God's Precious Keepsakes

What is it that confers upon us our fundamental dignity?

(photo: Shutterstock)

One of my favorite keepsakes is a little 4×6 framed photo of my Grandpop Lotter and me standing together on the boardwalk of Barnegat Light, N.J.  It was taken in 1978; I am 5 years old, bright-eyed, pasty white and scrawny, but “Pop-Pop” is tan, shirtless and muscular, and — as always — smiling with his eyes. Every time I look at that faded photo, I think of him and his kind, generous disposition, and the time he took me to see The Karate Kid.

The faded colors of the photo, as well as its grainy ’70s-era quality, always evokes strong emotions of awe and melancholy. When I hold that photo, I realize that the years go by, seasons of life come and go, but the only things that truly endure are those that are founded upon God and family. If I ever write a memoir, somehow that photo needs to make it into the book. It is a keepsake in which my soul takes no end of delight.

But just imagine. Imagine if some ignorant man came along, subjected my keepsake to his cold logic and level-eyed scrutiny, and concluded that my cherished keepsake held no relative value for society. It served no great function; it met no great need. And, for this reason, he ripped it into pieces and tossed it into the trash.

I would be furious. And heartbroken.

I believe certain policy makers and trendsetters have influenced America to become a nation that believes it has the right — and even a duty —  to rid our culture of what I call “God’s Precious Keepsakes.” These are the men and women, boys and girls, who either developed physical or mental limitations due to disease (like Alzheimer’s) or who are born with special needs (like Down syndrome).

For those of us who don’t have these kinds of people in our lives, we might not understand just how cruel our culture can be. My friends Todd and Emily Vesper have a young son named Logan. Aside from all the other reasons he is incredibly wonderful, he happens to have Down syndrome. Recently, Emily shared with me some of her experiences:

Logan was 3 weeks old and the boys and I went to McDonald’s for lunch. While we were there, a young man with Down syndrome (who worked there) came in and started cleaning the tables. A father and son were eating lunch together a table over from ours. The son (he appeared to be a young teenager) said, “Oh look, Dad! A retard! They have a retard cleaning the tables.” The dad started laughing and said, “Well, that’s all they’re good for, cleaning my messes and mowing my yard.” It was quite awful. The man with DS totally heard them and just left the room.

We’ve had some other awful things said, too. Most comments along the lines of “Great, now I have to support him with my money for the rest of his life.” I had one person say, “Yeah, they (people with Down syndrome) are like puppies — cute when they are little; then they grow up and get nasty.” And negative comments about bringing “those kind” out in public.

Those of us who have any sort of conscience gasp in disbelief when we hear these kinds of things.  Some of you might protest that I’ve just culled the worst stories possible and that society as a whole doesn’t adopt this attitude — but the facts speak for themselves. There is a 90% (some say higher) abortion rate in pre-diagnosed Down syndrome cases. These are tragic statistics because they prove that most would-be parents in this situation don’t believe a baby with Down syndrome is worthy of life. In fact, a couple from West Palm Beach, Fla., was just awarded $4.5 million in a “wrongful birth” suit against a doctor and an ultrasound technician. As The New American website reports:

“The couple charged that the medical professionals were negligent because had they told them that their unborn child was severely disabled, without arms and with only one leg, they would have aborted the baby.”

When the U.S. justice system rewards that kind of logic, can the complete unraveling of our culture be far behind?

When we read or hear stories like this, we have a visceral reaction. We feel in our hearts that this just isn’t right. As Christians, we have been taught that all life is precious — from the womb to the tomb.  But have you taken the time to remind yourself why?

The Catechism — following the clear teaching of Scripture — puts it this way:  “God himself, in creating man in his own image, has written upon his heart the desire to see him. … By nature and by vocation, therefore, man is a religious being, capable of entering into communion with God. This intimate and vital bond with God confers on man his fundamental dignity (27-30, 44-45).

Did you catch that?  Every human being is created in the image of God, and being created imago Dei means (among other things) that every person has the ability to commune with God.  In other words, every person’s soul is hard-wired with the ability to experience God’s love and to give it back to him.

And here’s a critical point: This fundamental attribute in humankind cannot be negated by disease or disability.

We live in a fallen world cursed by sin, and this has direct effects on many of our fellow human beings. Because their physical bodies have been ravaged, their minds have been impaired, too.  But society’s fundamental mistake is concluding that because we cannot always commune with them in a way that we think is satisfactory, that must mean God cannot either.

This is so far from the truth.  The reality is that God is able to commune with even the most ill and disabled persons in ways that we cannot comprehend. In Psalm 139, we are told that God “searches us and knows us.” King David goes on to write that God has an exhaustive knowledge and understanding of each of us, for he created our “inmost being,” and he “knit us together” in our mother’s womb. Nothing of who we are is hidden from God.  In addition, we are taught in Romans 8:26 that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”
He himself intercedes for us “with groans that words cannot express.” Above all, the Bible teaches us — again and again — the kind of person who is delightful to God: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Based on these passages and others, can we not conclude that God is able to commune with the physically and mentally impaired (not to mention babies in the womb) in ways that are not only effective, but delightful, to him?

I have no doubt that the Vespers have developed good and loving ways to communicate with Logan. But God is able to look into Logan’s soul, love him and receive love from him in a way that transcends the need for psychological development or intellectual prowess. While Logan may never (on this side of heaven) pray a flowery, eloquent prayer, I have no doubt that God delights in the simplest prayer of Logan’s heart, and I picture the Holy Spirit putting little “training wheels” on each of Logan’s words so that they ride the wind of God straight to the Father’s heart.

Even if Logan did not have the ability to commune with anyone else — and he certainly does! — God can communicate with him. And even if no one in society really and truly thought he had a “purpose” or “function” — and he certainly does! — God thinks otherwise. If nothing else, his “function” and “purpose” is to be the object of God’s love. For this reason, he is profoundly and infinitely valuable to God.  This is why I call Logan — and all those like him — one of God’s Precious Keepsakes.

And just as you and I would be furious and heartbroken if someone dismissed and discarded our precious keepsakes, so it is with God. A nation and culture that bases human worth on some tenuous understanding of “function” or “purpose” in society cannot long survive.
But a nation and culture that God blesses recognizes that every person, regardless of physical health or intellectual ability, “is capable of entering into communion with God.” This “intimate and vital bond with God confers upon man his fundamental dignity.”

For this reason, let’s redouble our efforts to value all persons made in God’s image, especially those who bear the weight of illness or disability, as well as the helpless little ones in the womb.  For someday our King will say to us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Vaughn Kohler, a former Baptist pastor, entered the Catholic Church at 2011’s Easter Vigil. He is social media specialist at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.