God, in the Lives of the Disabled
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Five years into helping plant a church in our town, my wife and I found we were expecting our first-born. Catherine and I both have education degrees so as we began praying for the small little one in the womb, we found ourselves praying for “an educator.” We told God that we would pour ourselves into this little life, and we wanted to see him or her change the world.
The attending midwife allowed me the privilege of actually “delivering” our baby. That November day in 1984, after I had delivered Karl, our midwife Marie asked the nurse to put the child in Catherine’s arms. The nurse responded, “I'm not finished with his assessment.” The midwife firmly restated, “WRAP UP THE BABY NOW, AND BRING IT TO THE MOMMA.”
Catherine and I will never forget her urgency. Marie then, very lovingly and tenderly, turned to us and said “It is my strongest suspicion that Karl has Down syndrome. WC, I think it's time for you to pray.” Shocked and dumbfounded, I began praying, dedicating my son “to the Lord” as a scripture admonishes. Ever since then, when we see her, Marie states that my prayer was so beautiful and she never forgot it. I honestly don't remember a word of what I said. However, I will never forget Marie’s prayer:
God they've been asking for a teacher, and you've given them one. It's just that they are going to be the students.
Marie’s prayer has been the most prophetic statement I've ever received in more than 30 years of ministry. It has been so amazing the things this boy has taught me.
One of the most significant truths I’ve learned from Karl is how God uses the “foolish things of this world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). In a conversation with our friend Mary Tutterrow, my traditional theology was rocked. I was telling her one day how I had settled into the belief that Karl had a speech delay, gross and fine motor delay, cognitive delay; therefore, Karl would have a “spiritual delay.” In a very firm, loving voice, Mary rebutted: “How dare you limit God's work by the vessel he chooses to use. After all, he used a donkey to speak to a prophet one time.” At that moment, I had a radical paradigm shift. I began to see God's mighty hand using my son to teach.
I began to deliberately focus on discipling (or mentoring) Karl. Most, if not all, of my past training in discipleship, however, focused on head knowledge: knowing what you believe theologically and knowing how to share your beliefs with others. Now, we hear pastors say the longest journey in a Christian’s walk is the 18 inches from our head to our heart. I found Karl was called to minister out of his heart, not out of his head. Karl could care less if you have Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian beliefs. He sees his calling to live like Christ by loving people from the center core of his heart. As a parent, how do you teach that? I couldn’t instruct that from some intellectual ascent, but only by modeling it.
How did his calling work? Karl became my need barometer at the church I was pastoring. On Sunday mornings, if he would go to a parishioner and start hugging them or rubbing their back, this was a clue: I needed to minister to that person. Each and every time, without fail, I would approach that Karl-spotted parishioner and ask how they were doing. They would initially respond with the typical southern answer: “I am fine, Pastor.” All I would have to do is press a little: “No, how are you really doing?” Immediately, the tears would begin to flow. This was 100 percent of the time. One of Karl’s gifts was God-directed empathy. How do you develop that in your child without being moved by empathy yourself?
As we modeled and walked in this, learning from Karl, we had loads of experiences. We would walk across the grocery store parking lot and find ourselves engaging a stranger and find ourselves praying for healing for their grandmother.
Another time, Catherine and Karl attended the wake for a woman friend in Atlanta. As she finished signing into the registry at the funeral home, Catherine looked down and found that Karl, who was only four or five years old at the time, was gone. She quickly passed the long line and saw Karl. He was standing on the kneeler and patting the hand of this dead woman. Before she could reach him, Karl had turned, seen the woman’s husband on the front row looking at Karl (who he’d never seen) loving his wife. The husband burst into tears. Karl ran up to this man and jumped into his arms and patted his back. After a while he would pull back and look directly into his eyes. The man would start all over again, and Karl would hug and pat. It seemed an eternity to Catherine before she reached him.
Months later, my father-in-law said the husband of the deceased
woman had said; “Atlanta’s finest came to show their respects for my wife, but only one little boy let me cry.”
If you are a parent of a child that is differently-abled, please believe that your child, no matter how “simple” others may label them, is able to “confound those of us who think we are wise.”