Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, and how did he even notice the woman in the back who was bent over so far that she couldn’t even stand up straight? Did Jesus bend his own body to meet her where she was, to look her in the eye? Whatever he did, we know he saw her—not just her disability, not just her bodily condition that bent her over, but he saw HER for who she is—and called her over, and he laid his hands on her, a woman who was not his relative, and said to her, “You are set free.” And she stood up, praising God.
Whenever I see guidelines for ministry with persons with disabilities, there’s an understandable sensitivity about suggesting that disabilities are somehow moral shortcomings, or divine judgments against a person. In the Gospel story, the author, Luke, is very careful to let us know that the woman who is crippled, it isn’t because of anything she did. Her physical condition is not a judgment against her—it’s the result of some kind of spirit, not the good kind, maybe even an agent of Satan who restrained her physical body.
The shape of her body, her disability, was not the consequence of her actions, but something that happened to her. In other words, the shape of her body didn’t change the shape of her soul. But our human souls live in bodies, and while our souls cry out for freedom, our bodies don’t always allow it.
And because of the mysteries of God’s wisdom hidden in human bodies, not all conditions allow for the kinds of miraculous healings that Jesus achieved. Not all blindness will become sight, not all deafness will be healed to allow hearing, some people with paralysis will always have that paralysis, some mental health conditions will always be with the person.
This is why it’s important to be particular about the condition of the soul, the status of freedom from God’s judgment, because the soul is not what’s at stake. We’re not so much physical beings who have occasional spiritual experiences; we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience on this earth, and our experiences will differ. Our human, enfleshed, earthly experience is enriched when we can empower others by sharing our stories.
James Robinson recently filmed a video explaining his experience with various eye disorders including strabismus and alternating extropia. These conditions cause his eyes to track separately, and even though his vision in each eye is fine, he notices that people aren’t sure which eye to look into when speaking to him.
In the video, he says that he has no problem with how he sees but how he is seen by other people. He brings up the fact that in our culture, we put a lot of effort into telling people with disabilities what their world could be like if they were normal. James Robinson asks the important question about whether other people could possibly put their energy into understanding what it’s like to live with that disability.
Since there is power in sharing stories, I’ll share mine. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD, which is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That diagnosis, for me, was the culmination of many months of learning about ADHD, how ADHD symptoms vary for different people and how ADHD symptoms show up in my life in particular, and how a diagnosis can help me get the support my brain needs in order to function well.
A diagnosis is only part of the picture that includes education, possibly medication (there is no medication that “fixes” ADHD entirely), nutrition and how the things I eat affect my brain, and talk therapy for integrating strategies to live life like making routines, setting schedules, taking care of household chores and other stuff that’s boring to me, and finding people I trust who can hold me accountable.
Besides celebrating hope for the future, this diagnosis has given me a new lens to view my life, my history, the times in the past when I struggled—was it because of ADHD? This isn’t a condition I acquired sometime in my life; I have always had ADHD—I just didn’t always have a name for it. I simply could not understand why registration forms are impossible for me. I could not adhere to a morning routine. I have had trouble falling asleep because my brain won’t shut down—that’s where the hyperactivity shows up for me. I can have trouble making decisions because ADHD affects the part of the brain that addresses executive functioning, which also gives me trouble with recalling words or names or faces or information.
In addition to having some answers for my shortcomings, I also now can name why I’m great at some things, what I call my ADHD superpowers. ADHD is something of a misleading name because the problem isn’t with a deficit of attention, it’s a surplus of attention that doesn’t know where to go. This is why people with ADHD can hyperfocus on something they’re interested in, developing knowledge and skills that align with giftedness. ADHD frequently overlaps with other brain conditions like anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, sensory processing disorder, auditory processing disorder, rejection sensitive dysphoria, as well as academic giftedness.
But ADHD is a disability. Students with ADHD and employed adults with ADHD can ask for accommodations to help them succeed. I really struggle with this because I have always been treated like I’m normal—which is problematic because what is normal and we could have a long conversation about that some other time—and I have always expected my brain to be neurotypical, but it is just not.
I have a neurodiverse brain, and the more I can grow in that acceptance, the more I can accept that I’m a person with a disability. It isn’t necessarily outwardly visible, and it isn’t a physical disability, but it counts as a disability. This is incredibly humbling for me.
It’s also incredibly liberating. The more I speak the truth about my own condition and the more I receive grace, the more grace I shower on others, too. I’m incredibly fortunate to work in a profession where I’m not likely to get fired for revealing that I have ADHD—this is not true for everybody. I’m privileged to have been in ministry long enough to prove that I can do the work at least adequately; it helps that my interests are people and working with words like sermons, so it turns out this career works great for me. Also ADHD is not the kind of medical condition that progressively gets worse; instead, talking about it and learning more could maybe even help my ADHD symptoms improve.
But I would never have tried learning more if not for hearing the stories of other people telling me about their ADHD, including plenty of pastor colleagues, people I greatly respect. In one meeting recently, one person spoke up to say they have ADHD and then another, then another, and out of six of us in that meeting, four of us have ADHD. In some social situations now, I can acknowledge my ADHD not as a way to excuse rudeness but as a way of understanding my own brain and making sense of other people too. Sometimes it becomes a way to connect—the conditions that make people’s brains neurodiverse are sometimes called neurospicy. Instead of shaming myself for the things I struggle with, I’m accepting and even developing a sense of humor about it.
When Jesus saw the woman who was crippled, it’s important first that he saw her, noticed her for who she is. How easy is it to skip over someone because we assume we can’t have anything in common with them? Jesus sees us, each of us as individuals, for who we are—this is powerful. And second, he defends her—isn’t it right to set a person free from whatever is binding them? And also, he connects her with her community—he calls her “daughter of Abraham.” She belongs to this people, and they belong to her. She is found within her people. And that liberating moment gets the whole crowd of them rejoicing.
Where do we see scenes like this in our world today? What is it like to be set free? Is it like getting a diagnosis, finally having an explanation for what’s going on?
What’s it like to be diagnosed as human? The only actual soul-crushing condition we live with is called sin. We are all diagnosed with a lifelong condition called sin. But our sin is not our shame—Jesus Christ died for this. As followers of Christ, we are set free to speak the truth, recognizing the truth of sin’s presence in the world and in our lives. This is why we don’t shy away from confessing our sins, even at the very start of worship!
I used to feel so ashamed of myself for the things that are really just symptoms of ADHD, but I realized my sin was my expectation that I should be able to do everything I desire to do. Isn’t the myth of self-sufficiency rooted in the human desire to be alone and to not need God? Isn’t it sin to say: I don’t need God, I don’t need the gifts of God, I don’t need the people of God, I just need to be able to do everything by myself, to prove that I’m worthy?
To that attitude, Jesus says: I see you. I see what you’re up to. And it’s not gonna get you even a single step closer to happiness or to fulfillment or to peace.
Instead, Jesus says, you are set free. You are set free from the attitudes that keep you imprisoned to your way of thinking, that way of thinking which is death-dealing because it separates you from God and from your community. You are set free from shame, from thinking that you are less worthy because of something you’ve done or some hidden deficiency that has been with you since birth. You are set free from all of that. Forever.
The troubling thing is that you’ll probably soon forget this conversation with Jesus ever happened—you will need to be reminded, over and over and over again, that it’s really true. You are set free. And it’s gonna take some time to get used to that freedom. You’re gonna have to find new ways of doing things. You’re gonna rely on your community differently. You will be restored to your community but you’ll have to be reminded that these are your people.
The healing is not the removal of disability nor the restoration of bodily wholeness or going “back to normal” (whatever that means). The healing is the restoration of community. The disability no longer separates you from other people nor can it separate you from God.
When I listened to people telling their own stories of ADHD and when I saw myself and understood that God sees me, too, that’s when my healing began. I’ll always have ADHD—it’s an orientation of the brain—but the condition no longer separates me from people or from God. In fact, sometimes ADHD connects me with other people AND to God. That is the true measure of healing: being restored to relationship.
The more you are restored to your people, the more you are reminded of who you are and whose you are, the more you get used to living into the liberation that Jesus Christ freely gives to us. You will relax into trusting God, because with time, your experience will remind you. Then you may find yourself opening up to gratitude, and your questions will sound less like, “How could God do this to me?” and you’ll find yourself asking things like, “How did God manage to protect me and preserve my life for so long while I was struggling? And how did I manage to trust the grace of this gift of life? And how can I ever thank God that I’m here right now, making this testimony?”
Before long, you’ll open your mouth to speak, and this is the fun part: you will find that you’ve aligned yourself with God’s will, and then you’ll start setting other people free. And this is why freedom is so dangerous, because it just keeps going! This is why systems of shame work so hard to keep us quiet and locked within ourselves, because what happens when freedom is set loose in the world? What happens when you are set free to notice and name your own disabilities? What happens when you can affirm and join the experience of someone else’s disability, meet people where they are, heal the community that Jesus died for? What will happen?
The entire crowd will start rejoicing at the wonderful things God is doing in this world, right here, right now.