During my days as a theological college lecturer there was a particular intake of students one year that for me remained unusually memorable – and for a rather unexpected reason.
They were a small group – about ten in number – and very diverse in terms of their ages, their backgrounds, and their church traditions. What was unusual about them was that bizarrely, and by pure chance, every single one of them was living with some form of disability or impairment – in some cases very obvious, in others completely hidden.
One student was in a wheelchair, suffering from a rare form of muscular dystrophy; another had been profoundly deaf since birth; another of them struggled with dyslexia; yet another had a very marked stammer; yet another suffered from early-onset arthritis – and so it went on.
And perhaps it was because they were so aware of their own limitations that the members of that particular group were unusually good at supporting each other, in a very quiet and unselfconscious way. Nobody suggested that they did this – it just happened. So, for example, I would observe the man with the stammer help a student with mobility problems to the altar to receive communion; I discovered that the student who used a wheelchair was providing tremendous help and encouragement to the student who was dyslexic, who was finding the academic work quite a challenge.
On one occasion a visiting lecturer brought in an audio recording for the students to listen to, which of course was hopeless for the woman who was profoundly deaf. But without a second thought, the dyslexic student spotted the problem, positioned herself directly opposite the woman who was deaf, and mouthed to her the entire content of the recording as it was played, so that she could follow it by lip-reading.
I was both touched, but also quite profoundly affected to see this ordinary, and in conventional terms, rather challenged group of human beings ministering to one another’s needs in such a low-key, but wholly genuine way. Indeed, one member of that group said to me at the end of their first year: “Do you know, I came here feeling very self-conscious about my own inadequacy, because there are certain tasks that I find it very difficult to do. But as a group we have so many complementary strengths, that we make up for one another’s weaknesses.”
At the time, I felt that I was observing all of this very much as an onlooker, in the sense that I regarded myself as entirely hale and hearty and in perfect health. However, as I was soon to discover, I was in fact, as we all are, merely TAB – ‘Temporarily Able Bodied.’ Because not long after that, over a period of about five years, I lost a significant amount of my hearing. Many people have no idea of the extent of my deafness – because thanks to a combination of very discreet state-of-the-art hearing aids, lip reading, and guess work, I am able to live a perfectly normal life most of the time. However, as my close friends and family are aware, there are some contexts – where the acoustic or sight-lines are difficult, or where someone speaks very unclearly, or is wearing a mask , when I have to ask someone else to interpret for me. And at those moments I become very aware of my own dependency. And in a culture that values self-reliance so highly, that can be a hard reality to grasp.
Seeing that group of students working together suddenly brought to life for me that passage from Ephesians that we heard as our second reading this evening, in which we hear of the different gifts and callings given to different people – so that we can work together ‘for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.’ And the whole body being held together through the unity of love.
And that is so very true of us, too, here at St Bride’s. As the community of Christ in this place, we are charged not merely to love one another, but also to recognize our need of one another. Which is why a true community is so much more than simply the sum of the individual human lives within it. But the real significance of this goes far beyond merely the need for us to make up for one another’s inadequacies; because in offering our gifts, supported by one another, and held together in love, we receive as well as give. Let me illustrate what I mean by this.
There is a wonderful poem by Roy Croft which, although its focus is specifically romantic love, yet, nevertheless there is something at its heart that is surely true of the experience of real love, of all kinds.
I love you
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am
When I am with you.
I love you,
Not only for what
You have made of yourself,
But for what
You are making of me.
When we know we are loved – really loved. When we know we are completely and utterly and unconditionally loved by God – then we begin to discover who we truly are; we begin to discover new and better things about ourselves; we begin to discover that we are capable of new and better things. And if we are able to do that for one another, frail and fallen and weak and challenged and temporarily able-bodied human beings that we all are – how much more true that is of the love of God. A God who calls us, in love and compassion, to the fullness of life that can and should be ours to enjoy.
And thanks be to God for that.