Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I have a congenital neuromuscular disease called Charcot-Marie- Tooth, which has led to a lot of abuse in my life -- including my own father telling me to "pick up your goddamned feet, Stupid!" My mom was big into faith healers and took me to a few to help my "odd walk" but to no avail. What I got from this was a hatred of God and the church, because as far as they were concerned, I didn't have enough faith, I didn't believe hard enough, I wasn't good enough.
Once, in high school, two girls came up to me. I was quite psyched until one said, "We've noticed how you walk. If you come to Brother Ben's revival, you can be healed!" Imagine my letdown. Here I was thinking they liked me, but they were just collecting gimps for the floor show. I left quickly before I said or did something I would've regretted.
I felt the same way about other disabled people. I believed God didn't like them, either, because if he did, he'd heal them. I've since gotten sober and developed a sounder faith. I realize God is not Santa Claus, but to this day I don't feel welcome in any church. Sometimes, even today, when my legs are giving me grief, it's like they're reciting that old message: "See, God really doesn't like you." How can I get past this?
-- L., via email
I would have chosen your heartfelt letter for the column this week in any case, but I was drawn to it even more strongly because I have a friend with Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome. She is brave and hopeful, but I also know of her intense private struggles.
Let me begin by reminding you that all people are made in the image of God, not just "perfect'' people. I've often felt that God created this biblical belief to give hope to people who struggle with physical or mental infirmities. The pretty and powerful don't need to be reminded that God loves them. They walk through life with a socially supported confirmation of their specialness. No, the belief that even your recalcitrant feet bear the image of God is meant for you.
So as not to leave this matter in doubt, remember why God chose Moses. Moses wasn't a slave, so he couldn't relate to the lives of the people he was charged by God to emancipate. He wasn't a charismatic preacher, so he couldn't mobilize the masses with his words. Moses had a physical deformity, possibly a cleft palate.
In begging God to send someone else to Egypt, Moses cries out in a pain that echoes your own: "And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? Or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say" (Exodus 4:10-12). In telling Moses that he will be "with thy mouth," God is saying that precisely the part of his body that gives Moses shame has given God joy. God picked a deformed person to lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. Think of that the next time you're tempted to curse your feet.
I think of that whenever I look at my chest. I was treated for a physical deformity. My sunken breastbone had to be operated on when I was an adolescent. The scar it left on my chest was a source of shame for many years. I would never play "shirts and skins" basketball because I was afraid I might have to be on the skins team and I was too ashamed to take off my T-shirt.
Now, in my dotage, I look at my scar with pride. I know that whatever compassion I have has its roots in understanding what it feels like to be an outsider whose needless shame keeps him or her from fully participating in life.
Let go of your anger and shame if you can, and try to lift up the many ways your physical challenges have made you a kinder human being. I believe God loves your feet and my chest.
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