"Mary Frances, what is wrong with your hair today? It looks so weird, you really need to do something about it."
Ah, nothing like going to work and getting beauty advice from a seven-year old. Is this why I suffered through graduate school?
In my work with countless children as a speech-language pathologist for over a decade, I have heard and seen it all. When I finished graduate school and decided I wanted to work with children instead of adults, I worried that it might be too difficult. Day in and day out, I knew I would encounter children struggling with difficulties and diagnoses that many of us cannot even comprehend – developmental delay, autism, Down syndrome, apraxia, head injuries, hearing impairments - the list goes on and on. But what I found in those children was an amazing sense of hope, a resiliency that only children can show. I rarely, if ever, viewed those children as having disabilities. It seems silly, since the disabilities were why I had a relationship with them in the first place. But all I did was help them work through their challenges and celebrate their successes, just like other kids.
Because of my job, I thought I felt comfortable with people with disabilities. But then some dear friends invited me to accompany them on a week-long mission trip to Jamaica to serve in a rural village, specifically in a government-run infirmary which was home to dozens of adults with disabilities. Some physical, some cognitive, some men near the end of their lives, some girls only just beginning their lives. One thing all of these folks had in common is that they had been forgotten – by their families, the government, and in some cases even by the caretakers hired to look after them. My friends and I went with no other real purpose than to spread a little cheer. We sang songs, read the Bible and other books aloud, led art projects, administered basic medical care.When we first started planning the trip, I was very excited. But as the time drew closer for us to go, I started getting nervous about meeting the men and women we would be working with. With kids it always seemed easy for me to connect. Despite their disabilities, most kids love to sing, play, and learn new games. But what in the world would I say to these adults? Aside from the obvious fact that they were struggling with mental and physical disabilities and I was not, there were so many other differences between us - social, familial, economic. I felt completely inadequate for this new adventure. Then I remembered a quote from Mother Teresa, when she was talking about the poor to whom she devoted her life: "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." As the trip loomed closer, I began to pray that God would give me the eyes to see Jesus in each one of the people I encountered at the infirmary.
That week turned out to be full – full of fun, tears, laughter, frustration, fear, hope, and surprises (who could have guessed that Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler" would be the favorite song of the week?). Towards the end of our visit, in one of our daily debrief sessions, I told my fellow travelers about the words of Mother Teresa and the prayer I had been praying all week. But through tear-filled eyes, I told them that not only had I seen Jesus in each one of the men and women we had met, but I had seen myself there as well. I was struck by the profound truth of my own brokenness, my own scars, my own wounds. When Patricia, who had so little to begin with, gave me a Christmas ornament she had made, I was overwhelmed by my own materialism and selfishness. When Pearl invited me into her room to sit and talk, I was ashamed at how rarely I had offered the gifts of hospitality and time to my neighbors at home.
Some of us have the privilege of being able to hide our brokenness from the world, but others cannot. Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer referred to humans as "glorious ruins." We are all God's creation, glorious in our likeness to the Creator, but also, because of sin, ruins of what we were originally created to be. In 2 Corinthians, God tells the apostle Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I often thought this verse meant that as God's power was made perfect, my weaknesses would be taken away. But as I have studied this verse more, and lived more of life, I know this is not the case at all. Our weaknesses, struggles, and scars remain, but the God of the Universe transforms them and shows His power and love to a broken world. In the Bible, Jesus tells us over and over again that we must be like little children. For those of us who have spent time with children, we know that they have many perceived "weaknesses" from the world's perspective. But time and time again they rise up to face the world around them – they stand up, dust themselves off, try again, and, most importantly, they trust. These "weaknesses" are in fact not weaknesses at all. They are the tools God has given all of us in order that we might grow, discover, learn, and be transformed. He has allowed each and every one of us, in our own unique way, the opportunity to partner with Him in His work in the world. And luckily for us, He is in the business of bringing glory from ruin.
Mary Frances Giles works full-time at L'Abri Fellowship in Southborough, MA, and part-time as a pediatric speech-language pathologist in the greater Boston area. She doesn't get much sleep.