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Death can be a terrifyingly mysterious thing, especially when it happens in unexpected ways or to the most vulnerable people like children. I think it is fairly safe to say that the majority of people do not enjoy death. Death is something we like to avoid at all costs and that is a taboo subject to bring up. That’s why we have invented all these clichés like “knock on wood” or euphemisms which we hope will soften the blow of the reality like “she passed away peacefully in her sleep last night.”
As real and as difficult as death may be, it has also long been a topic of theological fascination. The truth is, no one knows what heaven is like because none of us have experienced it and will not experience it until a later date. So, I typically don’t discuss it much because I feel that it’s more important to talk about concrete topics of the “here and now” that we can actually make a difference in. If there are people who are starving I’m going to give them food rather than just theologize to them about the topic of the afterlife which I have very limited knowledge about.
That said, these past few months our community (at L’Arche) has been facing a very difficult time. In L’Arche lingo we would say “we are living a lot”. This is because one of the pillars of our community recently passed away and although she lived to be a very good age, after L’Arche being her home for so long it has left an indelible hole in each one of us. During this specific person’s illness and passing, it has given me a chance to not only grieve before the actual death took place, but also to work through some of my own theological understandings. I did, after all, study Theology for 4 years and I am still very much a seminary student at heart.
I know that often times people from outside the community have attempted to comfort me with words such as “she will be in heaven which is infinitely a better place and she will be given a new body and a new mind.” Yet, the more I have thought about this theology the more it disturbs me. Once again, I admit to the fact that I do not know very much about heaven – only what I have studied in school and read on my own and that I have very biased opinions most of the time. But in all honesty, I believe that to think that there will be no disabilities in heaven is rather abelistic.
I know that the Bible says in Revelation that there will be no more pain, suffering, crying, or fear and for sure, many disabilities cause these things. When someone is born with spinal biffida or cerebral palsy that can cause physical pain in their life. When someone is born with a severe developmental disability that might also cause a lot of suffering for them. Sometimes I hear core members at L’Arche literally crying out in pain, and many people with disabilities live in fear that they will not be able to provide for themselves or that their most basic needs will not be met. So how does knowing this compute with the fact that I believe that there are disabilities in heaven?
Well, I truly do believe that in heaven if there are disabilities they will be much different from what we experience here. I don’t think there will be any shame or stigma attached to the disability, and I don’t think that there will be physical pain accompanying the disability.
I am also not too sure of what having a new body all entails. I know that someone who was born with blindness might truly wish that they could see and someone who is born with deafness might truly wish that they could hear the sound of a waterfall or of lovely music playing. This might especially be true for someone who was born without any impairments but who developed impairments later in life either because of an accident, illness, or aging. I am not sure if people who have development disabilities ever wish that they didn’t… from what I observe at L’Arche, I believe that there may be some people here who truly do wish that they were the same as others and some of them really do pick up on the fact that they are different. Sometimes that difference has been cherished and their unique gifts brought out, other times they have been looked down on by society and taught to think that they are somehow not special enough or not loved enough.
I also know that I do not believe that disabilities are caused because of parental or generational sin. I think back to John 9 where Jesus heals a man who is born blind and his disciples ask him who sinned: this man (while he was still in the womb) or his parents, and Jesus replies that neither sinned but that this is so that God’s glory will be magnified. Of course, in this specific story the man was healed. Sometimes I ask myself, what if he had not been healed, how would this story have changed? Would Jesus still have assured the disciples that there was really no sin involved and would the blindness still be considered as a way to bring God glory?
I’m not too sure, but I do know that working in a field with people who have disabilities often times those disabilities can really bring out the beauty in a person. It’s because I work with people who have disabilities that I am able to receive love and support from them in a way that is so genuine and so mutual. It’s because they have disabilities and they can’t all talk or walk or even feed themselves that I am able to really build community. In some ways, to the world it appears like the last place you would look for community. How are you supposed to have community with someone who doesn’t even respond to your presence or who will never say thank you or “I love you”? But in so many other ways, it’s actually the most natural place to start looking for community because there is an intense desire to be loved, to receive physical touch, and to really get to know the heart of a person without the layers of superficiality. During my time at L’Arche and the time I spent before that working on the Alzheimer floor of nursing homes for 2 years, I have come to believe that some of my best friendships have been with people who did not speak audibly, but only with their heart. There is something special about learning how to communicate in this way especially in a world that just won’t shut up.
I believe that people with Down Syndrome, Autism, and other mental delays add a certain bit of fun and laughter into our lives that more logical thinkers miss out on. They help remind us of the simple joys and pleasures in life and the importance of forgiveness and other theological concepts that we are still wrestling with while they have been living them out for years.
So, I think about my core member who has passed away and I truly believe that she is in heaven right now and that she is still has her developmental disability. After all, the Bible says to let the little children come to God because of the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them. People who have developmental disabilities are often in a childlike state even though they are adults and should be treated as adults. I believe that God welcomes them into His Kingdom with open arms and that they enjoy being with Him and sitting on His lap. I think they get to enjoy all the pleasures they faced in this world without the pressure to conform to the abelistic society. In fact, in my own opinion heaven would be boring if there were no people with Down Syndrome. I don’t think I would ever really want to go to a heaven like that.