I sat in the pew, and for the first time in my 25 years of attendance, I was angry at my church. I was angry at the pastors. I was angry because, as a woman with a disability, change sometimes makes my life very difficult, and this was a hard change indeed.
We’d already transitioned from taking communion monthly to weekly, and I’d just gotten all the pastors “trained” to hand me the little cup of juice as I approached the altar. My hands don’t work well due to AMC (Anthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita), so I’d usually feed myself with my feet, but I had difficulty grabbing the thimble-sized cup from its home in the big silver tray. I’d almost gotten to a point where filing to the front for communion didn’t cause me to panic . . . but now this.
That Sunday, my pastor walked us through the new process. We would be dismissed row by row to approach the front, where we’d each take our own little chunk of bread, dip it in the cup, and eat it before returning to our seats. I rolled it around and around in my mind as I tried to work out a way I could partake without having to plop down on the ground in front of the whole congregation to eat with my feet, since my hands can’t reach my mouth or even the cup. One might think, after living with this disability for so long, I’d be used to the stares, but no. The last thing I wanted was to hold up the line under the lights in front of my whole church. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks every time I thought about it.
How a Grown Woman Throws a Fit
For a couple of Sundays, I found excuses to stay home from church. Yes, it was incredibly immature for this 30-year-old woman to stay home and pout for a couple weeks, but that’s what I did. I knew I couldn’t carry on like that, so the next Sunday I whispered to my husband next to me in the pew, “You’re going to have to feed me communion.” He nodded, and soon I slid behind him in line and we worked our way to the front.
Surely every eye in the room was on the back of my head when my husband lifted the bread to my mouth. Surely there was whispering and pointing across the auditorium. It’s a miracle the worship team managed to hold it together, really. Because everyone notices how different I am, right? Everyone is watching to see what I’ll do next, right? Everyone is scandalized by my way of living . . . right?
I avoided eye contact as I returned to my pew. I, a wife and mother, who has lived independently and enjoys a successful career, had to be fed like a toddler in front of hundreds of people. First I felt anger, and then humiliation . . . which began to feel much more like humility as weeks passed and I was hand-fed at the altar over and over. At some point, I’m not sure exactly when, communion stopped being about me.
We Are All Flawed
Each Sunday I follow my husband to a place where I hear, consume, and absorb the Good News: This is his body, broken for me. This is his blood, shed for me. Each time, I am forced to acknowledge my pride, and how much it hurts to rely on someone else, and how small I am in the midst of all this. But even in that moment of smallness, I am standing before the entire congregation, preaching something that can’t be spoken into a microphone.
If anybody does in fact notice I can’t feed myself communion, they see me approach the altar with my husband. Adam, wonderful as he is, is not a perfect man—I’m betting your husband isn’t either—but I duck behind him, and he leads me to grace. The redeeming work of Christ is weekly communicated to me through the hands of an imperfect human—many imperfect humans, in fact, when you consider those who baked the bread, filled the cup, and, yes, even the pastor extending this grace-meal to us. None of us are perfect. None of us are really good enough to participate in this. Maybe that’s the point.
God Grew Silent
I don’t like having a disability. I really don’t like it. As a child, I didn’t know anyone else like me. It was confusing, not knowing where I fit in the world. As a teen, that confusion turned into the my-face-is-smiling-but-something-is-eating-me-alive-inside kind of depression. The suicidal-thoughts kind of depression. The I’m-not-sure-how-I-survived kind of depression.
How many times did I hear our God is a healer? How many times did I become envious of the lame beggar and the woman with the issue of blood and man blind from birth? The story of the man with the withered hand in Matthew 12 seemed placed in the Bible just to scorn me, because if there might be a description of how my hands look, “withered” is exactly it. Jesus healed that man. That man was no longer withered. That man could clap, and swat away flies, and busy himself with gainful employment after encountering Jesus. What about the girl with withered hands? Is she less worthy of healing?
I begged God. I threatened. I insisted, and pleaded, and fasted, and ordered him to make me whole. He grew silent and I grew tired of waiting on him to wave his magical healing wand. I came to accept healing just wasn’t for me. I would always be withered—a shriveled version of God’s original plan for humans.
I kept showing up at church; it’s what I knew. And even though God wasn’t granting me my deepest desire, among his people I felt at home. And there I heard the apostle Paul had gone through something similar. “I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me,” he admits in 2 Corinthians 12:8. And there’s much speculation about what exactly it is, but we know for sure Paul considered it painful, crippling, and difficult. He calls it a thorn in his flesh, and even “a messenger of Satan” to torment him and keep him from becoming proud. Ah, there it is: that pride thing again.
I saw myself in Paul’s words. They were so real to me, I felt I could have written them. And though God was not responding directly to my pain, he did respond to Paul’s. God comes to us in that digging, relentless pain and says: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
Pointing to the Healer
It’s true, I was a withered version of what a human should be. I needed healing. I needed him to make me whole. I dreamed of what a witness my healing could be. I thought God ought to find a way to make someone capture my healing on video because nobody would believe it. Then maybe I could be a YouTube phenom. I would travel all over the country, appear on talk shows, write books, and point people to the healer that saved me from my withered self.
Ten years later, my prayers for physical healing are still unanswered. Even so, I find myself in front of a crowd, but at the altar, taking bread and wine in the most humbling fashion. And, to my surprise, I have after all become a YouTube phenom. I’ve published a book, been on talk shows, and travel all over the country, with these crooked little fingers pointing people to the God who saved me. Who made me whole. Who filled my withered soul with peace and purpose.
The Healing in the Hurt
All those years I begged God for such an anemic version of his plan for me. Let me say clearly, this disability, this thorn, is not of him—I’m with Paul on this one. Trials of this magnitude are not from the father of lights, the giver of good gifts. But he chose not to relieve me of the burden, surely knowing how it would strengthen me, give me a voice, and keep me humble and close to his heart. How his strength works best when I am weakest.
He must have known how, in having a disability, I’ve been granted the ability to look into the eyes of other thorn-bearing people like you and say, with compassion: “It hurts, doesn’t it? You’re not alone.” How my own thorn would give me the authority to tell you about God’s promises, and that they are for here, now, in this flawed body and in this flawed moment. His abundant life isn’t waiting for you to cross the next horizon, or for you to be a better Christian, or even for your house to be a little cleaner (hallelujah!). Maybe the only one waiting is you. His grace doesn’t always show up when or how we expect, but it always shows up.
As for me, I’m still flawed. God didn’t save me from imperfection. But as I stand before his altar, in humility, accepting his redemptive sacrifice, I am no longer withered. I am healed.
I originally wrote this for Today’s Christian Woman.