Curtains, doors, fences, thoughts, fears, ideas, there is always some kind of barricade, some barrier keeping us from accepting, keeping us from embracing, keeping us from understanding what we don’t understand. Marty’s life, our life, has slowly become about conquering barriers, physically and emotionally.
Our minister, our friend is retiring, he is leaving our church after 30 years, he is leaving it better than he found it. As he prepares to leave I have tried to get my lazy arse to church and hear his last few sermons preached at 1st Presbyterian. He has always been thought-provoking, eloquent, passionate and tolerant in his messages. He says he is not a man of great courage, but he speaks what he believes and I believe that takes great courage. He had always reached Marty because he always understood the broken among us; he always spoke to their heart. That’s part of why Marty said she wanted to go too.
Our denomination recently made the decision to quit worrying about a person’s sexuality as a condition of ordination. Sadly, it has been a divisive issue in our denomination and has caused much consternation in the more conservative congregations, go figure.
A couple of weeks ago Jimmie talked about the issue of acceptance, simply, eloquently and in a way that helped many understand the role Christians should play in the evolution of thought.
In the Gospel of Mark, at the crucifixion of Jesus, Mark writes about how the curtain in the Temple is ripped in two, how it is torn apart. Jimmie connected Jesus to tearing down the curtains, the barriers in the church, the barriers in our lives. He talked about how the church, how the people of the church, should not be about erecting barriers, putting up curtains, but we should be about tearing down the barriers and opening the curtains to all even if it scares us a little.
I got it at the time; I understood it at the time and was proud that this man was my preacher, that this man was my friend. What he said connected me to things, made sense out of seemingly inconsequential stuff. We all do it, we do it all of the time, we put up walls, we erect barriers in our life to make us feel safe from things we don’t understand, from things we fear because they are different, new or hard.
It took one more trip to church with Marty and a conversation with Gretchen, the fitness muse, for it to really make sense to me, for the whole thing, the whole idea of breaking down barriers to really make sense to me in my own life.
Marty and I went to church last week to see our friend one last time and, at her request, we sat at the front. There are four pews that have a cut-out on the aisle side for wheelchairs, two at the front on either side of the sanctuary, two at the back. The front pew, the first pew, has a solid wooden modesty panel at the front, I suspect to keep the preacher’s eyes on the Bible and not the knees of their parishioners. It restrict wheelchair turning and it makes it hard to move the wheelchair in and out of the section, but I respect the need to keep preacher peeking to a minimum.
I saw the communion elements on the table, and not to my credit, during the service, rather than enjoying the service, I spent too much time ruminating on how or if I was going to try and smoothly get Marty and her chair past the front panel and into the aisle and down to the front to take communion. Barriers, barricades were pretty high in my consciousness. I knew we would be clumsy, I knew it would be slow; I knew we would impede an orderly flow. We did it anyway.
As the words of the table were being spoken, as the bread was being broken, I whispered into Marty’s ear, “Do you want to get out and go down front?” She nodded, she wanted to get out and be like the rest, she wanted to find some sense of normal in our abnormal state, she wanted to go around the barrier in front of us. She is self-conscious, she is not a coward.
I think that’s what Marty and I need to do; I think that’s part of what Marty and I do for others who might fear their own future of dependence. By living and doing we can show others that barriers will not keep us from trying to do, from trying to participate. I think we can show people through our rather odd life that life continues, even if it’s odd. Of course the people in our church understand, of course they are accepting, of course they appreciate the difficulty, they love my wife.
It’s not the same everywhere, some don’t understand, some don’t have patience, some just want you to move and not be seen. To those people I say, thppppt, you are just one more stuck door, one more high curb, one more barrier we have to circumnavigate.
Our job, our life is about moving through and around the barriers. I hope every time someone sees us negotiating a difficult path, a man and his wife futzing around in a wheelchair, they develop a little bit better understanding. I hope they see us not as a tragedy, but what is possible, what two people can do.
Just like at that communion, I hope that’s what people saw.
We have already established that I’m not a graceful man but I managed to crawl over Marty that Sunday, I managed to muscle her wheelchair out into the aisle and Marty, despite her self-consciousness, despite her disability, because of her courage, she lifted her hand to take the bread and carefully dipped it into the cup as we were reminded of the sacrifice of others. To get past a barrier sometimes you don’t need grace, you need brute strength, courage and hope.
Everyone waited just a few seconds as I took Marty back to her pew and manipulated her chair back beside the pew. I sat directly behind her, with my right arm on her left shoulder. As the congregation walked by our right side to the front of our church to break their bread and drink from the communion cup many who knew Marty when, many who never knew her before, reached out and gently touched Marty on her right shoulder, some hugged her, some just smiled. Each time one of them touched her shoulder, I know they touched her heart, I know they gave her the strength to climb the next hill.
It’s what happens when you tear down the curtain, you get to see out the window; you get to see it’s not that scary, you get to see what is possible.