Devoted… an important word, one which we often hear, and a word that we all probably think we fully understand; but do we? How truly deep a word is it? And what might it mean in the context of caring for a child or young person with special needs; whether as parent, carer, other family member, children’s/youth worker, etc?
Dictionaries gives two very helpful definitions of the word ‘Devoted’:
1. Very loving or loyal; “He is a very devoted parent”(devoted to who someone is).
2. Given over to the display, study, or discussion of; “There is a museum devoted to her work”(devoted to what someone does).
Let’s look at both of these themes:
Among the letters written by the Apostle Paul, he wrote to the church in Rome, and in Romans 12:9-13 he talks about love… true, devoted, love:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
Thirteen themes then—thirteen ways to demonstrate love for others. I’ve been thinking about these thirteen ways a bit this week as I prepare a church talk for Sunday morning, and as I’ve thought about them I’ve realised how they can apply to our journey as parents, carers, other family members, or children’s/youth workers engaging with children/young people with special needs.
- Love must be sincere… love comes first in this list before everything else; it sets the tone for the rest. It is God love, genuine, honest love; not hypocritical or self-serving, love that seeks what is good for the one being loved above everything else. We put the needs of our child first, loving them unreservedly, unequivocally, eternally. Love flows throughout the remaining 12 behaviours; the rest all grow out of love, are grounded in it. Let’s keep looking at how to love like this.
- Hate what is evil… not just avoidance, but a deliberate purposeful act. I don’t hate that my son James is Autistic, it’s an important part of who he is, but I hate how he is sometimes viewed and treated by society. How he can be bullied, and as he is non-verbal struggles to tell us. How he can be afraid, but lacks the communication skills to help us understand what he is scared of. How the system seems stacked against him at every turn. Those things I can hate.
- Cling to what is good… Paul is calling us to be connected to what is good as inseparably as tendon, bone & muscle are connected. Physical injury such as a torn tendon is incredibly painful, disabling; so is being torn from what is good, it can be spiritually disabling. I see the good in James, I see God working in him and through him. When we pray or sing together (me praying/singing, James joining in with his very limited repertoire of words such as “me”, “yes”, and “amen!”), I see such love in his eyes, in his smile, the light shining from his face. Love that comes from God, shining through James… I cling to what is good.
- Be devoted to one another in love… Paul uses words meaning ‘family’ love. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, for many their experience of family is painful, not loving. What Paul is talking about here is knowing each other’s flaws, but loving each other anyway… an apologising love, a forgiving love. An honest and challenging love, a unifying love, an enduring love… The love Jesus shows to us… There are times when James really winds me up, presses all of my buttons. There are other times when I’m having to clean up after him, yucky jobs that when he was little I didn’t imagine I’d still be needing to do for him aged 16. But that devoted love cuts through it all… it washes away any resentment I may feel as surely as I wash away the mess.
- Honour one another above yourselves… This again requires love, putting others first and ourselves second; selfless love. Creating a culture, a way of living, that sees the needs of our children first, and our own needs last. And by getting this right for our own children, we are better able to help create inclusion and belonging for all.
- Never be lacking in zeal… zeal for the things of God characterises Christians, it shapes us and drives us. For those of us caring for a child with special needs this zeal can burn brightly as we do all we can for them. Be passionate, be committed, but be careful! The special needs world is littered with people who are burned out; we can spend so much of our time zealously fighting for our child that we totally ignore our own care. We are no use to our child if we are too weak to help them.
- Keep your spiritual fervour… allow yourself to be on fire with the Holy Spirit. Be open, be ready and be willing, be waiting expectantly for God to speak to you, and through you, through the Holy Spirit at any time. God can use our experiences, our journey with a child with special needs, in all sorts of good ways if we remain open to him…
- Serving the Lord… unreservedly, holding nothing back, all-in. Whatever we are called to do… whatever. Remember we are all members of that one body, and we all have our role to play. Maybe being a parent or carer of a child with special needs makes us God’s choice to advocate for them, or to help and support other parents starting on this journey, or to run a group at church? Maybe our experience working with children with special needs in a school, for example, makes us God’s choice to be the ‘Inclusion Champion’ at our church?
- Be joyful in hope… in the time Paul was writing to the church in Rome, life for the early church was hard, but joy and hope shone through. Life can be hard for us too, parenting or caring for a child with special needs is a roller-coaster ride physically, emotionally, spiritually, but we can choose how we respond. Do we choose to remain stuck at that moment of diagnosis, filled with grief for what might have been? Or do we choose to accept that things are going to be different, and for the sake of our children and ourselves commit to celebrating the joys, however sparing they may be, and to hold on to the hope of more to come?
- Patient in affliction… keeping the faith, even through the suffering; to endure. God doesn’t promise we won’t suffer, in fact quite the opposite, but he does promise he’ll be alongside us throughout. And God can use our suffering and turn it into something wonderful. When James’ was diagnosed, aged just two-and-a-half years old, I remember in grief asking all those ‘why’ questions… “Why James?”, “Why us?”, and even, selfishly, “Why me?”. Years later, having seen how God has transformed us, used us, and worked through us as a result of James’ special needs, I have my answers!
- Faithful in prayer… Paul said to the Thessalonians “Pray without ceasing” 1 Thess 5:17. Pray constantly, though our words, through our actions, through our behaviour, pray always… Prayer connects us to the source of love, to the source of our hope, of all that is good. Our cars would be useless without fuel, just as we need to keep our spiritual tanks filled so that we can keep on loving, hoping, doing good for our children and others.
- Share with the Lord’s people who are in need… the early church practice of communal sharing, of looking after each other, especially those in need, is an inspiration to us. What does their example teach us today? It is a message of inclusion, of belonging, of caring for and loving everyone. Our collective response today includes how accessible and inclusive our churches, and our children’s/youth work, is. Our individual response today includes giving our resources, time, finances, skills… What do we have that we can give to help everyone in need, including children/young people with special needs and those working with them?
- Practice hospitality… intentionally, actively, looking for opportunities to do this; how can we practice this? There are great Biblical examples e.g. Abraham welcoming in the three strangers… who can we welcome in? Is there a family with a child with special needs that we could show hospitality to? Like Abraham, we might entertain angels! Hospitality is something we are called to practice personally, and collectively through our church; how good are we at this?
Paul’s words to the church in Rome 2,000 years ago resonate down the ages and speak loudly to us today. How will the thirteen themes he writes about, thirteen ways to demonstrate love to others, thirteen ways to be devoted to each other, speak to you today? How will you respond?
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