Braille Scripture at Work

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One Sunday a while back I was lazing in one of the soft, roomy, easy chairs in the flat I rent here in Delhi when my phone rang.  It was Alamelu a friend who is an Assistant Professor at a college for women here in Delhi.  She said she was nearby with her husband and asked could we meet up. It was an easy question and I was soon hurrying off to meet them at gate number two of Green Park Metro station.

Alamelu and her husband Annavaram are new friends, people I met last year at a conference especially called to review how much progress was being made in a movement called Engage Disability which is striving to improve the response of church in India to disability.  They stood out at that conference because they walked everywhere hand in hand, then gradually it became apparent that they are a delightful couple with a love for the Lord who has touched their lives in rather special ways.

Annavaram and Alamelu are blind.  She can see a little but Annavaram nothing at all, yet as a team holding hands, they are able to move around confidently even in an unknown conference venue. I was to meet them both again a few months later at an academic conference arranged by Annavaram in his role as an Assistant Professor at a leading central university.  Now he was in Delhi for a visit and I was rushing off to bring them home.

We agreed to walk home from the station which proved to be a good lesson for me. I must have walked those gullies a thousand times but never before had I noticed how many obstacles there are if you cannot see.  With a good deal of “keep left” and “look out for the bollard” and “be careful here the footpath becomes rubble” and at one point a quick bend to move a plastic bottle out of the way, we arrived home and I experienced the joy of introducing my new friends to the family with whom I live.

But really what I wanted to share was something of what we talked about and most especially something Annavaram told me had deeply affected his life as a boy.

 Alamelu is happy to admit that if it were not for being visually impaired she would probably not have received any education at all.  In the small village where she was born there was precious little money and usually girls would be married early without going to school because of the cost involved. A relative told her parents about a school in Chennai especially for girls who were blind and he took her and got her admitted.  Alamelu is from Telugu speaking Chittor district in Andhra Pradesh so at first she struggled with Tamil but in the end she learned and would go on to become fluent in Tamil and English and able to read both in Braille.  Perhaps she would not have become a Christian either but for her blindness, her family is Hindu but her special school was Christian and she grew up learning about the Lord and in recent times took baptism.

Annavaram’s story was a little different; he joined school late and when he started at a Christian-run special school for the blind and learned Braille his world opened up in the most marvellous way.  He was just a boy but he was troubled with notions of God in an imperfect world and what on earth was the purpose for his life as a blind child.  Between lobbying for better food for the hostel boys, Annavaram discovered the wonders of the Bible in Braille.  And then he found John 9 and the story where the disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, the man born blind or his parents.  Jesus replied that neither had sinned

“but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:3

Annavaram told us, that Jesus’ reply to the disciples was a reply to his own question about what the purpose of his life could be.  It was immediately obvious that what is required of him is to use his life to give Glory to God.

Do you understand?  It is not a fickle God who makes one to see and another to be blind, one to hear and another to be deaf, one to walk and run and dance and another to never be able to even stand.  Each one of us is unique and each has a purpose to live life to His glory.  Many of us will never hear that truth as clearly as Annavaram did and that is not a mistake, Annavaram was looking for answers and The Lord put scripture into his hands and a means to read it. In our times too Jesus speaks to each one of us, those with disabilities as much as to any other.

Alamelu and Annavaram are faithful Christians on their journey through life. He often preaches and both exhibited a depth of knowledge and love for scripture at sessions they shared at the Engage Disability conference.  To watch Alamelu pass her hands gently across the pages of her Braille addition of the gospels and hear the reverence in her voice as she reads aloud is a miracle and a joy.  I am so glad that they have both brought  to me a fresh view of life and the wondrous work of God in his children.

Braille takes up a lot of space on the page so each book of the Bible is printed separately.  Alamelu and Annavaram’s Braille Bibles were sent free of cost to them, book by book over a period of time, by Lutheran Braille Workers 

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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.

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

“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.

 

 

 

 

Salt and Light or not?

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The conversation between Joan and her boss went something like this:-

Joan: “Did you enjoy the Mother’s Day service in church this morning, I see you have a lovely posy of flowers?”

Boss: “No, not really as they will insist on letting the “retarded” children from that home down the road attend church. They really should not do that.”

When I heard about that conversation I was reminded of a different occasion when a nursing friend found herself in a hospital lift accompanying a badly burned and disfigured little girl with disabilities. Another passenger in the lift loudly proclaimed “Such people should not be let out.”

The stories sound almost the same don’t they? Children with disabilities being scorned by women for being out in general society. But there is a difference; Joan’s boss was Christian, we do not know about the woman in the lift. It was hard to spot that difference though. Does it matter?

The way we see and behave towards other people in society must be shaped by our being Christian so it is worth looking at what should drive that difference.

Scripture tells us we are all made in God’s image (Gen.1:26). John Wyatt* says “that God has chosen no other image bearer, either animate or inanimate on planet earth.” If you look in a mirror what you see is an image, or a reflection of yourself. There is no reflection without the mirror. So it is for us, we reflect God’s image. We are dependent as without God there is no image.

John Wyatt continues by reminding us that unlike secular thinking “in Christian thought the dignity of a human resides not in what you can do, but in what you are, by creation. Human beings do not need to earn the right to be treated as godlike beings. Our dignity is intrinsic.” If it is true for me as a human being then it is true for all human beings including of course, those with disabilities.

So, as Christians the way we respond when we are confronted with disability can be perfectly reasoned; here we have another human being and since all human beings and only human beings, are made in the image of God they must be treated as godlike beings, with all that implies.

My way of dealing with people has tended to be shaped by Luke 6:31 which teaches to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is of course precious scripture. But, I am flawed, and I live amongst similarly flawed people so I could be hurting and may have been treated badly and be incapable of recognising how I should be to others. By contrast, the God in whose image we are all made is perfect and the different kinds of people I meet are a reflected image of the perfect God. Since they are godlike they are obviously fully worthy to receive the very best of me. And the very best of me is manifested in the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22) – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness as well as acceptance of people just as they are.

You might remember reading about Shreya in an earlier blog, she has Downs Syndrome and attends DBF South Church in Delhi. To mark International Day for People with Disabilities (IDPwD) Shreya was invited to read John 3:16 during the church service. She was accompanied by her Mum who pointed out the words one by one as Shreya read them. At the end she belted out heartily “Jesus Christ loves you.” The church family responded joyfully and afterwards many members of the congregation greeted and congratulated her. Including Shreya in the service and praising and encouraging her and her parents is an illustration of the difference that will make people say that they know we are Christians by our love.

*John Wyatt: “The New Biotechnology” in Issues Facing Christians Today by John Stott.