What would it have been like to be at the Pools of Bethesda that day?
A Hope for the Helpers Blog
By Rev. Dr. Stephanie C. Holmes
In recent years, the conversation around autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has gained significant momentum, particularly in how various institutions, including churches, cater to the needs of individuals with ASD. Churches, traditionally seen as pillars of community support and spiritual guidance, play a crucial role in the lives of many families, including those with children on the autism spectrum. The issue of ministering to kids and families impacted by differences and disabilities was not on my radar until my family became one of those marginalized and forgotten families.
Anticipating a Moment with Jesus!
I had the opportunity of a lifetime when my local church took a group of us to the Holy Land. Many in the group were having these wonderful special moments encountering Jesus or having the words of Scripture come alive. I waited eagerly for my moment! It didn’t happen on the Sea of Galilee; it didn’t happen at the Garden of Gethsemane; it didn’t happen walking the streets of Capernaum. For me, it was at the pools of Bethesda. Crowds gathered around the ruins, happily pointing at the small sign that said, “Where Jesus Healed the Man Who Was Paralyzed for 38 years.”
One pastor excitedly stated, “Stephanie, can you believe we are right here, where it happened, where Jesus healed the paralyzed man!” And my moment came.
Floods of tears. I replied, “Have you thought what it must have felt like to be at the pool and not be healed that day?”
I had been carrying some anger and bitterness about our family’s unforeseen journey into the world of autism. That day, my peace came. I was loved and my daughter was loved, and sometimes the bigger miracle is a life well-lived, anchored in Jesus with or without a disability or difference amidst the challenges of life.
These pools were not ritual cleansing pools; these pools were pagan/Gentile, so those at the pools were outsiders and marginalized. I remember as a young mom in my early 30’s asking God, “Why don’t you heal my daughter?” “Why did you heal so many, and how did you choose who to heal?” The story of the pools of Bethesda was triggering to me as a young child and especially when my child was diagnosed with autism. How does God choose?
Are You Helping Families with Differences and Disabilities Encounter Jesus?
Our church experience was a mixed experience that had profound impacts on my walk with God and on my daughter, Sydney, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 2005/2006. I was angry at God for many years wondering, “Why?” Well-meaning individuals offered me answers that sadly sounded like Job’s friends.
Maybe I was being punished.
Maybe I had unconfessed sin in my life.
Maybe I should have remained infertile.
Maybe God chose us to suffer to make an impact on the world.
Maybe God chose her to suffer so that she would have some impact on the world.
My daughter would experience exclusion, and people would misunderstand her. At the age of 8, she once declared she no longer wanted to go to church, and she did not believe in God! How does an 8 year old have a faith crisis? From week to week, it was hit or miss if her number, 27, would flash on the screen or if an usher would come get me to remove her from the classroom. I spiraled into my own faith crisis.
Gold Star Christian
When the day of diagnosis came, I was relieved and perplexed. I was a gold-star Christian girl! How did this happen? I went to Christian school through 12th grade, Christian college, Christian graduate school, was a Christian counselor and followed all the rules for a blessed Christian life! This was not the life I scripted for myself and my family! God, this is not fair!
As Sydney would experience suspensions and expulsions from Christian school, then public school, and church classrooms, I became jaded. What about all the gold stars I earned for bringing my Bible and church attendance, God?
Pointing Me Back to God, Walking Alongside Me! True Pastoral Care
I’d had it! I emailed my pastor and said I did not want to be on the prayer team or a counselor any more! God did not listen to me, and I was not sure what I believed about Him any more. I was DONE! Gently and compassionately, my pastor at the time invited me to share my story and feelings without judgment. He invited me to vent and lament and pour it out honestly before God. He invited me to reconsider my view of God through the lens of who God is, and not my skewed lens of church members and experiences. He was there for me in my doubts and struggles and patiently guided me back to a true vision of who God is. We would have seasons of children’s workers who got it and those who didn’t, but what was crucial to me and my spiritual and emotional well-being was support and care.
Leading Families to Encountering Jesus!
The role of churches in the lives of children with autism spectrum disorder and their families is multifaceted and significant. When churches serve children and their families well, they not only provide spiritual nourishment and community support but also contribute to a more inclusive and understanding society. Conversely, a lack of adequate support can lead to exclusion, stress, and missed opportunities for growth and leaving the church. Moving forward, it is imperative for churches to educate themselves, collaborate with experts, and listen to impacted families to create an environment where all children, regardless of their abilities, along with their families can thrive and grow in their faith and encounter Jesus!
Stephanie C. Holmes is formerly a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in the state of NC. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Campbell University, her Master’s in counseling from Liberty University and her doctorate in education from Abilene Christian University. She is an ordained minister, author, autism researcher, speaker, and certified autism specialist. When Sydney was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, her world and focus changed from a thriving marriage and family therapy practice to a world of Individualized Education Programs, 504 educational plans, and understanding how to help students and individuals with challenges and needs in the classroom and the church setting. Today, she pulls from personal as well as professional experience to focus on neurodiverse marriages and family systems. She is the owner and founder of Autism Spectrum Resources for Marriage & Family, LLC, and she and her husband Dan co-founded The International Association of NeuroDiverse Christian Marriage, LLC and the podcast NeuroDiverse Christian Couples.
To hear more of their family’s journey, look for their book Embracing the Autism Spectrum: Finding Hope & Joy Navigating a Neurodiverse Family Journey.
Training and Tips are found on her YouTube: Dr. Stephanie C. Holmes by Dr. Holmes and her daughter, Sydney Holmes.