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New Horizons

Disability and the Body of Christ

Joni Eareckson Tada

In April 1995, a domestic terrorist bombed the Federal office building in Oklahoma City, leaving hundreds dead or trapped in the rubble. A pastor-friend of mine asked me to join a counseling team that would be ministering among the families who were awaiting news of loved ones.

After I flew into the city airport—and before I could see and serve the families—I was escorted to an American Red Cross center to be cleared and credentialed.

When I wheeled into the center, I noticed volunteers placing coffee and snacks on some tables, forms and resources on others. The place was slowly filling up with families and more volunteers. From across the room, an official-looking woman in a white lab coat saw me enter. She put down her clipboard and exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, are we glad to see you here!”

I wheeled up to her, curious. At first I thought she must have recognized me from the Joni book. But when she introduced herself as head of mental health services for the Red Cross and asked for my name, I realized that wasn’t the case. So I asked, “Why are you so glad I’m here?”

“Oh, sweetheart, you need to understand that when someone like you in a wheelchair comes to volunteer, it speaks volumes to others who are filled with anxiety. When people go through a terrible crisis—like this terrorist attack—they need to see others who smile through their suffering. People like you who have courage. People who suffer greater conflict always have something to say to those who suffer lesser.”

Then the mental health counselor asked a question I will never forget: “Could you please tell us where we can find others like you to serve with us? We need people with disabilities! You are more valuable to us than you realize!”

The Luke 14 Mandate

Oh, that the body of Christ would recognize the value of including people with disabilities, as did the Red Cross counselor! Perhaps that’s why Jesus specifically mentions the lame and disabled in the gospel of Luke. The woman in the Red Cross lab coat probably never read Luke 14:12–14, where Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

Invite the crippled, the lame and the blind? It’s not often that Jesus gets that specific about who he wants invited to his banquet. True, the point of this passage is that God’s grace is lavished on the undeserving—specifically, the Gentiles. But it also contains a principle about hospitality toward the oft-neglected and forgotten. Jesus tells us to break out of the comfort zone of friends, brothers, and relatives, and instead be proactive about reaching out to special-needs families. Do this, Luke 14:13 says, “and you will be blessed.”

Blessings Abound

Just how is the church bolstered by inviting in people struggling with disabilities and their families?

I met Karla Larson, a wheelchair user, while at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. When I learned that she had lost both legs, had suffered three heart attacks, was visually impaired, had four fingers amputated, had a kidney removed, and had endured countless angioplasties, I was stunned. Juvenile diabetes was at the root of it all. When I met her, I said, “Karla, I’m surprised you were able to make it to retreat!”  To which she replied, “Well, I thought I better come before I lost any more body parts!”  Karla had obviously not lost her sense of humor.

Throughout the Family Retreat, I was impressed with the way she poured her time into younger wheelchair users, encouraging and cheering them on during the games and activities. Karla hobnobbed with parents, listening to and praying with them. And she always sat in front during worship time to enthusiastically belt out all the praise songs.

Karla Larson epitomizes Titus 2:7: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” Karla inspired courage in people just by showing up; just by getting up, facing the day, and arriving. She instinctively knew that people who suffer greater conflict always have something to say to those who suffer lesser conflict.

My wheelchair-using friend and those like her have a message for the church: God has not redeemed us to make our lives happy, healthy, and free of trouble. God has redeemed us to make us like Jesus. Yes, God has wired life to be hard. Very hard for some—just ask any quadriplegic, any parent of a child with autism (ASD), or any young man with cerebral palsy who must reside in a facility.

Theirs is the power of example, reminding other Christians that life-altering suffering has a place—an important place—in anyone’s walk with Christ. When a congregation hears the testimony of a couple who must live with a serious disability in the family, it reminds them of an oft-forgotten fact: Jesus has saved us from suffering in hell, but not from suffering on earth. The testimony of the Spirit-inspired endurance of special-needs families strengthens the church.

Serving the Savior

What other blessings flow from obeying Luke 14? Serving special-needs families, and serving them sacrificially, is a very personal way of serving the Lord Jesus. When I read Matthew 25:35–40, I picture the joy of serving Christ through helping a disabled person: “Then the King will say to those on his right … ‘I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,’ … Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’ … The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (vs. 34, 40).

Imagine yourself at the cross when Jesus uttered the words, “I thirst.” Don’t you think you’d spring into action? Perhaps you see yourself running to get a glass of water—anything to quench the thirst of the Lord, right? Sadly, you were not there that dreadful day. You cannot quench his thirst.

Or can you? When you serve a disabled person—the least of the brothers—you are serving Jesus. What a blessing! God draws a connection in Matthew 25 between serving the needy and serving him. He does this to show how mercy ministry is a way of ministering to Christ himself.

Serving those with disabilities can certainly mean sacrifice. We cannot serve at a safe, arm’s-length distance. We cannot remain untouched. But that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t merely proclaim the gospel; we must become the gospel to those in need. And that always involves going the extra mile and making the extra effort. When we show love that costs us our time or infringes on our comfort zones—such as home-sitting with a child with Down syndrome while mom and dad take a much-needed break—we experience Christ’s love in its fullest. Do this and you will be blessed, Jesus says.

Jackie Fernald knows what it means to embody the good news to eight-year-old Arthur. When young Arthur first came to Access Ministry at Jackie’s church in Virginia, he was shrieking, throwing himself on the floor, and thumping his fists on the tiles. More than once, Jackie either had to roll on the floor with this boy while holding him tightly or train college students to help Arthur walk out his meltdowns around the church parking lot. It wasn’t easy.

Arthur’s mother and father were amazed at her care. They told other parents, “Come to this church—they really care about families like ours!” More than a few families came to Christ and joined the fellowship.

The Arthur you would meet today is a self-aware, generous young man who loves talking about Jesus. His prayers include missionaries and the young girl in Guatemala he sponsors through Compassion International. It’s all because one church sacrificially practiced Christianity with its sleeves rolled >up by giving “a drink to the thirsty.” According to Matthew 25, we can still give Jesus that drink of water.

What Does Disability Teach Us?

The story of Jackie, Arthur, and Arthur’s parents is a story of redemption. That young boy’s transformation is yet another example I use to remind people that we are all a work in progress. We are all broken and in need of redemption. We are all frail, enfeebled, and in need of God’s transforming grace. Never do we enter the kingdom from points of power; rather, we enter Christ’s kingdom from points of grace. Disability ministry in a church displays to everyone this powerful principle.

Disability ministry can be complex, such as in Arthur’s situation. Some disabilities can evolve into oppositional defiance disorder in children. But remember that these children exist in families, families who are often socially isolated, financially stressed, burdened by nonstop daily routines, and just plain tired. God hears their plea for help: “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry” (Psalm 10:17).

Perhaps it is why Jesus insisted that his followers, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make [the disabled, lame and blind] come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23).

When a congregation recognizes a family’s disability-need and seeks to meet it, the body of Christ is “working” as it should. For “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor. 12:21). We all need each other—for we all are a broken work in progress. And so, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (vs. 22–23).

Why do we treat those who seem to be weaker with special honor? In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the apostle Paul explains, “But he [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” We treat those with disabilities as indispensable because their circumstances can be the platform from which God’s power is displayed to the church. Perhaps if we embraced more weak people, we would see a more miraculous display of God’s power as the Spirit heals brokenness, cultivates compassion, and instills a spirit of sacrificial love.

The church should not be a picture-perfect institution, all neat and normal, regulated and rule-keeping. Ministry to persons with disabilities keeps the church messy and cluttered, needy and dependent on God. It requires the full immersion of a congregation. And I don’t mean a special-needs department, segregated and separated off to the side; I don’t even mean mainstreaming or inclusion. I mean embracing. People with disabilities want to know that they belong to the body. If they fall ill and are unable to come to church, they want to know they will be missed. God wants churches to embrace families affected by disability, telling them, “We need you here!”

When there’s a tough disability to deal with, there’s no time to be a power-broker. Pastor Lon who serves at a church in Virginia was struggling with division and factions in his congregation. His church lacked direction and vision. Just when Pastor Lon was considering stepping down, his wife gave birth to a little girl with multiple disabilities.

Suddenly, factions and in-fighting disappeared. People became focused on the need and rallied around his family. The church’s outreach was broadened to include other disabled children in Sunday school. And today, Pastor Lon’s church is strong, growing, and has built an early childhood intervention center to minister to local parents of kids with special needs. What a poignant illustration of 1 Corinthians 12:24–26: “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.”

“I Could Never Live Like That”

My friend Charlene had to remain for many days in the hospital due to an unexpected neuromuscular condition. She suffered the indignities of being bathed, using a bedpan, and being hand-fed her meals. After she was released from the hospital, she said, “Joni, I don’t know how you do it as a quadriplegic! It’s so hard being bathed, toileted, and even fed by others. I could never live like that!”

I laughed! I may be a quadriplegic, but Charlene is deaf and blind. I could say the same to her: I could never live deaf and blind! You would probably agree. We all think we could never survive without our eyesight or hearing or live without use of our hands or legs. But Charlene and I prove that people do it every day. None of these parts of the human body are indispensable; the eyes, ears, even the use of your legs or hands—none of it is critical to the life and vitality of the physical body.

However, let me remind you of what the body cannot live without. You cannot live without your kidneys, lungs, or your liver. Although these body parts may be uncomely and are often neglected, ignored, or unnoticed, each organ is absolutely essential to the life and vitality of the human body.

I am convinced that the church body needs more people who may be uncomely and are often neglected, ignored, or unnoticed. We need “liver” kinds of people. We need “kidney” kinds of men. Ladies who are “lungs” in our church. People with physical and intellectual disabilities. These individuals teach us so much about trusting Christ through inordinate hardships. They provide the opportunity for Christ-followers to exercise sacrificial service. And according to 2 Corinthians 12:22, they are indispensable to the vitality of the body of Christ.

Just ask Arthur and his parents, or Karla Larson. Better yet, ask my friend in the white lab coat from the American Red Cross. Bring in the disabled, and you will be blessed.

The author, CEO of Joni and Friends, is an international advocate for people with disabilities and lives near Calabasas, California. She quotes the NIV-84. New Horizons, July 2019.

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