By Rev. Christopher Chandler

Rev Chris ChandlerIn the preface to Living Gently in a Violent World, John Swinton challenges us to rethink an aspect of our worldview when he shares the story of Angela.  In this excerpt, he gives us an insider’s view into the “strange world of disability”.

Over the past few years those of us involved in practical theology at the University of Aberdeen have worked alongside people with disabilities in various forms of participator research. This research is designed to help us work through key issues relating to disability, theology, church and society, and to explore the meaning of lives lived well with disability. Part of our work has involved listening carefully to the stories of people with disabilities. As we have been drawn into the “strange world of disability” and learned how to hear the transforming narratives people have shared with us, our understandings and perspectives, values and expectations have changed.

A couple of years ago I was teaching a course on pastoral care. . . . The class was made up of people with differing backgrounds and perspectives. Among these was one person who had no sight and another who was profoundly deaf and spoke through an interpreter. At one point in the class, people were sharing their various spiritual experiences. The woman who was deaf, Angela, began to tell us about a dream she’d had.  In that dream she had met with Jesus in heaven. She and Jesus talked for some time, and she said she had never experienced such peace and joy. “Jesus was everything I had hoped he would be, “ she said. “And his signing was amazing!”

For Angela, heaven’s perfection did not involve being, “healed” of her deafness. Rather, it was a place where the social, relational and communication barriers that restricted her life in the present no longer existed.  What had been a “disability” now became the norm; that which had led to exclusion, anxiety, separation and loss of opportunity now became the precise mode in which Jesus addressed her.

Certainly, this isn’t the story of everyone with a disability. There are people with various special needs who long for the day they will meet Jesus face to face, and be healed and restored. I know one young man with Asperger’s syndrome, I will call him Michael, who during his elementary years would cry himself to sleep, yearning with every fiber of his being to be “normal,” crying for acceptance. It is this cry that led Jean Vanier to say, “Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” 

Something to think about.

More coming next week from the “Living Gently in a Violent World” lecture series by Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, delivered in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 2008.