God’s Faithfulness and the Challenge of Parenthood

By David F. Watson and Harriet S. Watson –

On Thanksgiving Day, 2006, Sean David Watson was born. He is our second child, four years behind his brother, Luke. A few hours after his birth, we found out that Sean likely had Down syndrome. Three days later, a chromosomal test confirmed this diagnosis. Shortly thereafter, we learned he had a serious heart defect and would require open-heart surgery, which he underwent at four months of age.

When you learn that your child has a chronic disabling condition, it’s like getting hit in the forehead with a two-by-four. There is shock, pain, and sadness. Suddenly the future for this child — and your own future — looks very different than what you had envisioned. It is one of the most disorienting and frightening things a person can experience. Were it not for the fact that we were and are Christians, saved by Christ and upheld by the power and work of the Holy Spirit, we might not have fared well through the initial months of Sean’s life.

We have learned this much: God is faithful. He has been faithful to our family and at work through this little boy who is now 7 years old. God has sustained and comforted us through painful moments and has given us incredible moments of joy. He has brought our family closer together. He has given Luke, who is 12, a heart of compassion, patience, and maturity, and has created a bond of love between these brothers that is amazing to behold.

God has given us a great gift in Sean. Like any kid, he has his challenges, and then he also has a few more. Sean, however, is a child, not a disability. He lives with a disability, but it does not define him! He is a child of God who bears the divine image. He is a beloved son, brother, nephew, and grandson. He has a sense of humor and a mischievous streak a mile wide. He loves to play Angry Birds, jump on the trampoline, and watch Curious George. He is full of life, personality, and emotion, and demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), particularly love, joy, kindness, and goodness (we’re still working on patience, self-control, and a couple of others). He lives in the moment, something many busy adults would do well to emulate.

The Watson family with Tim Harris, owner of “Tim’s Place” in Albuquerque, New Mexico – the only restaurant owned and operated by a man with Down syndrome.  Photos courtesy of the Watson family.

The Watson family with Tim Harris, owner of “Tim’s Place” in Albuquerque, New Mexico – the only restaurant owned and operated by a man with Down syndrome. Photos courtesy of the Watson family.

God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). In people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, we see exemplified the same power that was in Christ, who emptied himself, becoming incarnate and taking on the vulnerability of the human condition. This is not to romanticize their disabilities, but to note that often the particular impairments of such people keep them from the traps of narcissism, pretense, and delusions of grandeur.

By being in relationship with people like Sean, we learn how to be more faithful disciples. They show us that we can shed our desires for control and power, and accept instead the Christ-like virtues of vulnerability and humility. Put differently, Sean shows us the heart of God, and we have become better people through his witness. We’ve learned to see life in a new way and understand that what the world sees as valuable — prestige, wealth, and fame, for example — have no eternal value.

Make no mistake: raising Sean has real challenges. It can be both frustrating and exhausting. Despite the fact that we live in a place and time when there are more resources for people like Sean than at any point in history, raising a child with Down syndrome simply has unavoidable challenges, some of which are quite significant. However, God does not call us to lives of ease and leisure. God calls us into the hard places of life, not away from them, and sustains us by his grace through trials and obstacles we may never have imagined. God is faithful.

Raising Sean has also caused us to reflect on the relationship between the church and people with disabilities. Sometimes we hear people say, “Well, our church doesn’t have anyone with disabilities.” First of all, that statement is probably untrue. Many people live with hidden disabilities. Second, when we are intentional about welcoming people with disabilities, lo and behold, they tend to show up more often in church. Today about one in five people live with some form of disability, and many feel alienated from the church. While most churches have some form of architectural accessibility, it can be quite minimal; people in wheelchairs can get into the sanctuary, but it’s hard. For some people with disabilities, loud music can be prohibitive. Others need assistive listening devices or sign language interpreters to participate in the service. No, we can’t do everything, but all of us can do something.

David and Sean Watson.

David and Sean Watson.

Some churches are starting “gentle” worship services. These are low-key gatherings of song, prayer, and sermon where the normal unwritten rules of worship don’t apply. The music is generally acoustic, rather than amplified. There may be a sign interpreter. Kids with intellectual disabilities can run around and make noise if they want to. There is normally moveable seating to make room for wheelchairs. These church services change the expectation of what worship can be, and they can help to change attitudes. They emphasize welcome and participation in ways that we don’t often see.

Many parents of children with disabilities just quit trying to come to church. From first-hand experience, we can tell you that leaving your disabled child with someone you don’t know well can be very difficult. With Sunday school volunteers, for example, one wonders how they will cope with some of the behavioral challenges that might attend working with children with Down syndrome or autism. When Sean was two, we dropped him off in a Sunday school classroom, walked the length of the church building to the sanctuary, and then noticed that he was standing right behind us. The teacher didn’t know that he had run out of the room until we brought this to her attention.

Families of children with disabilities can feel isolated and alone, especially if they aren’t connected with other families facing similar challenges. These families need Christ. They need to know that they have a Savior who loves them and loves their child as much as any other. They need — sometimes more than parents with “typical” children — the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit. They need divine guidance and a rich prayer life. They need a community of loving people to support them. We should be doing everything we can to welcome these families into our churches. Even minimal staff and volunteer training on ministry with adults and children with disabilities can help. Additionally, some public acknowledgement that the church is intentionally welcoming of people with disabilities — perhaps some signage in the church, or even an ad in the newspaper — can go a long way. Ministry with people with disabilities is not simply a justice issue. It is a part of our evangelistic mandate.

It’s important to emphasize here that we should engage in ministry with, rather than ministry to or for, people with disabilities. This is a crucial distinction. People with disabilities have important gifts to bring to the church, and they have unique perspectives from which the rest of us may learn. Sometimes they are called to ordained ministry, and we should celebrate their calling. Whether or not we live with some disability, it is God who works within us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). God works through people of all abilities. People with profound intellectual disabilities, who cannot communicate and have quite limited cognitive capacities, are no exception to this truth. If we are intentional about being in community with people of all abilities, we learn much about God, ourselves, and human relationships.

Harriet, Luke, and Season Watson. Photo courtesy of the Watson family.

Harriet, Luke, and Season Watson. Photo courtesy of the Watson family.

We spend considerable time in the UM Church talking about “social justice,” yet our construal of this term can be quite narrow. Because of prenatal screening, 80-90 percent of fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome are terminated. Once such screening becomes more advanced, we should expect this practice to extend to many other disabling conditions. It is common, moreover, for people with Down syndrome to be denied potentially life-saving organ transplants. What does this say about the way in which we regard such people? Are they less human? Less sacred? Are they lesser creations of God? Are they aberrations? As Christians, for us the answer to each of these questions must be a resounding “No!” That is not, however, the default position of our culture. Followers of Christ must provide a counter-cultural witness, insisting that people of all abilities matter, none less than the other.

People with intellectual disabilities represent one of the most vulnerable population groups in the world. It is very difficult for them to advocate for themselves. God is faithful, but the question is, will we be? If Christians will not take up the cause of these children of God, who will?

David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary. He regularly blogs about issues related to the UM Church and people with disabilities at www.davidfwatson.me.

Harriet S. Watson spends most of her time raising two boys, Luke and Sean. Prior to taking on this important full-time vocation, she was a regional sales manager for a sports marketing company. She is a United Methodist layperson, advocate for people with Down syndrome, and active participant in Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.

Comments

  1. Petey Bellini says

    Thank you David, Harriet, Luke and Sean for your faithful witness.

    -pb

  2. Tommy Artmann says

    Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing it, and thank you for your faithfulness.
    One of the most positive influences in my life is a friend with Down Syndrome. The life of many is richer because of my friend’s faithful witness for Christ.

  3. Thank you so much for your article. In April my precious little grand-daughter surprised us by arriving 3 weeks early. Seven days later we were told she had Down Syndrome. Having been in education most of my life, and now a local pastor of a two point charge, I was totally devastated. Although I had worked with special needs children in the classroom setting, I could not believe that this was happening to our family. LIttle Sadie Anna is now 18 weeks old and is a total bundle of joy. She is truly a special gift from our Heavenly Father and we now look at the world through different eyes. I see the needs of my churches in a whole new light. This has been a difficult time and a real “game-changer”, but I know that the Lord is going to use the life of our little Sadie to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. As individuals and as a church family, we need to be reaching out to others with special needs.
    May the Lord bless you and your family and again, thank you for this great article making people aware of the need to minister to our special needs individuals and their families.

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