By Abed Zien El Dien
From my childhood I can remember my father sitting too close to the TV screen or asking me or my sister to read for him, since he was diagnosed with Stargardt, a rare genetic eye disease that has no cure. People with disabilities are all around us. A friend of mine conducted a poll with a group of Christians regarding whether they have a close relationship with someone with a disability, and 65 percent said that they did. Throughout my experience of following Jesus, I cannot recall that my church has discussed the topic of disability or that my theological training even alluded to the subject. Then again, some educational institutions in Lebanon seem to be more aware of such a reality. For example, SKILD is a specialist educational center committed to providing tailored help for children with special needs, community awareness, and a transformational approach to families, children, adolescents, and professionals dealing with learning issues.
Recently, I was diagnosed with a mild anxiety disorder, and I have become more interested in the topic. It also struck a chord when a mentor and friend of mine shared about his own experience with disability. Allow me to share some thoughts and perhaps introduce a topic that I believe needs to be discussed in our churches and communities.
According to Merriam-Webster, disability is “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.” Disability often leads to vulnerability and even marginalization when people with disability are measured against some level of standard performance. Sometimes disability leads to a degree of social exclusion, while at other times it does not. For example, if you had dyslexia 800 years ago, that impairment most likely would not lead to exclusion since most people were illiterate. Disability has the potential to impact a person’s sense of worth and competence. Let’s try to look at disability from some fresh perspectives:
First, it is important to discover (and sometimes confess) and then embrace our disabilities. If, like me, you live in a culture of shame and honor, denying your disability is easier than facing it and, to take it a step further, sharing it with others. Acknowledging that you have a disability is humbling, especially when you fall short of your perceived potential. Perceived potential is who we imagine we could be if everything in our life were perfectly aligned. We always fall short of our perceived potential. Perhaps missionaries trying to learn a new language in a new culture feel the heat of not measuring up. My father, who loves reading, often measures himself against the number of books he could have read if he weren’t a Stargardt patient. He will always fall short of his perceived potential and it’s unfair! Embracing our disabilities is the first step.
Second, we must remember that who we are is not first and foremost measured by what we do. Unfortunately, it is more and more becoming a maxim in my culture that doing things harder, faster, and stronger is always better. Or as the song puts it: “Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger. More than ever, hour after hour.” Although it is important to work hard, when I recently completed a leadership training with a Western keynote speaker who represented a megachurch, I left feeling like a failure who will never measure up to the expectations of leadership in light of my own disabilities and perhaps my church’s collective disabilities.
Jesus did not measure the poor widow’s offering in Mark 12 by how much she offered but by how faithful she was; she decided that the little she had belonged to God. Mark’s gospel invites readers to a renewed perspective and reevaluation. In her book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Ruth Tucker writes page after page about missionaries like William Carey and Hudson Taylor. What is commonly referred to as “the great century of mission” was actually full of “great” missionaries who had many disabilities. Some even faced mental disorders personally and among their families. Still, they lived faithful lives, and that’s what counts in God’s Kingdom.
Third, looking anew into our disabilities deepens our relationship with God and exposes us to his might. That’s what Paul, who experienced God’s loving and powerful grace even more as he pleaded for the removal of his disability or his thorn, shares in 2 Corinthians (especially 12:9-10.) After he gets his answer, which is a “No!”, Paul delights in his disability! Paul was able to navigate into the mystery of his painful human condition, and as a result he totally accepted who he was and even rejoiced in the fact that God had a purpose for his disability after all. Truly, Paul uses the expression “for the sake of (gaining) Christ,” where he is able to receive his weakness as an opportunity “that the power of Christ may rest upon me”. Paul seems content to access God’s strength amid his weakness.
Fourth, and perhaps as a corollary, when we minister out of weakness and suffering, we minister as followers of Christ, the crucified and risen God. As Henri Nouwen, who spent years ministering to the mentally and physically disabled, puts it in his book The Wounded Healer, “our service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak. Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which ministers can make their own wounds available as a source of healing.” We will need the fortitude to go into our communities of faith with vulnerability and openness and to invite people into those communities in order to be wounded healers like our Lord. In a similar vein, Nouwen writes as well about the Christian minister as one who has the courage to embrace his or her insignificance in the modern world as a divine calling that enables them to enter into a profound solidarity with the suffering beneath all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.
I was introduced to the concept of perceived potential by my friend Bill Merrifield. If you’d like to dig deeper into the topic of faith & disability, please check out his video by Bill Merrifield whose ideas helped shape this blog post.
Abed is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at ABTS. He is a member of the Church of the Nazarene and enjoys watching movies, listening to music and taking walks.