By Chris Hulshof
For almost two decades, Al Leiter was a professional baseball player. He played for the New York Yankees, Florida Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, and New York Mets. As a baby-faced rookie, however, he had the distinction of being featured on an erroneous baseball card.
His 1988 Topps Future Stars baseball card doesn’t feature his picture. Instead, the card features a little-known minor-leaguer named Steve George. Topps would eventually correct its error and re-release Leiter’s Future Stars card.
It was an easy error to make. Al had only played in four games the previous year. He was almost as unknown as Steve George was. Now, before you go rushing off to see if you own one of these error cards in hopes of selling it for big money, you should know there were plenty of them produced. You won’t be able to retire off of it, if you do have one.
An error like this is interesting. One wonders how it could go undetected through all of the layers of quality control that Topps had to have in place. How did this get missed?
We can ask a similar question with regards to the way we approach disability ministry. Our internal quality control may not catch these three errors that ultimately undermine the truth of the imago Dei in the life of a disabled individual.
1. Project-based ministry.
Project-based ministry is often a ministry that lacks the element of friendship. More than likely, those involved in the service project will demonstrate hospitality to those they’re ministering to.
There’s a difference, however, between single-event hospitality and purposeful life investment that creates grounds for friendship. People with disabilities are all too familiar with those who show up for a limited time, interact with them at their convenience, and then leave never to be heard from again.
For those who are cognitively aware, they know when they’re simply the recipients of another person’s charity instead of their friendship. This type of singular, service-oriented ministry facilitates the kind of environment where we view those with a disability as a project instead of an individual created in the image of God, a person to be loved.
Consider the youth group which takes an evening around Christmas time to go caroling at a senior living community. This event is often the only time the youth group or even this church has any contact with those who live in this community.
A service project like this emphasizes project-based ministry over a relationship-based ministry. How much more effective would the ministry of the church be if it purposefully engaged the residents of this senior living community throughout the year?
A commitment to this type of life involvement would result in year-round opportunities like a community “car wash” where wheelchairs and walkers of nursing home residents are washed and repaired.
Or maybe “game caddies” where church members volunteer to assist or play games with those in this senior living community. Since we’re in the throes of Vacation Bible School season, you can even host an adult VBS program designed with the residents in mind.
Moving away from project-based ministry through one-time events communicates the church is interested in caring for the disabled individual rather than simply meeting a need when it’s convenient.
This kind of ongoing ministry is founded on the biblical truth that every human being, regardless of age or ability, is made in the image of God.
2. Curiosity based questions.
It’s interesting to consider that something modern society values as a skill, medieval theologians considered a vice. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas presents scholarship as a virtue and curiosity—its opposite—as a vice.
For Aquinas, curiosity was rooted in wonder that was divorced from learning. This was seen in individuals who had an appetite for information without the determination to see it through.
Aquinas believed the vice of curiosity was behind desires like wanting to know information to pridefully show of a certain level of knowledge or knowing something that shouldn’t be known.
He also believed curiosity manifests when people want to know something at such a level that it consumes time and energy from our God-given responsibilities, or when a desire to know something leads back to the flesh instead of the love of God by the power of the Spirit.
Some of the desires Aquinas recognized in the vice of curiosity can subtly appear in a conversation with a disabled individual or their family members.
In this unhealthy discussion, we direct the focus towards the disability rather than the individual. The conversation is shaped by curious questions related to a diagnosis, medications, or life expectancy.
These types of curiosity-related questions define the individual by their disability rather than as a human being created in the image of God. Indeed, nothing so subtly strips a disabled individual of the imago Dei than curiosity-based questions.
When these questions don’t lead back to loving God by loving the one who is disabled, the curious desire for knowledge is a vice and not a virtue.
There are two kinds of people who ask me about my son. The first group asks about his diagnosis, his surgery, or his prognosis. They never ask about him.
In other words, they want to know about the conditions that have rendered him disabled instead of the truth that proclaims him made in the image of God, the crown jewel of God’s creation, and “very good” as God pronounced over human beings in Genesis 1:31.
The second group of people will ask some of the same questions. However, our conversation doesn’t end there. Instead, it comes around to questions about my son and questions about God and His faithfulness.
This is a conversation that isn’t simply a curious quest for information about a disability. It’s a conversation about my son and how to minister to him and our family.
3. Cultural based worldview.
How would you describe the world we live in? While all believers recognize the biblical truth that we live in a fallen world, few consider how this reality shapes our descriptions of life on earth.
Popular culture often perceives the world as normal. If Christians aren’t careful, they can subtly adopt this line of thinking as well. This means they go about their normal life in a normal world doing normal things.
However, this isn’t how Scripture explains everyday life. The Bible paints a picture of a world that’s abnormal because things aren’t the way they were when they were first created.
When we adopt an incorrect view of our world, it ends up undermining a biblical view of disabilities. In her book, “Same Lake, Different Boat,” Stephanie Hubach notes that if we embrace a faulty worldview, we’ll end up considering our world to be normal and disabilities as something abnormal.
However, Hubach argues the Bible puts forth a completely different picture. Because we live in a fallen world, disabilities are a normal part of life in an abnormal world. Further, Hubach believes that because of their normalcy, disabilities happen with a high degree of regularity in our abnormal and fallen world.
Seeing disabilities this way helps move disability language forward. It removes words like abnormal or unnatural from our thinking when it comes to understanding those who are disabled.
This allows us to move beyond language and vocabulary to humans so that we correctly view those who are disabled as made in the image of God.
Churches and individuals need to pause and consider how their ministry orientation, personal questions, and worldview impact their ministry to the disabled.
Doing so will go a long way to affirming the imago Dei in a disabled individual. It’s this pause that acts as a quality control mechanism to evaluate if an error is made and what we need to do to correct it.
CHRIS HULSHOF (@US_EH) is an associate professor for Liberty University’s Rawlings School of Divinity where he teaches Old Testament Survey, Inductive Bible Study, and a Theology of Suffering and Disability. He earned an Ed.D from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where his research focused on the intersection of disabilities, theology, and church ministry.