Last summer, I had the privilege of hearing Joni Eareckson Tada speak on the topic of disabilities. Joni has been a quadriplegic in a wheelchair for most of her life, and she started a ministry called Joni and Friends to minister to others dealing with disabilities where she regularly uses Luke 14 to teach what Jesus says about disability and special needs ministry.
In Luke 14, Jesus gives us the parable of the great banquet. In this parable, He subverts cultural norms. In any culture, someone hosting a party would likely invite the rich, or those with great connections. No one would typically invite someone who is poor, or who has a disability, because these people cannot further one’s status in the world as effectively as the rich and well-connected. Jesus calls the people of God in Luke 14: 13-14 to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
The banquet described by Luke is a picture of how Jesus has loved us: He invites us to dine with Him, despite our depravity. He knows that we do not add any status to His reputation, and we cannot do anything for Him that He could not do on His own. Jesus invites us simply because He loves us. The banquet in Luke 14: 13-14 is about community and fellowship, as well as selfless love. Luke desires not to show the host’s status in the world but to welcome the outcasts into the family.
Individuals or families dealing with special needs and disabilities are often overlooked or excluded from many things we take for granted. Even something as simple as a door frame can be a barrier; the door isn’t wide enough or doesn’t have a ramp.
The church should be different because they are called to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation. Whether or not people with disabilities are being included in schools and other establishments, their inclusion should never be in question in the church. As believers, we affirm that every single person is made in the image of God. Regardless of ability level, God is reflected by each and every image-bearer in different ways. When we exclude fellow image-bearers, we are missing out on part of the imago Dei. As ambassadors of the Gospel to a hurting world, we need to work to make sure we are as inclusive as possible, which requires starting extra programs to reach families dealing with disabilities, and sometimes it involves adapting our current programs to the needs of individual members of our faith communities.
As Christians living in a post-Fall world, we cannot fix everything, because only the Lord can save sinners. Every single Christian is to work towards the dignity of others and can do so in the following ways:
- By widening a door at an apartment or a home.
- Starting an entirely new ministry at church geared towards those who are disabled.
We need to be advocates for those with disabilities and special needs because they cannot always advocate for themselves. Often, such families feel excluded, and we should fight for them to be included as well by caring for their family members with a disability. Caring for the “crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13) is not optional in Jesus’ kingdom but imperative. By caring for them, we also care for the family–it’s a ripple effect. Think about it. When someone shows love or care for someone you love, it endears you to that person, right? How much more so when someone is acting as the hands and feet of Christ to someone you love who is not able to reach out to others as you are?
The Lord changed my heart towards those with special needs in high school. Up until that point, I had been fearful and had not been engaged with people around me affected by disability, for the most part. After my family joined a church with a vibrant special needs ministry, the Lord pushed me to get involved and to learn to love it. This change was not overnight–I began begrudgingly, at the encouragement of my grandparents, who volunteered with me and my siblings at our special needs Bible school. Over the years, as I continued to immerse myself in the ministry, the Lord softened my heart and allowed me to see His love for others in a way I never had before.
By spending time with these children and their families, I became able to see God’s image and goodness reflected in the diversity around me. I also began to see the beauty in the simplicity of the Gospel as I watched the kids understand it better than I ever did. They are able to accept the Gospel at its core, while I get caught up in doctrinal differences and my own doubts. My experience with special needs ministry has taught me to accept the simplicity of the Gospel; it is simply that good, and so easy to understand that a child can comprehend it. My Father loves me and saved me. The kids in this ministry get that. These kids have such a beautiful faith to witness, despite the fact that their lives are different and more complicated than mine in many ways. Some of them are nonverbal, except when we sing. Then they get excited and start making noise. While it’s not words, and it’s not language I can understand, this is how these kids are able to praise the Lord. Their worship brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.
These children have been invited to the banquet, both the banquet of fellowship at our church and the banquet we will one day all experience in Heaven. By including them and adapting to their needs, we include their families as well. If everyone in the family is cared for, individual members of the family can feel comfortable pursuing what they need because they feel that their family members have what they need, too.
This experience has taught me that although we may have different abilities, everyone is capable of praising the Lord in their own way. He is pleased when non-verbal children sing. He is pleased when children in wheelchairs dance, and he is pleased when I sing and dance, too. We talk a lot about using “person-first language,” which means that we say “the boy with autism” as opposed to “the autistic boy,” because a child’s disability or special need is never their whole identity. If I hadn’t had this pointed out to me, I would never have been aware of the small ways that we can give dignity to those around us.
Affirming the dignity of every image-bearer is at the heart of what Jesus shares in the parable of the great banquet. Including those who are weak in the world’s eyes, and loving them for who they are, not what they can do for us, is part of our work here on earth. Jesus allows us to sit at the table with Him, the King of the universe, as family members and friends. By reaching out to people with special needs, we follow in His example and bring healing to hurting, lonely hearts.
Emily Mayfield is a rising junior at Covenant College studying English. She attends church at New City East Lake when at school in Chattanooga. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and sewing. She also loves volunteering with her home church’s special needs ministry in Nashville, Tennessee.