Those who are disabled are put on our path so that God, through us, may show his power and his compassion. And therefore the Lord at times will shake up our lives.
That is what the Lord God did to my wife and me. 26 years ago the Lord God took my wife and me on a different journey than most people when our sixth child was born. He is handicapped. Or, to use the terminology that our son prefers, he has a disability. He has what is known as Prader-Willi Syndrome. PWS is a rare genetic disorder affecting chromosome 15. I won’t bore you with the details of it. But the long and the short of it is that it affects the hypothalamus which is an important part of the brain, and which has some very challenging implications for physical and mental functioning.
In spite of the challenges, he has been a tremendous blessing to my wife and me. The longer that we have him the more thankful that we are. He has taught me a lot, especially about myself, about how inadequate I am as a father, as a minister, as a servant of God and of his people. He has taught me to think about how God thinks about weakness. He has taught me about the power of God. He is still teaching me. For I still have a lot to learn.
One of the most important things that he has taught me is that just because you are born with a certain weakness and sinful inclinations that does not make you any less a child of God. On the contrary. It makes you one of God’s special children. Joel’s condition makes him behave in a certain way that is aberrational, and unacceptable.
In the first place, the damage done to my son’s brain makes him an aggressive food seeker. He is always hungry. And he will therefore try to get food in any way possible. He will steal and lie and manipulate just in order to be able to get food. He is a food addict. And any addict will lie and cheat to get their fix. That is because the addiction is greater than their desire to tell the truth.
I can tell you many stories. Let me just relate one story to you. Some 20 years ago when I was a minister in my first congregation I was phoned by the dentist that my son had just visited. He was wondering about his lunch and the lunch of his staff. He suspected that my son might’ve gotten into the lunchroom and eaten their lunches. And indeed, when I checked it out that was indeed the case. My son had gone to the bathroom, but that bathroom had also another door that led into the lunchroom. Apparently he took a long time in the bathroom. You can well imagine what he did. Thankfully the dentist was quite understanding.
We can chuckle about that now, but that was quite embarrassing to us at the time. And I’m sure that if I reminded my son of this, he would also be embarrassed.
My son did many other things. He would go into restaurants and order a meal and tell them that his mom and dad were about to come. Of course we weren’t, for he had left the house without us knowing and had wandered about town on his own. We, of course, ended up paying for his meal.
The next congregation I served was in a small hamlet where people were used to leaving their homes unlocked. The hamlet as such consists mostly of retired people and of three ministers and their families. There was no reason to lock your doors. When my son came that had to change. Now everybody had to lock their doors. That is because my son would enter their homes when nobody was home and help himself to whatever food he could find. The only one who did not have to lock their homes was us. For our fridges and freezers were always locked, and so was the pantry.
I can tell you many other stories. But the point that I want to make with this is that through all this I had been taught a great lesson. It is a lesson that I need to relearn time and again as I deal with the members in the congregation.
Our disabled son is a child of the Lord. He loves the Lord. He is strong in his faith. He loves to talk about his faith. I have no doubt that the Lord loves him. And so, I have to see him through the eyes of God. He is a special child and at the same time a covenant child. Because of a certain inborn weakness he acts in a certain way. However, that does not mean that we can excuse his behaviour. Of course not. Stealing and lying are always wrong. So are temper tantrums and other aberrational behaviours. Yet, we can be compassionate and understanding, and deal with him in a loving way.
And that is how we have to deal with the special and weak members in the church as well. There are those whose behaviour is quite out of the ordinary and who struggle with all kinds of addictions. Some of them are very difficult to deal with. We often don’t know what to do with them.
And so, how do you deal with them? Well, with compassion and understanding. By trying to understand why they behave in the way that they do and what their situation in life is.
There are various reasons why people behave in aberrant way. Their behaviour can be because of physical or mental limitations over which they have little or no control. For example, there are those who have been abused, either physically or mentally or sexually. Such people have difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships. They are afraid to get hurt again, and so they keep others at bay. They will even sabotage relationships when they are getting too close to another person, because they are afraid.
As office bearers we encounter many others with various kinds of problems and conditions: schizophrenics for example, or the chronically depressed or those with mental illnesses. There is a long list of them.
The question we should always ask ourselves, why is it that they are so difficult to deal with? Why does he or she act out in the way that he or she does? It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of a specific sin. It could be that there is something wrong physiologically, or psychologically. Of course, for all those cases you have to maintain the norm, which are the 10 Commandments. And that is important. My son is not allowed to lie and steal and behave in other destructive and disobedient ways. But, you apply God’s laws understandingly, and not legalistically.
The important thing for us is to remember is that we should not right away draw our conclusions from people’s behaviour and address that, but to try to find out what may be behind it. What’s going on their lives? How do I find that out?
Well, we have to listen to them. At the beginning of each home visit season I distribute a handout to the office bearers wherein I make suggestions regarding home visits. In that handout I give instructions to the office bearers to try to put themselves into the person’s place already before they make the visit. I advise them to do that especially with those who have greater needs than others, including those who are dysfunctional and difficult to deal with.
I tell them to try to understand them from the situation in which they are in. If people behave in a certain unexpected way, I want them to ask themselves why that could be. I tell them not to assume beforehand that they know what their problem is, and how it must be solved. Therefore, they should not to come with their own agenda. I tell them to keep an open mind and not to prejudge. And especially always to remember that they are dealing with God’s covenant children, and that for that reason they should not judge them by their own standards, but by God’s standards.
I also advise them to brainstorm together with their partner beforehand with to make sure that they are both on the same wavelength.