One warm summer day, many years ago, when our youngest son Tim was a teenager, we were holding our annual “Down Syndrome Extravaganza” at our house. Most people would call it a picnic. However, “extravaganza” always seemed like a better descriptor to our family as the gathering of so many families, with so many children with Down syndrome and all of their siblings simply offered the opportunity for unexpected events to arise.
We had some years that we hired neighborhood teenagers to ensure we didn’t lose any “runners” in the chaos. One year, Tim had a good friend with Down’s who was very interested in movies and proceeded to empty all 50-75 DVDs from their respective boxes, scattering them randomly all over the floor while seeking the perfect fit for his viewing interests. On another occasion, we even had a rabid racoon appear on our front porch while friends were arriving with their families and food in tow. As we’ve said many times, “It is never a dull moment here!”
My favorite DSE event, however, was the year that Tim was giving tours of his room to guests as they arrived. He’d redecorated his room with Elvis Presley paraphernalia, and was eager to share his collection. Visitors were only allowed in one at a time. He even asked me to serve as his “bouncer.” I had fun standing at the door watching as Tim talked with each visitor. As one of our friends lingered in the room making conversation, Tim finally looked at him and declared, “I’m sorry Mr. Nolt, but your tour is over. Don’t make me call security.” My “bouncer role” quickly reverted to “Mom mode” and Tim and I had a quick little chat about what it means to show hospitality to our guests. Tim was definitely giving folks mixed messages.
The Mixed Message Dance
The truth is, we all give (and receive) mixed messages to (and from) others fairly frequently. Often this happens when we want to publicly be seen one way (a posture of welcoming) and at the same time, want to privately retain control (a posture of distance). The mixed messages that Tim gave on his “Elvis Tour” were not that different than the messages we give to each other in the culture-at-large and often in the church as well. “Come on in!” followed by “What are you actually still doing here?” It can play itself out in countless ways. “Come in in!” followed by “Doesn’t she know how to dress for church?” Or, “Come on in!” followed by “Why can’t he sit still in worship? He’s bothering everyone.” Or, “Come on in!” followed by “You actually struggle with what?”
When we do this “mixed messages” dance in the church, it is an important reminder to us that we are off-center from the heart of the gospel. We have lost our bearings about Whose story it is that we are inviting others into. We have become disoriented, often with an over-inflated sense of our own role in “protecting” that story and detaching ourselves from others. And we have lost sight of who actually owns the “room.”
As Luke 14 reminds us, the gospel is the good news of an invitation to a lavish banquet, given by a sacrificially generous King. He enthusiastically invites us to his party. Yet, most cannot bother to respond to the invite—not even to click the Evite in order to open it. Still, the delight of the King is to fill his banquet hall with the guests he actively seeks out. Particularly, his heart is warmed to welcome all those who are truly astonished to be invited, eager to be included, and famished for restorative food and drink. And he longs for us to remain at his table indefinitely.
Not a “Stay as You are” Party
The gospel invitation is to a “come as you are party.” We don’t have to lose our family history, or change our bad habits, get our act together or pretend to be more capable than we are in order to enter the banquet hall. We simply need to embrace the invitation. While the gospel invitation is a “come as you are party,” remaining at Christ’s banquet table is not a “stay as you are party.” For the feast changes us. From the inside out. As we partake of the Living Water and the Bread of Life, we are changed bit by bit to become more like our host. One of the ways in which we get in trouble in the local church is that we forget that we are all meant to be transformed to look more like Christ, and instead, expect others to change in order to look more like, well, ummm….us. That way, we don’t have to change at all.
On the back cover of my book Same Lake, Different Boat, I describe the meaning of the title this way: “All people share a common story of both human need and God-imparted value (we’re in the same lake), but our life experiences—including our abilities and disabilities—are not the same (we’re in different boats).” Transformational change in the body of Christ does not involve making all the boats look the same. Instead, it involves making the good news of the gospel accessible to each unique boat—with its own individual gifts and challenges—that each one might know Christ’s saving grace and reflect the character of Christ through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. We do this best when we first remember our common story—that we are in the same lake. Our Creator lovingly made us as all image bearers, and our First Parents made us all desperately in need of a Savior.
So, when you are in your neighborhood this week, or in the hallways of your church building, remember this: don’t send mixed messages like Tim did. Remember Whose story and Whose banquet you are inviting others into. Remember your role in God’s story and your common story with all of humanity at the banquet table. And remember Whose “room” it is all taking place in. Our God is a welcoming God. And he wants us to be transformed into the likeness of his Son, and to dwell in his house forever. No mixed messages there!
About the Author:
Steph served as Director of Mission to North America’s (MNA) Special Needs Ministries from 2007 to 2016. She currently works as a Research Fellow in Disability Ministry in partnership with Covenant Theological Seminary. She also serves on the Lancaster Christian Council on Disability (LCCD). Steph is the author of Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability and All Things Possible: Calling Your Church Leadership to Disability Ministry. She has been published in ByFaith magazine, Focus on the Family magazine, and Breakpoint online magazine and has produced a Christian Education DVD series based on Same Lake, Different Boat. Steph and her husband, Fred, have been married for 34 years. They have two deeply loved adult sons: Fred and Tim, the younger of whom has Down syndrome.