February 6, 2010

Disability: How Should the Church Respond?

In fifth-grade, we had a student who came to our class at certain points during the day named Sarah. Sarah was mentally disabled. She was our age, but she seemed much younger. I don’t remember much about her other than she always wore a dress to school and she was extremely enthusiastic about everything she did. As fifth-graders, most of us didn’t know quite how to respond to her, but we liked her.
            Looking back, I realize that we liked her and included her because our teacher liked and included her. It was expected, not necessarily in words but actions. In fact, it was a reward incorporated in our daily routine to get to work with Sarah one-on-one.
            One day when Sarah was in our classroom with her aide, I finished my assignment early so my teacher offered me the opportunity to take Sarah in the hallway to help her learn the names and values of coins. We sprawled on the floor and went through the coins one-by-one. When she recalled the names without assistance, she would smile and clap her hands together excitedly. I couldn’t help being caught up in her joy over such small victories.
            I only remember two other names of kids in my fifth-grade class. One was my best friend for years, the other was the boy I had a crush on whose name I remember only because his brother’s name was Michael Jackson. But I distinctly remember Sarah and often wonder what she is doing in her adult years.
            I learned a valuable lesson in Mrs. Ned’s classroom that year. I learned that someone who is different from me and has different capacities than me is to be valued, not considered odd and unworthy. I learned this through my teacher’s example and by the expectations she had for those she influenced.
            I don’t know if Mrs. Ned was a believer in Jesus, but she certainly lived out 1 Corinthians 12:20-25: “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on those we bestow greater honor…. God composed the body, having given greater honor to the part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.”

            Unlike my fifth-grade experience, when I first came into the youth group of my church in sixth-grade, I quickly sensed the leadership had favorites. We middle school students were completely ignored, but even within the high school group, the popular, athletic, good-looking kids got the bulk of the attention. How opposite of the gospel, but too true of the world! This attitude of favoritism and selective love is not the gospel at all. This false gospel breeds a performance-based faith with little internal transformation.
God’s love is not just for a select group. It is for everyone, no matter their country of origin, religious background, lifestyle, skin color, or degree of worldly wisdom. The church must reflect this, showing the world that every person is valued by God and given a seat at the table through Christ’s work on the cross, which, as we know, is not based on accomplishment or being able to offer anything of ourselves. The gospel is for the most intelligent just as equally as it’s for those who can’t even speak.
If the Spirit of God is given room to move among a community of faith, it will reflect 1 Corinthians 12. It will give honor to every member of the body, but even greater honor to those the world considers weaker. It will not reject, whether in word, action, or thought, those considered “different”. It will not develop a hierarchical social structure that resembles the local community. Instead, it will be a light set on a hill, beckoning the lost to Jesus because of His love shown to each of its members.
This is not a small matter. If we, as individuals and churches, do not reflect the impartiality of the gospel, we are in sin.
“My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”[1]
Just the same, if the Spirit of God is given room to move in our lives, we will be individuals that show compassion and love for every single person we come into contact with, from the tattooed guy sitting next to us on the airplane to the adult with Down Syndrome bagging our groceries.
This can and should be the response we have to our own adversity. Raising a child with autism is not easy, but it has grown in me a deep compassion for those who are hurting around me and those who the world considers to be “different.” It has given me a new appreciation for the goodness of the gospel, which is for everyone, including me.

[1] James 2:1-9