May 26, 2019 – Engaging Others

Text:  Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5

 

Every once in a while we encounter those who are different from us, and it’s up to us how to respond. In most cases, we don’t have to engage others. They come and go, and we are busy minding our own business. We pass them by like driving through intersections – we pay attention to other cars around us no more than what’s required to keep us safe. As long as we can continue living the life we have known, we don’t mind spending a little extra time interacting with others. We can get to know them, and even befriend them as long as our personal boundary or our life style is guaranteed.

There are other cases, however, when we are forced to engage difference if the otherness exists within an intimate circle of relationship like family. There is no greater school to learn about differences than family. In other words, if anyone knows how to engage with one another’s differences in family, they know how to do intercultural ministries. Family is where we can learn what it means to be living in a diverse community. There is not a single person in the world who does the same as we do, thinks the same as we do, and feels the same as we do. Even identical twins develop their differences to the point that one can wonder if they share anything.

Intercultural ministries require a deeper understanding of who we are as people beyond superficial engagement based on our appearances. It can be a ground-breaking experience when we meet a whole new world through the depth and width of experiences of another person. This profoundly spiritual work requires openness and vulnerability. We rarely experience it because we’re afraid to be touched by the gifts others would bring to us. When it does happen to us, we don’t always recognize it.

It did happen to me last summer when I was in Oshawa, Ontario attending the 43rd General Council of the United Church. The 7 day of worship and meeting, discerning God’s call to the church, brought more than 500 people together from across Canada and around the world. I was there as one of the worship leaders. The highlight of the entire gathering for me was what I received from two amazing people. Both of them live with cerebral palsy, a physical disability that impacts their mobility as well as their speech.

Rev. Miriam Spies preached at the opening worship service. Her sermon was the most powerful, prophetic and compelling sermon I’ve ever heard. Miriam represents the United Church on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. Out of her ample ecumenical experiences, Miriam began talking about how the people she met in Palestine showed her how crucial hope was to life. “They do not have the luxury of despair. To live in that land, surrounded by walls and checkpoints, while holding onto the keys to the homes before 1948, is to hope.” Miriam continued preaching on why the church must go back to its radical calling to act with humility and vulnerability in service and love just like Jesus did to his dear friends in the upper room, washing, blessing, breaking, pouring, and sharing. It wasn’t just what she said, but who she was and who she was representing to the highest decision making body that struck me most. More precisely, it was the combination of her prophetic voice and her body. Because of her cerebral palsy, Miriam provided the text while preaching. She spoke slowly, weighing every single word with grace, love and compassion. Inevitably the audience listened carefully with the same attitude and spirit. As I reflect on why her sermon made a huge impact on me, I realize that it’s an image of God Miriam represented and embodied that challenged me, and eventually reshaped my image of God – from abled to disabled, from powerful to vulnerable.

Representation matters. I have seldom heard persons with disability preaching in my entire life. That says about two things: how ableism exists within the church, and what kind of theology informs such practice.

One example of ableism in the church I want to share with you also took place during the General Council. On the last night of the gathering something unexpected happened, which turned out to be transforming the church. An intercultural observer, Paul Wallfall was calling on the whole church to recognize that racism exists in our church. His powerful reflection was followed by a profound act of truth-telling from the racialized folks – both ministers and the laity – sharing their own experiences of racism in the society and in our church. It was when almost two hours passed the promised time for dinner, and when most of the people in the room were exhausted that one person pointed out how not only racism but also ableism existed in the court. She was speaking the hard truth that how people during the General Council were reluctant to sit down with one of the 10 Moderator nominees, the only nominee with cerebral palsy – some people came to him saying how beautiful his speech was, but none of them was actually willing to spend time with him. Colin Phillips, the Moderator nominee came up to the microphone and shared the sad truth – people were scared that they couldn’t even know how to engage him. It was clear how ableism within the people, including myself, in the room hindered creating an authentic conversation with Colin that could have changed their perceptions.

Theology matters as it informs our actions. So, we must examine and deconstruct theologies that are informing an act of excluding others based on race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical ability. Ableism is the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. It is much more than a matter of accessibility. As a people of faith, we must challenge our beliefs and assumptions based on a certain image of God who is so abled that there is nothing God can’t do. That is actually problematic. For, this all-knowing and all-powerful image of God can put us in a very arrogant position that those of us who are abled feel the need to fix what deems to be not normal in the name of the same God. That is a daily struggle of various people with various kinds of disabilities.

Damon Rose shared one of many encounters when he was approached by Christians who wanted to pray for him to be healed. Damon said, while they may be well-intentioned, these encounters often leave him feeling judged as faulty and in need of repair. Since he became blind as a teenager this has been a regular. He shared one such encounter when he was on the London underground. The train was packed full of people all studiously ignoring each other when a man put his hand on his shoulder and asked if he could pray for his sight to be restored. Normally when people offer to pray for him to be healed, he says ‘No’. But this man told him that he was a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who had himself been healed by prayer. Damon got the sense that he really needed him to let him pray over him, so he said ‘Yes’ and let him lay his hands upon him. Damon can’t claim to be cured of blindness as a result of his prayer, but he will never forget how happy and grateful the man appeared to be. To Damon it felt like the roles had been reversed, and that it was the disabled man during the encounter who had given out a dose of healing.

Miriam Spies also has many encounters of random people approaching her saying “I will pray for you” or “Bless you.” In those moments, she said, she is seen as someone to be pitied or in need of healing. Often they leave so quickly that she can’t explain how she doesn’t believe in curing disability, nor does she think God does. She believes that disability is part of God’s vast array of creation and she is as beloved and gifted by God’s grace as they are. When others cannot affirm this, she feels belittled and used. Yet, she had a different experience with Pope Francis. While she was in Geneva, the Pope made a visit to the meeting she was attending. The Pope delivered his sermon, followed by his personal greeting with some individuals. Miriam was invited to do so at his request. Pope Francis held out his hand with a warm smile, and after hearing from her, said, “Pray for me.” He saw Miriam as a sister on the same pilgrimage of justice and peace, where they are called to pray and work together.

That is the vision John, the Apostle saw as a new heaven and a new earth. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” A city is a powerful image for his vision because a city is designed for every resident to work together for the common good. It is where we learn to live interdependently as equal and full participants in the creation of a just society for all, just like a family. “See, the home of God is among mortals.” In this vision, there is no double standard, and there is no room for indifference or ignorance toward others only a radical affirming and celebrating God’s creation that is diverse and beautiful just as it is.

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  1.  https://broadview.org/i-worry -to-show–we-use-people how-diverse-we-are-but-then-ignore-their-struggles/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk
  3.  https://broadview.org/the-moment-the-pope-asked-me-to-pray-for-him/