Birth of disabled child teaches me about suffering, God and true hope
By Jim McDoniel | for the Christian Chronicle
The birth of a handicapped child sent me back to study the problem of human suffering. I had plenty of answers until Chet came, and then, I knew I had more study to do. Chester James McDoniel was born to us on January 5, 1980. We enjoyed this third pregnancy even more than the first two. Randy and Jennifer were excited about the coming birth of a brother or sister. Few tests were performed on expectant mothers in 1979, and so, we had no idea that we were in for a surprise in the delivery room. We had chosen the Lamaze approach to child birth, and I was with Judy throughout the dream as it turned into a nightmare.
The obstetrician announced during labor that the baby was breech, but since this was Judy’s third baby, breech was not thought to be a big problem. In delivery, something was wrong, but we did not know what. I blocked Judy’s mirror view when the doctor looked at me with a pained expression on his face. Later, we learned that Judy and Chet had gotten quite close to death. Judy had to be put to sleep for immediate surgery, but before the anesthetic could do its job, I whispered to her what I could observe. Our baby had no arms, and his legs appeared to be very short.
The doctor laid Chet on Judy and announced softly, “Now Judy, what we have here are some congenital anomalies.” As the years of Chet’s life passed, I read most of what had been written on suffering in addition to studying Job and many New Testament passages again. So many people suggested that God was the source of our family’s challenges. So in my book, All He Needs for Heaven, about our experience, I wrote a chapter titled, “God Did Not Do It.” In that chapter, I observed that Job suffered because he was righteous, not as the result of a sin in his life. I noted that Satan sent Job’s suffering, and Paul’s thorn was a messenger from Satan.
James 1:13-17 says plainly that the good things come from God. God is not to be blamed for armless babies. God is our source of strength and love. I believe we are going in the wrong direction totally when we ask, regarding one of life’s tragedies, “Why is God doing this to me?” I want to turn to God as the source of love, acceptance, strength and promise.
Through the years, God’s people also have demonstrated genuine goodness and the love of Christ. The Airline Drive church in Bossier City, La., where I reached in 1980, was magnificent. A fellow minister stood with his arm around me while I told the church about Chet. The ladies took care of our food and house leaning for weeks. The elders told me to take care of my family, and they would see to the needs of the church. One lady who had no grandchildren at that time had already asked to fill that role for Chet, and she did not shy away from the task. Chris Webster is still Chet’s grandmother. One of the men told me that first day, Jan. 6, that he represented a state agency that could provide occupational and physical therapy. He gave us our first hope. An insurance salesman worked to make Chet one of the first physically handicapped persons in the nation to get life insurance.
The church gave money for our many expenses. Teachers wanted to have Chet in their classes. Two men welded his powered wheelchair each time it broke. Camp counselors asked to have Chet in their cabins. We insisted that Chet do what he could for himself and never whine, but the church picked up all of the slack, also without whining. We would have been lost without the church.
Perhaps more than the physical help the church gave, they cried with us. They prayed for us. They loved us and accepted our entire family, including the one without arms. When Chet was 11, I moved us to Hurst, Texas, where I began to preach for the Pipeline Road church (now the Legacy church in North Richland Hills). This new church was as accepting as Airline had been. Soon Chet was one of the teens who took part in leading worship, and he excelled in song leading. A visitor once told me, “I came to church today feeling a little down and not wanting to be here, but when I saw that man without arms leading singing with such joy and enthusiasm, I wanted to be here.”
The church has blessed us, but Chet has given back as much or even more blessing to the church. Chet went with me to hold gospel meetings during some of his early years. One elder told my brother, Glen, “Chet is the best thing Jim has going for him. Chet gives Jim’s sermons validity.” Today, Chet is 26. In 2002 he graduated from the University of North Texas, magna cum laude. In 2004, Chet married the former Joni Sneed. They have just moved into their new house in Keller, Texas, complete with Radar, their dog. Chet and Joni work for a travel company, and they do most of their work online. Chet is a fantastic song-leader, leading with his whole body. He is helping lead a class at the Richland Hills church, where everyone seems to know Chet. His bright outlook on life makes friends soon forget his handicaps.
In fact, we often joke that Chet does not know he is handicapped. Chet’s story is a story of success, a story of overcoming, and a story of love and support. John Clayton helped me get the story published last June. In the book, Chet writes about facing challenges and the results in praise to God who has seen us through the last 26 years. He writes, “Satan is the all-time best discourager this world has ever seen. … I’ve had my weak times, and yes, I’ve gotten mad at God regarding my condition. You know what I finally realized? God is big enough to take my anger, and just as you would a confused child, he put his arms around me … and comforted me until the storm had passed.” Chet may not have all he needs for life here, but he has all he needs for heaven. He has Jesus.
JIM MCDONIEL is a minister of the Legacy Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas. His book about Chet’s life is available at www.allheneedsforheaven.com.