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?

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insecureOne of the most important things a person can provide for any person and especially for a man or woman who is developmentally disabled is a safe harbor–a place where they can securely share their thoughts, feelings and emotions.  Because of their intellectual development, many people within the mentally challenged community are also stunted in expressing their deep emotions.

There are only a few vehicles wherein this population would be expected or allowed to share their genuine thoughts.  All of us are heavily invested in teaching this population Scriptural principles.  Nonetheless, unless the precepts become practical applications in their lives, they will never learn them effectively.

Therefore, it is vital to give our members the space wherein they are allowed to share their thoughts.  How we do this is not easy.  Though the answers regarding a “how to” may seem simplistic.

  1. wrting on a boardYou must asked targeted and pointed questions.
  2. You must allow the members to share without interruption.
  3. You must allow the members time to answer.  When a question is asked, the leader of the group will often wait a few seconds and then answer the question themselves.  Waiting is hard but it reaps great dividends.
  4. You must be sure that the answer to your questions are not to complicated or a vehicle to showcase how smart the examiner is. In other words, don’t ask trick questions.
  5. You must give the members many successes with their answers.  If a person gives a totally off-the-rail answer, rephrase either your question or his/her answer until you find the answer with which he or she agrees.
  6. When asking an opinion question, be sure that every answer is given validity.  No opinion is incorrect.  An opinion is owned by the responder–not the asker.
  7. Give the answers extra validity by writing the answers down on a board of some type.
  8. It is most important that the answering party knows without a doubt that the questioner loves him or her.  It takes time and a great deal of patience to truly show that you love your members.

It takes extremely secure people to be able to express their opinions, thoughts and emotions.  We must understand that most people within the disability community are not secure.  Many of them know the full range of their deficiencies better than anyone else.  They must be given a safe harbor to insure that they are able to receive the healing that the Holy Spirit wants to give through your ministry.

I walked away from my conversation with John’s only remaining family, a sister and brother-in-law, wishing I had known him better when he was alive.  But that always happens when I interview a family before attempting to conduct a memorial service or funeral.

John died on a Wednesday.  He was a member of The Special Gathering, a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  An important part of our Melbourne program and a member of the choir, we were often cloistered in the van traveling with the rest of the singers.

Therefore, I probably knew him as well as anyone did, other than his family.  But I realized as I got into my car and sat for a few moments reflecting on John’s life that there was so much more to know about him.  These were important things about his past that had shaped him into the man I admired.

There were vital details that I didn’t know or understand.  John was 84 when he died.  Which means that he was about 74 when I met him.  He was a tall and thin man who always stood straight, proud and erect.  He smiled often but you had to savor his words because he didn’t often share his thoughts with anyone.

John was born and raised on the farm.  All his life, he knew hard, hard work.  Therefore, he was stronger than most men half his age.  He loved to work; but, like many people, he was hesitant to push himself into an unknown situation, concerned that he might make a mistake.

For 65 years, John was a devoted train watcher.  The trains carried coal from the mines of Pennsylvania, running directly through the middle of the farm.  Most of his life, his partner in the fields was his father.  Unwavering, the pair sweated through the heat of the day and pouring rain.   But the men would leave their plow and hoe and straighten up as soon as the rambling or whistle could be heard.  They would take off their hat, pull out a handkerchief and wipe the sweat from their face and neck.  The duo watched every train as the cars ambled or raced through the middle of their crops.

“If Mother caught them, she would scold unmercifully,” his sister reported, but her temper couldn’t keep them from stopping when the next trains rambled past.

After John severely broke his leg at the age of 65, his sister and her husband brought him to Florida.  He lived with them for the next 15 years.  He continued to work, helping with the household chores.  He went to Easter Seals at the Alzheimer’s section.  Though he had not one bit of Alzheimer’s, he delighted in helping to push the wheelchairs of the other more frail members of the troop.

While we don’t ever admit it, there is something wonderful about death, that final passage of life.  Because people stop to remember.  We brace our hoe under their armpit and take off their hats.  Slowly, we wipe our brows and listen and embrace the rambling noise of memories.  And for a brief moment in time, we allow ourselves to rejoice in the past.

Jesus said at the last supper, “Do this to remember me.”  Memory is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The passover is a ritual of remembering.  But somehow we refuse to do it.  Our lives are wrapped tightly in the present and future.  Even our older generations, don’t take the time to remember…or we don’t take the time to listen.

But death abruptly unwraps the cocoons of our present and our future and we come to a screeching halt as the noise of the past slaps us in the face.  The only thing John’s family, friends and I have left are our memories of him.  His quick smile.  The way he said, “I know.”  Consequently, for a few days, we’ll savor and nourish and treasure those memories.  We will remember.

What are the treasured memories you have of your members?  What member would you miss the most?  What memories are you impressing on your family and members?

As I knew he would, Chad squealed when he heard my voice on the phone.  “Linda! You called me!”

I had called in response to a request from a staff member at his group home.  She asked if I would come to see Chad who had been admitted to the hospital today because of seizures. As I talked to the group home staff,  I realized it was almost 9pm and I am an hour away.  I promised to visit him tomorrow.  “He’s asking to see you.  I know that you can’t come tonight but would you call him?” she asked.

Chad and I talked for a few minutes and I promised to come to the hospital tomorrow.  “Bring my friend when you come,” he pleaded.

“Chad, I can’t bring Mark.  He’ll be at school when I come.”  Chad is an active participant of The Special Gathering in Vero.  He is 35 years old and Mark is his best friend at our Vero program, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged (developmentally disabled) community.  We do classic ministry, evangelism and discipleship.

Mark is 19 and these two young men formed a comradeship during our van route each Saturday.  Mark is not very verbal which suits Chad fine because he talks more than any three people should.  Chad chatters and Mark laughs, grunts or smiles at the appropriate times.  As they part late each Saturday afternoon, Chad will say, “I love you, Mark.”  And Mark will say, “I love you.”  Their friendship is genuine and touching.

At Chad’s request, I promised to call Mark and ask him to pray for his friend.  Within minutes, I was speaking to Mark’s mother.  “Chad, Mark’s friend from Special Gathering, is in the hospital.  He wanted me to call Mark and ask Mark pray for him.”

“What?” Mark’s mother asked, not quite understanding my request.  I repeated Chad’s question.  This time Mother understood and she was emotionally shaken.  “I’ll have him pray,” she said, in a broken voice.  I understood. There was joy in her emotions.

Before Mark came to Special Gathering, his mother had confided to me that he had only one or two friends.  Now, a friend needed Mark’s help in prayer.  The acidic bitterness of loneliness is something that we all taste in our lifetimes.  But loneliness can be the throbbing, constant pain with which our members reside.  We desire that Special Gathering be a safe place for our members.  I am so thankful that it has become not only a safe place for Mark but a place where his prayers are needed and wanted.

Do you struggle with loneliness?  Do you know someone who wrestle with the specter of being left alone?  Can you help them find friendship and meaning?  What was your most difficult time of loneliness?

The first time I walked into a Special Gathering almost twenty years ago,  I was fascinated and confused.  Fascinated with the caring and accepting Christians I encountered all of whom were disabled.  My most recent experiences–with my brothers and sisters in the church –had been troubling.  Because I was often a speaker in groups, I was accustomed to being warmly welcomed.  But these people were different.  They genuinely were happy to have me come. 

In addition, the number of people at the meeting left me confused.  Where had all these people who were mentally disabled come from?  How could it be that there were twenty or thirty people living in my city who were developmentally delayed and I had missed them?  

 In reality there are more than 1,200 mentally challenged people who live in our county.  Special Gathering currently ministers to about 300 to 400 people each week. There are eight chapel programs in four counties in Florida and one in South Carolina.  I was convinced that I had entered a cloistered sub-culture and it was a culture I wanted to explore and become a part.  I was not a parent, sibling, professional or neighbor.  Yet, I had felt a deep calling to ministry to people who were mentally challenged.  I looked for more than 20 years for an entry into this community but I had not found a door that was open to me.

 Now I understand the hesitation on the part of parents and professionals.  Abuse is rampant in our community.  You need a ticket to gain entry.  I had no ticket.  But Richard Stimson, founder of the ministry, had given me a ticket.  He asked me to write a book about The Special Gathering.

Perhaps I am getting the cart before the pony and I should explain what Special Gathering is.  The Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  There is a general worship time (about 45 minutes) and then we break into small Bible study groups divided by functioning levels.  At that time, there were three programs.  Each program functions similar to a community-wide youth group, like Young Life.  However, our members’ average age is about 35.  I had been asked to write a book about the ministry.  In reality, God had brought me home. 

The adventure began that day.  I had so much to learn that I felt overwhelmed.  As I walked back into the stark Florida sunshine, I knew that my life and ministry had changed forever.  Peter with his studdering vocal patterns and shy Kim had won my heart and I wanted to pour myself into their lives.  Learning and teaching has been the avenue that we have trod together.

Do you have any negative reactions to a segregated ministry, like Special Gathering?  How did you become a part of the mentally challenged community?  What is your favorite thing about our population?

 

By 7:30am this morning, I will be heading to First United Methodist Church to set up for luggage pickup for Camp Agape.  Because we also provide transportation to our camp, there is the additional struggle with luggage.  By 11:30 we will be at camp and herding folks into the chapel area so that we can set up the cabins with luggage on their beds and pillows in place.

Most of you know and understand the stress of camp.  You also know the need for prayer.  Therefore, my main concern is prayer for the health and safety of our members and volunteers.  Please pray for us.

Yesterday, I got a phone call from a woman who saw our ministry in the phone book.  She called to ask if Special Gathering would give her money to help with Christmas.  Because of IRC restrictions, I cannot use money given to The Special Gathering which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community for any purpose, except for which they were given.  That purpose is to evangelize and disciple people who are developmentally disabled.  In other words, we cannot use any funds to help the general population, only for people who are developmentally disabled.  I explained our situation to the woman.

I could feel the pain in her voice when she asked, “Is there any place I can get help?”

I mentioned a church in the area that is known for their benevolent giving.  “I called them,” she said.  “They won’t help me.” 

“Have you called your own church and asked for help?” I inquired.

“I don’t go to church.  I have a job.  I have to work for a living.”

“I understand that,” I said to her, trying to be as gentle as I could.  “I also work for a living.  Actually, almost everyone who goes to church works for a living.  But these hard-working church members value their relationship with the Lord and each other enough that they take time to attend.”

I explained that in hard times most churches are also strapped for funds.  Their members are not able to give as much as they have in the past.  Therefore, the limited funds a church has must be used for people who are members and who have been supportive in the past.  “Churches usually run on tight budgets. They have almost nothing left at the end of each month.

“Let me suggest that you align yourself with a church.  Then the leadership will know you and see your commitment to the Lord and they will be able to give to you in the future.”  I apologized again and she hung up the phone.  Like most churches, I receive these types of calls almost daily.

When I worked in a traditional church–rather than an parachurch ministry, it was my responsibility to field these calls.  Therefore, for almost 25 years, I’ve tried to be sensitive and lovingly when speaking to these hurting, helpless people who have needs.  Here are some of the things I observed during that time.

  1. Somehow, the general public has acquired the notion that–like the government–the Church can print money, thereby giving the impression that there are unlimited resources. 
  2. I’m also concerned that much like this dear lady, people believe that the church is populated by a bunch of rich, fat-cats who don’t work but have unlimited funds. 
  3. During those years when I served in a church office, thousands of dollars were distributed to help people.  However, not one person came back to thank the congregation.  No one became a member of the church.  Not one person even visited the church.
  4. Church members who had needs almost never came to ask for help.  Not that there weren’t needs.  Not that help wasn’t given.  But we found out about the need through a third party or through personal inquiry.  When a need was detected, help would be given.  Thanks and gratitude was generously given back to the congregation.
  5. Churches must be careful during hard times but congregations cannot lose their heart for outreach. 

Please don’t get me wrong.  I really wish I could have helped the woman who called and her family.  I feel that she probably has a genuine need.  However, that need is no less pressing that church members who have sacrificed, cared, attended and who now find themselves in a place of needing help.

In my sphere of pastor friends, there is a huge arch of variances in how to deal with these situations.  One friend sincerely believes that the church is remiss to become a social service organization.  He believes that we are to be charitable in our love and giving to people.  However, he has seen that too often the needs out weigh the ability to meet them.  At that point, the social outreaches can engulf and overpower the person’s desire to share the gospel.   

On the other end of the spectrum, I know of a wonderful associate pastor who has determined to leave his church. He knows that the church can no longer afford his salary and fund the extensive food outreach that they sponsor.  He realizes that the elders will soon have to make a choice.  Their commitment to social outreaches will mean that he will be asked to try and find another church.  He doesn’t want to put them in that position.  Therefore, he is making plans to find another position. 

I stand with Psalm 45.  There are some things that are too high for me to understand.  I only wish that there was an unlimited spigot that could be turned on for hard working people who have serious needs.  But I’m pragmatic enough to know that spigot doesn’t exist.

When faced with genuine need, we must do what we can to meet that need.  However, while being as gentle as a dove in dealing with persons with whom we are confronted, we are also to be as wise as a serpent.  Know all the while that prayer can help and change lives.  I could not give the woman on the other end of the line money, but I can pray and prayer knows no limits. 

Have you recently faced a situation for which you seemed to have no answer?  Were you able to help?  How did you pray for the person or situation?