They were words I did not want to hear. Paul* and I sat with the Guidance Counsellor on an all-sense alert. No, our son John was not entitled to special education because he did not have a diagnosed disability. He was just slow—with an IQ only two points above the retarded level. He would never reach beyond Year Seven in Maths, English—or anything.
As I left her office that day with faltering steps, damp hands clutching the test results, my mind raced ahead. What would happen to my darling six-year old? What did the future hold? Was I to blame somehow?
Numbness, panic and then resolve surged through me. The only limits I would acknowledge were those God set. This child would accomplish all God planned for him; he would grow into a mature and fulfilled human being. Why would I settle for anything less?
Who is handicapped?
Soon after his birth we had noticed that John was ‘different’. He hardly cried, was slow to sit, to crawl, and to walk. When he finally spoke it was often through agonised stammering. But he brought his own gifts to our family: tranquillity, contentment and a delightful sense of humour. We kept him back a year from starting school to give him extra time to mature. “After all,” I mused, “being a year behind at age 40 is no real handicap.”
I did not know. Initial difficulties at school led to testing and discouraging results. The experts pronounced the gap would widen and grow. We had better prepare ourselves for life with a handicapped child.
Over the years I have pondered the meaning of this word ‘handicapped’. Is it John, who at age 11 has never told a lie, and does not understand the meaning of the word ‘deceive’, or is it I, with my quick temper and quicker tongue? Is it John with his compassionate heart, or is it I, wanting the best for myself? Is it John with his intuitive sense of God, or is it I, struggling to understand, to believe? If John is handicapped, then so am I.
We now stand on the threshold of Year Seven—the pronounced ‘Year of Limits’. It is a good time to evaluate. At the end of each year, John has received awards for his character and perseverance. But last year’s award was different—a place on the Honour Roll for his mathematical excellence. Not that every path has suddenly become smooth: He writes like a beginner, he will never fully participate in sports, he has trouble finding the right words to express himself. But we have discovered the truth of James 1:2-4, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
God’s unutterable tenderness
To see his academic achievement as the victory would be to lose sight of the incredible enrichment that a ‘handicapped’ child can bring to a home, or a classroom. We owe so much to children like Stephanie who prays nightly for “John’s spelling” and to an array of undaunted teachers who have encouraged him daily and watched miracles happen; only to tell me later, eyes a-shine, that they have received far more from him than they have given, echoing the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
My prayers for John have never been for change, but that God would fulfil his purpose in him. I am the one who has changed. I have learned that goals are not as important as the learning along the way; that growth belongs to those who struggle; that the weak among us reveal the heart of God in a way the strong cannot. I no longer look for the beauty of strength—I look for the beauty of scars, the marks of the wounding of God. When God touched Jacob he blessed him by wounding him; and Jacob walked with a limp, and a cane, for the rest of his life (Gen 32:24-31). And the limping Jacob became a leader that the strong and self-confident Jacob could never be.
John has been my teacher; the lessons have been love, patience, understanding, perseverance—and the voice of God piercing my own soul. I recall our struggle with reading; the tortuous labour as he stumbled sound by sound, word by word, slowly along the lines. I caught myself looking at him with a stabbing tenderness I had never before known—a perception beyond words or tears; and I heard God whisper, “Mary I have children in my kingdom who are struggling desperately just to make it, just to overcome or survive. They have been wounded, hurt and abused. The world is preoccupied with those who are achieving great things in my name and does not notice them; but I, the Father, feel an unutterable tenderness for them; for I measure a life not by what it achieves, but by what it overcomes.”
Oh Lord, make me, like John, an overcomer.
* Pseudonyms are used to protect anonymity