single, unique need. Still, when you ask how you can include us in worship, we feel acknowledged and important among the community.
- Listen to our stories. Like other parents, we want to share our children’s interests, abilities, and uniqueness. We want to share the hardships and joys.
- Grieve and celebrate with us. Some of our children will not achieve typical developmental milestones, causing us to experience grief and loss. If you listen to our stories, however, we can grieve together – and celebrate other life events.
- Find developmentally appropriate ways to mark milestones. We also grieve when church celebrations and rituals fail to connect our children to the community. When other children receive their first Bible, for instance, perhaps nonverbal children could be given a picture Bible or an interactive edition of Bible stories. Milestones and rituals can be adapted to include everyone.
- Offer tangible help. You may not be able to offer us child care. But assistance with daily chores can make a difference: grocery shopping, a meal, help with an errand, that hasn’t gotten done because of appointments and therapies and social anxieties.
- Educate yourself and others. Ask a parent or a professional to speak to your community. By learning about our differences, we grow in our ability to live and work and worship together.
- Remember that all people have value – and needs. Brett Webb-Mitchell suggests that the heavenly banquet will be a noisy gathering, “what with wheelchairs, crutches and aluminum walkers being scooted forward. There may even be a scream … from a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.” Wouldn’t we all live and work and worship better together if we shared our stories and needs?
If we are truly working toward the Kingdom of God, that Kingdom must have places at the table for all people (or else it would not be the Kingdom, but a country club of the able-bodied). When we systematically welcome all people, we are enhanced as the Church, and when we diminish our welcome, we are diminished as well. The Body of Christ comes in all shapes and abilities – let us truly live into that Body.