When we ask children who they would like to pray for, their responses are often focused on those who are sick or hurt. They offer prayers for friends and family members who are overcoming illnesses, diseases or injuries. Ailments that manifest themselves physically are easy for children to identify and respond to but those which have subtle or unseen symptoms are more challenging for them to wrap their minds around. Invisible illnesses and disabilities affect many people, but they often are ignored or carry a stigma because those suffering from them do not “look sick.” Jesus recognized this and responded by offering those experiencing invisible illnesses healing, care and reunification with their communities. In this lesson, children will explore the story of Jesus healing a man likely suffering from a mental illness. They will examine the ways that invisible illnesses and disabilities can affect someone’s life and will consider ways they can care for and support those in their communities experiencing unseen challenges.
Begin your time with the children by showing them a picture of the ADA wheelchair-accessible logo. (This is the symbol on signs designating accessible parking spaces and restroom facilities.) Ask the children what this picture means. What does this image tell them? What does it signal to those who see it? If this symbol is shown on a sign in front of a parking space, who can park in that spot? Likely the children will note that the logo indicates people with physical disabilities may park in one of these designated spots. Ask them how they would respond if they saw someone park in an accessible parking spot and then climb easily out of their car and walk into a store.
Note that there are many different types of disabilities. Some disabilities affect a person’s body. The disability may cause them to move, see, speak or hear differently. We can often notice these physical disabilities when we meet those experiencing them. Share that there are also many disabilities that are harder to see. A person may have a disability that affects the way they feel or the way their brain works, and we can’t easily see how it affects their life. These disabilities and illnesses are sometimes called “invisible” because they are hard for many of us to notice.
Provide the children with an introduction to invisible disabilities by showing them this video. In it, several teens talk about the invisible disabilities they live with and the responses they would like for those around them to have. After watching the video, ask the children to share key ideas they are taking away from it.
Exploring the passage
Prepare to read aloud Luke 8:26-39. Provide context for the reading. Tell the children that they will be hearing a story about Jesus healing someone. In the reading, Jesus encounters a man “who had demons.” While it is not entirely clear exactly what health challenge this man is living with, it is likely that he is experiencing an invisible disability or illness. In the time when Jesus lived, people did not understand mental health illnesses the way that we do now. They likely would have thought that a person living with such a disability had some sort of spirit or “demon” living in him. They may not have treated such a person with care and kindness. They may have been afraid of him and even have pushed him out of their community because of their fear. Ask the children to notice how the people in the man’s community respond to him as well as how Jesus interacts with him.
Read aloud Luke 8:26-39. After reading, ask the children to recount how a man “who had demons” was living at the start of the story. He was unclothed and lived in tombs. Have them wonder what it must have felt like to be this man. Then, ask them how the people in the man’s community acted towards him. Note that more than once they had chained him up and had guarded him, but he broke out and ran away. Highlight that this man isn’t getting to experience living in the community. He is clearly suffering but people respond by chaining him.
Next, ask the children what Jesus does when he encounters this man. Share that Jesus heals the man. Jesus tells the man to return to his community and to share what God has done. Have the children wonder what it might have been like for the man when he returned to Gerasenes. How would the community react to him? How would his life be different?
Relating the passage to our lives
After discussing the scripture reading, encourage the children to connect Jesus’ response to the man to their own lives. Ask them to think about what they heard in the video about invisible disabilities. Explain that we cannot remove the disabilities that people live with as Jesus did, but we can respond with care and can support them. Together with the children, brainstorm ways that their church community can be welcoming and supportive of those with invisible disabilities. You may choose to focus on one aspect of the life of the church such as worship. What are ways that you are already making worship welcoming to people with invisible disabilities? What additional supports could the church provide? You could also choose to explore ways that the congregation can be supportive of people living with a particular invisible disability such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia.
At the end of the lesson, encourage the children to share their ideas with members of the session or the committee(s) responsible for the particular areas their changes would affect.