The Stranger Is the Presence of Jesus Not yet Discerned

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I wrote this devotional for the Strangers in the Land devotional series from the Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church. Read more devotionals or subscribe to receive them daily via email during advent on their archive page.

"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4: 8-10)

The stranger is always potentially the friend not yet discovered, the brother or sister not yet recognized, the presence of Jesus not yet discerned. . . . The ability of the Christian community to welcome persons with disabilities, and the ability of persons with disabilities to live joyfully in the midst of the church, will be an important measure of the church's ability to live fearlessly and joyfully in the midst of a broken world. (Spirituality and Hospitality: What the Church Can Learn by Welcoming Persons with Disabilities)

When I dream, I picture a church that fully engages people with disabilities in its life and ministry. Unfortunately, because the experience of disability is foreign to church members who are temporarily able-bodied, people with disabilities can feel like strangers in their own congregations. Even people who grew up in the church who were born with a disability, or acquired it later in life, can feel ignored, pitied, and even rejected because they live with a disability—strangers in a community of which they are a part.

In contrast, Chelwood Christian Reformed Church in Albuquerque has done exceptionally well at including people with intellectual disabilities. A typical congregation has one member who has an intellectual disability out of every hundred, but at Chelwood the ratio is one to eight! A member at Chelwood, Sherry Ten Clay, told me the following story which she gave me permission to share.

Mark and Phillip, who both have intellectual disabilities, take offering each Sunday. One Sunday morning as I was waiting at the front to receive the offering, Phillip suddenly stopped and put his offering plate on the pew. He reached for a plastic bag in his back pocket and concentrated on opening it carefully. He then proceeded to pour the coins from the bag to the plate. The sound of the coins hitting the wood made wonderful music and attracted everyone’s attention. Phillip then stood up, grasped the plate, turned around and continued walking toward the front, his smile filling up his face. I was in tears, experiencing his joyful giving. One thing I love about our congregation is that we had all the time we needed to give Phillip the opportunity to give his gift. No sighs, no secret glancing at the clock, just contentment and love in that room. I can bring up that image of Phillip’s face at a moment’s notice. It blesses my day.

Clearly, Phillip and Mark are not strangers at Chelwood. May God help every church be communities in which no one is a stranger, where everybody is understood, everybody belongs, and everybody serves.

Prayer
Jesus, just as you welcome us into your kingdom, help us to love each other deeply, offer hospitality to one another without grumbling, and encourage each to use the gifts we have received to serve others, so that everyone of us is a faithful steward of God’s grace in its various forms. Amen.

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