I don’t feel at all disabled. In all kinds of ways, I feel privileged and smug. I am a white male, aged 30-45, with a great education, and a healthy constitution. But, I also have a disorder. After extensive testing, last month I was diagnosed with adult Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder – ADHD. It is a disorder more common in children than adults, and hard to diagnose with adults, because as you grow up you develop coping mechanisms. So, for instance, some of the symptoms, (forgetfulness, disorganisation, absent mindedness) are clearly traits no one here would ever associate with me!
I was delighted with the diagnosis, and not simply because it provides a get out of jail free card for the terminally incompetent. But because it helps me to make sense of a lot of issues I have struggled with personally. It is a serious disorder, with serious consequences for me and those closest to me. I am grateful for the diagnosis because of the level of self-understanding it brings. But having this kind of disorder, is not the reason I am disabled.
I think one of my fondest memories of Bloomsbury would be time spent with Richard Bowers, who is one of our finest theologians. Remembering, that ultimately, a theologian is someone who takes God’s word seriously.
The standard, trendy way of dealing with disability within the church, is to say that disabled people are a gift. That they remind us of the limitations of what it means to be human, to be mortal, physical, mental beings. And, I have to say, I find that notion utterly anti-theological. Because what does that say about what it is to be human? It says that our ideas of perfection are related to physical, mental, and social success. The idea, that socially, being human means fitting in to society in a way that makes us all feel more comfortable. In that sense, despite my own ADHD, I could claim not to be disabled at all, because I am a white male, aged 30-45, with many of the attributes that society values in human beings.
But Scripture gives us a different ideal of what it means to be human. We are human to the extent that we hear the word of God. That is why, my call to worship for the last five years, has been this constant reminder… “Hear O Israel.” To be human, is to be able to hear God. And the extent of our disability, if we take scripture at all seriously, is based upon the extent we are able to hear or not to hear the Word of God.
And by ‘Word of God,’ I don’t simply mean Scripture. I mean the voice of God as it comes to us, telling us the truth about who we really are – whether that word is mediated through the pages of Scripture, by some supernatural means, or – as seems to be the way the God of Scripture works, through the actual voice of an actual human who actually knows us. And when you hear the word of God, you know it. If it really is God’s Holy Word that grips us, there is something both unbearable, and attractive about it. It stops us dead in our tracks, pulls the rug from under our feet and holds a mirror up to who we really are – as individuals, as a community.
So, let’s be honest, if we define disability according to our readiness to receive the Word of God, then we have to ditch society’s definition of what it is to be disabled. The question to ask of us as a church is this – do we really want to hear the Word of God?
The trouble is, even that question sounds like a power game for people who believe they have a supernatural hotline to God, and if other people don’t fall into line with your wishes, it is only because they are sinful – because they won’t hear God. What do you do if someone sins? You confront them, and if they won’t hear you, you grab a couple of friends and go round together to confront them. Because, after all, whatever you bind on earth will be found in heaven… and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven. It sounds like a blank cheque for claiming that your opinions and actions automatically have divine backing…
And that, sounds like the very opposite of hearing God. In the original, the language is even worse: whatever you bind on earth will already have been bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth, will already have been loosed on heaven. Whatever you choose to do here and now, has the divine seal of approval: help yourself, says God, I’m right behind you!
The only trouble with that reading, is the idea of two or three witnesses. Not two or three mates, but two or three witnesses, literally, people who can point to the reality of a situation. Now, in conflict of any sort, the natural thing to do is to surround ourselves with people who we know will agree with us. And that, according to Scripture, is a basic, human disability. Have we fallen out with someone, or had an argument in public. Quick, surround yourself with people who jolly well know that you are right…
But, a witness is someone who points to the reality of a situation, and holds a mirror up to you. I met up with an old friend yesterday, who pointed out that others in the body of Christ, and particularly those closest to us, are ‘counter-hearers’ of God’s word. That is, people who highlight our vulnerability, our hypocrisy, who hold a mirror up to us, pulling the rug from under our own feet. People who prevent us from assuming that we are always right. When a church functions as the body of Christ, to be fully human is to have a set of relationships in which God himself can speak properly to us, through actual, human voices.
That doesn’t mean there is a constant flow of supernatural communication. It means that the habits we have, the relationships we have, leave room for us to become ever more fully human, every more fully the people God created us and calls us to be. To live in such a way, as to have a confidence, a vulnerability, and a genuine openness in our relationships with others – that leaves room for God to speak. Not in some silly supernatural way. But because there is a cosmic scope to the down to earth relationships that we have:
Whatever you bind on earth will already have been bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth, will already have been loosed in heaven. In other words, your down-to-earth ways of relating have cosmic scope, a huge impact on others, upon your relationship with God, and upon you!
To be alongside others whose very presence can force an earthquake beneath your feet, shaking off all the rubbish that keeps us as the kind of person whose lifestyle rests upon the refusal to hear the truth about ourselves. To be in the body of Christ, is to be in this kind of relationship with other people! To be alongside, counter-hearers of God’s word, people who have the capacity to highlight our fallibility. To highlight the cosmic scope of our down-to-earth ways of relating to others.
What counts, in our society, as a healthy human being? Does it have anything to do with this radical openness to others? Of course it doesn’t. In theory it may, but in reality, we define a healthy human being in entirely different terms: success, physical prowess, happiness, the capacity to achieve what others hold to be worthy. On that basis, disabled people are easy to spot – and according to trendy theologians, are a reminder of our human limitations.
But really, if to be human is to be in a set of relationships in which we listen well to others, where we can face the truth about who we really are – where, no matter what our stage in life, or our particular set of beliefs – we can have the capacity to be transformed by our encounter with another person – if that is what it means to be human, then disability is something different. Disability is this – [sticking our fingers in our ears]. Of course, we find far more respectable ways of doing this, of hiding our refusal to listen and dressing it up in something that is socially acceptable. And because we do this, it makes disability a much harder thing to discern.
The role of a pastor, the role of a brother and sister in Christ, the role of counter-hearers of the word of God, is to unmask the reality of a situation. This is what good theologians do. This is what I have seen and heard Richard do on countless occasions.
One of the things I will miss most about Bloomsbury, are my theology tutorials with Richard – where we sit and try to write hymns together, but in which I learn theology, Richard style. Apart from the moments when I have been looked in the eye and heard things about myself I might not like to hear, apart from the fact that I have seen him do the same to others… and taking into account the fact that my Bloomsbury theology tutor is as fallible as anyone else – is something Richard said to me recently. “When you hear with your heart as well as your ears, that is wisdom!” And that came to me, from Richard’s lips, in the form of a gentle rebuke. Of course, it is followed by a hug and a laugh – but it is a rebuke nevertheless: and in that moment, you have a clear glimpse of the way and character and authority of God.
And then, having been out with Richard on one occasion, I saw him deal with ‘a sinner’. A lightning reaction from Richard, enabled him to dodge the deadly prongs of an umbrella, being wielded by a person with no awareness of the world beyond their umbrella. And Richard planted himself firmly in the pavement, turned and smiled at them, and called out “Thank you for your umbrella!” Steamrollering his way over convention, there was something god-like, and overflowing with humanity, as he confronted another.
We are human to the extent that we hear God’s voice in the down-to-earth voice of others. We are disabled to the extent that we refuse to do that, when – instead, we barge our way through life with our umbrella, that protects us from being exposed to the word of God.
One of the distinctive traits of this fellowship, is a sheer diversity of character and background and experience. The people around you this morning, if this is the body of Christ, each embody something of who Christ is. Of course, if we obey the dictates of our society, the only people whom we will want to chat with in coffee after the service, the only ones we will admire and aspire to be like, will be those who are successful, or powerful, or are respected by society as a whole. And one of Bloomsbury’s greatest gifts, is that this liturgical coffee is a place where you can see and feel that people really are ready to experience Christ in the stranger. This is why, the post-service coffee is a serious liturgical dimension of our Sunday worship.
Whether the same is true of how our community as a whole listens to the world beyond our doorstep is a question we have to keep asking… To look at the leaflets Colin discovered under the floorboards of the church – outlining the tradition of the church. To listen to the world out there… “Hear O Israel…”
And it’s that call to worship: Hear O Israel. It is the call to be properly human. To hear, to be exposed to God’s voice as it comes to us. And when we try to shelter ourselves from exposure to God’s word – as we all do – then the purpose of worship is to experience the God who plants himself on the pavement, and says “Thank you for your umbrella!” I mean, come on – we are all bustling through life with our umbrella. But, if this is the body of Christ, if this church is here, because God wants it hear – then what does it mean for us? Seriously…
There is no point being part of a great, diverse, varied fellowship, if we cannot hear God’s voice coming to us through the voices of others. What was it Richard said? “To hear with your heart as well as your ears, that is wisdom!”
It is also frightening and costly. Because it means facing the truth about who we really are, about what really motivates us and makes us tick. If we stake our reputation on what we have achieved or hope to achieve, if we find our self worth in the things with which we busy ourselves, if we base our Christian belief on the things that make us comfortable, it means hearing truths we might not want to hear. But that is what being in the body of Christ is about. There is no point being in a diverse community, if you cannot hear God’s voice as it is mediated to us through the other.
When a community is made up of people whose way of being is to listen radically to one another, then that community embodies a politics that is worth hearing and worth being a part of. And here in London, Bloomsbury has a tradition of embodying this distinctive politics. But pulling this off in one generation, is no guarantee of bequeathing it to the next. God put this church here for a purpose. Is that purpose fulfilled in you, here, today? Have you bumped into God this morning, and heard him say to you – personally – “thank you for your umbrella?”
Hear, O Israel. Hear, O Israel. When Israel hears, the ground shakes. When Israel hears, it has a message worth hearing. When Israel hears, it has a politics worth learning. Hear O Israel.
To hear with your heart as well as your ears – that is wisdom.