Ad Clerum ["to the clergy"] on the Sanctity of Life
"Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
As we watch and pray over the disturbing events in our Nation’s Capital, and the struggles between powerful elites and special interest groups, we can be distracted from the day to day reality of most Americans as they face into the growing pandemic and its many challenges - especially those who are powerless and who live with special needs. It is a world with which we became much more familiar on August 6, 1982.
It began as any other day – we were living in New Canaan, Connecticut, where I was serving as Associate Rector at St. Paul’s in the neighboring town of Darien. Angela shared in this ministry with me but on this day, she knew that she was about to give birth to our fifth child. When Rachel Anna Lydia Minns made her grand appearance that evening, we were immediately introduced to the world of Down Syndrome – a world filled with wonder, hope and fear and a great deal of misinformation. Our family pediatrician came to the hospital and joined us in a prayer of thanksgiving for Rachel’s safe arrival and said something that we have never forgotten, “Never forget that she is a Minns before she is a Downs!” In other words, she is our unique child before she is a genetic category! We have clung to those words as we have been pushed and pulled by the prejudice and fears of our contemporary society and the ignorance of many well-meaning individuals. On our way home from the hospital we stopped at the church and along with our other children we sat on the carpet at the front of the church and dedicated her to the Lord as we sang a worship chorus of that era, “In her life Lord be glorified…”
On the following Sunday I preached at the morning services at St Paul’s and my text was “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7) I announced Rachel’s arrival as part of the sermon. I shared my hope that she would indeed receive God’s mercy in her life. Afterwards as I stood at the church door greeting the congregation a woman who I knew approached me and, referring to my announcement with great intensity said, “What unconfessed sin do you have in your life that would bring this about?” Fortunately, I was still rather numb and so did not respond except with a perfunctory smile. Later that same week another well-meaning person asked, “Are you going to keep her?” Again, I managed to resist the temptation for a biting quip! Because of state health regulations, we were required to have Rachel undergo a blood test to confirm her Down Syndrome, and that proved to be traumatic for all of us. Her veins were tiny and only after repeated attempts was the technician able to obtain the necessary sample. By this time Rachel was wailing and I was sitting on the floor in a corner sobbing – but in the midst of my tears I recognized an answer to my prayers. After she was born, with all of the uncertainties of her diagnosis, I had prayed that God would give me the grace to love her as she deserved to be loved. I knew then and know now that my prayer has been answered a thousand-fold! Rachel has been an amazing addition to our lives and the entire family knows that we are much better people because of her. I have hundreds of Rachel stories because she has taught us all so very much.
A few years ago, Angela and I were invited to visit a Diocese in Tanzania, East Africa, as part of our mission partnership and the Bishop’s wife had urged us to bring Rachel with us. On previous occasions we had been unwilling to expose her to the health and travel challenges of such visits – but agreed because of the special request. When we arrived in one of the rural centers, we were invited to join a gathering of the Mothers Union leadership. (this is an international Anglican women’s organization that has a powerful impact on the lives of women and children throughout the Communion) We were seated in a large circle and introductions began …. normally I would be the spokesman for the family … but this time Rachel was seated before me and when her turn came, she simply stood and said, “My names is Rachel, I have Down Syndrome, and I am very happy to be here!” I realized, yet again, that I need not have worried! Afterwards one of the leaders approached Angela and told her that in their culture any babies born with special needs were simply taken outside the village and left to die but that now she had met Rachel, she would ensure that this practice was stopped! The Bishop’s wife told us that many of the women had given similar assurances – actually that had been her hope for the visit!
On another occasion, back in Fairfax, Virginia, a couple in the church asked if they could come to our home and interview Rachel. It seemed that they were expecting their first child and prenatal tests had indicated that the baby would be Down Syndrome. Because of this they were advised to abort their unborn child, but before agreeing to it they wanted to talk to Rachel. Both parents were musicians and, in God’s providence, they arrived when Rachel was just completing a piano lesson and it was perhaps the only time that she played flawlessly. After spending time talking with her, they decided that they could not go forward with the planned abortion. When their baby was born, they proudly brought her to visit Rachel who was thrilled to meet a cute little baby just like her. More recently they have told us that they have never for a moment regretted their decision to choose life for their daughter.
These stories and hundreds of others that I have witnessed convince me – along with the plain reading of Scripture - that every human life reflects the Imago Dei – the image of God - and must therefore be considered sacred unto God. To treat anyone, born or as yet unborn, gifted or handicapped, aged or infirm, wanted or unwanted, as disposable if inconvenient, is to not only deny their humanity but also to destroy our own. While I am very much aware of the daily challenges of caring for people with special needs, I also know that the grace of God is available and often mediated through the love of others.
Angela and I are convinced that every congregation, indeed every family, would discover great blessing if they were to reach out to the families of special needs children and adults in their communities. A word of encouragement, a brief time of respite, a helping hand might not seem very much, but could well be life giving. Remember the words of Jesus in his description of the final judgement, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me!” (Matthew 25:35,40)
Your brother in Christ, +Martyn