By Daniel J. Vance
His name was Larry Patton, a nationally known speaker on disabilities, and we met at a Joni and Friends (JAF) Family Retreat in northern Indiana this summer. (JAF is a Christian disabilities outreach to families affected by disabilities.)
Larry was born with cerebral palsy. In my mind's eye, I can see him now walking that retreat hallway towards me: elbows akimbo, one hand punching air, feet never planted squarely, and a perpetually grinning mouth trying to form words.
I can get away with kidding him about his awkward walking and talking because we became friends at the family retreat. His family's room was right across the hallway from ours.
Don't doubt that life has been hard for him. At birth a twisted umbilical cord choked off his oxygen supply for 25 minutes. Like many people with cerebral palsy, his muscles are stiff and taut. And to many people he talks "funny." So is he bitter toward life?
"I now realize that with cerebral palsy God can use me more effectively," he said to me over the telephone last week. "Besides, when I get to heaven I will have a healthy body anyway. Our years on earth are just a fraction of eternity."
One Bible passage Larry clings to is John 9:1, 3b: "And as He went by He saw a man blind from birth…said Jesus, '…but this [blindness] happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life'" (NIV).
It took years for him to accept that his disability was indeed a higher calling. When Larry was 8 and vacationing in Washington D.C., he remembers walking alongside his mom when a woman from behind suddenly passed them on the sidewalk. Eyeballing Larry's jerky movements as she passed, the woman turned around ahead of them and began pacing backwards, glaring at Larry while she backpedaled.
That stare and hundreds of others cut Larry. "But now I try to use [the stares] as a teaching tool," he says. "If it's a child, I try breaking the ice by saying hello or asking for her name."
To increase understanding of disabilities in churches, Larry's ministry Hurdling Handicaps (www.hurdlinghandicaps.org) sponsors a national church symposium to equip church staffs in reaching out to families affected by disabilities. "Often people don't know how to react when a person with a disability walks into church," he says.
[Visit www.danieljvance.com. Copyright 2002 by Daniel J. Vance.]