Wednesday Connection, January 25, 2012
Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN
Presentation by John Knight, introduction by Pastor Kempton Turner
The Sanctity of Life of Those Living with Disability
Transcript of message.
How does one even begin on this topic of disability and the sanctity of life? Disability ranges from not that big of a deal to entirely debilitating. There are people who have genius intellectual capacities, but who live in complicated bodies. There are those with bodies that function normally, but who have very limited, in our estimation, intellectual capacities. And there are those who live under the specter of diseases or conditions that can flare up – life is perfectly normal one day, and extremely difficult physically the next.
I live with disability in my household, and I live with disease in my household, and God has used both to reveal things about himself that are simply astonishing, breathtaking. And he has opened my eyes to the world around us. So, on the one hand, to make a defense for the sanctity of life for those who live with disabilities is a little silly – it is so self-evident when looking at God’s word. But it is not evident to that world in which we live. So, we need to talk about it, and look at it squarely, and trust God.
Pastor Kenny asked me to speak because of something that Dianne said last year, so I thought it might be a good idea to introduce you to her and to Paul and Hannah and Daniel and Johnny and me through this five minute video.
Video – This Was Grace
I did not always get it. There was a season of life that I was so full of anger and bitterness at God about my son’s disability that I fled this place; today, I still do not always cling to promises. It is good to remind each other about who God is and his sovereignty and goodness over this and every other issue we face. Let us never take it for granted!
So, I want to tell some stories, in light of God’s word, and then close our time with questions if there are any, and prayer.
In the mid-1970s, children with disabilities were being mainstreamed into the public schools. At Lincoln Elementary, four children with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities, then known as mental retardation, were in my class. One of those children was the daughter of a man who worked for my father. My dad pulled me aside one day and said how proud he was of me because this girl had told her father that I was nice to her.
Here’s what nice meant: I didn’t call her names, I didn’t tease her, I didn’t physically harass her, I wasn’t outwardly cruel, nor was I even tempted to be. But I heard the words, I saw how she was treated on the playground, I watched the cruelty – and I didn’t do a thing about it. Why? Typical reasons, I didn’t want to be teased or harassed, and anyone who sided with ‘those’ kids would be. Yet, she thought I was nice. And the fact that I was ashamed of myself after my dad’s statement didn’t change one thing about my behavior.
That’s just what happens in elementary school, right? Here’s how it translates, this not confronting evil against vulnerable human beings:
According to the Journal of Prenatal Diagnosis – for every 100 children identified in the womb with Down syndrome, 8 will be born. The elective abortion rate of children with spina bifida and Cystic fibrosis is also very high.
In urban areas even fewer unborn children with disabilities live.
Why does this happen? Here’s the argument offered: we don’t want babies to suffer. We don’t want mothers to suffer. Therefore, we end the suffering – by ending the life of the baby. But underneath it all is this: We are in control and this isn’t part of our will for our lives. It is idolatry of the worst form, supported even by doctors. We hear story after story after story of doctors who simply assume a mother will want to abort a child with a disability, some even recommending it.
But it doesn’t stop there. One of the great arguments against abortion, especially late-term abortion, is that a baby just before he or she is born is no different than the baby who has just been born, yet the baby outside the womb has rights.
Fine, some say, we can go there, but we will turn it back on you. Dr. Peter Singer of Princeton University has argued that if it is acceptable to abort a baby with disabilities with no legal repercussions on the mother or doctor, than why, after the baby is born and we discover ‘severe’ disabilities, can’t we legally end the life of that child, both for reasons of ending his or her suffering, and because it means the rest of us don’t have to take care of that child. He also denies that people with severe intellectual disabilities are persons. They only become persons when a bigger, stronger person decides they are a person.
The result? In 2004 the Netherlands approved what is called the Groningen Protocol. It is the series of steps one must take to end the life of a baby, already born, without facing legal prosecution for murder. Even those who support ‘death with dignity’ campaigns have been stunned by how quickly we moved from voluntary assisted suicide by adults in that country to the active killing of babies with disabilities.
It doesn’t end there. Just last week a little girl in Philadelphia was denied a transplant because she has severe cognitive disabilities. Her parents reported their conversation with a doctor who told them the reason their three-year old was not going to get a transplant. Last year the New York Times had a series of articles on the horrible abuse happening against adults with cognitive disabilities living in group homes in New York state. In states with assisted suicide, living with a disability is seen as sufficient reason to end ones life, even though many of the people who seek to kill themselves are primarily dealing with untreated depression. And the ‘death with dignity’ movement seeks to equate end of life issues with disability issues. End of life issues and disability issues are not the same, even though some elements may look similar. Disability advocates believe we are quickly moving from a voluntary ‘death with dignity’ to a mandatory duty to die when one experiences disability later in life.
So, I don’t want you to be nice about these and just let arguments float by – I want you to be real and tell the truth.
I am not denying that the pain and suffering are real and significant.
I can assure you, disability is hard, the suffering is real, and the relentless nature of it can squeeze joy and hope right out of an entire family.
BUT FOR GOD!
Dianne has said the statements I am about to share with you, and she does not want you to think overly well of her simply because she has made them. We both want to make it clear – God has done a miracle for each to be possible. In other words, yes, she is special and I remain so happy God brought us together, but these statements are entirely available to you as well!
1. God gave me cancer.
You want to knock someone down with your words, say that. No attempts to excuse God – or accuse God. She and I both use this statement the same way that Job meant it in Job 2:10, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. So, whether God saw the cancer cells developing and didn’t do anything to stop them, or Satan had something to do with it or God planted the cells, God was in charge of her cancer. (For more on this topic, see Pastor John’s very good series on Job and suffering at desiringGod.org). This thread of sovereignty is everywhere in the Bible! The best news of all comes in Romans 8:28: and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. All means all – including cancer. And when the woman with the cancer says God gave me cancer – and he is good, there is no doubt about where she stands on the sovereignty and goodness of God.
Now, be careful here. Someone getting a diagnosis of cancer is not going to be helped by you rushing in and saying, “God gave you cancer.” In fact, I would say that would be cruel on your part. Rather, think of the good thing the friends of Job did before they blew it and opened their mouths – they spent days with him, in silent, mournful, agonizing support. That was so much more valuable than all the words they uttered to him later. And frequently, just showing up can be the best thing. And show up with something from God’s word.
You can legitimately ask, is this sovereignty just generally true and inclusive of disability, or is there more?
There is more: Pastor Kenny used Psalm 139 last week (which I loved) and if we look just at verse 16 we begin to see that ‘more’ here: In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Yes, I know, nothing about disability in there, but the knowledge that every rotten day of pain and suffering, of painful treatments, of lack of friendships, of hospitalizations, new medications, and more paperwork, and wondering about how we’re going to pay for all of this – every day has been written down. We live in the certainty of God’s perfect foreknowledge.
But God gave us even more: Exodus 4:11: Then the Lord said to Moses, “who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” That’s pretty clear – God takes credit for disability; it is specifically part of the days that were formed for me and my Paul and every other child or adult with a disability and their families.
But there’s more – he does so for a reason! John 9:3 on the man born blind: Jesus answered, “it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Why disability – God’s works and God’s glory.
But there’s more! We already know that people with disabilities of all kinds in this culture and most cultures of the world, but especially those with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, are considered less than ‘normal’ people – less capable, less worthy, less valuable – shameful, useless, weak. You know what God says?
“On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” 1 Corinthians 12:22
Let that sink in – indispensable. It means, church, that you can’t function without them. And isn’t it kind of God to say to us “that seem to be weaker.” Our perceptions are not God’s reality by a long shot.
God is sovereign over disease and disability, he creates, he is purposeful, and it is good for us!
Dianne’s second statement, which friends in Oregon repeated to me just this past weekend.
2. I’m not suffering; People without Jesus are suffering.
On face, this is ridiculous. Dianne has spent the last 16 years of her life caring for a boy who cannot care for himself, and frequently that has included things we never want to do again, ever. For the past 7 years she has lived with the specter of her cancer coming back – and that year of most active treatment was horrible on her body and her spirit. When Johnny was born prematurely he landed in the Neonatal intensive care unit – and she says those were the hardest days of her life, even more than the cancer.
So, not suffering? Well, in comparison to people who don’t have Jesus, yes.
2 Corinthians 4:17: For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Paul’s afflictions were neither light nor momentary – except by comparison. You know the really amazing thing – I have moments when I forget all of this at times when I am in the moment of suffering, and I frequently am tempted to doubt – and that is why I love my church. People remind me about promises, whether from the pulpit or over conversation in the bookstore or through an email. They remind me that God’s promises are greater than my perceptions. He also uses his word; he actually uses his word more frequently than people because I can have that with me even when I’m not with people. But he definitely still uses people. Carefully, prayerfully, kindly, share God’s promises with hurting people.
Her third statement:
3. If I spend my entire life caring for Paul, I have not wasted it.
Do not make this into a nice, sentimental statement about a mother’s love. It is, of course, that. But it flows out of the two prior statements and is anchored in the very nature and character of God. In fact, it is potentially the most rebellious, counter-cultural, radical, Christ-exalting, joy-filled statement one can make.
It certainly is counter-cultural. Consider the destruction of our babies – it is presented as a nice thing, as a good thing! And with rates exceeding 90% for some disabling conditions, there are people who would claim to be Christians who must agree. Who wants babies to have a life full of suffering? Who wants to suffer watching their own children suffer? Nobody – no parent wants that. There must be something greater than sentiment to sustain a mother.
And her statement is radical and God-centered and irritating to this culture. You don’t have to read too much literature on this topic to see those who suggest caring for such a boy is a waste. Dianne is a capable, college-educated woman who has done significant things in the workplace. Look at the loss of all that potential good in the world because she’s ‘just’ caring for a boy who will never be productive economically, never add to the arts, never even tell us how he feels about us. He’s just a drain, and he’s taking others down with him.
But if you see God as very, very big and full of purpose and absolutely for you because of Jesus Christ, the question is entirely turned. God, you gave me this child or, if you live with a disability, you allowed this disability. You never do anything outside of your character, and you are for me through Jesus Christ. Therefore, whatever you have ordained, you will do for your glory and for my good. There is coming such an incredible weight of glory beyond the suffering of these days – I can do this in the strength you provide knowing it is for my joy.
A mother’s love or a father’s love for a child is a beautiful, God-given thing. But it is finite – we get tired, we get discouraged, we get lonely, we doubt, our sin-craving, easy-life desiring nature looks for an escape. No one can say with confidence they will spend their lives in this, except for God.
(Because) the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him. Psalm 103:17.
No life, equipped and enriched and called by God, is wasted when done in faith.
And this is not just for parents or family members. The purpose and the joy is not limited to direct contact with disability.
This is my last story.
Ian Gerstl is a young man here at Bethlehem who is leading His Works at the North campus on Sunday mornings, which is an opportunity for adults with cognitive disabilities to worship, learn about God, and be prepared for their service to this local body of believers, to use their gifts to serve. I had lunch with him recently and he told me the story of a young woman, 26 years old, who lives with disabilities. Her intellectual disabilities made it harder for her to learn, and church hadn’t been pleasant for her. But in addition to that, she has some physical issues which means sitting for more than an hour causes excruciating pain. So, church wasn’t just unpleasant, it was painful.
Her parents heard about His Works and brought their daughter – who was very upset for several weeks. She did not want to be there! Yet, her parents persisted, and Ian and his volunteers persisted to pursue her in love. 26 years of bad, painful experiences is a lot to get over. And then God did two miracles: first, he intruded into her fear and anxiety and let her feel the real affections for her that were in that room. Her fears went away, and today she is the happiest of participants, longing to join the group on a weekly basis. I expect, as they prepare to serve the church, that she will be actively involved. This is good news, but only a part of it.
The second was the miracle I saw on Ian’s face – he was full of joy at what God had done for this young woman! She was no project, but an important part of a real community of believers in Jesus Christ. She is a real person. Now, you can imagine, a young woman coming into your class, very upset for a series of weeks would be discouraging. Of course its discouraging! Yet, Ian and his team persisted, because that is what Jesus had called him to do, and he accepted the responsibility of leadership along with the realization that things might never go well for some of the people under his care. Jesus was more beautiful than a quick and easy outcome. And God granted him joy!
Have I helped you see it? Because God is a big God, sovereign over all things, and because he is a purposeful God, bringing glory to himself through his creation, and because he has provided the answer to our sin in Jesus Christ, and because all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose and because we know what that means someday – ever increasing measures of joy with Jesus for eternity – we can pursue the good of another in his strength, and God can introduce us to the joy of watching God work for his glory and for our good. This love is active and expectant and persistent because of who God is!
So, do not be nice (and cowardly), but pursue your own joy in Jesus through active service in love. Confound the culture by loving those who the world calls unlovely and unloved, protect the vulnerable and anxious.
But do more – expect to be served, accept the service from those who live with disabilities, look for their gifts and ask God to help you see they are people created in his image, not projects to be fixed or objects to be pitied. Pursue your joy through authentic relationships of love, even if there is no payback now.
We have lots of opportunities for you to do so. The third printing of Krista Horning’s book, Just the Way I Am, is finally here and available in the bookstore after the Pastors Conference, or on the web at Desiring God or Amazon. Get one for yourself to see the beauty of God’s creation and the power of the Word, speaking truth in a very dark world. And then get more for parents experiencing disability.
For men, buy and read Greg Lucas’ book, Wrestling with an Angel and marvel at God’s goodness through extraordinary suffering because of disability.
If you go to hopeinGod.org and search on disability ministry, you will see a link to the kinds of activities that go on here, and Brenda and Michelle Ryan and Lee always need volunteers. We are primarily working with children with disabilities right now, but we’d like to do more. We have a prayer email list – if you would like to pray for the families experiencing disability, that is a good way to do so.
You don’t need to be an expert in disability. In fact, sometimes that is an advantage. You can do informal things. If the Kanowitz family had not adopted us and loved us and persisted in love for us almost 16 years ago, I would not be standing here. They didn’t know anything about Paul’s disability, but they knew how to love. Trust God to help you, even if the person does what I did, and that was respond with bitterness and derision. They persisted because they trusted God more than they feared me, even when nothing changed in our hearts or lives for a long time. If God can change my heart, he can change anybody’s heart!
You can speak up when the hard issues are discussed. The abortion movement assumes one of its best arguments for abortion is that it must be legal, especially late-term abortions, because nobody wants the disabled babies. Don’t let that lie just sit out there – move into it, get underneath it, love the mother and father, save the baby. Get the mom into Hope Keepers here at Bethlehem, a group Caryn Turner organizes of mothers and spouses experiencing disability in their loved ones.
You can do simple, one-time things. When Dianne was so sick from treatment for her cancer, we received meals three times a week (coordinated by two wonderful ladies who selflessly served us for nine months). Some of those meals came from very young people – and I was encouraged that they had the courage to come to the door of a home that, potentially, could be so sad, so angry. That cup of cold water will never be forgotten by God himself!
Some of you will be called into even longer term service. We have families at Bethlehem who have intentionally adopted lots and lots of children with disabilities – talk about leaning into the promises of God. And we have families who have unintentionally adopted children with disabilities, and they are pursuing, in love, the good of the children God has given them, even with this heart-breaking surprise.
Everyone, put a stop to the cruel words like retard and spaz, first from your own mouths if necessary. I know it is possible for children to stand up to that cruelty, because I’ve seen my own children do so without any prompting from me.
If you live with a disability and have gifts that are not being used, please pray about using them here!
Please don’t misunderstand – there is joy, and the sorrow and the suffering is very real. I have cried more than I thought a man could cry these last 16 years. I am not saying there is a straight line between serving families like ours and a light, breezy happiness. But I am saying there is an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison coming (2 Corinthians 4:17). And I take comfort that even the tears are valuable to God.
Psalm 56:8: You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?
God is sovereign. Jesus is Lord. Your sins are forgiven. Joy is coming.
Sanctity of life of those with disabilities? Of course. Let’s help the world see how foolish and wrong it is to think otherwise by showing how much we love right here.
We have a few minutes for questions.
(Questions taken from audience)
1. For Bethlehem, that we would recognize all have gifts and we would welcome all.
2. That God would bring more helpers for this ministry – from sign language interpreters to classroom 1-1 aides to the host of other needs
3. That God would end abortion, if not through laws, than through changed hearts, and that he would let us be agents of change for his glory.