My wife and I have become avid viewers of America’s Got Talent. This is the first year that we’ve really followed the show. And on Wednesday night, to my disappointment, my favourite contestant was sent home. I had been a fan of Connor Doran, the indoor kite-flyer who struggles with epilepsy, since the beginning. Maybe it’s because I like to root for the underdog. Maybe it’s because my best friend, who passed away when he was Connor’s age, struggled with a disability his entire life. Maybe it’s because, like millions of others, I was captivated by the incredible gift that Connor brought to the stage. Just watch this, this, or this and you’ll see what I mean.
When Connor first walked onto the stage and began flying his kite, the entire audience—and my wife and at home—became mesmerized by the kite. Connor faded to the background, and the intricate beauty and surreal grace of the kite captured our attention. Through Connor’s kite-flying, millions of people tapped into their spiritual capacities and had a transcendent experience. For those 90 seconds, we were transported to another place. In the words of Howie Mandell, “Watching that stepped me into that same place.” Connor himself testifies to the mystical, transcendent experiences that are offered to him through kite-flying. He says it grants him “a true escape.” This is the essence of spirituality, escaping the limits of ordinary time and space and connecting with something greater than ourselves.
In the introduction to his last performance on America’s Got Talent, Connor tells us about his struggles: “My whole life I’ve been told I can’t do things. But kite flying has changed that…” This underdog was able to rise above and defy the odds by not only giving the performance of his life, but by taking us with him as he transcended the put-downs and doubts of others.
Connor’s story has much to offer those of us seeking to nurture the spiritual lives of children. First, it reminds us of what spirituality is, of what it means to connect with God. We often think of sensing God’s presence during times of prayer, worship, or Scripture reading. But the truth is, God is beyond these practices. God can’t be contained within our human-constructed means of knowing God. And God can’t even be contained with in the Christian religion. For when we reduce God as the one who is only known through prayer, musical worship, or Christian doctrine, we at once turn God into something God is not. When I saw Connor’s kite soar high above him, sweeping and swooping across the stage, I saw the very heart of God. God isn’t just known when we open up the Bible. God is known in a young person and his kite. It is there, in the life of a boy who was always told he can’t do things, that God appeared. So, I’m left wondering, do we box God in through our ministries with children? Do we tell the Connor Dorans in our churches that they just can’t do things, that they can’t know God in that way or that it’s blasphemy to think of God in this way? How can we think beyond our common conceptions and practices and find new, creative ways of helping children connect with God? How can we give voices to the Connor Dorans in our lives?
A second insight that Connor’s talent stirred up in me has to do with the role of the church in the lives of young people. Growing up, I had my fair share of struggles. I was picked on, bullied, and put down by my peers. But I also witnessed the tremendous struggles of James, my best friend. James was born with spina bifida and was confined to a wheelchair for the seventeen years of his short life. As his closest friend, I saw the incredible struggles that he and his family had to deal with on a daily basis. He, like Connor, was always told that he couldn’t do things. So when Connor spoke of the power that kite-flying gave to him, the power to transcend the doubters, I was intrigued. I thought, “If only the church could be a voice of hope and strength in the lives of people like Connor.” Jesus spent time with the outcasts and the marginalized. He was friends with those who were told they can’t do things. And he helped them to see that they can do more than they ever thought they could. Young people in general are told that they can’t do things. And young people with disabilities like spinal bifida and epilepsy hear those words—“you can’t do that”—perhaps more than anyone else. The church, however, as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today, is meant to be a voice of strength, solidarity, power, and hope in the lives of the Connor Dorans and the James’s of the world. Through our ministries with children, we can fan the flame of the divine spark and offer love, acceptance, strength and true empathy to those young people who need it most.
Third, Connor’s story reminds me that young people are not to be underestimated. He was certainly the underdog, getting kicked off the show during the quarter-finals and then being brought back and making it to the semi-finals. No one saw it coming. Who among us would have thought that this young person would offer such a remarkable gift to the millions of us who were watching at home? But he proved us wrong. And he’s not the only one. There are countless stories of children who defy the odds, stand strong in the face of doubters, and do remarkable things in the lives of those around them. I should know. James was one of them.
So, a young boy and his kite have much to teach us about ministry with children. Connor’s story reminds us to seek God beyond our human constructions and to let children wonder and explore their relationships with God in new, surprising, and unconventional ways. He helps us remember that the church is meant to be a bastion for the downtrodden. He shows us that children can—and do—defy the limitations that we place upon them. And he reminds us to never underestimate the power of a kid and his kite. So keep flying, Connor. Through your extraordinary talent, you have shown me the very face of God.