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Church and Families With Specially Challenged Kids #3

2012 March 28
by Mike

I’m not a fan of reducing the voices in worship assemblies to a few professionals. I want to hear from the church. Slick and efficient just don’t work for me.

Some of my favorite memories of worship include prayers, scriptures, and communion thoughts led by members of our church who are mentally disabled. They were asked to lead not because they’re mentally disabled but because they are a vital part of the family, people of deep faith.

It’s important to parents of children with disabilities that the church recognize the humanity and giftedness of their kids. These children are not just a project of the church; they are the church.

A child with disabilities is first and foremost a boy or girl made in the image of God. They reflect his glory. They are humans! So please, don’t put them in some parallel universe by calling them angels (or something similar).

I love Brett Webb-Mitchell’s insight in his moving book Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities in the Church:

“How then shall we look at, listen to, work, live, and worship with those whom society has labeled as disabled? On a television talk show a few years ago, the newspaper columnist George Will, whose son is mentally retarded due to Down’s Syndrome, spoke about the very human nature of his child. . . . Many people try to make those with disabling conditions, like mental retardation, either Holy Innocents of God . . . or evil incarnate as a child of the devil. Will said that his son is human, full of the same complex emotions, drives, and stressors as any other child. There are times that his son is joyful and spiteful, happy and sad, sharing and greedy, loving and hating . . . all in all, the child is human nothing more and nothing less. Maybe the greatest way to approach his son and others who have some serious limitations and wonderful gifts is as a human being.”

In his equally thought-provoking Dancing with Disabilities: Opening the Church to All God’s Children, Webb-Mitchell writes:

“In one church, after a chorus of people with mental retardation sang the anthem for Sunday morning worship, the pastor began talking about angels. He started by talking about the angels in the Bible—the angel who wrestled with Jacob and the angels who sang ‘Gloria,’ announcing the birth of Jesus. Then he compared the sometimes sweet, frequently off-key sound of the present chorus of people with mental retardation as being a contemporary ‘sound of angels.’ But by labeling them as angels, he inadvertently robbed them of the richness of being human and left them with the barrenness of one-dimensional, postcard innocence.”

Our daughter, Megan, was mentally disabled. The older she got (up to her death at the age of ten), the more physically challenged she became. As I often have said, she only said one full sentence that I can remember: “I’m Megan.”

Yet we were blessed with people who saw in Megan the full humanity of one who bears the image of God. She was a reminder that we must not define “fully human” in terms of abilities (or disabilities).

It’s also important that the church recognize the special gifts brought to the church by these children. We parents of specially challenged children understand well the life and writings of Henri Nouwen; we get why someone would leave the most hallowed circles of academic achievement to live among the mentally disabled. When Nouwen writes of his friend Adam and others in their community, it isn’t with sympathy; rather, it’s with admiration. He learned how to be human, he learned about giving and compassion from his mentally disabled brothers and sisters.

So how can the church help? I’m not asking you to put children with disabilities on a pedestal. But treat them like other children: see in them the image of God, learn about their unique gifts and temperaments, and invite them into the full life of the family of believers.

“[One Sunday] when I was nearly lost in grief and discouragement, I looked at a line of people waiting to visit me. I was exhausted from preaching and from grief, and I didn’t know if I had the energy for the conversations to come.

“Then I saw Kenneth, a mentally disabled member of our church, who’d come to the front of the line. He bellowed loudly, ‘Hey, Mike. I just read this in the Bible and wanted to read it to you. “How beautiful are the feel of those who bring good news.” I just thought you might like to know that.’

“Then he disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

“Years have passed since Kenneth read those words to me, but they still carry a tremendous power in my life. . . . Kenneth expressed the values of the kingdom in his urgency and terse words unclouded by comment.”

(from Megan’s Secrets: What My Mentally Disabled Daughter Taught Me about Life, used by permission)

Finally, this thanksgiving by Webb-Mitchell to the children with disabilities in his life — those with Braille pads, wheelchairs, hearing aids, autism, mental retardation, etc.:

“To all these people, and others like them, I say:

“You teach us the virtues of constancy and perseverance.

“You teach us patience.

“You teach us hospitality, hosting our laughter and tears.

“You challenge our assumptions about what life is, and what living with others in Christian community is.

“You are crossers of borders, showing us new borders we never knew the church had.

Megan


“You engage us in fitful acts of imagination, teaching us that imagination and creativity are skills and disciplined crafts learned in church.

“You teach us of the unpredictability and undomesticated nature of God’s love that rules this world. There is hope.

“Finally, you teach us that we depend on you, as you depend on us, bearing on your shoulders, and embodying in ways too magnificent for our senses to behold, the church, the body of Christ, as perhaps God means it to be. Thanks be to God for these politics of the body of Christ, which institutes our good.”

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Jocelyn permalink
    March 28, 2012

    One of the reasons my husband and I chose our current church is because of the way they have integrated people with disabilities into the fabric of the congregation. When we first started attending, there were three men in wheelchairs with varying levels of disability who were members of the church. Our first Sunday visiting, we loved seeing that each man was taken care of according to his needs in very simple ways. This was especially true during communion. It was no big deal–it was obvious that this was the normal practice of the church. Someone (not a nurse or family member) sat by the oldest man and wiped his mouth with a cloth after he drank from the cup that was put to his lips by the server. Another man was gently helped to put the wafer into his mouth. We were also struck how easily the minister seemed to be able to understand the man with the most severe cerebral palsy whose words were not easily deciphered by us. It was evident that they talked to each other often and that the minister listened and understood him, as did other members of the church. Sadly, we have lost two of the men during our time here and another has moved to a nursing home out of town, so we don’t get to see them on Sunday mornings anymore. But I will tell you, we learned so much about the heart of our church by seeing the way members with disabilities were treated.

    Thanks for sharing this series.

  2. shel permalink
    March 28, 2012

    Thank you for that beautiful depiction of Christians at worship and service, Jocelyn. That does my heart good!

  3. March 29, 2012

    I, too, love that story, Jocelyn. That says a lot about that group of people.

  4. Mellee permalink
    March 29, 2012

    Like many, I sure have appreciated your recent blog series on “When a Child Dies” and the current series, “Church and Families with Specially Challenged Children.” Your words and expressions are stamped with honesty and, may I say, guts. ; )

    “…they’re not a church project.” “…don’t put them in some parallel universe by calling them angels”

    I want to share your insights almost as fast as you’re delivering them. Over the past three years I’ve felt a stronger sense of urgency in moving my faith beyond (even more than usual). I keep wondering if it has to do with my son…and frankly his mortality (and mine). You know, I don’t focus on death. I focus on life. But that’s just it. There’s only so much time.

    He was born with life-threatening food allergies – every meal’s ingredients diligently scrutinized, then two yrs ago his mental disorder migrated from depression to Bipolar I with ‘features’. I swear (and I do sometimes) how does this kid gets up every morning? But he does. I wonder how he can have hope. He says he does. I believe him. Just two weeks ago he said he loves Christ. I’m beyond thankful.

    What I wanted to ask you is if you have written about the mourning a parent goes thru (you touched on it in your book) – where there’s a great deal of loss when you discover your kiddo won’t be on the academic team or go to games with friends or walk the halls of his school anymore (he’s homeschooled now), or run to his locker to get his books, etc. I try not to be sad about it and instead focus on what he can do. But people in our lives see him and he looks like an ordinary, red-blooded, American teenager. They don’t see he gets worn out just from being overwhelmed in a crowd in a short time, or how he has to plan out how a day is going to go by creating ‘escape ‘ opportunities when he’s with friends. He works hard at having a life but at a cost…no spontaneity and riddled with his inner difficulties. Anyway, I think of the loss I have as a mom as a sort of mourning with grief. I’m sure it isn’t at all like the darkness of a loss like death – but there is a part of me inside that dies for the young man I thought I had and who he would be. And how long will I have him? I am still very proud of him, for the courage he shows us, the HUGE capacity for love and compassion he has for others and for God. All that he is, I love. But I’m guessing that there are families who understand what I mean about the loss of what others consider ‘normal’. I guess it’s our kind of normal.

    Mike, thank you for the voice you lend to so many people. I pray for you from time to time – when the spirit moves me to : ) because I figure while you have a gift for teaching, speaking, articulating these messages, you still may get worn out too once in awhile. ~ blessings.

  5. March 29, 2012

    My dear friend Mellee -

    thanks so much for sharing these honest words. I’m again in awe at your insight, your endurance, and your fierce/tender maternal love.

    I hope many are blessed with courage and understanding from your words!

  6. March 29, 2012

    Mike, as the mother of 3 kids, 2 of whom have different special needs, I can’t thank you enough for the way you are pulling things apart in this series! PLEASE don’t stop spreading the word, along with the rest of us in the disability ministry community, that the church needs to make room for ALL of God’s children and their families!

  7. Kelly & Travis Speck permalink
    March 29, 2012

    When we moved back to the DC area in 2010 we thought we would visit a few churches near our new home before settling on one……the first Sunday at the first church we visited the church was dedicating a brand new Respite Home for children with disabilities (ages 6-17) and they had a wing for disabled children fully staffed with a nurse and trained volunteers. We sat together in church alone without our precious Bennett, for the first time since his birth 3 years earlier, and cried on and off throughout the entire service. We knew we had found our church home because this church VALUES, LOVES, and is not afraid of tackling the sometimes uncomfortable/not behavior-ly “pretty” world of disabled children.

    I also will never forget sitting in worship last year on Palm Sunday, watching all the children with their palm branches walk down the aisles to the stage, and then almost fainted when I saw our Bennett being pushed down the aisle by his teacher with his palm branch….I had not even thought to look for him (I guess I figured it would be too much to get all the special needs kids out and into the service); but once again these Beautiful Blessings (the disabled children’s ministry name) were included because our church recognizes their beauty in God’s eyes. What a blessing it was for us to see our son included in that special day of celebrating Christ.

    Thanks so much for doing this series~ your ears must burn a lot because Travis and I are constantly referring to “Megan’s Secrets” in conversations with each other, friends, and family.

    PS: We are so thankful for the time that you and Diane spent with our Bennett and laugh every time we think of you strolling him around the room~ you definitely figured out his love language quick :)

  8. March 30, 2012

    We love our buddy Bennett! Bring him back any time.

    And thanks so much for this moving story about your church. This Sunday—Palm Sunday!—I’ll be picturing Bennett coming down the aisle.

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