As a parent of a special needs child you have probably often seen yourself as a janitor. I know from experience that kids are messy, but special kids have special messes and some days it seems like we are spending our entire lives wiping butts, blowing noses, changing clothes, giving baths, brushing teeth and combing hair. Most parents go through a season of this and are able to graduate to a more independent child. However, some special needs children need a lifetime of basic care and even the basic tasks can become exhausting over the years.
Every parent rejoices when the baby is finally out of diapers, but imagine how tiring it is to change diapers several times a day for 16 years, knowing that there will be no graduation to independence.
As a parent of a special needs child, I have had to roll up my own sleeves and conquer smells and disasters that would make Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs” look mild.
Once while at one of my youngest son’s Little League Baseball games Jake was sitting in the crowded stands between my wife and I when we simultaneously looked at each other with that panicked look of “Oh my goodness…what’s that smell?” (It has happened so many times that we don’t even verbally communicate it anymore. It just comes with a certain coded look we give each other).
We then looked at Jake, who was about 13 at the time—a fully grown teenage boy, and watched his face turn from beet red to ghost-rider pale. Knowing what was now in process I grabbed his hand and attempted to persuade him up and out of the stands. As he stood up, a soft, brown, rancid, liquid began pouring out the bottom of his shorts onto the bleachers.
(My mind instantly flashed back to the time at the crowded public swimming pool when I was trying to coax Jake down the slide into the water. Surrounded by about 20 preschoolers and soccer moms I watched in horror as the water coming down the slide into the pool turned brown. Like a scene straight from the movie “Jaws” mothers were grabbing their children and running from the water in hysterical panic. Not the first or the last swimming pool we have shut down.)
I tried my best to get his mind off of the “code brown” and onto evacuating the scene, but it was too late. As Jake’s sensory integration took over, the smell triggered his gag reflex and he began to gag and vomit. This only added to his embarrassment resulting in a fit of anger in which he began biting himself and screaming.
People began dispersing like it was a terrorist attack, some in anger not knowing my son had some underlying issues and some just out of uncomfortable fear. Finally in desperation I picked the boy up, threw him over my shoulder, and carried him out like a wounded soldier from the battlefield. I retreated to the car and then home for the cleanup while my wife stayed for the much tougher cleanup at the ball field.
Sometimes we are the janitor.
If you are the parent of a special needs child, or any child for that matter, then you know the role of the janitor. But I wonder if you have ever seen yourself as a pastor? By “pastor” I don’t mean leading a church and preaching to a congregation. In Matthew 18:12-14 Jesus teaches the disciples about the importance of the “little ones”.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
The Greek word for “pastor” (poimen) literally means “shepherd” or one who watches over sheep. Pastors are called to shepherd the flock of God, the church. Jesus is also referred to as a shepherd or the “Chief Shepherd” in 1 Peter 5:4 and the “Good Shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep” in John 10:11.
In a similar way every parent is a shepherd and every child is a sheep. And which one of you, if you had a house full of children, and one was lost, would not leave the whole house full to go and find the one that was missing? I like to look at special needs parenting as just that. We are shepherding little lambs, some are broken and some run away.
Another very important job of the pastor is to (obviously) preach. Most of us would not consider ourselves preachers, but the truth is we are all preaching something to someone. Just the way we live our lives and respond to our circumstances can be a mighty sermon to those around us.
As you shepherd your special child never forget that you are, at the same time, delivering a powerful message of God’s grace and strength to those watching you. Through trouble, trial, perseverance and pain, God has used my son to demonstrate His strength and grace to hundreds—if not thousands of people.
Yes, its true we are called to be janitors. We must roll up our sleeves, get down on our hands and knees and do the thankless cleaning of messes that no one else could imagine cleaning up. But we are also called to be pastors and preachers, shepherding these little lambs and sharing God’s message of hope in the midst of all that seems hopeless to a watching world. And believe it or not, being a good janitor makes us better pastors and preachers.
Our message to the world is not, “I have it all together and I can handle anything that comes my way”. The message that every parent of a special needs child should be, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”. We carry this message not only to make much of God, but in making much of God to allow people to experience His grace and love through us.
Special needs parenting is a mighty message of love, patience, servant-hood and humility. (Your child is often the actual preacher of this message and you sometimes become the translator to an audience that cannot understand the language of God.) But what an illustration of grace your family becomes to those silently watching.
God hates pride. He hates it because it is an attempt to steal His glory and shirk our reliance and dependence on Him. He hates it because it kills our mission and our message. But the real reason God hates our pride so much is because He loves us so deeply. He has so many better things in store for us. So the next time you find yourself cleaning up messes that you think you are too good to clean up, remember God has called you to be a humble janitor in order to make you a better pastor and preacher.