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Free Falling: On Seeking God’s Providence as a Person with Disabilities

I harbor an intense dislike for walking across bridges alongside cars.

Let me be more specific. As a person with spatial disabilities, I feel entirely disoriented by the experience of walking across even short bridges that are also carrying motor traffic. If there are cars to my left or right, and water on the other side of me, I am experiencing far too much sensory stimulation to carry on a regular, unfettered conversation. It becomes very, very difficult for me to do anything other than focus on the step right in front of me…or, sometimes, to fight the powerful urge to exit the situation. To quote the eminent theologian Tom Petty, I feel like I’m “free falling” in that situation. Because I would rather not fall into oncoming traffic, I’d rather not be in that place!

That said, the problem with the complete anxiety that I feel in that state is complex. If I can’t walk across a bridge without fear, it will be far harder for me to get to some places I’d really like to go, and to enjoy being with other people. It’s a lot like the Christian life: Jesus doesn’t promise his friends that they’ll be safe all the time, or that they’ll always be comfortable or happy. Instead, he encourages us to follow him—sometimes by carrying a cross (Matthew 10:38, 16:24-26)! God’s providence, his divine guidance and care, is about risk and growth for Christians of all abilities, just like the rest of our lives.

The bridge that I cross in this case is the one that allows me to exchange old knowledge of myself, or of the world around me, for new impressions and wider horizons.

As a believer with multiple disabilities, seeking God’s provision means at least three things: risk, reciprocity, and relationship. First, let me expand on my thoughts about risk: many of the good things I have in my life have come to me because I have taken a risk and stepped out in faith. Like David facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17) or later Saul (1 Samuel 18-26), and like Gideon continually asking God for signs (e.g., Judges 6:33-40), I’ve needed to put aside my fears for my security in order to do what the Lord asks. These risks have allowed me to write a fascinating dissertation about baptism and Holy Communion, make new friends at North Park Theological Seminary and throughout the United States, and to eat and drink new foods; I remember Lou Malnati’s pizza and various Chicagoan beers with fondness. The bridge that I cross in this case is the one that allows me to exchange old knowledge of myself, or of the world around me, for new impressions and wider horizons.

Second, reciprocity matters to me as one who seeks God’s provision. According to Merriam-Webster, reciprocity means “a mutual exchange of privileges”; it can also mean “a mutual exchange of support, emotional investment, care, and love” in relationships. If I take risks in order to do God’s will, I have to give something to God and to others that matters to me. This isn’t to say that I offer my most valued possession to God, as Jepthah foolishly does in Judges 11:34-38. Instead, most of the time, I count the cost, as Jesus asks us to (Luke 14:28), and offer to God and to others a bounded response to their requests. I “give to those who ask of [me],” as Jesus teaches us (Matthew 5:42). When I lived in Toronto, I strove to show up early for church meetings in Parkdale; I regularly did dishes in another community I frequented; I was asked at least seventy times to write prayers for both of those communities; and I preached at least a dozen times as well. In each case, I strove, and still strive, to offer the most thorough representation of my gifts to others, because of the enormity of God’s grace (and others’ compassion) to me. In return, I usually get to hear candid, comforting, and courageous preaching, hear and sing beautiful music, and taste the goodness of the Lord (as well as of other people’s cooking!). In terms of reciprocity, the bridge I need to walk across is twofold: first, I need to weigh how much I can give to others in relationship; second, I must tread carefully on the bridge, because I want to be aware of how others’ relational requests align with God’s purposes.

The bridge that I can cross here is the desire to know the other person, and to be fully known.

Third and finally, when I strive to offer others the best of what God gives to me, and when I reflect on my relationships with others in the ways I just mentioned, I (we!) can experience real and lasting relationship. Fruitful and mutual relationships are the most significant part of God’s provision for me, because—in their true context—relationships stop the free fall of uncertainty. When I am on a bridge or other structure by myself, I feel fear because of overstimulation; by contrast, when I’m with someone else, the fear lessens or dissipates entirely. David and Jonathan experienced a mutual and supportive love like this (1 Samuel 18); similarly, Qoheleth the Teacher points out that two people can keep each other warm, and three can reinforce each other’s integrity (Ecclesiastes 4:11-12). 

Thus, even if it’s a small act, I want to reach out to my friends as often as I can; social media is both a help and a hindrance in that respect! I also want to honour my word to others – when I say I’ll show up at 7 PM, I’ll be as close as I can; and when I say I’ll be ready for your call at 5:30, I’ll strive to put other things aside so that we can talk. Love can both build relational bridges and help people to walk across them safely. That’s why Jesus instructs his friends to love each other as he’s loved them: that love will support them in the not-too-distant future, when he isn’t physically around to help them work things out. The bridge that I can cross here is the desire to know the other person, and to be fully known. When that happens, I can “free fall out into nothin’,” to quote Petty again, and feel the ecstasy of fulfillment within the very risk that I take to befriend somebody.

I’ve started to outline three aspects of God’s providence—risk, reciprocity, and relationship—in terms of the “free fall” of uncertainty, a disorientation similar to the anxiety I feel on bridges and other structures. God’s promises ask us to act in faith, and to risk something in order to get to know him and others better; those same promises call us to be reciprocal, to act in ways that illustrate the mutuality of our relationships. When we take risks and offer ourselves mutually to God and to others, we can experience fulfilling relationships—relationships as solid and lasting as bridges, and as clear as traffic lights.

Photo by Joshua Bos on Unsplash


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