Each Sunday, as I stand on our elevated platform, I look out at a couple hundred faces of various ages, different shades of color, and a diversity of expressions, all bidding me to speak on behalf of God.
But one face in particular captures my attention in a unique way every week. Her name is Jaakkina, and she sits in the balcony because of her autism. Her parents are intensely aware of her need to jump, dance, and wiggle throughout the service, so they sit up high among the few as an expression of love for their daughter and for the majority of their brothers and sisters below.
They, along with a handful of other families, are a minority in our church. Each week, these families come with many of the same concerns as the average congregant, yet with added cares and burdens that are unique to parents of the disabled — cares and burdens that are hard to imagine apart from raising a disabled child yourself.
And if the daily burdens at home weren’t already enough, families with disabilities carry the possibility of their child being a disruptive force in worship. The one place where these families ought to feel at ease, comfortable, and settled in a grace-filled environment is often a place of palpable anxiety. And consequently, it’s the place where they tend to hide in the shadows the most.
How do I know this?
“Please don’t pretend everything is okay. Your weakness can be a hammer that shatters self-reliance in many.”
I know this because I am not only a pastor of those who parent the disabled, but I parent a disabled child myself. I’m personally aware of the Sunday morning struggle: the feeling of needing to be considerately unobtrusive, instead of immersive and participatory, in order to avoid being disruptive or distractive.
But over the years, God has used my unique vantage point to show me that families with disabled children have too much to teach the church about the gospel to remain at the periphery, even if motivated by noble sentiment. And I am now convinced that parents and their disabled children should not look to be silently hidden in the shadows of the church. Instead, they should dive right into the heart of their churches because they are gifts to the body who can uniquely shine a spotlight on the gospel.
Seven Pleas for Parents
So, without intending to add one ounce to an already heavy Sunday morning load, as both parent and pastor of the disabled, I offer to families with disabilities seven pleas from my heart.
1. Please know that your child adds to the worship service. Children with disabilities add to it by reminding us that God’s gospel of grace is no respecter of persons, and thus neither should we be (Acts 10:34–35; James 2:1). Raised hands from an Autistic boy can glorify God just as anyone else’s.
2. Please know that your child is a necessary member of your local body. She is uniquely designed by God to bring countless blessings to your congregation. God is using her even if you don’t see it (1 Corinthians 12:18–25). The beautiful piano solo during offering by the teenager with Asperger’s draws many hearts to the heights of praise.
3. Please know that your child is a means of moving grace-filled hearts toward deeper compassion. Please don’t worry about him being a distraction during church (Romans 15:1–2; Galatians 5:22). The wheelchair-bound kid protruding into the aisle isn’t an inconvenience, but a pointer to the mercy of Christ.
“Families with disabled children have too much to teach the church about the gospel to remain at the periphery.”
4. Please believe that it’s okay not to pretend that everything is okay. Caring for those with disabilities can be exhausting and deeply stressful. Cry out to our Shepherd-King in the midst of the congregation to help point us all to the reality that Christ still welcomes the faint and heavy laden (Psalm 61:1–2; Matthew 11:28–30). Your expressed weakness can be a hammer that shatters the self-reliance of many.
5. Please trust that others are willing to help. Many of your brothers and sisters want to serve you, but they don’t know how to start the conversation. Reach out for help and demonstrate the ordinary weakness that God designed the body to support (1 Thessalonians 5:14; Ephesians 4:16). Your humility will be a bridge to deeper gospel service and relationships.
6. Please take the opportunity to include your child in the messy and crazy world of church events. Christmas plays, Spring concerts, and Easter programs. I know it’s risky, but God will display his glory and wisdom to and through your church as your child participates in these events (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). The smiling face of a child with Down syndrome in the youth choir adds to the mosaic of God’s creative genius.
7. Please feel the freedom to approach your pastor and ask him to do a message or a series of messages on the topic of the Bible and disability (Proverbs 9:9). He will thank you for your love and counsel.
Grace Promised to Meet the Task
I realize that not every family with disabilities can engage their local church at every level mentioned above. Just making it to church on any given Sunday can be a herculean task. Again, my hope is not to add to an already difficult load, but by God’s grace that you would come to understand and love the gifts God has provided for your local church through your children.
As with any act of obedience, we don’t power through on our own strength. No, we obey because God has promised greater joy:
- “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
- “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” (Psalm 34:10).
- Our Father knows how to reward his children in their faithful dying to self (Matthew 7:11; Mark 10:30).
“Don’t assume your child isn’t a necessary member of your local body. God is using her, even if you don’t see it.”
When possible, please remember that the power of the gospel rests most fully upon us and is displayed most powerfully through us in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). You and your disabled child or children can help others see and experience this reality. The local church to which you’re connected needs your unique contribution.
The wholeness of any local family of God is only displayed most fully as its individual parts manifest their interdependence — the abled and disabled alike.