Everything seemed to be going well. My chaplaincy work allowed me to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, and family life was enriching. Our 18-month-old daughter was thriving, and my wife and I were getting ready for the birth of a second child. In addition, I was learning as much as I could about disability ministry from Joni Eareckson Tada and the ministry of Joni and Friends. When my wife and I had lived in Asia several years earlier (from 2001 to 2003), I encountered several families living with disabilities. The experience was life-changing. My prayer when we left was:
“Lord, if there is any way for us to return one day, please let me serve these families with disabilities.”
But this momentum of growth came crashing down in 2009. While I was driving between Waco and Temple, Texas, much of my body went numb. It was scary. I was able to get safely off the highway – thank God – but an ambulance had to get me to the hospital. Within a few days, tests confirmed what doctors had suspected.
Steroids helped my body regain feeling, and thankfully, I was able to continue serving as a hospice chaplain. However, I had to pull back in other areas like church work. I was still praying, of course, but spontaneous ministry dwindled to a standstill, and fear started taking root as questions gathered. If I ever changed jobs, what would happen to insurance and pre-existing conditions? How was our young family going to manage if I remained physically limited? Worse, the expectation with MS is that symptoms worsen with time. Then what?
My hope of us ever having a chance to go back overseas grew dimmer and dimmer.
After all, how could I serve families affected by disability if I were disabled myself? Scripture makes it clear we are to live by faith, but “I can’t” or “we can’t” became my common thought and response. I was beyond discouraged.
Although there was much celebration when my son was born later that year, fear continued to ensnare me. On June 26, 2010, I attended a funeral in the morning and a family reunion in the afternoon. In addition, one of my favorite hospice patients died that day from end-stage MS. Putting these things all together left me distraught, perhaps even empty. I could have told the new senior pastor I couldn’t make it to the church conference that night – he would have certainly understood – but I felt like I should force myself to go anyway.
Often, forcing myself to keep going despite fatigue did not end well, but this time, I am grateful I did proceed. I heard two key things from the Lord that night. First, God made it clear to me that I was worshiping fear more than I was worshiping him. This is a very hard message to hear, but I knew within my spirit it was true. My thoughts and actions those days were mostly filled with fear. Also, though there is not enough space at this time to go into detail, I had to rethink several ideas about what all worship comprises. Certainly, I despised fear. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but I had to learn that a lot of worship involves our day-to-day mental focus.
The second rebuke I heard related to the families affected by disabilities in Asia. My family’s calling had not changed. We were still to go back and serve children with disabilities; it had only been my fear to dismiss such an idea as impossible. In the rebuke and in the reaffirmation of our calling to serve overseas, the Lord reminded me of 1 Peter 4:11 (NIV):
“If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.”
That night, I publicly confessed how I had been living in fear, and I indicated what the Lord was asking us to do. “I don’t know how,” I said, “but I’m choosing to trust the Lord.” While it took 20 months for everything to come together (having to work through several challenges), my wife, my two young children, and I moved across the world in March 2012 to serve children affected by disabilities.
For eight and a half years (until September 2020), we were privileged to love and serve more than 400 children and their families. In no other season have I experienced more joy. On many occasions, we were able to partner with Joni and Friends. The Family Retreats and Wheels for the World wheelchair distributions were wonderful. For smaller projects, we used creative arts therapies to bless the kids, and I was even able to write and illustrate a children’s book with nine young adults with autism.
Amazingly, I was able to earn another master’s degree during our time in Asia. It was a privilege to dive into Disabilities Studies through California Baptist University’s online program. Another source of wonder and praise involved my health. Because my MS was in remission for the first several years, I seldom had any physical limitations.
The Lord truly provided the strength needed as he promised he would. We were able to extend the love of Jesus as we daily held out hope and purpose to our many, many dear friends.
Unfortunately, though, my MS began to cause noticeable problems again in 2019. Because of new mobility issues and because of the complexity of COVID, my family and I needed to come back to the US in 2020. Likely, my health would be better today if we had never lived overseas, but we have no regrets. Our time in Asia was fabulous, and God willing, we will be able to see our friends there again one day, at least for visits.
Although we only know in part, we are proceeding as before: following the Lord’s leading. He is a good heavenly father, and truly, we can trust him. Now that we are once again in the United States, he is opening new doors and taking care of needs along the way. I was privileged to finish writing the devotional Tender Creation, and I have had opportunities to virtually minister across America, Asia and Africa from home. Prior to months of quarantine, I had never anticipated this possibility. Regarding health needs, I have been able to requalify for health insurance, despite my fears of 2009 and 2010. Other needs are also being met.
Additionally, I have been able to continue global disability ministry. Though I miss serving the children in Asia very much, I am able to serve as the Communications Manager for Lausanne’s Disability Concerns and as the Managing Editor of this Disability in Mission blog. Whether in person or from afar, I am grateful to be able to make a global difference.
Of course, it is easy for discouragement to slip in when facing physical challenges. Dealing with a disability is really difficult, and not merely for me. My limitations make things harder for my whole family. But the Lord is the God of compassion who sees us. He knows what we need.
What’s more, we can focus on what the Lord empowers us to do (instead of dwelling on what we cannot do). For instance, when my legs are too weak to walk, I can use my wheelchair to roll wherever the Spirit sends me. In fact, unlike times in the past when I would only use a cane, the wheelchair allows me to save my strength. Once I arrive somewhere, I can wheel around and converse with others. I can smile and bless others through prayer and through words of encouragement.
What I have finally concluded is that in God’s kingdom, it truly does not matter whether we need a mobility device.
What matters is that we are humbly listening and moving by faith, aligned with the Spirit, going where he is sending us. Likewise, when we are weak, he is strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). In fact, the Lord can shine brightly through us when we deal with disabilities because he receives all of the glory. 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 (NIV) tells us:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
With great expectation, we move forward by faith, engaged in prayer and mission.
Written By—Kevin Avery
Kevin Avery is the Managing Editor of the Disability in Missionblog and the Communications Manager of Lausanne’s Disability Concerns. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his wife and two kids.
Edited by David C. Deuel, Nathan G. John & Kevin Avery
Disability in Mission: The Church’s Hidden Treasure outlines a radical change in approaches to missiology, missions, and praxis for the twenty-first-century global cultural context. It explores a pattern whereby God works powerfully in missions through disability and not in spite of it.