“A Primer on Primordial Ooze.”

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

All right, now. Hold on. You mentioned shithole countries, sir. Which ones do you mean?

Let’s get technical just for a second. I’m sure you don’t mind, stable genius that you are. Do you mind a quick world-history refresher, albeit from a biased source? No? Good.

There is demonstrable proof—science-based proof, the kind I know you love!—that human beings…all of us…emerged from a series of hominid ancestors in Africa. There are fossils and other records telling experts very clearly that humanoid life-forms like ours have existed in some form for a couple million years…and that all of us owe our existence to a certain small subset of those hominids who developed sentience a few hundred thousand years ago in Africa. So, if you want to talk about shithole nations, here’s your first lesson, sir. We all come from the same shithole nation, and have no business throwing feces at each other.

Moreover! Each individual nation has its own unique brand of muck…or, at least, we thought of each other that way. My ancestors come from England (Somersetshire), Scotland (Dumfriesshire, as well as Argyll and the Inner Hebrides), and somewhere in Germany. Not so long ago—a few centuries ago—those nations hated each other’s guts. For instance, it would have taken very strong drink, or very strong firepower, to get a Highland Scot to come to table peaceably with an English person. And not so long ago, what we now call England, Scotland, and Germany were all considered shithole nations, too. The Greeks called everybody who didn’t speak their language “barbarians,” because they all sounded like sheep. Bar, bar, bar. And the Romans—the fellows who basically launched the brand of the eagle, long before your country—looked down on Britons, and later on Saxons, as uncouth in those same ways. These were people fit only to be conquered, with their women raped and their resources pillaged. To the best of my limited knowledge, the island of Britain has been conquered by individual invading armies…seven times? Maybe nine? Thus, if ever there was a shithole nation, sir, then Britain—the place most of my ancestors come from—was indeed such a region.

You’re still following me, right? You are, by your own admission, very smart, so I’m sure I’ve set all your wheels spinning. Pay attention, now. I have one more big thing to say.

I feel like your claim about “shithole nations” is missing the point. Like most nations older than the three here in North America, Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern nations have tons of cultural capital. Think about it: you’re a first-rate businessman, so I know that you love math. I think I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: nations where Arabic is spoken and written gave us the math we use now. They gave to history algebra and other forms of higher mathematics; they laid the foundations of religious tolerance in their law…for the love of Heaven, they preserved Aristotle when younger nations had forgotten his works…and they brought us coffee, which essentially makes the world go round.

Good. I haven’t lost you. Don’t reach for the big Coke button just yet.

I know that I’m preaching to the choir; I’m sure that you already know all the things I’ve pointed out to you, good hombre that you are. Let’s just recap: we all come from the same place, Africa; Britain and other European nations were also called garbage heaps back in the day; and the nations older than the one you govern have given the world important things too.

And you`ve told us that you have the best words, right? Here’s a word that I’m sure you’ve heard used recently: xenophobia. That means fear of strangers. But, I mean, you’re super smart, and you’re currently the head of state in a powerful country…so surely you don’t need to be afraid of anyone. That’s just something to think about, sir. Go talk to Mr. Putin about it.

I’ll send in the guy with the big red shoes with your cheeseburger on my way out. Good night.

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“The World in a Drop of Rain.”

I wrote this one this evening, in response to world events. I hope you like it. 🙂


The World in a Drop of Rain

I sit here, in my slowly lowering chair,

And dream of summer, with all its sultry Sixties grooves.

The bitter winds and slush all fall away,

Leaving me with the world in a drop of rain,

And verdant dreams as green as grass in June.

 

Why do the nations rage, like winter winds,

Still howling threats of thermonuclear war?

Why do we bluster, in our nagging fear and pain,

And hound each other with the threat of force?

A great stone wall, a guarded parapet,

Can keep hate out, but still locks stern fear in,

And fear makes everyone a prisoner.

We amble all around the prism, staring out,

And watch our fears reflected in the glass.

We check ourselves with prejudice and pride.

 

Unless all countries come from the same muck—

And rest assured, they do—no one’s a shithole,

And we cannot cast our stones so easily,

Because we sit inside the prism fear.

We all come from the same dark, ancient dust,

The same primordial plasm beneath an African sun…

One mote of dust cannot judge another,

And we can’t see each other for the specks

Of hurt and hatred lodged within each eye.

 

I mean, the world’s too cold and dark to throw more shade;

Each gentle word’s a soft, subtle, solar ray,

And every smile’s alight with possibility:

We reach across the aisle to join our hands;

We knead the dough, and cut the peppers up,

And toss them in the scarlet aromatic sauce.

We snap the beans, and husk the waiting corn,

And break the bows, and shatter all the spears.

We follow all the errant shooting stars

Along their splendid cosmic arc of love.

“The Archer’s Kiss.”

I wrote this on New Year’s Eve. It’s deliberately allusive, rather than pointed. I hope you like it! 🙂


The Archer’s Kiss

I’m past the drama of the firefight.

I ponder moonlight and the sullied, greyish snow.

My fearful thoughts, like flunkies, careen from left to right;

Some keep their peace, and some will see the light.

No matter where I turn, my fury starts to grow.

 

Even in my rage and reticence, I dream,

And all my dreams involve a sort of fear;

I mop and vacuum till the floors all gleam,

And mount the chin-up bar to let off steam,

But everything is slowly coming clear.

 

What is my fear? I fear the quiet most of all,

The silence that still echoes through each room.

Each book and picture from before the fall

Speaks to the whisper’s dreadful, aching, thoughtless pall;

These memories fill me with sorrow, angst, and gloom.

 

I hear unspoken words, and mouth unanswered prayers,

Still sitting at the table in my grief.

Each spotless dish reflects a world of cares.

Each sitcom’s a reminder. No one shares

My pain. The world can give us no relief.

 

And yet, I cry in pain, and you still hear my cries.

You take my calls; you fill my life with song.

You help me dry my failing, tear-filled eyes,

And offer me both wonder and surprise.

You help me to redress the ancient wrong.

 

What can I do, and who should I now be,

To quell my aging fear, and glimpse again the bliss

That filled me with June’s sunlight, pure and free?

The moonlight, and my memories, sing to me,

And offer me Apollo’s lingering kiss.

 

His soft quicksilver lips fill me with light,

And clear the clouds of doubt and rage away.

His kisses warm me on this winter night,

And help me know my suffering aright…

And thus, December is a summer’s day.

 

The archer’s kiss fills me with soft, poetic peace,

Surrounding me, just like December snow.

My thoughts of grief and sorrow crowd, then cease,

As wine and music give my seraph soul release.

Now I’m unsure, but someday soon I’ll know.

“The Slow Dance of Friendship: a Sermon for Wine Before Breakfast.”

I preached this sermon yesterday, Tuesday, November 28th, at Wine Before Breakfast at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. My text was Mark 7:24-30.

I hope you like it!


Long ago, when I was very young, I used to hate middle-school dances (on P.E.I., we called that level of education “junior high”; the idea’s the same). You remember: people would crowd into a darkened gymnasium at night, in sock feet, and we guys—especially we nerdy ones—would wait with eagerness and dread for the dimming of the lights for the slow dances. As we heard Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply,” or Bon Jovi’s “Always,” or other sappy, poppy songs, we asked ourselves: would we be chosen? In particular, I wondered whether girls would even notice me, with my awkward loping gait and my emotional intensity, or whether I would be passed over. Very rarely, even in high school, did I feel chosen or included in that way.

Now that I know I can dance, row great distances in five minutes, and do fifteen or more chin-ups, of course, I see it differently. That said, back then it was about being chosen. Do I belong? Do I fit in? Will the people in the inner circles of cool accept me? Am I as cool as, say, a Simon Beairsto, or a Dave Krause, or a Deb Whalen-Blaize? Have you ever felt that way? I’m sure that sometimes you have: standing in church, longing for a touch, a word, a smile of recognition. I remember longing for affectionate touch when I was thirteen or fourteen; I remember aching for it, even within these walls at Wycliffe, as recently as a few months ago. That feeling…the yearning for welcome by people who understand us…never really goes away. Even when the sunshine has come, my friends, the shadow remains.

That’s sort of where we come to today’s text, Mark 7:24-30. This is Part I, Explanation.

In today’s passage, after disputing the Pharisees over tradition and winning yet again, Jesus is tired. He goes to what he thinks will be a quiet place for a couple days’ vacation: he goes to Tyre, where nobody knows him…and he looks forward to lying on a beach for a couple days…

And then his vacation is interrupted. This Gentile woman has heard about Jesus’ healing powers, and she follows him to the house where he stays; I imagine that she beats down the door. She’s longing to experience Jesus’ love, because she knows that he can make the pain go away. “Sir,” I can hear her moaning, “My daughter has a demon. Can you…can you help her, Jesus?” The scene paints itself vividly on our minds. The scene reminds me strongly of some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words from a sermon around Christmas 1934. Referring explicitly to people with disabilities, Bonhoeffer says, “The Christian relation between the strong and the weak is that the strong has to look up to the weak, and never to look down. Weakness is holy; therefore we devote ourselves to the weak.” Wow. That’s mind-blowing. Weakness is holy.

So we wait, with bated breath, for the Holy One to devote himself to this weak person; we hope that the Saviour will reach out with a kind word and a gesture of inclusion to this woman, and so…well, his response may surprise us. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.” Sorry, wait. Can you unpack that, Jesus?

Jesus’ words surprise me, mostly because they’re mean. A few weeks ago, I had a short chat with Joanna at and after breakfast. She was working on her sermon, the passage before this one; at that initial point, she summed it up rather well as Jesus saying, “Don’t be an asshole!” Unfortunately, I was away during Jo’s preaching last week; the way that I read that passage, the Pharisees are the legalistic ass-hats who judge people for the way they wash their hands, their cups, their food, but here…here Jesus, opponent of the Pharisees, stops this woman cold in full-on legalistic ass-hat mode. Jesus is being the kind of person he decries. He’s not being generous, as we’re asked to be this Offering Tuesday; here, I find Jesus cold, distant, and pretty selfish.

Generally, this is the image of Jesus that we stay away from: many people in mainline and evangelical churches, like the ones many of us come from, want to portray Jesus as gentle and meek. That Jesus talks softly and carries a big stick; he doesn’t upset our desire of who is in power, of who will receive healing. That Jesus doesn’t mess with our ideas of who gets God’s provision. That Jesus would want to dance with everyone in harmony and intimacy. Right?

That Jesus, God of gentleness, would never call a woman a dog—let alone a not-nice name for a female dog that I won’t put in a sermon! But this Jesus just did, so…why? Our old friend Walter Brueggemann has a couple ideas. He says that every society has purity laws…and that this Gentile woman takes Jesus to task about the narrowness of his social and religious vision of purity. Brueggemann observes that the woman has to school Jesus in the use of his healing powers, and to give him space to grow in his own liberating spirituality.

As we hear in the text, the woman does reprimand Jesus softly but soundly. “Yes, sir, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from beneath the children’s table.” She takes the insult and turns it on its head; in a way, she reclaims the term and uses it to get what she needs from Jesus. She yearns for, and asks for, healing—healing to which only the children of Israel are privy, in Jesus’ view. So, of course, he’s shocked. I imagine him thinking quietly for a moment, then taking her hand, and rewarding her faith with a few choice words of blessing. “That’s a good point. Go home. The demon has left your daughter.” It’s not, “Go in peace, for your faith has made you well,” as it was a few weeks ago for the woman with the flow of blood, but it works.

That ending makes us feel pretty good, right? Jesus grows as a person, because the foreign woman who has totally interrupted his vacation and invaded his space forces him to enlarge his concept of hospitality. She’s not a female dog; she’s a full human being, just as Jesus is. She moves from being an unclean Gentile to being part of God’s family. She’s moved into the space of being chosen. Brueggemann says that the woman forbids “old racist distinctions” from “determin[ing] who will get healing.” That’s super cool! The woman implores Jesus to dance with her intimately, and so changes his worldview. That said, our journey isn’t yet complete.

This leads us to Part II: Application. What remains for us as a community in terms of this passage? There are a number of angles: in his sermon, Brueggemann discusses racism.

For my part, I want to talk about ableism. Ableism is the systemic and personal discrimination against, and oppression of, people like me. People with disabilities exist on the periphery of Church and society. Tanya Titchkosky, a sociologist with dyslexia who teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, calls people with disabilities “unexpected participants.” Let me explain: the people who built Wycliffe College, as good and well-meaning as they were, did not expect to see people in power-wheelchairs who would be Anglican priests…because they were only used to seeing people who had completely functional legs, and could walk up a set of stone steps; and don’t even get me started on Robarts Library, with wheelchair access in the back. No, friends: ableism is alive and well at the University of Toronto. It occurs daily on the TTC; it lurks behind the beauty of Trinity’s chapel across the road; it’s everywhere…and this passage, especially this passage’s ending, cries out for it to change.

The woman in Mark 7 had a daughter with an “unclean spirit.” That can take many forms. It could have been epilepsy, or pretty much any neurological disorder; the girl’s mother cries out for her healing because the girl cannot help herself. The family background of “Syro-Phoenician”—not Jewish, and not Roman citizens, but likely Gentiles with Middle Eastern and African roots—oppresses her, because the colour of the girl’s skin will impact her access to health care. So, rather than trusting Roman surgeons, the woman tells Jesus her story.

The woman in this story is yearning for healing, the gentle and substantive healing that comes from Jesus’ touch. She feels fragile, and longs for Jesus to make her and her daughter whole again. She yearns for what I call affective access to God’s equity in my dissertation: this woman wants Jesus to dance with her, rather than to turn away coldly, as he’s almost done here. She longs for a sort of Eucharistic wholeness, the kind where people can be vulnerable and available to each other. Even with the “crumbs from the table,” a small morsel of spiritual food, she wants to feel the intimacy that Jesus can show to believers with all abilities, and to know God’s friendship…because God’s friendship offers constancy, comfort, and strength.

In the same way, we people with disabilities are longing to tell our siblings of able body our stories, to have you see us and choose us as friends! People with low visual acuity, people who use wheelchairs, friends with MS and ALS, and people with virtually any sort of mental-health issue struggle to find purchase in the Church…and long to be understood even in the simple and kind of blunt way in which Jesus understands this woman. We—people with disabilities—yearn for believers of able body to dance with us, in the slow dance of friendship.

It was hard for me to dance slowly and gently at first. I have fewer neurons on the left side of my head than most of you. That limitation knocks out my spatial reasoning, constrains the entire right side of my body, and makes it difficult for me to discern, let alone control, some of my emotions. Yes: as many of you have noted to my face, I’m an intense person. It takes so much friggin’ energy for me to focus, and to make my way towards a goal that I can often only see at a slant, that occasionally I am quite intense. My body makes me feel sad and angry most of the time. Of course, that’s not an excuse for me to loose my anger on others; I’ve done that before, and I regret it. Indeed, the thing about this community that gives me the greatest joy is that in my longing for clarity and balance, in the midst of my pain, you accompany me, and we accompany each other. You offer me far more than what the Gentile woman, and Bono, call the “crumbs from the table.” You choose me; you make my yearning worth it.

In late October, Aileen wrote to me to ask for a couple pieces of material I’d used in the community-inclusion workshop through my work at OCAD, so that she could share those materials with Brian and Marcia. She did so, and later Marcia shared the staff’s accessibility action plan with me. The chaplaincy’s nascent plan made me very excited, because it shows that people of able body are starting to acknowledge the importance of the physical and social tasks of inclusion, and to bring people with impairments into God’s family. Plus, we’re about to experience the Eucharist together; as I said before, the Eucharist binds us together as a community by reminding us of our vulnerability and availability—the same vulnerability the woman shares with Jesus, and the openness that he eventually offers her in return.

This passage shows that inclusion is difficult but worth it. It’s hard, because it involves reflecting on our prejudices; it’s worth it—oh my God, so worth it!because, when we include each other, we become stronger and greater than we are alone. We become who God wants us to be…and, as the woman does, we may find that God is changed by our experience.

I hope that we can take these lessons into this cold Tuesday morning. In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer…

Amen!

 

 

 

“The Climate of Conversation.”

On Monday afternoon, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, and am now a doctor of theology! I’m a bit confused about that, going forward, but it feels important. 🙂

I sort of came to view my thesis as self-talk, the kind of motivational discourse with myself that empowers me to act in the world. When this poem talks about language, that’s what it’s talking about. I hope you like this. 🙂


The Climate of Conversation

It’s difficult to learn to live again,

To dwell within the silence as a friend.

I poured my grief and joy into a conversation,

Into a mode of discourse with myself

Where I embrace the Word that shapes my life.

 

What is that Word, still hanging on my lips?

Can I not now record it for the world to hear?

How does it sound? Is it a Hebrew phrase,

A lyrical line, like laughter in the wind?

Or is it Scots Gaelic, roughened with a burr?

What language holds the word of ontic power?

 

I can’t be sure if earthly language holds the key

To all the power that I unlocked yesterday.

That doesn’t really matter; I think the point

Lies in the dialogue of sheer delight,

The discourse that lays claim to all my flesh.

My body’s captivated by the holy word,

Enjoined to sing in its discursive chains.

 

Where can I find the joy of conversation?

I find it on the iron chin-up bar

Where my synapses talk to each other,

Sending soft messages of strength and love;

I find it in a raucous Springsteen song,

And in the gentle groove of Sixties soul…

I find it in the touch of loving hands,

And in a slowly-steeping cup of tea.

 

What is the end of dialogue? So what?

I think the point is living, growing action.

We do not simply speak of love and hate,

But live them out in gardens and dark hotel rooms.

The dogged seeds of love will bloom, with time,

Into the joyful flowers and foods of generous hearts,

While anything that grows in cold and callous climes

Will wither with the coming of the sun.

 

The someday of our love is not far off,

Though nascent hatreds stoke our latent fears,

And fierce floods strip Houston of security.

It’s just beyond the threshold; through the clouds,

We’ll see it in the fiery setting sun.

“Becoming the Body of Christ: Accessibility, Vulnerability, and Solidarity Among Believers of Diverse Abilities!”

I presented this workshop to justice-minded members of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, some of whom had disabilities, this afternoon at St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church in North York, Ontario, Canada. I hope you like it!


A. Theological and Practical Avenues to Churchly Access

Hi! My name’s Mike Walker, and I’ll be your facilitator this afternoon. Can everyone hear me? Good! Then let’s go. J

This workshop will explore some of the theological and practical aspects of a sacramental ecclesiology of disability. That is, it’ll concern how baptism and Holy Communion can help Christians with and without disabilities to create accessible, just, and loving church-communities. I’ll focus that sacramental lens on the contours of physical, intellectual, affective, and spiritual access to divine justice for believers of diverse abilities, and explain how the transformed perception that makes that access possible lends itself to covenantal relationships. This workshop will be very dialogical, and thus quite participatory. That is, at specific points, I’m gonna make you all talk to each other, and tell me what access to God’s justice looks like

B. Every Body Matters: Defining Disability

The first and most important part of justice for believers with disabilities is that all people—everybody, irrespective of ability—is made in God’s Image. As I occasionally say, every body matters, and everyone reflects God’s desire to relate to God’s creation. Who are people with disabilities? People with disabilities are those who experience functional, physical and intellectual limitations in social contexts. Blindness, deafness, and cerebral palsy are all physical disabilities. At the same time, intellectual disabilities, such as autism-spectrum disorders and schizophrenia, are those that affect people’s capacity to perform cognitive and emotional processes. Furthermore, one could also call depression and anxiety emotional disabilities. For instance, I’m a person with spastic cerebral palsy. I experience constant tension in my muscles, my limbs shake all the time, and I have one fully-functional limb—this one (wave left arm).

So, everyone, including people with disabilities, is made in God’s Image. In Genesis, God creates human beings to relate to each other, to God, and to the earth where they live. The human beings’ encounter with the serpent complicates that relationship, because the snake introduces the two people to shame. The serpent claims that God doesn’t have human beings’ best interests at heart, and so casts doubt on the people’s relationship to God; that introduction of sin—the acting out of desires that do not spring from our relationship to our Creator—creates the conditions for the ableism that all people of varied abilities face, inside and outside the Church.

C. Ableism in the Church(?!): Different Forms of Ecclesial Ableism

I said that sin makes room for ableism. Simply defined, ableism is the systemic (and, distressingly, sometimes personal!) discrimination against, and oppression of, people with disabilities, by people of able body. Ableism is the confluence of different factors that allow some bodies—the beautiful, healthy, young, able ones—to take priority over those of us with mobility issues, like me; those of us with intellectual disabilities, like me and like others you know; and those of us who have other difficulties, like multiple sclerosis, arthritis, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. And so that I get to say it aloud, in your hearing: ableism is sin.

Within the church, ableism takes several forms. First, believers of able body often disconfirm the experiences of believers with disabilities: that is, they’ll deny people with disabilities the voice and agency to act for themselves, and/or refuse to affirm their existence. For example, Jennie Weiss Block, a noted Roman Catholic disability advocate, tells a poignant story. She writes, “I was once eating dinner in a very nice restaurant in Washington, D.C. with a well-known disability activist. He has a law degree, heads a large disability agency, is married with three children, and uses a wheelchair. The waiter looked directly at me and asked, ‘What will he have?’” (2002, 47-48). Or try this one: Cyndi Jones, a survivor of poliomyelitis, remembers that in the 1950s, when she was in elementary school, she felt put down by an advertisement of her—with her picture—that clearly told children that they didn’t want to look like her or other polio survivors (Shapiro 1993, 13). Honestly! Who would write that?

Disconfirmation also appears in the language that people use for each other. Jennie Block lists many names that people with disabilities encounter because of our unique modes of perception. We are called names like “idiots,” “retards,” “deaf and dumb,” “lame,” “spaz,” “differently-abled,” “physically challenged,” “mentally different,” “partially sighted,” “afflicted,” “crippled,” “victim,” and “deformed” (Block 2002, 48). I don’t like those names! In particular, I detest names like “lame,” “cripple,” and “retard,” all of which have been applied to me. These words have no place within a loving church-community. I am much more a fan of names like friend and brother; these are names that some in this room have often used for me.

Second, ableism appears—even in the Church!—through the low expectations that people of able body have of people with disabilities. People assume that a young Jewish man with multiple disabilities cannot study effectively for his bar mitzvah (Block 2002, 2002, 48-49), that a woman with no arms and no legs cannot effectively join the choir in a church (Eiesland 1994, 35), and so on. We who have disabilities are continually oppressed by low expectations. When I was born, in the fall of ’84, my parents were told that I would struggle to walk, to talk, and to have a normal life. You may be pleased to learn that I can dance, write a good English sonnet, play board-games, do chin-ups, and write highly-effective prayers. J

Ableism isn’t just about disconfirmation and the low expectations of people of able body, either. Third, ableism consists in people with able bodies “taking over,” deciding what’s best for people with disabilities without our consent. In Eugene Peterson’s Message, Romans 12:7—a crucial part of one of Paul’s discourses on the Body of Christ—reads thus: “If you help, just help; don’t take over.” All Christians, of all abilities, are part of Christ’s Body, so all its members have to work together. Problem is, many Christians of able body are friggin’ terrible at helping without taking over. Many people of able body assume that they know the perspectives of their siblings with disabilities, without actually knowing them. For instance, when a child with Down syndrome or autism is born, many parents hear, “Oh, it must be God’s will” (Black 1996, 47-51). How do believers know what God’s will is? And some people of able body speak to us thoughtlessly. I sometimes hear, “Oh! You have cerebral palsy? That must be so hard for you.” No, it isn’t really. The hard thing for me is listening to people who should know better project their fear and distaste onto my lived experience. Once, at my college of registration at UofT, a very impertinent older woman actually asked me outright, “Did you get it done for science?” What? Why would I do that? And if I wanted to, what business is it of yours?

Plus, some people with able body simply dominate people with disabilities: they tie us to our beds when we need to be dressed or changed; they refuse us access to our money, or forbid us to see a movie in a theatre because we happen to use a wheelchair (Shapiro 1993, 107-8, 138-39). Those actions are both irresponsible and unloving. People with disabilities need agency too! For instance, Jeff Gunderson had terrible experiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Wisconsin nursing homes until he found a personal attendant who became a good friend, who would cook and watch TV with him (ibid, 238-49). That is the kind of agency Christians of varied abilities need, in order to flourish; that’s the power sacramental community gives to us!

By this point, you may have noticed that ableism is a failure of perception, whereas access, its opposite, is successful—by which I mean “open” and “generous”—perception. When I say access, I mean a point of entry—or, ideally, multiple points of entry—to God’s dignity and joy. Tanya Titchkosky, a sociologist with dyslexia at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, asserts that access is a radical and generous form of perception where people of different body types are asked to “wonder” about the way that society is set up, and to ponder how human beings can encounter each other generously (Titchkosky 2011, 3, 145-47).

That’s where we’re going to go next. The sacraments, rituals that make Christ present to church-communities, offer access to God’s promised wholeness and integrity for people of all abilities, and indeed for all creation. I’ll give you just a little more theory, I promise. First, we’re going to have a few minutes for small group discussion of your experiences of ableism within the Church. Then we’ll talk about what baptism and Communion are, and then we’ll discuss (again, in small groups) what they do for believers of varied abilities. Are there any questions?

D. Sacramental Solidarity: Two Rituals, and Four Modes of Access

Okay. So I’ve said that access is a series of entry-points into God’s dignity and joy. The sacraments provide that entry. Simply defined, a sacrament is a material sign of God’s grace for human beings: like a wedding-ring, a piece of poetry, or a bouquet of roses, the sacraments are signs that God has promised to give God’s abundance to God’s people.

When I say “sacrament,” I’m primarily referring to baptism and Holy Communion. Baptism is the initiatory ritual of Christ’s Church: this rite of water and the Word can represent Christ’s forgiveness of sin, unite people in Christ irrespective of essential characteristics, and give believers a foretaste of God’s abundance to come in the Last Days. Furthermore, Holy Communion—this ritual goes by many names—is a meal of bread and wine where people can experience some of God’s material sustenance, engage each other in fellowship, forgive each other, and partake both in Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of their embodied nature, both rituals enact God’s solidarity with people who are oppressed. I’ll come back to that.

The sacraments provide access to God’s equity because they free human beings’ creative and connective energies. That access occurs in four related but distinct modes: that access is physical, intellectual, affective (emotional), and spiritual. Let me explain each of those in turn.

Baptism and Holy Communion offer human beings physical access to God’s justice for several reasons. First, because they reunite us to our bodies, both of these rituals provide believers of all abilities with healing and strength. Both baptism and Holy Communion represent God’s solidarity with people who are oppressed; in an ideal sense, these rites allow people of diverse abilities to share power, and to offer each other intimate and deeply-embodied hospitality. They allow human beings to create the space for freedom of movement, for full and abundant nutrition, and for integrated, creative expression in our bodies. Notably, because it involves edible elements, Holy Communion also calls for an end to extreme material poverty.

Moreover, baptism and Holy Communion offer people of diverse abilities intellectual access to divine justice. Through simple narrative and symbol, these rituals free our imaginations to grasp the risen Jesus’ life. Like Jesus’ parables, the sacraments tell simple stories that describe the appearance of God’s Reign when justice is done. Both rituals enjoin believers strongly to use simple language in worship and in sermons. Moreover, both mysteries empower believers of all abilities to “watch our language”: we are called not to create interlocking circles of “us” and “them,” but a series of spirals where we are all included, irrespective of body type. Baptism retells the story of Christ`s regeneration of individual believers, and of communal life, while Holy Communion recounts the links between Jesus’ liberating ministry and the ways that people with diverse abilities embody Christ’s life. Overall, in terms of divine equity, both rites engender disability’s imaginative episteme that makes way for the unexpected.

Significantly, baptism and Holy Communion also create the space for affective access to divine justice through their material resonance with God’s desire. That is, these rites give people of diverse abilities points of entry into the dance of friendship and intimacy, by showing us what the triune God’s love looks like. The water of baptism can lead believers of all abilities directly into Jesus’ embrace; thereafter, in Holy Communion (ideally, anyway!), we can find Jesus’ embrace replicated in the embrace of others. Again, our experiences of affection in the Eucharistic community in particular can help believers with diverse abilities to both resist and dismantle ableist structures within the Church. I have so much personal experience of intimacy in sacramental community that I made it a very big part of my doctoral research. Ideally, the next breakout session will help you describe your own experiences too.

Lastly, baptism and Holy Communion offer people of varied abilities spiritual access to God’s justice—that is, they testify to the truth and reality of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and coming again—in several ways. The rites remind us of our unity: baptism unites all believers in our love for Christ, and Holy Communion connects us to the Earth and each other. Baptism catalyzes our joyous solidarity: our baptismal vows allow people of all abilities to aid each other when we see each other suffering or in trouble, and Holy Communion helps us to remember and re-enact instances of past availability and solidarity. Moreover, baptism and Holy Communion both engender affective access to divine equity by reminding us tangibly of Christ’s love.

Now we take our second quick break, and we perform another small group activity, with slightly more complicated questions about your relationships to the sacraments. In a couple minutes, we come back to see how all this plays out in covenantal relationships.

E. Covenantal Relationships as an Aspect of Justice

Baptism and Holy Communion do one other thing in Christian communities that’s hugely significant: they create the space for mutual compassion within covenantal relationships. Human beings are interdependent; we—all of us, of all abilities!—need each other in order to be fully human. Hear me clearly, Diocese of Toronto: human existence does not centre on productivity. We’re not machines that break down and need fixing; rather, people are most ourselves in loving relationships. One Hebrew name for that relational love is chesed, covenant-love and faithfulness. Friends give to each other out of reciprocal fealty, and can mutually grow in love.

In the Jeremiah Community, my church in Toronto—an intentional community that used to worship in an Anglican parish—one of my good friends represents the import of chesed for me. This joyful older fellow with multiple disabilities knows Anglican liturgy and hymnody backwards; he responds to every prayer with a loud, “Amen,” but often struggles to understand our conversations, and to listen sometimes when people ask him to do something. That said, the rest of us help him with his cognitive processing, and he helps the rest of us by offering us passionate and unflagging affirmation. My friend truly lives out an aspect of chesed.

Similarly, Jennie Weiss Block retells the story of one Judith Snow, a Torontonian artist with disabilities. At one time, Judith was depleted physically and mentally because she could no longer care for herself, so five of her friends formed the “Joshua Committee” to care for all of Judith’s needs. These friends empowered Judith to live in Toronto, and to thrive as a person (Block 2002, 160-62). And here’s a personal favourite: Adam Clayton, bassist of U2, served as best man to Bono, the band’s singer, in May 1982; in spring 1987, Bono received a death threat before a concert in Arizona. During the show, he found Clayton shielding him with his bass guitar. Chesed allows people of all abilities to lay down their lives for each other (John 15:13).

Plus, I think I alluded to this next point a minute ago. In sacramental communities, God’s grace empowers people to be open to all other people. Baptism and Holy Communion can lead Christians to affective and spiritual openness, enabling us to become catholic personalities. I’ve borrowed that phrase, “catholic personalities,” from the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, student of Jürgen Moltmann. That phrase means that people reveal in themselves, and in their relationships to each other, God’s mutuality and generosity. Volf asserts repeatedly in his fascinating book After Our Likeness that the Trinity—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—exists in perichoresis, which is sort of like the dance of friendship I alluded to a few minutes ago. The Godhead’s three members dwell in each other mutually in perfect love; unfortunately, while human beings can aspire to that love, we can’t emulate it perfectly (Volf 1998, 194-209).

Human beings can only yearn for the Trinity’s love because we’re limited. In order to embody God’s boundless love, people of all abilities need clear but permeable affective boundaries. Just as the members of the Trinity interact peaceably with each other, so God calls God’s friends to dwell mutually with each other, and to welcome each other in our varied needs (Volf 1998, 172, 192ff). Significantly, Volf claims that, whenever people live out these mutual relationships with each other, using our Spirit-filled gifts to benefit each other in the covenantal and sacramental ways I’ve described, Christ dwells among us (ibid, 227-44, esp. 228-30).

When we live into these covenantal and mutual relationships, our relations to physical and social space can change. So, for instance, during one phase of the worshipping-life of the Jeremiah Community, we used to constantly reshape our worship-space. On Sundays, we would bring out extra chairs; we’d strive to make the music audible and sing-able; and we’d involve the children in the service as much as possible, singing simple songs and making them sacristans. Our liturgical commitment to our baptismal vows and our solidarity with our neighbourhood, cemented in our sharing Communion with our friends from the street, empowered us to create safe and welcoming communal space for our vulnerable friends, and, really, for everyone.

Having said that, hospitality by and for believers with disabilities and others in community necessitates clear boundaries. The practice of the Peace of Christ in the Jeremiah Community demonstrates that bounded clarity. For a couple years after we moved to Parkdale, we were unsure of tactile boundaries, but our leadership team eventually asked all of us to shake hands, rather than offering each other more comprehensive forms of embrace, during the Peace of Christ. Handshakes allowed us to offer each other real intimacy and trust in sacramental community, while also still creating a basic level of emotional security. At our best, without giving ourselves away, we recognized the limits of our energies, and gave each other God’s love.

The Peace shows us something else, too. In sacramental communities that contain covenantal relationships, Christians of all abilities can learn humility. When people of able body and people with disabilities welcome each other, we begin to empathize, and we  know what practical theologian Peter C. Hodgson calls “intersubjectivity” (Hodgson 1988, 66; see also Moltmann 1993, 349). In the humble empathy emerging from sacramental community, as Christian poet Bono claims, we can become one, though we’re not the same (U2 1991, 17-18).

Volf argues that this humble, empathetic person is decentred from him- or herself, and centred on Christ. That is, the cross and baptism reorient the person who chooses Christ. This ideal person, filled with the sacraments’ embodied joy, can feel and know Christ’s gifts to humankind, because her baptism reorients her to Christ’s earthly presence in creation and community. This means two things in terms of the Church. First, baptism and Holy Communion can ground the openness that Christians of all abilities display towards each other, because they testify to our mutual connections in our bodies. Second, these rites can allow Christians of varied abilities to “walk through walls.” They can empower us to incarnate God’s full love and justice just as the risen Jesus does in Luke 24:36-37 and John 20:19-31. Humility and empathy can form Christians of diverse abilities into more whole human beings who can act out divine equity.

Furthermore, God makes us into what I call “faithful community” in the sacraments. Baptism and Holy Communion mark our loyalty to each other and to God, and empower us to accept each other in our uniqueness. In an ideal sense, Christians of all stripes don’t just love because we feel like it. We love because we’ve made a covenantal promise, and we intend to keep it! Love expresses covenant, and covenant binds people together in sorrow and in joy.

In light of all that, I have a few more questions for you about covenantal relationships. They’re a bit simpler than the second session; when they’re done, that ends our time together.


Here are all the workshop questions:

Part One: Questions on Ableism:

  1. How have you, or your loved ones, experienced people’s disconfirmation, low expectations, or assumptions this week?
  2. Think about your week. Name one experience that helped you to perceive people with disabilities positively. Alternatively, tell us about an experience where you befriended someone with a disability.
  3. We mentioned names that are often applied to people with disabilities, even in the Church, like “idiot,” “retard,” “lame,” “spaz,” and “physically challenged.” Choose one of these names and write a gentler expression of it to share with the larger group.

Part Two: How Do You See the Sacraments?

  1. In a couple sentences, talk about your relationship to other people within your church community. How could a sacramental orientation towards justice change your view of your community?
  2. Have you experienced the connection we’ve described between Holy Communion and material justice? If you have, tell us about it briefly.
  3. How do you experience your connection to the earth as a Christian?

Part Three: People in Covenantal Relationships

  1. Name an instance of covenantal relationship in your own life; you can share it if you’d like.
  2. How can people of higher cognitive ability befriend people with intellectual disabilities?
  3. Has your congregation ever experienced a moment of shalom, where you did something really good and important as a group? Describe that moment for us.

“Navigator: an Elegy for Gord Downie.”

On Tuesday night, Gordon Edgar Downie died. Gord was the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, Canada’s house band; he had had a severe form of brain cancer; he was fifty-three. The Hip’s lyrics and music changed my life, so I had to respond.

So, I won’t tell you “what the poets are doing, on the street in the epitome of Vague; I won’t tell you how the universe gets altered when you find out how he gets paid…”

Instead, I will tell you this: yesterday afternoon, I grieved for Gord Downie, who–more than any other music icon, Bono excepted–contributed to my formation as a person, by both helping me to deal with anger and sadness, and empowering me to embrace my true self.

I hope you like this.

Navigator: an Elegy for Gord Downie

I want to thank you for the things you said.
They saved my life each night for ten long years;
They spoke to me in valleys and on hills.
From you, I learned to tame the holy fire
Of anger, to turn it into reasoned righteousness.
I’m thirty-three, and I have kissed a woman,
And your words partly helped me take that step.
Moreover, Bono need not sing a broken elegy
To lay my lifeless body to rest on the East Coast,
Because you helped me to know and love myself.

You helped me hear the poetry of city streets,
To find my way in Riverdale, at busy Yonge and Bloor,
On Ward’s Island in the smiling sun of July.
You helped me hear the songs in seaborne silence, too;
In Charlottetown and blessed Summerside, your poems
Helped me to count the stones. You built my heart
Anew, so that the thin glass wall
Between me and the yearning of the world
Lay shattered, next to endless cups of tea.

You built a pigeon camera for our lives;
You carefully crafted the lens of Stanley Cups
And years of pent-up hockey songs
And quiet smells of coffee. You trained
Your careful lens on us throughout your life,
Empowering us to feel our grief and joy
Through endless rants and stark, dark dervish wails.
You broke down all the forests of Kadesh;
You clear-cut them with riffs of bright guitar.
You dragged them off to build a stately house for us,
So spacious it could harbour a whole nation
Amidst the storms of sorrow and of rage.

Thanks, man. And no, you never let us down.
The only disappointment lies with us,
Because we didn’t listen carefully enough.
Your baritone’s still necessary to guide our ship,
To sing us to a higher, joyous state
Where all those in our home on native land
Will live in equity, in heart and hand.