Seeing Heaven Through the Eyes of People with Special Needs

Recently, my children and I received an invitation that was better than being asked to dinner at the White House or being given a ticket to the Academy Awards. We were invited to a birthday party for several young adults who had special needs. Their birthdays all fell within a few weeks of one another’s, so they were celebrating with a big party together.

The party was filled with people in wheelchairs, or with Down syndrome, autism, or other disabilities. The world might call these people disabled, but in reality, they are more able than most people—more able to be authentic, genuine, and pure of heart.

From the moment the celebration began until we left hours later, these people reminded me, over and over, of why Jesus wants us to be childlike.  In so many ways, I believe He wants us to emulate them.

In Gratitude

First, they reminded me to be childlike in gratitude. As soon as we arrived, one autistic girl began waving to us with a big smile, calling out, “Thank you for coming to my party! Thank you for coming to my party!”  Each time we passed her during the party, she said the same thing. As we left, she called out again, “Thank you for coming to my party!”

 

When was the last time I expressed gratitude for my blessings with that kind of enthusiasm?

In Joy

Then, they reminded me to be childlike in joy. When the candles were being put into the cake, the birthday celebrants (special-needs people in their teens and twenties) were asked to choose the colors of the candles.

“Blue!” a young lady called out enthusiastically.

“Red! Green!” the others chimed in with excitement. At the simple act of choosing colors for their candles, their faces were so lit up and shining that we hardly needed to light the candles.

We all sang “Happy Birthday,” and it was pure delight. This is like a birthday party in heaven, I thought to myself. No one was pretending here; everyone was human and kind and happy.

Later, when one of the birthday celebrants heard her favorite song playing on the loudspeaker, she stood by herself and danced and sang like no one was watching.

When was the last time I found unbridled happiness in the small things in life?

In Sincerity

These people were also childlike in their sincerity. If they were happy, they showed everyone. If they were sad, they showed everyone that, too. One sweet girl fell apart in tears when she thought she had made a mistake and gone somewhere she wasn’t supposed to go. She was afraid she had offended the people in charge. All the moms of the special-needs guests gathered around and consoled her while she wept.

When was the last time I wept with sincere repentance at my own offenses?

A Glimpse of Heaven

And they were childlike in their closeness to God. As I sat with my children, watching my toddler get every last crumb from his cupcake, one of the special-needs guests stood next to us, talking to his mother. I didn’t know them personally, but from what I could understand, he was talking about someone close to them who had died.

“I just realized,” he said, with hope in his voice, “that I don’t have to be so sad about it anymore, because if he’s in heaven, he’s actually closer to me now than he was before!”

Yes, I thought to myself. You, dear child, are far closer to heaven than most of us. If your loved one is there, he is close to you indeed.

As the party came to an end, a mom, pushing a young adult in a wheelchair, came up beside me.

“This is what heaven will be like, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” I replied.

“All the things that we get caught up in, don’t matter here,” she said. “It’s just being who you are, the person God made you to be, and the things that normally matter, that define our success in the world, don’t matter here.”

As she pushed the wheelchair out to a handicap-accessible van, I walked out to our car with my children and thought about how difficult it must be for that family to travel.

I have no idea what challenges these special-needs people and their families face every day. How difficult it is for them to do the normal everyday tasks that we take for granted. How much time and energy it takes just to get out the door. How much emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual strength it takes to keep going. I don’t know the level of their sacrifice, but I pray that God will give them all they need.

What I do know is that these people are a gift to a world that needs their innocent joy, their pure hearts, and their childlike souls. When the world around us seems to be shrouded in darkness, the light in the eyes of a special-needs person is a candle to lead us home. A blue candle, maybe, or green, or hazel, or brown.

Whatever color those irises may be, they shine into the world and make all of us better people. They are a glimpse of heaven, reflecting the eternal light of Christ.

image: By Paolo Villa [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Maura Roan McKeegan

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Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a series of children's picture books about biblical typology, including: The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary; Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus, and, most recently, Building the Way to Heaven: The Tower of Babel and Pentecost (Emmaus Road Publishing; available spring 2018). Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, The Civilized Reader, Franciscan Way, Guideposts, and Lay Witness.

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