Several portions of our Dancing Wheels AWE service can be heard on the download below:
~Sarah Bishop, peer counselor for the Cleveland Sight Center, testifying about her struggle with both blindness and lack of mobility
~the Descant Choir children singing “The Language of Love”
~Sue Bungard, social worker for the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center, speaking about the challenges she faces as a deaf person
~the youth in the Sine Nomine choir singing “Can You Hear Me”
~Nicole Deegan, dancer with Dancing Wheels, sharing what it means to her to be both a dancer and a person in a wheelchair
~the congregation singing “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir”
~Rene Solaru’s reading from Phillippians 2:5-11
~Ann Williams’ homily “The Disabled God”
~Clover Beal’s Prayers of the People
~the Chancel Choir performing Beethovan’s “Sanctus”
The Disabled God
Phillippians 2:5-11 is well-loved by many people, including myself. It gives us a picture of Jesus, God the Son, laying aside his power and privilege as God, to live a limited, time-bound life as a human being. He fully experienced the limitations of human life, and he suffered pain, ostracism, and humiliation, and death. Yet the limitations and suffering that Jesus experienced as a human are transformed into a glorious new life, in which God extends compassion to all of creation.
Most people think of God as very powerful – the one who created the entire world from nothing, who knows everything, and is able to do anything he wants to. For such a being to become limited to a particular body, a particular time and place, with an ordinary life, is quite shocking. Borrowing a term from Nancy Eiesland, a theologian who herself uses a wheelchair, a god who limits himself to a human life, allowing himself to suffer pain, ostracism, humiliation, and death is, in fact, a disabled god.
Let’s explore together what this portrayal of the “disabled god” means for people who live with disabilities, and for us as Christians who share each others’ lives as the Body of Christ here and now.
First, a brief explanation of the examples I will use — my own work experience for the last 23 years has been with blind people, so I am drawing many examples from this group. I am quite sure the points I am making apply to other disability groups too, and I don’t mean to exclude them. I am simply writing from my experience.
People who have visible disabilities often experience isolation and stigma, even though they long to be treated simply as ordinary human beings. The isolation may be partly a result of understandable difficulties — for example, it is hard to initiate a conversation in our culture without making eye contact and using body language to tell the other person you are about to speak. So, for example, wait staff in a restaurant often find it easier to ask a sighted person what the blind person wants to order, with the result that the blind person feels isolated and dehumanized. To remedy this awkwardness, a sighted person can simply face and speak directly to a blind person, inviting him or her into the conversation, and perhaps lightly touch on his or her hand to give a tactile cue.
Another understandable, but ultimately dehumanizing problem is that many sighted people know few or no blind people. Therefore, when they meet one, the blindness is a prominent fact about that person, and in one way or another they use the blindness as a topic of conversation. But to people who have been blind for a while, the blindness is old news. They experience themselves as individuals with whole personalities and many interests, and usually would much converse about almost anything other than their disability. So, while it is perfectly all right to ask a blind person if she or he needs help with anything, it is likely that the person would also welcome the chance to be included in ordinary conversation about all kinds of other subjects.
An additional source of social awkwardness is that not many sighted people really know how much blind people can do, or the tools and techniques they use to manage independent living. It’s a fact that most well-adjusted blind adults in the U.S. have learned to get around in life and do whatever they need to, using tactile and audible cues and techniques. Although they may need some assistance with certain things that require eyesight, sighted people often overestimate how much assistance they need, and underestimate what blind people can do for themselves, and they end up being condescending or overprotective. This is not malicious; it’s a result of an intent to be kind, coupled with a lack of knowledge. However, it’s still damaging. Most blind people simply want to be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other person.
Sometimes this wish to be treated with dignity can take an unexpected turn. Ryan Knighton, who became blind as a young adult, wrote in his autobiography of an incident that occurred shortly after he lost his sight. He was walking home from a bar, alone late at night. Some young men surrounded him and asked insistently, “Whatcha got? Whatcha got?” Not knowing what else to do, he held up his white cane, and said, “Do you mean this? It’s for the blind.” His would-be muggers let him walk away, then caught up with him and apologized, saying “You don’t look like a blind guy.” Reflecting on this incident later, Ryan commented that he felt as if something more profound than his possessions had been stolen from him by this interaction. He says, “I know it seems daft, really, but how does one get justice for not having been mugged? … How could I be thankful for being stereotyped?… Discrimination feels like discrimination, even when it’s for the best. In this situation, I wanted to lose like everybody else, in order to keep that bit of dignity.”
Now, I am certainly not suggesting that we should mug people in order to fully include them, but I am suggesting that people with blindness and other disabilities should be included in all the ordinary ways that we share the responsibilities and even the unpleasant aspects of our life as a community, since that is part of our shared life as fellow human beings.
What I have spoken of so far are a few important dimensions of fully including people with disabilities into our community life. But there is another aspect of understanding and embracing the Disabled God. People who live long-term with disabilities grow into a type of life experience that is vastly different from the experience of persons who live with no current disabilities. This life has its own wonder and beauty that leads to a different way of knowing and understanding God John Hull, a blind theologian, describes his experience like this:
When I lost the sighted world, at first I had no world… Gradually a new world dawned – a world of fragrance, of little currents of wind and snatches of moving air, of voices and elbows, full of bird song and laughter, a world of minute detail, consisting of things which in the sighted world I never even noticed, but now in their tiny particularity were full of character and beauty.
… I abandoned a deficiency model of blindness and came to think of blindness as one of the great natural human conditions. …the world which blindness creates is one of the many human worlds, which must all be put together if the human experience is to become entire…
When I lost the sighted world I also lost the God of the sighted world. Reading the Bible as a blind person, I became sharply aware of the fact that the Bible was written by sighted people, and the God described in the bible is the sighted person’s God, the God of light who rejects darkness, the God in whom there is no darkness at all… Gradually, along with the blind person’s world there emerged the blind person’s God. This is the God who says ‘I who create light shall I not also create darkness?’ This is the God who said ‘I will show you the treasures of darkness’. This is the God who says that he dwells in ‘thick darkness’. This is also the God who says that ‘God is beyond both light and darkness, that darkness and light are both alike to God’.
No sighted person can say those words. No sighted person can ever say that darkness and light are both alike as far as he or she is concerned. Only a blind person can have that experience, can know that knowledge. And yet, to be beyond light and darkness is to be in the image of God. From this I have come to believe that the image of God is stamped into the lives of blind persons in their blindness, just as the image of God is stamped into the life of sighted people in their sightedness.
To gain all the worlds, to believe in the God of all being who is Lord of all life, we have to put the worlds together. We need each other.
This is the meaning of the Disabled God-with-us. To know and understand the fullness of God, we need ALL of us, with all our different abilities and disabilities. To paraphrase St. Paul, in today’s scripture lesson, we need each other in order to work out our collective salvation with awe and wonder, for it is the Disabled God who is at work in us, inspiring and encouraging us all together to more fully become the Body of Christ on earth.