This year as I think about the three wise men visiting Jesus, I’m struck by the power of naming, of recognition. Herod was unsettled by the certainty of the wise men that they were visiting a king, and the way it fit into Jewish prophecy. When the magi find Jesus, however, it is not with Herod’s fear but with great joy that they recognize him. I imagine their expression of honor toward him, their bowing down, is not dutiful but full of wonder, and their gifts given with full hearts.
In a disability context, naming is powerful. I have watched people resist diagnosing a disability, but when they finally do, it can lead to the wonder of being able to deal with it instead of being lost in a wilderness of denial. In my own life, when I was a young child, my hearing loss was undiagnosed for some years, and I was frustrated in my confusing world of half-heard sentences. My mom describes a self-portrait that I made in preschool with an angry mess of scribbles on my head. But once it was diagnosed, my family was able to work with me. I received hearing aids, which helped in my mainstreamed context. My brothers and friends worked with me as my speech developed, and my parents learned that I needed to see them to hear what they were saying. The understanding of my hearing loss didn’t solve all my frustrations, but it gave us a way to understand my needs and find ways forward that worked better for everyone.
Often, disabilities are unwelcome. We have to adjust our expectations and learn to live with physical, mental, and social limitations or differences. In the Christmas story, Jesus’ birth was threatening to King Herod, and he wanted to eliminate Jesus. There are times when curing a disability is possible and good, but there are times when we have to learn to live in the world in a different way than the world values. This may mean receiving gifts given in love from strangers and being vulnerable instead of always in control. It may mean learning to change our ways of doing things, or our physical structures, and spending money, time, and energy to bring people into community. God challenges us to live in love; living with a disability or caring for someone with a disability can be a daily reminder that our worth is not measured by our worldly power, but by our heart for God and for God’s people, especially those at the margins of society.
This year, as a congregational administrator, I’ve seen with joy several things my congregation has done to make our community more accessible. One of those, adding a wheelchair accessible bathroom in our building, required significant financial resources. It wasn’t in our original remodel plan, but there was a pivotal moment in a congregational meeting where the need for a wheelchair accessible bathroom was named, and after that it kept bubbling up as a human concern until it was included. There are still many ways we can become more accessible, just as there are still more ways to become more open to Jesus in our lives in general. As we celebrate the Magi who sought out Jesus, may we continue to walk up to and through our fears and into the wonder of love, to value our vulnerability more than our control, and to partake tender and generous care for each other.
Rachel Joy is the congregational administrator at Portland Mennonite Church, in Portland, Oregon, where she has been a member since 2003 and where she became anabaptist. She is currently also a distance student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, working toward an MDiv degree with a pastoral studies focus. She previously completed a degree in Conflict Resolution focusing on international peacebuilding as well as on equity issues related to disability. She enjoys the beauty of the Pacific NW, plays cello, and likes to read and write poetry. She has lived most of her life with a moderate-to-severe hearing loss.