Everyone Complete in Christ

ellen4I recently applied (successfully, praise God!) for the job of Training Resources Developer with Through the Roof, a charity whose mission is to change lives through disabled people; a mission it accomplishes by providing life-changing opportunities for disabled people, and equipping churches to do the same. As part of the interview process I had to prepare a presentation which included a Biblical theology of disability.

I have been teaching disability awareness in schools and colleges for many years, but I had never before sat down and thought through the Biblical basis for what I was so passionate about. Here are some of my thoughts – not all of which could be included in my presentation because of time, but all of which I wrote down and thought through as part of my preparation.

When we look at the Biblical basis for anything, our first starting point has to be Jesus. He was the most inclusive person ever to walk this earth. He embraced the other gender (women, obviously!), people of other ethnicities (such as the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter he healed), other faiths (such as the centurion who undoubtedly worshipped Roman gods) and those of other social classes (such as tax collectors and prostitutes). Some have even argued that, in Roman culture, it’s highly likely that the servant healed by Jesus was also the centurion’s gay partner. Certainly Jesus had no hesitation in welcoming unreservedly people whose behaviour he could not and did not sanction, such as the woman taken in adultery, or the young ruler whose greed held him captive to his money.

In particular, Jesus always saw beyond the disability to the whole person. That’s why he did not allow the woman who touched the hem of his garment to slink away anonymously but called her forward publicly, honoured her faith, and ensured that she was not simply physically healed, but made whole. Whereas the church has at times seen disabled people as a collection of body parts – blind eyes in need of sight, perhaps, or cerebral palsied legs in need of healing and strength. I am personally convinced that healing is a part of what Jesus’ atonement won for us, and I am committed to praying for people to be healed, and expecting to see God’s power at work in them. I am also convinced of God’s sovereignty and that He doesn’t have to deal with everyone I encounter in the way that I tell Him to!

The trouble is that often, in our eagerness to see disabled people healed we, the non-disabled members of Christ’s church, have overlooked their current worth and potential, and have given them the message “you’re not acceptable the way you are” – and I’m certain that Jesus never made anybody feel that way. On the contrary, in one of His parables, Jesus mentioned disabled people as those who should be given pride of place at the feast table in His kingdom. As we read the Gospel accounts of his encounters with disabled people, it’s easy to picture the delight on His face as He set them free not just from their physical limitations, but from the limiting self-image their disability had imposed on them, and showed them the glory of their true self as God had first created them to be.

There are some Old Testament stories, too, that should inform our attitudes towards disabled members of our communities. When David became king of Israel, he looked for someone of the house of Saul to whom he could show kindness for his friend Jonathan’s sake. The only surviving member of Saul’s family was Mephibosheth. At the time of the overthrow of Saul’s house, his nurse had picked him up to run to safety but had fallen with him in her arms, leaving him with a permanent disability. David welcomed him as part of his household, and for the rest of his life he ate at the king’s own table. It struck me as I read this passage in 2 Samuel 9 firstly, that David did not pity Mephibosheth because of his disability. It was who he was – Jonathan’s son – that dictated David’s response to him. His disability was irrelevant. Secondly, when David discovered that Saul’s only living relative was a disabled man, that didn’t alter his intent towards him. He honoured him exactly as he would have done if he had been a strong warrior. And finally, the whole story provides a wonderful metaphor for the church, with disabled and non-disabled people seated side by side, with equal honour, at the table in God’s kingdom.

I also looked at the story in 2 Kings 7 of four men with a contagious skin disease who were living as outcasts from the community of Israel. At a time when their own people were reduced to such a level of starvation that they had actually resorted, in their desperation, to cannibalism, these four men discovered the enemy camp deserted and full of food and other spoils and provisions. Rather than keep this good fortune to themselves, they said, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.” So they went and shared their good news with the rest of their community. This strikes me as a very powerful metaphor for the church, with disabled people not seen as outcasts or victims to be pitied, but as active contributors to the life and health of God’s people.

I also thought about St Paul’s vision for the church. In Colossians 1.28 he sets out his mission statement, “To present everyone complete in Christ.” Every time someone new comes through the doors of our church or expresses a desire to add themselves to us, we should be asking, “What does this person need, to become complete in Christ?” It would be silly to ask what do disabled people need to become complete in Christ – a bit like asking what do the blue-eyed, or the left-handed, need to become complete in Christ? The answer is that we are all individuals, each with our own relationship with God. As with anyone else in the church, a disabled church member needs people to get to know them, to learn what their gifting is, where they can serve and build up the church, and what their weaker areas are, where they could use support and encouragement from the rest of the body of Christ.

Legend has it that in Mediaeval France the Catholic Church taught that people with learning disabilities were placed by God in communities in order that people should be able to reverence and honour them as they would reverence and honour Christ Himself. These people became known as “Chréstiens”, Little Christs. This word – at first with no derogatory connotation – came into the English language as the word cretin, which sadly, like so many other terms surrounding disability, became devalued, and degenerated into an offensive insult.

It is very important that as we seek to allow disabled people to play their full part in the life of the church, we make sure to use inclusive language. When I was the Disability Advisor at a College of Further Education, I attempted to ban the use of the term “special needs” because it seemed to me to be just another way of isolating disabled students and making them feel different from everybody else, and because I had heard children in the playground at my daughter’s school hurling it as a term of abuse at one another. The origin of the term “handicapped” is in dispute, but one possibility is that it dates back to the days when it was thought that disabled people were fit only to beg for a living, and would sit patiently hoping that you would place your hand in their cap with a donation for them. For this reason, handicapped is felt quite keenly by many disabled people as a demeaning term, and I would like to see it eliminated from our vocabulary as Christians. If this seems like “political correctness gone mad” it’s worth considering the words of Jesus, that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks”. It’s the language we use casually and unthinkingly that reveals the attitudes we really harbour in our hearts towards one another.

In preparing my presentation, I reflected on a book I read many years ago, the autobiography of Rev Alyn Haskey who I was privileged to meet a few times before his sad death last year. In his book he described an incident when he was training for ordination. All the students were in the dining hall when the fire alarm sounded. They all jumped up and evacuated the building leaving Alyn, who could not propel his own wheelchair, sitting at the table. A few minutes later one of his fellow students came running back in very upset and said, “I’m so sorry Alyn, I forgot you were in a wheelchair!” Alyn observed that it was one of the best moments of his life, because people had stopped seeing his wheelchair and were seeing him for the person that he really was.

So for me it’s going to be a real privilege to serve the body of Christ in my new role by helping churches to see the wealth of gift and beauty that God has placed among them in the form of many disabled people.

The Laughing Rabbi

Nothing ever happens here. The last time anything noteworthy occurred was when Benjamin’s bullock unexpectedly dropped dead on its way to the winepress, overturning the bullock-cart and sending ripe red bunches of grapes tumbling down the hill to land in a sticky puddle of juice at the bottom.

So the news that was buzzing round the village had caused a stir, and even I was alive with curiosity. Of course, the stories were exaggerated, of that I had no doubt. Whenever a gifted young rabbi attracted an enthusiastic following, the tales of his doings were embellished with every telling. Nevertheless, even my sceptical old heart thrilled with pleasurable expectancy at the rumour that he was coming to our synagogue the next day.

The anticipation wasn’t likely to keep me awake. When every step is an effort and every movement pain, exhaustion engulfs you as soon as you lie down.

So when supper was ended and the light beginning to fade, I shuffled over to my straw-filled palliasse and placed a hand on the rickety stool which my daughter-in-law had carefully placed beside it, on which to steady myself. As gently as I could, I lowered myself to my knees, then leant forward until my head touched the linen of the palliasse, and then rolled over onto my side. It had taken me a while to perfect this technique, but it meant I could go to bed unassisted. Once on my side, I reached out for the cloak which lay rolled up on the floor, and pulled it over me as protection from the night chill.

When I awoke the next morning with the first rays of sun slicing through the dancing specks of dust from the little hole at the top of the wall, I felt as excited as a child, and it took me some moments to recall why. The young rabbi from Galilee was visiting our synagogue today, and we would see for ourselves how much truth there was in the gossip about him.

Nobody expected me to go to synagogue any more, not on the Sabbath, not even on feast days. Since the arrival of my grandson, my daughter-in-law was too busy to help me out of bed in the mornings, and without her assistance it took so long that the service was over before I was ready. But today I was determined to be there, so I started early.

First I rolled up the cloak and tried to toss it over the stool, where I would be able to reach it without bending down. It took many attempts, but finally the top of the cloak hooked over the top of the stool and stayed there.

With difficulty, I pushed myself up into a sideways sitting position, and from there, managed to get onto my knees. Reaching up beyond where I could tilt my head to look, I grasped the stool with both arms and, unable to suppress a cry of pain, I clawed my way to my feet until I stood, breathless, staring at the floor, which was my only view of the world since the disease had eaten away at my back and I had become more and more bent over. In fact, it had been eighteen long years since I last stood erect and looked anybody in the eye. Taking the cloak in my hand, I eased myself onto the stool and after many attempts, succeeded in pulling the cloak around my shoulders, far harder than it sounds since my hands could no longer reach to the back of my neck.

My feet were already sandalled. I had given up removing my sandals at night; the effort of putting them back on in the morning was just too great. When my husband was still alive, he had found a sturdy branch with a forked top which he had whittled down into a comfortable handle, so that I could have a walking staff to support me. Taking the branch which was leaning against the wall, I made my way to the centre of our home, where my daughter-in-law had just placed warm bread and a fresh jug of foaming milk on the table.

“Well mother,” smiled Elias, “this is early for you!”

I gave him a quiet nod. I had told no one of my intention to attend synagogue today. “I’m coming with you to hear the young rabbi,” I announced.

We left the home together, Miriam following Elias, the baby held against her breast by a shawl tied around her shoulders. This I could not see, but I knew because it was how I had carried Elias twenty-five years earlier.

As usual I stared at the dirt track beneath my feet, enjoying the places where the pasture encroached on the roadside, and the grass running along for a few yards made a pleasant change of scene.

Every time I walked this road I stopped outside our neighbours’ farm. Their fields sloped away downhill and their olive trees, devoid of any shelter from the prevailing winds, bent so low over the road across the boundary of their land that even I could see some of the glossy dark leaves and fat olives. I always took a moment to relish the sight.

Today I seemed to notice these things even more – as if I was really present to the present moment, instead of being always on my way to somewhere else or distracted by the pain.

I took my place, resting on my stick, at the back of the synagogue where the other women stood. I couldn’t look up to see the young man’s face but I saw the hem of his tunic and the worn-out sandals as he walked past to take his place on the bimah.

We sang a hymn and then the synagogue ruler must have handed him the scroll; I heard it being unrolled. With a voice of musical clarity he began to read the words of the law: “If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand from your poor brother, but you shall generously open your hand and lend him whatever he needs.”

Then I heard him rolling up the scroll and he began to teach, words which were like balm to every aching soul in the room.

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted. Blessed are you meek, for you shall inherit the earth.”
When he finished speaking there was an awed silence, for none of us had heard any teaching like it before. But nobody expected what happened next.

I heard him step down from the bimah, and his sandalled feet scuffed across the stone floor of the synagogue. I saw them approaching again, fringed by the bottom of his tunic. I waited for him to pass on by, but he didn’t.

He stopped right in front of me, and then, bending his knees, he crouched down until his face was level with mine. And what a face it was – alight with laughter, as though he knew a hilarious secret that the rest of us were not privy to. His penetrating eyes looked deep into mine, and I darted my gaze to the floor. Women didn’t look men in the eye, especially rabbis, and yet he seemed to be inviting me to.

What could he possibly want with me? I thought of the stories I had heard, heard and dismissed as exaggerated.

“Look at me.” There was authority in the voice and I did not resist. As I raised my gaze to meet his, the hilarity lit up his face again and he said, pronouncing each word with great deliberateness, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness.”

Before I had time to respond, he placed his hands on me and I felt all the pain seep out of my body, as though a drain hole had been opened in the soles of my feet. And then I felt a surge of warmth which began at the base of my back and flowed up into my shoulders. The next thing I knew I was standing erect, free from pain, and looking the world in the eye. He grasped my hands, laughing out loud with delight, and swung me around and around.

A burst of praise erupted from deep within me. I had to glorify God for what He had done, and I broke into the words of a Psalm that I had learned as a small girl: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits. He forgives all my sins; He heals all my diseases; He redeems my life from the pit.”

Another voice joined in with mine. The young rabbi continued the praise in unison with me: “He crowns my life with lovingkindness and tender mercies; He satisfies my years with good things so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” And so it was.

As I turned and left, clutching to my heart the gift I had received, I became aware of a commotion behind me, men’s agitated voices. I caught the words “healing, “Sabbath”, “woman” and “improper”. I stopped and looked back at the young rabbi surrounded by angry men. He saw me look, and shook his head at me, as if to say, “This is my problem. You leave it; I’ll deal with it.”

I fairly skipped back up the road to home and, throwing my cloak onto my bed, rolled up the sleeves of my tunic and began preparing the midday meal while my daughter-in-law fed the baby. As I worked I kept recalling the light of laughter in that young man’s eyes and an answering chuckle bubbled up from somewhere deep within me. I sang as I worked, certain beyond doubt that more than just my body had been healed that day.
Luke 13.10 – 13