When Normal Is Not Enough

By Pastor Robert Fleischmann, CLR’s National Director

When her parents announced her birth, everyone knew life would become more complicated. Connie was born with a condition called “Down syndrome.”  Genetically, most people have cells consisting 23 pairs of chromosomes. A person with Down syndrome (or, “trisomy 21”) has “a full or partial copy of chromosome 21.” [1]

Enough about science: the reality of the situation was that Connie was born with DS, and it meant she would look a little different than her siblings and she would learn many things at a slower pace.

By today’s standards, Carrie’s condition earns her the classification as “disabled.”  In the early 20th century she would have been called an “imbecile.”  Imbecility was a former classification for anyone born with any form of mental disability. Thankfully, the term would be later discarded but, unfortunately, not the prejudice.

In ancient times, some cultures brutally “disposed” of children who were not characterized as “normal.” Ancient historians reported that disabled infants were abandoned in wooded areas and left to die from exposure or worse.

Even Martin Luther, in a table talk discussion about a child born with what appeared to be physical and intellectual disabilities, considered a disabled child as the soulless offspring of the devil and worthy of suffocation.[2]  Antiquity has sometimes been primitive, superstitious and brutal on those who require more compassion.

That was then – this is now!

When Connie was born, she was embraced with love and affection by her parents and siblings as well as relatives and friends. She was brought to the saving faith in Jesus Christ as her Savior through the Sacrament of Baptism. She attended Sunday School and a special school for children with learning disabilities.

Socially Connie excelled. She eagerly mixed with others, and despite the cruel words of some children, Connie shrugged it off. Her happy, gentle and loving demeanor was evident to all.

Connie’s father took up smoking in his high school years. By his late thirties he was diagnosed with emphysema, a physical disability in which the lungs show progressive damage resulting in shortness of breath.

In time Connie’s father could no longer work and eventually became tethered to an oxygen tank. He took up knitting to provide winter hats and clothes for his children and extended family.

The situation caused Connie’s mother to become the primary wage-earner and Connie’s grandfather to become the homemaker and manager of the family.

One day, Connie returned home alone from school. Her father felt especially tired with serious shortness of breath. He turned on the television, wheeled his oxygen tank to the end of the couch and laid down.

He never woke up.

Connie, as a young 12-year-old girl, was about to experience one of life’s hardest lessons, namely, that life ends.

On that day, Connie recognized her father’s lack of breathing; she called 911. Her father died at the age of 44 years.

Death is the common thread that binds all people together. Despite the differences, the trajectory of life concludes in the same manner – we will all die.

What made the death of Connie’s father especially painful was that it came so soon. The psalmist wrote, “The length of our days is seventy years— or eighty, if we have the strength” (Psalm 90:10 NIV). Death of a person in his 40s seems so young.

Days later the family gathered at the church to pay their respects and find comfort from the Word of God. Tears flowed from everyone – well, not quite everyone!

Socializing with family and friends as she always did, Connie never lost the smile. She greeted and hugged relatives as they walked past the casket containing the mortal remains of her father.

Connie stood out, not because of the facial characteristics of her physical condition but rather for her cheeriness and optimism in a crowd best characterized as sad and mournful.

It was only a matter of time before a well-intentioned relative embraced Connie with a sympathetic hug in the hopes of “comforting” her.

“How are you doing, Connie?”

“Fine!” came the quick and cheery answer.

“So, do you know where Daddy is?”

Connie confidently professed, “Daddy is in heaven with Jesus!”

What a surprising response – one in complete contrast to the sorrowful emotions expressed by the others that day. Connie did not feel sad nor did she think “Daddy was sleeping”; instead she saw her father through the eyes of faith, and with those eyes she did not see a body. She knew her father was in heaven.

In 2007, then-Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin announced she was expecting another child. The pregnancy became bigger news when it was revealed her unborn child had Down syndrome.

To get a story, reporters sometimes must ask bold – and equally obnoxious – questions. Such was the case when Palin was asked if her “normal” children would be accepting of this child with Down syndrome.  Palin responded, and I paraphrase, “I am not so sure that this child is not the normal one.”

When Jesus was asked who would be the greatest in heaven he placed a child in front of them and said:

“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3–4 NIV)

We live in a society that appreciates the normal, venerates the exceptional and despises the disabled.  Mean children sometimes mock a classmate with a mental or physical disability.  A university professor at Chapel Hill even contended Governor Palin should have aborted her child when the Down syndrome discovery was made.  And mourners at a funeral presumed the disabled child of the deceased wouldn’t “get it.”

Without a doubt there is a standard in what most consider a “normal life.”  This generation of statistical averages considers an IQ of 100 as “average” (or normal), and “normal” physical features include an average height, weight, typical formation of body proportions, limbs and facial features.

Failure to be considered “normal,” however, challenges opportunistic people to weigh whether they can or want to carry the additional responsibility or burden of someone with a disability.  Cold-hearted folks wonder whether those with disabilities are a drain on the health-care system, contending unfairly that others should cover their specialized care.  Universities and businesses continue to pursue students on the “cutting edge” of intellectual and physical prowess. Others feel there is little space for those who fall short of even the minimum standards of normality.

What is often overlooked in the debate, however, is that in the eyes of God there is a significant difference between being “normal” and being “valuable.”  In fact, normality is often a problem in the eyes of God.  There is a spiritual complacency in normality that is potentially harmful (Revelation 3:17).  There is a real problem being “normal” by the world’s standards (Ephesians 4:22 NIV).

As much as death is a common thread among people, a more predominant reality is God’s demonstration of value for all human life, regardless of race, nationality or disability. The heart of the Christian message is that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV).

The veneration of normality has overlooked the premier treasure of value in all of human life. To neglect the care and consideration of those needing more attention and assistance is to selfishly accept God’s value statement in Christ but refusing to emulate that love to others.

Connie is one example of countless stories demonstrating the illusion of normality – which is outflanked by the greater reality of value for all life because of Christ. May each of us ascribe to such simplicity of faith and trust in God.

[1] http://www/mdss/prg/Down-Syndrome/What-Is-Down-Syndrome/  [accessed 5/1316]

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 54: Table Talk, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 54 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 396–397.


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