Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dad’s death as a wheel-chair shaped hole

(A warning to regular readers, since this is my blog, I’m going to continue to process some of my Dad’s recent death on the blog. I guess it runs the risk of being too personal, but as a practical theologian, I’m committed to taking that risk, and finding my life a sifting ground for reflection on the fingerprints of God.)

I’m continuing to reflect on the physicality of Dad’s absence. His death leaves a very interestingly shaped hole, one that is wheel-chair shaped. 

Dad had multiple sclerosis and thus spent his last ten years wheelchair bound. This reality, the shape of his disability, had a physical impact upon our family life.  The reality of that wheelchair meant a physical altering of how our family gathered and related.

The lack of mobility mean that Dad was a physical central point which we moved toward, around which we as a family gathered, around which our social life defined itself.  It is strange, bewildering, to realise we’ve lost a wheel-chair shaped central point.

There are of course, other spatial ways for groups to gather. The Christian tradition often uses notions of pilgrimage, of always moving together toward a distant horizon.Walking a beach offers tidal images, the slow back and forth rhythm of waves. Maori culture gives us the image of Koru, of growth unfolding outwards from a centre. All of these offer quite different ways to visualize gathering. Each result in quite different patterns of living.

Thus the death of Dad is not only of a person, but of a pattern of gathering as a family.

What was intriguing about us as a family making Dad’s coffin was that it was actually giving us a different pattern of gathering – the garage rather than the lounge, working side by side rather than talking face to face, small groups playing different roles at different times.

Being a missiologist, I can’t help linking this with the church in mission. Much of church life in Western Christianity has  a central gathering pattern – we go to church rather than move on pilgrimage or unfold outward as church in the world. So my grief is perhaps at some level what the church in the West is living with on a daily basis.

And what might it mean for the church to embrace different patterns of gathering – around projects, in shared tasks, seeking participation and new charisms.

Spatially, Dad’s hole is not just central, it is also wheelchair shaped. His disability is central to his parting. To help me process this, I’m back reading Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader by Brian Brock and John Swinton.

It looks at how various thinkers through Christian history have responded to disability. I suspect that somewhere in there will be important insights for me, about how God’s redemption embraces the physicality of the human body, about how the disability of Jesus (beaten beyond recognition, wounded side, nail-scarred hands) are part of God’s gracious pattern in the world.

Posted by steve at 11:37 AM


  1. Hi Steve, I think it’s really neat that you are doing practical theology on mourning for your dad. It’s also interesting.

    I am reminded of Os Guinness’ argument against sectarian Christian organisations and for Christian participation in an active civil society. He picks up on the salt & yeast metaphors, & points out what’s happened to Netherlands where the Reformed, Catholics & secularists created parallel institutions, leading to a ‘pillared’ society (from memory, he makes this observation in his critique of Abraham Kuyper in his book Character Counts).

    I find Guinness too socially and politically conservative, but he can be very insightful and is a strong advocate for pluralism from a conservative stance.

    Comment by Paul — September 11, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

  2. Thanks Paul. It feels a vulnerable, yet appropriate, thing to be doing.

    I confess I was thinking about Bonhoeffers religionless, secular Christianity, as I wrote, and the sense that centre-as-church was quite different from pilgrim or waves on beach in terms of relation with society.

    Can there be church without church? What the relationship between Christianity as active and church as verb?


    Comment by steve — September 11, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

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