Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9 (ESV)
Barb Newman is very sick. I want her to know how much our team appreciates the ministry she’s provided for many years to the kids and families of Zeeland Christian School, to churches and Christian schools through the work of All Belong, and to the entire field of disability ministry through her writing, speaking and teaching. I’m writing today because I want our friend to know how much we value her and the gifts she’s given to us and everyone else serving in the disability ministry field.
I felt very unsettled in the early days of our team getting out to conferences and networking in the children’s and family ministry communities after observing the extent to which ministry leaders in those areas were engaged in ruthless self-promotion and discovering that a lot of the teaching and content available at that time wasn’t very good. I came into ministry from a medical world in which excellence was demanded. I’d expected excellence would be a given in work being done in the name of God, but that wasn’t in many instances what I found. With regard to the practical, “how-to” of doing ministry with families of kids with severe disabilities, Barb’s writing and teaching was the first content that reflected a level of excellence in caring for and supporting individuals and families impacted by disabilities consistent with what I’d come to expect from my exposure to academic medicine.
I came to recognize Barb’s superior abilities as a teacher and have seen the ways in which God has used her extraordinary gifts to bless the disability community. Barb is able to talk about kids with incredibly complex conditions such as autism in such a way that pastors, ministry leaders, fellow educators and Sunday school volunteers are able to grasp the best ways to lend support while communicating the love of Christ. Her work has provided a foundation to others in the disability ministry field who have continued to build upon it. When I was working on Mental Health and the Church, I wanted the book to be as good as Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship and Autism and Your Church. She’s set the standard for the field.
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Philippians 1:15-18 (ESV)
Barb has always been extraordinarily generous with her time and talents and actively sought to collaborate in any opportunity to advance the field of disability ministry and disability inclusion. She’s been a great encouragement to emerging authors and leaders. Her humility and willingness to work with others despite her superior abilities has greatly contributed to the spirit of collaboration throughout the disability ministry movement and served as an authentic reflection of Christ.
To Live Is Christ
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
Philippians 1:18b-26 (ESV)
With all that said, I think Barb has done some of her most impactful ministry in the last three months, since being diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma of the uterus – a very aggressive form of cancer that metastasized to her brain. I’d encourage everyone to check out the journal Barb and her family have maintained since her cancer was identified nearly three months ago. In mental health ministry, we often find ourselves wresting with the implications of Philippians 4:6-7. Through her illness, Barb has been the embodiment of what Paul described as “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” I’ll pray that if given the opportunity, the Holy Spirit will enable me to finish my race as well as Barb is finishing hers.
Here’s my favorite talk of Barb’s, from our Inclusion Fusion Live conference in 2018. She shared the idea of “puzzle piece learning” – a wonderful vision of what inclusion might look like in the church and in Christ’s kingdom.
While we’ll continue to pray that God would glorify himself through healing Barb completely of her cancer and giving her many more years of serving families with disabilities and the church, if he chooses not to do so we’ll be happy for our friend that she’ll be with Jesus forever in his kingdom along with many, many people who came to know him through churches and schools Barb trained to welcome them. We’ll also be comforted thanks to Barb’s generosity with her wisdom and knowledge, there are many gifted teachers and leaders prepared to continue her work.
Thanks Barb! We’ll see you soon.