Psalm 111

“Accessible to all who desire …” (111:2)

Accessibility means making a place for everyone who wants to participate. This means providing ramps and wide doorways, Braille materials, hearing amplification, and presenting a fully inclusive, welcoming presence to all. When an institution begins selectively narrowing down the type of person who is welcome in its midst, it creates an atmosphere of privilege. Members evaluate each person who enters against a list of criteria. Those who measure up are welcomed, those who do not are turned away. For newcomers, entry becomes an unpleasant experience of being judged worthy or not. An accessible institution is one which opens its doors to all who desire to enter.

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Psalm 104

“Wrapped in a robe of light…” (104:2)

Light represents purity. Light contains the complete range of colors in the spectrum; therefore, purity also embraces a diversity of colors. To extend the metaphor, it also embraces a diversity of genders, orientations, religions, political positions, and all of the other differences in humanity that contribute light. From this I exclude acts of hatred, aggressive violence, and any other evil which takes light away from the world. The entire world will be enrobed with light if and only if we achieve the messianic vision of destroying implements of war, sitting down with our historic enemies, and building a Temple of peace at which all people can gather and be thankful to the Source of their wisdom.

Psalm 102

“May this be recorded for a later generation.” (102:19)

I do most of my writing on a laptop and the content of my thoughts is saved as a series of electric impulses, magnetic bits of data, on a Solid State Drive. Those bits are backed up to an external spinning hard drive and also to several data centers located at various points around the United States. Your ability to read my reflections depends on the ability of my website to translate those bits into text or speech. In contrast, one hundred years ago, the scribe who wrote the Torah from which we read used a feather and some ink on animal skin. Sometimes I wonder … whose technology is more likely to be read by a later generation?

Psalm 88

“I stretch out my hands to You.” (88:10)

Human beings are social animals. We need contact with others. In particular, God created us in pairs, to be in relationship with another. To reach out to another person is either to show our vulnerability and admit that we need help, or to notice that the other is in need and offer assistance. The image in this Psalm is particularly poignant. The seeker of aid needs to stretch, reach beyond his or her comfort zone, to plead for assistance.

James Madison and Disability

In “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” author Lynne Cheney demonstrates that Mr. Madison’s epilepsy fundamentally affected who he was as a politician. What specifically caught my attention was the connection between his condition and the first amendment to the Constitution.

The “people first” language of the disability rights movement asserts that we are not “handicapped, epileptics,or wheelchair-bound,” but rather a person with a handicap, a person with epilepsy, or a person in a wheelchair. The difference is that first they are people just like any other. Their condition doesn’t define them, but rather gets integrated into their personhood just like a person’s height, hair color, or temperament.

James Madison read widely on the subject of epilepsy, seeking a cause for and hoping to prevent his “sudden attacks.” Christian sources suggested that they a person who exhibited symptoms of seizures was a lunatic, possessed by the devil or a dumb spirit, or sinful. He struggled with this explanation, which didn’t ring true. He found in other books suggestions that regular exercise and sufficient sleep could prevent seizures.

It is likely that Madison used the same investigative logic with which he researched his physical condition to also examine his spiritual condition. Just as he cast aside the notion that Satan was the cause of his epilepsy, he also began to move away from other ideas of traditional religion.

He began to understand that religion, like science and medicine, needs to be tested. In order to test religion, society needs free and open discourse on religion. When government and religion are connected, it is not possible to openly question religious precepts. Thus, there is a direct line from Madison’s epilepsy to his questioning of religious texts to his belief in the separation of church and state as expressed in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Next up in the presidential biography series: “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness.”