No One Sinned

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In John 9, Jesus and his disciples are going along when they see a man who was born blind, the disciples ask Jesus

“Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

As a 21st century Indian Christian how do you feel about that question?  Do you ask yourself the same thing when you see people with disabilities?  Do you wonder why the disciples were so sure that someone must have sinned?  Or have you never particularly thought about it?

For about 400 years before this event a theory had been circulating in the Greco-Roman world that said the physical condition of a person was a sign of their moral character.  Leading thinkers like Aristotle held that a person who was physically bent over like the woman in Luke 40:11 probably had a feeble moral character, whilst one with a strong straight back would have a strong high moral character.  That thinking was prevalent at the time of Jesus. We see something of it in John 9:34 when the Pharisees declare that the blind man was “steeped in sin at birth.”

In the same way, prevalent in the culture in which we live in India is the philosophy of karma where-in according to say, Swami Sivananda,  Prarabdha is the past action which has given rise to the present birth and Sanchita  is the balance of past actions that will give rise to future births – (the storehouse of accumulated actions.)  How this manifests in individual beliefs is that when seemingly bad or disappointing or difficult things happen it must be because of bad actions in the past (for which read sin).  By that definition, being born blind or with any other disability must be attributed to bad karma or bad actions/sin in a former life.

Because we are Christians in a culture where these kind of beliefs are prevailing we must pay attention to Jesus’ reply to the disciples and work through and be completely clear what it means. In doing so we shall find we know God better and can welcome people with disabilities into our congregations as we have never done before.

Jesus is unequivocal when he tells the disciples

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

When we looked at this text in our Bible Study Group here in Delhi, Neelam told us that it was the single most liberating scripture of her young life.  She is a nurse in AIIMS, an intelligent and sensitive new Christian. She has an orthopaedic disability and wears a calliper.  All her life she has been asked what she did in an earlier life to have ended up with this disability.  Neighbours and family friends and even her parents have felt comfortable to ask her.  She, of course, could never answer their questions and felt the terrible load of it somehow being her fault.  For her to hear Jesus say that it was not the sin of the blind man nor of his parents that caused the blindness liberated her from the cruelty of the question of karma.

In the gospel story Jesus then goes on to say

“it has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”.

The Pharisees tell the blind man he must accept that God has given him sight and give God the glory (Vs 24).  But the man insists that Jesus healed him “I was blind but now I see” (vs. 25) and since no one has ever heard of a man being born blind being given sight then Jesus must be from God (vs. 33).  Jesus used this blind beggar, this so called sinner from birth, to see that He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah.  Here is the inclusive, gracious God using all kinds of people for his purposes.  It does not mean that God has set people with disabilities amongst us as examples or to make us all understand Him better; that would be absurd,  God is not like that and it would be wrong of us to somehow explain away disability in that manner.

Be clear, Jesus says disability is not caused by sin and he illustrates that God may use all kinds of people for his purposes including those with disabilities. By acknowledging and sharing these truths, church in India will be strengthened in its response to disability so as to free those who are burdened by unanswered karma questions.

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By Our Love

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There is running through my head, a commentary that looks at the one hand, at how church can respond to people with disabilities (and their families) who are already Christian and another which mulls over how church can respond so that people with disabilities who are not Christian, will be welcomed in and come to know The Lord Jesus. In both cases I am certain that Christians/church have already been given the model and the power to respond in a way which will see Christians living with disability fully engaged and uplifted, as well as non-Christians with disabilities turning to the Lord. The model is the early church and the power is the Holy Spirit.

The early church as depicted in the second chapter of Acts is one of a group of people meeting daily (yes daily) for devotion to the work of the apostles, prayer, breaking of bread and fellowship. We know from the record that they lived in community which may not be how we live now but that does not matter. What matters is coming together very often; it is the building of relationships one with another in common faith and as Paul writes in Ephesians 3:17-19

“And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The early church was wrapped in the recent vision of Christ on the cross, that level of love is what they understood. They had received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and they were fully alive to the love and power of God, we can say that they were “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”

In the context of disability how might this work out? Geeta and Raaj Mondal, a Christian couple known to many in Delhi, have two sons, the eldest is Samarpan and a few years younger is Saday. Like all children they have been involved in general acts of mischief but it was complaints from other parents, together with a suggestion from a school teacher that they might consider sending Samarpan to a special school that eventually led to a diagnosis of autism. Raaj mentions in his recollections of that parent-teacher’s meeting that he found himself crying as he drove his scooter home. Geeta says Raaj was shattered so that when they received the diagnosis they went straight to the home of dear friends,

“People who had always provided a place for us to share our thoughts”

Geeta recalls her husband just sat silently with his friend whilst she talked with the hostess about what to do next, at the same time feeling thankful for such friends.

Friendship like that is what we as church need to be offering one another. It is pure love without judgment or conditions, being available to listen, share and grieve together as Paul says in Romans 12:15

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

We can do that best when we have built relationships by meeting often, praying together, studying scripture together and spending time relaxing and eating together in a reflection of God’s love for us. It is easy to start that process with people like you (maybe young doctors, a bunch of young parents or professional men and women) it might require more loving thought to include families living with disabilities. I am reminded of a Telugu lady knocking on the door of a family living a couple of blocks away from her in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. She did not go to their church, indeed could not really have known they were Christian but she had seen little Shreya their daughter with Down syndrome out playing and came to visit to offer friendship and prayer. They became faithful friends who have prayed together weekly for Shreya for more than ten years.

Such is a Christian life, one that cannot fail but to provide the necessary support and encouragement, a shoulder to cry on and friends to rejoice with on what can seem like a long, lonely journey for families living with disability. The driving force will be Christian love, the power to remain faithful and to know what everyone in the fellowship needs most and when, is the Holy Spirit and the motive will be to nurture each other towards salvation and an eternity in Christ.

Geeta and Raaj say that the first thing any church can do is find out those families and individuals with disabilities in the church and undergird them. Then as relationships build, identify practical ways to help, perhaps by providing opportunities for tired caregivers to get away for a rest. A third step might be to invite other children, those in the family without disabilities, to have a treat without having to share it with the brother or sister with disability. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it is not easy being the sibling of someone with disabilities and always having to “understand” “be patient and kind because…”

In allowing the Holy Spirit to work to bring us alongside and to listen to and support families living with disabilities in our congregations we shall be transformed, more welcoming and better able to reach out to people with disabilities who are not yet Christians. For they will know we are Christians by our love.

To know more about autism click here or send an e-mail

Gifts Galore

Picture7Just a short blog post this week with three great stories.

This morning Delhi Bible Fellowship South (DBF South) congregation had a combined service starting at 9 a.m. This meant that instead of the usual two English services there was just one and that too a communion service.

Shreya was right there at the door handing out the notice sheets with a happy smile and greeting for everyone. Sounds fairly much what you would expect except that Shreya has Downs Syndrome and as a little girl she could not bear to be in crowds of people. Indeed I saw her at the wedding of a church couple recently and she was quite distressed by all the people. Yet at the end of the service today she reached forward and shared a hug with the young woman sitting in front of her in church.

What an answer to prayer! Her Mum says the beginnings of her socialising came when she started to go to Sunday School at DBF South and now here she is today lending her gifts for the church.

George Abraham and his family have been members of the Methodist Centenary Church, in Delhi, for a long time. He is involved in leading praise and worship, and fairly recently he anchored a multilingual service. Apart from church, he and Rita attend The Bible Study Fellowship that meets on Saturday mornings for in-depth studying of God’s word. After he had been attending for a while he was invited by one of the leaders to join him for coffee and a chat during which he was asked if he would like to take up a leadership role for one of the sub groups. He did, and he and Rita both say that their years studying with the group had seen a manifold increase in their understanding of scripture. This is a description of a man using his gifts to serve The Lord. George is blind.

Inderjit Lal who is a member of The Cathedral Church in central Delhi, as his father was before him, has served on the Church Committee and was Treasurer for a spell. Inderjit can walk only with great difficulty and is mostly in a wheelchair.

Today during the sermon we were reminded that many of us have work or passions related to justice, health care, universal education, saving the girl child and other similar important causes but nothing should be more important to a Christian than the gospel. As a Christian it is hard to disagree with that, which is why these three examples are so encouraging. Church is there for all; it must be open and welcoming to people of all types with or without disabilities. Let the gospel reach everyone so that they too can serve the Lord and as Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:10

“Each one should use whatever gifts he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its  various forms.”

There might be something we can do to make that possible for every Christian.

  • Maybe there is someone in your congregation with a disability. Do they have opportunities to take a full and active part in church life, or is there more that could be done to make them feel welcomed to serve? Why not ask them?
  • Perhaps you know of a Christian who has disabilities who is not coming to church; it might be worth meeting them and trying to find out why and looking together at what might make it easier or more welcoming.

“They Don’t Know How To Be With Us”

DSCN0105The atmosphere in Kiran Village*, Madhopur, near Varanasi is amazing. The formally barren landscape is covered with trees and purpose-built buildings and the little paths are busy with boys and girls and young men and women on crutches, with wheelchairs or just plain wobbly, making their way from the gate to their class-rooms, the production units or the therapy rooms. Just a half a mile down the road is the Ganga, flowing slowly and low at this time of the year and with broad, sandy banks.

I had met Promila Charan some years before, she works in Kiran Village as the PA to the Director. The last time I saw her was a few days before she was flying off to Europe. I was longing to find out how she enjoyed the trip and also to know more about her life as a Christian professional with disabilities. Long after the children and staff had gone home Promila directed her wheelchair into the guest house, transferred herself to a more comfortable chair and we began to talk.

Quite soon into our conversation Promila said

“Read the Bible and see for yourself Jesus came for the weak and poor. Even if we have disabilities we are part of the church. We all have a purpose.”

Of course she is right but she also added

“Pastors don’t really know how to care for us, how to be with us”

It was something I had heard from the wife of another person with disabilities who told me that the new minister in the church seemed to patronise her husband and did not seem to know how to behave with him.

So what is happening here? I would like to suggest that Church ministers, like many other people in larger society, haven’t a clue about disability. They are unsure what it means to be a person in a wheelchair, or someone who is visually or hearing impaired and it is hugely puzzling to know how to be with someone who has the odd movements of a person with cerebral palsy or idiosyncrasies of autism. Yet we need our pastors to be able to serve the whole Christian community whether they have disabilities or not.

Engage Disability has produced a Disability Inclusion Toolkit packed with sensible suggestions and explanations on how church can respond to disability. If anyone reading this would like to know more about training to make your church more responsive to disability then please send an e-mail to sylvia.engagedisability@gmail.com

A good approach might be to emulate the attitude of Promila’s parents. Promila is the last of several children. Her father was a highly educated freedom fighter and much respected in general society; he loved his youngest daughter dearly and always encouraged her to try things “you can do it” was something both her parents told her often. So it was that she went on to do a Masters degree in Economics, the only girl with disabilities out of 500 in her year. In my blog last week I mentioned that George Abraham was also set in the right direction by parents who never held him back but allowed him out on a bike and kept him in normal school, collaborating with the teachers for his wellbeing.

For church leaders, the example of these parents, matching as it does Jesus’ attitude, is a fine model to follow. A great place to start in improving your response to people with disabilities is to treat them as you would other members of the congregation. If you do not usually patronise members of your congregation then you do not need to do so to one in a wheelchair. People with disabilities have fears and doubts and worries just as everyone else and they need the love and support of church members and leaders too. They have spiritual needs to be addressed and may have a heart to serve the congregation and gifts that church leaders need to learn about. And finally, as people with disabilities they may have particular concerns that they would be glad to share with church leaders for prayer and support; they will not feel able to share if they are not welcomed in the same way as everyone else.

Promila said that she had heard about a job in Kiran from a member of her church, someone kind enough to think of sharing the opportunity which has changed her life. George met his wife first at Sunday school and later they hung out with a crowd of young Christians at university.

Both George and now Promila, have attributed their successes in life to parents who encouraged them. A lesson there for church leaders too. Find out the challenges and then be an encouragement. A few words here, the knowledge that they are prayed for, news of an opportunity, and a chance to serve in church are all practical encouragements.

We might also give a thought to parents and family members living with disability. Promila told me that one of her regrets was that both parents died before she started work in Kiran. She knew they would have been pleased for her. Congregation members and church leaders must take the time to support parents of children with disabilities. They have all the usual fears and worries of parents plus a few extra as they wonder about care-giving after they grow old or die and as they try and juggle the needs of children with and without disabilities (it is not at all easy to be the sibling of a person with disability).

It is recorded in Luke 14:15-24 that Jesus said

“Bring in everyone who is poor or crippled or blind or lame”

Crippled and lame are not the sort of words we use now because people with disabilities have asked us not to, but the message is clear, the kingdom of God is for all and when we miss out those living with disability we are being disobedient.

Promila did eventually get around to telling me that she had the most wonderful six weeks in Europe. She visited Switzerland, Italy and Ireland, stayed in people’s homes and spoke in churches. She could travel in public buses because they are designed to receive wheelchairs. When she returned to India she found herself thinking

“When will we make public places accessible in India?”

A great question really. Would Promila be able to speak in your church or is it inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair or using using crutches? ….. but that is for another blog post.

*Kiran village is the location for Kiran-Society a Centre for Inclusive Rehabilitation Click here to know more 

“I Can Always Ask”

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If it is true as I mentioned in my last post, that we are all vulnerable, all dependent on others and indeed God, for who we are and how we can live in this world then there is a commonality between all people, those with disabilities and those without. It is at that point of vulnerability that compassion is possible. It is not a superficial attitude that says “there but for the grace of God go I”, rather it is a deep understanding that if I wish for a full place in society, if I long to be loved and need to be accepted then so do others and if I am hurt by rejection or being considered inadequate then others too will equally feel the pain of rejection or exclusion and resent being written off as useless.

George Abraham is a most accomplished man; he is musical, a cricket wizard and experienced CEO who has founded and run organisations and seen that they achieve sustainability before handing them over. He is an events organiser, public speaker and a Christian leader, and has a delightful sense of humour, he also happens to be visually impaired. I have known him for a few years and long since realised he was talented. I met his wife Roopa much later at a lovely lunch they hosted for me in their home. She knew George when they were children in Sunday School, lost touch as parents were posted and then met up with him again as a student in Delhi at which point she decided that he would make a great match. She said what she saw was a handsome, intelligent and accomplished, Christian man and she told her parents that she was fond of him. George’s father, on the other hand, was having to battle George saying he did not wish to be defined by his disability so his parents should not accept proposals from people with disabilities. As an aside it is a great testimony to share that George’s Dad said it would be his prayer that the Father would “send the proposal to his door” which is exactly what happened with a re-routed letter from Roopa’s parents suggesting they should meet up.

The reason that I tell this story here is because although George has a full and fine life he is the first to admit his vulnerability not as a sign of weakness but as a fact. He was as daring as any youngster even riding his bike around the colony where they lived and his love of cricket was based on bodyline bowling…

”I would aim for the haze at the far end of my vision and it was either a wicket or hospital for the batsman!”

But he is the first to admit that the derring-do of youth was matched by the practical application of his Mum collaborating with teachers, opening the house to his childhood friends for shared homework etc. He described himself as outgoing with lots of great friends so he was always surrounded by sighted boys and girls growing up. He used the word collaboration a lot. And it is a great word for that is what we all do through life, collaborate with others to get things done, because we cannot do them alone.

 In 1 Cor. 12:21-26 Paul is talking about how the body (the Church) is made up of many parts.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

I was near Delhi University North Campus a few weeks after visiting Roopa and George when I saw four visually impaired students walking together towards the metro and I was reminded of George’s comments about how his achievements are greatly influenced by the good sighted friends he has had along the way. He wished visually impaired students would reach out and make friends with the sighted students for their mutual benefit.

George had recently found himself forced to take an unscheduled long bus journey and had told the conductor he would need help to know when they had reached their destination and how to get from there to the airport. His neighbour on the bus asked why he did not travel with a companion his response was

“I can always ask for help.”

It is obvious isn’t it? I cannot tell you how many times I have felt inadequate to a task and have had to ask for help. How is that alright for me but somehow considered a weakness in a person with a disability?

So, what has any of this got to do with you as an Indian Christian reading this blog?

  • I hope it has challenged your idea of what it means to be a person with disability
  • I pray that it will bring you to your knees to thank God for reminding you that you are nothing, nothing at all without His blessing. You are vulnerable and that is the common ground you share with all men and women. We all need each other and God.
  • I trust that if you are a parent and you know any children with disabilities you will encourage your children to play with them, invite them for birthday parties, and children’s activities at home and church.
  • I hope that the next time you need to ask for help or directions you will recognise the need as one you share with people with disabilities, the elderly and children ….. and it will make you more sensitive and caring and less quick to judge.
  • I pray that if you are student you will not shy away from fellow students with disabilities because you are afraid.

You can listen to George Abraham speaking about his childhood here  https://youtu.be/e-HBnuy_BZc

I would like to apologise for originally using the logo of the World Blind Cricket Council as the opening image for this blog.  I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused.

 

 

So when do we care?

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If at all you ever think about disabilities what direction do your thoughts take? I guess it might depend on your circumstances and time of life. If you are about to become a parent you might find yourself praying for a hale and hearty baby and doing everything in your power to ensure that you protect your unborn baby from the risk of disabilities. Babies and toddlers need vaccinating against the worst of childhood diseases like polio and measles. Parents of youngsters constantly worry about their propensity for climbing and speed and the associated risk of injury from accidents. Later there may well be a whole slew of years when the idea of disabilities never enters your head…you and your children are sensible, and safe and have got by very well until now. But then comes old age, failing eye sight, a realisation that you are not hearing as well as before, stiffness and perhaps even some of the nastier illnesses of later life like Parkinson’s disease or a stroke that leaves you unable to move on one side; chronic arthritis or dizziness and falls resulting in broken bones and difficult rehabilitation.

So when do we as church need to care about our response to people with disabilities? I was wondering how the man with the withered hand in Mathew 12:9-13 became like that and also the ten people with leprosy in Luke 17:11-19, do you think they contracted leprosy as children or had to leave their homes and jobs as adults? We are told that the man in John 9 was born blind and there are loads more examples in scripture that should get us thinking. I always have a chuckle at Ecclesiastes 12 with its vivid description of decrepit old age.

If there are all these possibilities then perhaps we should be getting our response to disabilities sorted out now. Maybe church does have a responsibility to be informed and open and welcoming to all people with disabilities because at any moment it could be us who become a disability statistic. I would not wish to be left out. As a young parent of a child with disabilities I would feel so sad if my child could not go out with the rest of the children for Sunday School or if I could not come to church at all because there was no one available to care for my child whose disabilities preclude him from attending church. As a young adult on crutches or in a wheelchair I want as much fun with the youth group as anyone else. And as a faithful member of a congregation for many years I do not want to find myself unable to receive communion because I can’t climb the stairs or be unable to join the singing of hymns because the words on the screen are not clear enough to read and there is no large printout for me to read in my seat.

In church recently I found myself sitting next to the father of one of my friends who is visiting for a while. I know he has become deaf in his old age and I was acutely aware that he could not always understand what was being said. I wondered what we could have done to make the service easier for him to follow. The notice sheet handed to everyone as they enter was especially helpful that week as it included not just the scripture portion but also an outline of the message, so he could have followed that if he had wished to. If the verses used to lead us into a time of worship and confession had been displayed on the screen it would have been helpful. These are small changes that would be fairly easy to implement as a routine.

Before posting this blog I had a chance to ask my friend’s father about his experience in our church. He did not answer my question but told me instead that he had recently visited a home for children with disabilities run by The Missionaries of Charity sisters. He said he had asked if the children could hear and when he found out that they could he got permission to sing with them and share a Gospel message. That elderly man has been an enthusiastic Christian and evangelist for many years, church in India needs such people, we do not want to lose their wisdom and experience for the want of a little thoughtfulness and imagination in the way we make services inclusive for everyone.