The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Do we see that what every child brings to Jesus, whether they have additional needs or not, is enough and can be used by him?
Jesus met lots of people, engaged with lots of people, helped lots of people during his three years of ministry; some of these, perhaps a surprising number, were children.
Some of the children had additional needs of some kind, although not all, but each of the encounters Jesus had with these children can teach us something about additional needs… So, let’s look at some of their stories, meet some of these children, and understand what they can share with us about additional needs!
1. Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43)
Jairus was one of the synagogue rulers; we had already read earlier in Mark’s Gospel that some of the synagogue rulers and Pharisees were looking for ways to accuse Jesus, yet here is one of them that is seemingly willing to put that to one side if there is a chance that Jesus can help his sick and dying daughter. Jairus pleads with Jesus to come and heal his daughter, and Jesus agrees, but on the way he is interrupted by the woman who touches his cloak and is healed, and by the time Jesus reaches Jairus’ house the girl is dead.
Jesus, saying that the girl is merely asleep much to the mocking of the crowd, goes in with the parents and the disciples and commands her to arise, which she does. She was aged 12-years old. Jesus tells the parents and his disciples not to tell anyone what he had done.
So, what does Jesus’ encounter with this girl teach us about additional needs? Well, there is the obvious account of her not just being healed, but actually being brought back to life, however there is also the much deeper thought that Jesus responded to the needs of her as a child. She was important enough for Jesus to journey to save her, to literally ‘go the extra mile’ to meet her very desperate need. It is also relevant to note that Jesus didn’t heal her to receive praise from the crowd, on the contrary he told the parents and his disciples to keep this to themselves. He didn’t do it to curry favour with the synagogue rulers either… he cared about this child.
Do we consider every child equally important? Do we ‘go the extra mile’ for children with additional needs, meeting their needs? Do we do so not to receive thanks or praise, or to curry favour, but because it’s what Jesus would do, quietly and unassumingly caring and helping?
2. The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30)
Just a couple of chapters later we meet another parent, this time a Greek woman born in Syrian Phoenicia. She had a daughter, described as being possessed by an evil spirit, and she came to Jesus to seek his help for her girl. At first, Jesus is harsh with her, saying that because she is not Jewish he cannot help her “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
The mother responds with great grace, humility and wisdom, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Because of her reply Jesus saves her daughter, the mother returning home finding that all was well.
Again, what does this story tell us about additional needs? Well, perhaps that the initial response that Jesus gives the mother is one that many parents of children with additional needs will be familiar with… “I won’t/can’t help you”, “There is no place for you/your child here.” Yet the mother doesn’t respond to Jesus with hostility, but with humility, grace and wisdom, and in so doing changes Jesus’ mind. Her daughter is saved. Up until this point, Jesus had focussed on his ministry to the Jews, now through this woman’s wisdom, his ministry extended to the Gentiles too.
If our child with additional needs is turned away, rejected, how do we respond? With hostility and anger perhaps, that’s a natural response, but what if through a response filled with grace, humility and wisdom we can change someone’s mind? And in doing so not only change that mind for our child, but for others too?
3. A boy described as having an evil spirit (Mark 9:14-29)
Further on again in Mark’s Gospel we meet another child, this time a boy who is described as having an evil spirit. Reading the account, it is possible that this boy has epilepsy, and perhaps other additional needs. His father had asked the disciples to heal the boy, but they had been unable to do so.
The boy is brought before Jesus and promptly fits again. There is some discussion about the belief in Jesus of the father who is rebuked by Jesus for saying “if you can do anything…”, Jesus responding that “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Jesus then heals the boy, and subsequently answers the Disciples’ questions about why they had been unsuccessful in healing the boy themselves; “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
What does this passage teach us about additional needs? Well, it is a passage often used, incorrectly, to rebuke parents of children with additional needs for their lack of faith… the point made being that if the parents had more faith, their child would be healed, comparing parents with the father of the boy in this story. Jesus here though shows us that healing depends on the power of God, not the extent of our faith. The disciples had proved powerless and the father’s faith was limited. It is God who decides who will be healed or not, rather than the level of faith or lack of faith of the parent(s). Jesus explanation about prayer shows that victory over the enemy, of which this healing is shown as an example, is not to be won cheaply but at great cost, going on to teach the disciples about his death and resurrection.
Do we attribute healing or lack of healing to the faith or lack of faith of parents? Or to our own power or lack of power? Or do we accept that it is God’s power that heals, and God alone who chooses who will be healed or not?
4. The little children and Jesus (Mark 10:13-16)
Changing tack from stories about children who were saved or healed, our next story is the familiar one of Jesus and the little children. People brought these little ones to Jesus, and the disciples rebuked them and tried to send them away. Jesus was indignant and said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He went on to point out that only those who have faith like that of a little child, with the simplicity and trust of children, can enter his kingdom. He then welcomed the children into his arms and blessed them.
Again, what does this teach us about additional needs? Well, this account is one of very few where Jesus is recorded as being indignant. People might think that there are more important, more worthy spiritual matters than the spiritual welfare of children, but not Jesus. He saw in their simple, trusting faith how we should all be; they are an example to us all. Jesus welcomed all the children… and he still does, whether they have additional needs or not, and however they can express their faith. If we do differently, we risk the indignation of the King of Kings!
Do we truly see the worth of children as Jesus sees them? Do we think there are more important matters than the spiritual welfare of children? Do we show in our own lives the simple, trusting, childlike faith that unlocks the kingdom of heaven? And do we therefore welcome all children, every one, in the same way that Jesus does?
5. The boy with the loaves and fishes (John 6:1-13)
Our final story is the familiar one of the feeding of the 5,000 (at least that’s 5,000 men, with probably at least that many women and children too!) This vast crowd needed to be fed, but the disciples didn’t have any food with them, and indeed were unlikely to be able to afford the huge catering bill that feeding perhaps 10-12,000 people would have entailed!
At which point we are briefly introduced to a boy who offers his lunch; five small barley loaves (little rolls), and a couple of small fish. Jesus uses this meagre offering to feed the massed throng, with 12 baskets full left over afterwards.
What message about additional needs do we have here? Well, this boy brought all he had and offered it to Jesus, and although in human terms it seems woefully inadequate, it was plenty enough for Jesus. Every child, including those with additional needs, can bring what little they have to Jesus, their little faith, their simple worship, their trusting love, and it’s enough, more than enough, for him. Enough to overflowing, enough to sustain others.
Do we see that what every child brings to Jesus, whether they have additional needs or not, is enough and can be used by him? Like in the story above, do we again see here that it is this childlike simple trusting faith that Jesus values? What every child brings is enough… what Jesus then does with it is amazing!
My prayer for us all is that through these children, their stories, their interactions in different ways with Jesus, we will see our own children, or those we work with, as so very precious to Jesus. And, in addition, we will see that rather than expecting children, including those with additional needs, to be like us, especially in church for example, we should learn to be more like them…
Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.