Advent with Rachel

I sat in a Presbyterian pew this morning, the first Sunday in Advent, with family members: son, daughter-in-law, grandson, two granddaughters – one of whom was Rachel Diane. It is Rachel’s 21st birthday today. Rachel is a young woman with Down syndrome. It is always a magnificent experience to worship God with her. Rachel is all in when it comes to worship. We Presbyterians are not noted for exuberant, spirit-filled worship. In fact, one wag called us “God’s Frozen People.” Not Rachel Diane. She gives the solemn liturgy her full and undivided attention, follows the Order of Worship in the bulletin, reads the responses and prayers emphatically. Her “Amens” are full, final, and quite audible, and the hymns -Rachel loves to sing, has a nice musical sense, spends hours singing along with the songs on her iPhone, knows by heart the words of most, if not all, the Beatles’ recordings- Rachel sings hymns with something like total commitment. She is physically diminutive with beautiful blonde hair but her voice is at least half an octave lower than you might expect, gravelly, like Kenny Rogers, and when she sings a hymn in church she gives it her all. The “Alleluias” at the end of “For All the Saints” a few weeks ago were gloriously enthusiastic. And this morning the great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Immanuel” with its concluding phrase, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to Thee, O Israel” was delivered with full throated, unrestrained rejoicing. People in the pews around us were noticeably impressed.

I have thought and written about Rachel a lot over these 21 years. She is a “Person with Special Needs” ( aren’t we all, really?) and when she was born 21 years ago my knowledge, and my family’s, of Down syndrome was minimal, non- existent if truth were told. I remember the night of her birth when my son telephoned in the early hours of the morning to tell us that she had arrived safely and that it appeared that his new baby daughter was a Down syndrome infant. I had no idea what was ahead for him, his wife, the new baby, and for all of us.

It is so easy to become maudlin and simplistic and to say something sentimental – “She must be such a blessing to you.” Parenting a child with special needs is full time, uninterrupted, hard work, requiring full commitment, gentle care, strong determination, fierce and courageous advocacy, and unconditional love. There is natural initial disappointment and grief and an immediate awareness of all that will not happen in the future. There is grief. But, yes indeed, Rachel has blessed her parents, our entire family, and me. Her father, my son, said it well at her birthday party: “Rachel, you have changed us all and made us better people.”

Here are some ways:

I have watched with admiration and awe, and frequently tears, how her younger brother and sister treat their sister, Rachel, with patience, respect, deep love, all seasoned with humor and laughter. She has taught Johnny and Eleanor to love more deeply and largely than they would otherwise have possibly learned.

Rachel’s whole-hearted, exuberant embrace of life reminds me, every time she throws herself into my arms with the very best greeting in the world, of how precious the gift of life is; hers, mine, all of ours, and how we ought, all of us, to be constantly thanking God for the simple miraculous fact that we are alive. Rachel’s birthday celebrations, hers or anybody’s, are memorable. There is nothing quite like it for raw, authentic enthusiasm. She delights in candles and cake as if they are the most wonderful, magical thing in the world, and sings “Happy Birthday to You” at the top of her lungs.

Rachel has introduced us to an entire, wonderful community of families that have children with special needs who without much notice negotiate challenges that most of us do not face, and share small disappointments and great victories. Whenever I am privileged to be around them I always think to myself – “these people know more about love that any of us do”. I have also become aware of wonderful organizations, professionals and volunteers, that provide services and do the hard work of political advocacy for people with disabilities and their families. Because of them, Rachel competes in Special Olympics and an amazing theatre group that presents several dramatic performances per year with the help of a group of beautiful volunteers from Chicago’s theater community. 

So, yes indeed, Rachel is a blessing. Sitting beside her in the pew on the first Sunday of Advent, admiring her loud and joyful “Rejoice! Rejoice,” I couldn’t help but think about the man who said, “Let the little ones come to me. For the Kingdom of God is like them”, and the birth Advent anticipates and that God’s way with the world, and with each one of us, has something to do with weakness, vulnerability, smallness, and the miracle and reality of infinite, unconditional love in a vulnerable, tiny infant.


  1. Martha Brown says:

    Beautiful, John.

  2. Donna Pemberton says:

    Beautiful message, John!

  3. Jennifer Pitcher says:

    I’m Joann Pitcher’s niece and she encouraged me to subscribe to your blog soon after your retirement. I continue to enjoy reading each one of them! All of your posts through the years about Rachel have inspired me. I have been involved with special education since the early 80s when I student taught in W. Lafayette in a kindergarten full of darling downs faces and personalities. I often wonder where those young adults are today! As a teacher who has “moved on”, my former students play a part every day in my thoughts and prayers. Reading from a grandfather’s perspective brings new meaning to family and how everyone plays a part. I find myself nodding and smiling as I read your posts.Thank you for continuing to share your gifts, long after retirement! Blessings to you and your family,Jennifer Pitcher

  4. thekla shackelford says:

    I have found your blog and am so grateful to know how to be in touch with you and to catch up with you and Sue. I loved our conversation as well. I will also check in with brother David regarding Bill, Diane’s brother- in-law. We won’t come again to Chicago without dropping in after giving advanced notice. Much love to all of the Buchanans. , Teckie

  5. thekla shackelford says:

    I loved reading about Rachel at 21 and what she has done for all of your family. I thought of her and you when the son or the owners of Simon Pierce glass company was so badly injured in the OlympicsThe family pulled together and he was inspired by his Down Syndrome brother.What a miracle! You are all in our hearts and prayers. Love. Teckie

  6. Nancy Baird says:

    Many thanks for this beautiful piece. I will always cherish the memory of Rachel as Mary in the Fourth Church Christmas Pageant.

  7. Kathi willett says:

    So beautiful John! I heard Rachel singing the Sunday of the organ donation and wished I had her deep sincere sense of joy with every word sung and prayer recited! She is a blessing to us all!!!

  8. Robert Schweitzer says:

    John, I was your choir director in Lafayette, IN in the late 1960’s. I have finally found you and so glad I have at this point in my life. I admired you then and thought great things would be in your future. I am going to enjoy reading your comments on a regular basis. My best to you and your family.

    Bob Schweitzer
    Indianapolis, IN

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