Article May 15, 2017

Learning a “different world”: Loving families with special needs

A parent is a parent for life. Ask any parents of grown children. Sure, they no longer buy formula, diapers or pay those orthodontist bills, but now they’re a friend, mentor and counselor to the very ones they raised. Their children still need them, though in a different way—unless their children have special needs. They’re parents with responsibilities that will more than likely remain throughout their child’s life.  

Several weeks ago, a few women from my life group met for lunch. Behind them sat a mother with her adult son who couldn’t feed himself much and didn’t make eye contact with his mother as she spoon-fed him. She gently and patiently fed him as a young mother would her developing toddler. My friend saw this humble act of selfless love, and she was compelled to approach this woman to simply hug her.

Because my friend is a mother of a son with special needs, she understands what it means to care for a child who cannot be like those his age. She knows what it’s like to feel unnoticed, misunderstood or alone in the unique challenges of raising a child with special needs. She knew what an embrace would mean from another who’s also on a similar journey, and how God might convey his compassion through such a simple act. So, she hugged and cried with this mother and shared a little bit of her story. Within moments, another woman approached the table and said, “I was going to come up and hug you too when I saw you and your son. I have a child with special needs too.” They embraced, and God’s love was on display.  

When Joy came into my life

Until about nine years ago, I would have overlooked this mother too out of a blind ignorance. But my eyes were opened when I met my husband’s family. For 40 years, my in-laws have raised, nurtured, loved and served their daughter, Joy, who has Down syndrome. When I met Joy, I was about to be engaged to her brother. For the first time in my life, I saw what the daily life of a family with a member who has special needs looks like. Oh how they love Joy!  From the hugs, to the spontaneous dance parties, to the retelling of memories from the past, her family is her world. Over the years, I’ve been able to see how my in-laws try to keep Joy on a schedule with predictable routines because she thrives on them. For example, if the family has to miss church, Joy won’t hear of it and will show up dressed in her Sunday best with her purse and Bible in hand.  

Why we should love families with special needs

In my mother-in-law’s words, “By having a special needs child, we have journeyed and are journeying down a different path, learning a different world.’’ Any parent of a child with special needs would agree. This “different world” can at times feel isolating, limiting and exhausting.  Parents with typical children can’t understand this world completely, but as the church, we must try. Here are a few reasons why:

Parents of children with special needs, specifically those in the church, are some of the most humble people I know.

  1. We are called to. There are 59 “one anothers” in the New Testament, 11 of which are “love one another.” As we survey the pages of Scripture, we’re admonished to “be devoted to one another,” “live in harmony with one another, “honor one another,” and “bear one another’s burdens.” Yet, it’s easy to oversimplify these instructions as “get along,” “don’t stir the pot,” or “mind your own business.” We find our tribes and stick with what we know because it’s safe, comfortable and demands little emotional or physical investment. But Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . . . Truly I say to you as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. . . . Truly I say to you as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46). Sometimes “one another” means “not like the other.” Sometimes “loving the least of these” means getting out of what we know and are used to so that we can enter into a different world—one where our brothers and sisters with special needs live each and every day.
  2. To learn humility. I have yet to meet a parent of a child with special needs who brags about methods, achievements, plans or systems. Parents of children with special needs, specifically those in the church, are some of the most humble people I know. They’re not quick to give advice or dispense wisdom, yet I learn much from their lives and how they patiently care for their children. We learn humility best by watching it at work in others. Many of these parents are beautiful examples for us to follow.    
  3. To bridge the gap. If a separation exists between families in the church, we can be bridge-builders, inviting and investing in families who have challenges different from our own.  We may need to initiate the invitation, taking into consideration what a family’s special needs are. And we can always ask if we don’t know. If we ignore our brothers and sisters with special needs in the church, we may be indirectly teaching our own children to do the same—and the cycle continues. Bridge the gap between families, beginning with the local church, and watch the cycle be broken.   

Learning from and loving those on a different path than ours begins on our knees, earnestly seeking God to show us how to love as he does. The gospel reminds us that “all are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Knowing this, we’re compelled to engage Christian families with special needs as brothers and sisters, not as “different.” Even though we may not be like one another, we can love as Christ loved us first—giving up our comforts and our “rights” so that we can build unity in the body and serve as a testimony to a watching world of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A child of God, with special needs or otherwise, is his child for life. Let’s love one another well with this truth in mind.  

Editor’s Note: Parenting is hard. But it is even more difficult for Christian parents to raise kids in today's changing culture Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN, this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin. Register by May 31 and receive a FREE Austin Stone Kids Worship Album. Learn more here.