disabling the mystery – Advent reflection (4) Thursday 3rd December 2020

“The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery. We retain the child in us to the extent that we honour the mystery. Therefore, children have open, wide-awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by the mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don’t know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we sense that here we reach the boundary of our being, because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal, and that’s just what we cannot do with the mystery…. Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.”

Bonhoeffer, D. (2012) God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. Westminster John Knox Press, p18

Today is World Disability Awareness Day. In the United Kingdom, there are around 10,000,000 adults (that’s 1 in 5 roughly) who have a recognised disability. Somewhere in the region of 700,000 children have one or more disabilities. In fact, 95% of us will experience disability at one point or another in our lives. I don’t know a single family that is not impacted by disability in one way or another. Our churches too often can be seen as closed doors to those who are disabled or those who have disabled family members. I think of the autistic person who cannot find a space to be themselves, or the person who uses a wheel-chair who has to fight to get access to a decent seat, or an accessible loo (I have no idea why we persist in calling accessible toilets ‘disabled toilets’ – a disabled toiled is a broken one!). I think about the mum or the dad, or the carer, who has had to fight the education system, the care system, the health system and every other system just to have the voice of their child heard, and then finds that the same systems and barriers are present in churches too. A church devoid of people who are disabled or their families is an impoverished church – and it is certainly not the Church that Jesus calls us to be. The powerful picture of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24 is one that reminds us that there is a place for all people in the Family of God, and that we are not ‘full’ unless there is a welcome for those who are disabled.

A church devoid of people who are disabled or their families is an impoverished church – and it is certainly not the Church that Jesus calls us to be. The powerful picture of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24 is one that reminds us that there is a place for all people in the Family of God, and that we are not ‘full’ unless there is a welcome for those who are disabled.

Bonhoeffer’s reading probes one of the reasons we seem to allow the absence of disabled people to continue. Have we lost the mystery, are we too familiar with the wonder of it all, and as a result perhaps we miss the beauty, the power and the possibility of every human life? Perhaps when we lose our sense of mystery, we lose something of our humanity, and when we lose something of our humanity, we lose something of everyone’s humanity. Bonhoeffer visited a community called ‘Bethel’ in 1933. It was situated near Bielefeld – a community whose sole purpose was caring for those who were disabled, or ill, or considered more ‘fragile’ by wider German society. It was a community where pastors, theology students, people who were disabled and many who were not lived together, worshipped together, and loved one another. The visit had a profound impact on him. He wrote about it to his grandmother, saying that his experience there showed him that disabled people revealed something of the true gifts of humanity, dignity and purposes in ways that wider society ignored, forgot or tried to avoid.  The reality of human vulnerability challenged him. I love that – but I want to go further.

Disabled people are not to be objects of our pity. They are not people that we do things ‘to’ or ‘for’… we see a fuller, more beautiful and more complete picture of what it means to be human and what it means to be in community together. Vulnerability is certainly experienced, alongside needs that should be met and challenges that should be faced, but there is also courage, beauty, determination, vivacity, and love.

Disabled people are not to be objects of our pity. They are not people that we do things ‘to’ or ‘for’. The beauty of Bielefeld, or Camp Hill, here on the County Down banks of Belfast Lough is that we see a fuller, more beautiful and more complete picture of what it means to be human and what it means to be in community together. Vulnerability is certainly experienced, alongside needs that should be met and challenges that should be faced, but there is also courage, beauty, determination, vivacity, and love. When we lose the mystery of life, when we label or reduce someone else (or ourselves) to one label – ‘disabled’ or ‘epileptic’ or ‘autistic’ or ‘deaf’ or ‘blind’ or any other thing, we miss the sheer wonder of life, of community and of Christian faith. I have seen mothers deal with the anger and frustration of bringing up a child who is disabled, and yet discover love, faith, courage and hope that is like a rare jewel. I’ve also seen mothers who have had to learn to love their disabled child, or partner or sibling. I’ve seen men who have coped with late onset disability with remarkable courage, and others who have needed time to rant and shout and ask ‘why’. I have spent time with disabled people who are gentle, kind, inquisitive and a delight to be with and I have spent time with disabled people who are resentful, angry and hard to love.

Disability affects different people in different ways. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach. But there is something that unites disabled people, they are made in God’s image and therefore demand respect. Every person, whatever their abilities, disabilities, colour, creed, sexuality, gender or perspective is made in God’s image. When we miss that, we miss the mystery. When we avoid that, we avoid the possibility of a depth of community that is breath-taking. When we keep disabled people at arm’s length, we keep God at arm’s length. Disability is not a problem to be solved or an issue to be debated; it is an invitation to do life ‘with’ those whose outlook is different, but equally important to ours. It is a chance to discover something of the mystery of God, and to be reminded that God has placed the beauty of God’s Presence in each of us. Ministry and Christian community with disabled people is rich and rewarding. It can be challenging and exhausting. It can be beautiful and it can be messy. We encounter God in such community, though, in ways that we simply cannot encounter God when disabled people are missing from our lives or from our churches.

Every person, whatever their abilities, disabilities, colour, creed, sexuality, gender or perspective is made in God’s image. When we miss that, we miss the mystery. When we avoid that, we avoid the possibility of a depth of community that is breath-taking. When we keep disabled people at arm’s length, we keep God at arm’s length

This Advent, we remember the gift of being human. We remember that God stepped into the limitations of a human frame, that God allowed our fragilities, weaknesses and narrowness to confine the Second Person of the Trinity. We remember that the mystery of God’s love is seen in the reality that God shared life with us, that God saw the world through our eyes.

This Advent, we remember the gift of being human. We remember that God stepped into the limitations of a human frame, that God allowed our fragilities, weaknesses and narrowness to confine the Second Person of the Trinity. We remember that the mystery of God’s love is seen in the reality that God shared life with us, that God saw the world through our eyes.

Can we say the same about those around us? Is there a family, a friend, a neighbour or a colleague with whom you can do life more fully?

May we learn to see God in one another and see one another through the lens of God’s compassion – we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.

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