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Sunday, 16 October 2016

Reality reshaped by disability

Day two of Prophets & Seers, a weekend of events exploring disability and church at St Martin-in-the-Fields began with a Eucharist and healing service for St Luke’s Day reflecting on the themes of the weekend and using liturgy written by St Martin’s Disability Advisory Group and Healing Team. The service included the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, accompanied by prayers for healing for individuals, someone else or the wider world. A screening of the acclaimed documentary film Notes on Blindness also took place in St Martin’s Hall. The film is based on John Hull’s audio diaries, as he reflected on his journey into blindness. Joining us for the screening were the filmmakers and Marilyn Hull.

Here is my sermon from the St Luke's Day Eucharist:

Our symbol for this year's weekend of events exploring disability and church is that of ripples on a lake. This weekend we are celebrating five years of conferences on disability and church organised by St Martin's and Inclusive Church, whilst also celebrating the profound influence of the theologian John Hull, who spoke in past years at the conference, and who died last year. The image of ripples was chosen to represent the rippling out of influences from the conference, John Hull and our own Disability Advisory Group.

I want to use that same image in a different way this morning. In the novel ‘The Book of Questions’ by Edmond Jabès, a rabbi speaks of ripples on a lake as representing a face with marks, wrinkles or wounds which reflects the face of God. If we understand the image of ripples in that way then we can make a connection between the image and the story of Jacob, from today’s Old Testament reading (Genesis 32. 22 - 32). Jacob’s story is of a journey from a selfish and ambitious focus on himself to a place of valuing relationships and the founding of a nation, where the moment of transition involves a disabling experience after wrestling with God. He carried the marks of that experience with him as he limped into a period of his life that had significance for the many, rather than the few. His disability reflected the work of God in his life.

This morning I want to explore how our reality can be reshaped by disability by comparing and contrasting the story of Jacob with that of two writers who both wrestled with God in relation to their experience of disability. The first of these, Jack Clemo, was one of the most extraordinary poets of the twentieth century. Although not as widely recognised as he should be, the 100th anniversary of his birth, in the heart of Cornwall’s China Clay Country, has been rightly celebrated this year.

Jack became deaf at the age of nineteen and blind in his thirties. These experiences of disability which combined with his rural location and his strong Evangelical faith, which was at odds with an increasingly secularized Britain, all served to make him an isolated outsider calling out ‘from the margins.’ His is a poetry which has power as he finds words to articulate his condition and convictions in his experience of marginalisation.

He used the landscape of the clayworks where he lived for much of his life - a landscape that had been violently shaped by industrial working - as a metaphor for the invading Gospel of Christ. His focus was on ‘the innate sinful condition of ‘nature,’ sin having warped nature just as much as humankind, with only God’s intervention able to restore the intended state of grace. As a result, he ‘believed his own suffering’ (for that was how he viewed his disabilities) ‘was necessary, but only as evidence for the crucial purification of original sin.’ So he declared that suffering (meaning his experience of disability) ‘in itself had taught me nothing; it had merely created the conditions in which joy could teach me, and so it could never be the last word or even the vitalizing word in my Christian adventure.’

Jack believed that God would invade his isolation by giving him the threefold happiness of healing, marriage and success as an Evangelical poet. As a result, he made few attempts to live with his disabilities, refusing to learn braille for example, and wrote some poetry which seems critical of those who chose to live with the experience of disability rather than seeking cure through God's invasive power. He achieved a measure of success as a poet and also married in his 50’s, but, despite much prayer for healing over many years and many moments when he thought healing had come, never experienced the physical healing which he fervently sought. His biographer, Luke Thompson, writes that ‘However we interpret Jack’s beliefs about the role of God in his life, they seem wrong. Over and over again, his statements and expectations were disproved; the signs and patterns perceived were incorrect; God’s promises were broken. It would be possible to construct a picture of a divinity working through Jack’s life, but it would require a complete renegotiation of the terms.’ That is, in part, because Jack only valued his disabilities as an arena in which God could demonstrate his healing powers to an unbelieving world.

By contrast we can consider the experience of the John Hull who, in the early 1980s, after decades of steady deterioration, lost his sight. ‘To help him make sense of the ensuing upheaval in his life, he began to keep an audio diary. Across three years, he created a unique testimony of loss, rebirth and renewal, excavating the interior world of blindness.’ ‘Based on these original recordings and his published diaries ‘Touching the Rock’, [the film] Notes on Blindness recreates his ‘journey through emotional turmoil and spiritual crisis to a renewed perception of the world and the discovery of ‘a world beyond sight’.’

In the book and film we travel with John Hull ‘farther and farther into the world … of blindness, until finally he comes to a point where he can no longer summon up memories of faces, of places, even memories of the light. This is the bend in the tunnel: beyond this is “deep blindness.” And yet at this … darkest … point, there comes a mysterious change—no longer an agonized sense of loss … but a new sense of life and creativity and identity. “One must recreate one’s life or be destroyed,” Hull writes, and it is precisely re-creation, the creation of an entirely new organization and identity, which [he] described ... At this point … [he] wonders if blindness is not “a dark, paradoxical gift” and an entry—unsought … but to be received—into a new and deep form of being.’ In reflecting on the nature of that gift, John said that, ‘After living with it and meditating on it for some time, I realized that blindness is not just a loss but it is one of the great human states which have characteristics of its own.’

My works,’ he wrote, ‘are … a yearning to overcome the abyss which divides blind people from sighted people. In seeking to overcome that abyss I've emphasized the uniqueness of the blind condition—blindness is a world. I've also sought to show that it's one of a number of human worlds. That sight is also a world. And that to gain our full humanity, blind people and sighted people need each other’. As a result, before his untimely death last year, John called on disabled people to challenge the church with a distinct prophetic ministry based on their own lived experience.

Both Jack Clemo and John Hull wrestled with God as a result of their experiences of disability. Jack increasingly wrestled with the reality that he had not been healed. His struggle was with God’s failure to grant to him the supernatural transformation that he desired and this desire and struggle left him isolated and lacking in solidarity with other disabled people. Because he viewed his disabilities as an arena in which God would demonstrate his power to cure, he did not explore the dimensions of the worlds of blindness and deafness that he inhabited or their potential for relationship preferring to remain waiting independently for rescue from those worlds. As a result, he was personally dependent on those around him and his poetry became strident and simplistic when he reasserted his belief in a cure that he was not receiving.

John, by contrast, recognised that he had been given the gift of experiencing the world of blindness realising that it is a world to inhabit, not to seek to leave, and his wrestling with God was the wrestle to reshape his reality, to receive a new and right spirit to trust that in the midst of the world of blindness, truth will be experienced and shared. He realised that, as a result of his twin experiences, he was able to speak into the worlds of blind and sighted people and emphasise their need of one another.

How do these stories relate to Jacob’s experience of wrestling with God? Jacob divided his family on the basis of his own ambition buying his elder brother Esau’s birthright and tricking his dying Father into giving a blessing that also belonged by right to his brother. While primarily selfish in a way that was not the case for Jack Clemo, his independent isolation does have similarities with Jack’s isolation and independent vocation. Jacob then wanted to be reconciled to Esau but was worried that Esau’s reaction toward him would be aggressive, so he set up a series of gifts for Esau and spent an anxious night wrestling with God. His experience of wrestling with God was a liminal moment in his life, a rite of transition from an essentially self-centred individualistic existence to become forefather to a people who, like the sand on the seashore, could not be numbered. This change involved crossing a boundary (the river Yabbok), struggling (with God) and naming (as Jacob became known as the Patriarch to Israel, the people who struggle with God). He limped away from this experience but went with God’s blessing, so his experience of change and transition was both disabling and a blessing. His reality was reshaped, enabling him to receive the generous act of reconciliation which his brother afforded him the next day.

Like John Hull, Jacob found his disabling experience to be one through which he gained a greater understanding of himself, his role, his destiny, his people, his world and his God. The result, as for John, was renewed relationships. Unlike Jack, who thought cure would demonstrate God’s reality and who, therefore, separated himself from other disabled people, Jacob and John experienced disability as the threshold to re-creation, renewal and relationship. That is a deeper, fuller experience of healing and a greater demonstration of God’s reality and presence. To return to the image with which we began, the marks of their experiences reflected the face of God.

John Hull taught that blind people and sighted people, disabled people and non-disabled people need each other. That realisation begins as disabled people challenge the church with a distinct prophetic ministry based on their own lived experience. The Greek poet Tasos Leivaditis has described just such a moment of realisation and so I end with his prose-poem ‘The Blind Man and the Lamp’:

IT WAS NIGHT and I had made the greatest decision of
the century — I would save humanity — but how? — as
thousands of thoughts were tormenting me I heard footsteps,
opened the door and beheld the blind man from the opposite
room walking down the hallway and holding a lamp — he
was about to go down the stairs — ‘What is he doing with
the lamp?’, I asked myself and suddenly an idea flashed
through my mind — I found the answer — ‘My dear brother,’
I said to him, ‘God has sent you,’
and with zeal we both got down to work . . .’


Mahalia Jackson - There Is A Balm In Gilead.

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