Everyone has a God-given gift. Annie and Audrey, my twins who are profoundly intellectually disabled, are leading the way of change in the Church. I am following their lead and watching their gifts being used by God.
A few years ago at the Christian camp where we have a cottage, a few different people approached me. Both times were encouraging. In both instances I was riding my bike with my girls on the back. In the first instance, a woman named Ashley approached me. She explained that she felt the Holy Spirit had prompted her to start a special needs ministry in her church. A friend of hers knew me, and the friend told her she should meet and talk with me. Spotting me on my three-person trike with Annie and Audrey in tow, she took a chance that it was me and shared her thoughts. We exchanged contact information and followed up later that fall. I was able to help her navigate resources and get things going in her church regarding disability ministry. It was amazing! Annie and Audrey are the reason this happened. They were present, the Holy Spirit prompted, God opened doors and change in the Church materialized.
The Gift of Presence
As Christians we often think of gifts like, preaching, teaching, hospitality, worship leading or intercessory prayer. In Scripture we find the spiritual gifts of “wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, workings of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, different kinds of tongues and interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). Later in the same chapter, Paul also mentions gifts of helping and administration and also says,“ There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all” (1 Corinthians 12:5-6). Those are all very good gifts, but there is another gift I had not considered until I had children with intellectual disabilities. I've heard it said about such people, and especially those whose abilities are even more limited, that they have the gift of presence.
Presence is sometimes the only gift that will bring healing to those who are in deep sorrow or grief. For parents Joe and Marylou Bayley, who had lost three of their children on separate occasions, it seems presence was the best gift.
I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I [already] knew were true. I was unmoved, except I wished he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me for an hour and more; listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.
Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote:
“The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
If the Holy Spirit gives gifts to the children of God, so that all would benefit and have a need met, then it makes sense that when a person who bears the image of God is present, it is a gift to the rest of the Body of Christ. Paul is careful to point out that the members of the Body are unique and their gifts differ from each other, yet the members are to care for each other. In order to do this well, we need the spiritual gifts. But what about those whose gifts are less clearly seen? How should we respond?
When someone lacks the ability to communicate well, self-regulate at times, or fulfill personal care tasks, it can be difficult to see the gift. Look harder. Contemplate the sounds, the drooling, the social deficits, the inability to verbalize or even move, the lack of obvious talent and overall ability. If you look deeply, you will see a gift there. Consider the inability to earn a living or learn basic life skills, the awkward social interactions or the unawareness of social cues. Ponder the things society considers unattractive, undesirable or even burdensome. It’s natural to want to look away. My challenge is that we look toward instead. Keep focused; keep watching, seeking and wondering. Keep listening to the voice of God as you ask: What gift has this person been given by God that might benefit those around them, and especially the Church? The gift of presence is something every person has to give, yet often is overlooked or drowned out by the noise of those whose abilities are to speak, write, sing, dance, preach or teach, and so on. In particular with the Church, the gift of presence can be missed or not facilitated by those who are used to things looking a certain way, and who gets to be there and serve there.
“But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.” 1 Corinthians 12:31
We often ask God to show us our own best gift that will enable us to benefit those around us. With patience and seeking, He is faithful to show us. If we do the same on behalf of those who are seemingly unable to seek their own spiritual gifts due to intellectual disability, we are exercising another gift that is pleasing to God. We become helpers. It may seem that a person with an intellectual disability has nothing obvious to contribute, but they do. A person just being present is a gift to those around them. Inevitably, others will see the reflection of Jesus in the faces of those who seem weaker (1 Corinthians 12:22), if they are given the chance to be present. The Spirit of God can be felt because all people are created in the image of God and the relationship a person with an intellectual disability has with the Lord, may only be known by Him simply because of that person’s inability to communicate verbally. High intellect does not equal holiness. The presence of God dwells in the hearts of people, including those who cannot cognitively comprehend such things. Who are we to judge who can and cannot have a relationship with God, or who can and cannot serve Him?
The sticker on my three-person trike reads: "Shine A Light on Autism". Another morning at camp, as I was getting myself and Annie and Audrey onto our trike, a couple came up behind me and wanted to chat. “I agree with that sticker on your bike,” the gentleman said. With tears in his eyes, he shared their story of having a 39 year old son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s just two years prior. They were unsupported by anyone when their son was younger, and were often told their son was lazy. The man spoke kindly of their son, “He never graduated high school but is brilliant.” The pain in their eyes was evident and my heart broke for them. All I could do was listen and offer encouraging words about their son’s value. My girls sat and waited on the trike. Annie’s and Audrey’s presence made a difference that day and gave that couple the courage to share their hearts with a fellow believer and special needs parent.
Every time I have these encounters I'm refueled and strengthened to keep going, to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and to simply be present with those who are struggling to make sense of the difficulties of life. This is what Jesus did in John 11 when His friend Lazarus died.
Then the One they most longed to see—Jesus—came and wept with them. The people responded, “See how He loved him!”
Dr. Stephen Davey writes: “We do not have to be brilliant, articulate, biblical scholars; it is true that the greatest ability as a friend is availability. Just show up—and you exercise the ministry of presence.” May God be glorified and the Body of Christ edified as we work together to make it possible for everyone to exercise their God-given gifts.
Andrea Foster is a Christian speaker, writer, disability educator, and wife to Kirk. They are parents of four teenagers; their youngest being twins who have disabilities. Andrea holds her MSEd (Disability Studies), BTh and ECE. Follow her on Facebook and andreafoster.ca.