Some say he could be one of the wealthiest men in the county.  His mother died about 10 years ago.  He has a beautiful home and a new car.  He has plenty of money.  There are two bankers and two lawyers who take care of his financial, investment and legal needs.  Unfortunately, his caregivers are not consistent and change frequently.  Fred is a 64 year old man who is in great health; and he is a part of the mentally challenged community.

Recently, we did a survey of sort with our members of Special Gathering.  We were at Camp Agape which is our annual spiritual retreat for persons who are developmentally delayed or intellectually disabled.  We had drawn a circular target on a piece of paper.  It’s the same kind of target used for darts.  There’s a small circle inside a larger circle, inside a larger circle.

We asked our members to put their best friends and closest family in the bull’s eye or smallest circle.  Then close friends and other members of their family in the other circle.  The final and largest circle would contain the people who work with them and they know in an informal way.  Perhaps people who are especially nice to them but may or may not be their friends.

Fred’s entire target contained two names.  They were in the bull’s eye.  Fred had written the name of one other member of Special Gathering and my name, Linda Howard.  When I saw his target, I cried.  My tears were from sadness and joy.

Of course, I was sad that this fine man.  How lonely it must be to feel that you have only two people on which you can depend.  I was struck that no amount of money can buy friends and loved ones.  And perhaps, his money and lawyers and bankers have insulated him from not only hurt but also genuine friendships.

But mostly, I cried that I have the honor to be a part of Fred’s life.  In the twenty years we have been friends, I have seen Fred grow spiritually and emotionally.

I had known Fred for more than five years before I saw any emotion from him.  He often laughs now and his smiles are frequent.  Fred will never be an overtly affectionate individual; but these days he usually will give me a sideways hug after our choir sings.  If he has a solo,  his grin is from ear to ear.  In the past four or five years,  while driving him around in the van for Special Gathering events,  I can hear him giggle.

We all reach from the dark to find hope, joy and satisfaction in life.  Being a part of the mentally challenged community does not erase the desire for love and acceptance.  I praise God that I’m a part of The Special Gathering and that God gives us the opportunity to reach out and find finger tips of hands that are also reaching.  Perhaps with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, I can even touch and be a significant part of a important life–a person for whom Jesus gave everything.

Is there someone that you have touched in a significant way?  Have you seen your members ministering to each other.  How have they been able to do that?

The mentally challenged community is hungry to hear the Gospel.  If we can get people to our chapel services, they will almost always accept the wonderful grace of Christ into their lives.  Yet, discipleship is a struggle.  One day at a weekly pastors’ prayer meeting that I attend, I explained this dilemma.  Of course, in explaining the situation, I blamed my members’ inabilities to cognitively evaluate what the best choices are for their lives.

All the pastors laughed.  “We have the same problem.  Your folks aren’t any different from ours.”

Yet, as I view our members from the prism of years of discipleship, I am able to see alterations in the lives of our members.

Tim’s fits of anger have completely stopped.  Bill is a life-long smoker.  He struggles to quit.  Recently, he was able to go more than a month without smoking.  Though he has relapsed, he believes that if he can go for a month without cigarettes, next time he will be able to quit for good.

Hallie struggles with paralyzing fears.  She is high functioning and lives in her own apartment.  She is constantly moving in order to abate her fears.  She has been in her current apartment for more than a year.  These and other examples are great victories that amplify the growing grace in the lives of our members.

There is nothing more gratifying than to see people who have struggled with anger or addiction or lived in fear break free from detrimental bondage.  How does this happen?  Perhaps part of the answer is simply learning to listen and obey.

This week as I studied the Matthew 17 passage regarding the miracle of Jesus’ transfiguration, I was reminded that miracles don’t often radically change lives.  Peter, James and John saw the miracle of Jesus, Moses and Elijah standing together on top of the mountain  shining as white as light.  Rather than humbling himself, Peter took charge and he was ready to build three tents to honor the event (and himself because he was there to witness the miracle).

As Peter was speaking, God, the Father spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Son and I love him.  I am very pleased with him.  Obey him!”  Now that God had their attention, they were ready to listen.  In fact, they were terrified.  They humbled themselves and fell to the ground.  They had been forced to hear.  As a result, they were ready to obey.

It is often not the miraculous in our lives that changes us but the times we listen to God and obey him.  Within our cloistered, sub-culture, it is the same formula that works to change lives.  Slowly, methodically transformations are accomplished as they are discipled in the ways of Christ.

What are some of the changes that you have seen within your community that make you know that God is working in your member’s lives?  What are some of the changes that you have seen in your life?

This is a long entry but I think you will enjoy it when you are preparing your sermons.

Repost: 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques Up front I will acknowledge that this is a copy and past article I grabbed from the website. Fighting for the FAith/Pirate Christian Radio is a podcast that takes the time to compare what people are saying in the name of God to the word of God. Its an excellent podcast, though I suggest that you come at with some pretty thick skin because it tends to be pretty forthright and unapologetic in its pursuit of proclaiming Bibli … Read More

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Saturday we had the privilege of having a parent as our guest at The Special Gathering of Vero, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We do classic ministry, evangelism and discipleship.  This mother has a daughter who is autistic and extremely low functioning. 

Georgia loves Special Gathering.  Though she doesn’t talk, she sits quietly with her hands in her lap, listening to the lesson.  She enjoys having a book in front of her during the class time, like the other students.  She stands and smiles broadly during praise and worship.  Though she has been known to be aggressive, she is not during the hours we are with her.  She joyfully allows the members to lead her from one class to another.

While the mother had been told all these things, she didn’t believe it. Georgia is 35 and this is not her the normal behavioral pattern.  Known to be aggressive and unpredictable, Georgia is gentle and calm at worship.  During the more interactive Bible study, Georgia prefers to sit by herself but in an area where she can see the teacher and the students who are taking part in the lesson.

Our lesson on Saturday was on the Great Commission.  As I gave my devotions, I sensed that this mother wasn’t exactly overjoyed that I was encouraging the members to “Go and Tell.”  However, her mood changed drastically when we moved into the Bible study time.  Here  she could hear the reactions of the class members. 

The members were excited that they have the honor to tell people about Jesus.  They are honored that the Holy Spirit doesn’t leave them out of this important task. 

“Who can we tell about Jesus?”  was the first question the members answered.

“I need to tell my brother,” William said. 

Anita raised her hand and said, “The people at work need to hear about Jesus.”  

On cue, cranky, Morris eyed two members of his group home,  “The people I live with really need for Jesus to change their lives.” 

Each person contributed telling about the people who need to hear the good news.

The next question was “What do we say?”

Again, the members responded,  “Jesus died for our sins but He is alive.” 

“He lives in my heart.” 

“Jesus loves you.”

“Jesus can help you with your work.”

For me, it was a typical lesson.  The members were excited and reacting to the scriptures.  For our visiting mother, it was an emotionally moving experience.  After the class, she rushed up to me.  “They get it, don’t they?” she affirmed, gently touching my elbow.  “I could not believe how much they understood and how they responded.”  There were tears in her eyes and her voice broke.

“Of course, we get it,”  congenial Anita said with a giggle.  “Jesus loves us.”

The wonder of the gospel:  It confounds the wisest sage yet remains accessible to the simplest mind.  As the mother left, she turned and said, “I think Georgia gets it, too.” 

What are some of the signs that you see in your members that remind you that they get it?  What are some of the discouraging things about teaching this population?  What are some of the most exciting parts of teaching the scriptures to people who are mentally challenged?

At The Special Gathering, we often say that we don’t pay people to minister but we pay them to supervise.  For the sake of safety during our weekly programs, we divide our members into three categories.  The first group are the members who have been designated by the professional community as fully independent and our elders (our volunteers).  The fully independent people live in their own apartments with an independent living coach.  They have no supervision during their work hours or during the hours they are in their own apartments. 

The second group are the semi-independent individuals.  These are people who work in the community and, therefore, have no supervision during most of the day.  They may live at home with their parents or in a group home.  But during the daytime, they do not have supervision.

The third group are people who are in a supervised workshop setting during the day and they live at home with a relative or in a group home.  They have constant supervision.

For our independent people, we check them in and check them out.  Some of these folks are married.  They may drive their own cars.  They come and go as they please during Special Gathering. 

The semi independent and the people designated by the professional community as needing oversight are treated somewhat differently in regard to supervision.   For the sake of safety, we make four checks of these members each time a program meets.  As we move, the person supervising verifies that everyone is in place.  We check people when they arrive; we check them before worship begins, to insure that they are in place.  We visually check as the small groups begin, and we check people when they leave.

It has been the common wisdom that when a program reaches about 30 people in attendance, there needs to be one person who is in charge of supervision and does nothing else.  In Melbourne, we pushed the limits and did not get a supervisor until we were running 55 to 60 people each week.  We could do this for two reasons.  First, Melbourne was filled with 10 wonderfully competent volunteers, who were also professionals in the field.  Second, because of budget restraints, we felt we had no choice.

In 2003, we received a grant and we were able to hire a supervisor.  She worked our Melbourne and Vero programs.  Quickly this new member of our team learned that working within this cloistered, sub-culture, there are dichotomies that constantly pull at our staff.

Our members are adults.  They must be treated with the respect afforded to all adults.  Yet, sometimes their reasoning abilities are immature.  Often, their intellectual disabilities override their capacity to make reasonable decisions.

Several years ago, Lars, an avid sports fan, came to church the Sunday of the Super Bowl.  He brought the Sunday newspaper with him.  After worship, he became agitated.  He had lost his newspaper and he could not be consoled.  Several of our volunteers worked with him as he paced and muttered.  They tried to explain that he really didn’t need the paper. 

After about a half hour, they called me over.  I half-heartedly tried to find the paper and then I attempted to cajole him back into a good humor.  Nothing worked.  He became more and more irritated.

Finally, I asked, “Lars, why do you need this newspaper?”

Frustrated, he slammed his fist on the table.  “You know,”  he said, deeply hurt by my insensitivity.

“No, I don’t know. Tell me.”

“If I don’t find the newspaper, the Super Bowl teams won’t be able to play.  There will be no Super Bowl today.”

Now I understood his pain and frustration.  In his world, the loss of the newspaper that told about the game meant that the game could not play.  We got serious about finding the missing paper.  He and I searched the rooms where we had been.  Later, we searched the bus that he had ridden on the way to church.

As I got increasingly serious about the missing newspaper, Lars began to settle down.  Knowing that I understood his concern and did not discount the newspaper dilemma helped him to regain his calm.  After searching the bus, Lars looked at me and patted my hand.  “It’s okay,” he said, consoling me.  “Even if we don’t find the paper, they might be able to play the game.”

Had I not had a supervisor who was responsible for the safety of everyone, it would’ve been impossible for me to take the time to understand Lars’ concern.  That day could have been a disaster for Lars and our program.  However, having another person there to make sure that the 99 were safely taken care of made it possible for me to avert pending trouble.

Have there been time that you have felt that you needed another person to take care of the details so you could minister to a distressed member.  Would have handled Lars differently?

I am often surprised by the ability of the members of Special Gathering to “turn lemons into lemonade.” The other day I had a conversation with one of our SpG members. When he was 18 years old, this young man was in an automobile accident which left his body torn apart.  He is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or use his hands.  His continual spastic movements are awkward and tiring.  Yet, his attitude is whole and even holy.

As I drove the member to our Vero program, he bragged about what a wonderful and happy life he had and how much God had blessed him.  Had I not seen the radiant smile on his face, I would have thought that he was being sarcastic or playing a cruelty joke on himself.  However, one look at the joy and delight flowing from his eyes told me that this was a man grateful for life.  He is delighted to have a relationship with His God.

Often, as hard as life becomes for people within the mentally challenged community, there seems to be a thread of joy that weaves its way into the broken lives.  At times, it seems trite to say, “Christ makes a difference in our lives.” Yet, when you see the love of Jesus flowing into hurting people and then experience the love of Christ flowing from their lives, there is a thankful appreciation for what the love of God can do in our lives.

I received an e-mail from a young missionary from China today.  She just returned back from her home in Arkansas.  (Yes, Arkansas produces things other than presidential candidates and chickens.) 

I’d like to share part of her e-mail with you.

I got off the plane craving those little flat sweet bread things that a man and lady sell on the corner of the street outside my apartment building.  I looked for the big metal barrel that they use to cook the bread, but didn’t see it for the first two days that I was here.  Then after school yesterday, I spotted it.

Sure enough, there they were with the big ball of dough, seasoning, and the big barrel with the fire that they stick the flattened dough inside.  By inside, I really mean “to the side”…to the side of the inside.  I wish I could mail them home, but they wouldn’t be warm and some of the yumminess is in the coldness in which you receive them.  Coldness being the weather, not the service.  Not at all.  The people are so sweet and have huge smiles.

But yesterday, I noticed something different.  The man’s hands are so red and almost swollen.  He spends his whole life rolling dough to make “wu mai,” five mao or the equivalent of six cents in US dollars for one little bread.  His hands are red because this is his livelihood.  He stands out in the cold and then sticks his hands inside the very hot barrel to take the bread out. 

And so, my thought is this…What makes me so blessed that I have what I have?  I really can’t explain how seeing hard-working men like this man messes me up.  Seriously, it’s not justice.  I don’t work that hard and I don’t have to worry about having the things I need. 

I am warm and well fed.  I have clothes for my body and shoes for my feet.  I hope that my life is a picture of gratefulness and more than that I hope I never take what I have for granted.  “Lord, let me not get so wrapped up in comparing with those who have more than me that I forget how rich I really am.  Forgive me when I thank so backwards.  Help me to notice those around me and teach me how to love and give.”

How perfectly this explains how I feel each day because I have been honored to know a group of people who experience deep gratitude because of their deep needs and wounds.

Is there someone you know who has touched your life because of their generous and grateful spirit in the middle of deep needs?