May 2012


It is difficult to understand how much God loves us.  While few of us will admit it, much of our lives is spent waiting for God to slam the judgment hammer into our skulls.  Working within the mentally challenged community, I’ve come to understand a bit about unconditional love.  I am area director of Special Gathering, a ministry to people whose IQ’s are lower than “normal.”  Our mission is evangelism and discipleship of the wonderful community the Lord has given to us.

Please understand.  People who are intellectually disabled are not immune to sin.  Bad behavior is as common within our community as any other gathering of human beings. Yet, there is a common strain that runs within every part of our cloistered sub-culture.  That is unconditional love.

Wendy knew that I was angry with her because she had deliberately disobeyed the rules at camp this past weekend.  We let it slip the first three or four times; but by the fifth offense, I confronted her regarding her inappropriate behavior.  My voice was stern, firm and steady when I explained that she would no longer be welcomed at camp if her behaviors continued.

Wendy’s head reaches almost to my lower chest.  She looked at me with wide eyes.  “I love you, Linda Howard.  I so sorry,” she said with her eyes welling up with tears.  “Will you forgive me?  I love you, Linda Howard.”

She grabbed me around the waist and repeated, “I love you, Linda Howard.”

Understand, her emotional outburst didn’t loosen my resolve to enforce the camp rules.  She was obviously wanting me to know that she loved me even though I had told her that she might miss coming to camp. I could not help but appreciate her unconditional love.

Once again, I was surprised by the joyful spirit Wendy extended to me.   Sure, many of our members are depressed.  Some of them are even depressing.  However, the over arching surprise package is their joy.

Learning from them has become an easy pill to swallow, especially when I am again and again surprised by joy.

 

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As they entered the bus, everyone was happy and excited to be going home.  Even though the four days at The Special Gathering spiritual retreat had been great fun, the members who attended were nearly as ready to go home as the volunteers.  Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We form to evangelize and disciple people with intellectual disabilities.  Almost glowing from the time of fun and fellowship, it was the normal chatter that filled the large bus transporting them back to First United Methodist Church of Melbourne, our drop-off spot.

Yet, one young lady began gripping almost immediately after embarking the vehicle.  She especially didn’t like the way that I was trying to get everyone quiet so that I could take the final checks, to insure that everyone was on the bus.  She mumbled in a loud voice, “I’m sick and tired of her yellilng at all of us!”  Her sour face frowned back at me from the back of the bus with every name that was called.  From the back bench, The Grumbler had positioned herself so that seven people were directly next to her.

As I drove my car back to the church, I was reviewing the good time we experienced during the four days.  So many lives had been touched for the Lord.

It was Ashley’s first retreat.  She and her friend, Terri, had stayed up late each night giggling and teasing.  They shared boyfriend jokes and laughed at me when I did something stupid.  Ashley had come to the altar for prayer when the invitation was given.

Eric came expecting a good time; and the Lord met him.  I overheard him asking probing and interesting questions of volunteers.  The inquiries seemed beyond his intellectual abilities.  But the volunteers kept the answers simple; and he went away rubbing his chin and grinning with satisfaction.

Ashley, Terri and Eric were among the seven travelers facing The Grumbler.

The bus arrived at the church ahead of me.  As quickly as I could, I dispersed the medications to parents and caregiver and got on the bus to dismiss everyone.  As each person got off the bus, I noticed their tone and attitude had completely changed.  There were no smiles.  No thank you’s.  No one gave me the usual hugs.   “I hate camp.”  More than one person mumbled.  “I’m never coming back.”  I was shocked. Then I looked at the back of the bus and realized The Grumbler stared at me.  Her arms and legs were crossed.  But now, she was smiling slyly.

Ashley said, “Everyone was yelling and calling each other names on the bus.  I don’t want to come back.”

Eric was so completely agitated that he wasn’t able to talk.  He stomped and fumed, yelling at anyone who dared to look at him.  Of course, the volunteers had come to the church.   They anxiously waited to see all the campers for the last time, expected the hugs and warm good-byes we get each year.  But this year was different.  The Grumbler had made her conquest.  Her smile said to me, “I won!”

I ignored her, trying to camouflage my deep disappointment.  After everyone left, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart, “Never discount the influence of ONE, for good and for evil.”  Of course, we have often seen how one person can pour buckets of ice water on a meeting or experience.  But the Lord was saying, “…for good and for evil.”

Driving away, I quietly prayed, “Lord, I’ve too often been The Grumbler. The Spoiler.  And, somehow, I felt it was my Right.  Help me in every situation to be the influence for good in the lives of others.  Let me be the blessing, not the curse.”

It was the annual gathering of Special Gathering members.  Each year nearly 200 mentally challenged people meet in Vero Beach at Life for Youth Camp for Retreat Agape.  For almost 30 years, we have met there from Friday morning until Monday morning each Memorial Day weekend.  It’s a gloriously fun place for our members who are intellectually disabled.  There are water-slides, a lake for boating and swimming, go-carts, putt-putt golf, a game room, crafts, bingo and a petting zoo.

Our morning and evening chapel services are as loud and roudy as a spiritual retreat is supposed to be.  Yet, there is a great deal of love shared as the members of Special Gathering reconnect with people from other cities.  Christ’s love flows freely as we praise and worship the Lord, ministering to each other.  This year, powerful things were accomplished during our chapel services.  We know that because the enemy of our soul was busy causing disruptions and distractions.  The overhead projector went out just as we began our Saturday night service and one member became agitated and headed out the campgrounds, planning to walk home which is 75 miles away.  The air conditioner went out for the Sunday morning service; and there was a huge thunderstorm at the climax of the Sunday night worship.

The climax of Retreat Agape is always our Sunday evening worship service.  We end this service with the Lord’s Supper.  Yet, as the thunder began to roar violently overhead, fear raced through the members with squeals and moans of concerns.  We had to end our service abruptly, giving the bedtime medications in the chapel.  Then we raced to the cabins sharing umbrellas and raincoats.

A pastor of a local church who was volunteering had agreed to help us with the Lord’s Supper.  He looked at me inquisitively, “What happened?  We aren’t having the Lord’s Supper?”

“Flexibility is the key to doing ministry within the disability community,” I said to him, laughing.  “Fear took over the emotions of our members; and there is no way we should continue the service.”

Sometimes,we simply have to make the best with what is dished out to us in our lives as well as in our ministries.  There are events that seem to ruin even the greatest of spiritual experiences.  I, honestly, do not understand how the Lord will use this disruptive thunder storm for our benefit; but he has promised that all things will work for our good.  Therefore, we know that God will use it.

There are thunders storms that attack our lives, changing our plans and even our destiny.  Our husband or wife dies.  We lose our jobs.  We are forced to do things that seem hard.  Our children don’t respond in ways we desire or planned.  Flexibility can help us to walk into deeper water in the love of Christ.  Using flexibility to make-do when life throws us off kilter can harden and strengthen our relationship with the Lord, teaching us to love the Lord more than we ever thought possible.

 

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Within every ministry or business, there is wiggle room.  Before we examine “the how” for learning about and becoming comfortable within your ministry’s culture, there are several things where there can be no wiggle room.

Jesus’ disciples knew that he was not only their leader.  He was their example.  Before he sent them out in two’s, he traveled with them, showing them the way.  At his death, these men had experienced survival because the Lord had sent them out to experience the Holy Spirit’s working through them.

If any ministry is going to succeed, it is vital to learn how to work as a team.  Jeffery Lay in his book, Top Gun on Wall Street, says “We don’t send anyone, anywhere. We all go together.”  Lay was a top gun pilot who transferred the leadership skills learned from the military into the business world.

Leaders cannot lead from behind.  If you are in a leadership position, you must not only be willing to go before but you must be the first to venture into new avenues.

There is a fatal notion that leaders don’t actually do much work.  They learn to delegate.  The problem with that philosophy is that few people willingly or happily work for a leader if their leader does not fully understand the concerns of the workers.  Before delegation can successfully happen, there must be example.

Within a ministry, you must have the good will of all your volunteers and paid staff.  That doesn’t mean that you need to know the nuts and bolts of every single activity.  However, you must do more than walk though the ministry space, looking, pointing and asking stupid questions.  The person who is following you must know your commitment to the people you are serving.

They need to understand that at any time you are willing to pick up a broom and sweep the floor or make the refreshments.  Each week volunteers need to see you moving chairs, teaching or doing some physical ministry.  Volunteers and staff must know that you are willing learn the bookkeeping or the desk-top publishing or a new data base.  You want to be able to venture into the new activities demanded by your ministry.

When The Special Gathering was having some concerns with our bookkeeping, the head of our ministry, Richard Stimson, went back to college to learn the fundamentals of accounting.  While he didn’t need to learn how to be an expert in accounts receivable, he wanted to be able to have an overall vision regarding this area of ministry.  I was impressed with his willingness to venture beyond his comfort zone to learn how to lead in this vital area.

Years ago, I visited a large ministry in southern Florida.  A bit shocked, I listened as the director of the ministry spoke to her fellow volunteers.  She was more than stern as the men and women listened.  They nodded and smiled, agreeing with her admonitions.  After the meeting, I asked her how she could be so stern with her volunteers.  “I’m also a volunteer,” she said, laughing.  “My teachers know that I am doing as much or more than they are every day of the week.”

She and Stimson live what Lay advocates, “Don’t send anyone, anywhere.  We all go together.”  Without a team no ministry will not be successful.  However, without a leader, there will be no team.

Several years ago, as a few staff from Special Gathering were driving to lunch, we saw a man with a broken leg.  His cast extended from his toe to his hip.  With great difficulty, he was loading a lawnmower into a trailer.  There was an edger on the sidewalk, patiently waiting to be reloaded on to the trailer.  A couple of people in the car said, “That man is a small business owner.”  We all agreed.

I’m not sure how many folks are willing to do the kind of work demanded by the entrepreneur.  In many ways a pastor is an entrepreneur.  Our primary goal is always spiritual.  We are hoping to make an impact on lives, educating them about the most important thing in the world.  Nevertheless, we deal with staffing, volunteers, raising expenses, balancing and making a budget and many other financial and business matters.

Each of us who are building a ministry need some wiggle room.  Recently, at Special Gathering, we’ve been working with a new staff person.  She is wonderful and one of the most teachable people I’ve ever met.  There are so many things that a person who desires to excel in ministry must learn.

Perhaps the first is where is the wiggle room.  At Special Gathering, it was a great adjustment for me to learn where there was NO wiggle room.  I am the kind of person who has 17 irons plugged in ready to utilize.  My personality lends itself to having many projects going all at the same time.  The first year I was at Special Gathering, I maintained my positions in our church as Missions Director.  For twenty years before that time, I had at least one new book that I was authoring while planning magazine articles.  Music was a priority.  My list can go on and on.  One day, our executive director took me out to lunch.  After we had eaten, he folded his napkin and placed it on the table and folded his hands in front of me.  “You need to decide if your priority will be Special Gathering or the 15 other things that are important to you.”

In short, he was saying that my life goal must not have wiggle room.  I must decide–and decide quickly–what my first priority will be and stick with it.  If God has called me to ministry to people with special needs, then I must continue on the path that leads me to that goal.  There are so many scriptures that teach this principle that my mind was immediately filled with pictures of men going to battle with an adequate army.

I could see my husband drawing detailed plans before we started an addition to our home.  I could remember negotiating with the bank to be sure that we had enough money to complete a project we were beginning.  I saw our family sending off our first son to college confident that we had the financial reserve needed to complete his education expenses.

While wiggle room is vital to maintain a healthy outlook,  a life’s goal cannot have wiggle room.  When did you discover your life’s goal?  How easy is it for you to keep your life’s goal paramount in your life?