Pew Research Center has released a well-known study about the “nones,” an increasing number of Americans who consider themselves unattached, uninterested, or “nothing in particular” as it relates to religion. Many gladly wear this label as they wish to walk devoid of identifying to any creed or accountability. In turn, I would like to talk about the “ones” within the scope of justice and how it relates to what is personal and dear to my heart.
In the spring of 2005, my husband Victor and I were on staff at a large ministry in New York. On Palm Sunday the attendance was larger than normal, and my husband and I sat at the back of the sanctuary to accommodate visiting guests. Midway through worship, I noticed Victor responding to his vibrating cellphone. With a look of alarm, he quickly exited the sanctuary. I did not think much of it as it could have been a number of the usual behind the scenes issues.
Not even 10 minutes later a co-worker asked me to come outside. I was met by Victor holding my son, Jacob, who was five at the time. With a look of distress, shock, and relief all at the same time, Victor explained that the phone call he received was from one of the outdoor security staff who thought he noticed our son walking down the sidewalk away from the church. Fortunately, by the time Victor reached the security post, a young volunteer stopped Jacob before he could reach the street corner and the busy intersection.
One can understand the extreme range of emotions that Victor experienced from receiving a phone call that his son was not where he was supposed to be, to discovering that he was in potentially grave danger, then to holding his son in his arms. I could only imagine my Jacob at that time, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, nonchalantly exiting the crowded nursery, with no awareness or sense of danger, and making his way “down the block” in Brooklyn, New York.
In Matthew 18, the disciples naively approached Jesus and asked about their status within the kingdom. He began His discourse with a surprising response–child-like meekness was not only a requisite for entry within the kingdom, but also necessary for greatness. In strong terms, Jesus warned of the dire, eternal repercussions for any who would intend to, or even consider, harming a child.
It is within this same context that Jesus reveals the character of God the Father through the well-known parable of the shepherd who had a flock of 99 yet felt incomplete as he was concerned about the one sheep that was missing. The sheer joy felt by the shepherd when he found the one wandering shows the depth of the Father’s concern for those who are still not in His fold. In verse 18, He concludes that the Father is “not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
We often think, “Well, yes, this just simply affirms that God experiences the same sentiment for the lost just as a father would for his missing child (as Victor did with Jacob).” There is no denying that the Bible attests that God is love (1 John 4:8). But there is something much more remarkable that is being divulged about the character of God.
Jesus’ discussion with His disciples clearly pivots toward children. There is, however, a deeper significance as God’s character and His concern about inclusivity is revealed. To be more specific, He cares about those who are frequently ignored and marginalized by society. In the parable, the “one” wandering was unable to find its way back to the fold. Those who are considered by the world as lowly or noncontributors may be the “ones” God values most. This is justice as God sees it.
In Matthew 18, you can also see where individuals with disabilities are clearly identified. With their child-like meekness, their faith is simple; they just believe. Hence, these “ones” would be considered great in the kingdom of God. The National Organization of Disability (N.O.D)/Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities (2000) reports that 65 percent of individuals with disabilities consider faith to be very important. When Victor and I were walking through the stressful process of assessing Jacob’s needs, the words from Jacob’s developmental pediatrician strongly impacted me. She told us that aside from having our immediate family assisting us, being part of a church community would be the strongest support system we could have.
It is important that churches provide an environment where the gospel can be experienced by those with special needs. Romans 10:14 attests, “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” Simple accommodations such as soft lighting and seating, or peaceful worship music and child proof locks, along with properly trained volunteers, can provide opportunities for spiritual awareness and growth.
There may be other “ones” in our church. Often an entire family’s faith walk is hindered because they feel they cannot find a time or a place for respite to feed their faith because they have a child who has challenging needs. As a mother of a child with a disability, being a part of a church family has allowed me to lean on the support and love of my church during the good days as well as during those times of discouragement.
In her study, Religion and Disability: The Experiences of Families of Children with Special Needs, Elizabeth O’Hanlon found that religion was an important family-centered practice during a child’s early education. Further examination revealed that religion was a contributor to a higher quality of life within the family unit. What was most striking was that families felt that receiving support from their religious leader was most important for their families’ involvement in the spiritual community.
Throughout the Bible, we find that justice is centric to the heart of God. His justice can be exemplified by the church when we conscientiously avail ourselves to serving those who are unable to receive the gospel in typical settings. When we value those who are most vulnerable, we are bringing many great “ones” into the kingdom-fold.
For more information watch the video for Night to Shine: A Ministry to Special Needs Community.