by Nick Stanyon
If I had a pound for everyone who asked me ’do you know your dog is limping?’ I’d be a very rich man! But I’d rather be a lot poorer, without the irritation of their ‘kindness’. Of course I know! I’ve lived with it for years, and nursed her through the long weeks of paralysis and incontinence at the start of it all. The fact that she now has a limp is nothing compared to what has been. She’s not in any pain, she’s not got a cut, and as far as we know she hasn’t got arthritis either.
But still they queue up to tell us.
The first reaction we get when people see Nina is an ‘Ooh!’ of delight, because she really is a beautiful dog. This is closely followed by an ‘Aah!’ as people recognise her limp and respond in sympathy. We hear it under their breath, or whispered to each other when they think we are out of ear shot, if they don’t say it out loud to us. ‘Ooh...Aah!’ It is a virtually universal reaction.
Soon after Nina was able to walk and sort of run after her ball again, an elderly gentleman came up to me in the park and said, ‘You know, my wife thinks you are cruel. She sees you walking past the window ( ‘cos she can’t get out now, you know!), dragging that poor dog behind you. You should have it put down, she says.’ ( Can you imagine how that made me feel?) But then he quickly followed it up with, ‘But I tells her she’s talking rubbish. I’ve seen her in the park, how she runs and how she delights to chase her ball. She happy, isn’t she?’ (At this point I was thankful I decided not to follow my first instinct and hit him!)
But the thing is, the first thing people see about Nina is her disability. They see it and they feel sorry. But they don’t see the wonderful character and strength of the dog that literally dragged herself to her feet after weeks of total paralysis. All she wanted to do was to chase her ball! In the end, on that most wonderful day, she went for it and did it. She still loves to do it now. So what kind of a cruel person would I be if I didn’t take her to the park and play ball with her, no matter how much she limps or drags her hind feet behind her?
You see, her disability may be an obvious feature about Nina, but I don’t accept that it should be the defining feature of her. I may sometimes call her ‘my disabled dog’ in shorthand to make communication easier, but really I never want to think of her in that way. I feel guilty if I use those words because I know Nina is far more than a disabled dog. She is Nina, with many other strengths and characteristics too.
Now Jesus met many people with illnesses and disabilities, but I don’t believe Jesus ever saw a ‘disabled person’; he saw a person, a full and whole person, who may have had a disability but had much more to him or her than that.
So, when his disciples joined in the general discussion of whether a man’s blindness was caused by his own or his parents sins, he refused to allow that person to be reduced to an intellectual problem and an object of theological discussion – and he healed him on a day and in a way that revealed there were many around who were far more disabled, paralysed by legalism and having suffered an amputation of compassion and care.
To another man ,who had to be carried by his friends to see Jesus and lowered through the roof because there was no other way to get him in (so much for disabled access!), Jesus said ‘your sins are forgiven’. And he said this not at all because he was blaming the man’s paralysis on his sins, but because he could see beyond the man’s disability to the whole person beyond; a person who had deeper issues to deal with than his inability to walk. In doing so, Jesus treated this man just like he would treat the rest of us, because ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. Like all of us, this person needed all his needs addressed, not just those that came with his disability. Perhaps that is what so many who are labelled ‘disabled’ actually long for – to be treated just like everyone else. I suspect Jesus knew that well. (Only later, when this deeper healing and his authority to give it was being questioned, did Jesus tell the man to take up his bed and walk).
When a leper (or rather a man with a dreaded skin disease!) came to him for healing, it was not enough for Jesus to cleanse his skin, he sent him to report to the synagogue and do all that the law required. Why? Because this man had not only suffered from his illness, he had suffered more from the social ostracism that would crush any human spirit. Jesus sent him to the place where he could be officially restored to community. And his acceptance by others, his welcome home, his inclusion in society was something he needed (and probably longed for) far more than physical healing.
Again, a woman who had been bleeding for many years and had probably spent all her money on this doctor and that medication secretly stole a touch of healing from Jesus. Jesus felt the power going out of him, and you may think the best thing to do would have been to let the woman walk quietly away and rejoice in her new found well being. But no, Jesus demanded that she show herself publically. Why? Because once again her greatest need was to be welcomed back into community, no longer ‘labelled’ and excluded, but free to be seen as fully human again.
I once travelled on a crowded train in comfort. I had plenty of leg room, because the seat around me was reserved for wheelchair users, and there was nobody there. When I arrived at my destination, I met a friend on the station. She a wheelchair user, but despite the fact that there was room for her in the carriage beside me, she had been made to travel the full distance in the guards van with the luggage. Next to her was a pile of medical deliveries; bags of blood from the blood donor service. Imagine her indignity at being treated no better that a bag of blood! I felt so angry when she told me, and meant to complain, but she was resigned and defeated and would rather not have the fuss. Things like this had happened before. She was used to being treated as sub human. Used to being seen as an inconvenience. Used to being seen as a ‘disabled person’ and nothing more (although the bag of blood analogy had certainly shaken her)
I fully believe that Jesus would have raged against the railway that allowed this to happen. He would be fully behind equality laws and building regulations that force us to enable access to our buildings and access to our services for all people, no matter how costly and inconvenient that may sometimes seem. He would continue today in challenging society to embrace all people, including those who have disabilities. And most of all he would continue to recognise all people, whether they are able-bodied or not, as the full and wonderful people that they are; people with courage, strength, joys and enthusiasms, hopes and dreams; people reflecting the glory of the image of God.
It frustrates me when all that people see about Nina is her limp and disability. I know there is so much more than to her than that; so much that is wonderful, strong and true. I hope and pray that God will open my eyes to see beyond the immediate and obvious in other people, to appreciate their hidden depths and potential, their full humanity, the image of God within.
Lord, limps and scars and wheel chairs do not stop you from recognising the person within. Help me to look deeper, with your eyes of love. And if I ever see or treat a person as less than they are in you, forgive me. Open the eyes of my heart to each person’s strengths and potential, to their full humanity, to the reflection of your image within. Amen.