Some years back I attended a large conference featuring some of the rock star preachers of the reformed tradition. While I’m probably between three and a half and four points myself and not a fully vested Calvinist, I’m quite comfortable around their species. So much so that back in the day, each February (several years running), I gladly donned the lanyard and name tag and gate-crashed their convocation.
This particular year they featured a guest speaker from outside their tradition and I thought it’d be a scream to hear what he’d say to his audience. I hasten to add: to say this man is my hero understates his meaning in my life. His ministry in the Word is responsible for setting my course aright and giving me a love for the scriptures.
All of it was a set-up for supreme disappointment, however.
I’m choosing to keep him nameless and offering very few clues to his identity because, well, to judge a person on one isolated incident is unwise and plants another seed of pride in the soil of my heart, and Lord knows I don’t need that! I’m also trying hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. Very, very hard.
But, before I share with you what went down, I must interject here, for any readers who don’t know me well or at all:
I’m in a wheelchair. Have been for 33 years.
In rehab we were identified as either “quads” or “paras” depending on number of limbs affected by our paralysis. Shoulders (or neck) down paralysis meant four limbs were affected (quad) and waist down (or chest, as in my case) meant two lower limbs were incapacitated.
I’m a para. My “pair a” legs are useless, hence the wheelchair.
While the world of accessibility was still fairly prehistoric when I was injured, it was coming out of its dark ages well enough – but it was still a decade prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) which made it the law of the land to make public spaces disabled-friendly. It didn’t – or couldn’t – change everything, however. There are still two terrains I like the very least to roll on: carpet and slopes – uphill, of course.
Back to the story. The auditorium where this conference was hosted was huge, beautiful and up to code with all the convenient accoutrements of accessibility (it was the mid-90’s), except: there was the aforementioned thick-pile carpeting and theater-grade slope.
Gosh, I’m taking too long. Okay, let me get to the point.
The wheelchair-friendly area was wayyyy down front, and one could easily fly down one of the many aisles to the appointed section and park. Trouble was, it meant rolling yourself back uphill in plush carpet to the exits.
I chose to avoid it entirely by sitting wayyyy in the back, on an aisle, beside a pew. Ushers and hospitality folk kept asking if I wouldn’t rather sit down front but I kindly declined.
The man I was there to hear spoke in one of the main plenary sessions, and he didn’t disappoint. He was brilliant! When he was done I sat back in my shadowed canopy, beneath the balcony, debating on whether I would go down front and shake my hero’s hand. Was it worth the trek back up Everest? No? Yes? Okay…here goes…
There was a crowd around him and he spoke briefly only to several, perhaps ten minutes or so in all, but there was also another crowd around him – his handlers, or glorified bodyguards. There must have been 6 or 8 chisel-jawed, alert-eyed men standing close by, surveying the crowd. I was in the back of the pressing throng. I’d come this far so it became even more vital for me to tell this man how his ministry moved me. I was only fifteen feet away!
The crowd slowly dispersed, but I didn’t follow suit. I remained, hopeful. I figured he’d see me, know I had come down the aisle at some cost, and take some pity. Momentarily, he looked in my direction, expressionless, and whispered to one of his handlers. Hope rose within, imagining him saying he needed to get down the steps to where I was on the main floor. Not exactly what happened.
After eyeing me briefly, and whispering to the man on his right, he turned his heels away from me, and was summarily whisked off the stage and into another direction entirely. When I realized what happened, anger welled up. Not at him so much, but because I was left at the bottom of those steps, fifteen feet away, looking and feeling pitiful and pathetic. I quietly turned my chair and started the ascent.
Rest assured, there’s no bitterness in me; I’d forgiven him long ago. If I saw him in another context, I’d still want to shake his hand, bless him and never bring this up. Benefit of the doubt, right?
Then there’s Jesus.
We can safely assume He waited often until every last one of the thronging masses was personally greeted. Would He say “Come to Me” then leave you standing – or sitting – alone, in the cold? He was accessible, yes, whether Gentile, woman, child or invalid. If someone was desperate for an audience with Him, they were granted quarter, time, and His keen attention.
His entire gig was love. Jesus’ men sometimes wanted to act as His handlers, put the people at arm’s length, but He’d kindly rebuke them and say “I’ve come for this very reason. If they want to know Me, they can know Me.” Then He’d touch a leper, hug a toddler, engage a Samaritan woman by a well (“Where’ve You been, Jesus? With that woman? Are You crazy?“), or risk His Holy-man reputation by letting a saved harlot cling to His feet at a dinner party.
He was out there, in the open, accessible to all – even those who wanted to kill Him. Once, when He was accosted by those who sought Him harm, He ridiculed their sneaking and plotting, reminding them if they ever needed to know what He was up to, it wasn’t a secret; they should know where to find Him: with the people, loving and doing His Father’s work.
And none of that’s changed. You know right where He is. On His throne, in glory, beside the Father … accessible. You don’t need a name tag or insider credentials. It’s just you, and Him.
May I tax your patience for one more – very quick – story? I just want you to know there’s some good guys out there also. Lots of ’em. Like Joe Stowell. He deserves to be named. This guy is one of evangelical’s luminaries. A humble, kind, inspiring, rock star of a teacher. When he was still the president of one of our most respected Bible colleges, he was a main speaker at a coliseum event – yes, back in the 90’s (I hung out at a lot of conferences in the 90’s) – which I dutifully attended.
I was in the very front row, transfixed by the message he brought – such clarity and grace – and I thought: I’ll shake his hand.
Not what you’re thinking.
Long story short: though I was already positioned near the stage, many stepped over and around me and made a beeline to where he was, cutting me off from any accessible angle. But sometime in the middle of that fray, from his vantage-point, he looked and saw me – somehow – and made a beeline toward me. Many who’d stepped over me started to speak to him, but Mr. Stowell smiled, passed by them, and kept his vision on me.
When he got to where I was, he did the most amazing thing: in one motion, he collapsed down to one knee, put his hand on my armrest (a gesture of affection and identifying) and looked me in the eye, then asked my name and all about me.
I think this is what those who felt cut off by religion must’ve felt like when Jesus by-passed all that, swooped down and planted Himself in their orbit.
Hi, Scott, I’m Jesus. I’m the Way…”
Follow Me. I’ve made it accessible…”
Well, now. That’s an invitation I can’t refuse. I can’t wait to shake His hand and tell Him how His ministry has moved me. And I bet He’ll give me all the time I need.
And you too.