A little earlier this morning my sister called and asked what I was doing. I was reluctant to share that I was writing this piece for my blog, but then changed my mind. I flipped my phone camera towards my laptop to show her the photo of her baptism displayed on the screen.
“I’m writing another story,” I told her. “Oh, God?” she asked.
“Well, sort of. This one is about your baptism,” I replied. She was delighted.
“The name of this story is A Tale of Two Churches,” I told her, telling her the word tale is like another word for story.
“The first church in the story is our childhood church in Sutton and the other church is the one you chose to attend when you lived in the group-home in Minden (a town down the road from Sutton). Do you remember?”
“Yes. He [is a] nice man,” she announced with eye cast on Pastor Jerry’s face in the photo.
Hoping to prompt a few thoughts about an event from our early childhood I asked if she remembered sitting in the basement at church? She did.
Searching for more, I asked, “Do you have any idea why we sat in the basement?”
“Dad!” She quickly responded, with a shake of her head. “Dad no do it!” Did I detect a hint of disgust in her voice?
“What wouldn’t dad do,” I asked, nudging her to go on. “Not up with people!”
“Why do you think that?” I had a pretty good idea why, but gave her time to share her own thoughts without suggestions from me. Her next three comments revealed much more than the simple words she articulated.
I let her know her perspective was helpful, but sensed a need to change the conversation to more pleasant memories. Some memories from the past are more pleasant to process than others. I can tell that she is aware of this, also. She asked me to read back to her some of the stories we’d already collected. We reminisced about making doughnuts when I nearly burned down the house and we laughed about making mud pies in the back yard.
A Reformed Theology
When we were children, Vickie and I spent our Sunday mornings in one of two places. We were either at home watching The Lutheran Hour on television in the living room or we were sitting in the basement of the Reformed Church.
Why the basement, you ask?
Before I explain the reason for that, let me introduce you to Vickie. 1
Several months after Vickie was born, mom noticed she wasn’t reaching the same developmental milestones as her friend’s babies. After consulting with specialists they received the devastating diagnosis: your daughter has cerebral palsy. The doctors informed them this was a direct consequence of a very lengthy and difficult birth.
Later we learned dad had refused the doctor’s recommendation for a Caesarean. In retrospect, there’s no way of knowing if this was the precise cause of Vickie’s cerebral palsy. It could just as easily be attributed to the very long days of intense labor or to the aid of forceps used in her delivery. But the story that prevailed was how our father’s stubborn refusal to comply with the doctor’s advice was one of the primary reasons, apart from God’s will, for her disability.
Prophecies blustered forth with god-like certainty. She will never walk. Worst of all, she will not survive into her teen years. A diagnosis of Mental Retardation was added much later to fulfill a requirement for entering into institutional care.
Our father’s religious upbringing caused him to view Vickie’s condition as a deliberate act on God’s part to punish him. Her disability was a chastisement for his sins. I wondered how egregious could the sin of a young father be that God warranted a life-sentence of lameness for my sister. What crime had he committed? Was it marriage to a woman outside of the Reformed church? Was a deep moral lapse of wickedness from his teen years to blame?
Or could it simply be that the unbiblical teaching – that God’s blessing falls only upon the righteous – was to blame? That the sinner, the unrighteous one, deserves what he gets when life falls to pieces? If so, then -every catastrophe, every illness, and every disability, especially my sister’s – this way of thinking, proves to others that God’s favor on our family was lost. God ordained it, and there was no sense contesting it.
Whatever he thought his sin was, we were never told. The guilt was debilitating. Our mother’s shame was humiliating. My sister’s body was embarrassing, a visible reminder of his sin.
It has taken me years to come to terms with what I now believe was an egregious misrepresentation of God’s character. Surely there was a better way of understanding God’s purpose for Vickie’s life.
Reynold’s makes this bold claim, that “disability has theological power” because it forces us to ask the big questions of life.2 But it does even more, and that is what unsettles most of us.
In my own experience, my sister’s disability revealed the deep errors in our church doctrine. It pulled back the curtain on the flaws in our family dynamics. It uncovered the hidden prejudices against the disabled in our small community. It exposed the hypocrisy of our elders who failed to attend to the spiritual needs of one of their own.
On a personal level, my sister’s disability caused me to face my own spiritual disabilities, those thoughts hidden deep in my own heart. It is a painful task – coming to terms with the sin and blackness in our hearts and invisible to others. I wonder, though, if this might be the very reason we justify keeping broken and deformed bodies out of site and away from the sanctified worshipping center?
We’ve been taught how to speak respectfully of those who are different that we are. That is in public spaces, for sure. But our actions often betray our prejudices. I’m aware of a pastor who was overlooked for a full-time position by a search committee because he had a disabled child, with the pretense to protect the congregation’s reputation in the community.
When we come face to face with human frailty and vulnerability, none of us want to be reminded of our human limitations. Whether we like it or not, we have so much more in common with our disabled brothers and sisters in Christ that we care to admit, a topic to explore at another time.
The specialists’ were correct on one count. Vickie has never walked a day in her life. But they were so very wrong on another. She is alive and well today, celebrating nearly 7 decades of life.
When asked about this miracle, she is quick to proclaim with a gaze to the heavens, “God! God knows!” That my friend is the theological power of disability at work.
If, as Jennie Block claims, “the Body of Christ presumes a place for everyone,” what should we do with those who we deem to be different? 3 Should we hide those with disabled bodies or welcome them into our worship centers?
Surely by now, I hope, we all agree that all bodies, all peoples, should be welcome in the worshipping center. But that was not the case for my sister back in the early sixties!
Barriers in the Sixties
Her wheelchair is folded and loaded into the trunk of the car. Vickie lies in the back seat while us four little ones squeeze our bodies around her or fight over a spot on the floor between the front and the back seats. We wait for dad. He was often the last to the car, primping in front of the mirror and persnickety to get his wavy hair just so with the help of hair creme.
Dad loved everything about church. He loved studying the Bible. He especially loved discussing theology in German with Grandpa who lived in town.
I can still hear dad singing or humming one of his favorite songs on Sunday morning, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord!”
The trip to town took only seven miles yet gave us kids plenty of time for grumbling and cramped muscles. The car filled with smoke as mom and dad enjoyed one or two cigarettes on the way.
He’d pull the car up to the north side of the church building and parks. Eight sets of legs untangle from one another and race into the basement. He unloads the wheelchair and places Vickie in it – securing her around her waist with a long belt.
To this day she wears a belt around her waist, even though her electric wheelchair has a molded seat meant to keep her body upright, constraining the curvature of her spine that is fighting against the Harrington rod placed in her back years ago.
As you can see in the photo above, there are about eight steps leading into the sanctuary in the upper level of the building. There were about six or less steps going into the basement where Sunday School classes were held.
Vickie and I attended those classes together. When the SS classes dismissed, I pushed the wheelchair over to the pew in front of the bookshelves. We made ourselves comfortable for the worship hour. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the clamor of classmates and adults as they pass by on their way up the steps into the sanctuary.
I never asked dad why we had to sit in the basement. But, I had my suspicions.
As I grew older, I realized the barrier to gathering with the others in the sanctuary was less about the logistics of getting a wheelchair up the stairs and more about the shame of a disability that reminded the congregation of God’s chastisement for all to see.
But I was surprised by something else: my father’s courage. Yes! It took courage to go against the culture of the fifties and sixties, when disabled children were placed in institutions under the care of strangers.
For all the things he got wrong – and let me tell you there were many – I now see that this is one that he got exactly right!
Vickie was allowed to live in the comfort of her own home – on the farm – with her siblings and parents. This was a bold and daring move on his part.
I wonder now how many well-meaning folks from church criticized the path he took?
How many in the community told him life would be easier for the family if he would swallow his pride and place Vickie elsewhere, out of site, like others have done. That way we could all get on with our lives without this unnecessary burden?
Surely it was precisely this stubborn resistance to the ways things were done in the early sixties that empowered my father with the audacity to bring his daughter to the house of the Lord, even if it meant sitting in the basement!
In his mind, she was his chastisement – but his actions revealed she was truly one of God’s beloved. Actions speak louder than words. I want to believe that in some secret place in his own heart he was already wrestling with a theology gone wrong.
- If you’re new to these stories you can learn more about her in my earlier posts: A Worthy Life , My Sister and Me , and Joys of Milking Time, Part 1 and 2.
- Vulnerable Communion: Theology of Disability and Hospitality, 13.
- Reynolds quotes from page 131 in Block’s book, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities, pg 13