Physical Limitations should never isolate someone from worship of God.
It took four weeks of Bible Study for me to finally get the message. Several women in the study were having trouble hearing. They couldn’t hear each other. They couldn’t hear me when I turned away from them toward another group. When one person dropped out and the others admitted the difficulty, I don’t think they were prepared for my reaction.
I was distressed. I probably embarrassed them, but I felt strongly about the matter. “We can do something about this,” I told them. “Let’s work it through. What do we, as a group, need to do in order for everyone to hear?”
Of all people, I should understand the frustration of a disability prohibiting me from engaging fully in worship or Bible study. I fully support the use of PowerPoint projections in worship services. On the other hand, before my eye surgery, I couldn’t see the images. I love to sing. I love God’s people. I love the act of worship. It frustrated me no end that I had to stand there in silence or fake the words while everyone else worshiped God with ease. I felt conspicuous. Church members know I love to sing; in fact, I lead worship once a month. I persistently worried that people would wonder why I wasn’t singing/ Did I have an attitude problem? Was I mad at my husband that day?
I could sit in the second row if I needed to see, some might argue. Would you want to sit in the second row behind the deacons when everybody else sits in the back third of the church? Besides, it wouldn’t help. The glare was too much, I got a crick in my neck, and too often, video slides are white lettering on light backgrounds, impossible for a visually impaired person to see at any distance. I could use my low vision aid called a monocular. It’s good for quick scans but not ten minutes of staring at a screen. I don’t want to be distracting to other worshipers. Okay, Okay, I don’t want to look weird and stand out. Pride? Yes, I suppose. Picky? Grumpy? Am I being difficult? What would you do?
I could stand there and be happy that worship was meaning something to someone and pray that all the other worshipers were being blessed. I’m sorry but that’s about as calloused as telling someone whose father just died that “you shouldn’t be sad because he’s in a better place.” I want to worship God too! I want to be a part of the group. Don’t leave me out!
In my more grumpy moments, I would mutter, “No one should be prohibited from worshiping God because of a disability.”
My cantankerous attitude is not God honoring. But the words were true. No one should be excluded from fellowship, worship, or Bible study because of a disability.
So what do we do?
It’s a dual responsibility. The church needs to step up to the plate to make worship and community possible. The person with the disability needs to do their share to help the church help them. Both need to extend grace.
Those of us with special needs need to admit our weaknesses. That’s what being real is about! This is a team effort. The church can’t do anything if they don’t know about the problem. That’s hard, I know. We don’t want to admit we’re struggling. We don’t want to be a burden or a distraction. But the Church is the body of Christ. We are commanded to care for each other.Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Beyond that, we want to. It’s inbred into the Church DNA to work together and care for each other so we can stand strong for Christ. Like 1 Corinthians 12;26 says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
If someone else was struggling, most of us would be more than happy to help. As my vision deteriorated last year, I finally admitted to two friends that I couldn’t tell which Communion cups were full. Both women took turns to seek me out and sit by me so they could hand me a Communion cup as it was passed. Both of them handled it with dignity and respect. I never had to ask a second time.
Many fixes, like handing someone a communion cup, are easy. Some accessibility changes, like grab bars in the bathroom or a sign for handicapped parking, will cost money but in the scheme of things, most adaptations are low cost. Most compensations often bless the entire congregation. My Bible study group rearranged the tables and vowed we would all speak up more clearly. We sensed a new level of camaraderie as we scooted our chairs closer together.
Some churches are too small or are simply not equipped to handle the high level needs of a multi-handicapped child, yet I’ve heard of families leaving a church in anger because the church didn’t make enough allowances for the child in the Sunday School classroom. Yes, the church does need to step beyond its comfort zone to learn how to meet those needs but like with anything, we might hit the limits of what we are able to do. Such a situation will take a lot of commitment, prayer, and planning from the church leadership and much graciousness, honesty, and cooperation from the disabled person or the parents of the disabled child.
When we first came to our current ministry, I found great joy each Sunday morning in seeing a line of four wheelchairs at the back of the auditorium. We called it the wheelchair brigade. The church had even taken out a pew, put the sound board at one end, and left the rest of the space open for wheelchairs. Harold proffered to transfer to a pew so he would feel part of the congregation. During the closing song, Tom the usher always brought Harold his wheelchair and helped him into it so Harold wouldn’t get caught in the exit of other worshipers.
That line-up sent two powerful messages. First these four people were willing to overcome their own personal discomforts to be present with God’s people every Sunday. Second, this was a congregation that welcomed and made it possible for those four people to be there. Any number of people brought our four wheelchair bound folks coffee and bulletins, sat beside them, made it possible to feel useful, and engaged them in conversation just as if they were anyone else. That’s community!