Today, I heard again the Christmas song about the little boy who’s mother is dying on Christmas eve and he wants to buy her shoes to wear as she goes into heaven.  He doesn’t have enough money to buy the shoes and a person in line gives him the money he needs.  It’s never been my favorite Christmas song because of the obvious sentimentality.  The song was never realistic to me.  Yet, it deliberately strokes my heart strings with grief and sorrow.

However, I heard it in the context of a devotion by a pastor who shared the song.  He spoke about his wife who died of cancer when his two daughters were teenagers.  Unashamed, the Man of God cried as he read the words, remembering the first Christmas his daughters experienced without their mother.

Many people who are intellectually disabled come perplexed to the crossroads of Christmas with mixed emotions.  During this time, why struggle to walk in joy when it seems easier to become swallowed by grief? We must not forget that people who are mentally challenged may not have the cognitive ability or possess the navigational tools which help them to choose the joyful paths which help them experience peace as they remember loved ones lost through death or separation.

Distraction may be the best way to redirect their thoughts.  However, I try always to pray out loud for our members who are grieving during this time.  A hug and quick prayer for them works miracles.  The prayer I often pray is, “Father, bless my good friend as she grieves for her loss.  Help her to remember that her loved one is no longer in need of prayer.  Let her find your peace for today and for the rest of this joyful time.”  As I release them from the hug, I smile and encourage my member to also smile.

Does it always work?  Nope.  But at least he knows that God and I love him and God cares enough to take time to hear his prayer.  That is, of course, the work God has called us to to do.  What is something that you use to help your members who are grieving during Christmas?

Advertisements

going to hosptialI remember my husband, Frank, and I rushing to the hosptial.  It was Christmas eve.  I’d farmed out the other two children to willing neighbors in a pitch of fervor.   Frank had refused to pick the name for a girl because he was convinced that this unplanned little one would be a boy.  I pressed him as he pressed the gas pedal.

Carol Howard MerrittFinally, we settled on Carol Christa because Carol was my middle name and she was coming on Christmas eve.  She came quickly.  I’d convinced my uneducated doctor that natural child birth would work for me, since I’d had our first son using natural methods.

When the doctor anounced that I’d had a girl, I asked what he said, thinking he had made a mistake.  Our new babe was to be a boy, born the end of January.  Carol Christa, our Christmas baby was a total surprise.  Over the years, everything about her has been surprising.

travelingIn some ways, I understand Mary.  As thrilled as she was to be the mother of Jesus, his birth was a bit inconvenient.  Later, he showed a love for His Father early.  Then he didn’t follow the regulated rules put forth by the temple experts.  Mary didn’t fully understand or consider the gifts of her son appropriate at times.  They didn’t always agree, Yet, he was gracious regarding her feelings and instructions.  She loved him dearly.

Each Christmas eve holds a double blessing for me as I remember the birth of our third child and try to understand Mary’s joy and confusion that would follow as her heavenly blessing was born.

happy at dawnThere are few times that I don’t feel light-hearted and joyful.  My brother says that it’s only because I’m stupid.  I think it’s because God has given me the ability to see beyond present pain and embrace the joy of a new day.

Don’t get me wrong.  I went through years of depression.  In fact, at a time when I knew that I was in big trouble, I consulted a good friend who was a therapist.  “You have what is called a ‘smiling depression,'” he told me, laughing.  Even though, I thought this was a contradiction in terms, I knew that he had struck a deep chord of reality in my soul.  My life was filled with methods to hide, camouflage and disguise my real emotions, especially anger.

He gave me a book to read, Happiness is a Choice authored by Frank Minirth, M.D. and Paul Meier, M.D.  I learned how to resolve the anger that was causing the depression and work toward allowing the Lord to control my emotions.

It is interesting to me that IQ doesn’t seem to matter regarding depression.  My husband’s IQ was off the charts; but from his childhood, he battled with depression almost every day of his life.  He died weeping.  Therefore, it’s easy to see how people who are intellectually disabled (ID) can easily fall into a state of sadness that leads to depression.

christmas-familyWe are told by the experts and our own experience that more people become depressed during holiday seasons than at any other times.  Where is my family?  Who cares for me?  What wrong with me that I don’t have the joy that others seem to have? are only a sampling of the questions that dance like sour grapes through our minds and thoughts.  There are more suicides committed during Christmas time than at any other time of the year.  We become angry and depressed.

Iraq Prison AbuseMuch of our anger comes from a lack of control.  People within the mentally challenged community control almost nothing in their lives.  They live with their parents or surrogate parental figures all their lives.  Depending on their personality–rather than their IQ–this can lead to depths of sadness that would be hard for anyone to express.  Couple this with the fact that the ID community has a limited vocabulary and a limited ability to express it; and you have a powder keg waiting to ignite into explosives depression.

Yet, God in his infinite wisdom gives us a new beginning with every sun rise.  Recognizing your sadness and anger are the first step.  The second is forgiveness.  When we forgive, I am not excusing the behavior.  I am simply releasing them from my judgment and turning them over to God.  After all, he is the one true and righteous judge.

No matter how difficult and painful yesterday was.  It is gone and we have the morning.  This morning.  Great, powerful and joyful things are about to happen.  Rejoice!


starsGlory to God in the Highest

Luke 2:6-16

Central Theme:  Christmas is a time for big changes.

Introduction–I have to admit that at Christmas I go a little crazy.  I save all year and spend all December.  I blame my parents.  They worked all year preparing for Christmas for us.  Sewing cooking and repairing, painting old bikes.  The majesty of God’s gift cannot be matched but I try every year.  READ Luke 2:6-16.

       I.     Pretend that you are a shepherd.

A. They were minding their business but God had planned a little surprise for them…before the foundations of the earth. (vs 8)

1.  What we can’t imagine is that God has exquisitely exciting surprises for our lives.

Christmas costumes 2.  Last year as I was fretting about the number of hours I spend working on costumes.  I said to the Lord, “No one’s life has ever been changed by a costume I’ve made.”  Within a few minutes,  a young woman who was a  neighbor stopped to say, “I never told you but you made a costume for me and it was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.  I’ve always loved you for that.” 

B.  We fear the glory of the Lord getting too close (vs. 9).

1.  Songwriter Michael Card’s speaks of the “friend that we most fear.”

a.  we hide our faces from him–he can see us.

b.  we hide our hearts from him–he can change us.

II.     God comes again and again to assure us of his goodwill for us (vs. 10-12)

A. He never comes in the expected ways/expected times.

1.  Remember the times God spoke to you–unexpected, unprepared.

2.  You prepare your heart in a quiet place–He speaks in the shower or sitting at a red light.natures wonder

              B. Angels filled the heavens the night he was born; but only a few shepherds saw it (vs. 13-14).

                  1.  Would Disney put on an expensive, extravagant light show for a few middle-class herdsmen?

                  2.  Would you pour out your life in a place where no one will see–on one will know?

III.     Whatever he does, His purpose is to entice us come to Jesus (vs 15).

A. However, Jesus is not what you expect.

                  1.  Wherever our executive director preaches, people say, “That sermon was one of the best I ever heard.  You know, you could what you do for real people.”    We often chuckle and ask, “Then why aren’t you rich and famous?”

2.  However, there is not a mentally challenged person in Duval, Indian River or Brevard or Volusia County who doesn’t know him and all of them love him.

Conclusion–Going crazy at Christmas should be expected.  After all, God went a bit crazy with joy at the birth of Jesus.  Several angelic appearances.  An old couple unexpectedly has a baby they name John.  A host of angels.  A new star.  Yet, not embracing the Living Lord any time is a horror.

live pageantHow do you tell the Christmas story to a group of people who are intellectually disabled?  Of course, this is a dilemma no matter where your ministry lies.  If you are a parent, can you make the story fresh to your growing brood?  If you preach to a congregation of 10,000, what is the method you will use to keep the message relevant while remain true to the gospel message? Each year I try to find a different way to share the story of God’s love incarnated into a man to the programs I shepherd at The Special Gathering which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.

This year, I told the story using members who are least  physically able to respond as the characters.  I joked and laughed with them, sharing as humorously as possible the in’s and out’s of the Biblical account.  Because I work with three different programs at Special Gathering, each reenactment had different characters and each one was vastly different because of the diverse personalities that made up the “casts.”

angelIn each program, there was one person whose personality shined through when selected.  I chose the people at random asking them to participate as their character was introduced.  Mary was a young woman who is extremely low functioning in one of our enactments.  Everyone attending applauded when I selected her. Her smile told the story of her delight and her smile carried the action through until the end.

The first time we had our presentation, there was a small group of 17 people.  Therefore, we had one angel who came to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.  This person was animated and funny.  His flair for the dramatic was obvious.  After he had spoken to Mary, I said, “Then the angel disappeared.”  He looked at me quizzically and shrugged his shoulders, acting as though I expected him to disappear.  “Can’t you even disappear?”  I asked.   He pretended to try to disappear.  “What kind of angel are you?”  I asked.  Again, he mischievously responded with a great deal of humor and delight.

Each time he “appeared” the audience laughed with pleasure at his antics and showmanship.  We played off each other and I took my cues from his facial expressions and movements.  We all laughed all through the actions because of his good humor.

At our largest program, there were more than 50 people from which to draw.  Mary was a higher functioning young woman She does not walk or speak.  We call her the “queen” because everyone loves her so much that we fight over who will serve her and push her wheelchair.

Charlie BrownThe surprise, however, was the man I chose to be Joseph.  This Joseph is an amazing actor.  He, too, is physically disabled.  He navigates with a walker.  Extreme palsy plagues the movements of his body, making them exaggerated with spasms and violent jerks.  Yet, in front of an audience, this Joseph came alive with expression and animation.  He was the attentive lover.  His visage stormed with disappointment and anger, when he heard about Mary’s pregnancy.  His face showed shock at the angel visitation; then his movements turned to extreme tenderness toward Mary.

I keep the story simple but embellishing it with the emotions that each character must have felt.  Laughter and silliness are the mark of the day.  Of course, I don’t make fun of the details of the story but, like this year, there is always someone who wants to play the clown and I play off of their ability to laugh at an awkward situation or a unique situation.

After we laugh and play, I turn the story to the seriousness of Jesus’ sacrifice.  The good news of God’s love for us is amplified by the birth and life of this humble god-man who was born in order that he might die for us.

Christmas presentsThere are few times of the year that present the Church with a greater degree of purchasing power than the time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  I’m actually not thinking about purchasing gifts or other stuff but purchasing a more valuable commodity–time.

Christmas clockDuring these weeks, as we abandon our vocations in order to celebrate the birth of Christ, time can seem to slow to a creep as we share these hours and days with family or friends.  We are often moving in a whirlwind of activity. It is because we are thrown with our closest associates and family that we can purchase time and make memories that will last all during our lives.

family at ChristmasTime may be the most valuable thing we can give the people who live with us and around us.  I’m not suggesting that the purchasing of gifts isn’t important; but it is the time we spend playing and laughing that will be cherished as precious memories.

During these precious days, we can speak about our Savior, sharing the love of God in many abstract and concrete ways.  As I sit in the dining room of my daughter, I hear a whispered, “I love you” shared from mother to child as she hands her daughter a towel and clean school clothes.  It’s an important day in school and the preteen woman/child needs the added assurance of love and acceptance.

Time has been purchased in a minute snatch for a little one.  A granddaughter for whom Jesus came in order to purchase her with his own blood.

Happy Birthday, JesusAt Special Gathering, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community, we have several activities to celebrate the birth of the Savior.  My favorite is our Happy Birthday, Jesus Party.  Our members bring food.  There is a birthday cake.  We feast, sing “Happy Birthday” and retell the story of the birth of God’s son.

It is the timeless recounting of God’s great love for mankind which captures my heart each year.  A young virgin girl visited by an angel.  A distressed and heart-broken young lover hears his fiancee’s obviously attempt to cover her unfaithfulness with a bazaar and fabricated lie.  Another visitation from an angel to Joseph and an improbable marriage.

stableThe ruling emperor who demands that the young couple travel to Bethlehem to pay their taxes as the due date for the Son of God approaches.  An inn overflowing with travelers and the holy child born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a cattle feeding trough.

Shepherds and an angelic chorus who heralds the birth of the Christ child.

Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of our country, speaks of these amazing events as myths that cannot be taken seriously.  Others scoff while men and angels still praise the wisdom of our God who sent the Eternal King to earth in the form of a baby, born in a lowly estate.