My first rule of selecting a sermon topic is choosing a subject that is interesting to me. If doesn’t interest me, there’s no way I can make it interesting for you. If it does interest me, I have a chance. I suppose we ministers resign ourselves to the fact that we can’t speak to all of the congregation all the time, so the best we can hope is that some of our sermons will speak to some of the congregation some of the time and that over the long haul, everyone will hear something relevant and meaningful.
But I don’t have that concern about today’s sermon because I’m talking about a universal subject – handicaps. Everybody has a handicap. It may be some physical limitation or defect that you have endured since birth or that has been brought on by illness, accident, or age. That’s another thing we all have in common. We are all getting old – if we are lucky – and we are all going to have to face the growing disabilities that age bestows upon us all. As some of you already know, old age is not for sissies. Some of us have to contend with emotional and psychological handicaps, some of which we experience because of a biological predisposition, some of which we experience because of the way we were raised as children, some of which we experience because of later trauma. Whatever the roots, we struggle in our relationships or with our job or with our self-worth. Or our handicap may be a situation that is external to us, yet is a part of our life that is not going away and that we just have to live with – like a
demeaning boss, a disrespectful stepchild, an irritating in-law, or a noisy neighbor. So I’m not concerned that today’s sermon may not speak to everyone because all human beings have handicaps. The only variance is what kind and to what degree do we suffer from them.
Since I was a child, I have enjoyed reading biographies, especially of those I regard as my heroes. When I was younger, it was disillusioning to discover that my heroes had clay feet, that they had some of the same frailties and foibles that I have. But along the way, I realized that what made them heroic was the way they handled their handicaps. We find Pasteur conducting research although partially paralyzed by a stroke, Beethoven writing music although deaf, and Milton writing poetry although blind. How did they do it? This may be the supreme spiritual challenge of life. How do we handle our handicaps? We will not be granted the luxury of choosing whether or not we will have them, but we will be faced with the challenge of responding to them.
Two instinctive responses to our limitations that are tempting but are dead-end streets are rebellion and self-pity. By rebelling against a handicap, I mean fighting against it and refusing to accept it. The minister who was a mentor of mine when I was a teenager and who is probably the chief reason I chose to become a minister developed diabetes later in life, and he rebelled against it until the day he died. He was bitter that he had to give himself insulin shots each day. He was bitter that his vision failed and that he had to wear glasses. He was bitter that he had to restrict his diet. He was bitter that he had to have his big toe amputated and that he had to walk with a cane. He became a bitter man. Diabetes did not make him bitter. His rebellious response to diabetes made him bitter. Fighting against an obstacle that we have some chance of moving is one thing. But fighting against something that is not going to change is useless, and we end up the loser.
One of the most common ways of rebelling is asking, “Why me?”, “Why did this have to happen to me?”, “What did I do to deserve this?” I suppose we cannot help ourselves. We humans are meaning-makers. We are always looking for some grand moral explanation for just about everything, even when there is no moral explanation. If we develop cancer, it’s not because we did something wrong. Sometimes cells go awry and multiply and feed upon other cells. If we suffer from chronic back pain, it’s not because we are bad people and are being punished. Sometimes spinal discs degenerate from disease or age. If we experience depression, it’s not because we deserve it. Sometimes we are born with a predisposition to have low serotonin levels.
Asking “Why?” is not helpful. Asking “Why?” comes from the illusion that life is fair. All of us know on an intellectual level that life is not fair, but on an unconscious level, many of us feel that if we work hard, play by the rules, and do what we are supposed to do, life will reward us. But the hard reality is that there are no guarantees in life. None. We may ask “Why?”, but life will ask us “Why not?” Life doesn’t pay any attention to our expectations of what is supposed to happen. Life simply happens. Our challenge is to face what happens and deal with it. Scott Peck begins his classic book The Road Less Traveled with the simple yet profound statement, “Life is unfair.” Rebelling against life’s unfairness will not make it fair; it will only make us bitter.
The other instinctive, tempting response to a handicap is to indulge in self-pity, to feel sorry for ourselves. We start “if-ing.” If I had had different parents, I could have had more self-esteem. If I weren’t anxious, I could have gotten that job. If I weren’t short, I could have gotten that girl. If I didn’t have this ailment, I could be happy. If I weren’t flabby, I could have been a contender. The Bible says that St. Paul had a “thorn in the flesh.” No one knows what it was because he never talked about it. It could have been epilepsy or blindness or a limp. Biblical scholars have taken many guesses, but no one knows. Think of all those letters that Paul wrote to the early churches that now constitute the bulk of the New Testament – letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. All those letters, and not once did he mention the symptoms of his handicap. How differently the New Testament would read if Paul had been like some of us:
Greetings, my Christian brothers and sisters, grace to you, and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. God, my bursitis is acting up today! I didn’t feel like getting out of bed this morning, and those front steps to my house have got to go. I’m going to get a ramp put in if it’s the last thing I do. My heating pad went on the blink last night, and I didn’t think I’d ever get back to sleep. Tomorrow I’m going to my doctor and see if he can give me another prescription. Those little pink pills aren’t doing a darn thing to help me. If I didn’t have this bursitis, I could really do some missionary work like you’ve never seen. What did I do to deserve this? Well, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Your humble servant, Paul.”
“If-ing” comes from the illusion that we are entitled to our first choice in life. Very few people have the good fortune of living their lives on the basis of their first choice. Almost all of us have to live on the basis of our second, third, and tenth choices. To take the second best and make something out of it is the challenge of life. Ole Bull was a great Norwegian violinist and was probably Norway’s first international star. Once he was giving a concert in Paris when his A string snapped, so he transposed the composition then and there and finished it on three strings. That’s the persistent challenge of life – having your A string break and having to finish on three strings. There are two aspects to every situation: the things you cannot help – the A string snaps – and the things you can do something about – your attitude. Rebelling gets you no where. Self-pity gets you no where. But focusing on what can be done with the second-bests will get you somewhere.
One way self-pity gets played out is by comparing ourselves with others and wishing we could do what they do or be who they are. We measure ourselves by other people and assume that we should be as fortunate, as successful, as popular, or as happy as they are. And the tabloids, TV images, and YouTube videos of our celebrity-obsessed culture make it possible for us to measure the whiteness of our teeth and the chrome wheels of our cars with models and millionaires. Making comparisons is an absolute waste of time. Don’t do it. Making comparisons will always lead either to vanity or bitterness because we can always find people who are better off or worse off than we are. Emerson put it this way:
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
You are not responsible for being as fortunate or successful or popular or happy as someone else. Your responsibility is to till the field life has given you. If your soil is thinner or rockier than someone else's, don’t waste your time looking over the fence and daydreaming about what you would do with someone else’s field. Accept who you are, and make the best of who you are. Envy will not change anything; it will only make you bitter.
So what is a more effective way to respond to our limitations than rebelling against them or indulging in self-pity? I know this is counter-intuitive, but if we are to respond in a way that will enlarge us spiritually instead of diminishing us, then we must embrace our handicaps because they are part of us. To fight against them is to engage in an internal civil war. Or I guess here in South Carolina, I should say an internal war- between-the-states. It is to be at war with yourself. We will not be at peace with ourselves and we will not become whole unless we can accept ourselves as we are, including those parts of ourselves that we consider handicaps. Now this is hard to do because we are often ashamed of our handicaps. We tend to regard them as flaws and defects which imply that we are flawed, defective human beings. In other words, we take them very personally. Yet our handicaps often shape us in distinctive ways that make us who we uniquely are. They are like the waves of the ocean that carve away at the shells and rocks on the beach. The continual influence of the waves make rocks like this one (show rock) almost egg-like in its shape and smoothness. Our handicaps carve our souls into their distinctive shapes.
In discussions about our current economic crisis, there has been a lot of talk about Franklin Roosevelt. He came from one of the oldest and wealthiest families in New York. As a child, he made frequent trips to Europe, and he rode horses, went on fox hunts, and played polo and lawn tennis. He attended the most prestigious schools – Groton Boarding School, Harvard, and Columbia Law School – and he worked for a Wall Street corporate law firm. FDR was handsome, charismatic, and sociable, and he rose quickly in his political career from state senator to Assistant Secretary of the Navy to Vice Presidential candidate to governor of New York.
Then the wave came that would permanently carve his soul. He contracted polio, which left him totally paralyzed from the waist down. At first he sunk into a deep depression, for he knew that his political career was over. He knew that the public would not elect a cripple. But FDR refused to let his spirit be crippled. He tried every therapy available at the time, including hydrotherapy, and he purchased a resort at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he founded a treatment center for polio patients. When it became evident that he would not regain the use of his legs, he fit his legs with iron braces and laboriously taught himself to walk short distances by swiveling his torso while supporting himself with a cane. In private, he used a wheelchair, but he was careful never to be seen in it in public. He usually appeared in public standing upright, supported on one side by an aide or one of his sons. Elected four times as President of the United States, very few Americans realized that he was paralyzed.
I cannot think of another person who was better qualified to lead our nation out of the crippling Great Depression than Franklin Roosevelt. Far from being an obstacle, his paralysis actually contributed to his qualifications. Or to be more accurate, his response to his handicap helped to shape him into the President we needed because his dogged persistence, his optimism, and his belief in himself enabled him to cope with his paralysis, and it was persistence, optimism, and belief in ourselves that enabled us as Americans to cope with the Depression. He imbued these qualities to us. We should not despise or resist our handicaps. We should embrace them because they indelibly carve our souls. We would not be who we are without them. If we embrace them with courage and determination, they can actually enlarge us.
And I should add, if we embrace them with faith. I know you may be surprised to hear me say that because we Unitarians talk more about reason and experience than faith, but I really mean it. It takes faith to embrace our limitations. I'm not talking about that kind of insipid faith that spouts platitudes like, “God doesn't put more on us than we can bear,” or “God doesn't close one door without opening another,” or “God makes us suffer to build our character or test our faith or make us compassionate or whatever.” Frankly, I see that kind of faith as being akin to magical thinking, a kind of childlike belief in a heavenly parental figure who makes everything work out all right in the end. I outgrew that kind of faith a long time ago. As an adult, I believe that a mature faith believes in the abundance of the universe to provide us with the resources and opportunities we need to survive and thrive, not in spite of, but because of our limitations if we respond to them with courage and determination. A mature faith believes in yourself, that you have within you the resources you need to develop into a courageous, tenacious person when we face and accept ourselves as we are. For many of us, it's a lot easier to believe in God than in ourselves, but that's the spiritual challenge of handling our handicaps.
It takes faith in yourself to believe that you are more than your handicap. It may be a part of you, but it's not all of you. Franklin Roosevelt was crippled, but he didn't define himself as a cripple. Neither should we allow our handicaps to define us. I may have schizophrenia, but I'm not a schizophrenic; I am a person who happens to have schizophrenia. I may suffer from diabetes, but I am not a diabetic; I am a person who happens to have diabetes. I may have alcoholism, but I'm not an alcoholic; I am a person who happens to have alcoholism. My handicap does not define me.
In 1968, the African American sanitation workers of Memphis went on strike after years of neglect and abuse by the city. The city refused to replace their dilapidated garbage trucks. The city refused to pay the garbage collectors for overtime work. The city refused to pay them livable wages; many of them were forced to rely on welfare and food stamps to feed their families. The strike was sparked by the death of two sanitation workers who were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. The two men had taken refuge in the back of the truck from a rain storm because the African American workers were not allowed to stand under the same shelter with the white workers. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King joined the strike in what proved to be his last demonstration for civil rights. The night before he was killed, Dr. King preached a sermon that seemed to foretell the next day’s tragedy. He told the sanitation workers and their supporters:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. For I’ve been to the mountain top, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
During their daily march, the striking sanitation workers carried signs that stated simply, “I am a man.” It is as if each worker were saying, the discriminatory practices of the city of Memphis may treat me as if I were subhuman, but I am a man. The racial prejudice of our society may insinuate that I am inferior, but I am a man. The menial, thankless work I do may be dismissed as being insignificant and I may be dismissed as being insignificant, but I am a man. I am a human being, and I have dignity and worth because I am human.
That kind of statement, that kind of belief requires faith. It’s that kind of faith that refuses to be defined by our limitations, that can see that we are more than our handicaps, that can embrace our frailties and transform them into character and purpose. It takes faith to believe that life is good and beautiful even when it’s bad and ugly and to keep living even when life doesn’t seem worth living. It takes faith to know in the marrow of your bones that, despite life’s unfairness and disappointment, that you are somebody – a human being with dignity and worth. Amen.