Thomas Alva Edison (born Feb 11, 1847 -- died Oct 18, 1931), was taught at home by his mother because at age 7 he was expelled from school for being considered mentally retarded -- he was deaf.
I remember in Grandma Kate’s kitchen, seeing the old man with long hair and crooked hands. “So you’re Dougie’s girl,” he said. I was five going on six, loved my daddy Douglas and had never heard him called Dougie, but it sounded like a good mixture of Douglas and Daddy. I nodded. Cat swallowed my words. That was the first and only time I met my Grandpa Charles. Later I asked my parents about him and was put off with “He’s in a hospital”. Institutionalized. “Always been crazy”. How come there were such pretty paintings all over Grandma Charles’ homestead, though everyone said she was so poor an’ he never gave her anything? Why does Grandpa Charles have long hair – boys wear it short. ‘Cept in pictures of Jesus and Moses and people from the Bible. Is Grandpa from the Bible times? Did he die? And when we visited the Richmond park and zoo, daddy told me that his daddy had worked on a lot of the parks – he was a landscape architect.  Later asked mommy what a landscape architect was, and she replied, “It’s a glorified name for a gardener.” I liked glorified names. Having seen television for the first time, I was enthralled by some of the advertisements. “Halo shampoo – it glorifies your hair!” and was sure that would make me not only more beautiful, but somehow holier. There was always a vague remembrance of an unknown grandfather who sired twelve kids and left my valiant, perfect matriarchal grandmother to raise them by all herself during the Depression. Some years later I overheard my mom and dad mentioning that he had died in the “Institution”. No great grief. Just emptiness.

Nowadays the problems of mental illness are different. People are no longer institutionalized for long periods. Several friends I know on both sides of the Atlantic have family members who struggle with mental illness and though there is no more a culture of “putting away” or institutionalizing people who have “gone mad”, many are the unresolved issues, and families are embarrassed to talk about them. Often family and friends wish there were a way to simply “lock up” the “offender”. “Crazy” family members spend like made, though they may have been the most beautiful child in the family, do weird and irresponsible things like getting rid of all their belongings, or expecting Christmas presents every day, or hiding and hoarding food, when not getting drugged and dragged naked into the street by their folly. They are old children, never growing up and never knowing what a soft, gentle demeanor can do to make them lovely once more.

Once when a recovering addict answered the phone at the Refúgio clinic my husband directed in Brasília, the person on the line asked, “Is that where the crazy people stay?” and Ulisses, without missing a beat, answered, “Yeah, here the best of us drool!” Especially after I suffered a CVA, I felt that not only the “best of us drool”, but also the Brazilian saying “between doctors and madmen, we all own a bit of both”. Edward Welch describes diseases that “characteristically alter intellect, emotions or behavioral capabilities. These can impair understanding, pose limitations on the expression of the heart, provide occasions for temptation and sin, and raise unique problems for families.... because they mimic spiritual problems of the heart, they are often misdiagnosed by counselors and physicians”.[1]

Now, a blog is no place for an all-encompassing, deep essay on mental disabilities – and I am certainly not qualified to analyze such problems. Have a couple of friends who are respected neurologists, many who are practicing psychologists, and even a couple of psychiatrists, besides the pastoral and family counselors with whom I am familiar. I can only write as a Christian reader who wants to know what the Bible can offer to those who are perturbed. Mainly it is a matter of hope and encouragement.

I write as a “drooler” -- one who not always can control the saliva I produce – much less the mental and psychological issues that we confront on a daily basis. I write as the child who discovered that her grandfather was labeled “crazy” and put away, the young mother who discovered a child she begat and wholly loved -- with mental illness that loses her, the middle-aged couple who have to deal with their parents’ senility, the “golden years” grandmother who faces the reality of her own disenfranchisement as she forgets more often, remembers “long ago” but lets the beans burn and the shower run dry and mixes up the grandchildren’s birthdays. I write to friends who are afraid of “losing it” and want to grab every detail of their past and hold tight so it won’t get away, while hoping to forget those things that hurt deep in their heart of hearts and still make them feel “like the motherless child” of the Negro spiritual.

Mental and emotional disabilities remind us that nobody is really normal. Disability requires patience, time, trust, submission and hope” – qualities most of us, normal, mildly or severely disabled all, severely lack in our post-modern world. There is need for “awareness that to live will involve us, at some time and at some level, in physical and/or psychic suffering”.[2]

Michael Beates poses some hard questions:

Why do we... demand that everybody be ‘normal’ and look the same? Why do we ... try so hard at hiding people with disabilities from our everyday view? Why do some people with visible and invisible brokenness often feel as if they have to hide the problem in order to join God’s people for worship? Finally, and perhaps more importantly, what answers does the good news of the gospel give us for those questions, and how does the gospel give us hope in these situations?... Many sources number statistics as to Americans with disabilities at over forty million people.... Add to this the number of people whose ‘brokenness’ is relational and emotional, and this category may include almost every other person in the pew.[3]

I have a dear friend who struggles with bipolarity and a split personality, and has illusions that, if by faith, she stops taking her meds, the Lord will heal her through the television ministrations of some quack evangelist. Another loved one is locked in her room and her dreams while hoping she will be healed by a new relationship, a new love, so she buries the meds and tries out new loves.

Disability is not foreign to the Bible. King Saul was tormented by fits of madness for which David was called to sing, play his harp and comfort the king – First case of music therapy that we have documented knowledge (1 Samuel 14:14-23). Later, David sought refuge with the king of Gath and faked madness in order to save his own life (1 Samuel 21:10-15). Job found himself disabled, disenfranchised and in despair, and his wife gave the counsel of a madwoman (Job 2:8-10). The Bible runs the gamut of descriptions, from “simple” (13 times) folly (9 times) fool or foolish (24 times), stupid or stupidity (5 times) madness (54), unreason (3). The book of Proverbs is pregnant with contrasts between wisdom and folly, good-sense and nonsense, giving vivid examples of various types of spiritual, mental and emotional “disabilities” which all of us have seen, if not experienced personally. Reason and understanding were removed from mind and behavior of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who behaved like an irrational animal (Daniel 4). Later both reason and government were restored.

When, upon preparing to enter the promised land, Moses presented his people with the fullness of blessings or destitution of curses as they obeyed or disobeyed the Word of God, I was intrigued by one of the curses: “The LORD will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of heart.... So you shall be driven mad because of the sight which your eyes see” (Deuteronomy 28.28, 34), and goes on to a horrifying description of evil in the land. A couple of thousand years later, Paul warns Timothy of the evil of the “last days”, which in every detail seems to describe our days:

For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power.

And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:2-7).

.We are confused at Biblical representations of those who are disabled. The imago dei, the fact that we are created in God’s image and likeness, would indicate that we were created perfect, and the many imperfections in the people around us whom we love and loathe are the result of the universal fall, but definitely “not the way it should be”. Just as the sacrificial lambs goats or bulls had to be “perfect”, entrance in the tabernacle and temple were denied to those with deficiencies. But sacrifices were made “for the simple and those who could not answer for their own sanity” (Numbers 15:30; Ez 45.20). On the cross, Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” Luke 21.34. There is a disability due to ignorance which is freely forgiven. But as we look at the Gospel, we see that the Spirit was upon Jesus to heal and set free. Beates says:

In many respects (John 9 being an exception), Jesus never fully explained his focus on the lame, blind, crippled and poor. He let the healings and parables speak for themselves, allowing the hearers to connect the dots, so to speak.... Paul drew the lines more clearly, perhaps for the sake of those new to the covenant community... but throughout, we continue to see (albeit sometimes subtle) an important thread in the fabric of our understanding of the gospel: brokenness (spiritually and emotionally) and weakness (physically representing our spiritual state) are the normative human condition. And recognizing this reality is the first step to embracing the life-giving power of the gospel.[4]

There is a very special boy in our family who has struggled with learning disabilities, mental and neurological challenges, and in a way will always need help, medical and psychological, to function properly. But he loves the Lord and was taught in the Word. When he was still quite little, at a school that denied the Trinity, he said to his dad, referring to his teacher, “Here Dad. Tell her that God is three in one -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Tell her like the Bible says!” More recently, he has depended on the Lord to strengthen him in the areas where he is weak, and prays that “God will use me with my disabilities to help other kids like me to know Jesus”. We are as proud of this young man as of the other children all – whether normal, gifted or disabled. This gospel is what gives hope to us – whole or “special” – in manifold ways. Paul says it humbly and triumphantly:

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption -- that, as it is written, "He who glories, let him glory in the LORD." (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Elizabeth Gomes

[1] Counselor’s Guide to the Brain and its Disorders, Edward Welch, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, p. 107
[2] Disability, p 71”.
[3] Disability and the Gospel, Michael S. Beates, Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, p. 17.
[4] p. 61.

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