Invalid: “One who is incapacitated by illness or disability”
In-valid: “Null; Not legally or factually valid”
“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids — blind, lame and paralyzed” (John 5:3).
“Daddy, am I handicapped?” our daughter, Stephanie, asked one day when she was 8 years old. “Who told you that?” we asked, defenses rising. “The kids,” she replied, “at church.”
In her book, The Disabled God, the late Nancy Eiesland wrote of herself and other persons with special needs: “Resurrection is not about the negation or erasure of our disabled bodies in hopes of perfect images, untouched by physical disability; rather Christ’s resurrection offers hope that our nonconventional, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the imago Dei and that God, whose nature is love and who is on the side of justice and solidarity, is touched by our experience. God is changed by the experience of being a disabled body. This is what the Christian hope of resurrection means.”
The Gospels are full of stories about persons with special needs; some are healed, others are not. Matthew’s Gospel says of Jesus: “Sufferers from every kind of illness, racked with pain, possessed by devils, epileptic, or paralysed, were all brought to him, and he cured them.” Yet St. Paul tells us that he “begged God three times” to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but to no avail. Jesus heals many people with special needs; others he invites to come as they are to God’s Great Banquet as if they really belonged there. And turns out they do!
I was once on a program with musician, prophet, poet, blind man Ken Medema at a church-related college somewhere in the American South. At the opening session, Medema walked to the piano and started singing about nukes and narcissism, about peace, justice and American materialism. By the time I got up to speak Ken had sung something to alienate almost everyone present. That night, at a student dialogue, several students confessed their anger at him for his political views and religious radicalism. One even admitted feeling guilty about such anger because Ken was … blind.
What the student meant, I think, was that like some New Testament counterparts, we tend to judge disabled people by their condition, not imagining that they should have political or theological opinions, let alone controversial ones. Ken Medema remains a liberated Christian person. He may be blind, but he’s not sightless; rather, he sees, knows and tells, even when it is dangerous, and controversial.
Human beings need not have everything cured to be whole. As Candyce Leonard continually reminds me, since none of us is divine, we are all persons with special needs — “earthen vessels,” as St. Paul says. The gospel may not alleviate those needs or the realities that inevitably accompany them; it makes no promise of that. But it must provide the grace for confronting those actualities, especially in those whose special needs are most acute.
Too often, Christian tradition has fostered a theology of normalization, getting people into physical, mental and spiritual “normalcy” ASAP. Thus our faith communities are relatively good with immediate crises — things we can get people through, restored to some type of stability. But those with special needs cannot be normalized so readily. They reflect chronic conditions may never be cured, although a high degree of healing may occur. The church must commit to them as they are for the long haul.
Nancy J. Lane writes that sometimes in religious communities, “Healing is expected to change the person who has a disability into one who does not. The burden of healing is placed totally on the person who is disabled, causing further suffering and continued alienation from the Church.”
At best, churches can offer a safe place where special needs persons and their families may confront the reality of their situations, venting, when necessary, their joys and angers, frustrations and celebrations with honesty and without guilt. Sometimes there is praise, sometimes rage. Always there is the certainty of long-term caregiving and daily struggle, along with the incessant questions required of the people of God: What do persons with special needs teach the church about the nature of God and the reality of suffering? Is there a difference in viewing their lives as gifts of God and in viewing their disabilities as God-given gifts?
Nancy Eiesland wrote, “For people with disabilities, … experiences of physical redemption and ordinary inclusion are rare.” She concluded that the attempt “to recover the hidden history of people with disabilities and to restore our bodies within the church is our conversion to the disabled God.”
Such radical grace demands that our response to and with special needs persons must expand the church’s own boundaries so that we don’t just find them, but they find us. As a woman in our Winston-Salem, N.C., congregation says when our daughter works the Sunday crowd: “Certainly Stephanie needs us, but we need her too.” It seems that special needs are indeed a two-way street.