Stories that inspire us

The following excerpt was taken from a chapel sermon by Tanner Huizenga, a current in-residence Master of Divinity student.

My hope for the church has recently been encouraged by crying in a storage room.

Before I explain, I want to give us some context for Paul’s letters to Timothy. Paul is Timothy’s mentor, and in his letter, he instructs Timothy to help the Church in Ephesus find its way back to following Christ’s ways.

The church in Ephesus had mixed the ancient Greek and contemporary Roman cultural beliefs in their worship, preaching, and life. They reached the point where they, as a church, created something entirely different from the message of Jesus.

With that in mind, let me read the encouragement that Paul gives Timothy as he embarks on his journey to nudge the church of Ephesus back toward Christ.

“When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees. These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God. The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. But some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions. They want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently.” 1 Timothy 1:3-7

…filled with love from a pure heart and genuine faith. My heart yearns for that. I imagine that your heart yearns for that as well.

Yet, we live in Ephesus. Our churches today suffer in a similar way to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church had lost its focus on the foundation of God’s love, and lost itself in the Roman and Greek cultural influences that pushed against the truth of Jesus. Not only did they mix all these different beliefs, they, as a community, spent their time speculating and arguing about what the church’s beliefs should be. In one sense, the church should be having healthy discussions about its collective beliefs, but their discussions turned into arguments, which led to the absence of love, genuine faith, and pure hearts.

So where do we find genuine faith and hope for the church in the context of all this brokenness and hopelessness? Personally, I have found it from being a witness to students’ hearts.

As a youth pastor, I’ve heard my students ask big questions that reflect their even bigger hearts. These students have shown me that before we can ever hope to be a community that points others to Jesus or a saving witness to the world around us, we must first posture ourselves to be fully present to the people around us.

In the summer of 2022, we took our middle school youth group on a mission trip to Charleston, West Virginia. Each night, we set aside ‘group time’ before bed, which was a time for our youth group to discuss the day. Our students picked the storage room in the basement as our group time meeting space. This storage room was accompanied by stained cement floors, several old plastic Christmas trees, a nasty yet comfortable leather couch, and chairs made for toddlers. But the students didn’t mind; that was our spot.

One night during group time, Andrew, one of our students, shared a story about another student he had met that day named Armani. Armani met Andrew while serving at a shelter for women struggling with addiction. Andrew began to share that this child was at the shelter because his parents were absent from his life through the struggle of drug abuse. In that absence, his grandfather, who worked at the shelter, stepped in to raise him.

Armani’s story struck a deep chord with Andrew because he, too, had lost both of his parents and was being raised by a grandparent. As Andrew finished his story, he said something that will always stick with me: “Armani was so happy, even despite all that had happened to him.” As he said this, I began to think that Andrew, in a way, got a chance to care for his younger self—to look his own story in the eyes and see all that likely confused and hurt him when he was Armani’s age—and see his younger self smile back at him.

If you knew Andrew, you’d know that nothing in the world would break his spirit for life. Through his story, he set the tone for that room to be a space where other students could freely share. More students began recognizing that the pain and struggle they felt so alone in was a shared struggle of hurt and loss. As students shared how God had been reconciling the painful parts of their lives, they collectively laid hands on each person and surrounded them in prayer. Hands-on prayer turned into a giant group hug after each student shared. After we had prayed for everyone, a student said something that I will always remember: “I forgot who I was hugging!”

Through all the hugs and prayers, each student was held by God in a way that will forever change the way I see the church. What kind of community becomes so present to the trials and tribulations of their peers that they simply forget who they are hugging, comforting, or extending compassion to? I saw so many students learn about God’s love with a posture of listening to the pain of others to reach a more compassionate understanding of one another. That’s genuine faith, that’s a pure heart, that’s God’s love.

Just like those youth group students have modeled so well, the call and responsibility for each of us is to posture ourselves as learners and listeners of the teacher Jesus.

Sit at the feet of Jesus and be a lifelong learner of his heart. When we do that, we offer ourselves to become a more compassionate community because we have trained our ears to hear his pain stories. We become a compassionate community filled with love from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.

Although I graduated from WTS five years ago, when I heard that my alma mater was launching a certificate in disability and ministry, I wanted to enroll. I would love to learn how I can cross the bridge more effectively between the world of those who live with fully-able bodies and minds and those who do not. What a rich area of ministry!

This certificate program is important because the theological conversation around disability needs to change. It is rooted in shame rather than hope, love, acceptance, and redemption. I have cerebral palsy. Because of this, I wore my shame like a cloak for the first 28 years of my life. “I caused this. I’m broken. I cause my parents so much extra work/money/time. I’m imperfect. I don’t belong in this world. This is too difficult. Why would God do this? God must hate me.” And on and on and on. Even a person well-adjusted to life with disability will deal with these toxic thoughts.

What message does the church offer? In my experience, the church responds to disability in one of three ways:

  1.  God made you this way because he knew you were special enough/strong enough to handle it.
  2.  You have a disability because of the sin that exists in our world. You are an example of what “original sin” can do.
  3.  God made a mistake. Something happened (perhaps Satan tried to destroy you), but God stepped in just in time.

I’ve had all three of these justifications said to my face.

For those of us who have disabilities, we (wish we could) respond like this:

  1. I am not strong, nor am I special. If this is what strong and special looks like, you can have it.
  2. Why am I an example of original sin? I didn’t do anything to deserve this. (Many who have physical disabilities—like me—were born with them).
  3. I thought God didn’t make mistakes. And I thought he was stronger than the devil. Is God imperfect or weak?

Obviously, the church’s theology on disability leaves a lot to be desired. There has to be a way to approach disability from a theological perspective that does not involve shame, sin, or mistakes.

I borrow heavily from theologian and sociologist Nancy Eisland [paraphrasing], “Somewhere within God exists the possibility for disability. God is so huge, who are we to say what is encompassed within the character of God? Therefore, we cannot say that disability is a sort of imperfection or mistake. It is something deliberately, intentionally given to us by God.”

This statement may be hard to swallow for both able-bodied and the disabled. Disability looks like a mistake to us. But is it a mistake from God’s perspective? I choose to believe that my cerebral palsy (CP) was given to me with purpose. Indeed, I am certain that CP has formed me for the better. How then, is my CP a mistake?

Further, if one is going to espouse the idea of disability from original sin, then one also needs to make sure it is abundantly clear that in Christ, our disability has been fully redeemed. We know that Jesus redeemed the world and saved us from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. We believe that he brings hope into seemingly hopeless situations. Many of us bear witness to his inbreaking power. Why do we think that the human body or mind is off-limits to God? Can’t his power reach that far? I’m not speaking exclusively of miraculous healing—although God is certainly able to do that if he chooses. I’m talking about the glorious mystery that occurs when a person or family thanks God for the difficulty of disability; when they find hope in times of desperation; and when the glory of God shines brightly in an imperfect physical or mental existence. That is redemption only God can bring. It is no less a miracle than being fully healed.

This is the theology of disability the church needs to adopt. The world only offers a message of shame, and to a large extent, this is what the church has offered too—except we cloak it in religious language, or we try to make it better by saying, “But you’re made in the image of God too.” Too? Oh, thanks for making room for me. No. People with disabilities are made in the image of God. Period. There is no too.

The perspective of a person with a disability is needed and valuable. Back in seminary, I brought my disability into a couple of sermons. Later, someone said to me, “It wasn’t really necessary for you to talk about your CP. You make it sound like that’s all you ever think about.” I was taken aback and felt a split second of shame and doubt. But disability is the filter through which I view the world. As much as someone (or I) might like, I cannot get away from it. This classmate was in no way mean-spirited, but he made me realize that some find my CP uncomfortable and would rather pretend it doesn’t exist or influence my life in any way. In that instance, I heard that my perspective wasn’t important and didn’t matter.

People with disabilities are not going away anytime soon. In fact, with the aging of the population and the rise (and associated risk) of multiple births, they are increasing in number. The church must reexamine its theology of disability, and then must use that theology to do a better job of connecting the worlds of the able-bodied and the disabled. The GCDM is a step in that direction. I applaud WTS for this important new program.

-Jill VandeZande ‘10

Campus Staff Minister

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Bakersfield College, CA