a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church
October 10, 2021
Scripture – Psalm 22:1-11, 22-27 NRSV
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2O my God,
I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
3Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8“Commit your cause to the Lord; let God deliver— let God rescue the one in whom God delights!”
9Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
22I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation
I will praise you:
23You who feel the awe of the Lord, praise God! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify God;
stand in awe of God, all you offspring of Israel!
24For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
The Lord did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him. 25From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who feel the awe of the Lord God.
26The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord God shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever! 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before the living God.
What do you think of when you think of the word, “disability?” It is, in many ways a negative word and perhaps – unless you have trained yourself to think otherwise – negative images or thoughts may come. It isn’t that we want to “hate on” those who some describe as “disabled.” We are surely more mature, more loving, more Christian that that, right?
So we have tried to change our language to change our thoughts. We have used terms like, “differently- abled.” I strive to always identify someone as a “person with…” to emphasize they are a full person even if they may not be able to do some things. This morning I want to look at this whole issue and also confess I may not always use the most up-to-date correct terms for persons who face such challenges.
Five or ten years ago I started using the second Sunday in October to bring attention to what the United Church of Christ calls “Access Awareness and Disability Sunday.” When I started this I looked for a graphic to use on the cover of the bulletin and came across this word you see on our bulletin today: “diversability.” I loved the word – for me it reminds me that every person has differing abilities and perhaps all of us have “disabilities” when compared to someone else.
For example: in a foot race with Carl Lewis, I am comparatively disabled. In a golf match with, well pretty much anyone, I am comparatively disabled, how much more so with a Tiger Woods? Although maybe if he was as injured as he was a few months ago, I might have a chance… nah! He could use a putter for every stroke and probably beat me. So that’s the first reality.
The second is that statistics show that in the United States 1 in 5 people have a disability. I didn’t check to see how they defined that because I think that may be low… I have a vision disability: I can’t see past my nose without contact lenses or glasses. Many people have hearing aids – I don’t know if that is considered part of that 1 in 5. How many of us have “less ability” at things like running or golf or common sense, even, when compared to others? I don’t say any of this to lessen or demean anyone especially those facing profound challenges. What I want to do is begin to claim this theological truth: No matter what challenges a person may face in terms of a “disability” or a “lesser ability,” it does not mean they are forsaken by God, that this was a punishment from God for them or for someone who loves them, especially not that person’s parents! It does not mean that it was “given” to that person by God for some benefit for them or for anyone else. That is manipulative behavior not loving behavior and I reject any implication that God uses manipulation rather than love. Let me put it plainly: I do not believe in a God who makes someone suffer to teach a lesson to them or to anyone who loves them or anyone else.
Let me turn to the Psalm and point out what I hear the writer saying as we consider how we respond to these things as people who believe in a loving God, not a manipulative, sadistic God. The writer begins with a cry of abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Most of us recognize that Jesus repeated these words from the cross according to Mark and Matthew’s Gospels. The writer adds these painful words: “you are so far from helping me, I cry out but you do not answer me.” Truly these are words of pain. As I hear these words, what I want to say is that, while I am proclaiming God does not forsake us, or those who are suffering, I do not want to lessen, or ignore that many, many people have felt forsaken, felt unheard and unanswered by God in their time of suffering.
But I take hope in the way the words of the writer soon turn to a faith statement: “Yet you are holy God, you are enthroned on the praises of our ancestors.” This is for me a word of hope – a recognition that when we experience great suffering people have found hope in their faith and have heard the testimonies of God’s people in Scripture and in life who have been able to praise God in the face of their pain or the pain they feel on behalf of others. For me the hope is that we as people of faith can do everything we can to make sure that people do not feel forsaken, that they know someone is there for them and in being there we bring the holy presence of God in the flesh.
The Psalm writer then goes on to express that they are feeling worthless and that others mock and “make mouths” at them – a colloquialism that surely makes sense even to us more than 30 centuries later? How often do those who are seen as “disabled” suffer because others make them feel worthless or because of their heartless and ignorant taunts, or even facial expressions of their negative feelings? Here for me is the horrible side of social media. People feel free to abuse others for the smallest of things and the biggest of things taunting, hating, expressing horrible judgments on others – because they can do it relatively anonymously – or worse they can score point with others who think like them. May we never given in to this even in the divisions that we may all feel in this day and age.
Here’s the way the Psalm writer concludes: an expression of faith that God was with them “since birth.” “On you I was cast since birth, you are my God.” And the prayer “do not be far from me,” and then the promise that the writer will praise God and invite others to join in the praises. Finally the hope for a day when all who hunger will eat and that all will one day worship God.
All this for me leads me back to the way I understand the word, “diversability.” For me it is an expression of faith to say that every one has abilities – diverse and different – that make it possible for us to give praise to the Creator. I would say that even someone we think cannot “do” anything can give praise and inspire others to give praise to God, regardless of whether they have the ability to even speak.
In Jacksonville we had a family who had two adopted daughters. The first daughter was a young teenager, born with spina bifida and other challenges – I think perhaps multiple sclerosis. I know that she had seizures that were life threatening. She was confined to a wheelchair and could not speak. It was hard to tell how much communication to her she could understand. She faced many difficulties. But here’s what I remember. I remember she almost always had a wonderful smile on her face, although her body was bent and confined to a wheelchair and she could speak a word. I remember that her father kept a journal on Facebook – one of the positive uses of social media – of all the places he took her camping and exploring. Even though she was almost as tall as him and probably weighed over a hundred pounds there were times he would strap her to his back like a little baby and hike into the wilderness so she could experience wonderful things. Amazing father!
I remember one worship where she taught me a powerful lesson. I know I was tempted to feel pity and even sorry for her and for her family and the challenges she faced. But one Christmas Eve as we were preparing for service, we had a video of the youth group at an activity I believe – and she was included whenever she could go – and it was set to some beautiful music as I remember. We were all sitting in our places and as the video began to play Kalissa, that was her name, she had a motorized wheelchair so she could get around on her own some, wheeled out of the row where she was sitting with her family, and went to the front of the sanctuary to the foot of the chancel where there were steps like we have. She began to shout as if she were singing along with the music, and laugh, and twirl her chair, dancing if you will lifting her arms and pointing at the screen where she could see her friends and herself. It was an unforgettable moment. The congregation broke into applause and many were in tears, tears of joy and awe and amazement! We had learned something about praising God.
You can call it what you want. I call it praise. I call it praise from someone whose ability to praise taught me what praise really is. Taught me that praise isn’t limited to having good things or being perfect or anything else other than celebrating the life that God gives and the love, friendship, and faith that make that all worthwhile. Kalissa taught me a whole lot that evening and I will never forget it. Mostly she taught me that she was not forsaken no matter how difficult I might think her life was. She taught me that if she could celebrate and dance and praise God[ if you will forgive the triple negative statement ], I have no reason not to believe that no one is ever forsaken by the God of love.
“Those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” Disabled? Not Kalissa. Diversability? She was most definitely that. Thank God and Allelujah. AMEN.