A selfish society
At a previous time we paid attention to different aspects of family life. We discussed the matter of having children, adopting children, and raising children. It was pointed out that tender loving care has to be shown to children and that love must determine the relationship with them. Such love does not contradict discipline, but most importantly it involves care for the other and a willingness to bring sacrifices of self-denial. It is an important part of family life, but also a rare commodity today.
We live in a selfish society. Everything caters to efficiency. We are accustomed to throwaway items in every area of life. We discard everything that does not serve a purpose or is not worth being maintained or repaired. This trend can be noticed even with respect to human life. The older ones, the demented and useless people, and those who have become a burden to society have to be discarded by euthanasia. The little ones who do not fit in the program and are unwelcome have to be destroyed either before birth, or shortly after.
In this article we will not deal with abortion in general, but like to pay attention to the position of special children and our attitude with respect to them. The expression “special children” in this context refers to those who are different because of physical or mental deficiencies. They are also called the “handicapped.”
Prenatal care has drastically increased during the last decades. All kinds of tests can be performed before a baby is born, to determine whether the child is healthy or suffers some anomalies. Such tests can be very important but there is also danger involved, and caution is certainly required.
Such tests can be important to determine whether special measures have to be taken to protect the health of either the baby or the mother. It can even be a “life saving” matter. Sometimes labour has to be induced at an early stage or a caesarean section has to be performed to save the life of the baby or to prevent further complications, or worsening, of an existing condition. In all such cases prenatal tests are certainly important, can provide vital information, and should be used. However, there is also a dangerous aspect of which we should be aware. Some tests are performed to determine whether a child should be aborted or not. When a child suffers certain anomalies, especially a physical or mental handicap which cannot be cured, abortion may be recommended. That can happen in cases of Down's syndrome, spina bifida or other anomalies. Down's syndrome, also called mongolism, causes severe retardation. Spina bifida is a defective closure of the spine which can cause serious damage of the spinal cord, paralysis, and other severe problems. In such cases of prenatal tests the danger exists that a less scrupulous doctor will advise his patient to have an abortion. In a case of mongolism nothing can be done to change the situation and, therefore, it does not serve any purpose to let the mother know in advance that her baby suffers this disease. In a case of spina bifida a prenatal test can provide information to suggest the need for caesarean section to prevent unnecessary aggravation of the defect during delivery.
The main point in all these cases is that we have to accept also special children, with their mental or physical abnormalities, as human beings, created by the Lord, intricately wrought by His Fatherly hand, and of no less value than others. In what follows we will determine what our attitude and approach should be with respect to such special children and their parents. We often take it for granted that healthy children are born, but every birth is a wonder of God's creating power. To watch such a fragile creature makes one always wonder how people dare to destroy such a work of God's almighty hand with their cruel tools of abortion. It also makes one wonder how it is possible that such a child is so perfectly and intricately wrought by the Lord (Psalm 139:15). We should certainly not take it for granted that a child is healthy. Those who have been confronted by having “special children” realize what it means.
Now the question has to be faced how we approach such children and their parents. Are such children only a burden we have to live with? Are the parents only to be pitied for their unfortunate circumstances? Or do we consider also these children to be a blessing? Do they have an important place in human life and do they serve a purpose? In what follows we will see that they certainly are not less important than “normal” children but very valuable and precious indeed.
How precious they are!
There is a lot of misconception among outsiders about the value and the meaning of special children, and about the way parents feel and cope with their problems. Some consider the children only poor pitiable creatures and the parents unfortunate people who have to put up with an almost insurmountable problem.
Now no one can deny that such parents have a difficult task and that they certainly, on occasion, feel sad about their circumstances. However, more has to be said to give a balanced view about their situation.
When we deal with such families it is always a surprise to notice that they see their special child, in the first place, as their precious child, and not as a poor wretch. They enjoy all kinds of little things. They overlook the handicap. It is their child, a child that provides them with lots of joy, happiness, and unity in the family.
When you deal regularly with such children, you learn to see through their being different and you learn to appreciate their personality. It is certainly not always, and not only, a burden. Consider also how often a “normal” child can cause problems, discord, and frustration in a family. It is remarkable to see how such normal children can cause a lot of trouble and disunity, while these special children often cause an atmosphere of unity, closeness, happiness, and peace.
I have had the privilege of visiting different summer camps of physically and mentally handicapped children as well as special “catechism classes” or “Bible classes” for these children. There are few things I have enjoyed more than the openness, honesty, thankfulness, and happiness of such children. With normal adults and children you always have to be on your guard. They can fool you, pretending something which is not real. Although special children can react in an unusual way, and express themselves in an unexpected manner, they are often more honest and straightforward than many “normal” people. When a Bible story is told they can ask questions which give food for thought, and they can express their feelings and their faith in a way which makes you feel ashamed.
Dealing with such children has quite often reminded me of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, mentioned in Matthew 19:14,
“Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven,”
and in Matthew 18:3, 4, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Another aspect of this matter is the question how we have to treat such parents and their children. Do they need to be treated and pitied in a special way? A general guideline is that few people like it to be singled out or treated in a very special way. Handicapped people, adults as well as children, and the parents of handicapped children, want to be, and should be, treated as normal as possible. Don't systematically avoid speaking about the fact of life, but don't overdo it either. They want you to show interest in their child, his weal and woe, his progress, and how nice and special he is to them, but they also want to be treated as normal parents and not overly pitied.
Also the handicapped himself, either a child or an adult, has to be treated as normally as possible. You should not ignore a physical handicap, but not overemphasize it either. A handicapped person sometimes needs assistance. Such help should be given in a natural way, but don't take everything out of his hands. It can promote a person's self-esteem to show that he can manage without help. Even if it takes him some extra time and effort, don't be too hasty in taking over.
With respect to mentally handicapped or retarded persons, we have to be careful not to act or to speak in a childish way. Some people tend to use childish language, but keep in mind that retarded children, although they might not be able to express themselves in the proper way, can understand you much better if you use normal language. Moreover, how can they ever learn to use the proper phrases, if everyone speaks to them in a childish manner? They often understand more than we are aware of, although they are not always able to show it with a proper response.
The question has been discussed in many places and at different levels, whether special church services should be held for mentally handicapped children, or whether they should be brought into the normal services, or even whether they do not need to participate in the worship service at all, because they cannot understand it anyway. As is the case in many such situations, the answer cannot be given by a plain yes or no. They certainly belong to the congregation as children of the covenant, no less than other children. They should participate in congregational life as much as possible. Even when they cannot understand everything and do not always behave like others, they should be included as much as possible. They probably enjoy it more than we are aware of and being together with the congregation might mean more for them than for many a smart child or adult who does not pay much attention or sleeps all the time.
In general I am not in favour of special services for such children. We rather should try to give some attention to them in a regular service, if need be, and if the circumstances permit. A few words can mean a lot for them. They sometimes hear, feel, and understand more than we realize.
Once I preached in a congregation, while a group of handicapped children were there. They had a summer camp in that area, and a row of children in wheelchairs were sitting in front of the congregation. I had a sermon on Ephesians 4:20. In Dutch it says: “Gij geheel anders.” (You completely different.) It was a hot summer day. All the elders had taken off their jackets and walked in, in their white shirts. A retarded boy in a wheelchair was playing with a piece of paper and a pencil. After the service he showed one of the leaders of the summer camp his piece of paper. On it was a row of men, one of them black and all the others white. He had noticed that only the minister wore a black jacket and he had made his own application of the text. It was certainly not the most appropriate application of the text, but it showed at least that he had heard the text and that he had noticed what was going on. Such children certainly hear, see, and feel much more than we think.
Although I am not in favour of excluding such children from regular church services by introducing special services for them, I strongly endorse having special Bible classes for them, or giving them special instruction in another way, adjusted to their level of comprehension. That brings us to our next point, namely, how we use the talents which the Lord has entrusted to us.
Using the talents
In Matthew 25 we find a sermon of our Lord Jesus Christ about the kingdom of heaven and the day of judgment. Three parables are used to show us what the most important things are.
- First we find the parable of the ten maidens to show us that we always have to be on the alert.
- The second is the parable of the talents, showing us that we will be judged according to what we have done with the talents which have been entrusted to us. The more talents given to us, the greater is our responsibility.
- The third parable shows us what will count in the day of judgment, namely, how our attitude has been, not in the first place with respect to great things, but first and foremost in our dealings with our brothers and sisters. “Truly, I say to you, as you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (verse 40).
With respect to the issue at stake we can learn at least two things from this chapter. In the first place that it is of ultimate importance how we deal with these seemingly unimportant members of the church, these “least of the brethren.” Even a cup of water given to them, a visit, or a little proof of attention to them, can be so significant that it will be mentioned at the great day when the Son of man comes in His glory, and all His angels with Him, to sit on His glorious throne (Matthew 25:31-46). This chapter also shows us that we will be judged, not according to how many talents we have received, but according to what we have done with the talents entrusted to us.
In Matthew 21:31 Jesus warned the chief priests and the elders of the people, saying, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” That was a harsh statement to people who felt that they were the crème de la crème of the people. They considered themselves to be the first to go into the kingdom of God and they were very upset because of this admonition of our supreme Teacher.
Sometimes I wonder how many retarded or other handicapped children will go into the kingdom of God before highly regarded and self-confident members of the church. Handicapped children may sometimes act in an unusual way and they certainly do not understand everything, or only little about the things which we consider to be very important. But they are often more honest, and more straightforward. They do not put up a front. Many intelligent people pretend to be something they are not. They talk very nice, but behind your back they may be different. Also in the church there is a lot of disappointment and frustration because of people who deceive one another.
Retarded children do not have many talents. In dealing with them we also notice that sin does not leave any life untouched. But let us not disregard these children, who are members of the covenant, not less than the intelligent ones. They belong to the congregation and they have their place in the kingdom of God not less than others. That may be a comfort for the parents as well as for the children. In Matthew 19:13-15 we read that the disciples tried to keep children away from Jesus, but He laid His hand upon them and blessed them, and He said to the disciples, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” We are fully aware of the fact that this text does not speak specifically about retarded or other mentally handicapped children, but it still shows us that children belong to the kingdom of heaven not less than adults, and that applies also to special children. When the disciples were arguing about the question who was to be considered the greatest among them, Jesus taught them a lesson. He put a child in the midst of them and said,
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Let us take to heart this warning, and let us also remember what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9. We have to use all the gifts, the talents, and the energy which the Lord has given us, in the same way as a runner who competes in a race. Only the Lord knows whether we have used all our talents in the proper way, and whether we have run and competed in an honest way. Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 9:26,27, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Bear one another's burdens
In Galatians 6:2, 3 Paul says, “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
As members of the church, members of the same body, the body of Christ, we have to help and support each other. That counts in a special way with respect to handicapped children and their parents. The important question is: How we can give such help and support in the most appropriate way? How can we bear another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ?
We have mentioned already that we should treat such people as normally as possible. We should not single them out. Of course, we have to acknowledge that they have special problems, and we should not avoid a conversation about it. But we have to realize also that such parents have their own pride. They don't see their child only as a poor pitiable creature. Their child gives them a lot of joy and happiness, and it makes them feel proud of what he still is able to do, in spite of the handicap. Their child is a full-fledged member of the communion of saints. It certainly causes concerns, but let us not forget that “normal” and very intelligent children can cause problems which sometimes seem to be more difficult to cope with than the care of a handicapped child.
One who has had the opportunity to closely watch the family situation, will admit that the life of such a special child makes sense, and serves a purpose. Many a mentally handicapped child has been of more value for his environment, a greater blessing for his family, and of more significance for the kingdom of heaven, than has his healthy brother or sister.
Public profession of faith
The last point I like to touch on is the question in how far mentally handicapped children can make public profession of faith and take part in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. A number of aspects have to be considered in this respect.
In the first place we have to realize that the Lord has given two different sacraments. In baptism the Lord gives a sign and seal of His promises to the children of believers, “without their knowledge” (see Form for Baptism of Infants). In the Lord's Supper the believers are expected to participate actively in remembering the death of the Lord. Jesus has said, (according to 1 Corinthians 11:24,26) “Do this in remembrance of me,” and “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” Participation in the celebration of the Lord's Supper requires some knowledge and understanding, to “discern the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29). Before someone can make public profession of faith and sit at the table of the Lord, there has to be evidence given that the person has at least some understanding of what it means.
In the second place we have to realize that the Lord has given us this sacrament to strengthen our faith, but He can work with His grace and Holy Spirit also without the use of this sacrament. That is a comfort for those who, by reason of persecution, cannot celebrate the Lord's Supper. It is a comfort also for those who, because of illness, cannot attend the church services. We have to use the sacraments as far as we are able to, but the Lord can work also without these means.
In the situation of the mentally handicapped it means that the Lord can work in their hearts and minds, even when they are not able to take part in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The fulfillment of the covenant promises does not depend on how smart we are, but on how faithful we use the talents He has given us, no matter how residual these talents may be.
In the Canons of Dort, chapter I, Article 17, we read: “We must judge concerning the will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents. Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.”
We confess that the Lord can fulfill His promises, even when a child dies before it is born, and when it never has had any opportunity to accept or reject His promises. Would the Lord not be able to save children who are so severely retarded that they can never understand what the covenant means?
At the same time we have to be aware of the fact that public profession of faith requires knowledge, according to the talents one has received. A very intelligent student, with excellent marks in High School, has to show knowledge of Holy Scripture and of the Confession of the Church, according to his capability. The armour of God in his situation has to be aimed at a profound attack of the devil during his further study and in his career. I remember cases of less educated, simple people, who at an old age joined the church. In such a situation no one expects them to learn by heart the whole Heidelberg Catechism. A very basic testimony about their trust in the Lord is sufficient. The same applies to retarded and other mentally handicapped children. No one can expect them to learn, by heart, larger sections of the Catechism. I have seen cases in which retarded children confessed their faith in a very simple way. However, a basic understanding is required. They should realize what they are doing. If children do not have the slightest notion what the Lord's Supper is all about, they should not be admitted to the table of the Lord. Jesus has said, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” and the Apostle Paul says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” Those who do not have the slightest understanding of what it means, cannot take part in it. That does not mean that they are no partakers of Christ and all His benefits. The promise, signed and sealed in baptism, stands. It is for them no less than for the children, referred to in the Canons of Dort I, 17.
Let us not disregard these members, who might seem to be the least of our brothers and sisters, but who might turn out to be the greatest in the kingdom of God.