Several weeks ago, I was sitting in church with one of my young friends affected by disability who I’ve blogged about before. We were having a Family Worship Sunday where kids ages 4 and up are invited to sit in the main service with their parents. I love Family Worship Sunday! It’s a beautiful representation of what Heaven will be like with people of all ages and abilities worshiping together. Sitting with my friend and his family also made the picture more complete. No matter who you are or what you can do, God warmly welcomes worship from all His children.
As beautiful as that service was, it also revealed to me the unintentional judgements many people make when exposed to people with disabilities. I sat next to my little friend throughout the service, allowing his parents the opportunity to focus more on the sermon. My friend blew me away with his great behavior and self-control. He was able to sit moderately still and quiet for over an hour while we sang songs, heard the announcements, and listened to the sermon. However, the fact that my friend was on his best behavior didn’t seem to matter to the guy sitting in the chair in front of us. All he heard was my little friend attempting to whisper or clinking his toy planes together. He probably felt my friend accidentally knock the back of his chair a few times. I was surprised when this man glanced our direction and gave us a disapproving shake of his head. I ignored it at first, thinking I might be misreading his actions. But after the third or fourth time, I knew he was making his frustration known to us. As the service came to a close, the gentleman decided he had put up with my little friend long enough and turned directly around. He made eye contact with me, then looked at my little friend and shook his head in frustration.
The actions of this gentleman caused feelings of bitterness and frustration to well up in my heart. In that moment, I realized how the parents of my friend must feel on a regular basis. I know this wasn’t the first time my friend had received disapproving looks from strangers, but it was a first for me. All I wanted to do was defend my friend. But as my emotions started to rise, the Holy Spirit began speaking to my heart. I could tell this man all about my little friend’s disability and give him every legitimate reason for his behaviors. But I wouldn’t be able to change his heart in a 30-second conversation. That’s God’s job. So instead of getting worked up over the situation, I felt the Spirit give me compassion for the man sitting in front of me. I prayed that God would bring him peace and understanding so that he might enjoy the blessings that come from knowing someone like my little friend.
God taught me an important lesson about humility and love that morning. He showed me how the parents of kids with special needs get their resilience and patience. They are some of the most caring and understanding people I have ever met—one of the reasons I deeply admire them. That morning, I got to experience the joy that comes from life’s challenges. I got to see another piece of God’s heart for us when we exhibit self-righteous, indignant attitudes. The love that He shows us brings a sense of freedom and peace that is supernatural. So, once again, I had to thank my little friend for teaching me a valuable lesson in loving others just the way they are.
Rachel Roleder serves as the Manager of the Cause 4 Life, Global Missions and Internships Department at Joni and Friends. Rachel enjoys learning more of God’s design for His church as she leads teams of interns on disability ministry outreaches all over the world.