In a distance learning class on practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen, Professor John Swanton tells the story of Angela, a deaf student in his class, who told the class of a dream she had.
In that dream she had met with Jesus in heaven. She and Jesus talked for some time, and she said she had never experienced such joy and peace. “Jesus was everything I had hoped he would be,” she said. “And his signing was amazing.”
For Angela, heaven’s perfection did not involve being “healed” of her deafness. Rather, it was a place where the social, relational, and communication barriers that restricted her life in the present no longer existed. What had been a “disability” now became the norm; that which had led to exclusion, anxiety, separation and loss of opportunity now became the precise mode in which Jesus addressed her.
This story calls into question not only the way the Church operates, but the way our entire liberal democracy works. It calls into question the system of human society based mainly on rationality and ability. It turns the modern understanding of belonging, and place, and worth on its head. And it fits perfectly with God's idea of community and His kingdom.
Two specific passages come to mind when I read Angela's dream. First, Luke 14:12-14, which reads:
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
In this passage, we see the centrality of the meal, that table around which belonging, community, and relationship take shape. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L'arche communities, believes it is precisely around the table, at which people of varying abilities and gifts eat together, where the kingdom of God most clearly takes place. To sit with and dine with and listen to those whom society has cast away, those whom are marginalized by our modern, liberal ideas of what it means to be human, is to be transformed. As the passage clearly states, the relationship may not be anything like the Aristotelian notion of mutual relationship based on ability or class or even interests. The relationships formed are much better than that - they are relationship of trust which tear down dividing walls and allow grace to enter in. They are relationships that reflect the very incarnation of Jesus, Who in becoming flesh, tore down the "dividing walls of hostility" and showed the true meaning of relationship.
The second passage is Paul's description of the Church as body, found in I Corinthians 12:21-25, which reads:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
Not only are the "weaker" members indispensable and honorable. This passages explicitly states that God gives greater honor to the members who lacked it (from the point of view of society). God seems to have a preference for the poor, the disabled, those whom the world ignores or neglects. So, in the kingdom of God hear and now, shouldn't those with disabilities and other characteristics that marginalize them in "the world" be precisely where we find God most present and active?
So I love the vision Angela gives us, turning our expectations upside down. She takes us out of places of complacence to give us a fresh, new vision of what the kingdom of God really looks like.