Words Can Hurt (July 20, 2014)

Perhaps it was because I was tired.  I try to limit myself to two activities a day, and this was my fourth.  Perhaps it was learning that I now have “ghost vision” in my left eye, seeing a fainter vision of print above the actual line of print (which is not correctable with lenses).  But I just couldn’t sing this song.  I was at Praise Team rehearsal, and the lyrics really bothered me:

“I will come to you in the silence

I will lift you from all your fear

You will hear my voice”

“I am hope for all who are hopeless

I am eyes for all who long to see”

“I am strength for all the despairing

Healing for all who dwell in shame

All the blind will see, the lame will all run free.”

“Embracing all your pain

Stand up, now, walk, and live. . .”  (wow!!)

The tune was lovely, but  I don’t know any deaf people who live in fear.  My friend Kristina is not hopeless.  I don’t think of myself as “lame,” and I do not live in shame or despair.  I don’t think I can’t live if I can’t walk.  And try as I might, I could not make my able-bodied team members understand why this song was so offensive to me.  It made me wonder how they saw me.  If the composer thought of me as lame and despairing and in need of rescue, how did my friends look at me?  How does the world see me?

So I set out on a quest to track down the composer.  I didn’t expect to find a home address or phone number, but I did find him on the staff of an educational institution, and sent him an e-mail expressing my concerns and asking if he might rewrite the verses (the tune is quite lovely, and he has written some other beautiful songs).  This particular song was written in the 1980s, and I hope we are a more sensitive and caring society today.

While I wrote to the composer my own personal experience of the difference between being healed and being cured, and my being blessed with my disabilities so that I can minister to others with an understanding heart, I also expressed my concern that language like “shame” and “lame” paint a very negative picture for the general public.  How can they look at me as anything but an object of pity and condescension, and how can they possibly believe I am capable of anything beyond sitting at home, or perhaps volunteering to tell stories at Vacation Bible School?

I also called the pastor to ask who put this particular song on the order of worship.  It turned out she had, and she also didn’t quite understand why I had concerns.  She understood why I didn’t want to sing it, but she didn’t think people would read and hear the words and think anything of them.  But it has been my experience that words are subliminally powerful.  The immediate effect isn’t always overt, but it is cumulative.

A few years ago someone informed me rather pointedly that he would be having knee surgery and would not be singing with the choir until he was off his crutches because it would be inappropriate and unseemly.  Jesus, apparently, prefers only able-bodied, perfect people singing in his choirs.  And that was another reminder that I, in my wheelchair, was certainly not seemly or appropriate.

When we sing about the “lame” in our congregation, and the “shame” in which they live, it’s a short stroll across the street to wonder where where their appropriate place in the church might be.  After all, we want to offer only the best to our Lord.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and Bishop Peggy Johnson has done a wonderful job addressing this very subject in her Mission U book, The Church and People with Disabilities.  (I’m sorry, I haven’t read the youth and children’s study books yet so I don’t know how or if they addressed this area.)  What we must remember is that words have power, and we must act when we hear them used inappropriately.  It is our job to teach people the right words to speak, because those will become the words that are used to think, and to act.

Dear Creator God,  We are all wonderfully and fearfully made in your image, each according to your divine plan.  Help us to see you and recognize you in ourselves and in each other, and to treat each other as the beloved children of God that we are.  Continue to lift up the work of Mission U, educating our United Methodist Women, our children and our youth.  Keep our teachers strong and hopeful, helping them to persevere until the race is finished.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

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