As a pastor, a part of my role is to teach our church to increasingly become a welcoming and hospitable community for whomever God brings through our doors. That role became deeply personal when God called my family to adopt a little girl with special needs. Thus when I read what author and speaker Paul Miller wrote in his seeJesus ministry newsletter recently, I was both encouraged as a special-needs dad and challenged as a hospitality pastor.
So whether you are as directly connected with special needs as I am–and as Paul Miller and his wife Jill are through their adult daughter with special needs, Kim–or whether you are simply a churchgoer who might occasionally encounter someone with special needs, I hope you will take the time to read the snippets of Paul’s newsletter that I have reproduced below. What he wrote here was part of an email conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada, who asked for his opinion on “why the church and its seminaries have a systemic problem when it comes to embracing special-needs families.”
The problem of the church not enjoying and welcoming people affected by disabilities but actually distancing itself is strikingly pervasive. Several years ago, Jill asked me to video Kim walking from the close of church service downstairs to her Sunday school room. It is a moving 12-minute almost silent video. Only two out of 50 people greet her. And this is a very caring church that we had attended for 12 years.
I believe the problem is not bad theology but missing theology. There are four misses, each a function of the other: Missing the person of Jesus, missing community, missing gospel, and missing holiness.
Once you marginalize Jesus as a person, his teaching and life lose their punch. You no longer feel the weight of the kind of community he is creating, as in Luke 14 when he tells his host that he invited all the wrong people to his party, that it may look like generosity on the host’s part, but really it is just an exchange because they are going to invite him back. Next time he has a feast, he is to go out and invite the disabled, the blind and the poor. This isn’t about something else–it is about who I invite to my next party. Jesus is dead serious.
He wants the community that bears his name to love the least, the lost and the lonely. This completely transforms even as simple an act as entering a room of friends and strangers. My first question is not, “Who do I know? Who would I be comfortable with?” but “Who is lost, who is weak, who can I include?” So instead of searching for community, I’m creating community wherever I go.
[In Philippians 3:7-11] Paul is talking about two complementary ways of knowing Christ. The first, v. 7-9, I call “believing the gospel” and the second, v. 10-11, I call “becoming the gospel.” That is, once a foundation of justification is laid, we enter into the shape of Jesus’ life, what I like to call the J-Curve.
I like the letter “J” because it traces the downward path of Jesus’ life into death then upward into resurrection. Paul wants that. He doesn’t just want free justification, he also wants the experience of re-enacting in all his life, all his relationships, the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul embodies Jesus. So the entire Christian life is a life of suffering-love followed by repeated resurrections. …We aren’t Stoics, we don’t embrace suffering. Instead, like good Jews, we recoil from suffering, we pray against it. What we do, though, is embrace Christ in the suffering. “Becoming the gospel” is not application. For Paul, it is how he gets to know Jesus even more deeply.
So then, very practically, my whole life is love. Love constantly leads me into suffering. When the typical Christian sees a disabled person in church he sees “the other.” He doesn’t see or hear Jesus loving the disabled, forming a new community out of the broken and despised pieces of this world. He doesn’t look, feel compassion, and then act. Neither does he understand the call to enter the J-Curve. Instead he is frozen, fearful of the unusual. He has no category or model to understand Paul’s desire to inhabit the pattern of Jesus’ life. So he pulls away, fearful that disability might be catching.
If you are the host in Luke 14 and you follow Jesus’ command to fill your table with those affected by disability, you are going to be loving all the time. The person in church who sees Kim walking to Sunday school instinctively realizes that to make friends with her will be work. It will disrupt his Stoic calm. It will be messy. He will make mistakes. He has no paradigm for accepting the fact that he might have to love every second for the rest of his life. That seems overwhelming, unusual, in fact, impossible. He has no theological frame to enter into God’s life of grace, the J-Curve, so he quietly recoils from real relationship.
The result? Kim walks in silence.
May God grant each of us the grace to “become the Gospel” by entering in to the daily mini-deaths and resurrections of loving the Kims–and Anahs–around us, despite the messiness and disruption that entails.