A version of this article was originally published at Jenn & Greg’s Quaking Life.
I grew up with a lot of confusion surrounding my sexuality and my disability. Now, I can see how my perspective on sexuality was influenced by an ableist world, and where that confusion intertwined with my spiritual journey. As a campus minister, I find that I cannot talk about one journey without the other.
I can remember crying at night when I was probably eight or nine. I asked my mother, why me? What did I do wrong? Why did God do this to me? I wanted to know what I did to deserve a speech impediment. I didn’t feel whole.
I have always had a difficult relationship with God. For a long time, I tried to disassociate myself from Christianity. Growing up on the northern edge of the Bible Belt, I heard a lot of talk about God, Christ, and perfection, as if perfection were the third part of the Trinity instead of the Holy Spirit. I often wondered why I should follow a God who cursed me with a disability.
As a kid, I treated my speech impediment as something other than a part of my whole self. I saw it as a detriment that would keep me from succeeding. This thinking was partially due to a misdiagnosis early in life. Throughout elementary school, doctors predicted that I would grow out of my speech impediment by high school.
I could not wait until high school.
Around the same time, I saw a Full House episode where two teenage girls, DJ and Kimmy, were talking about one of Kimmy’s cousins, Steve, coming back to visit. Steve was supposed to be nerdy-looking, or as Kimmy called him, a “geek-burger with cheese,” with glasses, braces, and acne.
Yet, when they opened the door, he had no glasses, nice teeth, and clear skin. The two girls were shocked that he was hot. (The actor playing the cousin was Kirk Cameron, who was considered to be one of the more attractive young male actors in the late 1980s.)
The girls asked what happened to him. He explained that he now had contacts, the braces came off, and the acne cleared up.
For years afterward, when I thought of the scene, I remembered it incorrectly. In my mind, Steve said, “One morning I woke up, and… bam! The acne was gone.”
It stuck in my mind that way, so I used to dream that one day I would awake and find that my speech impediment was totally gone, like Kirk Cameron’s acne.
I wished and wished for that day to come! Then, I would be more accepted and girls would finally find me attractive.
But that day never came. I felt disappointed as high school went by and my speech impediment hung around, like unwanted acne.
I spent a lot of my teenage years and my twenties feeling alone and just wanting to be loved. Even though I had a loving family and a huge network of friends, I thought I needed romantic love to feel complete. But for the most part, I didn’t have great luck with dating in college or the few years after I graduated.
It was four years ago when I met my now-wife, Jenn. But even though I found the romance I’d been seeking all that time, I quickly realized that, nope, romantic relationships were not the magical cure to my deep self-hatred. I still didn’t feel whole.
Though I had always resisted, I felt God calling me to ministry in different ways throughout my life. After college, I felt a more specific call to go to seminary, and though I avoided it for some years, I finally caved in and applied. Just after I started dating Jenn, I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
Throughout my time in seminary, I wrestled with my anger toward God. I wanted to know why God chose to give me a disability, or at least why He did not prevent it. At one point, I started to view my disability as a gift—it was an attempt to quickly reconcile my anger with God with my calling to ministry in his name. But one of my field education supervisors called me out on that kind of messed-up theology.
That left me, once again, at a loss for how to reconcile my anger with God, and I realized it would be a difficult path to make sense of it.
In my last semester of seminary, I took a course called Sexuality and the Christian Body. Finally, I came to understand that my disability was not a gift… it felt more like a burden. But I also learned that I wasn’t as alone as I once thought. Through the class, I dealt with my anger toward God about my disability, and I actually confronted my feelings of loneliness and abandonment by God.
I read Disabled God by Nancy Eisland for my final class paper, and I realized that the Savior I worship was differently-abled, too. Eisland writes, “The disabled God repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin… Our bodies… are not artifacts of sin, original or otherwise. Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”
In the Gospel of John, there is a scene after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Except for Thomas, all of the apostles had already encountered Him. But Thomas didn’t believe the others—he said that he would only believe once he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched the wounds Jesus had sustained on the cross.
Jesus appeared to Thomas and allowed him to touch His wounds. This scene is known as Doubting Thomas, and this story is most often used to preach about the virtues of believing without seeing.
Yet, rereading this story through the lens of Eisland’s book, I see the scene in a completely different way. I realized my conception of a perfect God, a perfect Jesus, was false. Christ could have come back perfect—but He didn’t. Instead, He bore the wounds He had suffered up on the Cross. He came back differently-abled.
My disability is not a hindrance to the Kingdom of God but a part of my whole being, created by God. I am indeed made in the image of God, as it is written in Genesis 1.
For years, I let an ableist world and its standard of perfection define my sexuality and my spirituality… but not anymore. My disability is not like Kirk Cameron’s acne. My speech impediment is part of me, not an unwanted inconvenience that will clear up one day.
I am disabled, and both God and Jenn love me, just as I am!
Photo Credit: By Dante Alighieri at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons