December 4, 2014—A couple days ago, my husband and I were sitting at a sub shop with our good friends Terry and Chris, enjoying victory sandwiches, after their team won a basketball game against the Bearcats. They play in a basketball league for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and watching their games is always super fun. That night one of their team members had a bad stomachache, so they both brought up our need to pray for him. We got back to their house (they both live in L’Arche – an international federation of faith-based communities where people with and without disabilities share life together), and we had a time of prayer for their teammate, and whatever else was on our minds.
This lovely, intimate time of us holding hands and praying next to Terry’s bed made me think again that in the many years I have known Terry and Chris, and been involved at L’Arche, some of my favorite moments have come during times of prayer together. The first time I prayed with the community was during a neighborhood potluck gathering at their home, about a year before I started volunteering. I found my heart touched by the prayers of the core members (community members with disabilities), especially Terry and Chris. I didn’t know exactly why at the time, but something about the natural tenderness and sincerity of their prayers stirred my heart in a deep way.
That prayer time lasted quite a while, longer than I think anyone anticipated, as Terry and Chris both thought of more things to pray for and express gratitude for. They prayed for upcoming trips and holidays, for their families, for the weather, for each other, and they thanked God for the people they loved who were sitting together with them, joining them in prayer. Though now I have prayed with the community hundreds of times, I still find the prayers of the core members often filling my heart and renewing my spirit in unique ways. Sometimes this is because of a specific phrase someone will use that causes me to see God or my friends or myself differently. Terry especially has a way of using language in prayer that is full of poetry, and I find it a great joy to pray with her.
Several times I have driven home contemplating something she said in prayer that was simple, profoundly wise, and beautiful. Once she asked Jesus to wipe her face with kindness. Other times she begins her prayers by saying, “God, I just don’t know what to say,” which I now realize tends to be the intro to some of the most profound moments of prayer I have ever shared in. Like when she says to Jesus, “I love you from the bottom of my speechless heart.” Hardly more profound words have been spoken. But even more than the words said during prayer, I have really come to admire and appreciate a certain style of prayer modeled by some of the core members. They pray in a way that combines talking to God while also talking to people around the circle. For example, someone may begin their prayer by thanking God for the presence of a special guest at dinner that night, and then turn to the guest and tell her how much she is loved and appreciated.
For a long time I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this practice, since I’d never experienced anything like it. Prayer to me was always talking just to God, and if I talked to another person in the middle of my prayer I would have considered that an interruption. But here, talking to God and talking to another person at the table are all parts of the prayer together. Though I am not completely sure how they would articulate the practice, it seems to go something like this: “First I am going to say some things to my good friend, Jesus. Now I’m going to say something to the person sitting next to me, who is also a good friend. Oh, and then I want to tell Jesus one more thing.” The prayer has a fluidity that is very similar to casual conversation among a group of close friends, and it has challenged me to see and experience prayer in new ways. The ease with which they flow in and out of talking to God and talking to a person displays a casual, unguarded conversational style that grows only out of deep trust and intimacy.
They talk to God with love and reverence and with the same heartfelt honesty as they talk to the friend sitting beside them. It shows how real God is in their lives – God is at least as real and attentive and near as the person they can talk to and touch. I admire this gift, since at times I struggle with feeling as deep an intimacy with God as what I experience regularly in close friendships. But over time together their gift has begun to rub off on me, for which I’m grateful. Though Terry and Chris have gifts uniquely displayed in them, they are not unique in being gifted. And reflecting on this has made me think once again (and I think it pretty often) what a significant loss it is when our sisters and brothers with intellectual disabilities are either ideologically or logistically kept from being able to share their God-given gifts with their churches and the larger body of Christ. It happens ideologically when we view people with intellectual disabilities as sweet angels we can minister to instead of co-laborers in the gospel called to lives of repentance and radical discipleship along with everyone else. And it happens logistically when churches have a “special needs class” and our community members with disabilities are confined to the disability ghetto without also having space to form meaningful relationships with the rest of the community. In Advent, during this time of watching and waiting for Jesus, I hope we can be on the lookout for Jesus showing up in the people around us – maybe especially people with intellectual disabilities, and other members of the body whose gifts tend to be overlooked in our churches. I guarantee that those gifts will outshine anything under a tree this year.
Bethany McKinney Fox (MDiv ’06) is Director of Student Services and Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. She recently completed 4.5 years serving as Co-Director of Student Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, and has been involved with L’Arche as a volunteer and assistant for many years. Bethany graduated with an MDiv from Columbia Theological Seminary in 2006, and then with a PhD in Christian Ethics from Fuller this past year, with her dissertation titled “Disability, Healing, and Jesus: Practices and Perspectives from the Gospels.”
She has written articles on how to see disability and disruption in worship services and holistic ways of understanding the healing work of Jesus. She enjoys singing loudly, exploring the music, restaurants, art, and parks of her city, and learning about people’s passions. She lives in central Los Angeles with her delightful, musical husband Michael and their foster hamster Hildegard of Bingen. The Center for Lifelong Learning is in the early stages of planning for an event tentatively slotted for late spring 2016 that will address how to better incorporate the gifts of children and youth with disabilities into congregational worship and spiritual formation/education ministries. Bethany is one of the conversations partners in this process.