Wednesday, July 29, 2009

“Disadvantages”?

2 Cor. 8:7-15; Mk. 5:21-43[1]

Those who live with handicaps in our society are treated like misfits—at best. [2] Most of us don’t want to have to deal with them because they’re not “normal.”[3] I know a little about this because of my brother Douglas. He was born with a mental handicap in a time before our culture discovered that we should have a “conscience” regarding the handicapped. As a boy, I think I felt what everybody who cared about him felt—grief and compassion for his difficulty, mixed with embarrassment that he was not “normal,” mixed with resentment toward those who made fun of him.

One of the regrets I have about his recent death is that it took me so long to discover that Douglas was indeed not just “normal”—he was a gift.[4] But what I feel most of all is grateful. I am grateful for the gift that God gave to us in him. In a very real sense, he was one of those special people that God puts on earth to fulfill the promise of making all things new—the promise of making all things into God’s kingdom of mercy and peace.

Like the “Sower” in the parable who sows the seeds of the kingdom wherever he goes, those who took the time to see Douglas for who he was went away from that encounter with the seeds of Christ’s compassion growing inside them. And like the proverbial leaven that works its way throughout the dough and forever changes it, all who opened their hearts to Douglas could not help but be more sensitive toward the suffering all around them. It was not we who sought to care for Douglas who blessed him—it was he who blessed us.

In a very real sense, I believe that people like Douglas embody the presence of Christ in this world.[5] In his weakness Douglas was a true saint—simply by being who he was, a vulnerable, needy, frail human being, he pointed us all to the kingdom of God.[6] I also think Douglas—again by his very being—presented a challenge to all of us who claim to follow Christ. In this society where the weak and the vulnerable—the “abnormal”—are routinely ignored, people like Douglas are the presence of Christ, calling us to cut through all our religious verbiage and do more to show God’s love to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).[7]

I am grateful for having had that challenge. In that respect, my brother was one of the most influential people in my life—and I am a much better human being for it. You did your work very well, Doug. I am grateful—grateful for the privilege of having Douglas for a brother—for the gift that he was, for the presence of Christ that he was, for the blessing he gave to us, and for the challenge he gave me to care for the “least” among us.

How does all this apply to us? I think it’s easy for small churches these days to feel as if we are up against insurmountable odds. We may find ourselves feeling “weak,” “disadvantaged,” or even “handicapped” in comparison with our larger counterparts. But I wonder if small churches ought not to learn a lesson from my brother. Among all the “movers and shakers” I’ve encountered in my life, the one who had the most impact, the one who shaped me most significantly, the one who left the most lasting impression in my soul, was my brother Douglas. I’ve studied with professors who were world-class theologians. I’ve known many pastors and missionaries and church leaders over the last thirty years. But it was my brother, who was born with minimal brain damage, who suffered from temporary hearing loss as a young child, who struggled to learn even the most basic concepts in school, and who eventually was stricken with schizophrenia, who was the true “mover and shaker” in my life![8]

Perhaps those of us who live and serve in small churches need to take a clue from that. It’s not just the biggest and the most visible and the richest churches who have the potential to be “movers and shakers” in the lives around us. Small communities of Christians just like us also have that opportunity. In one sense, we might say that we in the small churches have the opportunity to emulate our Savior Jesus Christ, “who was rich and became poor” for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9). Perhaps instead of seeing our “handicaps” as “disadvantages,” we should see learn to see them as powerful avenues of influence.

Make no mistake about it: I do not think that disability is to be celebrated. It is clear that God’s will is for those who suffer to be “well” and “go in peace” (cf. Mk. 5:34).[9] But the fact is that God often works more effectively through the “disabilities” of the “weak” and the “handicapped” than through the talents and resources of the strong and powerful. Just as Jesus spoke reassuringly to the father who loved his child, so also I think he would say to us, “do not fear, only believe” (cf. Mk. 5:36).



[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/28/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] This sermon incorporates some of the text of the Eulogy I delivered at Douglas’ funeral on May 18, 2009.

[3] Cf. Harold W. Wilke, “Mainstreaming the Alienated” in The Christian Century (Mar. 23, 1977): 272, who acknowledges this history of “keeping people ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 186, who points out that “we do not see the handicapped person; we only see the handicap.”

[4] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved, where he recounts his experience of caring for a man named Adam Arnett at the Daybreak community in Toronto.

[5] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 126-29, where he argues that Jesus’ presence is to be found among “the least of these” according to Matt. 25:40; Cf. also Burton Cooper, “The Disabled God,” in Theology Today 49(July 1992): 176 “Jesus on the cross is God disabled, made weak and vulnerable to worldly powers because of the perfection of divine love.”

[6] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7, where he says that the poor and the powerless possess a “primordial saintliness” in that they “fulfill the primordial purpose of creation: God’s call to live and give life to others, even in the midst of catastrophe.” I think the same may be said of the “disabled.”

[7] Cf. Lewis B. Smedes, “Can God Reach the Mentally Disabled?” in Christianity Today (Mar 5, 2001):94, says that the mentally “disabled” “have the kind of faith that moved Jesus to say, ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”

[8] Cf. J. Robert Nelson, “Challenging ‘Disabled Theology’” The Christian Century (Dec. 2, 1981): 1244-45; he quotes Gerald Moede, the former General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, as saying that the “disabled” “are the trustees of a blessing without which the church cannot bless the world.”

[9] Cf. Gerald Moede, “God's Power and Our Weakness,” Princeton, NJ:Consultation on Church Union, 1982.

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