Stop running from strange people

The mall-issue wheelchair rolled up to the ladies’ shoe department.  It completely swallowed her 100-pound teenage frame, but it would have to do.

In the cockpit was my future wife, in training for her degree in Occupational Therapy at the college formerly known as MCG.  Her driver, another student.  Their assignment: Cultivate sympathy for disabled people by spending an hour in their shoes.  Specifically, this meant that each student surrender their ability to walk and be strolled around the mall, eliciting response from the public who were not aware of the experiment.

“Can I help you?” the salesperson asked the standing student as they approached a table of Keds.

Being addressed, my wife’s classmate responded, “My friend would like to try on these shoes.”

“What size does she wear?” came the reply.

At this point class is dismissed.  As Jennifer told me this story, it rearranged her heart, and mine too.  Why is it that the salesperson, knowing that the person in the wheelchair was trying shoes, did not even look her in the eye to find out what size she wore?  This powerful exercise gave a future therapist, and a future pastor, powerful insight into the life experience of the disabled.

It made me realize that, up to that point in my life, I generally did not make eye contact with people who were wheelchair-bound.  I avoided those who seemed mentally retarded or who might drool on me.  The man bagging groceries who was obviously handicapped in some way was the one I didn’t want to engage in a long conversation.  The burn victim or the person who was horribly deformed made me feel incredibly awkward.

Before you judge me as a terrible heartless sinner, check your own heart on this issue; maybe we are the same.  It doesn’t mean that you or I are a bad person; we might be, but I’d suggest that it’s simply not natural for us to relate to something that’s not natural to us.

Since that day 25 years ago my heart has grown in these things.  I am inspired by one of my favorite characters in the Bible, a man named Mephibosheth.

In 2 Samuel we read his story.  In a tumultuous time of the changeover of political power, five-year-old Mephibosheth, the son of the son of a king of Israel, was rushed out of the castle in an attempt to flee danger.  In the process he broke both of his ankles and became lame.  Years went by and the disgrace of his ancestry along with the disability he’d incurred made him who was once heir to a kingdom an all but forgotten man.

Years later, then-king David asked how he might honor his predecessor, Saul.  He was made aware of this lame relative, and immediately ordered he be brought before him.  Mephibosheth fell before the king, asking why he would even regard a worthless person such has himself.  David’s response: “From this day forward you will eat at my table every day!”  He restored his dignity and showed him compassion in his brokenness.

Here are many lessons for us.  Might we see others with such compassion as God has.  Might we find ourselves in this story, not only as the king, but as the lame, in need of mercy.

About once each week my eight-year-old daughter, who lives with multiple disabilities, attracts the attention of strangers in public as we are out and about.  Before long they realize that something is a bit different about Abbey.  It might be that she is hooked up to a feeding machine, or that she is exhibiting behavior in line with her severe autistic diagnosis.  They are often shocked when she tells them (as she tells most strangers) that she is eight years old because she is the size of a five year old.

Sometimes her inescapable cuteness wins people over and they engage her in conversation.  But just as often they turn away and quickly leave because of the discomfort.  The looks I get would likely astonish you.  She often asks me why people don’t talk to her.  I just tell her that they must not understand English.

Or maybe we don’t understand love?   I’m the worst at this one – over two decades ago my wife was treated as less than a person because she rode in a wheelchair.  That began opening my eyes, and since then I walk toward the homeless man, not away.  I squat down and touch the disabled, not avoid them.  I’ve been asking God to change my heart, and in the process I am coming to understand his.

He seems to run toward things that are dirty, strange and messy.   Maybe we could too.

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