The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

“Yes I can…” has it’s limits.

The “Yes I can…” Paralympic campaign is an impressive bit of film with lot’s of positive aspects. A lot of people have been encouraged by the campaign, and I’ve been hesitant to comment as a result. But I will comment as there are some aspects that are worth questioning.

This ad does a number of things really well. Incidentally, this ad was discussed on Gruen this week. It challenges the perception that people with disabilities are disempowered and are to be the subject of pity, and blows it to smithereens. People with disabilities can be just as empowered as anyone else, and if you get in their way, they’ll run over you with their wheelchair. It’s also putting disability in the public conscienceless in a really positive light, and that disability isn’t anything to be afraid of.

As a recreational cyclist, I understand getting fit and staying fit is hard work. When you have a disability, it’s really hard work that requires a ridiculous amount of commitment. I get it. For my mates to do what they do, they need to be fit. For me to do what my mates do, I need to be super fit. And I’m extremely thankful that I have a job where I can make cycling one of my day’s priorities. These guys ought to be congratulated and celebrated. Quite frankly, who cares about the medals? What the guys have achieved is absolutely amazing! And I said the same about athletes without disabilities.

But I actually don’t like this ad. I don’t like it for sociological, philosophical and theological reasons. Socially, people with disabilities have had (and still have?) a tendency to be seen as sub-human. It’s an existence of otherness. To counteract that tendency, the perception is being swung the other way so that now perceived as super-human. In religious terms, the demon had been made a deity. Now, it’s an improvement in the way that people with disabilities are perceived. But It is still an existence of otherness. At the end of the day, it’s not that much more helpful. People with disabilities have concerns, interests and aspirations they want embraced the same as anyone else.

Philosophical, it plays into an ableist framework where personhood and personal worth are validated by ability. It is such frameworks that has oppressed people with disabilities in the first place. We need to be finding other level grounds to validate one’s personhood.

Theologically, it’s honouring self rather than God. It needs to be said, outside of the Christian context, why would you do anything else? 20 years ago, I would’ve had the same mind. But with my grace oriented theology, I consider my achievements to be not as a result of psyching myself up with a mantra “Yes I can!”, but as a humble realisation that God has given me this ability, and I’m going respond to that grace by honouring him in the way I use my ability. And sometimes that means using a little less ability – especially on the bike.

Yes, let’s put disability on the social conscience, not as people who a sub human or super human, but as those who share in a common humanity.

September 2, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

God’s work through disability – John 9

Yesterday I had the privileged opportunity to preach at St. Clements Anglican at Mosman. Preaching at all four services was a test of endurance. I was pretty wasted when I returned home at 11pm after being up at 5:30am. But the effort was worth while. God did amazing things as people were impacted by what was said.
To listen to the sermon, click here for the web page. I’ve provided a transcript below…
From John 9

As Australians, we can be obsessive about a number of things. One of those things is ability. We love to celebrate those who have ability. Doctors, academics, particularly sports people. Think of the amount of money sports people earn. It’s remarkable.

And so we should celebrate ability. We ought to thank God for the abilities that God gives people. But there is a dangerous flipside for people with disabilities. They are often perceived as not worth celebrating. To be minimised. Perhaps even to be avoided. They are also often perceived as not being able to work, or make a contribution. Such thinking can cause much difficulty and hurt for those with disabilities. But when we bring that thinking into the church, it causes even bigger problems. Such thinking affects the whole church community as it faces the very real prospect of missing out on God’s work – which is the touchstone of Ch. 9. What does it mean to be doing God’s work? and who can do God’s work?

In the time of Jesus, God’s work was clearly defined by the religious leaders, and it had severe implications for the disabled. If you were disabled there was a very simple explanation for it. You deserved it. You or your parents had done something to offend God, and God was punishing you with a disability. So you were perceived as rejected by God, and were ostracised by God’s people. Particularly if you were blind you were perceived as incapable of receiving God’s revelation. So you certainly could not do God’s work if you couldn’t receive God’s revelation. Hence we have the disciples’ question in v2 “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?”

Now, before we charge these religious leaders with disability discrimination, we need to understand that these beliefs developed out of a desire for holiness. These were devout honest, men who wanted to remain pure; who wanted to live up to God’s standards in keeping the law. Especially when it came to the Sabbath. For these men, the work of God meant separation from those who they considered condemned by God – erecting barriers between themselves and undesirables.

We may not go to the same religious extremities that the leaders of Jesus’ day. But our response to disability can be just as questionable. Disability can make us feel uncomfortable, and some can find disability very confronting. One reason for this is disability may remind us of our own brokenness. Once reminded, our self perception and self worth are threatened because in our culture, they are so closely tied to what we can do.

I turn 37 this week. For most of my life I’ve been trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I am not disabled. For some reason it hasn’t quite worked. I did this through cycling – I would ride anything up to 250km/week. I’ve learned to drive a car, sail a boat, and cook. I’ve travelled and camped on my own. I’ve done what most sensible able-bodied people wouldn’t do! Mostly because it was fun. But partly because I wanted to disassociate myself from disability, and show I’m just as important, just as valuable as anyone else. For the record, all that effort has failed. My importance and value has nothing to do with what I can do.

Or, another reason may be that we think we need to hide our brokenness to provide a good witness. That for God and his gospel to have any credibility, we need to appear as though God has solved all our problems. That our brokenness is mended. That as Christians, we have our life together, and we’re just cruising through life. Otherwise, if we are still struggling with brokenness, maybe there’s something wrong with our faith, or perhaps God isn’t the real deal. I know an elderly man who, when you ask him how is, he’ll answer “I’m fighting fit”. But probe a little deeper, and you’ll find he’s battling some serious health issues. For some reason, we are reluctant or even embarrassed to expose our brokenness, and can be desperate to hide it.

Often we do not have a place for disability in our Christian thinking. The result is it affects who we engage with and form relationships. We can easily find ourselves erecting barriers between us and who we regard as broken. The reality is, we’re all broken, no matter how much we try to hide it. None of us are self sufficient. All of us need God’s grace. All of us need the support of others. The main difference between many of you and myself is my brokenness is allot harder to hide. Yet, we still find ourselves erecting barriers.

Where the religious leaders and, to a lesser extent, us today see disability as a barrier to doing the work of God, Jesus does not. In response to his disciple’s question, in v3 Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus takes this whole understanding of disability, and turns it on its head. Rather than the person being rejected and condemned by God, Jesus understands that this person is at the forefront of God’s work.

The whole aim of Jesus ministry was reconciliation. Reconciling people to God, and to other people, in his name. It’s not a wishy washy reconciliation where we get rid of anything that might cause conflict, so no one believes anything anymore. It’s reconciliation by Jesus. Ultimately, this was achieved in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this was also being demonstrated in his earthly ministry.

This had implications for the disabled as it was through them along with other broken people that God’s grace would be demonstrated. This is why Jesus says in v4, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” Jesus time on earth was short, and in this blind man, he saw an opportunity to demonstrate God’s grace. This grace would be vividly demonstrated by removing what was thought to be a sign of God’s rejection of him – his blindness. The result was making this man a recipient of God’s revelation, enabling him to display God’s grace in his life, and to believe and testify to Jesus. In this Jesus was redefining the work of God. It was about tearing down barriers that stood between God and people, and between people themselves.

One of the biggest barriers at the time of Jesus was Sabbath. To be a person of God, you needed to observe the Sabbath tradition. But for Jesus, showing mercy and doing the work of reconciliation in his name is more important then tradition, or the way things are done. In this, Jesus changed what it means to do the work of God.

So how did people respond to this new way of doing God’s work? Well, just like people don’t like change now, they didn’t like then. In the text, we have 4 groups of people responding in 5 different ways to the news.

The first group is the neighbours in vv8-13. They haven’t a clue what’s going on. They can’t even decide if it’s the same man, and refer the whole matter to the religious experts. People today can have the same attitude toward disability – ‘it’s too hard, let someone else handle it’.

So it’s onto the second group in vv14-17, the Pharisees, the religious experts. When they hear the man’s testimony, they were divided as to whether this was God’s work. Some doubted pointing to the fact it was the Sabbath and concluded it was impossible for the man’s testimony to be God’s work. Others disregarded the issue of the Sabbath and simply considered what had happened and concluded the man was worth listening too. Yet these people felt the pressure of their peers and changed their view of the man. I’ve seen this before where people value the person with a disability, until someone with a louder opinion comes along, and people change their minds, or remain silent.

The third group are his parents in vv18-23. They readily admit the man is his son, and that he was born blind. But that’s as far as their support goes. They avoid the whole issue of the man’s testimony, otherwise they’ll run the risk of rejection. Instead of supporting their son, they’ll let him sort out his own problems. For his parents, they were more worried about what people might think if they became involved with their disabled son, and acknowledged the work of God that had occurred in his life.

So it was back to the Pharisees for a fourth response in vv24-29. They respond a second time by maintaining the Sabbath barrier. They hold fast to their own traditions, and conclude on one shred of evidence, as sure as this man is born blind, that Jesus is a sinner, and do not listen to the man. The stupidity of their conclusion is brought out by the blind man when in v30 he says, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” This is an emphatic statement. In other words, “You have labelled Jesus a sinner, and you don’t even know where he comes from!” They are rejecting the man’s testimony when they haven’t even done the basic checks! All because of their view of a person born blind.

Four different reactions, yet with one thing in common. Whether it was general confusion, peer pressure, fear of rejection, or maintaining tradition, all four groups were not able to receive God’s work because they refused to accept this man’s testimony due to his status in life and position in the community.

There is a fifth reaction I haven’t mentioned yet, that of the blind man in vv31-33 – receiving the work of God, and becoming part of the work of God. Against the Pharisees with their one shred of evidence, he begins to stack up the evidence for his healing being a work of God. Firstly, God listened to Jesus. Secondly, no one has opened the eyes of a man born blind before. Thirdly, if he Jesus wasn’t from God, he wouldn’t have been able to perform the miracle. The man knows that to understanding his healing as a work of God, he’ll face identity issues, he’s going against religious tradition, he faces the denial of his parents, he faces banishment from the religious community, and yet believes. In believing, this man was able to do the work of God, not by performing miracles, but by testifying that Jesus was sent from God.

You see, this man was able to do the work of God, not by what he could do, but by who he believed – Jesus. When Jesus caught up to him in vv35-38, Jesus revealed himself to the man as the Son of Man – the one who reveals God. In response he worshipped him.

Since involvement in God’s work does not depend on what we can do, we, in the church, can not afford to obsess over ability like those outside the church. If we do, we run a very real risk of erecting barriers between ourselves, and those who we consider less able, and miss out on the work of God in our midst displaying his reconciling grace.

We must recognise that the work of the gospel is reconciliation – reconciliation between God and people, and reconciliation between people. This means removing barriers where ever possible. This doesn’t come natural. Allot of the time it may not be easier. It may involve going against social norms and traditional concerns. It may involve spending more time and effort getting to know someone as it would somebody else. Certainly in my case, it takes more time and effort to listen. But by removing the barriers, we’ll soon discover that all followers of Jesus are involved in God’s work of reconciliation, regardless of ability or disability.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | Sermons | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Theological Approach to Relating to People with Disabilities

This paper was presented at the “Men Meeting the Challenge Conference 2011” 3rd September, organised by “Men for Christ Ministries”.

 

The Bible does not have a simple category for people with disabilities. It does not address the issue of disabilities directly. However the Bible does recognize disadvantaged people groups. These included the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless and the widowed. These were people that were at a social and economic disadvantage in the community of Israel. So it seems appropriate to also include disability among these disadvantaged groups; and by looking at how God approached the issue of disadvantaged people we can also see how He approaches the issue of disability.

 

In Leviticus 19:9-10 (23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21) the Bible speaks of these disadvantaged people and the provision that they were to enjoy. Scripture stipulated that food crops on the edge of fields, and any crops that were dropped or left behind in the process of harvesting, were to be left for disadvantaged groups. In this we recognize that being disadvantaged was not punishment from God. Nor were people who were disadvantaged to be treated like second classes citizens. They were recognized as members of the community. Note also, this provision was not a hand out. This provision did not allow these disadvantaged groups to sit around all day and do nothing. In order to eat, and provide for their family, they were to be involved with the on-goings of the surrounding community and they were to be responsible for their actions.

For our purposes of relating to people with disabilities, it is more then simply providing for immediate needs. There is a social dynamic that needs to be considered. That is, enabling the person to exercise their God-given abilities, as small as they may be, to become an active member within their community.

 

We see a similar approach in the ministry of Jesus. Through the gospels people are reconciled not only with God, but with other people. And how people are reconciled to other people reflects how they are reconciled to God. We see this in the way Jesus engages with people. In Matthew 20:29-34 we read how Jesus was going to Jericho when he met two blind men. And in this encounter we find Jesus asking the question ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ Now us modern, task orientated people, we read that and we might think, “Get with the program, Jesus!” It’s pretty obvious what these blind men want. They want their sights restored. So why doesn’t Jesus just heal them? Why does Jesus put the question when the answer is so obvious?

The answer to this is quite simple. This is possibly the first time in their lives that these two men have been treated like human beings. The culture tells a lot about the attitudes towards people with disabilities at the time. We know that from a well of information that such people were considered to be a blemish on the fabric of the holy society and it’s little wonder that the crowd told them to “shut up”. It was an embarrassing thing for a great teacher to be pestered by two blind men. Being pestered by two men who obviously been rejected by God because of their blindness!

So I want you to notice the gravity of what is happening here. It could be the first time that someone is placing themselves at the disposal of these two blind men. And it’s not just anyone who involves themselves to these two men. Matthew describes Jesus as the One who is faithful to God. So the one who is faithful to God is making himself available to people who are perceived as not faithful to God. For Jesus, it wasn’t simply a matter of enabling these two blind men to see, but to engage with them personally. And this was a restoration of their humanity as well.

 

Again we find the same thing happening in Luke 8:40-48 where we have a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. Now this is a woman of no status in the community. And she had no right to be in a place where she could access Jesus and touch him. All this woman wanted to do was get in, get healed, and get back out undetected. But Jesus concern goes beyond this woman’s physical needs. We find Jesus asking what seems like another ridiculous question, ‘Who was it that touched me?’ Now, if I was in the crowd and I heard that, I would have been rolling on the ground laughing! It is just a ridiculous thing to ask. There were people pushing and shoving Jesus in every direction. The scene of one of chaos, and out of all this chaos Jesus wants to know who touched him? It’s a ridiculous question. So why does Jesus ask the question? Again it’s about this personal interaction. It wasn’t enough for this woman to be healed of her bleeding. She needed her humanity restored. Someone unfit to be called a daughter of Israel, Jesus calls His daughter. She is restored into a relationship with Jesus. She becomes a daughter of The King! It’s more than having needs met.

 

Again in John 5 we find Jesus encountering yet another person with a disability. And again Jesus asked the man a pretty obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?’. But the question asked brings something out of the man’s character. That he doesn’t only need healing on the outside. He actually needs healing on the inside, and this is Jesus’ real concern.  Jesus heals the man and he is well. But what he says towards the end of this account is interesting. Jesus says to him, “Sin no more that nothing worse may happened to you.” What’s he  talking about? Is he talking about sinless perfection on earth? No he is talking about entering a right relationship with Him. You see, right through the account this man has been denying Jesus. His body might be healed. His physical needs may be met, and he is walking. But he is not right with God. Jesus is concerned with seeing him right with God. And when he says ‘so nothing worse may happen to you’ Jesus is not talking about a disability. He is talking about Hell. Jesus ultimate concern for this man is that he becomes right with God. It’s more than physical. It is more than having immediate needs met. It’s relational.

 

I’ve only picked out a few examples of how Jesus interacts with disadvantage people. If we read the gospels, we find again and again, it’s more than physical, and it’s more than immediate needs. It’s personal, and it’s eternal. If we are going to minister the gospel to people with disabilities, it needs not only to be physical. It also needs to be personal, and it needs to be eternal.

 

Well, how does this work in the church? In 1 Corinthians 12:22 Paul writes this, ‘On the contrary the parts from the body that seem weaker are indispensable and those parts of the body that we think are less honorable we bestowed greater honour. Our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty”. What does that mean? It is difficult to understand this verse in English mainly because it is difficult to understand this verse in the original Greek. And different commentators have different ideas of what Paul is on about, and I’m not entirely convinced. What I am convinced of is Paul’s vision for the church at Corinth was for each of the member of the church to serve other members so they can serve. The background that Paul was writing to was one where people were showing off so they can better themselves against other people. To this Paul says ‘no!’ Instead of showing off, use your abilities to help someone else use their abilities.

So I take it in the modern context, if someone is unable to contribute to the church, I do what it takes so they can contribute to the church. This may take more time, more effort, and even more resource. This can go against our task orientated culture but we need to stop and ask what are we trying to do? Are we trying to run programs? Or are we trying to build relationships? It may not be the quickest way of doing something. It might not be the most expedient way. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are building those relationships and we are building people up, presenting them mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).

 

By way of conclusion, I hope we can see that: firstly the relationships that we have with people with disabilities needs to be based on the relationship that God has with us – a relationship of reconciliation. And secondly I hope we can see that relating to people with disabilities is much, much more than just providing a service. It is about building relationships, serving people in the context of a relationship. Not a relationship in the context of their needs.

 

© The Student’s Desk, September 2011

September 2, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Biblical Theology, Essays, Religious, Talks | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment