I will never forget Bill’s response to a sermon I preached on the topic of heaven. Bill was well into his 80s and had contracted polio as a child. Because of this disease, he had used a walker most of his life. When I greeted him after the service, there were tears in his eyes. “Pastor,” he said, “it just struck me today that in heaven, I will be able to run for the first time in my life.” His tears were tears of joy as he anticipated being able to do something that most of us take for granted. I joined Bill in his tears of joy.
Twenty years ago, our son, Jesse, was born. Jesse has Down syndrome. Upon his birth, my family entered a community that we didn’t know existed, or at least hadn’t paid much attention to throughout our lives: the disability community.
The disability community ranges from those with severe disabilities to those with mild or moderate struggles. It includes people who can care for themselves for the most part and those who cannot care for themselves at all.
I cannot imagine what my life, my family or ministry would have been like if God hadn’t sovereignly opened my eyes to this community and invited me to join it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 61 million adults with some form of disability in the United States. This means that about 26 percent of Americans are living with a disability. If you are non-Hispanic black (29 percent) or Hispanic (25.9 percent), you are more likely to have a disability than white non-Hispanic (20.6 percent) adults. Those who are less educated, have lower incomes and are unemployed are far more likely to have a disability as well.
Having been a part of the Free Methodist Church my entire life, I can tell you that many of our churches are not prepared to enfold people with disabilities. Whether it is the handicap of stairs into the church building or an overreliance upon visuals and videos, many of our churches are unintentionally unwelcoming to people with disabilities.
How different this is than the image given to us of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (21:14) once He had cleansed the temple: “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.”
Just a reminder on terms: People can have different types of “disabilities.” A “handicap” is any barrier that is placed in front of people with a disability that hinders them from participating fully in life. For example, a 2-inch step can be a handicap to someone in a wheelchair. Jesus cleared the temple of the handicap/hindrance of the money changers so that those with disabilities could freely come to him.
Let’s be honest; disability challenges the very underpinnings of our triumphal and insecure faith. We simply do not know what to do with people who are disabled in a faith that sings about the lame walking, the blind seeing and the deaf hearing. Perhaps we are too timid to ask those who are “lame, blind and deaf” how they process these passages of Scripture.
Please don’t get me wrong. The community of faith called the Free Methodist Church has been unbelievably welcoming to my family. We have received nothing but love from most people.
The reality though is that my son’s very presence at times causes an unconsidered problem for the church. “What do we do with you?” they are forced to ask. This is the reality for those with a disability. Their very existence causes others to have to adjust their comfortable life and do things in an unconventional way.
One year during Christmas, our church was planning on doing a children’s moment during the Christmas Eve service. Our plans were to have the children come onto the stage for a reading of the Christmas story. A family with two young girls in wheelchairs had recently started attending our services. These girls suffered from a condition that meant they wouldn’t live into adolescence. As the service began, this family arrived. These two girls would be unable to ascend the stairs to our platform. I approached the family, and we worked out a solution. We moved the location of the children’s gathering so these girls could participate.
Later, I was having a conversation with their parents and apologizing for not having been prepared for their presence at the service. I will never forget their response. They kindly said, “We aren’t concerned that you didn’t prepare for them. You didn’t know we were coming. If you and the church are willing to adjust for them, we feel welcome.”
In Scripture, we are told that humans are created in the image of God. For me, the practical implications of all human beings created and carrying the “imago dei” goes deeper than the heady theology (or Latin) suggests.
The word “image” refers to a “likeness” or even a “shadow” of someone else. So Israel was told not to create “images” of God as other nations were prone to do, because if they did so, they would probably get His nature wrong. They were to do without human-made images (idols) of God as a means of connecting them with God. Instead, God gave them something else, the very people around them (made in His image) and God’s occasional manifest presence. These gifts were to be enough for them to experience God’s “shadow” as a means to see and experience God Himself. Little did they know that God would one day fully manifest himself in His Son, the exact representation or image of God. This “image” of God would deeply care for those who suffered most in this life from disabilities.
For me, the greatest manifestation of God’s presence has come through people with disabilities. I have truly experienced the image of God through them, as they have represented His longsuffering, His compassion, His humility, His tenacity, His hope and ultimately His sacrificial love.
One day, those who live with disabilities will run and jump, sing and speak, and hear and see. Until then, perhaps God is speaking through them.
There is an old myth that suggests that people with Down syndrome are born without sin. I can tell you from raising my son, Jesse, that this isn’t true. But having lived with him now for 20 years, when I watch him, when I look into his eyes, and when I truly listen to him, I experience God through him.
We don’t bestow upon people with disabilities the image of God, they already have it. Instead, through these temporarily broken shadows, we learn more about and experience God as He truly is, if only we would welcome, see and listen.
John Lane is the Wabash Conference superintendent. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan-Flint, a Master of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.1