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The New Image of Disability

[Note: This homily was given at a worship service during a retreat at Montreat Conference Center, Montreat, North Carolina, in November, 2002. The theme of the retreat was “Foundations of Mutuality: Beyond Us and Them.”]

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Colossians 3:9-11

We have spoken a lot this weekend about images of disability: images of disability in the Bible, in society, in our congregations. But we also need to confront the most powerful image of all: the image we have of ourselves as someone who is disabled.

An incident that occurred several years ago, as insignificant as it was, has never left my memory. I was approaching the entrance to a museum when I saw a person in a wheelchair waiting to get in. I held the door open for him. He yelled at me as if I had assaulted him. Apparently my sin was to offer him assistance he did not explicitly ask for.

I often wondered, Why was he so upset? After all, my intentions were good. I didn’t think I was guilty of bad manners; on the contrary, I was trying to be polite. I didn’t mean to insult him. But then I realized the episode wasn’t about me, it was about him. Without knowing it he was telling me how he sees himself: as someone contemptible and helpless, always treated like a child. He was showing me his image of himself as a disabled person.

It is easy to acquire a negative image of ourselves because of our disability. We form our self-image largely based upon feedback we receive from others. And people often do see our disabilities as signs of inferiority. If you are disabled, has anyone ever addressed the person next to you when the question was really meant for you? How does it make you feel when the waitress asks your partner, “Now what would your friend like to order?” How does it make you feel when someone speaks to you in a loud, slow voice when your disability has nothing to do with your hearing or your comprehension? Or when someone speaks to you as if you were still a child? If you were disabled since childhood, were most of your friends disabled too?

Unless we are very conscious - a consciousness that only comes to us in adulthood - every encounter like this affects our self-image. We have confronted the images of disability all around us. We must also confront the images of disability within ourselves.

No one can stand having a negative self-image. It makes us angry, mistrustful of others, insecure, unsure of ourselves. It creates a vicious cycle: not at peace with ourselves, we push people away, and the feelings of rejection and isolation that result only worsen our self-image. Not everyone experiences these effects the same way, but people who are disabled are especially at risk.

So this is the first part of our task of spiritual renewal: to look within ourselves and to recognize the negative self-image. This part requires courage, because it means facing our inner darkness. We can come together, share our stories, show each other support, teach each other through our own experience, but in the end it is up to each one of us to do this work for ourselves.

And the work does not stop here. We need much more than just the ability to see the darkness. No one can live in total darkness. Without faith there is no life. We need to find our way back from darkness to faith.

If the image we have acquired of ourselves has made us dwell in darkness, then from where does light come? Jesus called himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12). There is a whole literature on the “imitation of Christ.” Can we find a better image of ourselves by adopting the image of Christ?

Perhaps a few saintly people can do it. For most of us, it may be too big a jump. We cannot see ourselves as Christlike in our present condition, and to attempt it may only throw us into deeper despair. We need a place to begin that is “accessible” from where we find ourselves right now.

That place, paradoxically, is within ourselves.

The Bible tells us we each were created in the “image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27). But there is more: since God is infinite, each “image” is unique. The Talmud puts it like this:

Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.
Mishnah, Sanhedrin, 4:5

The image of light we must grasp to escape our darkness is different for each one of us. So ask yourself: When God created you, what did God create? God created in you a being capable of love, with a unique individuality and a purpose that no one else can fulfill. We need to see ourselves through God’s eyes, to see ourselves as God knows us, rather than as the world has seen us and fed us back to ourselves. The two could not be more different.

Recently in the hospice where I work I met a very spiritual lady, a friend of one of my patients who was also a Christian missionary. She had one word of advice for me: “You must know your name.”

What is our name? Our name is transmitted through our parents but given to us by God. And sometimes it is actually God who reminds us of our name. When the angel asked Jacob “What is your name?” Jacob answered, naturally, “Jacob.” The angel said “No, that is not your name. Your name is Israel, the one who strives with God” (Genesis 32:27-28). Through his own struggle Jacob had to learn his name, and once he did, no one could shake his sense of identity.

Do you know your name? It is a name no one else has. If you know your name, then no one can hang a false image on you. Ask yourself in the privacy of your heart, “What is my name?”

The great Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart had a saying, for which he was actually prosecuted for heresy:

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me: my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love.
German Sermon No. 12

We need to see ourselves through the eye with which God sees us. And that means seeing ourselves through eyes of love.

This is not a simple exercise. It takes time and devotion, meditation and prayer. It requires that we develop a kind of spiritual perception. Can we see through the false images, the stereotypes, the layers of human distortion, to behold the soul as fresh as God created it?

The very first words that an observant Jew says on praying each morning are: “My God, the soul that you have given me is pure.” Can we see the purity of our soul? Of our soul, not somebody else’s? Can we behold our own individuality, our own talents and gifts, our own loving nature, the best that God has given us? This is the unique image given by God to us and to no other. This is the image we must hold in front of ourselves until we actually become that image, free from the bondage of the impressions, attitudes, and beliefs that have come to form the self we only think we know.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. (Romans 8:14-15)

The slavery that pushes us back into fear is the slavery of accepting the images with which we have been tagged, first by those around us, then by ourselves. The spirit of slavery is a false spirit. The true, saving spirit is the spirit of adoption as children of the Creator, who has given us a soul that is whole, pure, and without any disability.

Whether or not you are disabled, can you see your soul as God created it? Can you see the individual gifts that God has given only to you? It is not important that you feel like that person right now, but only that you are able to see the image, to picture it, to hold it in your mind. That image is who you will become, as you receive your spirit of adoption and know yourself as God knows you. That is the new image, the “new creation” of which the Bible speaks (2 Corinthians 5:17). If you feel like you are still living in the darkness of an image you cannot accept, then hold in your mind the light of this new image, the pure soul God has given you, until you really begin to see it and become it.

This is how we strip off the old self and clothe ourselves with the new one. The old self, the negative image given to us by society, by the people around us, by portrayals in the media, by bigoted attitudes that seem so resistant to change, need no longer rob us of our dignity. When we know ourselves as God created us, then images in the minds of others will no longer matter. But it won’t happen tonight and it won’t happen tomorrow. We will be guided towards it, but it does not come without effort and commitment. But when it does come we will find ourselves passing through barriers that have kept us apart and feeling like outsiders.

It is so important to build bridges and to cross those barriers. That is why the scripture states, “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, slave and free,” and perhaps we are also entitled to add, even disabled and non-disabled.

October 2002