Often when I pray, I ask God to teach me something I didn’t already know. I ask Him to show me new insights into His character and nature, and to educate me in how to become more like Him. And often when I pray those things - God uses my own life as the lesson plan. Today I have been pondering and learning and realizing how significantly different I am than I was in the past. One of the most pivotal experiences of my life was divorce. The impact it had, and still has, on me has been profound and enlightening.
My divorce broke me.
I struggled mightily and deeply with the decision to end my marriage. I prayed and wept, and poured my heart out to God as I tried to figure out how to fix things that were not mine to fix. What I didn’t know, I realize now, is part of the reason I ended up in the desperate situation I ended up in was because I failed to understand the depth of God’s love. I was so concerned about what the Christians and other people in my life would think if I left my marriage I blocked God’s leading out of my life. But there finally came a point when I realized I could no longer bear the heavy burdens I carried. I was living my life mostly to try and keep my spouse from getting angry. Even though we projected a great marriage and awesome life, and even though we were strong leaders in the church, what happened at home was vastly different from what was seen in the public eye. I lost myself entirely as I struggled to continue a charade of happiness. I realize now, I had a sense of pride in myself and believed all my silent suffering and secret pain was done in a noble manner, because I believed my marriage was an encouragement to others to take their marriage vows seriously and keep the institution sacred. I also truly thought people would stop believing in God and following Him if I got a divorce. I was that arrogant.
I see now, how I was ignoring all the signs God gave me to show me He loved me no matter what. And He was not applauding my suffering. He heard my desperate cries and knew my deepest fears, and guided me along the rocky, painful path - through the valley and up the mountain of divorce. And along the way I was completely broken. I had to let God out of the narrow box of judgment I kept Him in and allow Him to surround and heal a completely broken, suffering soul.
I knew when I realized it was time to leave my marriage I was about to face the ugliness of Christianity. I lost a lot of friends during that long and dreadful journey. What I suspected and feared I might lose was my relationship with God. I didn’t see how He could still want to care about me when I was so clearly and publicly a failure. That’s when I learned about love. True love. Because in spite of everything that happened, God was there every single morning. He showed up every time I thought I was at the end of my rope and depression and despair threatened to overwhelm me.
Sometimes he used people. Often, the people who reached out to me were not people who would have fit into my previously very narrow view of those of whom God approves. They went to lots of different churches, and sometimes no church. And they blessed me. And through those blessings, I gained invaluable insight into Who God is, and how He loves.
I think we overlook that. A lot. I hear people talk about the Church becoming marginalized in our society. Individual churches try a lot of different tricks and gimmicks designed to bring people into the flock. If you live under a rock, you might not have noticed that churches have become quite contemporary - by doing things like changing their music styles so they can bring more of our society’s popular genres into worship, and adding an array of multimedia effects to church services, which can often rival the most talented artists and creative developers for entertainment in the world. And yet still I hear people say that the Church is dying. I think it is arrogant to believe God can only keep faith in Him alive because of our ability to add contemporary appeal to church services. Really? Did He create the universe or not?
I also think we, Christian believers, do not leverage the greatest tool we have. Love. Didn’t Jesus Himself say that to love one another is the greatest commandment? One time I posted a status on my Facebook wall about trying to love enemies, and how I believed we really needed to put judgment aside for awhile. I was quickly chastised by someone who basically told me people won’t try to build a relationship with God unless they know they sin. I disagree. I think people do know they sin. Most people I know are pretty good at recounting all the things about them that are wrong, and that they have done wrong. And most people are proficient at discussing how often they lay awake at night regretting decisions they made and the consequences they suffered.
What most people don’t know is that they are worth loving. No matter how broken, or dirty, or nasty they seem to anyone else.
I might strangle the next person who tells me the reason he or she doesn’t help others is because they don’t want to enable them. And asks me if I have thought about the fact I, through The Torch, might be enabling people. Really? Enabling them to what? To continue to live in poverty? Enabling them to continue to NOT experience unconditional love? Enabling them to sense that even though they don’t show it, they are broken and feel worthless when they continue to make poor choices and fail over and over again - and to feel there really is no place for them? Enabling them to stop believing their worth on Earth is less than ours? I don’t care how good and noble you are, or what political party you belong to, or where you go to church, or how cleanly you live your life, it doesn’t make you matter more than anyone else. Because EVERY life counts. EVERY life matters.
I am not going to say I get this lesson perfectly. I don’t. I struggle to love some people. But what I have seen since we started The Torch, is that no matter who the person is, when we simply reach out with genuine interest and love - and throw our personal judgment and biases out the window - people respond. Love is perhaps our greatest commodity, but, unfortunately, we miss it.
So many people act awkward when they encounter individuals with obvious disabilities. Because my job largely involves putting young people with disabilities out into the community to work and try to help teach them how to hold down a job, and sometimes, to fit in to society, I am hyper-aware of this. I have also spent over twenty years immersed in the world of the disabled and have observed and thought about this situation a great deal. I remember a very specific incident that happened when my children were young which really opened my eyes to the problem.
When you have toddlers in the house, it seems like somebody is always sick. I had four children, so our trips to the doctor’s office were frequent. My two older children are several years older than the younger two, so, when I would take the younger girls in to see the doctor, the older children would wait in the waiting room while we were in the examination room. Then one day, I took a deaf child along with us. The child was the same age as my older kids, and, as usual, I picked up the baby and started toward the examination room, only this time the nurse went into the waiting room and made the three older children join me in the examination room. She was clearly uncomfortable around the deaf youngster, even though he had excellent communication skills. It was interesting to watch. That was the only time the two older kids ever had to accompany me into the examination room.
I have thought long and hard about this situation, and have a wishlist of what I would change if I could:
First, we would stop categorizing people as anything other than people. I mean, when you encounter someone with a disability, stop yourself from thinking of that individual in terms of a person with a disability and think about him or her as a person. Period.
Second, treat everyone the same. Make it a habit to talk to everyone the same. Address the individual, not the people who are with him/her. Look at them. Look at their faces, their eyes. They are people. They have hopes and dreams, heartaches and joys just like you and I. Don’t stare, but don’t awkwardly look away. I think the more this is practiced, the more natural it becomes and you train yourself to start seeing people and not disabilities.
Third, don’t baby talk or talk down to them. Don’t turn them into pets or patronize them. When I am working with people trying to teach them how to hold down jobs it doesn’t help if everyone around them tiptoes around their disability. We empower people when we work to figure out why they make mistakes or struggle with certain aspects of a job and try to help them figure out how to overcome their barriers. If we just pick up the slack and do the work for them - we make them dependent, turn them into tokens, and strip them of their humanity. They shouldn’t get privileges or extra special care because they have disabilities, neither should they be discriminated against. We just need to be logical and practical and try to support independence as much as possible. Treat them like you would anyone else.
Fourth, don’t yell at deaf people. It’s only the deafness that comes with old age and too many rock concerts that can sortof be overcome when we yell. If someone is just plain old deaf, and relies to any extent on lipreading when you or I yell at them it distorts our faces and makes it even more difficult to read lips. Consider the fact the best lip readers only understand about 30% of what is said when it is spoken in a conversational tone - yelling brings that down considerably and draws a lot of unwanted attention, too. Writing is a better option. You have a cell phone - type a note! Technology has opened up the world of communication for deaf individuals.
Fifth, don’t let pity rule the day. Sometimes we pity children, teens, or even an adults who have disabilities - and we excuse their behavior because we feel sorry for them and the challenges they face. Don’t do that. Rudeness is unacceptable no matter who the person is. Don’t assume they cannot learn, or that they are even aware they are being rude. It’s okay to say if something hurts your feelings or if their behavior is unacceptable. Better to be told than to go through life making enemies. Natural consequences are great teachers.
Sixth, give them a chance. Don’t assume they can or can’t do anything - ask! I think often you will be surprised at how many abilities they actually have, and how hard they are willing to work to overcome obstacles.
Seventh - Again, remember they are PEOPLE first. People. First.