He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
A couple sat in the front row, looking up at the speaker. They’d been asked to speak about special needs adoption to a Sunday school class in their church–one of the biggest, wealthiest churches in the county. Our friends had recently come home with two little ones with Down syndrome from state-run institutions in Eastern Europe.
Their two sweet dumplings are ages four, wearing a size 2T like Verity, and five, wearing a size 3 T like Katie~
They fervently desire that God would use their family to open hearts in their own church to orphans with disabilities.
While they waited for their turn to speak, they listened intently to the adoptive dad standing before them.
He explained that adoption is a good way to grow your family.
He joked casually about what a drag all the adoption paperwork was.
He mentioned special needs adoption.
My friends perked up their ears.
Don’t be scared off by the special needs label, he said. Many times mild special needs turns out to be nothing at all, like it did for our adopted child. It doesn’t have to complicate life. Special needs adoption doesn’t always have to involve brain problems, he said with a laugh, “Not all of them are retards.”
For a long time, such a long time that most of us aren’t aware that there is any other way to see it, the North American church has confused “social acceptability” with “being a good witness.” We think that if we can make ourselves blend in to our culture that somehow outsiders will want to run to us and ask how they can learn to know Jesus, too. Of course we can carry private pro-life feelings inside us, and feel vaguely sad for the “less fortunate,” but Heaven forbid we commit any embarrassing social gaffes, or even have a lame sense of style. Not only would that be personally humiliating, but it would be a bad witness. Right?
Using this logic, Jesus would be a bad witness for…um…Himself.
If He showed up during the morning worship service at many churches, His presence would cause awkwardness. Jesus would not blend in unobtrusively with a formal, affluent, polished, gracious-living congregation. What is this odd-looking guy going to do? I know I should go over and welcome him, but honestly, it could get embarrassing. Maybe it would be best to just keep chatting with my friends and sort of pretend I didn’t see him. There are other places that would probably be better for people like that.
Something has been growing in my heart over the past months as I have taken Katie out into public multiple times. Her different look, her odd ways, her noises, her obvious disability—nothing about Katie blends into acceptable society. Her most obvious issues have very little to do with Down syndrome, and a great deal to do with years of severe neglect and institutionalization. And they are obvious issues.
Sometimes we cause an inconvenience to others. Maybe they have to wait for us as we make our way slowly through life with Katie, or maybe we are in their way. Maybe she makes them unmistakably uncomfortable. The phrase that often comes into my mind at those times is, “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.”
People ignore her, they turn their faces away, they stare curiously (unobtrusively or not), they act embarrassed. Some folks hesitantly ask whether she has Down syndrome, and tell me about someone they love who has Down syndrome. A few are intrigued and entranced by her.
People always notice Katie, and always respond in some way. Her presence seems to require a response.
And there is nothing unobtrusive about the real Jesus. His presence requires–demands–a response. A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.
What does that mean for parents adopting children with obvious special needs?
Question: We are considering adopting a child with a severe disability. I must be honest with you…her looks are quite jarring and I wonder if we would have what it takes to parent her….we live in such a cruel world and people can be so mean. I think it would break my heart to watch her try to make her way in this world only to be stared at, mocked, belittled…etc. Obviously her future would be way better here than where she is now but it still concerns me. I wouldn’t have a problem loving her but I am not one to sit by idly as people point and stare. I might have to mess them up…lol.
Answer: Assuming you qualify to adopt, if you love this little girl, and that’s why you want to adopt her, you have what it takes to be her daddy and mama. All the other stuff can be learned. You can learn to choose grace and forgiveness, even when your cheeks are burning and adrenaline pumping.
You will sometimes fail to offer a gracious response, as I do. I’ve come a long way since I first heard that Verity would have Down syndrome, but my claws still occasionally prickle up at certain things, especially depending on the character of the person who makes the statement. “When their baby was born, it was a Down syndrome.”
It helps me to remember…they treat Katie as though she has little value? How did they treat Jesus?
From my experience with Katie, the reactions you get will fall into a few categories.
~By far the most common response from people who don’t know Katie’s story is awkward avoidance. Most people have kind intentions but feel very uncomfortable and genuinely don’t know where to look or whether they should say something. Their response is intended to avoid causing offense, perhaps because they have been attacked in the past by offended parents of children with disabilities. They truly have no understanding of how it can feel to have people coo over other children and pretend not to see yours, over and over and over again. I handle this by being ready to open up the conversation myself, usually by saying, “This is a little special girl,” and briefly telling her story. We made up cards to give people so they can go to the blog and learn more if they want to. I help them understand her a bit better, and also explain to them how to interact with her. It’s often the not knowing what to do that can make any of us feel awkward.
~A few people have enough personal familiarity with people with disabilities to give them the edge over the majority. They feel comfortable coming up to me and chatting about Katie, and often mention that they have a relative or friend with a disability.
~Sometimes people are comfortable talking to me about our girls, but end up being unintentionally hurtful because in spite of their kind intentions they just don’t get it. “You know, we’re all ugly and retarded to God.” (Uh, you just told me without knowing it that when you look at my little girls, you see them as ugly and retarded.) This is the same type of hurt that happens if someone accidentally treads on your bare foot with a heavy boot. You could be understanding as the day is long, and your friendship with that person would remain unchanged, but your toes would still be sore for a while.
~When people are blatantly and offensively rude, which doesn’t happen very often, my ready response is to smile sweetly into their eyes and ask, “Did you really mean to say that out loud?” This puts the ball in their court. It may not be your style, but I prefer to engage people in conversation and hope to help them see things from a different perspective.
~An unusual but very telling response to Katie was the one we received from the therapists and specialists who came to our home one or two at a time this past spring to assess her. I had clued them all in ahead of time by phone. All they had heard was that she was ten years old and had been adopted from Bulgaria last year. It seemed prudent to prepare them a bit more than that. I explained Katie’s issues and what had caused them. After hearing her history and current status, when the experts actually came and observed her, they were awed by how alive and alert and interactive and spunky she is. (Hmmm, listening to a long description of her issues didn’t give them an accurate idea of her individual, unique personhood?)
~Some people respond to Katie by telling me I’m a hero, especially after they know Katie’s story. That can actually sting a little, although the sting is caused unintentionally. (My child is so obviously unlovable that it takes a hero to love her?) You can be ready for this response. I like to say smilingly, “No, she’s my daughter and I love her. That doesn’t make me a hero, it makes me a mom.” The folks in this category are kind through and through, and will often just lean toward me and say, “God bless you.”
~A few people are immediately drawn to Katie, like the woman in the cafe at the children’s hospital where I sat helping Katie to drink her specialty drink concoction, trying my best to keep us both somewhat clean in the process. The woman couldn’t tear her eyes away, and eventually told me that Katie was the most beautiful child she had ever seen. Or like the radiant older pro-lifer who came up to us, held Katie’s hand and said with tears, “Precious child, I love you. I love you.” This stranger had no idea of Katie’s story, and wept as I recounted it.
Question: Now that you brought up the subject, what response do you recommend I give to a child with disabilities?
Answer: Thank you for asking! The counsel appropriate for you is very different from the counsel appropriate for the parents involved. Yes, I’ll encourage Christians who are treated badly to identify with Christ and bear it with grace. But if given the opportunity, I will tell potential offenders how to help instead of hurt!
Katie and I were at the pro-life convention for almost a whole day before I spoke. A small number of the other attendees had already read about Katie here on the blog, and knew her story.
As I walked through the crowds with Katie in my arms, most people looked at her, then awkwardly kept their faces turned away from us.
Once in a while, I witnessed a different reaction. People glanced at Katie in my arms and did a double-take. Their faces immediately flushed and their eyes teared up. A look of awe came over them and they lit up like a Roman candle, reaching out a hand and asking, “Is this Katie?”
During my presentation, I recounted these two reactions to the audience. And gave them the challenge that I now give to you.
If you don’t remember anything else I say during this talk, I want you to remember this one thing.
For the rest of your life, whenever you see a child with special needs, my wish is that you would light up for them like a Roman candle.
Sometimes I wonder whether some who know our story think that special needs adoption is okay for our family because we didn’t have much to lose anyway. But why would anyone ask them to give up their great life or social status to care for a disabled child? It’s one thing to make the best of an unfortunate situation, they may think, but to deliberately choose it would be insane.
Living with Katie has become a treasured constant reminder to me of the life and death of Jesus. He had everything to lose by coming down here. He deliberately chose to give it up. He chose to lay His reputation down, take the lowest place, and give up His life. Out of love and obedience to His Father, Jesus willingly and purposefully humbled Himself to the point of death.
Since it makes sense for followers to follow, it makes sense that everyone who really follows the real Jesus would also willingly and purposefully humble themselves and give up their lives, out of love and obedience to their Father.
My dad and I stood, chatting, in the street outside his home.
I wanted to break it to him gently.
“We hope God lets us be one of those families who keeps bringing home children that nobody else wants.”
“Oh Susanna,” he replied without hesitation, “You know you could fill your house with Alzheimer’s patients and we would be overjoyed!”
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
but made Himself of no reputation,
taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled Himself
and became obedient to the point of death,
even the death of the cross.