Who are the disabled ones?

I wrote this for Through the Roof (http://www.throughtheroof.org/info-and-resources/articles/ros-blog/) and it is reproduced here by kind permission.

The day my second child was born, my world changed forever. She was thirteen weeks premature and the doctors had been warning me to expect her to be stillborn. Even if she was alive, they said, she wouldn’t cry, as her lungs would be too immature. Moments after she was born I heard her give a fairly powerful cry – it was, and remains, the most wonderful sound I’ve ever heard in my life.

Now began her long, hard fight to hold on to life. It was more than ten weeks before the doctors could tell us that she would live, and at least two years before we could say with confidence that her life was no longer in danger.

From her birth onwards our world was turned upside down. I wrestled with God over what was happening, as I came to grips with a world of sleepless nights, emergency resuscitations, failure to thrive, physiotherapy and low, low educational expectations. Things that my other daughters received by right (such as appropriate education) had to be fought for tooth and nail.

Again and again Ellen defied the prognosis and achieved things we had been told were beyond her. For example, we were told she hadn’t the intelligence to learn any speech and now at the age of 30 she can not only hold a conversation (on her own terms!) but has a reading age of 8. Nonetheless, her learning disabilities are considerable, and as a result much about the world remains puzzling, confusing and frightening to her.

One thing I observed as she grew up was the simplicity and yet the undoubted reality of her faith in God. Her music therapist at school (not as far as I know herself a committed Christian) remarked that Ellen was clearly developing her own faith and kept asking for songs about God’s love during their music therapy sessions – so she was becoming, in her own way, an evangelist, too! By her late teens she was clearly expressing in simple words her own faith in Jesus. We asked her if she would like to be baptised and she replied with a very enthusiastic “Yes!” So we found a couple of strong friends to carry her from her wheelchair to the baptistry and she was baptised at the age of 19.

This caused me to reflect on my own relationship with God. How often I needed my questions answered before I felt safe to trust Him; how I needed to be able to work out logical reasons for my faith along with my experience of God; how important it was to me to be able to explain exactly why I believed what I did. None of that was needed for Ellen. She constantly flung herself into the arms of her heavenly Father, certain that He was there and would hold her. She saw things that I, with all my theological study, could not see because my spiritual eyes were dim.

In 1 Corinthians 1.20, 25 and 27 Paul writes, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength…. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Amos Yong wrote these words: “If people with intellectual disabilities represent the foolishness of the world, what hinders our viewing them as embodying the wisdom of God?”

I suspect that when the world is wound up and all things are made new, and we begin to find out what things in our lives were of eternal value, and what things have passed away with the temporal world, we will have to revise our whole view of disability. We who thought we had the advantages in life – the strong, the clever, the ones the world regards as gifted – will find that on a spiritual level we have been severely disabled compared to our brothers and sisters who lacked those intellectual giftings, but whose spiritual life is marked by abilities and giftings we never knew they possessed. In that day they will be our teachers, leading us from the place of our spiritual impoverishment on the long road to catch up with where they already are in their deep understanding of, and relationship with, God.

Progressing towards uncertainty and doubt.

I’m taking a risk here, a risk of being misunderstood and labelled either a backslider or a heretic, so let me start by defining what I mean by certain key terms.

Belief is a mental assent to a proposition or set of propositions.
Faith is an act of total trust – it goes beyond mental assent to staking your all on something.
Unbelief is the absence of both belief and faith, and is an act of the will according to Hebrews 3.12 (“See to it, my brothers, that no evil, unbelieving heart is found in any of you.”)
Doubt is a process of questioning your set of beliefs, and of being prepared to relinquish any not found to ring true.

I grew up with certainties.  My parents had, quite literally, staked their all on what they knew to be true, and had given up a secure and well paid job to devote their lives to spreading the Gospel.  And before I go any further I want to make it clear I don’t have an ounce of criticism for them; they were faithfully following God on their journey, as I am following Him on mine.  And so the faith I inherited was hedged around with certainties, and I believed them.  I knew what you had to do to be guaranteed heaven.  I knew who was in and who was out.  I knew what God was like and what you had to do to please Him.  I knew whom He was displeased with (very often me, actually).  I knew exactly which box God fitted into, and if I heard something about God that I couldn’t find in the Bible, I could safely dismiss it as error.  I knew where God was to be found, and that to look for Him anywhere else was a dangerous occupation that could lead to demonic deception.

I also knew it was my duty to “witness”, and so I went round proclaiming these certainties to everyone I knew and praying for those who rejected them.  This made me a pain in the butt, a smug, superior, holier-than-thou know-it-all.

Since then, a lot has happened to change me.  I discovered that you can pray all the right prayers but your child still winds up with multiple disabilities.  You can do all the right things, pray, fast and agonise and still end up divorced.  You can meet with callous accusations of inadequate faith from fellow-Christians but a Bah’ai friend totally demonstrates the accepting, welcoming heart of God to you.  You can do a Religious Studies degree and find whole chunks in the Qur’an and the Guru Granth Sahib that you can say a hearty Amen to.  You can try to keep God in that box He was in when you were growing up but He keeps breaking out all over the place.

I discovered that doubt, far from being a sin, was an authentic way to evaluate your beliefs and end up with truths you can really put your faith in.  I discovered that certainty about God simply means you have made Him in your own image and stopped being open to some startling revelation from Him.  I discovered that many people who were seeking God in places I had once thought dangerous were actually on a journey, catching glimpses of Him without always recognising Whom they were seeing.  Some might never come to recognise Him but for many, loving a God whom they encountered outside Christendom might be the first step on a path that would lead them to Jesus.

I discovered that some of those certainties were absolutely valid and survived the scrutiny process intact.  I absolutely affirm that Jesus is the Incarnation of God, that His name is above every other name in the universe and that one day He will return in glory and every human knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  I’m no longer sure that if you don’t understand this you are automatically “out”.

In many ways it has become more uncomfortable to try to hold on to old certainties than to live with uncertainty.  Some scriptures which can seem very legalistic become so much more expansive when the filter through which you’re looking at them is love rather than duty or expectations.  Three years ago I lost my home, my husband, my ability to do my job –  and the one unchanging, solid, dependable thing in all of this was Jesus.  Now I feel as if even the Jesus I thought I knew doesn’t exist and I must begin all over again getting to know Him as He really is.  It’s totally disorientating. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve lost my bearings in life – and yet it’s also good because it’s where He wants me.  Above all, I’m finding out that His love and mercy and forgiveness have heights, breadths and depths that I have never dreamed of.  How can I not accept myself, just the way I am, when He is apparently never unaccepting of me, no matter what I do?  How can I hold on to old resentments and unforgiveness when He loves the other person no matter how much they have hurt me?

I remember one of the lasts visits of Roy Hicks Jr to our church, shortly before his untimely death.  He talked about James and John demanding to sit either side of Jesus in His kingdom.  Jesus asked if they could drink the cup He was about to drink, and be baptised with the baptism He was about to undergo, and with great bravado they assured Him they could.  He didn’t slap them down and say, “Oh no you can’t!”  He actually agreed that they would do those very things, but even so, it wasn’t for Him to grant their request.  And Roy Hicks pointed out that they didn’t take umbrage or go off in a huff, because they had been around Jesus long enough to know that even when you’ve fulfilled all the conditions to get what you want and you don’t get it, Jesus is still worth following.

I have a Jesus who didn’t intervene to stop me being abducted as a child, who didn’t send guardian angels to prevent my daughter suffering massive brain damage, who didn’t save my marriage, even when I fasted, prayed, forgave over and over, and, despite my mistakes and imperfections, obeyed every single instruction I was aware of Him giving me.  I don’t have a Jesus I can believe in the way I used to do.  But I have a Jesus I can put my faith in, a Jesus whose plans for redeeming and making use of my life experiences go way beyond my wildest imaginings.  I have a Jesus who doesn’t say, “Come unto Me in the right way with the correct formula and a sufficiently sincere degree of repentance and I will start work on cleaning you up and making you acceptable.”  I have a Jesus who says, “Stay right where you are, I’m on my way to rescue you, and the amount of love I’m about to shower on you will blow all your circuits.”  I have a Jesus who sometimes patiently watches me fulfil all the conditions to get what I’m asking for and then does nothing to ensure that I get it.  And in the process I learn that it’s not all about me, it’s all about Him, and that in overturning a lot of my beliefs, I’m left with a Jesus I can put my faith in; a Jesus who won’t stay in my neat boxes, who does things I could never have predicted, who includes people my pride would once have kept outside the door, and whose very unpredictability fills my life with a lot of joy and fun that was absent from all my former certainties and beliefs.