Preaching and Disabilities

By Joni S. Sancken

woman at podium speaking

​Christine Guth speaks at Waterford Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana

 

​Joni S. Sancken is Assistant Professor of Homiletics, United Theological Seminary, Dayton Ohio
At its best, preaching tells the truth and bears witness to the gospel, the good news. It provides opportunity to publicly affirm deeply held beliefs, to open up new possibilities, and name when we may not be living up to God’s call. Here we explore three opportunities for preachers to support and minister with people of differing abilities. Through intentional use of language and metaphor, through practices of theology and biblical interpretation, and through examples and illustrations, preachers can welcome, reinforce, and encourage vital ministry with people who have disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health challenges.

Language and metaphor

Words have power to build up or to damage. Careless phrases such as, “looking more closely…” or “see the trouble here…” may be problematic for the visually impaired among us. Calling the congregation to “listen for God’s voice” can exclude Deaf or hearing-impaired members. More insidious language barriers can include consistently making darkness negative and light positive, when scripture actually contains positive images around darkness,

  • using simplistic language to talk about healing,
  • un-nuanced ways of talking about how we experience signs of the resurrection even while we still must face the realities of the cross.

Healing is complex, both in scriptural accounts and in on-going human experience. Healing can be physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, and social. Sometimes healing happens in a system or community rather than in an individual. We cannot set a timetable for healing. The promise of the resurrection is true. God is making all things new, but we do not know the time or the full appearance of resurrected life.

When preaching among those with chronic illness or disabilities, pastors should not presume to know what healing or redeemed existence looks like. People are whole beings and are affected by bodily experience and existence at all levels. For example, while a child with Down syndrome is not reducible to Down syndrome, we also cannot neatly separate it from her; it is part of that child’s experience and very being in the world.

Theology and biblical interpretation

Besides choice of language, theological lenses and interpretive approaches can be energizing or alienating to our brothers and sisters with disabilities or mental illness. In A Healing Homiletic, Kathy Black offers interpretive options for scripture that deals with healing of various disabilities. She explores blindness, deafness/hearing loss, paralysis, leprosy and chronic illness, and mental illness. Her discussion of mental illness and demon possession is especially fascinating.

The account of the Gerasene man in Mark 5 resonates with my experiences in accompanying friends and family members with mental illness. Speaking about mental illness from the pulpit helps to de-stigmatize its often hidden presence and encourages people to share their stories so that they can be supported and included fully in the community.

Links between the human situation and God’s action in the world are also important and complex. Too many pastors lump disabilities and chronic disease into a category of challenges that God “sends to us” to teach us something or make us better. In another vein, some may still make links between sin and disabilities or illness. Such assertions are insensitive, deny the goodness of God, and trivialize the lives of those with disabilities.

Examples and illustrations

Finally, preachers send a powerful message through their choice of illustrations and stories. When preachers include stories of people with disabilities and their family members, they should avoid making them into heroes or inspirational examples—this denies the full humanity of people with disabilities and uses them to serve our purposes. Conversely, preachers should not always cast people with disabilities and chronic or mental illness as victims on the receiving end of God’s healing and grace but also present them as instruments of God and proactive agents in the world on their own part. Such stories can be empowering.

Speaking of God’s action in social and societal arenas expands our sense of God’s healing presence in the world. For example, installing a ramp so that everyone can have access to a building can be a form of healing. With these factors in mind, preaching is a great tool to support ways God is already at work, inviting people with diverse abilities and challenges to minister in the world.

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