“Is that bullshit at some point?” A dear friend of mine texted me this question during a presentation about fostering inclusive church communities (don’t worry, he’s a vocal advocate for inclusion of all people). I’d described the importance of people-first language (a person who uses a wheelchair rather than a paraplegic), and specifically the commitment to refer to us all as persons with different abilities because it doesn’t prioritize people that have certain abilities over those that don’t have those same abilities. In other words, describing us all as people with different abilities removes the value judgement that more abilities = better.
It’s helpful to understand that both my friend and I have hidden disabilities. We each live with different mental disorders. We each find joyful days and days of struggle. His question comes from a very understandable place. Most of the time, we’d rather live life without our disabilities. It was an honest question because we often imagine that we'd be better off without many of the limitations that shape our lives.
Yet, we also must ask how those different abilities have shaped us for the good. At our core, would I be the same person if I didn’t live with an anxiety disorder, depression, or OCD? What has that combination of chemical imbalances and psycho-spiritual torment taught me that I could not have otherwise known? Does the image of God shine through me despite my disabilities or is God’s image present within my disabilities? Of course, that’s a false dichotomy. It could be both.
The next question that came up in our conversation is this: when we enter God’s eternity, what type of transformation happens to our bodies? Jesus’s scars and descriptive of one possibility. Our eternal bodies are shaped by our presence realities. I don’t mean to prooftext the situation here, but I find this incredibly instructive.
Many people imagine heaven as a place where there’s no such thing as a personal disability. No physical or mental limitation. We’re all the perfect version of ourselves. Except that goes back to the original question. It assumes ability is perfection. Plus, if you talk about this version of heaven too much, it starts to sound way too much like a desire for a master race without impurity. That is neither Christian nor Christ-like. To be sure, that’s not the intent of many people, but we might ask instead: What are we excluding from heaven if everyone has the same abilities?
This hit even closer to home this week when my dear friend Jimmy Lefler died. Jimmy, a member of our church, lived his entire life with a mental disability and spent the last couple of decades in an assisted living facility for people who live with disabilities. Through Jimmy, I developed relationships with all sorts of people with various abilities. Together with Jimmy, CLC even developed a program call Across the Spectrum, which creates opportunities for spiritual development for people of all abilities. Jimmy lived abundant life in Christ more than most any person I know, without caveat.
That all provides the background music to me today as I write Jimmy’s funeral sermon. When we reunite with Jimmy in God’s eternity, who will we meet? Is our hope in Christ that Jimmy would receive abilities he never had in this life, and for that matter, never expressed a desire to have? Or is it that the entire populace would see what we’ve all known all along: that Jimmy’s value isn’t determined by abilities he has or doesn’t have? Is our hope that Jimmy would never need assistance or that all people would rejoice in the opportunity to assist someone who need it?
A few things are most certainly true. One is that I have no certain knowledge of what abilities any of us will have in God’s eternal presence. Another is that, whatever we need, God will provide. Perhaps some of us, because of the ways our abilities have shaped us, need a transformation that allows us to do more or less in order to fully experience God’s fantastic truth. Perhaps others of us will find not our abilities transformed, but the willingness of others to help us do what we can’t, as well as a willingness to ask us to do what we can.
I suppose the point of this all is that, no, it’s not bullshit, but it will always seem like bullshit when we define more abilities as more valuable. Value in the Kingdom of God is incredibly different than value in the workforce. I learned through Jimmy things I had never know about God, about love, and about being the church, things that he shared through his skills and limitations. I couldn’t have loved or appreciated Jimmy more if he had more abilities. I can’t be sure that would be the same person. Most instructive for me in this thought process is the fact that Jimmy never lamented his condition to me. He didn’t see himself as someone to pity. He lived with joy, with wonder, with a practically unparalleled passion for life.
So, from Jimmy, I’ve learned to appreciate my limitations more, and how they’ve shaped me. I've learned to appreciate others' abilities, abilities that are different than mine but no less valid. Whenever we meet, in the fullness of God's Kingdom, I'll know that it was Jimmy's existence in this life that taught me to love all the more, not despite of our differences, but through them.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.