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Strength in Weakness

Monday, 1 May 2017  | Elena Down

If you had told me as a timid twelve-year-old, just fitted with hearing aids, that one day I would celebrate my disability, I would have thought you were seriously deluded.

But bringing me from mourning to celebration is a great act of love that a wise God has worked into my journey with him so far.

So how did I reach this point – what has happened since that day when I was so devastated and uncertain about the future because of my deafness?

Let me tell you something of my journey by reflecting on three questions I think I’ve been asking all my life:

  1. Do we see disability as punishment or gift?
  2. Do we see disability as weakness or strength?
  3. Do we see people with a disability as those who need to be ministered ‘to’ or as those ‘with’ whom we can minister and ‘from’ whom we can learn?

Early church – acceptance, love, enabling

Thanks to my parents and grandparents, I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by Christian values. It laid a firm foundation on which I’ve built my life.

My early experiences of church were overwhelmingly positive. I was nurtured and loved in the company of people of all ages, and came to understand Jesus’ love for me through the love shared among the congregation.

There was a family at my church who had three children, one of whom had Down syndrome. They learned so much through that experience that they chose to adopt another child with Down syndrome. They were inspirational people of great love.

Another lady at our church lost her hearing and her speech as a result of a stroke – her family had to find new ways to communicate with her. They and others in the church committed to learning sign language, and each week a group of people came to their home for lessons from a local deaf person. This helped the family stay connected to the church.

Some churches seem to have the idea that you need to be ‘called’ to do ‘disability ministry’. I always thought that a bit strange – aren’t we called to love everyone and bear one another’s burdens? We have the vital role of bearing witness to God's values and of being vibrant communities of welcome, encouragement and justice.

My early experiences taught me that church communities, when they are inclusive, can be a source of immense encouragement – to people with disability, their families and the wider community.

Praying for ‘Healing’ – a punishment or a gift?

At various points in my life, some people have felt the best response to my disability has been to pray that I would be healed.

There is nothing inherently bad about praying for healing. God asks us to pray big prayers, and, indeed, Jesus healed a deaf man. (There is a joke in the deaf community that Jesus did this by touching the man’s ears, then his mouth, thus giving him sign language – it’s the sign for ‘deaf’.)

I’m sure that some people have thought their prayers for me were not answered – after all, I’m still deaf.

Some people at various points have told me I simply lacked faith, and if I only had more faith, I would be healed. I’ll leave God to measure my faith, knowing that his ways are higher than mine.

In my own situation I feel God has said, ‘Elena, this is how I made you, and I don’t make mistakes – “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”’. (2 Cor 12:9) Therefore, with Paul I will boast about my weakness, that God’s power might work through me – and so that the glory goes to him. After all, it’s often my deafness that God has used to conform me more to the pattern of his Son:  

Experiencing barriers gives me great compassion and empathy for the struggles of others.

Experiencing rejection and discrimination makes me stand up for God’s values of equity and justice.

Facing daily exasperating situations allows me to develop patience, perseverance and self-control.

Knowing my own limitations means I am more aware of my need for God’s strength.

God has worked not ‘despite’, but rather ‘through’, my disability. He has allowed me to use my disability in both my public and professional life, and in ministry.

Leadership and equipping – seeing the giftedness

I owe a lot to people who saw my disability as a gift and nurtured me, allowing me to ask hard questions, struggle with God and grow in my faith. I’ve been able to use this to help others struggling with similar questions. Sometimes you need to walk the road to earn the right to speak.

But for a long time I felt I had to ‘rise above’ my disability, to succeed ‘despite’ it.

I’m so grateful to the mentor who, when asked to find me an overseas volunteer placement, sent me to a deaf women’s project in India. I’d like to say I was elated, but in fact I was indignant! Just because I had a hearing impairment didn’t mean that I should go and work with deaf people. I had lots of skills to offer. I’d done all this training that could be put to use. But in her quiet wisdom, she saw my deafness as a gift that would particularly benefit this project.

I learned a lot in India – about myself, my values and God’s values. I experienced material poverty, but a wealth of friendship and joy – particularly among the deaf believers. I was loved and accepted by deaf women because I was ‘one of them’. I was able to share about my faith and what God meant to me. For the first time, I could see that my deafness was something that could open doors and enable other people to know God. I could see it was part of me He loved.

And so I responded next to a call from God to go to China to work with the deaf, of whom there are some 90 million – most of whom have no opportunity to know God.

It was possibly the scariest step I have taken, and also the most amazing two years of my life. What people said would be impossible, God made possible. I mastered not only written and spoken Chinese, but also several dialects of sign language. I mentored deaf uni students, helped set up a support group for parents of deaf kids and started sign language classes with a local deaf student. Through it all I had amazing opportunities to share my faith and see people come to know God – not only deaf people, but several language teachers moved by the values that drove my life.

It’s a joy to me that seeds I planted during that time have borne fruit with a deaf church now established in that city. I’m reminded again that God’s word goes out – indeed, sometimes in sign language – and it never returns to him empty.

Learning from the giftedness of others

Looking back I realise I’ve learned so much from my friends with disability throughout my life.

I’ve been challenged by the unaffected, honest and sincere love for God of friends with intellectual disability. We often make our faith so complicated when all God wants is a humble and faithful heart that responds to him.

During college I met Lisette, who is blind. I’ll never forget the stack of Braille chapters of her Bible piled next to her desk! External appearances didn’t matter to her. She reminded me that God looks beyond the surface.

Some of the most powerful teaching I received was from a preacher who had been born deaf and had become blind. He could still sign to communicate with others but needed tactile sign to receive communication. He was one of the most intelligent, positive and profoundly insightful people I’ve met. Perhaps it was the hours of time to sit and reflect, uncluttered by the sights and sounds that so easily distract us.

A friend of mine who lives with depression shared with me his firm belief in the truth that God loved him, regardless of his subjective experience or feelings. He had an unwavering trust that ‘nothing can separate us’ from that love.

My faith would have been less if I had not met these people. And yet I look in churches and don’t see people with disability there.

So what’s the role of churches?

I believe we impoverish the church and rob ourselves of all that God can teach us when we fail to fully include people with a disability.

Jesus demonstrated an inclusiveness and concern for people with disability, and told parables to show their place in the kingdom of God. Church communities should be marked by similar commitments.

I know I have at times felt excluded when there is no audio loop or interpreter, when people bow their heads too low so I can’t lip read their prayers, when there is a preoccupation with music and singing which I can’t easily participate in, or if conversation in home groups is too fast. I know many older people stop attending church when their hearing starts to fail. We all miss out when this happens.

My sneaking suspicion is that most churches don’t set out to intentionally exclude people with a disability; they just never really stop to consider the barriers that prevent them participating.

The key is our attitude – having a motivation of justice, love and equal concern (‘… so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other’ - 1 Corinthians 12:25). People with a disability want to be – deserve to be – included in an accepting and welcoming community that welcomes their gifts and talents. Making sure we are inclusive is simply a part of the great commandment to ‘love one another’.

Finally, to believers who know disability first-hand

For those who have faced exclusion and frustration because of disability, can I share with you the deepest treasure of wisdom garnered over my life? My true inner strength comes from knowing that God is the truest and most trustworthy ‘friend of my heart’: 

He knows all my thoughts, knows all my weaknesses, fears, hurts and disappointments, and knows my anger, even rage, at injustice when people are being treated unfairly and excluded.

He even knows I’ve sometimes felt angry at him for my disability during the tough times.

And yet (here’s the best bit) in the Bible He has promised me that He loves and accepts me, just as I am – nothing more, nothing less.

If God is for me, who can possibly be against me? If God was prepared to go to such great lengths to draw me to Himself, won’t He also be able to help me through whatever difficulties and obstacles may come my way? This is the truth that has brought me enormous freedom and the inner strength to see me through whatever challenges life throws at me. May this truth be yours as well.

Elena Down was an eloquent and accomplished advocate for people with disabilities, particularly deaf people. She worked as Disability Inclusion Advisor for CBM Australia. During her time at AusAID she assisted in the development of Australia's first Disability Inclusive Development Policy. Elena passed away on 18 March 2017, aged 44.

This article was first published in Equip, Issue 17, June 2013, 8-9.

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