Sometimes the only introduction a book needs is just to get it into your hands. Such is the case with Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Our Faith. Pastor Jeff Gallagher processes some of his thoughts and experiences during his son Jacob’s first year in this world.
This book is commendable, first, because Jeff does not pity himself, his wife Kristen, his older son Noah, or Jacob. Jeff certainly laments his family’s dark valleys, particularly Jacob’s pain and struggles following heart surgery and stays in the hospital. However, as a father first and pastor second, Jeff persists in seeing God with him in these experiences. Actually, I believe Jeff would say God persists in revealing God’s self in all that happened.
The book is a compilation of Jeff’s CarePage notes- taken during Jacob’s first year- and Jeff’s later reflections on those notes, his memories, and Jacob’s later years (he’s five years old when the book is published). Jeff processes for himself and his family, but also acknowledges that theirs is not the only experience in the wilderness of differing abilities and early childhood illness, trauma, and surgeries.
You may not know anyone with Down syndrome, you may not be a churchgoer, you may never have set foot in Maine, you may not have any children, and yet this story has intrigued you enough that you’re still reading… In this way, Jacob’s story is Sophia
’s story. Sophia’s story is Luna’s story. Luna’s story is Noah’s story. Noah’s story is your story, and all the stories are God’s stories- God’s stories for God’s children, who have the power and the potential to teach and inspire us all. (164)
Jeff explains that he does not believe that God caused Jacob’s suffering (the physical struggles that make that first year painful and difficult). However, God can, does, and will use Jacob exactly like he is. (I’ve just noticed that I’m writing “Jeff” and not “Gallagher”. It’s too difficult to reflec
t on such a personal story and still use just the last name.)
Jeff inserts sermon excerpts and notations from books on theology in disability. His self-disclosure is well-spaced and inviting. His own experiences with his son’s different abilities caused Jeff to reflect deeply on what it means to say all people are welcome in community and at communion. His own congregation made accommodations for Jacob’s needs. Yet, “accommodation” doesn’t seem like the right word. Changes that are made in a worship setting so that more people can experience God in worship and fellowship is more than accommodating, it’s gospel living. Jeff makes that very clear.
All of this is not to say that we make God who we want God to be, but rather, that God- through the many and varied ways God reaches out to connect with us- has the ability to reveal God’s self to us in ways that are as unique and varied as the individuals to whom God is being revealed. As such it becomes clear, through such revelations, that what makes us unique- imperfections included- gives God a unique and powerful access point to connect with us. (38)
The congregation Jeff serves is to be commended for their deep care for their pastor a
nd his family during this first year (and, I assume, after). Jeff reiterates his gratitude over and over again. He also explains that this is not an experience limited to this church’s life together. This is the experience that anyone SHOULD find in a worshipping community.
…[The] church was amazingly supportive. And I have seen this happen time and time again with people- not just the pastor- going through different life challenges… [Church] is the only place in society today that can come together and act as the extended family that we all so desperately need to get us through in this life… (69)
All in all, this is a gentle book. It doesn’t make assumptions, but it brings some serious and real truths home in a very persuasive way. I would recommend this book to any pastor who enjoys reading memoirs or self-reflective essays. For congregational life, I would recommend this to any reading circle (excellent for reflection), as part of the church library, or as part of a parenting/marriage preparation retreat. This is the kind of book that grows on you as you reflect on its lessons and its implications for daily life and for life eternal.
Gallagher, Jeffrey M. Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Our Faith. Chalice Press: St. Louis, MO. 2013.