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You Are Welcome to Come Near

In these hazy, lazy days of mid-summer, I find myself pondering the deep mysteries of wheelchair ramps. Naturally. Last night, our little church made the decision to move ahead with plans to add a ramp to our facility alongside a few other improvements to the foyer and entrance. Church business meetings and decisions about facility modifications do not tend to provoke much sustained theological reflection on my part. They probably should, but usually they don’t. Last night, however, I think I heard the voice of God. At a church business meeting, of all things.

On a purely pragmatic level, adding a wheelchair ramp is an impractical decision. Why would you spend tens of thousands of dollars on something that only a few people will use? Why would you modify the entire structure of your building to accommodate those who are physically vulnerable, those who often aren’t directly involved in the machinery of “keeping the church going?” In a culture that glorifies youth and strength, why spend all kinds of money on the old and the weak? In a church culture that is anxious about dwindling numbers and shrinking budgets and aging demographics, would funds not be better spent on marketing strategies or church growth initiatives? These are entirely logical questions.

Ah, but the kingdom of God is a strange place and its imperatives are not always logical or pragmatic. In this kingdom, we learn how to attach value and measure outcomes differently.

Our discussion last night was prefaced by a reflection from one of our members who has lived with a physical disability since an automobile accident sustained while at college. She talked about Old Testament purity laws, about how “imperfections” or “blemishes” meant disqualification from worship and, by extension, community. Animals that had “defects” could not be used for sacrifice. Human beings with disabilities or diseases would often find themselves at the proverbial gate, on the outside looking in. Later, in the gospels, we read of the blind, the crippled, the lame, the leprous always finding themselves on the outside, unable to access God, unable to participate in the community of faith.

Jesus, of course, changed all this. She pointed out that Jesus’ ministry of healing was at least as much about restoration to community as it was about the restoration of physical wholeness. In touching the untouchable, in prioritizing human beings over ritual cleanliness and propriety, in proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favour” in how he approached the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, Jesus declared in a powerful way that our blemishes are no longer obstacles to coming near to God. Because God, in Christ, has taken on our infirmities, has borne our sin, has brought down the proud and raised up the lowly. Jesus shows us that God’s priorities are different than we had previously imagined.

And when we encounter this Jesus, our priorities must change, too. All of a sudden it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seem crazy to spend a good deal of money on something that only a few will use. It doesn’t seem strange for the “strong” to make a way for the “weak.” Indeed, if we have been paying attention to our Scriptures and to our Saviour, we should know that the very categories of “strong” and “weak” have been given a good shaking up by the kingdom proclamation and enactment of Jesus and his cross.

The opening devotional by the woman in our church last night really struck me in a new and powerful way. She said, essentially, that if we make this decision as a church, we are communicating something important to those with disabilities and accessibility issues. We are saying, “You belong here. We value you. You are welcome to come near to God and to us. There is nothing standing in your way.” This is what we do. We come, each one of us blemished, to the God who has come near to us. We make a way to the God who has made a way for us.

One little church adding a wheelchair ramp to its building won’t make any headlines. It probably won’t lead to masses of newcomers pouring through our doors. It won’t reverse all the doom and gloom trends of church in the post-Christian secular wasteland of the twenty-first century West. It won’t demonstrate our “relevance” to spiritual seekers. Some might consider it a poor investment indeed. But it is a decision that speaks insistently and, I think, truly of who we are (or aspire to be) and who God is. It says that investing looks different in the gospel economy. It says that there is more than one way to measure value, and that the metrics we default toward are often small and selfish things. It says that we have encountered Jesus and that we want our priorities to align with his.

—–

The image above is called “Blind Angel” and is taken from the 2016-17 Christian Seasons Calendar. The Scripture passage included alongside artist Cornelia Schmitter’s comments about this piece are taken from Philippians 2, and begin with, “Let each of your look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well done!. I hope you are as welcoming to those with mental disorders and handicaps

    July 25, 2017
  2. Natalie #

    love it

    July 25, 2017
  3. Helen #

    Thank you, Ryan, and especially Marie.

    July 25, 2017
  4. Jeff Kisner #

    Thanks for the art, “The Blind Angel.” I’d not heard of the calendar. I’ve put it on my list.

    July 26, 2017
  5. Ryan, I have lived 61 years of my 65 with gradually losing function to neuro-muscular disease. As a child in Spokane, we sat in the first row, so that we could easily get to Communion. As an young adult in Seattle, I walked with a cane, and led worship playing my guitar and singing from a tall stool just outside the sanctuary. Later, my church in Pasadena had a level entrance on the right side of the building that was wheelchair accessible: my children would push me to the end of the row, where I would transfer and then they would fold the wheelchair and stash it off to the side. My current church here in Sequim has a somewhat steep but doable ramp to enter the church, and wheelchair designated pews at three row-ends, where 3 wheelchairs can “park” without the church-goer needing to transfer: Communion is brought to us in the pews. I still lead music sometimes: I roll out in front of the congregation, since the ambo where the lectors and other psalm leaders stand is up 2 steps, and therefore inaccessible.
    May I say, from the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul, IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE to be able to join in worship with our limitations anticipated and therefore rendered unremarkable.
    You may be surprised to find that you DO get a few more congregants!

    July 26, 2017
    • Thank you for sharing here, Kyra. I am truly grateful for your story and for the way it adds flesh and bone to what is for me often an abstraction. I love the way you put it:

      IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE to be able to join in worship with our limitations anticipated and therefore rendered unremarkable.

      July 26, 2017
  6. If I could have “loved” this, I would have. 🙂

    July 28, 2017

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