mosaic background behind a photo of one-year-old Penny raising her arms above her head. She is sitting in a high chair with cake on the tray.

Nonverbal Individuals in the Church

When Penny was first born, an older Christian woman with a child with Down syndrome came to visit. She told me how her church hadn’t wanted to baptize her daughter or allow her to take communion because they weren’t sure she could “confess with her mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9).  Multiple other people have experienced this same type of exclusion. And I suppose within these churches it seems like a sad but necessary adherence to the word of God. 

I recently reread Amy Kenny’s My Body is Not a Prayer Request. It both convinced and convicted me all over again that those of us—like me—who grew up in church communities that took individual verses in the Bible seriously need to learn how to also take the whole story of the Bible seriously. We need to employ both critical thinking and imaginative creativity to understand how God’s love continues to flow in and among each of us and all of us. 

Kenny expresses a very different take on children and adults who cannot communicate with spoken words. She reflects on Romans 8:26, where Paul describes the Holy Spirit interceding for us “through wordless groans.” She writes,

“These groanings too deep to utter call to mind the communication experience of some folks with intellectual or developmental disabilities.”

She wonders whether

“grunts, groans, and sighs borrow the language of the Spirit . . .”

And she writes,

“Perhaps if we listened to the groans, we might come to understand the Spirit’s messages.”

Kenny takes the biblical description of humans seriously. She places no intellectual or physical criteria upon those created in the image of God. As a result, she’s more able to find a diverse range of people embodying diverse aspects of God’s being. Her reading of the Bible expands God’s love rather than constrains it. 

What if we rejected a hyperintellectual reading of the Bible? What if we instead received it as the creative, loving expression of a God who speaks through articulations of devout faith alongside groans and sighs?

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