“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

~Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV)

I have a physical disability and as a child I spent some time wishing that I could be just like everyone else because I did not fully understand the value of diversity and differences. I did however understand the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street. It taught me many things including colors, counting, directions and even computer skills. I also remember being thrilled when a child in a wheelchair made a guest appearance on the TV show.

juliaAs increasing numbers of children are affected by autism, I am especially thankful that Sesame Street is now incorporating Julia, a character with autism. The sentiment that Julia likes to play, she just may play a little differently underscores the biblical truth that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, regardless of ability or “disability.” through the character of Julia and her friend Elmo, Sesame Street will help many children to understand some mannerisms of many people who have autism and offer communication strategies. It is hoped that this will diminish bullying of children with exceptional needs. I think it will also promote the biblical value of embracing differences and foster a greater variety of peer relationships.

For now, Julia is an online-only character featured in the storybook “We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3” but that doesn’t prevent her and the numerous resources posted at the site “Sesame Street and Autism” (autism.sesamestreet.org) from being in a kid’s ministry setting! “Being a Friend” “Explaining Autism to Young Children” and “What to Say to A Parent of a Child with Autism” provide key tips, and a number of videos like “Nasaiah’s Day,” “A Parent’s Role” or “A Sibling Story” can help children’s ministry volunteers become familiar with the experiences of families of kids with autism.

Thanks, Sesame Street for striving to “see amazing in all children,” and helping to contextualize such an important biblical truth, that is, the value of embracing differences. As people of faith, may we be reminded that God sees amazing in all children as well as in all people. Further, may this be cause for the church to celebrate the different gifts of every person.


For more information, read the Atlantic article, “Sesame Street’s New Brand of Autism Education” or watch the following video (this may be useful in a Sunday School setting as well!):

When I approached her, she asked me what my dream was; I said, “I want to be a motivational speaker!” She replied, “So why aren’t you?” I proceeded to list off various obstacles including, lack of credentials, lack of an accessible vehicle and lack of an agent. To my surprise she did not offer me solutions. She said, “Great, you know what the problems are; now all you have to do is get a group of people together and find a way to solve them.” Read More →

Gayle Walls desired to communicate his faith to the world, but found communication barriers to be challenging in light of being born with cerebral palsy. With the rapid growth of technological communication and the innovation of his church community, though, Gayle has found his niche as a Church Online volunteer with LifeChurch.tv. LifeChurch.tv has become Read More →

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.

~ Frederick Buechner

ChameleonGrace is a chameleon.

Wherever you see it, it takes on a different meaning, a different shape, another colour.

In the Christian religious tradition, it means “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”

In the context of being graceful it means “simple elegance or refinement of movement.”

In another sense, where you are graced by someone being near, it means to “do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one’s presence.” This captures the experience of belonging, where “the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

I can’t help but think that latter two definitions tell us more about the grace of God than the stiff doctrinal formulation. Ephesians 2:8-9 comes to mind, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Unlike almost every other context we find ourselves in, grace is not based on what we do, how we look, or how well we are able to fit in and be liked. In this way, God’s grace unearths a level playing field unlike any other.

Doerksen - Level Ground

For anyone who grew up in an Evangelical or charismatic Christian world, Canadian Brian Doerksen‘s songs (Refiner’s Fire, Come Now is the Time to Worship, I Lift My Eyes Up etc.) have shaped our expression of worship in powerful ways. His latest work revolves around the idea of “Level Ground,” and incorporates the worship band into the company of the congregation, eliminating the traditional barrier between leader and participant. The emphasis, then, turns to people sharing their “grace stories” about their experience of God’s work in their lives.

Level Ground - DoerksenWe cannot know how much the “Level Ground” direction is shaped by Doerksen’s life experiences as the father of Benjamin and Isaiah, both born with Fragile X syndrome, but Brian is no stranger to the challenges that come with disability.

It also important to note that it’s not primarily the verbal retelling of “grace stories” that serves as a powerful example for worship or liturgy leaders, but rather the de-emphasis on ability and the increased visibility of experience that comes from removing the band from the stage and letting people without special credentials or abilities be the focus. There are many ways to communicate, and anyone who can communicate (even through presence) tells a story. Being graced by someone’s presence can be a “grace story” more impactful than many formulaic recitations of spiritual renewal, but often service format itself becomes a barrier to true presence.

This is God’s work. 

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

 Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.

~ Isaiah 40:3-5

In making level the rough ground, churches and communities are not only making way for God, but are making way for human beings to encounter one another in new and powerful ways – ways that aren’t determined by height, stature, ability or popularity. We are preparing for movement, for each person to express the graceful beauty of pursuing gifts and passions never thought possible. We are working towards belonging, where we recognize that we are graced by each person’s presence. Sometimes those whose presence inconveniences us in some way are the very people who challenge us to look beyond the grace that we extend, to the grace that we receive.

Ultimately, in the Christian context it is the unfathomable grace of God that is his glory, and it is for this purpose that the hills are made low. This must be accompanied, though by a simultaneous revelation of grace that extends to our neighbour. In this world, where beautiful and terrible things do happen, fear is driven out by love knowing that God is with us, and we are with one another.

For more information on Brian Doerksen’s work, check out his website (www.briandoerksen.com) and feel free to watch the preview video below.

If you live in Ontario, Brian has upcoming concerts in Oakville on June 14th at the Meeting House and in Kitchener on June 15th at the Christian Reformed Community Church.

roeBryan Roe is a youth pastor with Crosspoint Community Church in Wisconsin. At Key Ministry‘s 2012 Inclusion Fusion he shared the remarkable story of his time with Tourette Syndrome during his youth. On the Disability and Faith Forum we tend to focus on stories where people currently living with disabilities experience and express God’s grace and truth, but Bryan’s is a story where he underwent a physical ‘curing’ of Tourettes. This story isn’t the tired reiteration of “believe and you will be healed!” however, since the (spoilers!) “Greater Miracle” for Bryan is not that his Turrettes was taken away but that God uses him in light of not in spite of this disability.

I highly encourage you to watch the video below and to check out the post on Key Ministry’s blog, but in case you don’t have time here’s a quick synopsis of some of Bryan’s primary points in how to welcome people with apparent or ‘hidden’ disabilities into a church community:

  1. Regularly feature testimonies from adult leaders who have seen God use them in ways that he used me.  Additionally, make sure that the leaders who are giving their testimonies make themselves available to talk to (and pray with) students who are impacted by their stories.
  2. Create positions for serving in the church that can be filled by individuals with special needs.  Invest in them this way and you add value to them.  Be creative and don’t be afraid to experiment.
  3. Communicate stories about how Jesus interacted with people who were on the margins of culture.  Through this, build a case to the rest of your youth (or overall church) population about how we should be intentionally and genuinely reaching out to these kids rather than ostracizing them.

Over the next weeks, we will be highlighting some of the presentations at the 2013 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability.

This week, we are featuring “Agent or Object: A Call to be God’s Partner” by Judith Snow.

judithJudith Snow, MA (www.judithsnow.org) is a social innovator and an advocate for Inclusion. She is also a visual artist and Founding Director of Laser Eagles Art Guild, an organization making creative activity available through personal assistance to artists with diverse abilities. Ms. Snow has a background of 25 years of research design and implementation, most notably working with the Institute on Disability, UNH to provide design of a post-intervention instrument, train interviewers, and participate in analysis and report writing with the National Home of Your Own Alliance, a 23 state technical assistance program funded through the Administration for Developmental Disabilities.

To watch videos of other presentations from the 2013 Summer institute, click here.

harvestniagaraAttending Harvest Bible Chapel in Niagara, Ontario, Brett and Breha have experienced a transformative journey which led to their adoption of William, a child with exceptional needs. Learn more about their spiritual growth as part of Harvest Niagara from 0:00 to 3:45, or jump to the story of William’s adoption at 3:46. Many of us, I’m sure, can relate to Brett’s observation (5:04) of our own tendency to place a primary emphasis on a lot of secondary things.

Written by Dr Rod ThompsonPrincipal of Laidlaw College, NZ 

Originally posted at the Laidlaw College site here. Thank you to the college for permission to re-post.

You can find more information about the Theology, Disability, and the People of God conference that was held at Carey Baptist College here.

Swinton-DementiaOne of the best conferences I have been to in my life took place at Carey Baptist College from 1-3 July. It was the Theology, Disability and the People of God Conference, co-hosted by Laidlaw and Carey Baptist Colleges, with special guests Professor John Swinton (from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland) and Professor Amos Yong (from Regent University in the USA) as key-note speakers. About 120 people attended each day.

Most conferences are stimulating intellectually, however this gathering was also moving emotionally and deeply challenging as we asked questions about the practices of churches and other communities – including Colleges – that cause people to sense that they belong within that community. What does it mean to belong in a community? John Swinton argued that we know we belong in a community if, when we are absent, we are missed. To be missed. To have a place in the minds and hearts of others in the community. This is more than inclusion. This is belonging.

A number of us from the Laidlaw College community participated in the conference. Papers were presented by myself and other members of Laidlaw’s community. And we were privileged to mingle and speak with many working within the disability sector throughout the conference.

John Swinton has recently written a book entitled Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, in which he explores what it means to be human, particularly in light of debilitating loss of memory and identity, such as seems to occur for those who have dementia. Swinton’s book is wonderful and I highly recommend it to you.

To see what John has to say about dementia, ageing, identity and friendship click on the video below.