Being part of the same congregation since infancy has provided me with a volume of names, faces, and personalities that form my personal church history. There are women who changed my diaper on Sundays when I was in the nursery, taught me in Sunday school and never forgot to keep me in their prayers. There are men who always made a point to talk with me after service, conversing with me about everything from school to sports to faith.
My story isn’t unique, likely one among many. But there’s a name and a face who’s been attending my church for as long as I’ve been in existence, probably longer.
If you’d meet him, he’d surely introduce himself in a deliberate, halting voice: “Hi, I’m John. What’s your name? I’d like to shake your hand.”
And with a limp right hand, he’d shake yours at a tender, plodding pace. He likely won’t remember your name and will ask you again when the service is over, having you repeat the introduction once more.
John has an intellectual disability, one that affects his speech and motor skills. The words he does say are spoken clearly but laboriously. Always on time and rarely absent, unless visiting relatives for holidays, John remembers that we take communion every first Sunday of the month, reminding me as I set it up along with my father.
He likes his gray hair buzzed close and always makes sure to put his tithe in the offering basket, placing scribbles and swirls where his name and address should be.
And he has a ministry of his own—at least I think so.
Watch him during worship service, and you’ll see him sitting down, his left hand and arm tucked into his chest. You’ll also discover him waving his right hand in the air as the worship songs play and the congregation sings. He’s smiling, swaying side-to-side in his seat, his pale blue eyes nearly covered by half-closed eye lids.
John makes me long for heaven, for the warm enfolding of Christ.
Sneaking glances at him during worship evokes the same kind of ache that Revelation 21 inflicts. Who doesn’t read verse 21 without a burn in their veins? He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
In my experience, reading those words blows on any fading embers in my faith. I can’t close the Bible on that chapter and not find clarity. Heaven isn’t an abstract principle. We’re heading there on a narrow road because Jesus’ blood carved a route, putting our redemptive stories in order.
Similarly, John preaches me that very sermon as I witness him worship. I cannot help but eagerly anticipate seeing him in a glorified body.
I don’t write that condescendingly or to be profound. It’s just that John still seems to recognize the reality of Christ resurrected every Sunday Morning at 10:10 a.m. Can he articulate every bit of theology or give his public testimony? Likely not. But I don’t believe his raised hand and contented smile amidst worship are purely emotion or mirroring of other church members. He’s got it.
Don’t misinterpret me. I am not eager to see John depart from this earth anytime soon, nor am I in any way suggesting that his disability makes him less than human.
Rather, John’s faithfulness refuses to go unrecognized when I interact with him. When you meet him, it can be tempting to speak to John like you would a child or just simply say hello and quickly make your way to another aisle.
He’s difficult to communicate with, but what no one can underestimate in John is his steadiness. Sunday after Sunday, he finds his way to a seat, shuffling unsteadily.
John won’t receive his reward here on earth, for he hasn’t been privy to the comforts associated with the trajectories of normal lives.
He didn’t get to have a career, marry or have children. Living in a senior assisted living center, he relies on caretakers to meet his needs. He’s dependent on the willingness of others to engage him, and as a result, has often been disregarded. I wonder, “Has he experienced the joy of friendship, the freedom of shaping the course of his life?”
Yet the lack of these experiences does not devalue John’s existence. Skeptics would use his condition as a loaded gun pointed at God’s heart, demanding furiously, “How could a benevolent Creator permit this?”
We could launch into the theology and apologetics of the question, the answers and rebuttals all colliding together.
But when I watch John worship, that begins to fade away before my eyes. I think he knows where his home rests. His disabilities do not detract from the image he’s molded from. They are temporary, already dethroned before the foundations of this world existed.
When John departs to glory, that which encumbered his daily life will meet its end, having been swallowed by the majesty of the King’s presence. Like the rest of us, he’ll be utterly transformed amidst the splendor of Christ, liberated from the distortions that robbed him of normal physical and cognitive function.
John’s life testifies that eternity is enormous. Keep watching him worship, because it’s that picture that reminds us all he has lived a full life, counted among those who have brought praise to the Almighty. He is neither subhuman nor angel. He is John, precious in God’s sight because he chose to create him, to have a purpose on this earth.
You see, Satan, the ever-overconfident and greedy thief, thought he could kill, steal and destroy without resistance. John’s outstretched arm during Sunday morning declares that the Thief has come up empty-handed once more.
I am not the “chosen one” who has some kind of special relationship with John nor am I using him as a prop to show off my Christian bona fides. On more than one occasion, I’ve underestimated him, brushing him off with a few throwaway greetings, struggling to communicate with him.
But John’s gotten to me, an unintentional ministry though it may be. I didn’t ask for it, nor did he plan for it. Yet I cannot forget what he’s taught me with a smile and a raised hand:
The Good News was always and has been finalized. We are not abandoned after all. There is closure coming in heaven.
It’s basic, but Satan has dedicated his existence to distorting the basics. It would be easy to look at John and think God has abandoned him. But God has grasped John and John keeps shaking His hand.
Someday soon, we will take our leave as well, and Christ will vanquish the heavy torments personal to each of us.
It’s a point of unjustified pride of mine that John knows my name, and when he sees me, greets me by my name and shakes my hand. I earnestly hope I get to shake John’s hand in heaven, to express these things I’ve written about him, things he isn’t able to understand in the here-and-now.
Sometimes, I don’t recognize the precious blessings I have been given in this life.
The Good News has been finalized. We are not abandoned after all. There is closure coming in heaven.
I don’t wish to repeat the same mistake with John.
*Author’s Note: The name “John” is a pseudonym and used to maintain the privacy of the individual.