One day a philosophy professor began his class lecture by placing a glass jar on a table and filling it with large rocks. After filling the jar with rocks, he asked the class full of curious students if the jar was full. The class unanimously agreed that the jar was indeed full and that there was no room to place any more objects inside the jar.
The wise professor then pulled out a jar of small pebbles and poured them into the large glass jar filled with large rocks. As the pebbles began to drop into the empty spaces of the large glass jar, the professor gently shook the jar allowing all of the pebbles to find their place in between the large rocks. When he was finished he asked the students once again if they believed the jar was full. The students paused and proclaimed unanimously that the jar was completely full.
The professor then pulls out a jar of sand and empties the contents into the larger glass jar containing large rocks and small pebbles. As the tiny grains of sand settled in between the spaces of rocks and pebbles, the professor gently shook the jar allowing the grains of sand to fill all of the empty spaces.
The professor then repeated his question to the class who by this time was beginning to learn the principle behind this puzzling exercise. Unsure as to whether to believe if the jar was actually full this time, the students remained silent until the professor pulled one last item from beneath the table. It was a pitcher of water that he poured into the large glass jar filled with large rocks, small pebbles, and tiny grains of sand. As he poured the water into the jar he explained that the illustration was an example of how prioritizing is the ability to start with what matters most because there will always be room left if we start with the most important things first.
Since receiving my autism diagnosis in 2014 at the age of 36, I have been challenged to reorganize my life and ministry as a father, husband, and pastor by renegotiating my priorities as well as the priorities of my church.
As a pastor I have become increasingly aware that when it comes to the church creating vibrant engaging and inclusive environments that meet the needs of the disability and special needs community we have struggled to make space because we have built our churches backwards.
The gospel of Luke records an intense and interesting moment when Jesus confronts our need to rethink our priorities. In chapter 14 Jesus is invited to a dinner party on the Sabbath day in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Present at this dinner was a man with a disability. When it becomes apparent to Jesus that the only reason that this man was invited was to stir up controversy about healing on the Sabbath, Jesus heals the man and dismisses him from the dinner party.
Then things take an interesting turn. Jesus enters into a scathing critique of the priorities of the Pharisee party. He challenges them to resist the need to create environments where they take up all the important spots, spaces, and seats. Instead Jesus tells a story about how to build a better banquet. In the story a master wants to throw a party except all of the people he initially invited declined his invitation. When the master realized that he was building the banquet backwards he instructs his servant to reprioritize the guest list.
“..’Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.” Luke 14:21-22 NLT
Over the last few years I have observed that whenever I discuss church health, church growth, and ministry initiatives with my pastoral colleagues, special needs programs and ministry to the disability community is always an afterthought. We always struggle to have room to discuss this critical issue.
Likewise, my experience has been when church leadership is often approached about the need to create environments that can serve the needs of the disability and special-needs community, the most common response is a lack of education and lack of resources. In other words, there is no room in the budget, no room in the mission, no room in the vision of the church, and no room for discussion about disability theology because everything in the church is taking up so much room that it’s just not possible.
Except when Jesus tells a story about how to build a better banquet the servant reports to the master that after inviting the poor and the disabled community to the party first, there was “still room for more.”
As I am continually trying to lead our church community into prioritizing ministry to the special needs and disability community, I am learning one key principle that I am inviting my pastoral colleagues and church leaders to embrace. If you start in the right place you will stay on the right path.
The reason Jesus had to dismiss the man with dropsy from the banquet even after healing him was because while he was invited to the party there was never an intention to actually include him in the community. When we build our banquets backwards the special needs and disability community always lose because we place our ministry priorities in an order that leaves no room in our discussions, our missions, our visions, and our budgets for them to be included at the banquet.
Pastors and church leaders let’s stop building our churches backwards. If we begin with the special needs and disability community first and there will always be plenty of room for everything else to fit into our mission, vision, theology, and budget. Both the wise philosophy professor and Jesus teach us that when you place things in proper order, there is always room for everything that is important, but the big rocks must be the priority.
“When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those you could not repay you.” Luke 14:12-13 NLT
Let's not build backwards—let's build better.
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is the lead pastor of New Community Church and the author of I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor You can follow him at www.autismpastor.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram