"Don’t ‘dis’ the ability"

May 16, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church ofthe Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 12:7b-10 and Galatians 4:12-14

His gift, as he saw it, was to help children at camp understand what it might be like to be blind. Disabled in this way himself, Ted did an excellent job of leading campers through a variety of exercises to make them more aware of the handicaps of others. There was just one problem, however, pointed out by a youth who had been raised in a home where both her parents were deaf. "In working with handicaps," she told us, "you don’t focus on the disability. Instead, you pay more attention to what a person CAN do, to their abilities." Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The following year, Shepherd’s Spring employed a young woman as pool manager / head lifeguard who had a hearing impairment. Rather than showing the kids what she couldn’t do, she led by example. Her handicap was not an issue. I wonder how many children even knew about it. Her name then was Karen Hanna (now Gonzalez)... The very next summer, an elderly fellow from Florida, Al Brubaker, spent a few weeks at camp as a counselor. Neither his age, nor the fact that he was also blind, disabled his relationship with his campers. They guided him where he couldn’t see, and he led them where they were blind.

"There are varieties of gifts," the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the church at Corinth. From those words he launched into a litany of abilities given by God to various persons in that fellowship, from the greatest on down to the least of them. In fact, Paul wrote, the gifts of those persons considered by some to be the least, perhaps even as an embarrassment, were in reality perhaps the greatest, the most important, to be treated with more respect.

It’s interesting that Paul should say these things to that group of believers in particular. If anything, the church in Corinth was what we might today label as "dysfunctional." Highly dysfunctional, in fact. When Paul called the church of Jesus Christ a "body," he was writing to people who were anything but. The "joints" of that fellowship didn’t fit together. Their eyes were crossed, so to speak. One leg stepped forward, the other back. The hands worked (literally) ‘in spite of’ each other. They were hardly a functional body. Mind you, this gathering of believers was composed of some highly creative, gifted persons. But they couldn’t see past their dysfunction, their disability as a church to see the ways God was functioning in them, the abilities God was creating in them.

Paul was no dummy when it came to disabilities. He knew his own very well. It’s in the second letter he wrote to the Corinthians (in the section John read earlier) that we catch a glimpse of his handicap. Mind you, it’s only a brief mention, because his purpose was not to focus upon what he couldn’t do, but what, through God’s involvement in his life, he could do. He wasn’t out to ‘dis’ his ability, so much as to lift up what God was doing in and through that very handicap.

The story behind his words was one of people "diss-ing" his ability as an apostle, questioning that he had anything from God worth saying, doubting his credentials, writing him off as a ‘has-been’ or, worse, a ‘nobody.’ Paul knew better. In his letter, he laid his resume on the table for all to see. Even as he did so, however, he wrote that such things didn’t really matter, that it was an exercise in foolishness. So what if he had his degree from seminary? Who cares if he came from the right family? What does it really matter, even, what experiences he’s had along the way? All these things don’t make him any better or worse than anyone else. Even the spiritual stuff. He wrote of his "visions and revelations," of being "caught up into paradise" - things he didn’t want to boast about, even though they were significant to his spiritual journey.

In the middle of laying his credentials on the line, Paul also revealed his handicap. He called it "a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan." We really don’t know what disability he was talking about, because he didn’t go into detail. Scholars have speculated over the years as to what it was, some thinking it a speech impediment which hampered his preaching, others believing it to be poor eyesight. "See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand," he mentioned elsewhere, leading us to wonder if he was, indeed, partially blind, or perhaps having some muscular disease.

A few have even suggested that Paul struggled with some mental impairment, perhaps depression. Would this have disqualified him as an apostle? Some of the most creative minds in history were also hampered in this way. Many people back then would have seen this as a sign of God’s disfavor, just like many would today. Is that right, however? Whatever his handicap was (and his "thorn in the flesh" might have been something totally different - we just don’t know), Paul didn’t ‘dis’ his ability, he didn’t focus upon his own insuffiencies. Instead, he turned toward the sufficiency of God’s grace, toward the power of God that was made perfect in his weakness.

I like how Peterson paraphrases these words of Paul. Listen! "...so I wouldn't get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn't think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, "My grace is enough; it's all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness."

"Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size - abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become." (from The Message)

In the fourth chapter of another letter, this one to the Galatians, Paul wrote again of his disability, but in a way that slightly shifted the focus. Like in his note to the Corinthians, there were individuals in Galatia who were calling his ministry into question, complicating the simple gospel he first preached by adding all sorts of restrictions to the faith. His letter was a call back to the essentials, reminding them of his first visit, and how they received him then. He wrote: "As you know, it was because of an illness, an infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you. Even though my condition tried to get in the way, you didn’t despise or scorn me, you didn’t let yourself get revolted by my disease. No, you welcomed me as though I were an angel of God, or even as though I were Christ Jesus himself." (4:13-14)

An interesting choice of words! Elsewhere, Paul wrote of his thorn in the flesh as if it were a "messenger" or "angel" of Satan. Here, he described people who welcomed him, even with his infirmity, as an "angel" or "messenger" of God. There are, indeed, angels among us. The question becomes, then and now: how do we move from ‘dis’-ing the ability to recognizing the presence of God’s power in the life of others, especially those labeled as disabled? Or to put it differently: how do we shift, and help others to shift, from seeing handicaps as "messengers" or "angels of Satan," to see those who struggle with them as "angels" or "messengers of God?"

Mind you, I’m not encouraging us to start a cult of worshiping at the altar of disability, focusing upon the handicaps of others as if they were gifts of God. I don’t believe illness is God’s will. I bet if you ask any person with a handicap, they’d love to be rid of it, if they could - even if they’ve made their peace with it. The point is, a person with a handicap is not a handicapped person. Their disability is not who they are. I’m not trying to be "politically correct" here. I don’t care about the semantics. I do care what we might miss if we don’t welcome such a person as if they were "an angel of God," and seek out the message they bring.

Case in point. I’ve already mentioned Karen Gonzalez. I believe she has been given a wonderful gift from God in her ability to communicate with her hands and her body, through signing. At Debbie Hildebrand’s memorial service, she helped us do something we (who can hear very well) couldn’t do when she interpreted a song in sign language. She was a messenger of God. Am I right? I believe there are angels among us, and some of them are friends in flesh and blood.

What of the others around us? I don’t wish to embarrass Betty Chenowith, but we need her here with us in her wheelchair, as much she needs to be here with us. Yes, multiple sclerosis has robbed her of much, a thorn in the flesh, I’m sure. However, she is much more than her disability. How have we been receiving this "messenger of God?" Her window on the world is her telephone, which is next to her most of the time. I’ve wondered if she shouldn’t become a more central part of our prayer chain, or other phone ministry, truly a "messenger of God."

I guess I’m talking about a step beyond making our church handicap accessible, as important as that is. Praise God for our sound system, with its sound loop. Praise God, also, for Bill Albright’s renewed sense of call as a "messenger" to get men out of bed on a Saturday morning to listen to God and each other over breakfast... Praise God for our large print hymnals, even though Sharon Pinkas has made us aware of their inadequacy for persons like herself. Praise God, also, that she had the gumption to take a turn at teaching our junior youth, sharing God’s good news message which cannot be dimmed by poor eyesight.

The truth is - we’re all disabled in some way. For many of us it’s part of the natural process of aging. Certain abilities weaken. Other impairments may flow from different sources. In some way, shape, or fashion, each of us is disabled. The point is, however: don’t ‘dis’ the ability that is also there in each of us. Our focus should not be upon the handicaps. If anything, these disabilities just keep us humble, i.e. grounded, connected, aware of our limitations such that we might also become more aware of God’s gifts in and around us.

For your information, the words to our first hymn this morning were written by Fannie Crosby. This remarkable woman wrote nearly 9,000 hymns in the course of her life, in addition to being involved in a vibrant inner-city mission. All this in spite of the fact that she was blind from the age of six weeks. Responding with our offerings, we sang a verse of Charlotte Elliott’s hymn, "Just as I am." In her 82 years of life she cheered many with her poetry and hymns, even though she was limited to a wheelchair at age 32. Our final hymn, "Make me a captive, Lord," was written by George Mattheson, an outstanding Scottish minister and scholar who became blind when he was 18. Let me remind you, again, that the second verse of this hymn refers to a clock which is not powered by a battery (remember those?). "It has no spring of action sure -- it varies with the wind" (not wind).

Don’t ‘dis’ the ability. Don’t focus upon what you can’t do. Instead, emphasize what, through God’s involvement in your life, you can do.

1999Peter L. Haynes

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page