The last several years since my autism diagnosis have been a time of learning. Because of my challenges with sensory processing and social anxiety, I am learning that I must choose my activities wisely. More importantly, I am learning that while there are parts of my life that I don’t choose, I can choose to allow God to use those moments to teach myself and others.
One of the most important aspects of doing ministry for and with the disability community is learning how to create long term reciprocal relationships. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul points out some pretty important things about learning, choices, and being a consistently caring community for those with disabilities.
My dear friends, what I would really like you to do is try to put yourselves in my shoes to the same extent that I, when I was with you, put myself in yours. You were very sensitive and kind then. You did not come down on me personally. You were well aware that the reason I ended up preaching to you was that I was physically broken, and so, prevented from continuing my journey, I was forced to stop with you. That is how I came to preach to you. And don’t you remember that even though taking in a sick guest was most troublesome for you, you chose to treat me as well as you would have treated an angel of God—as well as you would have treated Jesus himself if he had visited you? What has happened to the satisfaction you felt at that time? There were some of you then who, if possible, would have given your very eyes to me—that is how deeply you cared! And now have I suddenly become your enemy simply by telling you the truth? I can’t believe it. Galatians 4:12-16 MSG
Learn From The Lens Of The Disabled
“My dear friends, what I would really like you to do is try to put yourselves in my shoes to the same extent that I, when I was with you, put myself in yours.”
All relationships are hard. We all view the world through the lens of our own experience, even if we can’t admit it. Paul joined this community not by his choice, but by a choice his body made for him. He was unable to travel due to his condition; it led him to put down roots in Galatia. The community was kind to him in the beginning. But relationships require reciprocity.
What is important about Paul’s words of correction is that he had to place himself in the Galatians’ shoes, and he asked the Galatians to put themselves in his shoes. People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world, and live in a world that is not built for us. Our bodies make choices for us, and the majority culture of able-bodied people construct the world we live in. This is important to remember as your church learns to do long-term disability ministry. The church must be the change that is needed. Choose to learn to experience the world through the lens of the disability community.
Listen to the Lessons Taught By The Disabled
“You were well aware that the reason I ended up preaching to you was that I was physically broken, and so, prevented from continuing my journey, I was forced to stop with you. That is how I came to preach to you.”
Paul didn’t make the choice to settle in Galatia, but he did make the choice to use his time there to share the Gospel. He came to preach to them by way of his disability. One of the great challenges for me as a pastor with autism is the battle to be seen as more than an inspiration. Paul acknowledges his disability, but he is very clear that he has a real message to share with the people of Galatia. He is not symbol or a sympathetic figure in need of saving. Paul is a servant of God.
Long-term disability ministry means understanding the link between disability and divinity. What facet of God’s image is being displayed in the lives of persons who are disabled? What lessons are we to learn from the lived faith experience of the disability community? Here’s a more challenging and practical question: who are the persons with disabilities in your church who are leading the way in teaching your congregation, not just about how to be good to disabled people, but who are given the platform to share the gospel?
Love for the Long Haul
“And don’t you remember that even though taking in a sick guest was most troublesome for you, you chose to treat me as well as you would have treated an angel of God—as well as you would have treated Jesus himself if he had visited you? What has happened to the satisfaction you felt at that time? There were some of you then who, if possible, would have given your very eyes to me—that is how deeply you cared!”
Paul reminds the church of their commitment to remain in community with him. Some scholars believe that his mention of eye problems may also give insight into his “thorn” from 2 Corinthians 12. Whether or not this is the cause for his disability, the imagery of exchanging eyes is a powerful example of love. The willing exchange of suffering for the sake of community was, in Paul’s opinion, a sign of deep care and concern.
Pastoring a church can be challenging for me for several reasons, but the reality is that it is not just challenging for me. It is also challenging for the congregation. The reason that it can be so challenging for the church is not necessarily because of my disability, but because it challenges the community to reimagine the role of the pastor. It challenges them to change their sometimes unrealistic expectations. It challenges them to reciprocate care instead of simply receiving care. None of this is possible however, without the choice of long-term commitment. What Paul experienced was a waning response to his needs because it became too challenging. Disability ministry is all about loving one another for the long haul.
As the church continues to learn why and how to be more inclusive of the special needs and disability community, let's continue to strive for long-term learning and long-term loving. This is how we can change the world together.
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is the pastor of Tri-Cities Church and the author of I am Strong:The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor. Visit www.autismpastor.com for more information.