Heaven is for Real, but So is Life: Giving People with Severe Disabilities Full Lives

Hello, readers,

One of the biggest current box office hits is Heaven is for Real, based on the book written by Pastor Todd Burpo about his son Colton’s journey to Heaven and back. Colton, then four, died for a brief period as a result of a ruptured appendix and the complications thereof, but survived. He then began sharing details of Heaven with his family, especially his dad, who then wrote the book. I have read that book (usually while standing in the aisles of Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs, since I don’t normally buy short volumes). I think it’s excellent, touching, and thought-provoking. Of course, I know there’s controversy involved. I also know I don’t need a four-year-old’s word to tell me Heaven is a real place. I’ve never been there–probably a good thing, since I’d be trying every means possible to get back, like any sane human–but it is my absolute conviction that this place exists. I personally can’t wait to see the movie.

Heaven brings hope and joy to a lot of people. Actually, let’s not even say “a lot.” Let’s be honest and say, bookoos. Almost every religion I know of has a goal of getting to Heaven, or some form of paradise (Nirvana, Valhalla, Paradise, and so forth). I’ll speak from my own experience, though, since I’ve never been part of a faith other than Christianity.

Christians are taught that Heaven is the ultimate goal. That’s not a pass to commit or attempt suicide–that would be dishonoring to a holy God who gave us life and in fact died so we could keep living, rather than being zapped into hell for eternity for our sins at the moment of accountability. But part of salvation is also eternal life. Immortality. I believe this is the thing that all humans want most. Whether we realize exactly why or not, we all have this sense in our hearts that death is wrong–that death is not the way things should end, that it wasn’t part of the original deal. And, at least if you’re a Judeo-Christian or a Muslim, it wasn’t. So we cling to Heaven as the way to resolve that issue. We will be immortal in Heaven. We will be perfect, incapable of sinning and with no desire to do so. We will have no pain. It’s a pretty good deal–the best deal out there, and that’s putting it mildly.

Here’s the thing, though. Some people, even within the church, act as though we are just killing time before we get to Heaven. And other people act as though for some, Heaven is the one and only hope they have. You guys know where I’m going with this, right? Right. I’m thinking about people with disabilities, particularly severe or profound ones. Too often, I look at the Christian church–and maybe other faiths as well–and I see an attitude that says, “Oh, poor Rebecca. It’s such a shame she has to live like this. But you know, one day she’ll be in Heaven and won’t have to suffer.”

Don’t get me wrong. Disabilities can cause great pain and suffering. They weren’t part of the original plan anymore than death was (though that’s a whole other theological ballgame. One has to wrestle with the question: if God loves PWDs–and He absolutely does–then why allow the disabilities? Why allow the suffering? Why stipulate in the Old Testament that animals with blemishes or imperfections were not acceptable for sacrifice–does that say something about humans as well)? But we’re not here to answer every theological question in the book. I don’t have the answers and maybe I never will. Back to the main point: disabilities can cause great pain, and no one wants to see a loved one suffer. So it might make sense to cling to Heaven as a hope for that loved one, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. It may in fact be that your loved one with a disability is in a vegetative state, or so affected that he or she can do nothing but sit and drool. In that circumstance, I don’t blame you for focusing on the afterlife.

Yet, I still think clinging to Heaven can be a problem. The repercussions of such a view can be as painful as the disability itself. For example, the suffering of a PWD is, in my view, no excuse to promote the view that those people should be euthanized. Yes, some countries, like Russia and Belgium, are still pushing for this as a solution, even for babies, and it makes me furious. Furious and absolutely sick.

But say the attitude isn’t that extreme. Say you have a parent or guardian or other loved one who says, “No, I don’t want my loved one to die, but they don’t have a real life here.” See, that’s where we’ve gotta get off our theological high horses and get practical. Heaven is for real–but so is real life. People with disabilities, no matter how severe those are, deserve real, full lives. Period. Heaven is a good hope–in some ways the best hope–but it is not an excuse. And if we continue to present it as such, inside and outside the church, PWDs will continue to struggle with the belief that they have no reason to be on earth.

So, how do we give PWDs of any degree real, full lives? Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you probably know a few ways, but let’s break it down again.

Instead of: Institutions, Group Homes, Facilities

Choose: Letting PWDs live at home with their families, with spouses and roommates, or in other living arrangements that, as much as possible, they have say in

Instead of: Menial jobs and the constant presence of job coaches

Choose: Jobs in which the PWD shows real interest

Instead of: Work 1-2 hours a day, 3-5 hours a week for little or no pay

Choose: Work for the length of time the person can actually do, for real pay and real benefits (not just health benefits, but the benefit of real socialization with coworkers, real responsibility to a boss or team, and so on)

Instead of: Constantly waiting for services to do what they promise they will, but rarely do

Choose: To push the “services” to keep their word. If they can’t or won’t, look to other avenues, and be vocal about the fact that the services you were first directed to did not follow through.

Instead of: Assuming your loved one with a disability cannot communicate because he or she doesn’t use his or her mouth

Choose: Assistive technology that makes communication possible so that you know for certain what your loved one needs and wants. If money is an object, seek help, and not always from “services.” Help can come from your friends, your neighbors, your house of worship, your community.

Instead of: Segregation, isolation, “special” places, “special” outings

Choose: To assist your loved one in making and keeping real, reciprocal friendships and participating in leisure activities the way everyone else can and does

You see, I think the main problem we–the church, the faith community, everybody–has is that, once again, we’re looking at the lives people with disabilities often have, and we’re saying, “Who wants to live like that?” Right–nobody–but don’t expect God and Heaven to provide a cop-out. Make LIFE possible for people with disabilities. Yes, inclusion is becoming a bigger trend–but we can always do more.

So while we’re waiting for Heaven, how about making life on earth a true pleasure as well?


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