Written by the Rev. Dallas Dee Brauninger
The attitude was different the first day I entered that gathering room with a mobility cane.
Prayer of Invocation
Leader: Mindful that from the genesis throughout the revelation of our lives, God creates, reveals, and renews Godâ€™s promise of hope for us,
All: Let us be faithful to our commitment to you, O God, and to one another. Amen.
Leader: As birth, disease, accident, or maturity brings special needs to those within this church,
All: Guide us, O God, as bringers of your hope. Amen.
Leader: As we increase our skill in reading the signs of change among church members and anticipate their needs,
All: Guide us, O God, as your welcoming people. Amen.
Jeremiah 29:11-114; Revelation 21:5
â€œBessie, you warm my heart,â€ I said. Having forgotten her glasses, our womenâ€™s group secretary handed me a note to read. â€œForgetting my blindness is a compliment.â€
The attitude was different the first day I entered that gathering room with a mobility cane. Bernice jumped up, grabbed me by the elbow, and planted me in a chair. For seven years, my husband and I had been her co-pastors. I could not lose her now. When she released me, I said, â€œBut Bernice, I was headed for the kitchen.â€ I went for a slow drink of water. I felt invalidated. Folks had respected my skill at coping with deteriorating eyesight. The unannounced cane, however, transmuted this invisible journey into a seeable disability.
Failing to thrive six weeks after premature birth, I had been sent home with frightened parents. Mom dared not bond, moving beyond guilt only late in life. In time, I concluded that visual chaos from the birth-damaged eye/brain connection was not the fault of hospital, parent, or an unfaithful God. It just happened.
Dadâ€™s quiet coaching about other ways to see carried me through a double major in college and then, with recorded textbooks and keen ear, through seminary and into a future with hope. Ever-present, compassionate God, who created the human family with freedom, provided also a resilient curiosity and ingenuity.
Now, having convinced others in the 1960s that a woman with a disability is not only ordain-able and hire-able but also a potential treasury of compassion and joyful enthusiasm, I refused to let disability handicap. No invalid, I had to explode outdated attitudes. Sundayâ€™s sermon: â€œThe Mobility Cane as a Tool.â€
Soon several members began testing the eye contact I simulated by following voices. I would respond to a voice then find it coming from a new direction. I chose to skip that game. The cane became a symbol of triumph. Before long, other needed canes appeared in church.
When rheumatoid arthritis troublesome in youth returned in earnest, I could not stand long in place. The trustees furnished the pulpit with a removable riser and bar chair. When I preached, everyone settled in for a â€œsit downâ€ visit as comfortable as the eye level chats had been with care center residents when I rolled about in a wheelchair one Lent.
Twenty years and two churches later, the mutual education continued. Soon after I, seated, greeted Christmas Eve worshipers, Twila also broke tradition to greet with her husband, seated.
Now, additional changes erupted as the RA intensified anywhere it chose. It took the jaws I needed for preaching and singing. For a while, I let it take joy. Plan B: Redefine ministry. Midway through a hospital chaplaincy program, I saw the insulting potential of ignored body messages. I stopped Plan B and returned home.
I loved my calling. I was sunk. I hollered, â€œJust what do you have in mind for me, God?â€ I had to know God would not give up, that I was still acceptable. Amid this outrage of exile, the Jeremiah passage and Plan C found me. I began to trust.
Grabbing a single thread of quiet, pervasive hope. I phoned visual rehabilitation. â€œHelp, Karen, Iâ€™m using up my talents.â€ Almost casually, I added, â€œAll thatâ€™s left is writing.â€ Within a week, an adapted computer arrived. Later, a Web screen reader would open another world of communication.
Conference advocates gained quiet invitations that promoted my ministry of writing. I was assigned â€œTalking with Your Child about Change.â€ Another editor requested â€œA Family Journeyâ€ and the â€œPreaching the Miraclesâ€ series. Disability was only one part of my identity again.
Thread by thread, I tatted new fabric, discerning within its intricate texture the old joy and gratitude for being whole. I cherished the unique design that overrode disability. I resolved to meet change until I can only sit and be.
With the persistence of raspberries ripening in autumn, Godâ€™s presence comes out on the side of hope. â€œSee,â€ Godâ€™s holy nudging and the Revelation writer sings, â€œI am making all things newâ€ (21:5).
Church folk learned together about disparaging and welcoming layers of attitude. Tiny things undo or fortify us. With a diagnosis of diabetes solving my new maze of foggy thinking, we all gained new levels of community. Respecting the perimeters of a disease whose management is as varied as forms of blindness became acceptable to others as well as to me. A glass of water chosen over sugary desserts still lubricated table talk and need not offend the server. Others also stopped jeopardizing their health. Simple foods, welcoming to all, appeared at shared meals.
Despite girding myself with a dog guide and a miscellany of other tools, when my feet needed triple thickness socks and clodhopper athletic shoes, a surprising vanity reared. I remembered the meticulous women of another church who, seeing only my blindness, readily dispensed unwelcoming pity but refused to offer a quiet word to remedy my clashing through Advent in a mismatched red outfit. I cringed at the thought of again dressing like â€œthe blind.â€
Unwilling now to wear clumpy white socks and shoes to church, I brought to womenâ€™s fellowship an old yearning to be a regular kid. Gwenda set me straight. â€œWell, do they help?â€
I was no longer lonely. Earlier, my can-do attitude had embarrassed Emmaâ€™s offer of assistance at a potluck. After the shoes, she dared try again and something within me melted. Less caustic about my body, I had become more hospitable toward others.
When hand greeting became impossible, I wore my computer splint. No one would touch me then until I extended the hand palm up. Then Stu laid one tender finger on my outstretched palm. With it, he conveyed the full warmth of his Nebraska farmer handshake. One by one the congregation took his cue, and I melted again.
Hospitality spread. Today, an interpreter signs for a deaf mom. A pew-back stand holds the large-type hymnal for a fragile member. Will we redesign chancel steps so choristers awaiting joint replacement can still sing? Sidewalk railings ensure security. Levers replace knobs. Hand-carved signs identify bathrooms. Will we convert them into a universal space so wheelchair-users can drink another cup of coffee with their friends?
1. Recall a life change that cast you into spiritual exile. Tell about Godâ€™s gathering you in and restoring you to wholeness. Any new tools for your journey?
2. What do a sense of wholeness, the holy, and wellness within a body with broken or ailing parts mean to you?
3. Why might you feel uncomfortable at first around a person with a disability?
4. What speeds your transition from identifying a person with a disability, for example, as a blind person, to perceiving that individual as someone who happens to be left-handed? Share your wisdom about influencing the attitudes of others who might see only the disability and miss the whole person.
5. Aware that little things count, what changes in the physical environment within and around your church building would free older folk to continue attending worship and other gatherings a little while longer? What changes might welcome newcomers with disabilities?
â€œWe Are Your Peopleâ€ (#309 NCH)
â€œCalled As Partners in Godâ€™s Serviceâ€ (#495 NCH)
May God guide this living church as we aim to do whatever it takes from the quiet, welcoming act to the visible or costly physical change that reflects Godâ€™s life-giving plan for a future with hope. Amen.
Extra Credit: How good are you at reading the signs? Be someone who uses a walker, a wheelchair, whose eyesight is wearing out, who has fragile hands or little strength, who can sit for only short times, who lives with a mental illness, who is sensitive to perfumes and other toxic substances, who cannot hear well. In teams of two, try on a variety of these disabilities then attend worship or walk throughout your church building and grounds. Take the resultant â€œto doâ€ list to your Access Ability Committee.
National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.) Website: www.nod.org.
Brauninger, Dallas A. Holy E-Mail (CSS Publications, 2001)
_________. Lessons from a Dog Guide (Forthcoming from CSS in 2003)
Mild, Mary L., Editor. Women at the Well (Judson Press, 1996)
Women’s Mosaic Series 2002
Treasure in Earthen Vessels
UCC Women’s Resource
Margaret (Peg) Slater, Editor