By Bill Carroll
Recently, my wife and I went out to dinner with our 17-year-old son, Danny. Danny has both Down Syndrome and autism. Although he spoke more as a little child, understands far more than he can say, and knows some sign language, he is now almost completely nonverbal. In general, Danny is a very sweet kid, but he can be quite aggressive. It’s hard to know the cause. Especially if his medications aren’t right, he can go into a violent tantrum that lasts an hour or more, and he is getting more and more difficult to control when that happens.
A couple of years ago, we sent Danny for a long inpatient stay in a dedicated autism unit, where he was observed on camera 24/7 and was taken off all his medications, so that his doctor could adjust them. The meds he is on now are good ones, in the sense that Danny’s personality remains intact. He is awake and alert and very much himself, just not as prone to violent outbursts. Other medications he’s been prescribed either made him incredibly sluggish and sleepy, or, in a few cases, they made him even more agitated.
While at dinner, we could see Danny start to spin out of control, and we began to pay our check and hustle him toward the door. But he had had it and began to scratch. I got the people at the table next to ours to move out of the way and grabbed his arms so he couldn’t hurt them or any others around us. Between the restaurant and our car, he scratched me until I was bleeding, leaving deep lacerations all over my hands and forearms, including several more than a foot long. The bleeding has now stopped, and those wounds have begun to heal.
I’ve preached about Danny and these episodes several times over the years. People in restaurants and various stores and parking lots have been incredibly kind. I don’t know much about who these people are or what their faith tradition may be, but odds are (we live in Oklahoma) that many of them are our fellow Christians. On more than one occasion, an anonymous benefactor has paid for our meal. Or people have gone out of their way to reassure us when Danny made too much noise, spilled their drink, or threw some food on them.
For our part, we are committed to keeping Danny at home with us as long as it is humanly possible, though we know it may one day be in his best interests to live elsewhere. He is getting too strong for my wife to handle and I can only control him with great difficulty (and not without injury to myself) when his meds aren’t working, which fortunately isn’t very often.
For me, Danny’s outbursts are a reminder of the fundamental importance of the neighbor-love commanded and demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels. Danny has put us in countless situations where we needed the help and kindness of our neighbors. He has made me more sympathetic than I would otherwise be to those around me. As the oft repeated blessing of Henri Frederic Amiel would have it, we need to “be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”
Although he is non-verbal, I do see evidence of profound spirituality in Danny. He loves church and frequently receives Holy Communion. Although he (probably) doesn’t understand much of what is said in church, he knows he has friends there and that he is accepted and included. He knows Jesus through his brothers and sisters. The Gospel is very simple, and it is communicated both by word and deed. As someone said, we may be the only Gospel someone ever “reads.”
One of the most moving books ever written on living with people with disabilities comes from Henri Nouwen. In Road to Daybreak, Nouwen tells the story of moving into a L’Arche community. L’Arche communities, founded by the Roman Catholic layman Jean Vanier, are intentional Christian communities where developmentally disabled adults live with others who are typically developing, in a way that promotes shared living grounded in the Gospel.
One episode from the book has always spoken to me, in part because of the name of the man involved. Although he is better able to articulate his faith than our son, “Danny’s Prayer” speaks to some of our most profound hopes, both for our son and for the Church. The Church needs to be a place where me meet Jesus, fall deeply in love with him, and try to do what he tells us and follow where he leads.
Here is the passage from Nouwen:
During evening prayer we sang simple songs. And we listened to Danny, one of the handicapped men from Cork, who with great difficulty read from Jean Vanier’s book I Meet Jesus, and we prayed. Danny said: “I love you, Jesus. I do not reject you even when I get nervous once in a while… even when I get confused. I love you with my arms, my legs, my head, my heart; I love you and I do not reject you, Jesus. I know that you love me, that you love me so much. I love you too, Jesus.”
As he prayed, I looked at his beautiful, gentle face and saw without any veil or cover his agony as well as his love. Who would not respond to a prayer like that?
As we live our lives, we come to know that many people wouldn’t answer a prayer like that. Some of us are too mean. When confronted with human suffering, others wish they could help but can’t see how.
But God does know how. God has already answered this prayer, and many others like it, by sending us Jesus, God’s own Son, “to live and die as one of us.” God sends Jesus to love us and invite us to show our love in return. We are to love God with our arms, our legs, our head, and our heart. We are to love God with all we have and all we are. And we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
God answers this prayer in the flesh of Jesus. And through flesh-and-blood communities with Jesus and his love at the center. When these communities are most faithful, they become a movement on a mission, intrinsically oriented to outsiders and those who don’t yet belong. When we are most faithful, we answer the call of Jesus, who said “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
If we really understood this – and put it into practice – this world we live in would change. People would be less greedy. Our divisions would end. Hatred, violence, and injustice would end. Poverty would stop. So would the many ways we are so very afraid. We would live in harmony with God, each other, and the earth. Strangers would become neighbors, and enemies would become friends.
In the Name and power of Jesus, Christians are called to share this Good News. God calls us to know and share the love of Jesus. God calls us to cooperate with our non-Christian neighbors, to learn from them, to share our story, and to seek the common good. God calls us to create communities where neighbors help neighbors, where human divisions are overcome by love, differences are embraced, and ALL are welcome.
Like the song says, “They will know that we are Christians by our love.”
LOVE. Simple, this-worldly, practical love. That’s what our world needs most.
LOVE. That’s how God changes the world!
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.