How Apologetics Intersects With My Interest in Disabilities

Two of the areas that I write on the most are Christian apologetics and disabilities. This makes sense. My faith journey includes a period of atheism and I am a skeptic by nature. In addition, I have two children with autism and so disabilities are close to my heart.

But how do Christian apologetics and disabilities overlap, if they do at all?

I see two specific connections between Christian apologetics and disabilities.

Disabilities and the Problem of Suffering

One of the most popular arguments against Christianity is the problem of suffering. This can take many forms but one argument includes the problem of disabilities. If God is all-powerful and all-good, why do some people have disabilities?

A simplistic answer is that disabilities are a result of the fall. Without denying the effects of the fall, that answer assumes that the experience of disabilities is all about suffering.

There is a vibrant theology of disability that is being developed that reveals that there is much to celebrate in the experience of disability. Many people with disabilities have very full and happy lives and would be confused by those who think it is a living hell.

Theology of disability is helpful for understand how God is working in the lives of those with disabilities, demonstrating both his goodness and power. Listen to this podcast episode that discusses theology and disability.

Disability Ministry as a Christian Apologetic

In my discussions with skeptics, I frequently encounter objections concerning the nature of the church. The church is filled with hypocrites, people who are greedy and selfish. Of course as long as we allow humans into the church, we will have such problems.

But I see a church that welcomes and embraces families and individuals with disabilities as being a powerful Christian apologetic. It is a witness of God’s love working through and among followers of Jesus. When the church is doing this well, it is a beautiful picture of what the kingdom of God can be like.

I encourage you to watch this video.

I will continue to write on both Christian apologetics and on disabilities. They are not two completely separate topics but do indeed have much overlap.

Here are two books that I have written on both these topics:

How to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

Experiencing God Without Losing Your Mind

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What Our Church Does For Disability Ministry

When people find out that I’m interested in disabilities, I often get asked what we do at our church for disability ministry. Like myself, people are always look for ideas. So when I get asked what we do for disability ministry, this is what I tell them.

Church.

Yeah, that’s it. It is not because we don’t value people with disabilities but because we do. Our goal is to integrate all people into our worship services and that includes people with disabilities.

There are times that I look at our congregation and notice that about ten percent of the people have either a developmental or physical disability. I think we might be doing something right.

This is not a jab at churches that have specific disability ministries as a part of their program. There is nothing wrong with that at all. Some great ministry takes place in those contexts.

But at this point, there has not been a need for us to do anything aimed just at people with disabilities. We don’t want to segregate people into (temporarily) abled and disabled. We have our church family, a family happens to have a lot of diversity.

This doesn’t mean that we do everything perfect. We still have a long way to go. There are some important areas of our church building that are not yet accessible. This is something that we are working on.

But I am thankful for where we are at a congregation and for every person God has brought to us.

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Disability Stereotypes in Movies

One of the pet peeves of many people in the disability community is how people with disabilities are portrayed in movies and television shows. Very often, stereotypes are used for people with disabilities. People with autism or MS may not feel that the portrayal of their diagnoses represents their experience.

I am sympathetic with this concern. But I feel that I should point out that everything about movies and television shows is about stereotypes.

For example, I am an evangelical Christian. Every portrayal I have seen in entertainment of evangelicals is always a stereotype, usually negative. I am also a pastor and in the same way, pastors in movies are usually pretty shallow stereotypes. I suspect the same is true of portrayals of teachers, police officers, doctors, etc. It is just the way movies and television shows work.

That is not to say that studios should be satisfied with stereotypes. I would encourage them to interact with many examples of whatever type of person they want to include to deepen the portrayal. There is diversity within every diagnosis, profession, etc. and so not every person will identify with any one portrayal. But there is always room to go deeper and to avoid short cuts.

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Why I Don’t Talk Much About Ableism

For years we have heard about sexism (discrimination against a gender, usually females) and racism (discrimination against a race, usually non-whites). People may be less familiar with ableism. What is ableism?

The Centre for Disability Rights gives this definition for ableism:

Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.

I do believe that there is such a thing as ableism. Many aspects of our society are set up to favour those without a disability. (See my post What is a Disability?) Someone recently suggested a test to see how accessible an area is. Take your bicycle and note when and how often it is difficult to push that bike around inside a building. But this is much more than just being wheelchair accessible. It is about our assumptions concerning disabilities.

While I do believe that issues surrounding ableism need to be discussed, I do not spend much time on it. I do try to be a disabilities advocate but without focusing on ableism.

Why?

One is that ableism includes offending people by our words. We should seek to be sensitive with our words and I argue against the use of the r-word (retard) but frankly, it is impossible to speak at all without offending someone. For example, I once heard a video by a young man with Down Syndrome speaking about the r-word and in his talk used “dumb” in a pejorative sense. Someone may be bothered when talking about the images of walking or seeing or hearing. While most people with disabilities won’t care, some will be offended. Enforcing speech that avoids any hint of ableism is almost impossible. Be sensitive and try your best, but you always fail someone.

More importantly, labeling someone as ableist tends to shut down the conversation. Someone may do or say something out of ignorance. We can write them off as ableist or we can try to educate. Labels can easily put up roadblocks to advancement. While ableism exists, it may be better to discuss assumptions and consider alternatives rather than falling back on the labels.

I’m sure that there are some people within the disability community that would disagree with me. I’m thankful that there are people who fight against ableism but I have decided to take my advocacy in a different direction.

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What is a Disability?

DisabilityI recently asked a question on a couple of Facebook groups that I belonged to. One group was about autism and the other about sarcoidosis. I asked members whether they identified as disabled. Interestingly, many of those with sarcoidosis did identify as having a disability, while most of those with autism did not, unless they had an additional physical disability or a mental illness.

It got me thinking about how we define disability. Some with depression would identify as disabled and some would not. Some with chronic pain would identify as disabled and some would not.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines disability as:

  1. any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
  2. a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
  3. a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
  4. a mental disorder, or
  5. an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.

This is a pretty extensive definition. It includes diabetes (which I sometimes have), which surprised me.

The World Health Organization gives this definition:

Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

The Americans With Disabilities Act gives this definition:

The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.

What is important to see is that having a disability is not identical with a medical diagnosis. Just having a diagnosis of depression or of autism or of sarcoidosis by itself doesn’t mean that one is disabled. Those diagnoses may lead to a disability but the diagnosis itself is not a disability.

I would suggest that a disability is any physical, developmental or mental/emotional condition that impairs activity that is typically experienced by their peers.

I can imagine some people not liking the negative aspect of that definition but that is intrinsic to anything with the prefix “dis-.” There is much that is positive and life-affirming about the experience of disability, but by definition it includes an inability to do something.

The bottom line is that it is up to the individual to determine how disability fits with their identity. If a deaf person doesn’t consider themselves disabled, respect that. If a depressed person considers themselves disabled, respect that. Both abilities and disabilities are often invisible and we shouldn’t be quick to judge.


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Inspiration Porn

This past week, I was at the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. There was so much that I learned but one of the terms I came across for the first time was “inspiration porn.” What is inspiration porn?

Many people find people with disabilities inspirational. That is fine if they are actually doing something inspiring but in many cases people are inspired by those with disabilities for just getting through day doing normal activities.

There is an objectifying of people with disabilities by those without. I will confess that I have done this. I have seen people with disabilities as being inspiring for simply “getting out of bed and remembering their name.”

I highly recommend that you watch this video by Stella Young. You won’t be inspired but you will be informed.

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An Important Question For Churches and Disabilities

Our church has a Bible study that takes place Sundays after the service. We were looking at Paul’s vision for the unity of the church in Ephesians 2. One of the participants asked a question about how this fits with disability ministries.

The lady in our study (who happens to be blind), asked about the role of disability ministries and how that either helps or hinders integrating people with disabilities into the life of the church. She wasn’t being critical but her question was valid.

She acknowledged that there is a role for disability ministries, especially for those with developmental disabilities. But there is also a danger that people with disabilities will be separated from the rest of the congregation.

Without criticizing other churches that have formal disability ministries, I’m thankful that every church I’ve pastored didn’t have the resources to have a separate program. When people ask me what we do for disability ministry, all I can say is, “church.”

That could easily sound critical. I truly believe that there are great disabilities ministry that are doing incredible work. But I also would say that I love looking out at our congregation and seeing people with physical and developmental disabilities. It is what church should look like.

I need to make clear that this is not an either/or situation. You could have people with disabilities integrated into the main worship service and offer special ministries aimed at people with disabilities, just as we would with children, youth, seniors, etc.

What does your church do in the area of disabilities?

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Caring for Special Needs People in Your Small Church

One of the most practical podcasts that I listen to is the 200 Church podcast. I was quite happy when I heard they were doing an episode on special needs. Co-host Jonny Craig has a child with special needs, so it was nut surprising.

It was a helpful discussion with some people involved in special needs ministry at Willow Creek. You can listen to the episode here.

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Stephen Hawking and Disabilities

Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking just recently died. There is much about Hawking that I disagreed with. He denied the existence of God and thought heaven was a fairy tale. I suppose he knows the truth now.

But aside from his views on God, there was much about Stephen Hawking that was praiseworthy. Without looking at any other aspect of his life, he was a brilliant scholar. I still remember the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Stephen Hawking was included with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in a poker game. Hawking will continue to be placed among the scientific giants of our age.

As inspirational as his mind was, so was the his determination in the face of a severe disability. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1963, when he was only 21 years old. He was given two years to live but died just a few days ago at the age of 76.

Hawking faced a number of challenges with his disability which included a continual loss of function. I’m sure there were many times that he was tempted to give up. But he kept going, continuing to teach and write. It was not that long ago that his final book came out.

What lessons can we learn from the life of Stephen Hawking? We are more than just a diagnosis and doctors cannot determine our destiny. It is up to us to make the best of our situation, determine to reach a goal and live life the best we can.

Stephen Hawking will long be an inspiration to people with disabilities. That may be a more valuable legacy than his contributions to science.

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31 Days to Become a Better Pastor: Embrace Those With Disabilities

DisabilitiesMany churches have embraced the concept of disabilities. Churches want diversity of gender, ethnicities, age, economic status and others. But what about disabilities?

I need to confess that I’m biased in this area. In addition to being a pastor, I’m also a father of two children with disabilities. We also have a number of people with disabilities at our church. I’m convinced of the importance of reaching out to people with disabilities.

As a pastor, I will also admit that embracing people of all abilities is challenging. It is so much more than just wheelchair ramps, elevators and accessible washrooms. It requires a radical change in church culture.

You can find my 10 Commandments to Become a Disability-Friendly Church here. But the most important thing is for us as pastors to completely buy in to the importance of welcoming and loving people with disabilities. It is the first step before even considering a disability ministry.

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Good News: Churches That Get It

As a pastor and a father of two children with special needs, I know that it can be challenging for churches to minister to special needs family and challenging for special needs families to feel welcome in churches.

I have had two recent experiences that have encouraged me.

A week ago, I had the opportunity to speak about disability ministry at Kipling Avenue Baptist Church. Their pastor invited me to this event because he understands the importance of this. I appreciated the initiative he took to invite me.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with the pastor of Rice Road Community Church. They have taken some impressive steps toward embracing people with disabilities and their families. We were able to discuss the needs of these families and ways in which th e church can help.

Both of these experiences encouraged me that there are some churches that get it. This is Good News.


Why do I blog about Good News?

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Good News: Theology and Disability Paper

Two of the areas that I’m most interested in are theology and disabilities. When these two come together, I’m in my sweet spot. Some time ago I responded to a call for papers for the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. This is an event that I have wanted to attend for a long time. I was pleasantly surprised when they accepted my proposal.

I will be presenting a paper on how the resurrection of Jesus informs our understanding of disabilities. This will be happening in Raleigh, North Carolina in June, 2018. I’m really looking forward to this.

This is my Good News. But I will confess that this will be an extra expense for us. I intend to drive there to cut down cost but it still will be an expense. I still have to get a passport, not to mention the gas and hotel. If you are interested in helping out, there is PayPal donate button in the sidebar of this website. Every little bit will help. If you can’t help that way, please pray for me as I prepare the paper and that my DMin these will be finished before that. Thanks!


Why do I blog Good News?

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Breathe – Review

BreatheLast night I watched the movie Breathe, directed by Andy Serkis. The movie stars Andrew Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) and Claire Foy (The Crown).

The movie is based on a true story about Robin Cavendish, a young man who was paralyzed from polio. Not only was he paralyzed, but he required a machine to keep him breathing.

When Robin is first struck down with polio, he desires to die. He couldn’t handle the idea of spending the rest of his life like that. The doctors didn’t give him much time either.

However, his wife Diana refuse to give up on him, even when he tries to reject her and their infant son. Eventually, against the doctors’ orders, Diana moves Robin out of the hospital and into their home. This renews hope for Robin and he begins to enjoy life again.

A friend develops a wheelchair that can include his ventilator and allows Robin to experience a mobility that the doctors’ thought was impossible. Instead of keeping this to himself, they work to share this technology with other disabled people.

There was plenty of good things about the movie. Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy did a fantastic job in their roles. The persistent love of Diana for Robin was inspiring. As someone interested in disabilities, I really appreciated the advocacy that Robin and his friends and family did for others with disabilities. The speech that he makes at a disability conference is just as needed today as it was then.

There were some things I didn’t like. There were some negative portrayals of religion. At one point, the paralyzed Robin spits in the face of a priest. The attempted religious responses to his suffering were disappointing. It may be that they reflect Robin’s actual experience, but there are better faith responses to suffering.

I was also disappointed that Robin’s life came to an end through euthanasia. Euthanasia is a complex issue but it in the movie it was represented simply a noble escape from suffering. It was favourably compared to his escape from the hospital and regaining his mobility. Although the movie does present a positive image of disability, it also presents it as something to escape from.

Having said that, there is plenty in Breathe to make us think and reflect on life.

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Don’t You Dare Judge!

One of the outcomes that some special needs families experience is that the children move into a group home. How that takes place depends on the situation.

Ideally, the family is aware of the need of a group home before hitting a crisis. They can then get on a waiting list and a place will open up just in time when the family dynamic requires a group home.

But that is not always the case.

In our experience, the issue of a group home came after we had hit a crisis. We needed to find a group home quickly, which was not easy. There are long waiting lists.

For both Logan and Abby, we were told that we would have to abandon them in order for them to get the help they need, because that would force the government to take care of them. Thankfully, that did not need to happen and we were able to get both Logan and Abby into group homes without having to abandon them.

But it could have easily have happened the other way.

We have friends and family who were in the place that they had to abandon their child to get them into the group home. They were given the choice of remaining in ongoing crisis or abandoning the child to get the help. It is a difficult situation to be put in. No one wants to abandon their child but you can also only survive so long in a crisis situation.

It is likely that you know or will know someone who has been put in this situation. Please do not judge a family that has had to abandon their special needs child. Abandoning does not reflect a lack of love. It is actually the opposite. Abandoning is a terrible sacrifice that is only done out of great love.

You should also know that abandoning does not mean you are giving up your relationship with the child. In most cases, the parents remain very much involved in the life of the child. Abandoning is only about giving up the legal rights and the ongoing care.

If you meet such parents, please do not judge them. They have had to pay a price that no parent ever wants to pay.




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Stay Engaged With Your Special Needs Child (Part 2)

This is the first of two-part guest post by Bryan Stoudt. Visit Bryan’s website at the link found in his bio at the end of this post. You can find the first part here.


Last time, we saw how hard it can be to stay engaged with our special needs child.  But we also began to see how vitally important it is.  In this article, we’ll look at 6 practical ways we can do that. 

6 Ways We Can Stay Engaged

Bryan Stoudt1. Acknowledge that God is God, and we are not

After losing everything and meeting God very personally, Job learns that he simply cannot understand God’s ways.  That he is not in a position to question the suffering he brings into our lives (Job 40:3-5; 42:1-6).  When we admit that we are not the sovereign authority of our lives, it frees us to trust God despite the hardships and losses we’ve experienced with our special needs child.

2. See God’s love for us in Jesus.

While we can’t begin to figure out why God would allow our child to be so broken, sending Jesus to die for us on the cross shows that he cares.  ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…’ (John 3:16)  Whatever we – or our child – are facing, it’s nothing like bearing the full wrath of God for our sin like Jesus did (1 John 2:2).  God loves us, and our special needs kids, more than we can imagine, and he sent Jesus to prove it once and for all.

Honest prayer is one of the best ways to stay engaged with our kids, and Philippians 4:4-7 gives us a great model.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

3. Rejoice.

Paul tells us to ‘rejoice in the Lord’.  We never, ever have to pretend that having a special needs child is easy.  But we are ‘always’ called to find joy ‘in the Lord’ because he is with us, ‘at hand’.  Being honest yet aware of God’s presence allows us to be present with our special needs children, too.

4. Reject anxiety.

It’s so easy to be anxious about all the ‘what ifs’.  What will happen if my wife and I die, and no one loves our child like we would?  What if we don’t leave our child with enough money to be well-provided for?  What if…?  Worry and anxiety pull us away from the present by placing our focus on our limited resources.  But when we are ‘not… anxious about anything’, we shift our attention to a God who can do ‘more than all we ask or think’ (Ephesians 3:20).  That creates a rest that allows us stay present with our special needs child.

Give thanks and ask.

Instead of sour anxiety, God invites us to ask for what we want (‘supplication’) ‘with thanksgiving’.  He loves to hear our requests, both for us and our special needs children.  It’s critical, though, that we also offer thanks wherever we can.  For example, I’m asking God to provide a great job and living situation for Matthew.  But I’m trying to be thankful that he wants to work and live independently, even though I’m not really sure it’s possible yet. 

What can you specifically be thankful for?

Expect to experience God’s supernatural peace.

When we find our joy in God, reject anxiety, and ask him for what we want with thanksgiving,  ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’  Maybe not right away, or all the time.  But this is a promise: no matter how hard things are, all of who we are can be at complete rest in Christ.  And that allows us to stay present and engaged with our special needs child, where we can serve and enjoy them.

For reflection:

  1. Which of the six suggestions above would most help you stay engaged with your special needs child?
  2. How (and when) will you put that into practice?

Bryan Stoudt is a pastor and blogger who helps Christians connect their faith to their messy, everyday lives.  He has an incredible wife, Sharon, and four beautiful children including Matthew, who has moderate to severe autism.  He writes at bryanstoudt.com.

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Special Needs Families Are Not a Monolithic Group

I speak often on the needs of families who are dealing with disabilities. My prayer to that the church will respond to those special needs. But the challenge is that the needs of each family are different. We cannot put such families into a neat and tidy category and then provide the solutions.

I was recently talking with a mother of two special needs children. There was much in her story that I could identify with and there were some common experiences. But at the same time I was struck by how different our experiences were.

Her children were both in wheelchairs and one of their biggest challenges was lack of mobility. Their physical disabilities really shaped the activity of the family.

Our story is much different. Our children with autism are physically mobile. At times that was the problem. Our son is a runner and has escaped both from our house and group homes numerous times. Police and even a canine units have been called to try and track him down. We thought we lost him permanently a couple of times.

Which of us has the easier or harder situation? I don’t think there is an answer to that question.

But it does illustrate how the experience of families with special needs can be so different. That is not to say that we can’t talk about families with special needs. We just need to do so with some acknowledgment that there are differences from family to family.

Not only is an autism family probably different from a spina bifida family, an autism family is probably different from another autism family. It is fine to go into a relationship with a family with some idea of common needs as long as we listen to hear how disabilities are being experienced uniquely in that family.

Continue to reach out to special needs families but remember every family is different.




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Stay Engaged With Your Special Needs Child (Part 1)

This is the first of two-part guest post by Bryan Stoudt. Visit Bryan’s website at the link found in his bio at the end of this post. You can find the second part here.


Bryan StoudtOur special needs kids have a special place in our hearts.  Each one is precious and unique, placed in our families as a vessel of God’s grace.

At the same time, our special kids bring special challenges that push us beyond what we thought (or think) we can handle.  And the life we would design for ourselves. 

Sometimes it’s easier to disengage and take an unplanned siesta.  I bet you can identify with me. 

My Son, Your Story

After more or less coasting with our autistic son, Matthew, for the last several years, things are changing.  We need to step up our involvement and help him get ready for life after school.

There are days, honestly, where I simply don’t feel like it. 

Just recently, I told my wife about an email exchange with the attorney helping us secure guardianship for Matthew. When it became clear that I was frustrated with all the time it was taking, and had missed an important detail, she expressed concern.

‘I’m worried you’re going to just do what’s expedient, instead of what’s best for Matthew.’

You could have heard a pin drop in my heart.  She was right.  God is calling me to slow down, engage and make some sacrifices for our son.  But it’s hard, and selfishly I don’t always want to.

I’m not sure what challenges you’re facing with your special needs child.  Each of our kids is so different.

And each of us is so different.  Some of you, like me, may sense that God is calling you to get back in the game.  Some of you are giving all you can, but feel exhausted and tempted to give up or step back. 

Staying engaged with our kids for the long haul can feel like running a race we haven’t really trained for.  It’s a challenge for at least three reasons.

Three Challenges Of Staying Engaged

1 – It takes a lot of time.  The details of caring for our special needs children can consume a lot of time.  Time that our other kids don’t require. 

2 – It can feel overwhelming.  Caring and planning for our special needs child forces us to learn new things and gain skills.  Few of us, for example, have experience with the particular laws and government resources that apply to our child’s situation.  While others are often available to help, there’s a certain weariness that comes with taking on something unfamiliar, especially when that happens on multiple fronts. 

Venturing into new territory also brings us face-to-face with our insecurities and fear of failure. If we focus on ourselves, rather than leaning into God, we will wear ourselves out with burdens we were never intended to carry.

3 – It forces us to face, yet again, deeply painful realities.  The grief that accompanies staying engaged with our special needs children is not paid in full at the time of their diagnosis.  No, it’s paid over time, often in moments we can’t anticipate.

I love Matthew deeply.  With all my heart.  He is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and as deeply loved as my other kids.

But he is not the son I had hoped for. 

Many years ago, friends of ours stayed with us during a visit to the area.  They have a son Matthew’s age, and at one point he took a model sailboat off our bookshelf and began describing it to me in detail.  I can remember – like it was yesterday – thinking, ‘this is what it would be like if Matthew was a normal kid’.  His ability to communicate was so far beyond anything Matthew would ever be capable of.  It was all I could do to not break down right there in front of everyone.

If you have a child with special needs or autism, you have experienced the death of dreams for him or her, too.  And the kind of relationship you desperately long for.  That aches in a place no medicine can reach.

Not The God We Had Hoped For

But if we’re even more honest, our special needs kids force us to face an even deeper, more painful reality. 

That God is not the God we had hoped for. 

A God that allows heartbreak not just in general, but for us in particular.  A God who has the authority to let everything good disappear from our lives (Job 1-2), or, to even cause hardship and disaster for his own wise, mysterious purposes (see Lamentations 1:1-16). 

A God who refuses to answer all our questions.  Like why he allowed our child to have special needs.

We have learned very personally, like Susan and Lucy from CS Lewis’s Narnia, that while God is ‘good’ he certainly isn’t ‘safe’.  At least not in the sense of giving us what we want.

All this can seem rather depressing.  And tempt us to check out and just survive.  To disengage, and keep our distance from a life we never really wanted.

But as sons and daughters of our Father, we know that life, however hard, is truly found in Christ (John 1:4, 14:6).  And in staying present and engaged with our special needs kids.  In the second, final part of this mini-series, we’ll take a look at 6 practical ways we can do that.

Question for reflection:

Where are you specifically finding it hard to stay engaged with your special needs child (or children)?

Be watching for the second part of this post.


Bryan Stoudt is a pastor and blogger who helps Christians connect their faith to their messy, everyday lives.  He has an incredible wife, Sharon, and four beautiful children including Matthew, who has moderate to severe autism.  He writes at bryanstoudt.com.

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5 Ways Churches Can Help Support Families With Disabilities

One of my passions is to help churches be welcoming and safe places for families with disabilities. I come at this both as a pastor and as a father of two children with autism.

My impression is that churches feel as if becoming disability-friendly is a difficult goal. The truth is that there are some simple things that can be done that can make a difference.

Here are five ways that churches can support families with disabilities.

  1. How to Make Your Church Autism FriendlyThe first step is just to acknowledge and sympathize with the fact that it is always easier for the family not to come to church. Any family with children will find challenges getting everyone together. For families with disabilities, there may be both practical and emotional obstacles to church attendance. Families with disabilities may need more than a simple invitation.
  2. One of the most important things is for people to not give dirty looks if someone with a disability makes noise during a worship service. The family is usually hyper-sensitive to these noises already and a nasty look from another person can be very destructive.
  3. Treat everyone in the family with respect and dignity. Talk directly to the person with the disability and not just the caregiver or family member.
  4. Take the time to find out what the family needs. Many families are looking for respite. Others might need help getting some chores done around the house. There may be significant financial needs as well. In our case, our church helped us raise money for our service dog. Don’t assume what they need, actually have the conversation.
  5. Become a student. This can be by spending time with families and listening to their story. It could be reading books on disabilities in general and the intersection with faith in particular. Read about what the Bible says about disabilities. Families don’t expect you to be a professional but they will recognize and appreciate a teachable spirit.

Bonus Idea: Try to include families with disabilities into the life of the church. We often found that people assumed we were too busy or too exhausted to be included. Living with disabilities can be quite isolating. Be proactive in embracing families.

What would you add?




 

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What Does Jesus Want Our Churches to Look Like?

I was preparing for an upcoming sermon and came across an interesting passage.

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

I found this passage to be quite challenging for what church should look like. Although the immediate context is about who we have table fellowship with, it is not much of a stretch to apply this to the church.

As a pastor, I need to make a confession. There are certain potential members that I get more excited over more than others.

  • A rich person who could be a potentially generous tither.
  • A business person or politician who has useful connections and leadership skills.
  • A well educated person who has much to give to the congregation.

But what about people with disabilities?

I need to be clear that there are plenty of rich people, business people, politicians and people who are well-educated who also have disabilities.

DisabilitiesBut in the context, Jesus is talking about people with disabilities who are unable to repay what people give them. There is nothing that they can bring to provide immediate blessings to a congregation by concrete means.

How do we see people with disabilities? Do we see them as people who are going to require more of our valuable time? Do we see them as a distraction from the “excellence” we are trying to achieve in our worship services?

I’m thankful that my church is disability friendly and that we have people with physical and developmental disabilities. Some of them have skills and abilities by which they can bless the church. Others are just people to be loved.

Still, this passage challenges me, even as a dad of two children with disabilities, as to how I see church. What are we doing to really welcome all people?




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Good News: One of the Best Weeks Ever

This past week was one of the best weeks of my entire life. Our family was able to attend the Christian Horizons Family Retreat at Elim Lodge.

Stephen BedardThe initial reason for attending was that I was asked to be the speaker for the retreat. My topic was “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” from Psalm 23:1. I had the opportunity to share three messages on this verse for other parents of children with exceptional needs.

But before that happened, I was able to preach at the Sunday service at Elim Lodge. One of the neat things about this was that there were a number of campers at Elim that we knew from our old church, Central Gospel Temple. Many of these remember me from when I was a brand new Christian and this would have been the first time hearing me preach.

However, the highlight of this week was not the opportunity to preach and teach, as much as I enjoy that.

Bedard FamilyThe highlight really was about being with my family and getting to know other families who are dealing with disabilities. Amanda and I brought Logan, Justus, Emma and Faith with us. This was actually our first family vacation, as previously only Amanda and I had gone away.

We were a bit nervous as to how Logan would do. We had never done anything like this before. But he did fantastic. Every camper with special needs is assigned a volunteer. A great guy named Al was paired with Logan and they really hit it off. Logan is not particularly expressive (much like me) but we could tell he really liked Al.

Our other three children had fun as well. We had the opportunity to jet ski, go tubing, fishing, canoeing and kayaking. I really enjoyed kayaking and started researching prices to purchase while still at Elim.

I loved being around the other parents and their children (of all ages). The worship was powerful as people expressed their love for God in whatever way they felt, no matter what level of ability.

Bedard FamilyWe were totally blown away by the experience. This was the seventh Christian Horizons family retreat and we were told that it gets better every year.

You may wonder why we didn’t bring our daughter Abby.

Abby, like Logan, has autism. She is exactly who this retreat is designed for. However, we were stretching ourselves by bringing Logan. We had no idea what to expect. Although Abby would have enjoyed it, with this being our first time away together and my responsibilities, it would have been too much.

Bedard FamilyOur plan is to come back next year and to bring Abby with us as well. Her group home has agreed to send a worker to be with us all week. When I’m not the speaker, I will have more opportunity to focus on the kids.

I really can’t put into words how blessed we feel. This was an amazing opportunity that was so fun for our entire family. We were able to see a new side of Logan. Some of the adults really poured into our kids. We all had a great time.

One last thing. We loved this event so much that we have agreed to help fundraise for Christian Horizons. We are doing this through Ride for Refuge. If you would be willing to donate even a few dollars toward this, it would be greatly appreciated. You can donate here.

Stephen Bedard

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Certificate in Accessible Ministry

One of my passions is to equip churches to minister to and with people with disabilities. That is why I’m excited about a new and amazing collaboration between two of my favourite organizations: Tyndale University College and Christian Horizons.

These two organizations are working together to offer a Certificate in Accessible Ministry. This is a way that people can get specialized training in welcoming people with disabilities. Here is a quote from the website:

“Everyone welcome!” many of our church signs proclaim. As people involved in ministry, or students looking to serve in ministry, we know that all too often, this is not the reality for all. People with disabilities and their families are often marginalized and excluded due to the physical, communicative, or attitudinal barriers they face. Developed in collaboration with Christian Horizons, this certificate program will equip people to foster belonging in all aspects of ministry and outreach with people living with a disability and their families. Engaging modules address practical, theological, and relational aspects of being the Body of Christ as people of unique abilities—together.

accessibilityThe first module is coming up. It is titled Introduction to Disability and the Church. It will be taught by Neil Cudney and Andrea Foster. This would be a great way of finding out if this certificate is for you.

One of the great things about this certificate is the price. It is extremely reasonable. I have researched a number of certificate programs in various areas of theological education and I’m amazed at how low the tuition is. Each module is only $75! That’s amazing.

I love the idea of this program. In fact I love it so much that I will be teaching one of the modules myself. Mine will be Ministering with Families with Disabilities.

But I’m not promoting this because I’m a teacher. I’m promoting it because I’m both a pastor and father of two children with disabilities. I know that many churches don’t feel equipped to welcome people with disabilities.

This certificate program removes the concern about lack of knowledge or background. Imagine if every church within travelling distance of Tyndale invested in this by sending just one person to be trained.

I hope that you will consider this. If you are interested, here is the link to register for the first module. It is worth considering.

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Disabilities and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

One of the hardest hitting parables that Jesus ever taught was the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. There is a danger of protestants passing over this parable out of a desire to protect justification by faith.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36)

The problem with this parable is that the focus (at least on the surface) is not on faith or correct theology but on our actions.

Not only does Jesus teach that we need to help people in need, Jesus actually identifies with such people. This leaves not much room for dismissing this as a focus for Christian life.

When I read this parable, I think of those with disabilities, as well as others. Why doesn’t Jesus specifically mention the disabled in this parable?

The focus for Jesus in this parable is not the labels or categories in which we place people, but in the needs. The truth is that many people with disabilities have the same needs mentioned in this parable.

In addition, we would be mistaken if we saw this as a comprehensive list that assumed there was no motivation to provide for needs not specifically mentioned in the parable. The point is to care for the vulnerable, no matter what the particular need is.

Some churches attempt to address this parable through prison ministries, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. I think those are very important and are good ways to do what Jesus calls us to do.

I would ask, what about those with disabilities? Is your church doing anything to help and welcome those with disabilities? Is there something that you could do?

Before I conclude, what about faith and correct theology? Does this parable provide an alternative for pleasing God? Not at all. I believe that the expectation is that devout faith and correct beliefs about God will lead to the actions described.




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How Diverse Do You Want Your Church to Be?

I have listened to a number of podcasts and read some books that have argued for increased diversity within the church. I am all for this. One of the things that I love about Queen Street Baptist Church is our diversity. In a recent service, approximately two-thirds of the congregation indicated they were born outside of Canada.

Much of the diversity that is argued for is racial diversity. While things are much better where I am, I understand that there is much more to be done. Racial diversity is needed not just in the pews, but in the leadership.

I hear people calling for increased diversity within churches with regard to race, gender, economic status, culture, sexual orientation and so on. All these are markers of a healthy church.

But I keep waiting for one more category and don’t hear it.

What about diversity when it comes to those with physical or developmental disabilities?

This seems to be the one holdout when it comes to diversity. Perhaps leadership can see how other diversity can benefit the church but don’t see it when it comes to those with disabilities.

I have mentioned how I appreciate the diversity within QSBC. That includes diversity in terms of abilities. This is not something that I have had to bring to the congregation. They have been welcoming to people who have Down Syndrome, autism and many other disabilities. When we brought our son with autism, they didn’t even skip a beat.

The point of this post is not to brag about my church (although I did) but to challenge you on how diverse you really want your church to be? Are you willing to open up that diversity to people with disabilities? I sure hope so.




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Don’t Pet the Service Dog!

Service DogI was at the hospital today visiting someone. As we walked into the hospital, we saw someone with a service dog waiting to pay for parking. I also the person in front of us reach out and start petting the dog. I wanted to warn the person not to do it but it was too late. The person with the service dog needed to tell the person to stop.

I understand this situation from both sides. We have a service dog (now retired) in our family. He is an autism service dog and we worked with our son Logan. The purpose of the service dog was for safety for Logan. Logan was tethered to Halo and he could go only as far as the dog would let him.

When we would be out, there would often be people who would try and pet Halo. I usually was able to stop people. There would be a few people who would ask first. It was still a no but I appreciated that they asked. There was a big badge on his jacked that said “Don’t pet,” but most people didn’t seem to notice.

It is important not to pet a service dog when they are in jacket. There is meant to be a strict difference between life in and out of jacket. When they are in jacket, they are working. Petting a service dog in jacket confuses them. It also teaches them to seek attention when they are supposed to be focused on the needs of the person they are working with.

When a dog is out of jacket, they are a dog. We played hard with Halo when he was out of jacket and had lots of fun. But when that jacket was on, it was strictly business.

At the same time, I understand the temptation. Our dog is adorable and so are many service dogs. We had people who knew they were not supposed to pet Halo but loved him so much that they would put their hands in their pockets to stop themselves.

I know that it is hard, but if you see a service dog of any kind, do not pet them if they are in jacket. Even if you can’t identify a person with a disability, the dog is off limits.

 

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My Problem With the R-Word

I was recently watching the Netflix series, Luke Cage. Throughout the series, I was bothered by the generous use of the N-word, even by the residents of Harlem. I have learned to have an uncomfortable reaction when hearing that word. What about when we use the R-word?

What is the R-word? It is “retarded” or “retard.” You may or may not know that there is a movement to make the R-word as unacceptable as the N-word.

I recently posted something about this on Facebook and was surprised to receive some pushback on it. Numerous people stood up for the continued use of retarded in every day speech. I don’t believe that any of these people took this stand out of hostility toward people who are diagnosed as mentally retarded.

Before going any further, I need to put my cards on the table. I have two children with autism, who are also diagnosed as having a global delay (another word for mental retardation). I’m not an impartial participant in this discussion.

One of the criticisms I receive is that opposing the R-word is another example of political correctness. I need to say that I have no interest in being political correct. I am a pro-life evangelical Christian (who happens also to be a white male). That makes me extremely politically incorrect. I know some people who would see those labels and instantly understand me to be a bad person.

Others point out that at times in the past and in some places today, retardation is still used as a medical description of a developmental delay. Such criticisms are completely missing the point I’m trying to make.

I’m not arguing for a nicer medical term for a specific diagnosis.

I am speaking specifically of how people use retarded as pejorative label to describe a person without an intellectual disability. My problem is when a person looks at another (neuro-typical) person who has done something really stupid and calls them retarded.

What I hear, as a parent of two special needs children, is that the person is so terrible that they are approaching where my children are at.

It is not just about the word retarded. I think it would be just as inappropriate to try and insult a person by accusing them of having autism or Down Syndrome.

I’m not trying to control what people do or say. I believe in freedom of speech, even when it is offensive. But consider the impact of your words. You may see “retarded” as a harmless insult, but how does a parent whose hope’s and dreams were dashed by a diagnosis of mental retardation hear that?

You might respond by say that is just words. Well I could respond that if someone steals your possessions that it is just stuff and you shouldn’t be bothered. Should that make stealing permissible, since it is just stuff? The truth is that people with disabilities and their families face challenges you cannot imagine. What is to you “just words” could be devastating to someone who is struggling with a disability.

It is not about being politically correct. It is about treating people with respect even if you don’t understand what they are going through.

Stephen Bedard

My “retarded” children

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Disability and the Gospel – Review

Disability and the GospelOne aspect of working through ideas about disabilities is to develop a theology of disability. The Bible has some important things to say about disabilities. But how do they fit together and what is the main message?

One of the best resources I have come across is Disability and the Gospel by Michael S. Beates. Beates comes at this topic not just as a theologian, but as a father of a daughter with a disability.

In the book, Beates works through both Old and New Testament teachings about disabilities. He also looks at ancient and modern thought on disabilities, both from a Christian and non-Christian perspective.

Beates provides a very helpful summary of where theology has interacted with disabilities. At times it has been less than helpful, but overall, there are good resources that help us to understand where disabilities fit in God’s kingdom.

If you are wrestling with a theological understanding of disabilities, I highly recommend Disability and the Gospel.

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Bullying Also Happens in the Church

Bullying

People with disabilities are too often the target for bullying. Those who have communication or cognitive challenges are particularly vulnerable as they may have difficulty reporting the bullying.

Ideally, the church would be a safe place away from bullying for people of all abilities. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. People feel insecure and insignificant and so they attempt to compensate by treating others badly. It shouldn’t happen but it does.

Do you have people with disabilities in your church?

Be active and not reactive. Instead of waiting to respond to a bullying incident, begin the conversations now. Do teaching with your staff and volunteers. Have the discussion with your youth group and Sunday school. Work hard to make churches a safe place for all people.




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Did Jesus Have a Disability?

Jesus

People with disabilities have not always felt valuable. This includes the context of the church. Are disabilities just a reminder of all that is not right in the world?

But what if Jesus had a disability? I’m not suggesting that he had autism or was lame. But consider this passage:

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Many people see the cross as the greatest sacrifice that Jesus experienced. But what about the incarnation? God the Son became a human being!

One of the first heresies was not doubts about Jesus’ divinity but about his humanity. Some could not believe that Jesus really became human and that he must have only seemed to be human.

But the incarnation teaches that Jesus really became human. He emptied himself. If taking on humanity with all of its limitations is not a disability, what is?

People with disabilities should not feel out of place in churches. They should feel right at home because the foundation of Christianity is about the worship of the disabled God.

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The Biggest Need For Families With Disabilities

I may be too presumptuous in making a judgment about all families with disabilities, but I’m at least confident that this applies to a good majority of families. I believe that the biggest need for families with disabilities is respite.

What is respite? Respite is when someone watches your child so that the family can either get some rest or do some activity that they wouldn’t normally do. It could be for a couple of hours or even for a weekend. This is not babysitting, as caring for a person with a disability is more complex.

The biggest need is not finding money to pay someone, the biggest need is finding someone to do the respite. There were many times that we had funding to pay for respite but had no one who would do respite for us. I have recently heard of other families going through the same thing.

Why is it so difficult? I assume that many people are intimidated by the idea of caring for a person with a disability. While it isn’t for everyone, it is also not as overwhelming as some assume.

If you are a church that is looking for a way to minister to families with disabilities, offering respite would be a great place to start. There is a huge need and actually doing it is not that difficult. Consider how your church might be able to make a difference in this area.

Autism Dad

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Preaching on Disabilities

I truly believe that the pastor needs to take the lead on helping a church to become disability-friendly. This can happen in many ways, but one is to preach on disabilities. There are a number of passages that deal with disabilities that would make for a good sermon.

Here are some suggestions:

Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, had a son crippled in his feet He was five years old when the report of Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled And it happened that in her hurry to flee, he fell and became lame And his name was Mephibosheth. – 2 Samuel 4:4

You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the LORD. – Leviticus 19:14

‘Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ – Deuteronomy 27:18

“In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will assemble the lame And gather the outcasts, Even those whom I have afflicted. “I will make the lame a remnant And the outcasts a strong nation, And the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion From now on and forever. – Micah 4:6-7

“Behold, I am going to deal at that time With all your oppressors, I will save the lame And gather the outcast, And I will turn their shame into praise and renown In all the earth. – Zephaniah 3:19

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Where Do Autistic Children Belong in Sunday School?

AutismWhat I’m going to talk about here is relevant to many disabilities, but since autism is my experience, I will focus there.

If you have a child with autism in your Sunday school, should you place them with other children of their age level or with other children of their intellectual level? I’m speaking here of children who are on the severe end of the spectrum, not those on the mild end.

It might be tempting to just put the child with autism with the younger children and let them watch some Veggie Tales. That might be easier, but is that the best way?

One thing to keep in mind is that it is very difficult to determine the intellectual level of a person with severe autism. Often the communication challenges make testing intellectual capabilities quite challenging. For example, many people consider our son to be “low functioning” because he is nonverbal, but in fact he is very intelligent.

I would suggest that the best option is to put the child in an age appropriate class, but with sufficient help. Never underestimate the benefits of being able to model behaviour based on peer relationships. This can be a difficult option, especially with a lack of resources, but it should be the goal.




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Feeling Uncomfortable Around People With Disabilities

I have two children who are on the severe end of the autism spectrum. They are considered disabled. But I must confess there are times that I’m uncomfortable around other people with disabilities.

There I said it.

Judge me if you want.

I don’t know why this is. It happens more often with physical disabilities. It has become less since my children were diagnosed, but it is still there. I don’t think I’m alone.

Why do people feel uncomfortable with disabilities? I suspect part of it might be that physical disabilities remind us of how fragile and uncertain life can be. Perhaps disabilities in general make us question the goodness of God. Why does God allow any disabilities?

I think that it is important, if a church is going to become disability-friendly, to address this common reaction and not pretend that it doesn’t exist.

How do we respond to these feelings? We shouldn’t respond with self-condemnation. That doesn’t do anyone any good. The most important thing to do is to get to know the person with the disability. As the relationship develops, the disability slips into the background. It doesn’t disappear, but it is no longer the defining factor.

For a while, our daughter went through a lot of workers at her group home. People were afraid of her and there was a high turnover. This seemed strange to me because I knew Abby and didn’t see anything to be afraid of. But this was because I saw Abby as my daughter and not as a person with autism. For those who first meet Abby, it will take some time. But it is worth the wait.

So my advice is to acknowledge the feelings but don’t let them control you. Enter into relationships and love the people for who they are.

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The Assumption of “Normal”

It is common that when you meet new people, that you ask each other about family. I tell people that I have five children and they respond by asking about ages. When they hear that I have two teenagers, they often respond with common understandings of what teenagers are like.

The truth is that my teenagers are not typical. They have autism, are nonverbal and live in a group home.

I have a moment in which I decide whether or not to explain our situation. I’m not embarrassed by my kid’s autism. It is just sometimes a pain to go into the details and I hate the look of pity that I frequently get. Often I just nod my head and pretend that I know what teenagers are like.

People make the assumption that your children are “normal.” By normal, I mean without disabilities. I’m using other people’s definitions here, because I think my kids are pretty normal. There are times they seem more normal than our children without autism!

Why do I bring this up?

I’m not suggesting that people don’t ask about families in case someone is offended. Nor am I suggesting that people shouldn’t assume that children are typical. Most often they are going to be right.

I guess I’m just sharing this because it is something that I go through regularly. I never resent the person that asks. But there are days that it stirs up the feelings of missed opportunities. I’m telling you all this, not to change what you say, but to let you know that there are complex feelings that may go along with the answer.




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Pastors, Church Culture and Disabilities

Church Culture

What is the culture of your church when it comes to disabilities? Does your church eagerly embrace those with disabilities? Or is your church embarrassed by the sights and sounds and frustrated by the interruptions?

There are many aspects to church culture but I would suggest that the pastor plays a major role. I believe that many people look to the pastor for the cues on how to respond to those with disability. Does the pastor greet and spend time with people with disabilities or do they ignore them?

What does the pastor do when a person with a disability makes noise in the middle of a sermon? Most (but not all) will not ask the person to leave. It is more about the expression on the face. Does the pastor grimace and then reluctantly move on with the message?

I recently did a funeral and I noticed that there was a child with a disability. During my message he started to make noise. I could tell that the parents were frustrated and embarrassed. I just smiled because, as a father of two children with disabilities, I was just glad that the child was there.

Once we were attending a church and our son with autism was there. He made a particularly loud sound during the pastor’s message. In this case, the pastor actually stopped and then said to the congregation, “Isn’t great that everyone is welcome here?” In that moment, that pastor showed real leadership. He made it clear to the congregation the culture that he was seeking to build. It is an experience that had really stayed with us.

My word to pastors is to show leadership in building a culture of acceptance. Think about what you will say and do. People are watching you and looking for your lead.




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One of My Angriest Moments

If you ever get a chance to meet me, you will find that I’m one of the easiest going people you will meet. I can think of perhaps a half dozen times in my 47 years where I was really angry. Let me tell you about one of them.

This happened a number of years ago. Our son with autism had gone to an overnight Christian camp for a week and had an awesome time. We were eager to send him back to repeat this very positive experience. My wife began the conversation with the camp in January because our son needs one-on-one assistance. It was agreed by the camp and they seemed happy to have him return.

Summer eventually came around. My wife was on a mission trip in Europe but all I had to do was pack his things and drive him to the camp. Logan was very eager to return to camp and showed it in his own way. When we arrived at the camp, a number of the counsellors from the previous year recognized Logan and were excited to see him.

Family
This is a picture of Logan on the way to the camp in this story

However, when I registered him, they told me that they had no record that an autistic child was going to be attending and no arrangements had been made for one-on-one support. I talked to the camp director and he assured me that they would try to make things work but could make no promises. While frustrated about the miscommunication, I really believed that things would work out.

I was wrong.

Only a few hours after I had dropped Logan off, I received a call from the camp director. He told me that they were unable to meet Logan’s needs. He made sounds, so they had to keep him in the sound booth when they had their worship services. They were unable to engage Logan during the other activities. After a couple of hours of trying, they were done. He had already fallen asleep, so they would let me wait until the morning to pick him up, but he had to go.

Just thinking about this sends the blood to my head and my anger starts to rise. On the way to the camp the next morning, our three younger children kept asking me why we had to pick up Logan already and why he couldn’t stay at camp.

Good question.

It broke my heart to pick up Logan and to explain to him that things had changed, that his week at camp was not going to happen and that he had to come home. Logan is nonverbal and people assume he is low functioning but we know that he is really near or above average in intelligence. It is just masked by his communication challenges. What does this do to a kid?

My anger raged within me as I drove him home. But two more things would happen that would raise my anger again.

One was that I received a call from the camp director. They discovered the communication they had with my wife in January where they had agreed to provide support for Logan. They offered for me to bring Logan back to the camp and they could try again. I refused. I couldn’t put Logan through that again. You can’t change things and then change them back again when it comes to a child with autism.

The other was something that I observed at home. Remember, those camp counsellors (who were all Bible college students) who couldn’t engage Logan, no matter how hard they tried? Well at home, guess what happened? Our three younger children (the oldest of which is five years younger than Logan), decided they wanted to play with Logan. Logan does tend to get into his own world and he does this by focusing on his “stim object,” which in his case was a small toy wrapped in a sock. So the kids grabbed his sock and ran, not in a mean way, but as a way to engage Logan.

As I sat there stewing about all the recent events, I watched as not only the three younger ones but Logan as well, ran around our living room giggling at the top of their lungs. These very young and untrained children in minutes had found a way to engage Logan even though trained young and older adults had already concluded it was impossible to engage him. I was happy and proud of my children but it increased my anger.

Am I fair to this Christian camp? I don’t share the name of it because I believe they are doing some good work. Yes, they made some bad mistakes and yes it hurt both my son and myself. But I think the problem is in many ways typical of what happens in our churches and other organizations. This could have happened anywhere.

I share this story, not to hold on to bitterness, but as a challenge for all of us in how we treat those with disabilities and their families.




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Autism, Theology and Baptism

Autism

I recently had the privilege of baptizing my daughter. For context, I’m a Baptist pastor and so we baptize believers as opposed to infants. While Emma is our first to be baptized, she is the fourth of our five children. Our two oldest children have autism and are on the severe end of the spectrum.

Baptizing my daughter has made me think about what baptism might look like for Logan and Abby. Baptism is meant to be an outward expression of what has happened on the inside. The problem is that with our children being nonverbal, I don’t know what is going on the inside.

Abby is 13 years old, but seems to have an intellectual age of around four. With her communication issues, that is difficult to be sure of. Logan is 15 years old but is more advanced intellectually. He is able to demonstrate his intelligence in a clearer way. My intention is to try and communicate with him about faith and I can see the possibility of him being baptized.

My question is, how much does someone need to know about God to be baptized? What are the theological requirements? I try to get the basics across to those who are without disabilities, but what does this look like for those with intellectual disabilities?

This is not a post where I can offer answers. I really do not know. I do feel that in these cases that it is better to err on the side of grace and trust that God is in it in some way.

I would love to hear from other people about how you have dealt with this. If you are a pastor, what would you require in terms of knowledge about God before baptizing someone?

You might be interested in this post I wrote on baptism in general.


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Disabilities, Church and the Idol of Excellence

Excellence

One of the most common core values for many contemporary churches is that of excellence. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We should want to do the things we do for God to the best of our ability. But there are times that excellence can become and idol.

I have heard too many stories of churches that put excellence over compassion and respect. Leadership feels the pressure to compete with professional entertainment. If they are going to impress visitors, everything is going to have to be perfect. Anything that takes away from the “show” is unacceptable.

What happens when there is a person with a disability in the congregation? What happens if they make some noise or some wild gestures? What if people with disabilities take away from what leadership interprets as excellence?

My intention is not to be critical of what some leaders are trying to create in a worship service. I would just suggest that we all need to look back to the early church and the things that they valued in worship. I understand that we do not live in first century Jerusalem, but there are things that we can learn. Our starting point may not be with how to impress people but rather to reflect what God loves in our worship. It is possible that people with disabilities can make our worship services more excellent in a fresh way.

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Identity and the Challenge of Disability

In this video, Jean Vanier speaks on the subject of disabilities and identity. Jean Vanier is a powerful speaker who is worth listening to.


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5 Things Pastors Need to Know About Autism

AutismI have been contacted by a number of pastors lately about autism. I’m impressed with pastors who are proactive in seeking information.

The truth is that it is important know something about autism before a family with autism shows up at the church.

As a pastor and as a father of two children with autism, I understand the importance of being ready for some exciting ministry. Here are five basic concepts that will make the arrival of a family with autism go much smoother.

  1. If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. Do not judge a person with autism based on another person you have met. Not only is there a spectrum from mild to severe, even two people on the same end of the spectrum can be very different.
  2. Some people with autism may have safety issues. Some people with autism are runners and they need to be protected from escaping. Others may react inappropriately to other children or adults when they have a meltdown, Find out what their triggers are.
  3. There is a need for ministry to the rest of the family. The parents are likely physically and emotionally exhausted. The siblings may have received less attention from their parents and have added responsibilities with helping out the family.
  4. People with autism may make noises whenever they feel like it. Those who are nonverbal (what is nonverbal?) may script movies or use echolalia (repeat what they just heard). Those who are verbal will say what they feel like without consideration of the context.
  5. Many people with autism think in very concrete ways. Using symbols, images and abstract concepts do not work well when explaining the faith. Try to keep things as concrete as possible.

I have written How to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly as a resource for churches. Purchase it on Amazon in the USA or Canada. It is available in print and Kindle. Please also check out my autism blog.

How to Make Your Church Autism Friendly

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5 Reasons Churches Are Afraid of Disability Ministry

Is your church ready to minister to families with disabilities? Perhaps you want to but have some fears about how that would look like. The following are some observations from someone who is both a pastor and a father of children with disabilities.

1. You do not have the resources for disability ministry

You may look at your church and see that you you lack the staff, volunteers and budget resources to form a disability ministry. Churches need to start with the needs and not the resources. Even a very small church would do something for youth ministry if fifteen teenagers started attending regularly. It is no different for people with disabilities. Families do things all the time with their children with disabilities without staff or financial resources.

2. You are afraid what new people will think

You have worked hard to get your worship service to a place where most visitors are impressed. The music and all other aspects of the service are finely tuned to make it a good and comfortable experience. You fear that a child with a disability who makes a strange sound or some other disturbance might turn people off. While discussions with the parents should take place if a child is screaming through the entire service, the odd squawk or moan is not going to destroy a service. Reflect on the Scriptures on whether God is more interested in a nice production than on ministry to those in need.

3. Your people do not have the knowledge or experience

Even with a very common disorder as Autism, many people in our churches feel ill-equipped to minister to such a person. That is fair. But there are many resources available to help. One of the best is the family. I’m confident that they would spend some time with volunteers to explain the needs of their child. In many cases, the child or individual will teach you.

4.This introduces an unpredictable element

All disabilities are different but one thing brings them together is that they can be unpredictable. Anything can happen at any time. All sense of certainty will be gone. It likely will not be near as bad as you think. But surprising things will happen and you will probably find that many of them end up being a blessing.

5. It is a bad return on investment

Disability ministry takes a lot of work and resources. What will the church get out of it? If the church invests in youth, men or women’s ministry, there is development of people who will be active in the church, volunteering for ministry and putting money in the offering plate. Disability ministry gives no promises of such a return. As a former youth pastor, I will say that youth ministry has no promises either. But how do you know that the people with disabilities will not be active in ministry and blessing the church? And even if they don’t, where does the Bible say that we only minister to those who can eventually give back?

I hope that your church will work through its fears and become active in disability ministry.

I would like to point you to two resources. One is my book, How to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly (available in print and Kindle) and the other my autism blog.




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Oracle, Batgirl and Disabilities in Comics

Oracle

As a father of two children with autism, I am very much interested in disabilities. Having said that, with all of the emphasis on being more inclusive in comics in terms of race and sexual orientation, disabilities have somehow been left behind.

Jessica Sirkin wrote a very interesting article about the ramifications of the New 52 wiping out Oracle and returning Barbara Gordon to her role as Batgirl.

I was one of those readers who were disappointed when Gordon was shot by the Joker in the Killing Joke. I was hoping for a miracle cure. But I was intrigued when they reintroduced her as Oracle in Suicide Squad. I grew to like the character.

What does this all mean? It is not a demand that Batgirl get shot again. But it would be nice to see at least a couple of superheroes with disabilities. How about a character with Superman level powers but with severe autism? That would make some good stories.

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A Conversation With Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier has been an advocate and friend of those with intellectual disabilities for many decades. He is the founder of L’Arche, a community that values respect for all apart for any disabilities. You can find out more about Jean Vanier at the L’Arche site.

Recently there was a roundtable discussion with Jean Vanier and a number of theology and philosophy students. It was recorded and presented by the Unbelievable podcast (normally focused on apologetics), with Justin Brierly as the moderator.

It was a good discussion that is worth listening to. You can find it here.

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Church Toolkit

One of the great Christian organizations working with people with special needs is Christian Horizons. They are involved in many things but are often thought of as primarily an operator of group homes.

One of the areas that people do not know about when it comes to Christian Horizons is their dedication for supporting churches and leaders. They have put together this Church Toolkit to help churches to minister to those with special needs. It really is worth checking out.

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Ministry and Disabilities Online Training

While much of what I do is encouraging churches to have the right attitude, there is an important need for training.

As a result, I was very happy to see that Biblical Training is offering some courses on Ministry and Disabilities. This is being done in cooperation with Joni & Friends. Go and check it out here.

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Ban This Word from Your Church

Do you want to make your church both disability and autism friendly? Here is a simple but difficult step to take.

STOP USING THE WORD RETARDED.

Yes, I realize that ‘retard’ has entered the English language as a common way to describe something that you think is unwise. Even pastors will make statements about something that looks foolish by saying, “that is so retarded.” I am sure that each Sunday, such phrases are used very often in churches by all sorts of people.

I also understand that most people do not mean it as a slur against people with disabilities.

But let me share my perspective as a father of two children who have been diagnosed with a global developmental delay (the current term for mental retardation). When I hear someone being described as a retard or as being retarded, what I hear is that this person is so stupid, they are as bad as Logan and Abby (yes, they do have names).

I do not say anything when I hear it, as people are free to say what they want. But if you want your church to be sensitive to disabilities, it may be time to do some teaching.

When I have talked about this before, I have been accused of promoting political correctness. I am far from being politically correct. The only agenda I have is basic respect for people who often do not have the opportunities to speak up for themselves.

If you want to call people retards, go ahead. But don’t pretend that you care about people with developmental disabilities.

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Does God Create People With Disabilities?

The question arises, however, whether God creates people with disabilities. On the one hand—yes—insofar as people with impairments of one kind or another are persons created in the image of God. But on the other hand, as something tragic—no. There is nothing inherently wrong with disability or with the people who have disabilities. Disability is a factor of being finite and contingent in an open universe subject to elements of unpredictability, instability and conflict.

– Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion.
Purchase in: USA Canada

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Family Ties

I am angry and I will tell you why.

FamilyLet me give you the back story first. Our two oldest children (14 and 12) both have severe autism. Both of them also live in groups homes, although separate ones. That is about to change.

The agency that oversees them arranged for both our son and daughter to move to the same group home, a newly renovated home for children their age. It was some of the best news we could ever get.

This also means a lot of paperwork, including coordination with the group homes that they currently live in. We visited our son’s home and everything went smoothly. They worked to make sure the new group home had what they needed. When the supervisor heard that our son would finally be living with his sister after almost four years, she seemed visibly moved. It was obvious that she was very happy for our family.

The same is not true for our daughter’s group home.

When they heard about the move, they expressed some concerns. That is fine. They told those involved that they were not sure how our daughter would do with the transition. Their concerns were heard but it was decided to continue with the move.

They then started collecting names of people who disagreed with the move. When that didn’t work, they went higher. At this moment, this group home is fighting as hard as they can to stop our daughter from moving in with her brother.

FamilyLet me make some things clear. We are her parents. We are her guardians. We have custody. We did not give up any rights when our daughter went into the group home.

But this group home is ignoring our wishes and often avoiding communicating with us in their attempts to stop what is best for our family.

Their job is not to decide the future for our daughter. Their job is to make this transition go as smoothly as possible. They are actually making it worse for our daughter. She will pick up on this tension.

This is why I am angry. I have no problem with them having concerns. But voice the concerns and get on with your job.

This is not about a bed in a group home, it is about a sister and a brother who have a special bond and deserve to live happily together.

UPDATE: Everything worked out fine and our children are together in their new group home. They are both thriving there.

If you are interested learning more about autism, please visit my autism blog.

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Silver Linings Have Clouds

As a parent of special needs children, I try to stay positive. I look at the bright side. I rejoice in the little victories. I celebrate those moments when everything works.

All of that is true but special needs parenting is still very difficult.

Our two children with autism live in group homes. While that takes off a lot of pressure, there are still plenty of challenges. There are still committees and government agencies and boards and financial concerns to navigate.

I just came across this post called “The Dark Side to Special Needs Parenting.” I don’t know the person who wrote it, but I will tell you that this post rings true to our experience.

We don’t like to talk about this stuff much, but if you want to understand special needs parents, you are going to have to know it.

Image by pixaby

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Becoming Pre-Autism Friendly

What if you want your church to be autism-friendly but you don’t have any families with autism in your church?

Image by pixaby

I’m glad you asked! 

This is exactly the time to be thinking of these things. It is so much harder to start the process after you have had people with autism for years. The best thing is that these steps will make your church healthier even if no one with autism ever attends.

So here are some things for you to consider before the families with autism show up.

  • Make sure have you have some Plan to Protect safety plan. You should have this anyway.
  • Have a strong theological foundation of the image of God in all people.
  • Learn to deal with loud and unexpected sounds in the worship services. Babies should help.
  • Do a study of the role of the marginalized in the Bible.
  • Find families in your community that are dealing with disabilities and bless them with no expectation of them attending your church.
  • Educate yourself on autism and other disabilities. This is one of the major roles of this blog.

This should get you started.

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Jesus’ Resurrection and Disabilities

Easter Sunday is the most important day for Christians. It is the day that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

Does this have anything to say about disabilities?

When we think of the afterlife, we think about becoming perfect according to popular understandings of normal. All the things that we think make us stand out will be removed and we will have the bodies we always wanted.

What will the afterlife really be like? The only hint that we have is Jesus. The resurrection body of Jesus is the type of body we will have at our resurrection. Yes, it will be a better body. It will be a body that will be built for eternity. Jesus was also able to do things that his other body could not do. He walked through walls and even seemed to travel differently.

But there was something else interesting about his body. He still had his scars. The holes in his hands, feet and side would not seem to be ideal by normal standards. None of us would choose them. And yet there they are in his resurrection body. While a resurrection body is, what I tell my Bible college students, “an upgraded body,” for Jesus it was a body that was in continuity with his “weak” body.

What does this means for those who have disabilities?

It is possible that some aspect of what we consider disabilities may be represented in our resurrection bodies. The difference is that it would no longer be a disability any more than Jesus was still being bound to the cross.

I am not necessarily saying that those in wheelchairs will be unable to walk in the resurrection or the blind be unable to see. But it is very possible that those parts of their life will be represented in some way in the resurrection.

Easter Sunday is a day of hope for all Christians. The possibilities that it opens up are limitless.

Image by pixaby

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Helping Children to Understand

There has been a lot of work done to promote awareness, understanding and acceptance for those with special needs. That is wonderful, but most of that is aimed at helping adults.

What about the children?

How do we help children to understand those who are different? It is not an easy task. Thankfully, Tim Huff has provided a resource that can make a difference. Huff has written a book called It’s Hard Not to Stare: Helping Children Understand Disabilities that might be just what we need.

Here is the description from Amazon:

disabilities

It’s Hard Not to Stare is the second book unpacking StreetLevel’s children’s Compassion Series. Tim Huff addresses issues related to disabilities in this book, as he did homelessness in the first of the series, applying the same tender and truthful prose, along with bright and courageous child-friendly illustrations, which have been heightened by the insights and wisdom of his professional peers, educators, moms and dads. The material encourages children to look at their world through the lens of compassion and understanding, rather than assumption, judgment or fear. Tim believes this approach will impact the way we care for, and befriend, people in our communities and beyond, and that when we nurture compassion in a child in one area of life, the potential is greater that this goodness will spill over into all other areas.

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Building Communities of Belonging 2015

The Building Communities of Belonging conference, put on by Christian Horizons, is coming up on May 9, 2015. I attended and spoke at the conference last year. It is a tremendous opportunity to connect with leaders, pastors, parents and those with special needs. You will find all sorts of resources that will help your church to be more effective in ministering to those with special needs. I highly recommend it.

You can find out more about and register for the conference here.

Here is an article I wrote in Faith Today magazine about last year’s conference.

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What is Disability Ministry?

What is disability ministry? For some churches, that may be a formal ministry with their own budget, volunteers and pastor. For smaller churches that may look much different. I recently wrote a post for the Disability and Faith Forum (which is a resource you really need to check out) on this very subject.

Here is part of the post:

I recently encountered a comment by a church leader who was asking if it was worth having a disability ministry since they “only” have about four children with special needs in their church. To be honest, this statement shocked me.

I understand what the person was saying. They were asking if that is enough children to have an organized ministry that was aimed solely at children with special needs.

But is that the definition of disability ministry? Does disability ministry require its own staff person or volunteers? Does it require its own room and time to meet? As a parent of two children with autism, I would just assume that any church that we attended would provide ministry even if there were no other children with special needs.

You can read the rest of the article here.

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Welcoming People With Special Needs

Samsung recently made a very touching commercial about a community that learned sign language in order to give a hearing impaired man one day where he would feel completely included. It is a powerful message for including people with special needs.

Watching this commercial made me think of the Church. The purpose of the event in the video is to make a commercial that would touch our hearts. How much more should the Church work at becoming more welcoming to those with special needs?

Churches often hope that those with special needs will be able to somehow become more like “normal” people. Why should all the work be on those with special needs? If you have people who are hearing impaired, why not learn a few phrases in sign language? Why not communicate with people with autism in a way that works for them?

Watch this video and reflect on what your church could do to become a more inclusive community.

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The Drop Box

I recently had the opportunity to preview the documentary, The Drop Box.

Spoiler Alert: It is an incredibly moving documentary that everyone should see.

Drop BoxThe Drop Box is a documentary about a pastor in Korea who has taken measures to save the lives of the many babies that are abandoned on the streets. The name of the documentary comes from a method he has devised (used in other countries as well) by which mothers can leave their unwanted babies in a safe place rather than on the streets to die.

The “baby box” is not without controversy. Some fear it encourages mothers to abandon their children. I doubt that any mother who chooses to abandon their child does it just for the sake of making things more comfortable. No one does that unless they are desperate and by the time they are there, they need the baby box.

The Drop Box is much more than just a story about leaving babies in a box. It is the story of man who is trying to live out the kingdom of God. The pastor, who has an adult child severely disabled, already had his hands full. In addition to providing a safe place to drop off babies, he also has adopted a number of children with special needs.

As a parent with two children with special needs and three children that are not our biological children, I was deeply moved. It touched my wife and I where we are the most tender. Even if you are not in such a situation, this documentary will change you.

While this movie reflects a Christian world view, it is not preachy at all. You do not have to be a Christian to respect this man and to see in his actions a challenge for all of us to make this world a better place.

This documentary will be in select theatres on March 4 and 5 and I strongly encourage you to see it. You can find the documentary website here and the trailer below.

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Inclusion In Your Church

A guest post by Ron Sandison.

As the body of Christ, we should care for the physical and spiritual needs of each other and help those with autism to experience the love of Christ. The love of Christ can be expressed tangibly by the inclusion of those with autism in our services and our sensitivity to their sensory issues.

Many families with a special needs child have experienced the pain of rejection from the local church. Pastor Craig Johnson, director of ministries at Lakewood Church, whose son Connor has autism, said, “Currently, we estimate that less than 5% of churches across American have anything for special needs individuals. Yet there are already over 30 million kids and teens with special needs in the U.S.”

We will examine four ways your church can create accommodations for families with children of autism and make every child feel safe and welcome.

Rhonda Gelstein, whose son has cerebral palsy and autism, shared:

When Tyler was two-years-old, I took him to a new church. Midway through the service Tyler’s nursery number flashes on the screens. As I entered the nursery the Pastor’s wife told me, “We are ill-equipped for a child like yours!” I replied, “You mean a child of God’s.” Her harsh comment bruised my heart. Thinking back, I wished she would’ve asked, “How can we minister to Tyler’s spiritual and physical needs.”[i]

Establish a culture of inclusion

Your congregation will follow the example of the pastoral leadership team. If the pastor from the pulpit emphasis the importance of inclusion the congregation will also have a heart for inclusion.

Dr. Steve Grevich, founder of Family Center by Falls, blogged:

Cultivating a culture of inclusion greatly reduces the pushback from church members and attendees when accommodations need to be made. Adults who value the imperative of including everyone with gifts to contribute to the mission of the church can use the questions kids ask when peers are treated differently as “teachable moments.”[ii]

Learn the needs of special needs families in your church

You can start by asking the families of children with special needs how your church can best accommodate and serve them and help their child feel comfortable. Many children with autism have difficulty sitting still during the service. Your church can accommodate these children by providing an area for them to pace. Other children are sensitive to touch and experience great anxiety when the pastor says, “Greet the person next to you.” Be sensitive to sensory issues.

Provide accommodations and activities

Structure and visual presentations are very important for children with autism. A structured children’s ministry will help children experience less anxiety, and visuals will aid him in comprehending the lessons. The lessons should not contain abstract concepts which can be difficult for children with autism to interpret but concrete biblical truths.

For children with repetitive behavior, like stimming, provide fidgeting toys. You can purchase from Walmart or the Dollar Store inexpensive things like silly putty, Koosh balls, slinkies, or squishy balls. Always check with the parents or guardians first. Ask the parents what activities his child likes and also any sensory issues to watch for. If the child hates a certain activity, don’t force him to do it. This could cause the child to have a meltdown. Instead offer an alternative activity.

Understand sensory issues

Sensory management of the campus will help prevent the child from stimuli overload. A co-worker of mine, Robert, whose fifteen-year-old cousin has Asperger, said, “My grandpa’s funeral service was at a Catholic church. During the Mass the altar boys waved incenses, and family and friends were quietly showing reverence for the deceased. My cousin yelled, “I hate that smell! What is that? Tell them to stop, I can’t take it anymore!”’

Dennis Debbaudt, a leading global voice on autism training for law enforcement and safety management, states:

Every child with autism responds differently to sensory issues. One child may cover his ears to loud music and scream. Another child with hyposensitivity to sound could desire more stimuli and put his head on the speaker. A child with ASD may respond unusually to certain smells. The child may love the smell of a female teacher’s perfume and put his head against her neck and taste the perfume. If the teacher is unaware of the child’s condition, she will be unprepared and take the child’s innocent action as aggression.[iii]

Establish a core special needs minister team

Pastor Craig Johnson teaches, “Ministries to special needs children consist of 25% training and 75% love and acceptance. When developing a ministry for special needs individuals, first have a core-team that has a heart and passions for those with disabilities.”[iv] This core-team must have a firm understanding of autism and a desire to infuse the rest of the church with their passion.

These four methods can help your church become autism sensitive. Oswald J. Smith said, “Our duty is not done when we minister only to those who came into our churches. If they don’t come, we have no choice but to go to them.” Special needs parents are searching desperately for a church that is able to minister to their child’s physical and spiritual needs.

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is currently writing, A Christian Concise Guide to Autism. Ron has over 10,000 Scriptures memorized including 22 complete books of the New Testament. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with their pet rabbit, Babs, and cat, Frishma. You can contact Ron on Facebook or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com.

[i] 8/4/14 phone interview with Rhonda Gelstein, http//therustyglider.blogspot.com

[ii] Website Church4EveryChild

[iii] 7/7/14 phone interview with Dennis Debbaudt

[iv] 7/21/14 Phone Interview with Pastor Craig Johnson, Director of Ministries, Lakewood Church.

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Why Should Your Church Care About Autism?

Should your church care about people with autism? Should your church attempt to reach out to families touched by autism? Should autism and other disabilities be a part of your ministry focus?

Let us be honest, it would be easier not to. If you would like a nice, professional worship service marked by excellence, it would be easier to do so without a child with autism shouting out lines from movies. The volunteers needed for children with disabilities could be spread out to make an impact on a greater number of “normal” children.

Having said that, the Bible never suggests that the direction for ministry should be determined by what is easiest.

The message of the Old and New Testaments is that God has a special place in his heart for those who are disadvantaged. Part of that message is that God’s people are expected to sacrifice in order to help those in need.

I have noticed a lot of attention in the media about autism. It will not take too much digging at the CNN website to find some story about autism. These are not just scientific studies arguing about the latest research. These are stories that call for compassion for those with autism and their families.

I just can’t believe that the media is more compassionate than the Church. If that was true, I don’t know what I would do.

I am going to make the assumption that the Church is compassionate but just lack the knowledge of what to do.

This is why I wrote How to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly. This is not a money-making scheme on my part. As a parent of two children with autism, I know that churches need to be prepared to welcome and minister to families touched with autism. This Kindle book shares the story of our family and then outlines practical ways for churches to become autism-friendly.

I pray this resource will be of use to you and your church.

I also encourage you to check out my autism blog.




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Exceptional Ministry: A Conversation With Keith Dow

Keith DowI met Keith Dow when I spoke at a family retreat. While I found his background in philosophy interesting, I was even more interested in his work with Christian Horizons. As a father of two children with autism, I love to hear about how Christians are ministering to and with those with exceptional needs. I am thankful to Keith for answering these questions.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to faith?

As first a Missionary Kid (MK) born in Brazzaville, Congo and then a Pastor’s Kid (PK) in various towns across Ontario, my spiritual journey through denominations very much mirrored my physical journeys. I didn’t have a significant ‘conversion experience’ as I grew up trusting first my parents that God was real and then in Christ that he was who he claims to be. That being said, I never really felt at home in a particular denomination’s view of God until arriving at the Meeting House, a Brethren in Christ Anbaptist church focusing on community, compassion, and peace.

Could you tell us about what Christian Horizons and the type of services it provides?

Christian Horizons is a non-profit, faith-based organization serving the person with exceptional needs in Canada and around the world. We were founded back in 1965, when we started out as a Christian camping ministry for families impacted by disability, and have since grown to become the largest provider of developmental services in Ontario, where we have 3400 employees supporting nearly 1500 people with developmental disabilities and their families.

We often use the phrase “exceptional needs,” because in our work around the world through CH Global, we support people with a wide variety of needs in diverse circumstances. If people with disabilities often find themselves marginalized in Canadian society, you can imagine how much more so in countries that don’t commit to upholding human rights.

Your current role is that of Manager of Pastoral Ministries at Christian Horizons. What exactly do you do?

Good question! It’s an always-changing, expanding role that keeps me on my toes. Not only are we involved in articulating and developing the role of the faith roots of Christian Horizons in organizational culture, but as part of the pastoral team I’m really excited about our Vision, where “people with exceptional needs belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.” A big part of my work with the Christian community is to look at how we can really welcome people with exceptional needs into our services and our lives, and in turn be blessed by the gifts and abilities they share with us.

What thinkers have influenced you the most and how?

My background is in philosophy, and I’m currently working toward my PhD on ethics and disability from a theological perspective, so I have encountered many thinkers through the years. The one who has impacted me the most, though, is the 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, who uses profound philosophical movements to remind us that thought that remains in the clouds is pretty useless down here on earth. Many of his thoughts reflect James 2:17; “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” It was partly his impact that led me to Christian Horizons over eight years ago, when I realized that my studies needed to be accompanied by practical ministry.

How well do you think the Church is doing at ministering to families with disabilities?

We know that there are significant needs that remain to be met in terms of community and friendship with people with exceptional needs and their families. I believe that the Church has a tremendous calling to welcome and embrace people who have perhaps been marginalized by society, just as Jesus did in his interactions here on earth. We don’t need to have special training or feel as though we’re ‘experts.’ When you get to know someone, you can’t help but get to know their own particular needs as well as the incredible gifts that they have to offer. Whenever we talk about ‘the Church’ though, the tendency can be to say “Yeah, the Church isn’t doing a very good job at…” which can be a way of distancing ourselves from the Church. Switching the question to “how am I doing at welcoming families impacted by disability?” may be how we really start to see change happen in the Church.

What has been your most rewarding experience in this role?

Each year, Christian Horizons runs a retreat for families impacted by disability. It’s a week where they are fully supported to enjoy a vacation together as a family – a rare opportunity with incredible impact. This past year I had the honour of conducting a three-day workshop with parents and caregivers of children or siblings with disabilities. To have the opportunity to hear from them, this brief window into their lives and the devotion they have for their loved ones, and to see their dedication and resilience through odds that have seemed insurmountable was a transformative experience for me – one that I’ll never forget. I would encourage anyone who would be interested in volunteering at the camp, or churches looking to sponsor families or volunteers, to visit our website at www.christian-horizons.org.

Thanks Keith.

You can keep in touch with Keith on Twitter at @keidow and on the Faith and Disability Forum.

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Feels So Write

I have been trying to feel my way ever since I stopped working at Faith Today. Working as a padre and as a teacher has filled up some of my time. I did write some articles freelance but not that much. Nothing has scratched the itch that I have felt.

Good News

Good News

Then yesterday I started a project that I have wanted to do for a long time. I began work on an eBook on helping churches to minister to families with autism. My working title is “Making Your Church Autism-Friendly.”

This is a very important issue for me both as a former pastor and as a father of two children with autism.

There will basically be two sections to the book, one telling our story and the other giving practical suggestions on how churches can support families with autism.

I am close to half done the first draft of the book. I must say that it feels so good to be working on this. This is what I want to do, to provide practical resources for churches. When it deals with autism, it is even more fulfilling.

So this is my good news for the week. I have begun the eBook and I am looking forward to getting it finished and out there for churches to use.

 

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7 Things Churches Need to Know About Autism

One of my goals is to equip churches to minister to families dealing with disabilities, especially autism. I have an ebook planned on this very topic.

This post is aimed at the mid-sized to small church that suddenly has a family with a child with autism attending. What is it that the church needs to know?

Autism1. Not every child with autism is the same. You may have known a child or had a family member with autism. Do not assume that the child attending your church is the same. It would be safer to assume that the child is different.

2. Anticipate safety concerns. Not every child with autism has safety concerns but it is better to be prepared. Find out if they can be aggressive to others or if they tend to run. If so, put a plan into place.

3. Do not assume that non-verbal means unintelligent. Some children with autism do not communicate with verbal language (either by ability or choice). That does not mean that they are incapable of learning.

4. The siblings need ministry. Often it is the child with autism that gets the attention. If that child has siblings, this is an opportunity for the church to minister. Make the effort to give them the attention they need.

5. The parents need ministry. It is exhausting (physically, mentally, spiritually) to parent a child with autism. Try to arrange date nights for the parents. Look for practical ways to make their life easier.

6. Children with autism make noise. I know that people like a nice peaceful and tranquil worship service but children with autism make noise. The glare you give during the service will not make a difference. The child will not notice or will not care.

7. The family did not come to find a cure for autism. There are dozens of “cures” for autism floating around the internet. There is no need to pass these on to the family. They are much more informed about autism than you are. The family came to worship God and have fellowship with people.

If a family with autism has started attending your church that is a great thing because it is much easier to stay home. The best thing to do is welcome them and love them. They have made themselves vulnerable to the church, please respect that trust.

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Confessions of an Autism Dad

Autism has been a part of my life for about thirteen years. As an autism dad, my experience has  been similar but different from that of my wife. I would never want to impose my experience on other autism dads but there may be areas of overlap. This is my story.

The journey begins with the diagnosis. I did not begin to grieve right away. My first reaction was, “How do we fix this?” I wanted to read about autism and find out from other people what was working.

When our second child was diagnosed, it just felt like a kick in the head. Life was unfair. All I wanted was a “normal” child. All the hopes and dreams that I lost with my son I placed on my daughter and now they were gone as well.

My wife grieved right away but it took me about a year for the autism to go from my head to my heart. When it did hit, it hit hard. Perhaps it was good that my wife and I staggered our grief so we could keep going.

One of the things that I felt was guilt toward my wife. I felt like it was my fault that our children had autism. If only my genetics were slightly different, our children would be able to speak and learn the way they were supposed to.

I also felt guilt toward my children. I remember one experience in particular. I took my son to McDonald’s which should have been fun. Although he was no longer a baby, I put him into a baby seat to keep him contained. He hummed and made all sorts of weird sounds the entire time we were there. I was embarrassed. I could not believe that I was embarrassed of my own son! I instantly felt guilty and that regret has never quite left me.

I don’t want you to think that life as an autism dad is all bad. There have been many great times. I am extremely proud of both of our children with autism. Embarrassment is by far out of the picture now. When I am out in public with them and they are “doing their autism thing,” I hold my head up high. They are who they are and that is perfect.

I also love watching their development. Many children have a gradual development that you can barely notice. Our children jump from one level to another. It is very exciting to see.

I see the humour in autism. There are so many times that the kids say or do something at just the right time. We laugh and laugh and they laugh with us. Laughing together takes away so much of the stress.

Do I enjoy being an autism dad? To be honest, I wish my children did not have autism. But I am proud of my children and that means that I am proud of being an autism dad.

Autism

 

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Churches, Pastors and the Disabled

When it comes to welcoming those with disabilities into a church, I come at it with two hats. One hat is as a father of two children with autism. The other hat is as one who pastored for over a decade. The father part says that the church must endure everything to embrace my children. The pastor part says that there is more to the church than those two children with disabilities. Let me try to unpack this.

I will start with my own experience, both as a pastor and a father. Before I knew that my own children would have disabilities, I was part of a pulpit exchange and had the opportunity to preach in a Presbyterian church. There should be no problem as preaching is preaching. I stepped up to the pulpit and as I did there was a loud scream. I had no idea what happened but I noticed that no one in the congregation reacted and so I took my cue from them. I continued to preach and every few minutes, there would be another yelp. I took it as the young man’s way of saying “amen!” Although it took me a few minutes to get used to it, it did not seem to disrupt the service and people got the message of my sermon.

Some time later I was pastoring at First Baptist Church Meaford. Abby was in Sunday school but she could hear my voice and as a major league daddy’s girl, she needed to be with me. She escaped from Sunday school and ran down the aisle to get to me. Amanda stopped her and brought her back down to Sunday school. It did not go well. Abby screamed at the top of her lungs. I was horrified. At the end of the service, I was waiting for someone to comment on the loud disruption. Everyone was quiet until one man walked up to me with a smirk on his face. I steeled myself for the criticism. He walked up to me, shook my hand and said, “That little girl sure loves her daddy.”

Having shared these stories, here is what I think is appropriate for both the church and families with disabilities. For the church to be the church, it is imperative that we embrace families with disabilities, especially the children. I understand that we want a worship service to go smoothly and for people to enjoy themselves (this is not bad). But remember when the disciples felt that young children were disrupting Jesus’ ministry, Jesus sided very strongly with the children. At a recent conference, I heard a speaker say that families with disabilities never have a luke-warm experience at church. It is either really good or really bad. I can’t imagine that God would ever want us to make the experience really bad.

I will tell you that it is a major step for a family with disabilities to even try and attend church. After I left my last pastorate, I stayed home most Sundays because it was much easier than trying to bring our son to a new church. We did not start attending again until we received a personal visit from the lead and associate pastors of our church assuring us that they would do everything they could to make this happen. Yes Logan did make noise during the sermon. Our pastor even stopped once in the middle of his sermon to say, “Isn’t it great that everyone is welcome in this church?”

I need to put my pastor hat back on for a moment. If a person with a disability screams during the entire service, the church does not need to endure that for the sake of inclusion. I would never try to bring Abby to church every Sunday because she wouldn’t enjoy it and she would do her best to make sure no one else enjoyed it either. Our church would welcome her but I wouldn’t put them through that. I must say though that one of my bucket list items is to sit in church with all five of our children. It has never happened. I joked with our pastor that we could have a private worship service on a week night. Actually, I was not really joking. Still I would not try to make that happen on a Sunday morning.

Even if this is the case, the church does not get off the hook for embracing the family. There are other things that can be done. The church still has to be sensitive to the spiritual and emotional needs of the family.

The example of the child screaming throughout the service is not likely to ever happen. Parents are not stupid. They don’t enjoy being in a room with a screaming child for an hour and a half any more than you do. It is not going to happen. What will happen is the child will give the occasional squawk, yelp, scripted sentence or a squeal. It is not that bad. It certainly is better than the whispers of gossip and slander that go on in most churches. If you take each sound as a witness to the inclusive nature of your church, it can actually be a part of your worship.

Churches, pastors and parents need to work together on what a service will look like. It might not be the service you want but it may be the service God intends.

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Atheism and the Problem of Love

Atheism claims to have reason on its side. I think that is an incredible overstatement. However, I would like to look at something else. How do atheists explain love? According to atheists, love is just a chemical reaction in the brain that has evolved to allow the species to continue.

I often want to ask atheists if they really believe this. When they look at their spouse or their children, do they really feel love or are they simply experiencing a chemical reaction? Is there really any meaning to love? I am not saying that this proves that there is a God. I am rather suggesting that many atheists act as if there is something beyond ourselves.

I want you to watch this video. It is obvious that this father loves his daughter. How does a naturalistic world view explain this? What is the evolutionary benefit of his actions?

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Autism and the Church

Statistics tell us that the autism rates are extremely high.  According to the Autism Society of America, 1 out of every 88 births have autism.  I would guarantee that the rates of children with autism in church are much lower than this.  Although my family had a great experience today, we rarely are able to attend church as a family because of our children with autism.  The fact is that most families that are dealing with autism do not feel comfortable attending church.  Are the churches okay with this?  Whether a church intends to or not, they are making decisions on how they will respond to people with autism.  Here are a list of options, roughly from least desirable to most desirable with regard to the church’s attitude toward people with autism.

1. The church is comfortable excluding families with autism as this decision makes ministry run smoother and worship services more peaceful.

2. The church is happy to have families dealing with autism attend services as long as they make their own arrangements to leave the child with autism at home.

3. The church welcomes the entire family dealing with autism but expects the child with autism to act like they do not have autism during the service.

4. The church acknowledges that the autistic person will act a certain way but they still respond with glares and dirty looks when their peaceful worship is disturbed.

5. The church provides care for the child with autism by assigning a person to spend time with them one-on-one during the service.

6. The church welcomes the family, hears strange sounds at certain times during the service and yet is patient and even celebrates their inclusivity.

Churches are already making one of these choices, even if they are not conscious about it.  As a church you need to look at the options and make sure you are comfortable that your decision is the one God would have for you.

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Down Syndrome and a Father’s Heart

I recently posted this picture on my Facebook wall and had an interesting response.  I generally do not post much on abortion, although I am very pro-life.  I have no desire to condemn mothers who have terminated pregnancies.  However, as a father of two special needs children, I am very concerned with the trend of removing special needs from society through abortion.  It was in that spirit that I posted this.

In the conversation, my friend Bob Davies shared some of his thoughts as a father of a son with Down Syndrome.  I appreciated his thoughts and wanted to share them here.  So here is our guest post by Rev. Bob Davies.


I’m the father of Owain, my little man with Down Syndrome – and am a pastor with firm convictions about separation of church and state. This is a longer post, if you read it, I hope it proves useful to you 🙂

Let me say that the rights of the child are never really taken into account unless the parents own that responsibility. And they do own that responsibility. Whether they come to terms with that responsibility in the course of their hard decisions, or later on in life afterwards, they will own that decision. Whatever the state does, ultimately, it’s a mom and dad who’ve been entrusted with that child, and no moral or right choice really comes under duress. Only they, really, can protect that child’s rights – even if the state did have the kinds of structures that they should which actually reflected equal protection and rights under law. Laws against abortion are totally about that question – the protection of individual freedoms – in this case, of course, the child’s.

Let’s avoid the politics here, though, and I hope you’ll bear with me here ultimately in terms of the question of sensitivity to people who’ve ended their pregnancies.

I think that the harder things in life are unavoidable realities: having a child with a special need, certainly handling the tension of what to do if it’s discovered during pregnancy, but maybe more the question of dealing with the decades of guilt and remorse and self-doubt and grief that can come after having terminated a pregnancy. I’m not sure the role of the church is to help someone find a reality where they don’t have to face this stuff. Having that child will be hard. I think aborting that child will be a lot harder down the road. 

It’s not as though there were some sanctuary of ambivalence that could free someone from facing the decision in question for what it is, nor the consequences for what they are. I do believe in the church as a place, a sanctuary, of safety and grace and gentleness and kindness and healing and forgiveness. But not of simple ambivalence where murder is understated and the destruction of a child is shrugged off as the sad consequence of a difficult time. 

It’s in the hard thing – whether having the child, or struggling with our own grief over the depravity of our sin – that we’re driven to cry out for God. 

That’s been the gift of Owain to us. The miracle of a child who’s very nature cries out for more of us, who cries out for us to let go of our motives and prejudices and even the designs of our parental dreams, so that we’re taught to love and receive the child that is. Not even taught, God help me, Owain’s presence makes that love erupt from us not because we’re good parents, but because in the gift of Owain we’re driven to the feet of Christ for his love and help. It’s in the hard things that we cry out God and find him. It’s in the scuttling of my dreams and designs that I’m finding some of God’s. No one should be spared this kind of gift if it’s offered – the most wonderful gift, so quickly refused because our cultural bull of success and independence and personal freedom from any kind of hardship. 

The appropriate grief and regret and remorse that follow the murder of a child like Owain is like a second chance at the same gift. 

I don’t think we need to whack people with guilt – I expect they’re already doing that to themselves. And the church is the place for hope for them. But that hope is not necessarily, “oh there, there, we know that was so difficult, but don’t worry that decision was ok.” Maybe in some circumstances, sure. But the real hope we offer is about those times when we know for certain that we’ve blown it; that we’re frigged, and that we’ve frigged someone else. It’s for those times when we know it not because some mean legalist beat us with his Bible, but because we know that whatever we’ve done is dissonant with God. That it is clear evidence that our selfishness, perhaps, or at least that our refusal to receive the gift of the hardship and suffering of caring for that child, drove us to murder. It’s in that confession, in that painful truth where our brokenness has been revealed – maybe not to anyone else – but to ourselves. There, we may find God’s grace for us has meaning as we’re left with no hope but to cry out to him for our very souls. From that brokenness, if they can experience it for what it is, they might cry out to God in grief for their sin and be healed. That’s what our brokenness does for us. 

No church that intentionally spares us the fact of our brokenness, or which mitigates its severity, is doing anything ultimately worthwhile for others at all. That would be almost worse than a church that could point out every sin in the book and say nothing about the grace of God that can restore and forgive us! It’s certainly not better.

Think of it this way. If I post the picture above, and someone who was or is faced with the terrible decision of ending their pregnancy reacts with pain and sensitivity – then that’s saying something. It’s saying they are not at peace with that decision. It’s saying they’re still wounded and in pain. They are not ok as they are. They will own that decision inside like a tumour or outside like a scar. It’s the truth about what they’ve done, and so frighteningly hints at who they fear they might actually be. Now we can have a world where we all go around trying not to touch the sore spots – but isn’t our role also about seeing people healed as they’re reconciled to God? There is no healing for us outside of the grace and forgiveness of Jesus meeting the truth of who we are and what we we’ve done. I’m not really in the business of going around hitting people to see who’s sore or to prove that their bad (or that I’m better, God help us) – that’s devilish in its design. But I’m not sure avoiding the matter altogether is any better for them. It might actually be worse. God’s been consistently kind to me as he comments on who I actually am. But at the same time he’s been speaking, as painful and shameful as that can be. With grace and love, isn’t that what he’s asked us to do?

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