Explanation of project: CPE students were tasked with writing and delivering a “pastoral homily”, a message that would speak to patients in a pastoral way. This is not a sermon, but rather, an exploration of a pastoral concern.
My initial reflections: Proclamation is something that comes quite easily to me. I write and deliver sermons on a regular basis. I have preached homilies at funerals, weddings, prayer services, worship services, graduation and confirmation liturgies, and other events in the life of a pastor. What would be of greater learning to me is to engage in dialogue with my peers and supervisor regarding the topic of this homiletical reflection, disability and pastoral theology.
Limiting the scope: There are many definitions of what it is to be disabled. There are physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, invisible disabilities such as autoimmune diseases and mental illnesses, and other conditions that may or may not be disabling such as deafness or blindness. The scope of this project does not allow for extended consideration of all of these topics, so the term “disability” for the remainder of this project refers to paralysis, specifically the inability to walk as a result of a traumatic injury. Additionally, since I am not a part of the disabled community, my reflections are limited to my own social location. I can reflect upon these topics, but I am perpetually outside this community. Finally, since I am a minister in a Christian tradition, specifically a Lutheran pastor, my perspective is Christo-centric and is guided by scripture.
Images of paralysis in scripture: (NRSV)
“When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”
And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.’ And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
“ One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’”
“When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.”
“After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.”
Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
-All four Gospels have some account of Jesus telling a paralyzed man to “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
-There is an additional account of the healing of the Centurion’s servant and of a man named Aeneas.
-Scriptural accounts pertaining to paralysis tend to be closely related to healing happening when a person proves their faith or when their sins are forgiven.
It is extremely problematic to link paralysis with sin or with faith. To link paralysis with sin is to say that someone did something to deserve their condition/injury/illness. To link paralysis (or healing from it, “take up your mat and walk”) with faith puts someone into the position of feeling like they can do something to pray their way out of their condition. Additionally, to link paralysis with faith means that someone who is paralyzed can be seen as “not praying hard enough” or not “having enough faith”, because if they had great faith, they could be healed. Both of these are cold comfort to someone who is paralyzed. I have been present many times during this residency year when a doctor told a patient that they would not be able to walk again as a result of a car accident/ski accident/fall/other trauma. Patients frequently respond, “what did I do to deserve this?” The pastoral response is, “absolutely nothing, there is nothing to say except, ‘I am with you’” and yet, so much of Christianity wants to pray for a miracle when a severed spinal cord is not going to ever be repaired.
There is something left wanting when we link disability to sin or implying that a person’s traumatic injury could have been avoided or that it could be healed if they only had enough faith or prayed the right way. There needs to be a different concept of disability and theology.
Re-imagining disability with theology:
A. The interdependent God: posed by Kathy Black in A Healing Homiletic. This idea of Christian community is a place where “all are called to work interdependently with God to achieve well-being for ourselves and others.” This idea begins from the place that we are profoundly interconnected to one another and to God. Physical limitations are merely a different manifestation of “normal” because we are all connected. Those who depend on the assistance of others with daily activities are essentially no different than those who depend on the assistance of other people who have expertise with other tasks, such as financial management, construction, and so on. Black argues that “experience of disability allows us to see what is often invisible to others: all people, disabled or not, are dependent on other people and the resources of the natural world for survival.” Black emphasizes the connection between God and between human beings, saying that “the universe is interdependent and God is part of that interdependence.”
Scripturally speaking, I see evidence of this interdependent God in Exodus 6:7a, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” God is God because of God’s people. God is not a puppet master subjecting people to whims of pain and suffering. In this image of the universe, human choice and God’s will are just a couple factors in a myriad of factors determining our lives.
What does this look like in a hospital setting? Patients in a hospital are acutely aware of their dependence on others. I made a visit to a patient last week who said that she was unable to chat at the time because she was waiting for her nurse to take her to the bathroom. The eventual treatment plan for most patients is to return home and to return to health, and to get to that point, patients must rely on caregivers. But what if this interdependence works the other way as well? Nurses are nurses because they have patients to care for. Chaplains are chaplains because they provide pastoral care. Care is not provided in a vacuum, it is provided as a part of a web of interconnected relationships. In this model, disability is not a deficit, but rather, another way that we are connected to one another.
B. The Disabled God: Nancy Eiesland, in The Disabled God, posits that traditional images of disability as a curse or as a blessing (something to overcome) are simply not adequate and make it impossible for a person with disabilities to see themselves as part of the imago dei, as divinely inspired creatures made in the image of God. Eiesland suggests that the image of the crucified Christ can point to the disabled God. Jesus died as a result of physical limitations. He was crucified on a cross and suffocated because he was unable to lift his own body weight enough to fill his lungs. Eiesland states, “Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the disabled God promising grace through a broken body is at the center of piety, prayer, practice and mission.” Eiesland’s image of God divorces physical disability from the notion of sin, because Jesus was free from sin and yet he became disabled. She also argues that the stories of the crucifixion and the resurrection show that God is in solidarity with those who have disabilities or who are otherwise marginalized. God knows what it is to be physically limited and knows what it is to experience pain.
This has major implications from a pastoral perspective for patients in the hospital. As Jesus appeared to his disciples as a survivor, with wounds from his suffering, even inviting the disciples to touch him and place their hands in his wounds, so too patients are marked with wounds and scars from their own suffering. This speaks of a God in solidarity with those who suffer. God knows what it is to suffer and God knows what it is to die. As someone who has suffered, I would much rather have a God who suffers (a theology of the cross) than a God who is seen only in glory. As a patient, I would rather have a chaplain who is willing to acknowledge that God has experienced the worst that this world can offer and is not too quick to pray for healing or for wholeness because that feels cheap. As a chaplain, I would rather have a disabled God, because that is a God that I can believe in and that I can bear witness to as I sit with patients in their suffering.
1. What do you think about people “deserving” their condition? What about drunk drivers or suicidal folks or someone else who actually did something, even if it was mere stupidity, to bring about their paralysis?
2. What do you think about God as being disabled? Does this expand your vision of God or does it limit what God is capable of doing?
3. What can paralysis tell us about God?
4. Do these thoughts challenge your theology? Expand it? Are you indifferent?How does this sort of reflection shape our w