Joyful thoughts come to mind whenever I see my niece Shaianne; none of them begin with the prefix “dis.” She uses a wheelchair, but I never think of her as disabled or disadvantaged. She’s just an amazing person. Her life voyage sails upon waves of joy, creativity, hope and humor—a beauteous assemblage of graces fit to humble those of strongest limbs.
Shaianne schooled me early on in what it means to be “able.” As a kid, she watched as my children grabbed boogie boards to chase the Atlantic’s waves. As chilly waters began to wash over their bodies, Shaianne gave me a “look” that screamed, “where is my boogie board?” She wasn’t about to settle for being a Jersey Shore spectator.
Brushing aside my silly apprehensions, Shaianne nimbly took an extra board from my nervous hands and made her way to the ocean. Waves crashed violently near the shallow waters where She established her domain; they neither discouraged nor dissuaded her. Shaianne offered an amazing lesson in courage to those with eyes to see. I was blessed that day; I got to see her amazing display of joyous courage.
On the Waterfront
Now a college student, Shaianne recently went with us to a free Kirk Franklin concert at the Camden waterfront. At first glance, the location seems perfect. The impressive Philadelphia skyline forms the backdrop, accompanied by sail boats wafting upon the mild swells of the Delaware River. The waterfront seems a most welcoming venue, except for those in wheelchairs. There were several law enforcement agencies on patrol in the oasis of this otherwise notorious city, guaranteeing a safe experience for those capable of filling the offering plate.
Eyeing a set of cordoned-off seats directly in front of the stage, I asked one of the officers if there was accessible seating available for Shaianne. Given his quizzical frown, one might have thought I had requested to sit near a pinstriped elephant. There were no such accommodations, so we made our way to general admission. We sat just in time for the procession of local clergy making their way to the VIP section of the cordoned-off seats.
These shepherds, skilled in the wearing of long robes and in fashioning long prayers, the favorites of local oligarchs, took their seats and continued to skillfully smile and wave at members of their flocks scattered among the crowd. The scene overflowed with pleasantries while simultaneously devoid of concern or consideration for the bright and courageous college student seated in the wheelchair.
The spirit moved the crowd during Franklin’s concert. The faithful sang along, waved their hands, shouted Hallelujah and rose to their feet in ecstatic affirmation of God’s goodness. As the crowd repeatedly took to their feet, Shaianne’s view from her wheelchair was obstructed by the unimpressive view of the faithful’s backs and buttocks. She could not see the colorful lights of the performance area, the beautifully lit backdrop of Philly’s skyscrapers, the white sails of boats on the river, or an energetic Franklin jumping from the stage to engage the VIPs, assuring the crowd that “There must be a God somewhere.”
Knowing it would embarrass Shaianne, I resisted the urge to hoist her upon my shoulders. I was upset to see shepherds lifted up among the chairs of political and business elites, as the flock and those with special needs sat in the lowly grass. But Shaianne was just glad to be there, smiling contently at the joys of spending time with family. Another lesson for her apprehensive uncle.
The Courageously Humble
I don’t think Jesus’ primary goal in today’s Gospel reading was to deliver a fiery critique of the evils of those who always get the best seats. Those skillfully dressing and praying in attempts at currying favor among the elites were standard fare in his time, just as they are today. Instead of perseverating on the evils of privilege, he turns our focus to the joys of the courageously humble who are just happy to be in the presence of God’s grace, spreading their modest gifts before him.
Our sense of justice can easily drive us to expend all our energy battling the systems that show their backs and buttocks to people like Shaianne. And don’t get me wrong, fighting injustice is our God-given vocation. But when that is our sole focus, the well can dry up.
Shaianne, on the other hand, has taught her Uncle Tim a lasting lesson. There is amazing joy to be found in contently dwelling on the courage of my niece… fixing my gaze upon God’s grace at work in her—grace that is truly greater than our world’s lack of concern and consideration. Grace that is greater than all our sins. Grace that is like an everlasting well.