May 2010


After three days of camp, the temporary disease of Camp Amnesia has set in my mind.  Strange I can remember all the safety rules but I have no idea what my name is.

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Before the memorial service for my close friend, I helped show people where to set the tables and arranged the flowers.  Then I donned my robe and conducted the service.  After the worship,  I was back into my suit.  Then I made sure that the food was ready and helped serve the refreshments.  After everyone moved through the food line, I mingled with the guests to insure that each one had been served and was satisfied.  Because there were many people with disabilities there, it was especially important to assure that their needs had been met.

Because it was a memorial service, the funeral director was not there.  Therefore, it was also important for me to do the things they would normally do, such as, help the family with a few, fine points of where to stand so that the people move from one place to another and finding an appropriate place for them to sit during the service.  No, you can’t help serve the food.  You need to speak to your friends and let them share with you. 

Of course, I wasn’t the only person working.  There were at least 16 other people and The Special Gathering choir who worked many hours to make this worship/fellowship service a meaningful and loving event. 

Yet, as I was switching from one position to another, I was thinking that if I were a man/pastor, I would be moving the piano, the chairs and tables.  Before the service, if we had a building and the lawn crew had not shown up, I would be hurriedly cutting the lawn.  My male counterparts often repair a leaking roof and hang light fixtures.  A good friend of mine became the sub-contractor for upgrades of his run-down building.  He obtained grants and totally renovated the campus of his church. 

None of these important duties are in the job description but they are necessary functions that help make a ministry function properly.  We can either resent them or accept them with joy.  We often tell our choir that when they sing at churches or community events they are representing the Lord first but they are also representing the mentally challenged community, themselves and Special Gathering.  Perhaps this goes double for those of us who have the privilege to be Christ’s representative within the mentally challenged community.

Last week, I posted the Memorial Sermon that was preached for The Special Gathering membership.  Because most of our members do not have transportation, the family wanted them to be able to celebrate the life of their son, whom they all loved.  This post is what was used for the Memorial service where most of the people were not mentally challenged. 

In Denville, NJ on July 9, 1966 a small premature, baby boy was born. His body was weak. The doctors gave him little chance of stay alive. But as the hours, days and years ticked away until his death 44 years later, Ed ’s exceedingly strong spirit kept him cheerfully whacking at survival.

His medical condition was severe enough that he was the perfect candidate for a double heart and lung transplant. But dual transplants were not allowed at that time. It wasn’t until Eddie was three years old that the double transplant operation was approved. Alas, at three, he was too old to receive the surgery.

Again and again, as his parents battled to keep his health progressing forward, they were told, “He won’t live long. Enjoy the time you have.” But this family refused to allow their young warrior to die without joining his fight. His entire extended family of aunts and uncles and cousin surrounded him with their supportive love. His mother said, “When he reached his eighteenth birthday, I told his doctor that I didn’t want to hear that he was about to die, ever again.”

Scrappy, mischievous, meticulous and bold were character traits that pushed Ed into the forefront of people’s hearts and emotions. Of course, as every family of a warrior will agree, there can be an aggressive side. When his younger brother, David was born, two-year-old Ed must have felt somehow threatened. After a time, he wanted to throw his baby brother out the window. David is thankful that the rest of the family intervened on his behalf.

His mother’s sister, Gail, was Ed’s favorite sitter. “We always knew that our children were loved and welcomed with Aunt Gail,” his mother reported. Of course, it did take several extra eyes and ears to keep track of Eddie as he grew into boyhood. Around the age of ten, Eddie decided to take a trip to the grocery store that was located across a steep ravine at the back of the family’s house. Perhaps he planned a surprise for the family with dessert for dinner by purchasing Oreo’s and 7-Up. The only problem: He neglected to tell anyone where he was going.

After a frantic search of the house and yard, the police were called. His older sister, Danielle, and David scoured the neighborhood haunts; but Ed had vanished. Because of the steep ditch that separated the house from the store, it was thought that Ed could never make the trip to the A&P but someone finally searched the grocery store. Eddie had the Oreo’s and 7-Up in his shopping cart, casually touring the food aisles.

His first girlfriend was Dawn. Together they attended their first prom. Eddie loved a party, anybody’s party. He took over the family celebrations, neighborhood parties and every other festive occasion where he could coax the starring spotlight into his arena.

For many years, he worked for Taco Bell. Customers would come into the restaurant just to see Eddie. They would ask, “Where’s Eddie?” if he wasn’t there. David, his brother, would bring him home from work. David said, “He worked there so long that he smelled like a taco. He was a good worker. When family came into the restaurant, he would acknowledge you but he wouldn’t stop his work to talk.” Later when he worked at McDonald’s in Sebastian, it was the same story. People enjoyed his company and the “regulars” looked forward to visiting with him.

Please understand that fun and games were not the only things that Ed cared about. There was a serious side. He was serious about night shirts, singing, his guitar (which he never actually learned to play), his best friend, John, his girl friend, Irene, and, of course, Halloween. “He planned his costume a year ahead,” his father remembered, with a grin. “He loved to dress up.”

The Bible tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. It’s the picture of a stadium with a cheering crowd watching a sporting event. If Eddie could speak to us now, I think he would want us to know how important it is to have our lives aligned with godly principle found in the scripture. He would emphasize that having a loving and forgiving relationship with the Lord is the most important thing we can do in our lifetime. Of course, in addition to that he would have a message for each of his nephews. To Daniel, “Hey, Meatball.” For Steven, “How are you, Hot Dog?” John would be greeted with “Hello, Banana.” Of course, to his sister, Danielle, he would say, “You are beautiful.”

About seven years ago, after two or three months of a heroic encounter waged against death, Eddie announced to his parents that he wanted to move into a group home. Big Ed said, “We thought it would take months but in a couple of days they found the perfect home for him.” Quality Care Assisted Living is in Port St Lucie and run by Mike and Renee DeRienzo. Committed Christians, this group home was established as a ministry. Here Eddie found HIS home.

“That little fellow wormed his way into all of our hearts,” Mike told me. “He was the one person who seemed to unify our home.”

While active in the Catholic Church from birth, Ed’s parents found a place where his unique sensibilities could shine in a special needs Bible study class when he was a young man. Every week, Ed attended the class and learned about the Lord Jesus. When the Wihlborg’s considered a move to Florida, they wanted to find a location where Eddie could continue to be fed in his faith.

Fortunate for us, they found Special Gathering. By the time I met Eddie, he had become an active part of the Melbourne program. When our Vero program was formed, he was there the first Saturday. Within a few weeks, he was using his singing talents for the Lord. He continued to be an enthusiastic member of the choir for about six years.

What Eddie was missing in vocal excellence, he made up with his wonderful smile and eager, cooperative spirit. I knew that whenever we visited a local church, Ed would represent the Lord, himself and Special Gathering well. He was an ambassador for the Lord within the mentally challenged community, reaching into hearts by sharing his love for his Savior.

Before Ed was put into a coma by the doctors to help him remain calm, he spoke to his mom and dad, “I’m okay,” he said. Ed is now more than okay. He is with the Lord and we can celebrate his life.

Yesterday, two politicians were uncovered as hypocrites.   One was a Democrat.  The other was a Republican.  When the Democrat claimed to be a veteran of Viet Nam when he wasn’t, everyone dislikes it.  When a pro-family Republican is found having an affair, he is forced to resign.  No one likes a hypocrite. 

I’ve wondered for years why we hate hypocrites so much.  It seems that whenever a Christian’s sins are exposed, it isn’t the actual transgression that disgusts people.  It is the hypocrisy of the person.  I’ve found minimal research that explains our intense emotions when facing raw hypocrisy.  After years of pondering the phenomena, I’ve come up with a couple of reasons why we all find hypocrisy so repulsive.

  1. Hypocrisy exposes a deep character flaw.
  2. An action can be forgiven.  A character flaw is almost impossible to change.  Therefore, while forgiveness can happen, we instinctively understand that the offender will continue in her pattern of behavior. 
  3. When a person has a character flaw, he doesn’t often come to repentance.  Everyone else is blamed for the action.  Circumstances caused the failure.  “The devil made me do it.”  Without true confession and repentance, there cannot be change.
  4. Finally, and most important,  we all hate the thing in others that dwells in us.  In the deepest recesses of our being, we understand that we are all hypocrites. 

In ministering with people within the mentally challenged community, we seldom have to deal with hypocrisy or their hatred of it.  I don’t think it’s because our community doesn’t understand the complexity of this sin.  After all, they do comprehend other complicated human interactions.  I believe it is because they are almost never hypocritical.  This is one of the things which we all admire about the people with whom we minister.  It is also the reason why they are able to give unconditional love more often than folks who claim to be normal. 

Often, when people explain our population, terms such as totally honest, completely transparent  or without guile are used to describe them.  We admire this transparency even if we are told, “You have bad breath,” or “Your hair is really ugly today.”  Finding a people who don’t indulge in hypocrisy is like finding an oasis in the desert or having a rescue boat discover you after being lost at sea. 

When we uncover the hypocrite, we sense that we have exposed a part of us.  On the other hand, when we discover a people void of these hypocritical tendencies, we discover a people we desire to become.  Within our spirit, we understand that with Christ’s love and following the example of our mentors within the mentally challenged community, we can overcome this deeply embedded character flaw.

Each time I reread a blog, I find something I would like to change.  It is the plague of any writer/editor to want to change stuff.  However, it is in the details that good writing becomes great. I can imagine Hemingway hunched over his desk desperately trying to eliminate all unnecessary verbage.  The genius of brevity became his hallmark.

With every worthwhile venture it is the details that make and break a project.  One of my favorite TV shows has become Holmes on Homes with HGTV.  His insistence to master the details has drawn me and thousands of other viewers.  In our ministries, I’m convinced it is the minute things that others may overlook that separate okay from excellence.  Jack Haberer began pastoring Trinity Presbyterian Church when it was scarcely pushing 100 in attendance.  By the time he left, there were hundreds more coming each week.  While working for and with him, I saw that his mastery of details was the defining emphasis of his ministry.  When he first became pastor, they used folding chairs in the worship area.  He would come each Saturday night to arrange the chairs and pray for the people who would sit in them.  For him this was not a silly detail but a way to insure that people knew that they were welcomed.

Because I operate the sound system and lead the praise and worship, we use a Fender portable sound system.  It is simple/stupid.  I can set it up and not worry about the details.  Changing the volume can be done while I’m leading praise without much distraction.  However, I haven’t found any way to hide it and it a looks messy.  Therefore, I insist that the myriad of wires extending from the system are straight.  This helps in two ways.  I’m not going to stubble over them and they look better.  A small detail but important.

Straight rows of chairs I learned from Haberer and from Richard Stimson, our executive director.  Making sure that my notes are within reach and in order, I learned from Mr. Bitter Experience.  Dressing as though I’m ministering to a crowd of 7,000, I learned from my mother.  (Her motto was “It’s always better to over dress than under dress.  You can take off a jacket and undo your top button.  You can’t put a jacket on, if it’s in your closet at home.”)  Insuring that the wires of a sound system are safely in order I learned from a sound course I took from a group of sound professionals. 

Here are some other details that make my life easier and enhance the worship experience.

  • Begin and end on time, not 5 minutes late.
  • Be sure that a copy of the words to portions of the service that we will recite are in front of me.  I know the Lord’s Prayer; but it can quickly slip from my memory if there is a distraction.  Having a safety net of words insures that I don’t have to skid through an important part of the service.
  • Arrive early enough that I can take care of the details and then relax a moment. 
  • Insure that the songs I will be using are in the correct order and that the person running the overhead projector will have easy access to them.
  • Be sure that our first-ait kit is accessible at all times. 
  • Keep my mobile phone handy but make sure that I turn off the ringer.
  • A volunteer or staff should always be in a room where our members congregate.
  • Train myself  to never turn my back to the congregation.
  • Practice the praise and worship before the service.
  • Make sure our sound system, overhead projector and other electronic equipment is operating correctly. 
  • Check all CD’s or programs on the computer that I am using.
  • Speak to every person who is in our program, if possible.  Shake their hand or hug them.
  • It is really good if we can have a member stationed at the door to welcome people as they arrive.  Often volunteers are busy insuring the safety of the membership.  A peer can simply be friendly.
  • Practice the flow of the service. 
  • Notice where hitches happen (when I am trying to find a scripture or when I am calling people out to participate in the service are good examples).  I practice these  and know what I am doing.  I have a problem remembering people’s names when I am in front of an audience.  Therefore, before the service, I practice the names of the people I will call out or I have a written list.

These may not be any of the things which trip you up.  But there is something.  Mind the details of worship and the big things will seem to flow as smoothly as butter.

When we were getting our master’s degree, one of the paramount goals of the degree course work was to insure that we knew how to access the Internet for doing research.  I was resistant because I love doing research in books.  Additionally, it seemed that if you didn’t know the “key terms” to use in your search, you were lost and couldn’t find what you needed.  Now all that has changed for the better.  Slowly, I’ve learned the extreme value of the Internet for researching almost everything. 

If you have Internet access (and you must or you wouldn’t be reading this blog), there is little reason to go anywhere else because the information you need is literally at your finger tips.  I may be preaching to the choir.  Yet, I find that most people over the age of 40 have not discovered the amazing value of this tool. 

I use Google and I google a lot.  In preparing for sermons, I found that most of my in dept research can be done within the confines of my office and before my computer.  When trying to decipher the intricate concerns of certain behaviors associated with a particular disability, the Internet is quickly becoming my best friend.  There is a plethora of information regarding ministry issues and you don’t have to depend on some fly-by-night person who is sitting at their kitchen table in their pajamas.  Valued ministry heads have plugged into this important resource.  However, don’t disregard the person you don’t know, they are probably young and still experimenting.  You may learn a couple of new tricks that will enhance your ministry greatly.

While specialized ministry information may be sparse, the blogs and information available is growing.  Some of the most valued information and teaching has come from parents of children with disabilities who are recording their daily struggles to keep their heads above the water.  Don’t discount their wisdom.  After all, it was parents in the 50’s and 60’s who bucked the conventional wisdom and resisted the “professionals” who told these parents to put their children into institutions and “forget” their child.  These are the people who made much of what we are experiencing today happen.  Parents are still the people at the forefront of research for persons within the autism spectrum.

There is still a learning process when using the Internet.  However, the curve is tiny and the assets retrieved from your search are well worth the effort.  Have you found the Internet easy or difficult to use?  What are you most valued Internet sites?  Let us know what YOUR website or blog is.

Ed was born with Down’s syndrome. He had multiple health problems. But like most people within our community, Ed’s defective heart and weak lungs didn’t keep the man inside from being strong like a lion. The doctors told his mother and father time and again that he was going to die. Like many of your parents, their great love for their son would not allow any silly doctor-talk to stop them from fighting for his life.

Eddie did live but he did more than live. He began to show his community of family and friends the strength of a warrior. For many years, every day seemed to be a battle but each night as his parents tucked him into his bed there was a victory sigh of another day won.

Ed could not run or do a lot of the activities of early boyhood. But he could swim. His parents built a pool for their backyard. Ed became a great swimmer and competed in Special Olympics, winning lots of medals.

One year, a Special Olympics coach convinced Eddie to become a part of the Bocce team. He had never heard of this French ball game played on a lawn. The team that was gathered became good. So good, they were undefeated in the state of New Jersey, winning state gold metals.

Ed was scrappy, mischievous, and bold and people were drawn to his fun-loving ways. Of course, he wasn’t perfect. When his younger brother, David was born, two-year-old Ed wasn‘t that happy about having competition for his parent‘s time and love. After a time, he wanted to throw his baby brother out the window. David is thankful that the rest of the family rescued him.

Around the age of ten, Eddie decided to take a trip to the grocery store that was located across a steep ravine at the back of the Wihlborg’s house. Perhaps he planned a surprise for the family with dessert for dinner by purchasing Oreo’s and 7-Up. The only problem: He neglected to tell anyone where he was going.

After a search of the house and yard, they called the police. His older sister, Danielle, and David scoured the neighborhood; but Ed had vanished. Because of the steep ditch that separated the house from the store, it was thought that Ed could never make the trip to the A&P but someone finally searched the grocery store. Eddie had the Oreo’s and 7-Up in his shopping cart, casually touring the food aisles.

His first girlfriend was Dawn. Together they attended their first prom. Eddie loved a party, anybody’s party. He took over the family celebrations, neighborhood parties and every other festive occasion where he could coax the spotlight into his arena.

Whether at camp, confined to a wheelchair, or chained to an oxygen tank, Ed continued to enjoy life. He did have his favorite things. He loved night shirts, singing, his guitar (which he never actually learned to play), his best friend, John, his girl friend, Irene, and, of course, Halloween. “He planned his costume a year ahead,” his father remembered, with a grin. “He loved to dress up.”

About seven years ago, after two or three months in the hospital, Eddie announced to his parents that he wanted to move into a group home. The family found Quality Care Home in Port St Lucie and run by Mike and Renee DeRienzo. They are committed Christians, and this group home was established as a ministry. Here Eddie found HIS home.

“That little fellow wormed his way into all of our hearts,” Mike told me. “He was the one person who seemed to unify our home.”

Ed was baptized into the Catholic Church as an infant. But his parents wanted him to have a church setting that would specialize in his unique learning needs. His mother found a special needs Bible study class when he was a young man. Every week, Ed attended the class and learned about the Lord Jesus.

When the family decided a move to Florida, they wanted to find a ministry where Eddie could continue to be fed in his faith. Fortunate for us, they found Special Gathering. Ed has been active since they found us. He attended our first meetings in Vero and was the first member of our choir.

What Eddie was missing in vocal excellence, he made up with his wonderful smile and eager, cooperative spirit. I knew that whenever we visited a local church, Ed would represent the Lord Jesus, himself and Special Gathering well. He was an ambassador for the Lord within the mentally challenged community, reaching into hearts by sharing his love for his Savior.

Before Ed was put into a coma by the doctors to help him remain calm, he spoke to his mom and dad, “I’m okay,” he said. Ed is now more than okay. He is with the Lord and we can celebrate his life.

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