Persons with special needs are image bearers of God. Our world, our societies are not normalized for persons with special needs. These men, women, and children pursue lives in which they must determine how to function in a “normal world” with their associated “need.”
We use words such as “disability, limitation, or developmentally delayed” labeling these persons as others. What if these “others” have something very profound to share with us “normal” persons? What can these men, women, and children teach us about patience, anger, and hope? I believe these men, women, and children by their unique lived experience have something to teach us about God and the profound desire to recognized as persons with much to offer.
In our country, approximately 24.8 million persons have been diagnosed with some form of autism. Autism has a spectrum and as such it manifests in multiple ways. In communication, there can be limitations in natural speech which can impact meeting the daily needs of life. In behavior, persons with autism have been stereotyped as rockers, erratic movement of the hands, and compulsive actions. For some there is the need for consistency and not change. The need for a daily routine which should not be changed. What causes autism? There are studies about environmental impacts and other studies have identified autism occurring because of differences in the genetics of an individual. Whatever the case, Dr. Steven Shore who has autism states, “every autistic person has unlimited potential.”
Meditate on those words. Every. Autistic. Person. Has. Unlimited. Potential.
The person with autism is not retarded rather he or she experiences the world differently, learns differently, and thus responds differently. Certainly, there are moments when confusion and frustration become paramount. Her unique way to communicate a need, to desire attention and affirmation may not come the way I express myself. This no less diminishes the fact she has much to offer and I must ask myself, “Am I willing to listen?”
In Psalm 88 the autistic musician finds himself in isolation and in need of comfort. He is an overwhelming emotional state because he finds himself alienated from those who should be his brothers and sisters. He wrestles with the existential question, “God are you near?
Like the rising and setting of the sun his cries for the acknowledgement of his person are continual. He has cries which are verbal and nonverbal. His cries may not be discernible words but utterance God alone can understand. Whatever the cry, it rises and falls with the movement of the sun. The morning rises over the eastern horizon and it is accompanied with groans. After the long day, she sets like a blazing fire along the Pacific Ocean and his cries put her to bed as an anguished lullaby.
Maybe his autism falls within a spectrum in which he finds himself in continual isolation. The only way he can characterize this loneliness is as an impending death. His loneliness is Sheol. He has been put down into the depths of a deep and dark pit and his question goes to God, “Do you have any awareness of my human experience? Am I to be treated as someone who has been left for dead? Will anyone remember me?!” God, are you angry with me….”
There are approximately 24.8 million autistic psalmists. We must ask ourselves are we welcoming to them in our churches, our places of businesses, and schools. If we “normal people” are the land of the living and in our desire to remain comfortable we carry these men and women to isolation, darkness, and deep places, we are losing the opportunity to learn and be blessed by their presence.
So, the psalmist in verses eight through twelve reflects on his treatment by others. From his vantage point he has been shunned and viewed as a horror. “You are not normal. You are a behavior problem.” The psalmist poses the deep question which we all share, “God do you take notice? Does your love which saves the soul of a man, extend to my current human experience?” This autistic psalmist offers us the courage to ask this question out loud and the faith God’s steadfast love is not lost.
He concludes his psalm once again appealing to day long emotional toil of his prayer. What he asks for is simply profound. He asked to be noticed by God and by his companions. He acknowledges the mystery of God withdrawing his beloved and his friend but we can see by implication he desires companionship. Acknowledgement. Affirmation.
This week remember those persons with special needs. Take time to affirm their presence. Be warmed by their smile. Act as the physical hand of God and touch them. In doing so, you will discover Christ is there and you will discern good news from their presence. You will sense their unlimited potential as image bearers of God.
“Oh, my God, look around this place,
Oh, my God, can I complain?”
Jars of Clay
Abuse is a terrible experience. Generally, when we hear the word abuse, this one time or ongoing event finds association with the female lived experience. Yet we understand more acutely this lived experience touches children and men.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports the following:
Abuse though cannot be relegated to physical acts which have damaged the body. Abuse, can take the form of emotional and psychological trauma, sexual abuse, neglect of basic human needs in the case of children, the handicapped, and elderly, and any misuse of influence in a relationship which creates an environment in which a person perceives his or her self-worth is being actively diminished.
I personally have interacted with men, women, and children who have experienced some form of abuse. It is a devastating situation in which there are no easy solutions. Every situation has its unique circumstances and I have learned one should tread lightly by listening and being supportive.
The Psalms offer an opportunity for a person in an abusive situation to know he or she can traverse multiple landscapes of emotional, physical, and spiritual terrains to deal with this difficult lived experience. Like Psalm 23, we typically do not imagine David walking in the “valley of the shadow of death,” we imagine ourselves. Psalm 109 offers a similar situation.
The Psalmist is you.
The Psalmist is the man or woman who has been raped. She is the young woman who stands in the choir on Sunday and endures the constant berating of her partner because of her weight. He is the young boy who experiences the sexual touches of his mother’s boyfriend and the young boy is told, “If you say anything, I will hurt your mother.” The Psalmist is the young valedictorian who has been threatened by her boyfriend because she double tapped an Instagram post of a male friend she has known since elementary school. The Psalmist is any of us who have gone through or currently experience physical, sexual, emotional, or technological abuse.
How does the Psalmist respond on this rocky terrain of abuse?
You launch a complaint towards heaven because your life, the opportunity for you to move forward has been cut off by lying tongues of wickedness, deceit, and hate. From your innermost being you question why such things have been said or done to you. “I have given love. I receive hate. I have given passion and I receive words which harm me. I have offered what is most precious to me and all I receive is a fist.” Your complaint has been sent heavenward and you long for some type of response.
The terrain changes. I think it is part of our human experience to ask for some swift judgment. If the universe itself bends towards righteousness and justice, it seems only appropriate when I am harmed, my pain functions as small catalyst in the universe towards this equitable outcome.
So, as the Psalmist, I ask heaven to assign a wickedness which is capable to meet my abuser face to face. In your pain, when you are alone, you are secretly calling out for justice to be done. You want his or her life seized so that the pain you have experienced may be felt in his or her own family. This psalm reveals there is room for you to feel this way. There is room for you in the emotional isolation, the long lonely nights of crying, and the despondent looks to call out for heaven to strip everything from your abuser and have his or her sin rest forever upon their life.
This is an emotional catharsis of cries of complaint and cries for justice. Verses sixteen through twenty reveal you want whoever is listening to know the guilt of your abuser and the pain he or she causes. You want to be specific about the lack of kindness, how they do not value human life, and how he or she embraces like clothing a type of life which only brings despair.
I cannot ignore the emotional and physical wear and tear it has on you. Your heart is sick. The very depth of your being, your capacity to give to another is on the verge of death. Your abuse has probably become overwhelming you wonder if your presence is felt. Does anyone notice or are you simply a shadow which will disappear at sunset? You are not an insect to be swatted away. You are not the joke of the one who treats you as one to be scorned.
I want those who have traveled the landscape of abuse or are currently in an abusive situation to know God desires for you to express the totality of your lived experience towards him. He does not stand in judgment of you. He has established himself as the one who hears the groans and cries of those who call out from the abusive land and he will come down to rescue. I don’t know when your slavery will end but I do know at some appointed time God has someone-righteous not wicked- to confront your abuser, deliver you from your abuse, and with the same mouth which spoke with a justified complaint and cried for justice, this same mouth “will give great thanks to the Lord.”
Recently, on March 12, 2017 the Conway Police Department issued a statement on the increase of panhandlers in the city of Conway. Lieutenant Clay Smith offered a reasonable and clear explanation on the situation stating,
“…a fairly recent Court decision basically voided our city ordinance and made panhandling on street corners legal or within an individuals rights to do.”
The legality of such a decision is for the courts to decide obviously. Our law enforcement personnel who do a great job of serving and protecting our community are taking the right approach in pointing these men and women to the appropriate resources to assist in alleviating a specific need.
While the courts and Conway Police are upholding their responsibilities of determining constitutionality and enforcement respectively, the citizens of Conway have responsibilities as well.
Yes. We. Have. Responsibility.
When you drive down Oak Street and pass one of these panhandlers on the corner, who do you see?
One may say, “I see a hustler.”
Another may say, “I see a guy unwilling to get a job.”
Another may say, “I see a pothead.”
And another will say, “I see someone with a need.”
If I may, when you drive down Oak Street this weekend remember the person you see on the corner is a human being. A human being who is like you and I. What makes him or her a human being is their presence to occupy a space in time and by occupation of that space you recognize their existence. He is a human being because he has sensory perceptions as the cars drive past him and the wind brushes across his arms. She is a human being because she realizes the temperature changes on body. They are human beings because they along with us will at some point share in the transformative experience of death. If I may be so bold, you are standing out on that corner with cardboard in hand.
What responsibility does our city government have regarding the homeless and panhandlers? Our city government must create an environment which those who want to provide benevolence in the form of shelters and food can flourish. I am thankful for Mayor Bart Castleberry who is assembling a task force to address poverty which includes homelessness. Our city missed an opportunity two years ago to significantly address this concern. We have another opportunity which will require the strong participation of the mayor’s office, city councilmen and women, nonprofits, faith groups, and civic organizations. We laud our city being a compassionate and giving city. Such laurels must result in tangible and sustainable solutions which give panhandlers a way to prosper with dignity.
What responsibility do our faith groups have regarding the homeless and panhandlers? Can we complain about not having the resources to address homelessness while we possess the financial means to end homelessness? Speaking to my faith tradition, we have the immediate responsibility to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we have the equal need to care for the poor, widow, and orphaned.
I state it as an “equal need” because the two great commandments carry equal weight. We are our own worst enemy as we offer people an ethereal hope while not equally offering hope in the present. Have we become so insensitive we will invest millions of dollars to convince someone to believe in Jesus whom they have not seen while wrestling over $50.00 to help a homeless person whom we see?
We have a responsibility to meet the homeless man or woman on the street because in some powerful way Jesus Christ himself is standing on the street corner. Yes, I anticipate the usual cast of characters who will stand up and say the usual stereotypical statements about the poor. Yet the burden of proof is on each person who uses such stereotypes to justify why he or she does not want to experience the fullness of his or her humanity. On the street corner is your opportunity to meet and talk with Jesus Christ.
Finally, we have a responsibility as a city. Let us stop making excuses. With the level of financial power and influence we possess in this city homelessness and panhandling can be addressed. We lack the will to do so for the sake of others. If we can demonstrate through voting the construction of a new high school, Central Landing-which still is not finished, and road improvements, can we not do something powerfully for others?
The panhandlers are a judgement on our city. A visible presence to persons from all over Conway the homeless are here and God wants us to answer their call. These men and women are a visible presence that weakness is within the boundaries of our city. But this discipline can be responded to in a turning towards the homeless and panhandlers, embracing these men and women, and saying,
“Let’s walk together.”