People with Disabilities

My Most Wonderful Teacher — A Reflection for Father’s Day

“You’ve been given a wonderful teacher,” his note said, and in that moment I knew exactly what he meant. Let me back up first and explain.

After completing my first year at seminary, Beth and I got married at St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Melbourne, FL. That was twenty-four years ago on June 9. Beth had never lived north of Orlando. Then here I come along, moving her to Evanston, IL, the first suburb north of Chicago, into student housing in the middle of the Northwestern University campus and into real winters. Real, cold winters.

For the next two years, while I finished my M. Div., we enjoyed the life of newlyweds and wanted to start a family. Surprisingly, that took longer than we had anticipated. We were both in our 30’s, and it took us more time to conceive than we would have thought. Not until we had moved to Dallas, where I began my curacy at Church of the Transfiguration, did we finally have success. In the spring of 1993, Beth got pregnant.

After a textbook smooth pregnancy, when Jonathan finally came into the world we discovered that he had Down Syndrome and pulmonary hypertension, the latter of which landed him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Medical City in Dallas for a month. Our heads swirled with all this news and the shock of what had transpired in our little guy’s life from the moment he was born. In serious condition, his survival was not certain early on. We wanted to keep him so badly that we came to accept his having Down syndrome rather quickly.

“Just let us keep him,” we prayed. While he settled in at the NICU, we had to break the news of his birth, and what had transpired since, to our family and friends. So I wrote a generic letter, filled with apologies for its impersonal nature, and quickly sent it to all our family and friends. People felt anxious and called our house. Our answering machine filled daily with people’s thoughts and concerns.

One person I sent Jonathan’s birth announcement to had served as Chaplain to our seminary community that first year of mine at Seabury-Western, while Beth remained in Florida teaching elementary school and planning our wedding. Recently retired from serving as Abbot at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI, for umpteen years, Fr. Benedict Reid listened to us seminarians and loved us. He  guided us spiritually through the challenges of transition and seminary life and formation for ordination. He taught us to walk a spiritual path with habits that will shape us.

One of his mantras, no doubt gleaned from years and years of contemplative prayer and reflection, he repeated regularly until we began to fully understand its meaning: Everything is your teacher. “Everything is your teacher,” he would say, meaning that for one who sits in silence and listens and pays attention, we can see the events of our life as “teachable moments” for ourselves. This is completely counter-cultural to life in these United States, and in most branches of Christendom. Silence? Reflection? Contemplation? More reflection? Understanding? Perhaps.

So when Fr. Benedict got our one page announcement of Jonathan’s birth with pulmonary hypertension and Down syndrome, he wrote one of his little postcards and sent it to me from Palm Desert, CA, where he lived then. “You’ve been given a wonderful teacher,” his note said, and in that moment I knew exactly what he meant. That simple reframe, even before Jonathan had left the hospital, made all the difference for us.

For me, the prospect of being a parent seemed frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Little did I know during Beth’s pregnancy just how becoming a father would change me fundamentally, as it changes all parents. Yet, being the parent of a child with a disability magnifies those parenting highs and lows in unique ways. That is, for those parents who are paying attention and those who choose to engage with their child’s disability, living with it always. Not all parents choose to stay together and deal with it when a child is born with a disbility—sad, but true.

Being the youngest of six sons in my family of origin, I never really spent any significant time around infants or small kids. I didn’t know what to expect developmentally as Jonathan grew. I simply loved him for himself, as himself, Down syndrome and all. I didn’t know when he “should” start walking, didn’t know at what point he “should” be talking—I figured Jonathan would do what he could when he could do it. I really didn’t think about what or where he should be on the child  development scale. I just got into him and loved him, played with him, laughed with him, and held no expectations to be any better or different than who he was. And he did the same for me, as his father, and for Beth, as his mother. His love is still as unconditional today as in those very early days of his infancy and childhood. What an incredible gift.

Jonathan helped to change my image of God. The church I grew up in certainly espoused God’s grace and unconditional love, but it also implied conditions and expectations of behavior and belief that, without words, undermined a true understanding and teaching of God’s unconditional love. Maybe you have had a similar experience or upbringing.

Only later, as an adult, did I ever come to recognize the dissonance the teaching of the church of my childhood created in me, in my life of faith, and in my relationship with God. In essence they believed “Even though you don’t deserve it, God’s willing to save you anyway, because God is so nice and great. But he still doesn’t care for the way you behave and you should feel guilty for what you’re becoming,” which to me meant that God didn’t unconditionally love me. Then God gave us Jonathan.

“You’ve been given a wonderful teacher,” Fr. Reid told me. What can a child with Down syndrome teach me? How much God loves me, and then some. Jonathan has taught me that love really is just that: Love. Love doesn’t keep marks or grudges (see 1 Corinthians 13). He taught me that joy should be the natural setting of daily life (Jonathan has got a lot of happy going on throughout his day).

Most of all, he has taught me that love requires presence. We  Americans don’t always get this one right. Sometimes after a long day, it’s easier to veg out in front of the television than to sit down and talk or play a game or read a book at bedtime. But when we make the effort to connect intentionally, boy is Jonathan willing to connect, and laugh, and play—and surprise us with his words sometimes.

Jonathan’s biggest delay is his speech, but every now and then he lets out an utterance that is so profound, or spot on, or funny, you had to be there to appreciate it. And being there requires presence and a willingness to listen. Jonathan has a way of drawing you into his presence, though rarely insistent.

You can already see how my relationship with Jonathan is analogous to and can possibly reframe one’s relationship with God: That God’s love for us truly is without keeping marks or grudges; that joy should be the natural, daily setting in our lives; that love requires mutual presence. God desires our daily presence, just sitting in silence, or contemplative prayer, or in active speech to God. That’s right. Got a beef with God? God already knows how we feel, but God wants us to say it anyway, so God knows WE KNOW what’s going on with us (you may want to do this last bit in private, but say it out loud just the same). God has a way of drawing us into God’s presence, though rarely insistent.

Then there’s his eyes. In Jonathan’s eyes I believe I see an inkling of the deep, profound love God has for me. We could never love another as fully as God loves us, and since I know that Jonathan loves me so deeply, so profoundly, then God must love me in ways I am only beginning to understand.

Likewise, Jonathan has beautiful eyes when he looks at you—at me. Surely God’s eyes for me are no less loving, no less beautiful. Only in profound love does God look upon us, or so I feel.

Yes, in my son, I have indeed been given a wonderful teacher. Thank you, Fr. Abbot.

However, couldn’t the same be said for any child of ours? Any sibling of ours? Our spouse or partner or significant other? Our neighbor? The hungry, the homeless? The least, the last, and the lost? Maybe this way of looking at God’s love reveals to us the true meaning of that line in the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That in seeking and serving Christ in them, seeing their eyes, we get a glimpse of God’s love for us? Maybe so. We should sit with that for a while.

For me, that is just one lesson I have learned from my most wonderful teacher, my son, Jonathan.

“Everything is your teacher.” Look around you, friend: We all stand surrounded by wonderful teachers.