Seventeen years ago my life was changed forever… Every year on this day I write something similar to those first eight words. Not this year. I have this disability and how I got it really doesn’t matter, nor does the type of disability. We are all human and we all have that one thing that we think holds us back. Mine is frustrating, just like yours, and for seventeen years everywhere I looked I saw the things I couldn’t do. I still do sometimes, but every once in awhile, I see past all that. Let me tell you a story about one of those times.
About a year ago, I found myself at Cursillo, a three day retreat organized by the Episcopal Church. It’s a little tough to describe what Cursillo is like, but basically it is a time to gather with other Christians and reflect on your faith. I really didn’t want to be here, because, like I said above, I only saw myself, the unarmed wonder, struggling through a weekend of awkwardness. You see, for seventeen years I have carefully arranged my life so I could avoid awkwardness from my disability. That would be impossible here.
After a brief meeting we walked to our first Eucharist on a Thursday night. I sat in the front row and immediately began to worry about how I was going to handle holding the hymnal. It’s one of those small things that create anxiety for me. It was the first night and I didn’t really know anyone at this point. Would they think I wasn’t participating because I wasn’t holding the book? The announcement was made to open our hymnals to the selected song. I felt the first drops of cold sweat form on the back of my neck. It was at this moment of pure panic when a man appeared in front of me. It was Stuart, who had been through Cursillo himself, and was now serving on staff. He brought a hymnal to me opened to the correct song, handed it to me, and then asked the man sitting next to me if he would help me turn the page for the next hymn.
In the Gospel of John, the story is told of Jesus at the pools of Bethesda. John tells us that the pools would occasionally be stirred by an angel, and whoever was the first to step in the water after this happened would be cured of their ailment. There was a paralyzed man lying on his mat near the pool. Jesus asks a puzzling question to the man, “Do you want to be healed?” I try to put myself in the man’s position and I suspect I would reply with something along the lines of, “Duh. Why do you think I’m here?” This man, however, just explained that he had no one to help him, and due to his condition, he was never the first to reach the water. Jesus told him to pick up his mat and walk. The man did so, and realized his paralysis was healed.
I know how that man felt to be excluded from something due to a physical condition. I have spent many hours at prayer asking – sometimes demanding – to be healed so I can live the life that I once did without so much as a thought to how I did it. I also know first hand how hard it is to ask for help. Are we to believe that in Jerusalem, where the pools were located, there was no one willing to help him? I think it’s possible that he didn’t ask for help. Perhaps if he didn’t ask for help, then he could pretend he didn’t need anyone. When Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, there was no hiding what was wrong with him. Kind of like me at Cursillo.
As it turned out, my disability did not affect my time at Cursillo at all. Stuart was the first to step forward and help me, but he wasn’t the last. People helped me at meal time. Someone held an umbrella for me on the times that it was raining. There was exactly one person the entire weekend that had a problem with my disability. One person who believed that worth was at least partially due to what you could do with your hands. One person who saw me as weak. Me. In the years since my disability, I have carefully managed my environment in a way to minimize the appearance that I have severe weakness in both of my arms. Like the man on his mat beside the pool at Bethesda, I would lie on my mat and look longingly at the healing waters, not strong enough to get there by myself and not willing to show my vulnerabilities and ask for help. But on this evening, when the terror of confronting my disability in the front row of a room full of strangers, Jesus spoke to me through Stuart in words that were not heard with my ears, but with my heart. He said that my burdens were not for me to bear alone. He told me that I was a human being and by sharing my vulnerabilities, I allowed others to share their humanity by helping me. He told me that healing me physically wouldn’t change what was within me. Then He asked me a question. It sounded like a simple question, and although I answered right away, I find that He has to keep asking me again and again. The question is the same one He asked the man beside the pools at Bethesda.
I still have my name badge from that weekend. Under my name is written these words, “Open the ears of your heart.” A year later I am still listening. Stuart helped me into the healing waters that day. My heart tells me I helped him as well. If I were to go back to being the man I was eighteen years ago, I would not have understood this. What are the burdens that you try to hide away from everyone, especially yourself? Remember the question that sounds simple, but the answer is so important that it affects not only you but all of those around you, “Do you want to be healed?”