Church and Families With Specially Challenged Kids #3
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.
“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.”