For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
"... the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable ..." 1 Corinthians 12:22
Matt and Kathy have two children, one with severe autism. A year ago, they were unchurched and angry. A friend introduced them to Dawn, the director of disability ministry at a local church, who called from time to time but with little response. When Matt and Kathy separated, there was finally some interest. Dawn's church provided money for the couple to attend a week-long Joni and Friends Family Retreat. They went as a last resort, but were on the brink of divorce. There, surrounded by struggling and conquering families, faithful volunteers, and a godly pastor, they found Jesus.
But the story didn't end there. Back home, Dawn continued to minister to Kathy. She recruited a man to meet weekly to disciple Matt. The church welcomed them, ministering both spiritually and physically to the parents and their disabled son. This year, at the Joni and Friends Retreat, Matt and Kathy were different people. Their daughter, who had been full of fear the previous year, was happy and vibrant. Matt and Kathy's anger had been replaced with an obvious joy. Though their struggles are not over - their son's autism is as bad as ever - they now have a lasting hope. God's power is being perfected in their weakness. And they have a church that understands and works - day by day and week by week - with the disability in their family.
Matt and Kathy are real people. Their church is a real church that has embraced Christ's command to reach out to the least, both far and near. They have made a significant investment in people, time, and finances. Most importantly, they have discovered the joy of seeing God at work, when men can do no more. They have discovered that "the weaker members are indispensable" (1 Cor. 12:22) for, without them, they would see less of God.
When we are "strong," our need for God seems small, and we coast. A church filled with "strong" people coasts as well. Individuals with disabilities, and their families, do not have the luxury of coasting. The on-going issues - surgeries, therapies, doctors, social workers, even outright discrimination - create a daily, never-ending struggle. The temptation to lose hope and give up is strong. The statistics on divorce and depression show how real this is.
As Joni Eareckson Tada puts it, "When we are weak, we need God desperately." The person with a disability needs Him desperately. Parents of a disabled child have to live the disability with their child, and so they need Him. The church that lives the disability along with their members needs Him. And God loves to be desperately needed by individuals, families, and churches. He is "rich in mercy." (Eph. 2:4) He works all things for good for those are called (even called to be disabled) for His purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
Our vision is that Bethlehem would display the supremacy of God in disability and suffering. We want our lives to reflect an unshakable joy in the Lord that allows us to embrace a life of suffering in disability for His purpose and glory. We want to shout that life with a disability and with Jesus is infinitely better than a healthy body without Him. We say, with Paul, that "this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison." (2 Corinthians 4:17) We want this to be true as individuals and in the church as a body.
Is disability hard? As fathers of children with rare disabling conditions, we can attest to the struggles men in particular face when their child has a disability. Disability is expensive — financially, emotionally and relationally. It seems neither slight nor momentary. The male myth of self-determination, control and independence is exploded in the face of needing to turn to medical professionals, social workers and educators on issues we never dreamed of facing. To this we say, thank you God for not allowing us to live the lie that there is anything good or worthwhile apart from you. Thank you for showing us how much we need you! The struggles our wives endure is perhaps even deeper. We urge you to read Jan Lacher's article on her family's experience with their youngest son to see God working in extraordinary ways.
In the fall we hope to embrace children with disabilities in a variety of ways, and by doing so allow their entire families to experience the God-centered, life-affirming teaching of Bethlehem. As God moves, we desire to see people of all ages, with all kinds of disabilities, serving and being served here. Will you pray with us about how Bethlehem can do this - both for those already here and for those who will come — and if He wants you to play a role?
Bethlehem, come and suffer - and rejoice - with us. People like Matt and Kathy are experiencing joy in Christ because their church identified with the weak so they could become strong. Truly, the weaker members are indispensable because they force us - all of us - to need Him more. And this is for our good and His glory.
Needing Him with you,
Bob Horning and John Knight