April 2010


Occasionally, most of us will tell our spouses, “I’m not your mama”…or “I’m not your father.”  Of course, we are letting our wife or husband know that we won’t take some action that s/he is requesting us to do. Perhaps we are telling him or her that they must complete a certain task on their own.  We are referring to the fact that we don’t want to parent our partner.  Even if we have the good sense to not verbalize the snide remark, we certainly think those thoughts. 

Sure, that is a marital problem.  Yet, it goes deeper when we are in ministry.  More times than not, our members will try to put us in a parental posture, then reject the very image they have created.  Without thinking, program directors may absently revert to either a “mommy” or a “papa” position.  There are many things that we should do when we sense ourselves either slipping into this mindset or find a member or members putting us there.  Here are some tactics that might help.

  • Don’t allow your members to call you mom, dad, grandma or granddad.  As soon as a member refers to you in that manner, quietly say, “Sorry.  I’m not your dad.”  Don’t make a big deal of the issue but be firm and insistent.  Each time you are called mama issue the same statement.  “Nope.  I’m not your mom.  Don’t call me that.”   Here quiet consistency and firmness are the key.
  • Don’t treat your members in a childish way.  Don’t comb their hair or tie their shoe laces or cut up their food.  Unless there are real physical disability issues make your members act as independently as possible.
  • Don’t coddle your members in the way you speak to them.  Terms of endearment can be deadly for our members especially if they denote childlike nicknames.  Sissy and Bubba are a good example.  While these may be cute, family names for children, by the time a person becomes an adult, everyone–except the family–has shed these terms.  Pet names you may use for your members such as Little One or Baby speak of a child or an extremely close family relationship.  Avoid these terms. 
  • Don’t become a nag about things that only a mother would notice.  Even as an adult, there are certain things that my mother would say to me that no one else would ever say.  Unless, you are in a public place and the behavior is extremely offensive, don’t tell your members to chew with their mouth shut, wipe your face, don’t eat so much, don’t talk while you eat or sit up straight.  Sure there are extremes; but don’t nag. 
  • If you must help a person become aware of food on their face or something in their teeth, do it in a quiet and dignified way that won’t call attention to your member.  Never announce, “Hey, zip up your pants” or “Your shoes are on the wrong feet.”  Take the person aside and speak to them in quiet tones.  Afford them the same courtesy, you would any other good friend or collegue.
  • If a member continues a behavior that is extremely offensive, be sure that you aren’t the only person who thinks this behavior is harmful to their dignity.  Years ago, I had a perky, little lady in one of our programs that everyone else thought was funny.  I found her actions silly and even offensive.  People would lovingly laugh at her antics.  I never heard anyone say that she was inappropriate.  I saw nothing funny about her.  From the beginning, I knew this was my problem, not hers.  I tried to avoid correcting her because I knew that my correction would be harsh and parental in nature.  I let others who thought she was funny do the correcting.
  • Examine yourself first.  If your first reaction is “I would never let a child of mine act like that,”  you have probably slipped into a parenting role.  You should either allow someone else to correct the person or ignore it until you can get a better handle on your emotions.

These seven ways to handle this knotty parenting dilemma are only scratching the surface.  What are some of the tactics that you find help?  Perhaps, you think this entire column is an overreaction to a situation that doesn’t exist.  Tell me what you think.

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Occasionally, people comment about the amount of work that is needed to run two special needs program in two counties.  Of course, I’m not the only person who does this.  The other full-time staff person at Special Gathering has more on his plate than I do.  Every special needs director probably works longer and harder than they should.  Therefore, I’ve been asked lots of times, “What do you do for fun?”  Here are some of the things I do for my own personal amusement.

  1. I direct two Special Gathering choirs.  Being in a choir has been a passion for me from the time I was a small child.  I always wanted to be a choir director but assumed that my lack of formal training excluded me from being able to this.  Directing choirs has been a great joy that Special Gathering has afforded me for more than two decades.  I don’t count the time I spend with our choirs as part of my work time.  It’s my hobby and a great joy for me.
  2. Sunday morning and Saturday afternoon Special Gathering time.  Years ago, in talking with a friend who wasn’t a Christian and who didn’t attend church, I moaned about the fact that my husband and I didn’t share any hobbies.  She looked stunned.  “You share your commitment to God and your church.  Those things are much better than a hobby.  You should cherish them.”  I’ve never forgotten her reaction.  As a result, I continue to count the time I spend during the worship and Bible study hours in community as part of my hobby–not my work.
  3. Lunch.  I get to go to lunch with some of the most amazing people in the world.  Pastors, Christian leaders and ministry leadership within the disability community, Special Gathering members and staff.  Great fun and good food.  Who could ask for a better hobby?
  4. Pastors’ prayer meetings.  Several times a week, I get to meet and pray with pastors from two counties.  They are men and women who freely share their commitment, frustrations, pain and joy.  Sometimes we even meet and pray over breakfast or lunch–which leads us back to #3, perhaps my favorite of all my hobbies.
  5. Studying the scriptures.  This ministry REQUIRES me to do one of favorite hobbies, studying the scriptures.  I often don’t try to even find things that are meaningful as I read, they simply fall from the pages, leading me to meditate and explore, asking questions and expanding my spiritual horizons.
  6. Children’s movies.  Because of his disability, my husband is home bound.  There are only a few things that we are able to do together.  But he loves going to the movies and I love children’s fiction.  Children’s movies are a perfect combination for the two of us.  However, there is a down side.  After viewing one movie, my husband asked for a year, “Are there any penguins in this movie? I’m not going if there are penguins.”
  7. Amusement parks.  Several times a year, I have the great joy of being able to escort several of our members to one of the many parks in the Central Florida area.  Great fun and I get in for free.  What could be better?
  8. Hanging out with our members.  I’m not able to do this as often as I’d like but occasionally we are able to gather a large group and we just hang together.  I’m able to go to lunch with our members at times or go to their workshop during lunch. 
  9. Talk on the phone.  Parents, members, professionals and fellow pastors still connect with each other by way of the phone and texting.   E-mail and Facebook may be quickly replacing the human voice but I still like to talk on the phone.
  10. This blog is a creative way for me to reach out while reminding myself of the wonderful privilege it is to be able to do what I do.
  11. I also cook and garden.  Additionally, I exercise an hour each day. 

Alas and despair, after reviewing my list, it does appear that a lot of what I do each week may be part of my job description but it’s so much fun that I have to count it as a hobby.  Poor me!

Talking animals,  grotesque monsters who become pets, and ghoulish characters doing foolish, silly things are all the makings of great fantasy.  In Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the heroine becomes entangled in a world that seems subhuman at first glance.  Everyone appears to be either super silly, bonkers or misinformed. 

I’ve seen the movie twice and I plan to see it several more times.  Though I would never take a child with me, this is an action film that sucks you into its lost world, playing with your mind and heart until you find yourself totally in love with its whimsical and bazaar characters, especially the Mad Hatter. 

After viewing the movie with several Special Gathering members and our program director from South Carolina, Teddy whose disability is Prater Willi and within autism spectrum jumped from his seat and yelled at the top of his soprano voice, “Okay, Everybody, let’s get out of here.”  Fortunately, the theatre was empty except for the six of us.  Even though, the program director from SC corrected him for being inappropriately loud, we could not help but laugh because we know and love Teddy and understand that his disability and lack of consistent training make this type of outburst inevitable on occasion. 

On the way out, shy and reserved Peter stopped to proudly show us his new ring that he had purchased the day before for the 100th time.  Kenny unaware of anyone or anything else hustled toward the parking lot ahead of the rest of the group.  The gentle giant, Teddy now lagged behind.  He perused and mumbled about all the giant posters that lodged in the lobby.  Pulling on his senses and curiosity, they created an enormous temptation for him.  He held his hands together and spoke softly to himself, “Don’t touch.  Don’t touch.”

After we had gotten out of the theatre with everyone safely in the vehicle, I asked the program director, “Do you ever feel like Alice in Wonderland?” 

She laughed and said, “I refuse to answer that question.”  But her look and contented smile told the story.  We sat in silence for a long time.  I reviewed my wonderfully creative and inquisitive members, one by one.  No.  Those of us who minister within the mentally challenged community haven’t fallen down some unknown rabbit hole into a lost world, though it may feel that way at times.

For we often minister unseen and unknown as though this world is only visible to us.  We reach, teach, correct, disciple and love.  But this isn’t a lost, fantasy world that we can leave by climbing out of the rabbit hole.  These are real people who live happy and hurting lives.  They deserve genuine compassion and godly training.  In return, our members give back so much love and gratitude, that it does often seem that we have been transported into an alternate universe.  A world lost where people actually care and really try to make godly decisions. A place where people don’t need to be taught to love without abandon as Christ loved.

After rethinking, perhaps falling down a rabbit hole into a lost world isn’t a bad analogy for special needs ministries after all.

This was my second week to teach on obedience.  The curriculum called for the lesson to be on thankfulness but I didn’t see that in the scripture text so I continued to teach on obedience for another week. 

Additionally, I’ve been reading in I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles.  The thing that has always fascinated me is how one king after another turned from following the Lord after years of being blessed and seeing miraculous victories in battle.  Then one day, it was as if a light switch was turned off and they weren’t obedient any longer.  They turned away from God, His love and his blessings.

I have alway thought that obedience is something that you learn.  In fact, I trained my children that way.  I remember saying again and again, “You must learn to obey.”  As I meditated on the lesson for Sunday, I saw obedience in a different light. 

Obedience is a decision that we make with each choice that faces us.  It isn’t a learned skill or an art form that can be perfected.  It is a crude, blunt, no-frills, down and dirty decision.  The greatest Biblical scholar who has spent years learning the scriptures, theology and Christology makes headlines because he choses to disobey God.  While the back-woods grandmother who received merely a second grade education and has read only one book–her Bible–her entire life, daily decides to walk paths that please her heavenly Father. 

If obedience isn’t learned then is there no place for discipleship and learning?  Yes.  We must learn the rules, law and commandments God the Father and Jesus expect us to obey.  We cannot know the correct decisions to make, if we don’t know the rules of the highway.  I can easily break the speed limit, if it isn’t posted along the side of the road. 

Thankfully, God has given us an inner conscience that helps to direct our paths.  When that fails, and it often does, He has given us the scriptures that instruct, inform and teach his ways.  In addition, He has given us teachers, pastors and elders who amplify God’s word and help us to understand how a text written 5000 years ago easily applies to my modern-day life.   Above all that, He gives us His own Spirit who is commissioned to direct, lead and guide us into all truth. 

Before worship, Thomas, a member decided to be impolite to a group and speak to them in a disrespectful and crude way.  After the sermon, he came up to me.  “I need to say I’m sorry. I did wrong.  Will you forgive me?”  I called the people he had offended up to the front.  After they had sat down, I told Thomas that he had to speak to the people that he had offended.  “I’m so sorry,” Thomas said, ashamedly. 

Thomas is learning that obedience is hard but it is a decision.  A good friend of mine used to say to her daughter, “You can get glad in the same skin you got mad in.”  Life is chocked full of decisions.  We much learn what God wants from us.  However, each decision is a choice–bad or good.

For years, dealing with NORMAL folks, they almost never called to tell me that they would not be attending church.  However, since ministering within the mentally challenged community, our members often call to let me know that they won’t be attending.  Most of the time, reasons are reasonable and prudent.  “I’m sick” or “I’ll be out-of-town.”  But I’ve also heard many bazaar excuses.  Here are a few of my favorites.

  • I can’t come.  I plan on being sick on Sunday.
  • I can’t come.  We had a meal last week at Special Gathering and I got sick.  So I’m not coming next week because I might get sick again.  I say, “But we aren’t eating anything next week.”  I know.  But I got sick last week and I don’t want to get sick again.
  • I went to the dentist on Monday.  I don’t want to come to church on Sunday because my teeth might hurt when I eat my cookies for refreshments.  I ask, “Are you hurting now?”  No. “Are you eating now.”  After giggles she said, Of course, I’m eating.   “Can’t you just not eat the cookie?”  No, because I might want to eat one of them.
  • I can’t come to Special Gathering next week.  You made me sick last week.  “I made you sick?  What did I do?”  Oh, nothing but I got sick when I came home from church so you made me sick.
  • I can’t come to Special Gathering any Sunday this month.  I’m going on a trip in four weeks. I need the time to pack my suitcase.  “How long will you be gone?”  Two days but it takes me a long time to decide what to take.
  • I’m not coming to Special Gathering next week.  I’m having an operation in a couple of months and I have to rest.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  What’s wrong with your?”  Nothing’s wrong.  I’m having a tooth filled and I need to rest.
  • I have to go to work on Monday and I can’t come to Special Gathering on Sunday.  “But you work every Monday.  Is something important or different happening?”  No.  Everything’s the same.  But I still can’t come.

I know that you have your favorite excuses that come from your members.  Perhaps you will share them with us.

Yesterday, I had lunch in a restaurant that was packed with people.  I noticed that at the beginning of the meal, the waitress was enthusiastic and happy to wait on us.  We were sitting on the outside porch overlooking the water.  In this area, people come and go as they please and their seating is not controlled by the hostess assigning tables.  Obviously, most of the patrons  wanted to be on the porch this warm sunny afternoon because her station soon filled to capacity and beyond.  As the people piled into the area, she became overwhelmed, the orders became more complicated and her thrilled excitement slowly seeped away. 

Those of us who had come onto the porch at the beginning of the mealtime were patient with her and happy to sit and wait for her to complete our orders.  The others who had arrived later in the afternoon had not caught her enthusiasm; and they were not nearly as patient about the extended wait they had to endure. 

For me this was a great example of the power of enthusiasm.  Within a more holy realm, I’ve seen worship leaders destroy an amazing session of praise and worship by scolding the worshipers trying to encourage them to sing louder or longer or better, raise their hands or lower their hands.  On the opposite side, when the worship leader is enthusiastic and excited about praising God, the people respond with increased joy and enthusiasm.

Within the mentally challenged community, enthusiasm is an essential element.  Whether you are driving a van, leading praise and worship, teaching or preaching, your members will catch your attitude and your joy.  They will also adopt your distrust and lack of contentment if you put it on display.  Often, before our executive director, Richard Stimson, brings correction of our membership, he will say, “You know I love you, don’t you?  I have to say this even though it makes me sad that it might hurt you.  I’m going to say this because I love you so much.”

After that introduction, our members are prepared for correction and they are encouraged that this problem does not affect Stimson’s love for them in any way.  Correction is always better covered with a heavy dose of sloppy, genuine love.

When doing anything, remember our attitude may be the key to a successful completion.  Our members deserve the best.  They are God’s wonderful folks who desire to learn and grow.  Your enthusiasm will help to stir within them a joy for learning and help them to grow into the people God planned for them to become.

Ben’s outbursts during the praise and worship were distracting to some.  However, Ben didn’t talk in words.  His groans and moans were his expressions of praise and worship.  All during the service Ben sat quietly subdued but praise and worship was his time to lift his wobbly arms and flailing head and yell.  When a staff person explained to me that he was distracting others, I explained to her that I believed that  Ben’s worship was holy and right and he would be allowed to holler his “groaning that could not be expressed.”  She wasn’t pleased but she didn’t insist that he be kept quiet either.

At a recent funeral for a friend who is mentally challenged, the pastor said that Susan would often express what others in the congregation would like to express but didn’t feel it was proper in a Presbyterian church.  He told the people gathered to mourn our loss that her expressions would be the thing the congregation missed the most.  When someone she knew was in the hospital, Susan would moan loudly and say, “Oh, no!”  in her deep contralto voice.

While we endeavor to teach our member the decorum of worship, there are times that our members teach us the importance of holy expressions of joy or grief that reach beyond words into the depth of our souls extending straight to the heart of God.

When Ben moved to another city, I grieved because I knew that something would be missing from our praise and worship time that only Ben could bring.  Now, I grieve for Palmdale Presbyterian Church because I know that something and someone wonderful will be missing from their quiet, reverent services.  Perhaps not even the person as much as the holy interruptions from a holy woman.  Goodbye, Susan.  We will all miss you.

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