The room opened to the excited smiles of the ladies in my special needs Sunday school class. Turning to close the door behind me, I heard one of them say, I’m so happy she’s here! I just love Dawn!” My heart leapt at her words. Love is a thing that always astonishes me; theirs not the less. Without even trying, they seem to seek out and shame that vein of self-interest running headlong through my soul. Yet even as I nestled in the sweet love of an innocent soul, I was painfully aware that I had done nothing to deserve her regard. The fact is, her love is a truer testament to her own sweet nature than any sort of commentary on mine.
Her words were all the more remarkable to me as they whispered healing to a heart wrestling between versions of its own self-worth. I had prayed, asking God to show me, to help me understand His love for me. Of course, she didn’t know that. She couldn’t have known that. But He did. And He chose to begin His answer through a tongue weighted with disability. In that moment I saw her, not as my pupil, but as my teacher.
I suppose that’s what God intended when He told us that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22). Not merely objects of ministry, they are the indispensable means of the ministry through which our Lord has chosen to glorify Himself; a “a splendid theatre,” as Calvin would have it, “in which [mankind] might perceive and contemplate His majesty.”
A splendid theatre. Pathos and mirth set in bas relief. Narrative tragedy and the upsurge of Redemption. Each character essential to the storyline, and “all the world a stage.” I like that. Indeed, our little patch of stage includes all of this and more. We have–
Donna of the Burning Heart, passionate about praise and Scripture and the arduous work of a wisecrack.
Diane the Defender, of lonely hearts and lowly video techs who are teased for skipping a Sunday morning worship slide (That’d be me. Sadly, techies are fated for the tragi-comic role.)
Laurianne the Encourager, who understands that eternity’s schedule is far too full of praise to leave room for much else.
Ben the Seeker of Truth and Finder of Chocolate
Colleen the Brave, whose bright laughter is rimmed with darker shades of loss
Chad Unbound, who, restricted by speech and a wheelchair and the palsy, freely understands the Gospel and freely shouts his own “amen!” (Or “a joyful noise,” for those of you who don’t understand his language.)
Sometimes people ask me why I do it, why I bother to study and teach them. “I mean, with your seminary training, you should be teaching deep theological truths to those who can train others!” It was a question Corrie Ten Boom answered under the shadow of the swastika.
“Your other activities, Miss ten Boom. What would you like to tell me about them?”
“Other activities? Oh you mean you want to know about my church for mentally [disabled] people!’ And I plunged into an eager account of my efforts at preaching to the feeble-minded.
The lieutenant’s eyebrows rose higher and higher. ‘What a waste of time and energy!’ he exploded at last. ‘If you want converts, surely one normal person is worth all the half-wits in the world!’
I stared into the man’s intelligent blue-gray eyes… and then to my astonishment I heard my own voice saying boldly… ‘The truth, sir… is that God’s viewpoint is sometimes different from ours — so different that we could not even guess at it unless He had given us a Book which tells us such things.’
I knew it was madness to talk this way to a Nazi officer. But he said nothing so I plunged ahead. ‘In the Bible I learned that God values us not for our strength or our brains but simply because He has made us. Who knows, in His eyes a half-wit may be worth more than a watchmaker. Or–a lieutenant.'” (Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place, 172-73)
But Nazi officers are not the only ones to take a low view of the disabled. Sadly, many Christians do too. The Nazi’s, cruel as they were, acted in agreement with a eugenic worldview; wrong-thinking believers act in defiance of the Cross. One’s view of ministry is entirely dependent upon his view of Redemption; everything goes back to the Cross. If I see myself as essentially good, an essentially worthy individual, my theology will have no room for weak and broken people. But as I see myself reflected in the Word, when I know myself as broken in need of a Savior, I will not despise the broken woman and the broken phial, both poured out at His feet. When I see my righteousness as filthy rags, I will not spurn the woman with the issue of blood (Isaiah 64:6). And when I sense the blindness of my own hypocrisy, I will not despise even the Pharisee on the hill. My theology will embrace them because I have been embraced by the grand Theos Himself.
And He calls them “indispensable.”
Sunday morning past, one of our ladies began to weep. We sat beside her and let her cry. (Unexplained tears are such a solemn immersion.) Trembling shoulders, head in hands, the only answer she could supply was the broken whisper of a well-known name. One of our church leaders, sick for some time, has been absent from our church fellowship–an absence Donna felt; an absence that tore back the carapace of natural reserve and tapped the wellspring of her own long years of suffering.
Really, I’m not sure that she even speaks to him–if she does, she never says; but she loves him all the same. It’s a love she carries to her Lord as she pours out her prayer to the One she knows can heal. Donna doesn’t know the biology behind the medical terms (and if she did she couldn’t say). She doesn’t understand why scholars debate divine impassibility (or why some (probably the smarter ones) call it Theopaschism instead). There are lots of things Donna doesn’t know. But she does know one thing.
And in the end, it’s the only thing that matters.