How Pushing A Wheelchair Ruined My Theology and Gave Me Faith

imagesThe wheels seemed to stick to the polished floor as I pushed my daughters wheelchair down the quiet corridor towards her classroom for the first time. As I turned the corner I was confronted by a line of special needs kids, some quiet, some boisterous and some on the other side of a glass wall waiting for class time.

I tried to be adaptive and accommodative but inside I was spinning out of control. I wanted to turn around and wheel my daughter straight out again as though these children had nothing to do with our world. I felt shameful and equally confronted, I was bereft of any good sense and just wanted to go back to our ‘normal’ life – whatever that was. The strange thing was, our normal life included my daughter who has severe cerebral palsy. I had deluded myself into thinking we were different and were accidentally categorised into the wrong group.

In the past I’d pray my way through problems using repetitious power phrases that were common language to the evangelical church like, “by his strips I am healed.” On reflection I think it was more habitual than meaningful. Pushing my daughter into the foreign world of a special school was like waking up from a long dream only to realize I was sleeping on the edge of a cliff face. I wondered how I was ever lured into the idea that God was a cosmic vending machine that I could access whenever I needed something. Life was now staring me in the face saying, “Hey fella! Welcome to reality.”

With my rogue thoughts promising to unleash buckets of tears, I came away from that school wondering why there was such a differential between the pop theology of the modern church and the real world. Why did I feel further away from God in my lament, wasn’t he meant to be closer in times of trouble? Was I the only one feeling like I was in the twilight zone when the preacher over promised on God’s behalf? The truth was the disparity wasn’t helpful; it made our journey more gruelling than it needed to be and pushed me away from church at a time when I really needed community.

If you had to sell the modern churches promises on a supermarket shelf it would be a salesman’s dream, “come and get it, eternal life, healthy body, hear God’s will and enjoy your wealth! Just say the sinners prayer – come and get it!” On the other hand, if you had to sell the real world as a product, it would be a salesman’s nightmare, “come and get it – disease, tough times, family breakdown and poverty – the most effective way to build character…” No wonder the evangelical church prefers to talk positive more often than not. But for most people, it is only half the story.

My wife and I have of course lived with my daughter’s disability since her birth, it is something that we have grown with – in a crude way it has become our normal. Sure… we lament and shed many tears, but my daughter Sunshine does exactly what her name suggests, she emanates light. The simplicity of her joy is actually quite profound.

Her disability doesn’t seem strange to us, the dribble is perfectly fine, the small noises she makes to communicate are perfectly understandable and her twenty-four hour care is just part of the deal.

The change began slowly for me. My theology up until Sunshine was born was theoretical and I used it like a wielding sword to answer any inconsistencies as though unruly thoughts needed to be amputated. The blessing philosophy I was introduced to when younger seemed entirely possible. With a naive gullibility, I believed I deserved good things to happen, in fact I expected it. I believed that despite living in the top ten percentile of income earners in the world already, I deserved more. Yes, more stuff, better cars, better health, better jobs, I even had the belief that I had angels assigned to me to ensure sure my protection from whatever the big bad world presented.

UnknownBut then I pushed Sunshine’s wheelchair down that polished waxy hallway and was confronted with the real world. That world said, “Whatever you thought you believed means ‘Jack shit’ to any of these kids.”Behind each one of these children was a family, who if anything like us, was continually grappling with the ‘why or how’ question only to discover there were no answers and pop theology seriously under delivered. Not long after, I began accepting my questions may never get answered. My wielding sword of theology was useless and somewhat blunt. As I stood in front of all these precious children the message of the evangelicals became muted, insufficient, shallow, self-serving and more disturbingly – not much like Jesus.

I liked God before my daughter was born and then I was confronted with such an overwhelming sense of injustice, I couldn’t see how God could honestly be ok with his plan A or B. Injustice thumped through my veins like an impatient inmate furiously banging on the prison bars as I watch the endless surgeries, the constant vomiting, the terrible prognosis, the brokenness, the pain, the heart failures, the deafness and the silent nights where we wondered if this would be the last time she would breathe. Theology wasn’t human enough for me to confront the relational disparity, but maybe faith was.

Whenever I heard pop theology and throwaway lines about God’s abundance or extravagant intimacy, I found it hard to not see it as anything but comical. The truth was I wanted to go back to my old life; I wanted the blessing thing to be real. I wanted to believe that God was close to me. I liked the idea that around every corner was the possibility of prosperity. Our family is ‘exhibit A’ of how pop theology doesn’t work, no matter what lever we pull our situation remains the same. I am sobered, I will never be the same – I have seen the other side. Most pastors are very quiet on these real and present issues and would prefer to have the Sunday congregants walk out on cloud nine.

Some of the children at the end of that sticky corridor may never comprehend the complex idea of God and eternity – I’m not sure I even understand it. They may not have the ability to say the magic ‘profession of faith’ that so many evangelicals insist is the first step to Jesus. They may never understand the Trinity or ask for an infilling of the Holy Spirit. They may never comprehend the cross and its complex implications. For most of these children theology means absolutely nothing. If all those things were that important, then it seems very unfair that many of these precious kids would struggle to experience all God had for them. After all, theology is the systematic and rational study of God. If understanding theology actually had benefit, then was God disadvantaging vulnerable children by using knowledge as a gatekeeper to a stronger relationship? That didn’t seem right to me so instead I found myself asking how important was theology anyway?

After that first day at the special school my pop theology was ruined. I couldn’t trust what the evangelicals said and still comfortably reconcile the disparity. All I had left was my faith and even that was in tatters. As I grew more comfortable holding theology loosely, my heart was able to wander freely down paths I never knew existed. Now God could be as big as he wanted to be. I felt less compelled to package God in a nice neat box that could be delivered within a forty minute message on Sunday. This newfound freedom meant that faith was scary because it was unquantifiable. It was like seeing the open outback sky for the first time and noticing how many stars there are. In contrast, theology was one plus one equals two… or three depending on your interpretation or preference.

My daughter Sunshine is a grand reflection of love. Through the lens of faith her twisted body doesn’t yell, “contradiction,” as much as it says, “mystery.”

Theology promises to explain God and all the inconsistencies that confront us. The better I got at explaining God; the less I was drawn to practice faith. To me theology is the Christian version of science. Both science and theology rely on the mind to interpret and both need intellectual speculation to explore a hypothesis. When my experience became raw and grungy, I didn’t give a crap about black or white, it was simply about survival and faith seemed to have the bandwidth to accommodate my broad emotion.

Yes, I wish for something different, everyday I wonder what it would be like to hear Sunshine’s thoughts and fears – I wonder if she has a view on God. Even though my daughter Sunshine may not be able to dissect an ancient book and offer a perspective, she may have given me the most significant gift I could ever receive – realness.

We need people like my daughter to tame the insensitive and silence the proud. Every time I push that wheelchair I am reminded how faith has the potential to sustain the broken and offer hope. Faith makes a mockery of the intellect pointing out its limitations and assumptions. I find faith less judgmental than theology.Ce

Maybe my view will change in the future, but for now I get no satisfaction from joining the theological dots. I feel closer to Mother Teresa than the pop theology of a wealthy preacher. It is sobering to look in the eye of a special needs child, or the dying in the case of Mother Teresa, because whatever view you conclude it will quickly become superficial.

Theology doesn’t elicit love from me but faith does. Faith is the common currency of the poor; theology is the more often than not, the currency of the privileged.

Jay McNeill

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