Four years ago our daughter Jane came into the world. In extraordinary fashion, she was born in our driveway during the pitch-black hours of the night before we could even attempt to drive to the hospital. Life-altering moments filled with confusion, adrenaline, and every kind of emotion. Those moments also carried with them the realization that Jane was born with Down syndrome.
I’ve been a pastor for ten years. Five of those years were spent organizing a new church in our hometown near the Ft. Lauderdale. We felt God had given us a specific and unique calling, one that would require all of our attention, creativity and passion. However, life took a significant turn that night, for me personally, for our family and for my ministry as a pastor.
In the four years since, I’ve had much to read, learn and reflect upon. This new life God has given has challenged us on every front. From doing away with typical parenting milestones, to adopting wider and more expansive views of God’s grace and the beauty of his diverse people. Amidst all of this, my calling to pastor and minister continued. While learning this new life with its new language and new conversations, I’ve also had to continue to lead. At times that task has been beyond difficult and completely overwhelming.
In our current cultural moment and for what seems to be the indefinite future, leaders who take up any kind of residence in the public space or in front of people are tempted to give quick and certain responses to the teetering events of the day. Instead of longer and more meaningful discourse on the overall climate of our lives, we are intoxicated with commenting on each and every daily “weather event.”(1) In my opinion, this is not limited to a running political or societal commentary, but also the extreme desire many of us have to speak about our experiences perhaps even before we’ve fully absorbed their meaning.
For instance, with the ever-growing ease in which we can produce content today, consider how many blogs, websites, instagram feeds and YouTube channels are devoted to motherhood, fatherhood, adoption, or a family’s journey with disability. I am struck by how many are produced from the perspective of someone relatively new to parenting, or relatively new to life with a disabled child or family member. Yes, we are gleaning from each other’s experiences, but more than anything, I find myself craving to hear from those who have walked the long, slow road ahead of us.
We need parenting instagram feeds produced by parents with adult children. In turn, we need more stories of disability to come from people with disabilities themselves, and from older families of disability who can help mark the path before us. However, that would require many of us to slow down and actually let our stories and experiences work on us and shape us before we lead, which in itself is a challenging word for a pastor to hear.
In many ways, slowing down should be the desired way to go about any life. Certainly, a life spent following Jesus brings its mountain peaks and moments of heightened joy. But, more often than not the Christian life is better described as a “long obedience in the same direction.”(2) Receiving from Jesus means we understand he is inviting us into new rhythms of life that often demand we slow down and genuinely reflect upon what he is up to. In so doing, Jesus is actually revealing the gifts of our Christian discipleship – his kindness and gentleness. John Swinton writes beautifully, “Jesus is restful, slow, time full. He holds our burdens. But, Jesus is also gentle. Timefulness and gentleness are deeply interconnected.
Life with my daughter Jane has forced me to slow down. Most of the time, I resist. I don’t want to slow down. I don’t want to change course or see a different, even potentially better way. But, if my delayed leadership in this area eventually makes me even a tenth more like Jesus, then it is worth however long is needed. This gentle gift of Jesus has brought my constant need to comment, add to, run past and think fast, into question.
How then does one lead when life is turning in a completely new direction? People naturally look to their pastors for conclusive thoughts and direction. But, how do you offer that when things are changing inside you, both in your mind and in your heart? When your personal and family life is heading in a different direction, what does it mean for your ministry?
Dozens of people have asked me how I think having a daughter with Down syndrome has changed me. The honest answer is — I don’t know. I have no doubt that it is, but hardly ever can I put my finger on how. That doesn’t always lead to the perfect pastoral sound byte ready for congregational consumption, but it’s real, and I think it’s true. I’ve tried to be slow to speak on these subjects publicly. Slow to add my voice due to the fact that I’m still trying to find it. Slow to lead my congregation because God is still leading me down the path that on my own, I would not have chosen to go.
In Henri Nouwen’s powerful little book, In the Name of Jesus, he gives a challenge based on Jesus’ strong words to Peter immediately following the disciple’s restoration in John 21:18-19. Nouwen writes:
The world says, “When you were young, you were dependent and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old, you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way and control your own destiny.” But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. Immediately after Peter has been commissioned to be a leader of his sheep, Jesus confronts him with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to the unknown, undesirable and painful places.”
I do not mean to equate disability with “undesirable, and painful places,” in a general sense. What I mean is that this new, different and more beautiful path is not the path of my choosing, but the path of Jesus in my life. Its pace is slower than I like, and it requires more reflection than I usually care to give.
My only hope to lead others well is to first recognize where I am being led. And though it is taking different shape than I ever imagined, the gentleness and kindness of Jesus is leading me to follow in the steps of a four-year old little girl. Maybe this is the path where we learn to lead like Jesus.
This article was originally published by The Disability and Faith Forum (disabilityandfaith.org). The Rev. Phil Letizia is Assistant Pastor of Discipleship at Boynton Beach Community Church (PCA)
1- For a helpful discussion of our cultural moment, including defining the differences between climate, and weather events, watch Greg Thompson’s talk, “Understanding Our Climate.” Retrieved from http://qideas.org/videos/understanding-our-climate/
2- Eugene Peterson. (2000). A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Westmont, IL: Intervarsity Press.
3- John 21:18-19.