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With and without disabilities: A new understanding of worship

On July 30, Susan McSwain brought her friends from Reality Ministries to lead us in worship. Reality Ministries is a community of people with and without disabilities serving each other and serving the city of Durham, North Carolina, together. As they lead worship that Sunday, I experienced a joy so pure I almost questioned all previous experiences of joy in worship. In trying to say thank you, I found myself reflecting theologically on that iris-widening encounter. Theology, if I am reading Paul correctly, is a thank-you note to a life-impacting gift. So, here is my letter to give thanks for the gift I received in worship.

Dear Susan McSwain and the Reality Ministries Team,

Thank you for leading worship for us. For you weren’t just a guest preacher and worship team breaking up our routine. No. You changed the worship of New Life permanently. For the following Sunday’s worship wasn’t ordinary either. Your team wasn’t there, but your joyous spirit was flaming through us, like menorah candles that stay lit beyond its oil supply. Now, we weren’t dancing as we did when your friends led, but feet were tapping and I swear, given time, those feet would have hopped and spun. People were singing so loudly it was difficult to hear the worship leader at the microphone. He was happy to step away from the microphone and let the congregation lead. Just as it was when your friends led, it was confusing as to who was leading who.

What did you do to us?

You loosened the chains of performance in our worship. And we didn’t even know that we were cuffed by such heavy irons of perfection until we felt our hands rising unfettered. Honestly, we thought we were theologically astute and spiritually mature enough to know that worship is not a production but a joyful response to the reality of God. But when we saw that theological statement incarnated in Suvya Carroll belting full-voiced notes in her wheelchair, and Leroy Farrington and Mike Brogden twirling awkwardly and beautifully as they turned melodies into body movements, we found ourselves reveling along. And that made me wonder if we didn’t have a clue to what joy was and, perhaps, we didn’t even know what the reality of God was. Only the authentic exposes forgery. Yes, your friends gifted us a worship that began a rethinking/repenting of our worship. You guided our fingers to feel the texture of the “Reality” of God – so now I get why you named your community Reality Ministries. And you, Susan, did it without talking about it. You didn’t even talk much about your ministry. You and your friends simply reveled in that reality of God’s loving presence, and you took us with you. We saw God’s glory, because you saw it.

I’ve been thinking about why we fail to see this reality of God’s unconditioned love, even though we proclaim it on Sunday mornings. I mean, that’s the gospel: “God is love.” But how we worship, fretful and timid, has been contradicting it! I think it’s the persistent and powerful illusion of our “ableness.” We want to believe we are absolutely able to do what we want. This lie is so fragile – and we know it – that we cast out anything that questions this ludicrous belief. So we push away people with disabilities, whose very apparent limitations recall our own fundamental limitations. We keep them as objects of pity and ministry. We corral them to the margins where we can ignore them. We don’t want them on the stage. They are to be led, not lead, for we are not dis-abled like them.

It is pernicious to think only the abled can lead. That practice perpetrates the lie that God’s love is conditioned on our ability. If we permit only the abled to lead worship, we say implicitly only the abled can lead worship that is acceptable ­­– which in turn implies: only the abled are acceptable. We speak gospel with our lips, but contradict it with our very worship.

But your friends were not roped by the lies of God’s love conditioned. They led confidently in their disability because they trust the truth that their disability doesn’t disqualify them from God, and certainly not in leading people in worship. I confess that I used to think people with disabilities sing joyously off-key because they don’t know better. This is the arrogance of the supposed abled like myself: We don’t assume the same type of deep inner life and awareness in others, especially those with disabilities. But now I know those with disabilities are fully aware of their disabilities, and because of that awareness they know that they are more than their disabilities, and that their disabilities don’t lessen the image of God in them. They are already free to be more than their disabilities. What paradox I’ve been privy to! While we, who persist with the illusion of ability, don’t see our disabilities/ limitations, we often attempt less because of the fear of discovering what we cannot do and being defined by that.

Well, I have chosen to sing (and everything else in life) with the dis-ability that comes simply from being a human. It’s freeing to know that my worship (life) isn’t less acceptable because of my lesser ability. True joy isn’t found in performance well done, but in the soul freed from the draining work of keeping up the lie of one’s ability, in the soul dancing in one’s worth unconditioned on one’s abilities or disabilities.

May people of disabilities continue to lead us to the freedom in our disability and the reality of God’s acceptance.


SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a columnist for North State Journal. Visit his website.