earth's handicap; heaven's gain
A Tribute to the Mentally Challenged
by Garnett Reid
Read Intersect by Garnett Reid.
They had come to say goodbye to their friend who had left them. Supported by caregivers or pushed in wheelchairs, they came one-by-one down the center aisle toward the green casket at the front of the chapel. A one-of-a-kind fellowship of the broken, the mourners were God’s special people on parade.
All of them were residents of Clover Bottom Developmental Center in Nashville, a facility serving the needs of people with severe mental and physical challenges. The one they had come to see, their friend whose body lay in the casket, was my uncle, Kenneth Haun, himself a 50-year resident of the Center. Because of a birth defect he lived all of his nearly 77 years depending on the care of his family and the loyal staff at Clover Bottom.
I watched with amazement as they paid their respects. Some gazed vacantly ahead with no sign of recognition; others sat disfigured with twisted, misshapen bodies in their wheelchairs. Many drooled uncontrollably. They displayed an assortment of wardrobes—everything from stocking caps to dappled scarves and mismatched, worn sport coats.
One lady sat by Uncle Kenneth’s casket for a long time, her head swiveling involuntarily from side-to-side. With great effort, she would lift her head, stop its motion, deliberately look at him for a few seconds, and then let her head sink and begin the swivel again. Tears clouded her eyes.
It was my privilege to preach Uncle Kenneth’s funeral that day. Here is an abridged version of my remarks.
I WANT TO BORROW JESUS' WORDS spoken to the women who grieved for Him as He trudged along the Via Dolorosa toward Calvary. “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Everything God makes exists to glorify Him—even wrath and weakness of men. From our perspective, nothing could be worse than the murder of the only perfect man who ever lived. Yet even in the death of His Son, God revealed His infinite glory. “Do not weep for me.”
In my mind, I hear those words echo from Uncle Kenneth. I am confident that he can now form the syllables perfectly, with full understanding of every word! “Don’t cry for me.” Why would he say that?
“To Such Belongs the Kingdom”
First and most significant, he is with the Lord, at the Father’s side in unimaginable peace and delight. I base this confidence not on feelings, but on God’s Word. While it is true no chapter or verse directly asserts that the mentally challenged are in heaven, it is also true that no chapter or verse explains the Trinity, either. Yet we infer its truth from the teachings of Scripture. I believe the same is true regarding the eternal destiny of infants and the mentally ill.
The Bible teaches that our guilt is two-fold. First, our inheritance in Adam’s sin condemns us. Second, we face God’s judgment because we sin personally and willfully against Him. While Uncle Kenneth (like all of us) inherited Adam’s guilt, it is also the case that (like young children and infants) he lacked the moral capacity to be accountable for willful sins. You and I are liable to God for sins we knowingly commit; Uncle Kenneth knew no such liability.
Christ’s death in our place removed the first kind of guilt—the racial guilt we inherit as a result of our depravity. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Paul also taught, “As by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [Christ’s atoning death] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Romans 5:18).
That’s why we believe infants and the mentally ill enter Christ’s presence in heaven when they die. They are not innocent, yet Christ’s sacrificial death for all people removes the sin we inherit from Adam. “The angels of these little ones always see the face of my Father who is in heaven,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 18:10). “Suffer the little children to come unto me; and forbid them not… of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).
The sins we commit willingly bring judgment (Ezekiel 18:4b; Revelation 20:12-13); our only hope is to trust Christ. Those who have the capacity and the opportunity to believe in Him must do so; otherwise we have no righteousness on our own—nothing or no one to answer for us when we stand before the Lord. For us, justification is by faith in Christ alone.
One thing is certain. When we stand before the righteous Judge of all the earth, we can be certain He will do what is right (Genesis 18:25).
On the Loose in Heaven
Uncle Kenneth would say, “Don’t weep for me” because he is alive today—not only in our memories—but in reality, in spirit, in that part of each of us that will never die. We do not cry for him because his joy is beyond our comprehension. We are mistaken if we think of his life, or our own, in terms of this existence only. I suspect his joy in heaven is even greater than those who enjoyed this life in a way he did not. What freedom! Suddenly loosed, delivered from the bondage he knew here, to think, to know, to comprehend the joys of heaven. Imagine a blind man who recovers his sight as he stands overlooking the Grand Canyon.
Imagine Kenneth Haun on the loose in heaven! I’ll bet the angels are exhausted already. His first fully rational sensation was to wake in that place of inexpressible delight, united with his family who know him as they never did here. If Heaven had a web-cam, I imagine we’d see him in his right mind (as Scripture says of the Gadarene demoniac healed by Jesus in Mark 5) either running to his heart’s delight or marveling at His Savior.
Candy Bars, Bulldozers, and a Goat
God loved Uncle Kenneth, and he shared that love with others. We delighted in the things he enjoyed. He loved his family and animals, especially dogs and his goat. He loved Milky Way™ candy bars, orange sodas, babies, trucks, bulldozers, and road graders; but he didn’t love bees or electric fences. He loved to eat and to run. I remember trying to keep up with him down the dusty, gravel road at the farm. He wore my cousin Billy and me out quickly. We would marvel as he kept on running.
The Secret Things Belong to God
We should not weep for Uncle Kenneth, thinking his life was an unfortunate accident, a waste, or a terrible tragedy of fate. He was a reflection of providence, an occasion for the goodness of God to be demonstrated through him. His life was a gift from the hand of a loving Father. How can I make such a claim?
Scripture (and the evidence of history) make it clear that God “worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Ephesians 1:11). Whatever happens, nothing just happens! God means to be glorified in all things. “I make well-being, and I create calamity . . . . My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” he assures us in Isaiah. But how exactly does Uncle Kenneth’s life, the sudden death of a child, a young man stricken with cancer, or the overdose of a young addict fit into God’s plan? I must confess ignorance here. God doesn’t confide those details of His agenda with us. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor . . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33, 34, 36).
I learned a long time ago the principle of Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
I accept God’s sovereign purposes by faith, confessing my smallness, my limited, pitiful comprehension. Unlike many rational people who suffer because of their poor choices, Uncle Kenneth was spared the brunt of sin’s ravages. His lack of guile and unpretentious laughter stand in sharp contrast to those who mask their fear, guilt, and pain. In him we found at least one person with no pretense, no airs—someone trying to be who he was not in order to make an impression. He was the most honest person I have ever known or am likely to meet.
Bigger Hearts Mean More Room
He brought out the best in all of us when we listened and cared enough to give him our attention and love. His family and caregivers met his needs for nearly 50 years, and they served Christ as they served him. Those who give their lives to special people, whether they know it or not, glorify God by their dedicated commitment, their labor of love. Families with handicapped or challenged loved ones learn to give in a way others do not. Their hearts are stretched farther, making more space for others.
Ironically, Uncle Kenneth was among the best teachers. Certainly he was the most demanding. He taught all of his caregivers to give unselfishly. And Uncle Kenneth returned that love in ways that were unconventional, yet rich and satisfying beyond measure. His caregivers were confronted with their best and worst—the best when aiding him in his helplessness, the worst when selfishly turning away in embarrassment.
Pour Yourself Out
Make no mistake. We do not weep for this child of God made in His image, regardless how he looked to us or to others. No, people like Uncle Kenneth do us all a favor when they remind us we are all truly dependent. No one is truly self-sufficient. We won’t admit it; he couldn’t admit it.
The mentally (or physically) challenged are still people—thinking, feeling, acting beings loved by Christ, the Father, and the Spirit. Scripture reminds us over and over that God resists the proud. He casts down the mighty, the strong, the self-sufficient; but He gives grace to the humble. He lifts up the poor, the handicapped, the weak, the down-and-out, the unlovely, and the oppressed. He uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. He was a friend of sinners. He perfects His strength in those who are weakest. He expects us to do the same.
“We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves,” Paul wrote (Romans 15:1). Isaiah put it like this: “And if thou draw out [pour out] thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity [darkness], and thy darkness be as the noon day: and the LORD will guide thee continually . . . and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isaiah 58:10-11).
The Truly Handicapped
We should pity ourselves more than Uncle Kenneth. We shouldn’t grieve over chances he never had, but over the ones we ignore, neglect, or take for granted. We should lament our own brokenness, handicaps, and weakness. The truly handicapped stumble through life’s routines without acknowledging God’s grace. In blindness, they refuse to trust Him.
Our question to God should not be an accusation, “How could you let this happen?” but a statement of appreciation, “Why have you blessed me so much in light of how I live?” We should admit with Jeremiah, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, KJV).
God perfected His strength through the weakness of Uncle Kenneth in ways we do not understand. We catch a glimpse of our own character in how we help the weak and needy and hurting.
Uncle Kenneth was Christ to each of us. Remember Jesus’ words? “I was sick and you visited me.”
The disciples responded, “Lord, when did we see you sick and visited you?” “Truly, I say to you,” he answered, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:36, 39, 40).
It is time to act on the grace God gives us, trust Him to set us free from our sins, look around and meet the needs of others, and love the unlovely as Christ loved us. Thank you, faithful and merciful God, for touching our lives through your child, Kenneth Ray Haun. To you alone be glory. Amen.
All of us leave this world handicapped, weak, and broken—totally dependent on the God who restores shattered vessels and brings the dead to life. One of my Uncle Kenneth’s friends uttered a deep, low groan of grief as he approached the casket. I remembered Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:4, that while we are still in this “tent,” this body, “we groan, being burdened.”
But the groaning will not last long. The final word belongs to Christ Himself, and it is not a groan but a shout—a cry of triumph that will raise these mortal tents and replace them with new, glorious structures fit to live with Him forever.