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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Being not Doing

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Have you ever really thought about how you measure people? I imagine I can hear an uncomfortable hum as readers become slightly defensive. But the fact is that there are a whole slew of ways we might measure people: by their intellect; by their wealth; by their religious beliefs; by their ability to command (power or respect); by their hard work. All of these are actually measures of ability that pervade so much of our thinking when meeting and getting to know people. It has become quite normal to judge a person by their abilities or what they can do.

Maybe you measure people by their colour or race or beauty, youthful vigour or elegance; well dressed is more acceptable than poorly dressed for example. These are measures based on physical appearance.

Thomas E. Reynolds in his book Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality calls this the ‘cult of normalcy’. Many of these views are centuries old but they are being promoted all the time because we live in a world which needs all of us to be producers and consumers. So advertisements for everything from cars to baby soap show perfect, well-off looking people, capable of hard work and play. These are economic ways of thinking and most definitely not loving or Christ-like and they are brutally unkind to people with disabilities who may not be able to produce and consume like most people and may look quite different from the normal.

Few of us are really selfless so we expect something in exchange for friendship and love.  If you go out with a friend it is because you want to share news, have fun, catch up, it is a two way thing, you want something out of that meeting whether you mean to give something back or not.  Nothing wrong with that you might think, and on the surface it seems perfectly reasonable.  The important thing is to realise that in our relationships we expect more than some people can give.

It might be good to pause for a few minutes in Isaiah 53 at the prophesy about Christ  –

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” 53:2

“Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” 53:3

This then was the Son of God sent for our salvation. There was nothing good looking or powerful about him. There is every indication that he was in fact powerless, a silent lamb to the slaughter and therefore could not be classified along with our current measure of hard working, bright and well off. From this account he was also not at all attractive and nothing at all like the people in the adverts.

Yet that is what God chose to send to save his people.

Geeta Mondal writing about the blessings she has received as a result of being the mother of a child with autism writes:

“Another thing my child has taught me is that we live in a world where ‘doing’ is more important than ‘being’. We as Christians are people who have received salvation, not because of what we do, but on the basis of the gift of God, Jesus, who dies for us. It is a gift, free. We cannot do anything to earn it. However, so many times in our lives, even within our churches, we judge on the basis of action, and the person in the maximum need of grace is perhaps given the maximum condemnation.”

Perhaps we begin to hang our heads in shame as we realise that she is right and we have a way to go in shaping our thinking to be more Christ-like and more loving in our attitudes.

Geeta continues:

“My child is the way he is. I have to love him the way he is just as Christ loves me the way I am. ……. Same as the way God relates to me. I am His child, and nothing can change that. ……. We need to accept the fact that more important in the sight of God is not what we do, but who we are – ‘His children and heirs.’”

If we can fully grasp what Geeta has discovered then two things can happen:

  1. We shall begin to change the way we measure people and will move from the world view to the Christ view and in so doing people will know we are Christians.
  2. We shall want to reach out to people with disabilities with the news of the gospel because it will be a perfect balance to the brutal world view. Remember we are to be salt and light in the world.

Geeta and Raaj Mondol’s son Samarpan found going to church a horrible experience, in part because even the light touch of a dupatta hurts on his skin and as a child people would touch him or pat him which he found painful. If Samarpan was not going to be in church then it would be difficult for Geeta and Raaj to be there too which became a source of sadness to them.  Geeta tells us that the pastor of their church realised their difficulties and agreed that one of the church cell groups would operate from their home. In that atmosphere and sitting at a safe distance, Samarpan was able to join in and the family felt the joy of the fellowship of other Christians.

If we are salt and light then you can be sure choosing to have a cell group so that Samarpan could hear the gospel is a very fine example of being salt.

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.

Sorry What Did You Say?

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Sunita tried to get an extra hour in bed on Sundays and do everything a bit more leisurely than usual.  When she pulled her phone towards her she was amazed to see it was already 8.30. She could not believe that the sounds of the morning in her Delhi flat had not woken her already, she must have been much more tired than she thought. She rolled over onto her back and suddenly noticed that the fan was going at high speed but she could barely hear it. With a sense of foreboding she sat up and realised she could hardly hear anything. The sound of water running into the sink as she brushed her teeth was odd, as if only some of the sound was reaching her ears.

Sunita had been deaf in one ear for many years but it hardly bothered her, now something was wrong in the other ear. As she reached for some cotton buds hoping to clear out the blockage her cousin popped her head around the door and said something, Sunita could see Asha’s mouth moving but she couldn’t hear a word. A feeling of complete panic engulfed her and wildly she prodded just below her ear. A fraction of hearing returned and logic told her that it must be a local blockage and she should not be afraid.

No specialist was available until Monday so Sunita decided to go to the chemist for some wax softening drops in the hope that they would help. The medical shop was just along the street from where she lived but it involved crossing one little lane and manoeuvring around the cars, bikes and veg stalls lining the narrow road. But she was as uncomfortable as if she was crossing a busy railway junction unsure where all the noises were coming from and which direction she should watch first to avoid being hit by a bike or car. She was feeling very fragile by the time she reached the medical shop. It was busy so she had a moment or two to collect herself but when she spoke she couldn’t tell how loud she was or what she sounded like and she was relieved to find she had been understood. The next hurdle was paying the bill. She concentrated hard and looked at the mouth of the shop keeper before she could understand how much she had to pay him.

Though she was discouraged and worried she decided to go to church anyway. She felt safe once she was in the auto but church was altogether different. Usually she loved the songs and hymns but the distorted hearing made the music sound horrible and she dared not sing because she could not hear what she sounded like. She was able to follow very little of the sermon and was hopelessly distracted by a miserable feeling of what she would do after church when her friends would greet her and she would not be able to hear them. She suddenly felt an enormous sense of loneliness. Being deaf in one ear had been one thing, this was horrible, so horrible she crept out during the final hymn rather than have to meet everyone.

She spent the day quietly contemplating what life would be like if her hearing could not be restored; music would be out of her life, an unimaginable loss she thought; she guessed that if there was some residual hearing she might be alright to talk one to one as long as she could see the face of the person she was talking to but if there were other noises or conversations going on or if it was too dark to see the mouth of the speaker, she knew she wouldn’t manage and people only have so much patience to repeat things. In the afternoon when her phone lit up she had to ask her cousin to take the call and she realised that if she couldn’t use the phone then she would be useless at work. One by one the difficulties presented themselves in her imagination. By the time she went to bed she was most sincerely praying for a reprieve with the visit to the doctor the next day.

Sunita, had nothing seriously wrong this time. On Monday the specialist  syringed her ear and solved the problem. She was left hearing well but deeply touched by the experience.

Mercifully most people do not get to experience any type of disability except perhaps until they grow infirm with old age, although maybe if we did, we would be more sensitive. As a Christian how often do you find yourself thinking about what life is like for others? We should be doing it all the time because that is the stuff of compassion which is a characteristic of our Lord Jesus and also because we are told to do so in Colossians 3:12

“Therefore as God’s chosen people clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

In the story, Sunita experienced just a few of the daily challenges of hearing impaired people –

  1. Vulnerability walking down the street unable to hear the traffic.
  2. Wary of speaking because they have no idea if they are shouting and worried about annoying others.
  3. Exclusion from singing with others in church for the same reason
  4. Inability to hear the sermon
  5. Dread of after-church-fellowship because they cannot hear what their friends are saying
  6. Loneliness
  7. Risk of being unemployed

I am sure there are many more.

We who are church, have the power of the Holy Spirit, our own attempts at compassion will be pathetic compared to what the Spirit can show us. Let us call upon the Lord to open our eyes to the challenges of people with disabilities around us and find ways to make sure that the Gospel and fellowship of other Christians is readily available to them.

If you would like your church to be more responsive to people with disabilities please contact Engage Disability here to enquire about training.

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.