last supperAfter the men had gathered for their last supper together, Jesus made a shocking statement to his followers.  In the light of who he was–mighty God, the Messiah, the Christ and Savior of the world–Jesus’s announcement is a total departure from the relationship mankind had previously experienced with God.  He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13 and 15).

building friendshipAs we contemplate and meditate on this astonishing declaration, our hearts must swell with joy and acceptance of our new exalted position of Friends of God.  This friendship must change us, however.  We come to understand the depth of the riches of God and the depth of his love for all people, releasing us to love in a new way.  Friendship has become a holy endeavor, initiated by God and perfected in His love and sacrifice.

With that in mind, as we approach people, there are some caution signs attached to friendship.  Here are nine Don’t’s of developing a committed friendship.

1.  Don’t wait for others to reach out to you.  Our lives must be an extension of God’s heart that is always ready to receive the broken-hearted, the lovely and the ugly alike.

2.  Don’t share just facts with your friends.  Share feelings.  Let people know YOUR joys and sorrows.  Your hurts and misgivings.

rejected friendship shirt3.  Don’t expect everyone to like you.  I learned that people either love me or hate me.  There is no in-between.  This became a valuable lesson in maturity.  I’m no longer hurt by folks who don’t know me but who reject me.  It’s a fact of  my life.  And harshly speaking, it is a fact of your life.  Not everyone wants to be friends with us.

4.  Don’t expect your friend’s friend to be your friend.

5.  Don’t be quick to voice your own opinions.  Some–perhaps many–things are best left unsaid.

6.  Don’t harbor unforgiveness or bitterness over offenses.  Peel away the hurt of a careless remark.  Stomp until dead the pains of neglect that come into every friendship.

7.  Don’t share negative information about others.

8.  Don’t expect a friend to be your source for love, significance or security.  Only God can give you that.

9.  Don’t let a friend take the place of the Lord.

In dealing with persons who are mentally challenged, it is vital to understand that they often do not have the cognitive ability to understand the fine nuances of friendship.  This means that certain boundaries may be necessary for you to set.  In the opposite direction, you may experience that their responses to  your friendship overtures may be overlooked.  Friendship with a person with special needs is a great privilege and joy.  Their friendships are worth taking the time and energy to develop.

smile of friendship Since there are three levels of friendship–causal, close and committed–it should be our goal to move as many friendships as humanly possible from a causal to a committed friendship. There is means that there are at least 10 things that each of us can and should do in nurturing a friendship grow.

  1. building friendship1.  Recognize you need friends.  It’s the first step that leads to better and more secure friendships.
  2. Look for others in need of a friend.  This may mean reaching out to people whom you might otherwise pass over.
  3. Ask God to bring a faithful friend into your life.
  4. Be approachable by smiling at others.  At times, I’ve been to that I look stern when I’m not aware of my expression.  This means to me that I must be more aware and adjust my facial expression.
  5. Speak to others by name.  Learn names and say the name often.
  6. friendshipListen attentively to others.  Look at the face of the speaker and keep your eyes on the face of the person speaking.
  7. Give genuine compliments and encouragement.  Ge caught noticing the good things in a person.
  8. Ask open-ended question.  Is your daughter feeling better?  How is the job?
  9. Help others verbalize their feelings.  You don’t seem quite yourself today, are you feeling all right?
  10. Look for the kernel of truth in your friends’ criticism.

I’ve learned a great deal about friendship living within the mentally challenged community.  In general, these are people who give of themselves without reserve to people they preceive as an authority figure.  With the slightest encouragement, you become their friend for life.  Yet, shifting on the other foot, they find interacting with their peer may be more difficult.  Within Special Gathering, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community, we endeavor to help our members establish valued and long-lasting friendship with their peers.

Robert Lewis StevensonRobert Lewis Stevenson expressed an important sentiment regarding friendship.  He said, “So long as we love, we serve.  No man is useless while he is a friend.”

Jesus, however, lifted friendship to a new and holy level when he spoke to his disciple before they moved quickly to the Garden of Gethsemane.  This was during a time of great joy on the part of the disciples.  Jesus’s Messianic processional into Jerusalem had occurred only four days before.  Yet, Jesus knew that within 24 hours he would die one of the most cruel deaths known to mankind.

last supperDuring the passover supper, Jesus spoke.  He said, “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you”  (John 15:13 and 15).  While the world values and understands the importance of friendship, Jesus put it into a different category.  He is our friends.  We are the friends of God.  We have access to the most confidential communications that develop within the Godhead.  At this point in time, friendship became a holy act of God’s love extending into the world.

In addition, because we are friends with God, his love through us can embrace every individual.  Therefore, we can be lavish with our friendships.

Studies and common sense tell us there are three levels of friendship.  They are casual, close and committed.  Casual friends are people with whom we have only occasional contact. Nevertheless, there are common interests.  We are probably concerned about each others’ personal problems.  Yet, a lack of contact determines that there is little that we can do for each other or about our daily missteps or misgivings.

The second level is close.  With these folks, there is regular contact.  We are willing to be vulnerable, though there may be little opportunity to test that vulnerability.  There is some shared knowledge of abilities and character qualities.  You share interest with a close friend.  In addition, there is sensitivity to the likes, dislikes and weaknesses of each other.

In a committed friendship, the two friends enlist each other to devoting quality time.  There is mutual value in this nonverbal contract.  While the qualities of a close friendship exists within a committed relationship, there is also freedom to correct flaws.  Each person experiences the joys and risks of transparency.  For a committed friendship, there is mutual enrollment at this level of friendship.

friendsWithin the mentally challenged community, there is often a lack of intellectual ability to distinguish between a casual friendship and a committed friendship.  Relationship boundaries are blurred.  I don’t allow my members to call me “Mama” or “Grandma.”  These titles denote a closeness that I can never achieve in their lives.  I’m not their parent and I never will be.

When a man or women within our cloistered community attends five or six days of retreat or camp, they almost always will be paired with a volunteer whose intellectual abilities falls within the “normal” range.  The volunteer’s main task during the week is to become friends with the person who is mentally challenged.

It becomes an important week within the life of both the volunteer and the person who is intellectually disabled–but it is not a time in which a close or committed friendship can be developed.  After a week of “hanging together,” sleeping in the same cabin and sharing mealtime, there is a bond that issues into a friendship but unless it is taken to the next level, it can never progress beyond the boundaries of a casual friendship.  This does not mean that the volunteer cannot feel a sense of value that will change his life forever.

It is much like a short-term missionary experience.  We vacation in another country, working hard while experiencing the joy and sorrow of a people for a week or two.  Then we go home, leaving the consequences, the commitment and hard day-to-day endeavors to the people who live in the country where we visited.

As we approach Camp and Retreat Agape that is held at the end of May, there is an anticipation of the work that lays ahead.  There is also knowledge that lives will be changed.  We see our members leaving camp who have renewed their vows to the Lord through the worship experiences.  We ask our volunteers to hang out with our members,though no one is assigned to any particular person.  Therefore, the friendships which develop and deepen are typically within the membership.  Our members “hang loose” with each other and talk for hours.  They fish and share the joys of catching the big one.  They do things that may be off-limits to them most of the year.  They drive go-carts and go on boat rides, play pool, work on crafts and traverse the water slides.

Friendship is a delicate ballet of hard work, commitment and time.  Within the confines of the Church body, friendship should not be taken lightly because of Jesus’ injunction to us.  “You are no longer servants.  You are my friends.”

Shellie is a good friend who was also a volunteer with Special Gathering for many years.  She taught a Bible class and helped to transport members.  Shellie influenced three of her college-aged children to become involved with Special Gathering which is a ministry to people who are intellectually disabled.  Each school break, during their college years, they came to help serve refreshments or substitute in a Bible classes.

Today we are having lunch.  For me, it’s a big deal.  I find that it’s easy to surround myself with the same people because their interests and value are the same as mine.  These folks are usually my current volunteers at Special Gathering.  I love them and appreciate them so much that I value simply hanging out.

Even though Shellie is a successful business woman, she took time to incorporate people from our community into her life.  When Shellie and her husband moved to a new church, she kept her commitment to SpG because she loved our members and she found value in the work.  She attended other church function, of course, but Sunday mornings remained reserved for discipling and evangelizing people who are developmentally disabled.

However, when her husband took an adult Bible study class, the pastors of the church felt it would be beneficial for Sherrie to attend the class with her husband.  He agreed and asked her to come and partner with him in this endeavor.  Reluctantly, she followed the wishes of her husband and the elders of their church.

Over the years, our contact has become less and less.  Driving by her house one afternoon, I stopped and left my card.  She called yesterday and we arranged to have lunch.  I find that one of the great struggle I have is who do I fit into my schedule?  No matter what your occupation or ministry, each of us face this question.  I admit that as a widow my options are better now.  I don’t have to cater to a husband’s needs or desires.  Yet, I still need to put into place a workable system for including people who are “just friends.”

Because the mentally challenged community is a cloistered sub-culture, it’s easy to find my life revolving in and around the needs of this community.  Yet, I know that businessmen and women become equally enveloped in the culture into which they fit.

Lunch today will be a two hour break from my “norm.”  We’ll talk about our children and minister to each other in wholesome, simple ways.  We’ll share recipes and giggle while looking at pictures of new babies.  Having a friend who calls and says, “I’ve missed you.  Can’t we have lunch” is a big deal in any person’s life.  Don’t ever miss out on the opportunity to stop your day and break for a two-hour lunch.  You will rediscover a part of the Body of Christ that can minister to you in holy and whole ways.

Who is someone that you need to reconnect with?  How long has it been since you spoke to that friend that you once saw on a daily basis?  How can you reconnect with them?

The choir sang and then I spoke.  As I shared our missions vision to the group at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Satellite Beach, I scanned the people’s faces and my eyes screamed to a halt when I saw her face.  “My good friend, Carol, was sitting in the audience.  She smiled as she realized that I had recognized her.  Though, it’s probably been 10 years, it was the same smile and the same kindred that was sparked as I continued my presentation.

There is perhaps nothing better than seeing the face or hearing the voice of an old friend.  Yesterday, Mia called.  Even though my phone clues me into the person calling, I waited until she responded to my greeting before I called her name.  It makes her giggle that I “recognize” who she is.  Mia is a Special Gathering member who has attended off and on for more than 20 years.  She was a young girl of 14 or 15 when I first met her and now she is an adult with two teenage children.

High functioning and dual diagnosed with mental health issues, Mia began smoking cigarettes when she was first institutionalized for bipolar disorder.  Now, she has ruined her lungs.  At times, she cannot breathe because of COPD.  We laughed and talked for about 5 minutes.  “Please, pray for me,” she said before we hung up the phones.  She promised to come to Special Gathering on Sunday but I no longer expect for her to attend, even when her deep desire is to be there.

This morning as I texted Carol hoping we could meet for lunch, I was struck by the fact that my love for Mia and my love for Carol are the same.  Mia isn’t a “special needs project.”  She is my good and long-time friend who often calls for prayer because she loves me as much as I love her.

I talk often with Ferne Brandt, our area director of The South Carolina Special Gathering.  I’m happy that I’ve finally gotten to know most of her core membership because I can never tell whether she is speaking about her members or her volunteers.  The respect and admiration regarding the friendship they share isn’t different.

When there is genuine friendship, something miraculous happens.  We not only share memories of the past but joy of the present and anticipation for a glorious future.  When I scanned the room at Trinity Presbyterian, it wasn’t simply the joy of seeing an old friend that ignited my spirit but her smile said, “You are doing good. You’ve found YOUR place and I love you for who you have become.”  The most wonderful thing I saw in Carol’s smile was an appreciation for who I am today–not what I was twenty years ago.

I find that sometimes I get stuck in the mud and mire of the past in regard to my members.  Oh, you act so spiritual now.  Thoughts swim in and out of my brain.  But I remember when you hit George and cussed out Marie.  Then there was the incident on the city bus and…  Too often, my thoughts are Ralph will never change.  Ignoring the fact that those behaviors were when Ralph was 20.  Now he holds down a job.  He has become the primary caregiver of his elderly mother and he has garnered the respect of his peers.

While old friends are wonderful, we cannot get stuck with old visions.  I must demand that my thoughts leap forward into the future, commanding myself to learn and grasp the new visions of Special Gathering members, all my friends and of myself.

In working for years with youth, part of my goal was to be sure that the young people in the youth group I was involved had friends.  It is equally vital within our population.  We all understand the pain of loneliness in our population.  Therefore, I wanted to pass on this note I received this morning regarding a young woman in New Jersey.  Perhaps you can help this parent.

We live in southern New Jersey. We are transplants from Philadelphia.
We are looking for a high functioning young adult to be friends with our daughter.  We have Christian beliefs. Does anyone know of anyone or organizations that would foster such a relationship? It’s hard going through life without any peers.

Because of exploitation, I would prefer that an organization be recommended.  I won’t refer any individuals to this person.  Because the writer gave me her name, I believe that this is a real person.  However, safety is still a paramount principle within our ministry.  I don’t know of any organization in New Jersey but perhaps some of you do.  Thanks.  Your comments will be welcomed.

In the garden

In the garden

The first time I saw Dolores Norley was at an annual meeting of ARC in Daytona.  I was impressed by how friendly she was, by her small frame and by her extremely large pocketbook.  I’d been told for several years that this woman was the best lawyer specializing in disability law in the US and perhaps the world. 

We had brought our Special Gathering choir to sing at the community event.  As the choir director, I was included in the invitation.  Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We do classic ministry, discipleship and evangelism.  The purpose of our choir is to educate the local church to the spiritual needs of people who are developmentally disabled.  Special Gathering was a fledgling effort in Daytona at that time.  Our desire that evening was to help educate the professional community and parents to the ministry.

I tried to NOT be impressed standing before Ms. Norley but I couldn’t help myself.  However, it wasn’t her legaleeze that made a lasting impression but the woman.  Here was this tiny blond frame standing before me, chatting as though we were long, lost friends.  Obviously, she felt sorry for me because I was totally at a loss for words.  Therefore, she was comfortably picking up the conversational slack.

It was more than a year later that Special Gathering received an annual newsletter from her.  You know it was the Merry Christmas kind.  My name (how could she even remember my name?)  was included in the greeting.  When I began a Special Gathering program in DeLand several years later, her son, Greg, was one of our first members.  Again, she treated me as though I was not only her equal but one of her best friends.  From those comfortable days, we did become good friends.

We had supper together.  We shared a love for soup and hers was the best.  She gave me the key to her house and insisted that I drop by her home whenever I needed a place to stop and do my work or just recoup.  She invited me to attend conferences with her and to share in the animated conversation that often engulfed her front porch. 

It seemed that someone was always at her home.  They were usually people stopping by to share a few hours, a few days or a few weeks.  She was generous with her stuff.  But most of all, she was generous with herself. 

She did not often talk about legal matter but she often spoke about her personal struggles and joys.  In one of our last conversations, a friend of her for more than 50 years was visiting.  They were planning a peace march to protest the Iraqi war.  Laughing but serious, she admitted that one of the great disappointments of her life was that with all the peace marches that she had attended, she had never been arrested.  During the years that I knew her, I witnessed the decline of her health and the eventual blindness that claimed her eyesight. 

After five years of working in Volusia, we hired another person to take my place in DeLand.  He found the same loving friend in Dolores that had captured my heart.  At times, I wish I’d learned more about disability law from this wonderful mite of a woman.  But the lesson I learned was immeasurable.  I learned about being a friend.  She taught me the joy of taking the risk to love people instantly and include them–and their warts–in my life from the moment I meet them. 

Dolores didn’t ignore my warts.  She often challenged me at board meetings and on her front porch.  “I can’t blindly agree to that,” she would say.  “Why would you do that?”  she would inquire in the privacy of her home.  Somehow, I knew that my answer–no matter how lame–would be met without her rejection of me, as a person. 

Dolores has been dead for more than a year.  I still miss stopping by her home and finding her in a dimly lit front room, sitting with a bright lamp struggling to decipher an article or letter.  I miss her soup.  But most of all I miss her friendship. 

Do you have a friend, like Dolores?  Can we all aim to be that kind of person?  Should  we even try to be that kind of person?  Is the world different now and would this kind of friendship be too risky?  Or would we all benefit from this type of acceptance?