August 2010


Again and again, people who come to visit The Special Gathering will say, “I can’t believe it.  I actually learned something from your sermon.”  If we think about it, Jesus’ teaching is extremely adaptable to our members who are mentally challenged.  They understand the Sermon on the Mount.  As we all do, they relive the parables in their minds as they hear them read or taught. 

Sometimes the misunderstanding of  how we do our devotions comes from the fact that many people still harbor the misconception that our members cannot learn.  They do learn.  They only learn more slowly than a person with a higher IQ.  When they are presented with a revelation from the Scriptures that is anointed by the Holy Spirit, their response is exactly like every other believer.  Their spirit jump and they receive with joy.

In addition, each of us try to throw a more intricate bit of information that our teachers will enjoy, even if our members don’t comprehend.  However, I am constantly impressed with what our member do remember and grasp.  Saturday during our Bible study class, I was teaching about the fall of Israel.  I mentioned some of the prophets who had warned Israel.  One of our members interjected, “You forgot Micah.  We learned last week about Micah.”

In honesty, I had forgotten Micah and that he had ministered to Israel.  But not Annie.  She remembered.  After years, of teaching the Bible to normal folks, I have a low expectation of anyone remembering what I taught last week.  However, Annie remembered.

After surveying years of ministry, I find that my ministry hasn’t changed much since I came to Special Gathering.  There are a few differences, of course.  The members of Special Gathering love to come to worship.  They desire to know God in a deeper way.  They aren’t perfect, not by a long shot.  Yet, especially in the Vero Saturday program, our members are often given the option of going to the movie or SpG.  They may be enticed by a picnic on the beach instead.  But, week after week, they choose to come and worship the Lord.

Therefore, when Annie corrects me or John asks his family to postpone a dinner at an expensive restaurant with his family so he can come to SpG,  there is a great joy and I know that simpler is better.

For 120 years, Israel and Judah were united as one nation bearing the name of Israel.  In 930 BC, the nation of Israel became two nations, Israel and Judah.   In 723 BC, the nation of Israel fell to the Assyrians.  Before Israel fell into the hands of the Assyrians and became their slaves, there were 2 hundred years of warning from the Lord.  The conduct of the kings of Israel went from pretty bad, to bad, to much worse.  Elisha, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and other prophets spoke to the people to let them know that God was displeased with their conduct.

God wanted Israel to know that they could repent and he would immediately forgive them and bless them.  In fact, they were being blessed during those 200 years by a merciful God.  Occasionally, some of the people would turn back to the Lord but overall the nation went the way of sin and selfishness.  It seemed that they were bent on either destruction or determined to see if God would actually punish them.

As I read this portion of the Old Testament, I am always reminded of one of my mother’s favorite phrases before she would punish us, “You are begging for a spanking.”  It seemed that Israel wanted to see how far they could go into sin before God would smack them.  Eventually, he did punish them but it was with great sorrow on the part of God.  It is clear from the scriptures that God never wanted to have to punish his people.

I was struck by the 200 years of warnings and tolerance that God showed to Israel.  Even more important, God said, “Repent and I will forgive.”  While he gave warnings again and again telling the people to change and turn back to Him.  He was slow, slow, slow to punish.

However, God told them repeatedly that forgiveness was available instantly.  All they had to do was go to their knees, go to prayer and go back to him and he would immediately forgive them. 

Amazingly, the narrative that God has for all the people of every nation is the same.  Repent, I forgive.  However, the road to destruction may meander around with lots of turns and curves that all lead to a dead-end but may even be paved with material prosperity and blessings.  God is slow to punish but instantly forgives when we truly repent. 

As I shared this remarkable message of repentance and restoration to the members of Special Gathering this week, their eyes were glued to me as they soaked in this simple message of true hope and love.  The message of God’s love is clear, plain, yet life changing.  IQ doesn’t matter.  Repentant hearts does matter.

Having a slow and go God allows us all to have access to the love of Christ.  Forgiveness and repentance are available immediately for all.

More than 25 years ago, two young people, Richard and Nancy Stimson, founded a fledgling ministry within the mentally challenged community.  The ministry they started,  The Special Gathering, Inc., has become the mother and umbrella organization for all  four chapel program corporations which house the eight geographically based programs.   

Over the years, the passion for Rev. Stimson and others who head ministries within the mentally challenged community has been how will we duplicate ourselves?  How will the ministries continue after the founders have died?  Who will replace us in championing this important population, introducing them to the life-giving Gospel of Christ, and discipling them in the ways of God?

Last night, The Special Gathering, Inc.  Board of Directors met to form a field education program beginning May 2011.  This will allow one man or woman to come to serve and learn under the direction of Special Gathering Board of Directors for one year.  The excitement of some of the women and men sitting around the table was almost electric.  Within a few months, a letter will go out to colleges and seminaries around the US asking them to help us find the right person to serve with us.

One wise leader of a special needs ministry said to Stimson,  “Determine if you want a person you can train and disciple or if you are looking for cheap labor.”  This set a fire in the spirit of Stimson.  Our field education initiative will be a discipleship program.  It is not quality labor for which we are not willing to pay.   

We are not and cannot currently take applications.  However, if you or someone you know is interested in this opportunity, you may want to contact us through this blog.  To find out more about us, visit our website.

Nora came to Special Gathering the day I preached about Micah’s simple principles which are:  Be fair, love to do kindness, live humbly before God.  She didn’t hear the devotions, however.  Nora had been invited by a member who lives in a nursing home.  A well-dressed, attractive woman, by the time I was able to speak to Nora, she had become extremely uncomfortable with her surroundings.

Evidently, she did not realize that the member who invited her was mentally challenged.  If she did realize it, she certainly did not know that Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We have choir practice before church.  Therefore, when Nora and our member seated themselves in the chapel, I wasn’t able to greet her.  After choir, I turned to Nora and said, “You are so very welcomed.  We are really happy to have you.”

In a loud voice and with a stinging curtness, Nora proclaimed, “I’m a volunteer at the nursing home.  I’m not like all these people.  I don’t belong here.”

Even though at least 15 Special Gathering members sat in the chapel area, we all chose to ignore her insult.  “Well, you are still extremely welcomed.”

“No!” she spoke more loudly than before, “I’m not like these people.  I don’t belong here.”  With that proclamation, she left the chapel area. 

Our host church is extremely gracious.  But because they also use the building during this time, we don’t have access to the entire facility.  We are limited to the chapel area, our Bible study class and the bathrooms.  Nora was determined to put as much distance between us and herself and she started roaming away from the our area.  A staff person approached her and explained, “I’m sorry.  We aren’t allowed to roam the halls.  You must stay in our designated area.”  Nora balked loudly with wounded passion.

For two hours Nora made herself miserable because she was determined to prove that she “didn’t belong” with us.  Everyone smiled and continued to be gracious to her.

As we leave SpG each week, for safety purposes, our supervisor asks that everyone stay in the hallway and that no one leave until the appropriate van or car comes to the drive through.  Then the supervisor can safely mark the members off the attendance list when they leave.  As I went to get my van, I heard the supervisor say, “Wait.  You need to stay inside until the van comes to get you.”  I looked around and Nora was heading out the door following me to my car.  I turned to explain to her that everyone must follow the same rules at Special Gathering.

“That’s silly.  Everyone does not follow the same rules,” Nora said, on the verge of tears.  “I’ve told you again and again that I am not like these people.  I don’t belong here!”

I knew that I could probably win the argument and verbally strong-arm her back into the building.  Yet, the words of Micah came pouring from my spirit bouncing back into my brain.  I had told the SpG members that the Bible doesn’t say that we are to be kind if everyone is kind to us.  God didn’t say that we should be fair to all the people who are fair to us.  “We are to be kind and fair, even if people aren’t fair or kind to us.”

My own words then echoed from my head into my heart.  I felt the compassion of the Lord.  This lady had repeatedly humiliated and insulted the SpG members.  She had loudly spoken her belief that she was superior to every other person in the room because she didn’t have our disability.  Yet, through my anger and hurt for my members, I could finally hear her pain.  I reached out to touch her arm,  “We know.  You are different from us,” I said as gently as I could. 

Nora withdrew her arm from my touch and glared at me.  I headed for the car; and she followed.  Michael always sits in the front seat because he travels an hour with me back to the Melbourne area.  I knew that Nora would try to take the front seat.  Michael walks with a large walker that surrounds his body.   It is difficult for me to handle.  I debated.  Will I make Michael get into the back seat, or will I ask Nora to go there?  For a moment, my anger sprang back.  It’s a big pain for me and for Michael if she rides in the front seat.  My mind went through the loading process.  Nora leaving the car.  My opening the back hatch of the van. The walker falling on my foot as it tumbles from the car.  My opening the walker.  Wrestling to get Michael out of the back seat.  Putting him in to the front.  Closing the walker.  Struggling to wench the walker back into the rear of the van without it falling out. 

I looked at Nora standing outside the front door waiting for me to unlock it.  I can be kind, I thought again, even if she isn’t.  I opened the locked door to let her in to the front seat of the vehicle.  “It was a big mistake.  I’m not like these people,” Nora mumbled.  I smiled and put the car into gear.

There will be times that kindness, fairness and humility are hard.  Bob Mumford, a well-known preacher in the 60’s  once talked about how difficult it is to get your blessing out of the church into the car.  I knew that in her self-pity Nora had not been blessed; and she had worked hard to be sure that everyone else wasn’t blessed.  Yet, Michael smiled, “Sure,”  he would ride in the back.  “Of course,” Diane would sit behind her friend.  “No problem, ” Janie and LaVonne would crawl into the rear seats. 

Through Micah, God gives principles for life.  Through Nora, the members of Special Gathering were able to walk in a practical way into kindness and then leave, living humbly before God.  It’s a wonderful blessing to minister to a people who may not be able to read but understand in practical ways God’s love.

Flanked by five Special Gathering members, the new pastor and I drove into the parking lot at the same time last Sunday morning.  Officially,  the minister had become the pastor of the church more than two months before.  Yet, he had been gone several weeks during this time because of previous commitments.  Graciously, he ushered us into the building. 

“Let me see how I can turn on the lights for you,” he said, apologetically.  “The members of this church are so amazingly competent that I haven’t had to learn anything, even how to turn on the lights.”  Smiling cheerfully, he moved through out the building, laughing at his inability to figure how to do the simplest tasks of the church.  He continued to load praise on the membership,  “Our members are efficient and do the work without even being asked.”

God spoke through Micah about humility.  God said that he demands that we walk with humility before our God.  Additionally, Micah had said that we are to be fair and to love being kind.  Fairness we all understand because we know how we want to be treated.  That translates into how we should treat our neighbor.  Kindness get a bit mushy.  However, I believe that kindness is the tender touches that are remembered for years.

While these two attributes are fairly easy to define, humility is harder.  We all know what humility is when we see it.   Nevertheless, I’ve never heard a concrete definition of humility.  But I saw humility in action on Sunday morning as the pastor shuffled through the church looking for lights and praising his members.

Humility is a tricky business.  It involves making yourself look bad so that others can look good.  Or in the case of this humble pastor, it is when we build up others so aggressively that we make ourselves appear needy.   To walk humbly before God means not only putting God first but putting others first in everything that we do.

Shelly is a deacon in Melbourne.  She constantly praises the other members of our chapel while seldom shouting her own attributes.  She has learned how to live the life-giving principles.  Fairness, kindness and humility emulate from her actions and attitude.  Each of us can learn how to live and walk in this way.

Working and living within the mentally challenged community, I’ve learned to appreciate the value of simplicity.  For more than 20 years, I’ve worked to sift the things of God into simple teaching and uncomplicated principles.  God speaking through the prophet, Micah, told us that he demands from us three straight-forward requirements:

  1. To be fair,
  2. To love kindness
  3. To live humbly before God.

While almost everyone understands fairness, kindness is one of those squishy, mushy words in our vocabulary that has nearly lost its meaning.  When I prodded the Special Gathering members in Vero to “name some acts of kindness,” the first three people said, “Be kind.”  Yes, these are mentally challenged individuals.  However, answering this type of question is a weekly exercise for this class of higher functioning people.  Every Saturday, they fill a black board with their answers to this type of inquiry.

Simply expressed, kindness involves the small things in life that help or enrich others.  A gentle touch.  A meaningful smile to a friend across a room.  Opening the door for a person whose arms are full of knickknacks, books or boxes of papers.  Watching a football game with your teenage son, even though you hate the game.  Gently and carefully brushing the tangles from your daughter’s hair.  It is that crayon colored picture which you post on the refrigerator.  Kindness is tender remembrances that last a lifetime.

Once the Vero members realized that I wanted specifics, their answers become clearer.  One member said, “Kindness is sitting next to someone so they won’t have to sit alone.”  It made me remember a Wednesday night years ago.  

I had to attend the weekly prayer meeting in our church alone.  Usually my husband was with me, but he had to work that evening.  I came into the sanctuary and realized that I would have to sit by myself.  There were other three women sitting by themselves.  

I saw Lynn but I wasn’t going to sit with her because she always sat alone on Wednesday nights.  I thought, she likes to sit alone.  I thought about Gladys who was by herself.  She must enjoy sitting alone, I thought.  She is always alone.   I had the same thoughts about Bernice who was stationed in her normal place sitting in the fifth pew from the front, next to the aisle–always alone.  I felt sorry for myself because I didn’t want to sit alone; and everyone else either had someone to sit with or they wanted to sit alone.

In a most unusual turn of events, that week, I got a phone call from Lynn, one from Gladys and another from Bernice.  Each woman confessed, “I don’t  think I’m ever going to come back to church on Wednesday evening.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I always have to sit alone and I hate it.”

The Holy Spirit softly spoke to heart, “No one wants to sit alone.”  Kindness is finding the single person in our midst and making sure that he or she never has to sit alone.

As the members of Special Gathering filled up our blackboard with simple acts of kindness, I was struck with the strength of this unpretentious, uncomplicated principle.  Kindness can be practiced by the weakest and the most foolish or the most sophisticated, knowledgable Christian.  In the hands of a loving God, kindness becomes tender touches which morph into gigantic acts of love that change lives.

The words from the Lord that Micah preached tell us that there are three things that God demands from us.

  1. To be fair,
  2. To love kindness,
  3. To be humble before our God (Micah 6:8).

Most of us understand fairness.  There is an instinctive, gut reaction when we are treated unfairly.  Of course, if we can define what is unfair, then we can know what is fair.  However, should we still not understand fairness, all we need to do is look to Jesus.  He said, “Treat others in the same way that you would like to be treated.”  I don’t want people to steal from me.  Therefore, I know that I should not steal from others.  When gossip hurt me badly years ago, I worked hard to deliberately eliminate gossip from my conversation.  I didn’t want anyone to be hurt as I was by false and loose talk.

However, fairness almost never means equality.  Working within the mentally challenged community, we come to understand that it is important to be fair to a person with disabilities but seldom are their lives equal.  As an example, when a family divides an inheritance, it may seem fair to everyone that the person with severe disabilities will receive more than the other members of the family.  Depending on the circumstances, it could also prove to be more fair that the disabled person should receive much less than the other family members. 

 When I became the parent of more than one child, I learned quickly that fairness is almost never equal.  Our first two children were a boy and a girl.  All three of our children’s  personalities were vastly different.  What one child may deem as a slight, the other could consider a compliment.  

Employers also understand that being fair almost never means being equal.  Each employee must be treated according to her unique needs and desires, talents and giftings. 

As the leader of a ministry within the disability community, fairness becomes an important principle.  We quickly learn that there are no cookie-cutter personalities.  People within the mentally challenged community represent a wide diversity of needs and concerns.  Fairness must always be the ruling factor, rather than equality.  While most of our members love to be hugged on Sunday morning when they arrive at Special Gathering, Eric and Kim do not want to be touched.  Pam loves attention and craves being used during the services to pray or help minister.  Steve sits in the back seat and dreads being pointed out in any way.

Again, God is able to pin point an important principle that allows us to show God’s love in a way that is simple and–with God’s grace–attainable.

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