You are welcome to come near

Aug 8, 2017 by

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In these hazy, lazy days of mid-summer, I find myself pondering the deep mysteries of wheelchair ramps. Naturally. Recently, our little church made the decision to move ahead with plans to add a ramp to our facility alongside a few other improvements to the foyer and entrance. Church business meetings and decisions about facility modifications do not tend to provoke much sustained theological reflection on my part. They probably should, but usually they don’t. At that meeting, however, I think I heard the voice of God. At a church business meeting, of all things.

On a purely pragmatic level, adding a wheelchair ramp is an impractical decision. Why would you spend tens of thousands of dollars on something that only a few people will use? Why would you modify the entire structure of your building to accommodate those who are physically vulnerable, those who often aren’t directly involved in the machinery of “keeping the church going?” In a culture that glorifies youth and strength, why spend all kinds of money on the old and the weak? In a church culture that is anxious about dwindling numbers and shrinking budgets and aging demographics, would funds not be better spent on marketing strategies or church growth initiatives? These are entirely logical questions.

Ah, but the kingdom of God is a strange place, and its imperatives are not always logical or pragmatic. In this kingdom, we learn how to attach value and measure outcomes differently.

Our discussion was prefaced by a reflection from one of our members who has lived with a physical disability since an automobile accident sustained while at college. She talked about Old Testament purity laws, about how “imperfections” or “blemishes” meant disqualification from worship and, by extension, community. Animals that had “defects” could not be used for sacrifice. Human beings with disabilities or diseases would often find themselves at the proverbial gate, on the outside looking in. Later, in the gospels, we read of the blind, the crippled, the lame, the leprous always finding themselves on the outside, unable to access God, unable to participate in the community of faith.

Jesus, of course, changed all this. She pointed out that Jesus’ ministry of healing was at least as much about restoration to community as it was about the restoration of physical wholeness. In touching the untouchable, in prioritizing human beings over ritual cleanliness and propriety, in proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor” in how he approached the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed, Jesus declared in a powerful way that our blemishes are no longer obstacles to coming near to God. Because God, in Christ, has taken on our infirmities, has borne our sin, has brought down the proud and raised up the lowly. Jesus shows us that God’s priorities are different than we had previously imagined.

And when we encounter this Jesus, our priorities must change, too. All of a sudden it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seem crazy to spend a good deal of money on something that only a few will use. It doesn’t seem strange for the “strong” to make a way for the “weak.” Indeed, if we have been paying attention to our Scriptures and to our Savior, we should know that the very categories of “strong” and “weak” have been given a good shaking up by the kingdom proclamation and enactment of Jesus and his cross.

The opening devotional by the woman in our church really struck me in a new and powerful way. She said, essentially, that if we make this decision as a church, we are communicating something important to those with disabilities and accessibility issues. We are saying, “You belong here. We value you. You are welcome to come near to God and to us. There is nothing standing in your way.” This is what we do. We come, each one of us blemished, to the God who has come near to us. We make a way to the God who has made a way for us.

One little church adding a wheelchair ramp to its building won’t make any headlines. It probably won’t lead to masses of newcomers pouring through our doors. It won’t reverse all the doom-and-gloom trends of church in the post-Christian secular wasteland of the 21st-century West. It won’t demonstrate our “relevance” to spiritual seekers. Some might consider it a poor investment, indeed. But it is a decision that speaks insistently and, I think, truly of who we are (or aspire to be) and who God is. It says that investing looks different in the gospel economy. It says that there is more than one way to measure value, and that the metrics we default toward are often small and selfish things. It says that we have encountered Jesus and that we want our priorities to align with his.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.


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