fishermenI’ve been intrigued the past few weeks with Jesus and his disciples.  When Jesus approached his disciples for the first time, he didn’t see humble fishermen or a tax collector.  Jesus saw world changers.  Men who would carry the message of salvation and God’s grace turning the world upside down.

When I took Western Civilization in college, the professor (who was not a Christian) spoke of Paul as the man who drastically and dramatically changed world history.  Except for Paul, the apostles were simple men bred in simple communities from what was considered a backward Middle Eastern country which is scarcely a dot on the world globe.  Yet, from Russia to the America’s and enveloping Europe, the influence of these Christ-like pioneers swept the heart and minds of people–kings and peasant alike.

globeAs I study the passage of scripture in Mark where Jesus called the fishermen who would become fishers of men, I felt the Lord spoke to me.  “Don’t look at your members as broken people with debilitating disabilities.  Look at them as world changers.”

There are many things that the members within the disability community cannot do.  However, Jesus proves from the nativity of his ministry that he can transform anyone into a world changer.  Liabilities don’t matter.  Hurts and pains become platforms for life-altering testimonies of God’s wonder-working grace and mercy.

Each of us stand before people who are broken.  I’m beginning to ask the Lord to help me to see the people who are the world changers.  People who are willing to be used by the mighty God of the universe to bring his message in simple ways and godly actions.

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?

It’s a guy thing.  I’ve never quite understood most of this passage of scripture found in John 21. You remember the incident that happened after Jesus’ resurrection.  First, the breakfast on the beach.  I think Jesus  invented going out to breakfast that morning.  Hey, what’s a good breakfast?  One egg and a piece of toast.  That’s a satisfying, filling breakfast.  How much does it cost?  $.35?  And it takes five minutes to prepare for a family of five.  (Trust me!  I’ve timed it hundred’s of times.)  That will satisfy almost all women.

Oh, no! Men want the Denny’s Grand Slam! What does it contains? 17 pieces of bacon, two slices of ham, fourteen scrambled eggs, 25 pancakes, and two biscuits slathered with gravy.  Enough food to feed Napoleon’s army for a week.

Women like to go out to lunch–not breakfast.  A salad, some iced peach tea and a four-inch piece of Kill-Me-with-Chocolate cake that you share with three other people.

Think about it. Everything about this passage in John 21:1-17  must be a guy thing.  Guys, you’ll love reviewing it.  Women, listen and learn.

Reviewing all of the things that had happened:

  1. Judas’s betrayal.
  2. The final passover.
  3. They slept while Jesus agonized in prayer.
  4. The soldiers appear to arrest Jesus and take him away.
  5. The disciples deserted him after his arrest.
  6. Jesus’ death.
  7. The resurrection.
  8. Now, he had appeared to them while they were in the upper room with the doors locked.

It was simply too much.  Peter and the disciples were on overload.  Peter said, “I’m going fishing.”  Fishing?  Really, fishing?

It’s got to be a guy thing.

Women, we would go shopping or for a quiet walk in the park to clear our heads.  But Peter wanted to go fishing.

And–uninvited–all the men wanted to go with Peter.  Uninvited, the men all piled into their own vehicles.  They simply invited themselves to go fishing.  Now, women love going places with other women.  In our favorite restaurant, we will even go to the public bathroom together.  But WE WAIT TO BE INVITED.  These men invited themselves.

It’s a guy thing.

It was the next morning and they had fished all night and caught nothing.  Fishing?  All night?

We won’t even go there because  it’s a guy thing.

Then they saw a man on the shore that they didn’t recognize and the man asked them, “Have you caught anything?  Throw your nets on the other side of the boat.”

What?  “Throw your nets on the other side?”  No woman would have done that.  The stranger didn’t say, “Go across the lake to my favorite fishing spot.”  He directed them to the other side of the boat.  The boat was not more than 8 feet wide.  If there are no fish in the lake after fishing all night, why throw your net on the other side of the boat?

It’s a guy thing.

Of course, the men did it. Why?  I don’t know, except could it be because another man told them to do it?

It’s a guy thing.

Women would be questioning, “The other side?  Has he lost his mind?  Who is this strange man? I don’t even have to walk to the other side of this boat.  I can toss the net on the other side standing in the middle.  Ladies, does this make sense?”

Of course, the men did it and after filling the net with fish, only John realized that Jesus was the man on the shore.

Again, it’s a guy thing.

Sorry, Men, but you sometimes don’t recognize the most obvious things.  After observing men and their fish for decades,  I think these men were so concerned about getting the fish into the boat that their brains went into tilt mode.  If this had been a group of women, they would have immediately known that it was Jesus on the shore.

Then Peter put on his clothes to jump into the water.  Two things. First, I’ve learned that men often take off their clothes to do work when they are alone with only other men.  Women never do that.

Second,  Peter PUT his clothes back on to jump into the water.

It’s got to be a guy thing.

We, women, would take off our clothes to jump into the water.  “Hey, I’m not getting these sandals wet.  And do you know how long I had to save to get this sarong?  Girls, meet me at the edge and BRING all my clothes!”

But when they got to the shore, Jesus had breakfast ready for them.  He had cooked it himself .  Jesus  invited the tired and hungry fishermen/disciples for breakfast.

Then, after they had eaten,  Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to confess to Jesus that he loved Jesus three times.  The exact number of times that Peter had denied Jesus.

A-h-h! That’s a God thing!

God is always gracious and loving to us.  No matter how bad our sins, he wants to forgive us and set us free.  Jesus came to the disciples where they were; and he showed them that he loved them.  He was especially gracious to Peter.  He even gave Peter the opportunity to make his bad mistake right.

That’s a God thing.

I received the call at 7:30 tonight.  John died at 6pm.  I was at Universal Studios Theme Park with a group of people who are mentally challenged.  There was no way for me to run over to help comfort the family.  So we talked on the phone for about 20 minutes.  His sister shared the pain and suffering he endured in his last hours.  I talked to her about the visits we had together in the last two weeks.

John started attending Special Gathering of Melbourne–a ministry within the mentally challenged community–about 10 years ago.  He soon joined the choir and helped each week to set up the room for worship.  A man of few words, he depended on his smile to portray his deep feelings of love, joy and satisfaction.  Two years ago, John went to the nursing home because he was expected to live no longer than a few months.  Two weeks ago, Hospice was called in and the family was told that the cancer which had been gnawing at his physical body for years was finally destroying his fragile frame. 

On Wednesday of last week, I had gone into his room and softly touched his arm.  He opened his eyes and looked up.  His smile was gone. His eyes seemed larger because his face was gaunt and thin. 

I knew his time was short.  “You’re ready to go home, aren’t you?”

  John gently shook his head. 

“You know it’s going to be a wonderful homecoming.  You’ll see your mother and father.  You’re going to be really happy.” 

“I know,” he whispered.  I prayed for him and left.

Another member was convolesing in the same facility.  She’s a young woman who is confined to a wheelchair and doesn’t speak.  The next day I came back to visit both of them.  I knew Christine would want to see John; but I didn’t think it was useful to have her see him in the weak and sick condition he had been in the previous day.  Before going to her room, I stuck my head in the door of John’s room.  The room was bare. 

Shocked, I went to the nurses’ station.  “Where’s John?” 

“He’s in the television room, watching TV,” she said, grinning and pointing to the gray headed man sitting straight and tall in his wheelchair.  When I came into the TV room, he smiled and waved to me by lifting his fingers from the arm of the wheelchair.  After a few minutes, I wheeled Christine into see him.  She had a stuffed yellow chicken toy to give to him.  Together, they giggled and played with the chicken that cheeped like a biddie.  

We prayed with him and left.  That was the last time I saw John but it won’t be the last time that I will see him.  He was smiling as he waved good-bye to us. 

I think John is singing somewhere in heaven right now.  I can’t wait to see him healed and whole. I know from the reactions of our members when we talk about heaven that they look forward to the time that their minds will be made whole.  I often ask myself.  What will our members be like when they get to heaven?   

Who have you lost to death?  As your members reach the threshold of death, are you able to talk to them about dying?  What do you say?

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?

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?