The whine you hear in your computer is coming from this blog.  I want to warn you now that this will not be a pleasant entry.  All those with a low tolerance for whimpering and spitting should leave immediately.  Since I assume that means every male reader, I will continue in a typically female fashion.

Men like stories told in a newspaper format.  The headline first.  The first sentence should tell you all you need to know about the issue.  The first paragraph is a encapsulated version of the story.  Men only listen about three minutes to any story.  Therefore, if you wish to reach them at all, you must approach each and every issue as a journalist.

Women are different.  We want every detail, every whimper, every smile.  This is my tale and it will be told in a typically female fashion.

I remember the day as though it were yesterday.  The Special Gathering Choir of Indian River was asked to sing at a nursing home.  We are a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Our purpose is to evangelize and disciple men and women who are developmentally delayed.  Our choir is an outreach to the community, helping The Church understand that people who are developmentally disabled can have a vital relationship with the Lord.  We have sung many times in nursing homes.  We know that a nuring home is always on the lookout for groups that will come to entertain.  From experience, I expected that with a small nursing home, you would have an audience of 25 to 30 people.  This was a very large facility.

If my memory serves me correctly, it was a Tuesday that we were to sing and the members of the choir were excited to be able to sing their Christmas music one last time.  We were to sing at 3:30pm.  This meant the choir members needed to arrive by 3pm. 

I started my trip at noon and went to three of the choir member’s workplace.  Their caregivers had forgotten they were to sing.  Their choir uniforms for the day consisted of a stained and house paint smeared shirt,  a too small Gator shirt and a faded and grungy yellow shirt.  They were in old, torn and dirty jeans.  This is appropriate wear for work but not giving a concert.  Because one of the members, we’ll call her Tammy, had forgotten that we were singing.  It took her 20 minutes to get to the front desk and retrieve her lunch box. 

We began our 80 mile trip late.  I called the forgetful caregivers to remind them againthat I had taken their residents and they wouldn’t be home for supper.  The last thing I needed was irate caregivers who arrived at the workshop to pick up the people who had gone with me.

I got several calls from the people I was to pick up later asking where I was.  Tammy and I laughed about her tardy arrival to sing.  As always, I had padded my time by about an hour.  Twenty minutes was not problem.  After picking up another member from work, we went to a residence where two other members were waiting.  Their caregiver had remembered and had called to find out where we were.

For two of the people who were stained and smeared, a borrowed  wardrobe change was in order.  Several other people had to go to the bathroom.  In all, 20 more minutes was eaten up.  No problem.  We still had 30 minutes to spare. 

Though I like to have longer, with the help of our members, I can set up the equipment in two or three minutes.  We exited the interstate into our destination city, with 5 minutes to spare, if we were to be able to set up for the singing.  As we maneuvered our way under the interstate heading east, we were stopped.  Traffic was no longer moving.  There we sat for 30 minutes. 

A truck, or more correctly the bottom end of a truck, that was being transported by a heavy equipment transport, had fallen off of the transport vehicle totally blocking the road.  There were no other roads leading into the city.  We couldn’t move and even if we could there was no place to go.  I was hemmed in by highway patrolmen who also couldn’t move, so there was no breaking the law in a desperate attempt to get to our destination. 

Again, I was on the phone trying to connect with someone–anyone–to let them know where we were.  At 3:25, the traffic began to move.  We were only five minutes from the nursing home but we would be late.  As I pulled into this large complex that houses about 425 or more people, I got a phone call.  “Where are you?”  You can surmise the rest.

We hustled into a small room where three or four women sat watching TV.  My choir members was intrigued with the TV.  Instead of helping to set up the equipment, they sat down to watch.  I asked a staff person where we could stand and was given instructions on where to set up my equipment and where to have our choir stand.

After 15 minutes or so, I arranged the choir in the hallway, where we had been told to stand.  “You can’t stand there!” a lovely staff persons who had just arrived told me.  “You can’t be seen from there.  You have to move and stand  in front of the TV.”  I had equipment and 12 mentally challenged people who would need to be moved into that very small area.  There were now four women and one man in our audience.  I smiled and suggested that perhaps our audience could move instead.  We couldn’t move and the audience opted to remain in place.

The concert was almost flawless.  The choir members were nervous but happy to be able to share with their audience of five.  Because one of our choir members is an employee at the home, a group of his fellow employees congregated in the hallway with us.  They enjoyed hearing the music and the singing.  We finished and introduced ourselves.

Then the choir members went to mingle with the audience and to enjoy cookies and punch.  Two of the elderly ladies came up to me and said, “Keep working with your choir.  Maybe they’ll learn how to sing one day.”  I smiled and said thank you.

After we sang, our members who had traveled the 70 miles back home needed to eat.  From the fast-food combo menu, it was a $50 expense.  Then I had to take everyone home.  I dropped the last person off at 7:45pm. 

Understand it isn’t the hours or the expense or the size of the audience that is causing that mournful whine to emanate from your computer.   It is the fact that at least 100 people were at the facility and missed the singing.   Had the staff who invited us not told them or invited them?  I had told her that our members would be taking off work (which means they won’t be paid), why hadn’t a more concerted effort been made to have others hear our members?

I hope that the reason that we were assigned to an audience of five was that this is the way every group is treated.  However, I doubt it.  “You will definitely be invited back,” the entertainment specialist said, as we were leaving. 

“That will be great,” the choir said to her.  I heard them talking among themselves at the restaurant.  “Just think we were able to sing for all those people and they want us back.”

“It was really worth it.  I’m so glad I came.”

“Linda, can we go back?”

I choked down my complaints with a swallow of diet cola.  It seems that within the mentally challenged community, our members have an extremely high tolerance for singing their hearts out to five people.  Perhaps that’s why I love what I do.

 On Thursday, August 28, one of our regular members of Special Gathering  Steve Pettee, went to be with the Lord.  He had his first seizure during SpG on Sunday, August 24.  The Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Our goal is to evangelize and disciple people who are developmentally disabled.  On Thursday, Steve was to have an MRI but he had to be sedated.  He never woke up from the sedation.

Then on Friday, August 29 during the night, I received a call from the mother of the young woman who sings in our choir and is a leader among her peers in our Melbourne program.  One Sunday, August 24, at First United Methodist Church she had a solo in the song we sang at the a church-wide celebration.  It was her first solo.  Friday evening, Leslie had to be taken to the emergency room.  She had contracted pneumonia very quickly in the evening.  Within hours, she had coded.  They revived her but she was it very critical condition.  They found what they thought was a perforation in her colon  (it later turned out to be a rip in her stomach).  Within the next hours, she had coded 2 more time.  The doctors advised surgery with a 10 percent chance of recovery.  Without the surgery, however, she would die within a few hours.

The surgery was performed and was successful.  However, Leslie still hangs dangerously between life and death.  If she recovers it will be a long road to recovery.  Please pray for her and for our members as they grieve the loss of Steve and illness of  Leslie.  The nurses said that we should pray that there was not further damage to her brain.

The memorial service for Steve will be Wednesday, September 3 at 3PM at Davis Funeral home on Eau Gallie Boulevard in Melbourne, Florida.
Pray for the weak among you

Pray for the weak among you

Ready or Not--Here I come

Ready or Not--Here I come

I love change and moving furniture and being involved in a dynamic organization like The Special Gathering that is constantly looking for ways to make things better and improve.  As a ministry within the developmentally disabled community, there are a myriad of things to learn and experience.  Each day must be a new beginning and adventure.  Though our mission remains focused on discipleship and evangelism, the way we do things is open to discussion and growth.  This brings me a lot of pleasure.

However, there is a down side to change.  That comes when you are asked to change at the last minute and you ain’t prepared.  That was the opportunity we had on Sunday and it turned into an exciting adventure.  First United Methodist Church of Melbourne, our gracious host church in South Brevard, was having a wonderful celebration with all the ministries of the church participating.  Because we must catch our buses to go home, it was decided that we would not have our choir sing or attend the worship service. 

Yet, during preparation for our worship service, we were approached by the pastor and he asked that our choir sing at the beginning of the joint worship service.  “Sing the song you were practicing a few minutes ago.  It sounded great,” the Senior Pastor, John Denmark, requested.  My concern was that the choir had only sung that song about five or six times.   I don’t mean that we had practiced it during six rehearsals.  I mean that we had only sung this song a total of five, maybe six, times.

Singing a new song after so few rehearsals would be a feat for any choir but our members are developmentally delayed.  It seemed impossible.  However, the choir was more than game. “They can’t sing.  They aren’t wearing their uniform,” was heard from several naysayers.  I admit that Stuart’s shorts weren’t appealing to me.  Yet, it was a celebration and this is Florida where semi-formal wear always means clean jeans. 

Leslie is a committed Christian who would be singing the solo for this song in the Christmas play where we intended to sing it for the first time.  Leslie’s smile is amazing and her willingness to cooperate is legendary.  But Leslie’s voice has such a narrow range that most people would call her a monotone.  I found that this song matched the few notes she is able to sing.  However, did I go so far as let her sing during the opening of a celebration with about 1,500 people?  My decision was yes.  And no one was disappointed, especially Leslie.  The tenderness and compassion displayed in her facial expression and especially in her eyes told the listening congregation that this young woman loves Jesus with all her heart. 

I was so proud of our choir but I was especially excited for Leslie.  Excellence is vital in a performance but love is much more important.  Leslie has a terminal disease and we could lose her any moment.  I’m so pleased that 1,500 people could see and witness her desire to please her savior. 

Ready or not–we came and we sang and I’m so happy we did.

Has there been a time that you stepped out when you didn’t feel prepared?  What were the results?

Photo by Volar

Wise men travel from East Vero

Wise men travel from East Vero

I began the morning ready to write my daily entry of this blog.  However, I got sidetracked by the fact that I had choir practice this afternoon.  Last Saturday, I had promised the choir that I would have CD’s of our Christmas music and the words of the new Christmas songs printed out for them.  By the time I’d finished my task, it was 1pm and I barely had enough time to rush out the door for Vero Beach and choir.

So, now, it’s almost time for the day to end and I’m just sitting down to do this blog.  Here are some of the questions that I’m asked after each performance of our Christmas play and music. 

“When do you begin practicing the Christmas music?”

In July of each year.  This gives the choir time to memorize all the words to the eight to ten songs that we perform.  This year our choir will memorize eight songs.  The first song will also be the final song.

“Where do you get your plays from?”

We write our own plays.  I write the Melbourne/Vero play.  Richard Stimson writes the Brevard play.

“Where do you get your music?”

That one is a tougher question.  Every year, it’s an adventurous search to find music for the next year.  In fact, I’ve already started looking for new music for next year.  By January, I’ve usually settled on our source and I begin preliminary preparations.  We have been able to get the music from many different places.  We need music that has good orchestration but not complicated arrangements.  In the past, we have used some children’s and youth musical. 

Several years ago after an internet search,  I discovered a children’s split track Christmas album.  That year, we sang the familiar carol favorites from that album.  Then the next year, I realized that it had ten Negro spiritual’s on it.  They were great fun to learn and sing.  The third year, I took different carols from the album and combined them with a couple of the spirituals the choir had really enjoyed from the previous year.  The title of the album is Gospel Christmas Songsperformed by the Cedarmont Kids.  

Let Heaven and Nature Swing was a youth musical that our choir enjoyed singing and the audience was extremely enthusiastic about.  The choir was especially happy to learn a simplified version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”  In the middle of that piece, the audience began to applaud.  As the choir continued singing, the audience stood on their feet to show their appreciation for the quality of performance the choir did. 

In years past and this year, I’ve slightly adapted the words to music to fit the Christmas season.  This year I’ve used selections from All the Best for Youth.  This is a four volume set.  I’ve adapted a few of the words to make these songs more Christmasy.  We begin with our title song, “Above All Else.”

Here is a list of the songs we will be using:

  1. “Above All Else”
  2. “Here is My Heart”–A song Mary sings to the Lord.  At the end of the song, an angel will appear to Mary and explain that she will bear God’s Son.
  3. “His Strength is Perfect”–A song Mary sings after a disappointing encounter with Joseph.  Joseph will stomp around angry as the choir sings.
  4. “We’ve Got Something to Say”–The song sung by the Angel that appears to Joseph.
  5. “O, Lord, My Rock”–Mary and Joseph sing as they prepare to go to Bethlehem.
  6. “And I Cried, Holy, Holy, Holy”–I changed some of the words to this song so that the song is “And The Angel cried, Glory, Glory, Glory.”  Here, of course, the angels appear to the shepherds.
  7. “King Jesus Is All”–This becomes “Messiah Is Born” and it is sung by the shepherds as they go to find Baby Jesus.
  8. “God is Gonna Finish”–Is the Wise Men’s song as they travel to Bethlehem to find the Baby.
  9. “Above All Else”–This will be our final song.

We usually have a story that wraps itself around the songs.  However, I don’t have to have that until mid-August because play practice begin in September. 

Are you able to obtain good music for your choir at Christmas?  What is your best source?

Yesterday, The Special Gathering Choir of Indian River sang at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Indialantic, Florida.  The Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Our mission is to evangelize and disciple people who are developmentally disabled.  However, we realize there are many misconceptions about our population; therefore, our ministry to the Church is to help educate them to the spiritual needs of people who are mentally challenged.

After the choir sang their two selections, they received a resounding, standing ovation.  They exited the church, all smiles and returned across the river to Melbourne Special Gathering to catch their rides home.  I stayed for the entire service.  After the benediction, the pastor, Rev. Elmer Floyd, graciously asked me to stand at the door of the church and receive the members as they left the sanctuary.  That is an honor that is sometimes given to us by hosting churches.

The response of the congregations is always extremely emotional and overwhelming.  Almost everyone who spoke to me had tears brimming their eyelids.  Old hardened housewives, who long ago quit hoping for a better day, took my hand and were speeching, barely whispering, “Thank you.”  Tough, tall young men in their twenties, with their tattooed arms and fingers, gripped my arms tightly, looking directly into my eyes and mumbled in a gravelly, shame-faced voice, “They touched me.” 

Long ago we learned to understand but underestimate the emotional effect the choir have on audiences.  Because emotions are temporary vapors that are whisked away in the wind.  Yet, there are always several people that are deeply effected by the choir.  Not on the emotional level but in the inner recesses of their spirit, God does a miracle.   One family who spoke to me was touched deeply, beyond the emotions.  Their hearts were bent and perhaps healed a bit by seeing the choir’s ministry.

It was a grandfather and grandmother.  The husband spoke for both of them.  “Our granddaughter was born with Down’s Syndrome,”  he said, not resisting the tears that slowed worned their way down his wrinkled cheeks.  “What a comfort to see what God can do with a person who is mentally challenged and willing to be used by the Lord.  The choir gave us such hope that our granddaughter can we used by God.”  His tone softened,  “Our granddaughter is greatly loved.”

My thoughts raced back about 18 years.  The choir I was directing was singing for a women’s conference.  After the performance, I asked the choir to line up in the front of the auditorium and pray for the women there.  After a member of the choir had prayed for her, Betty came over and hugged me tightly.  Betty and I were friends.  I knew she had a young son who is mentally challenged.  In my arms, she wept deeply. 

Wiping the tears away, she explained, “My great sorry for my son was that I thought God could never use Tony in ministry.  Now, I know that God can use him even with his developmental disabilities.”  Again, she cried.  This time I wept with her. 

A couple of years later, Tony, her son, became a part of Special Gathering.  About a year ago, Tony joined the choir.  Yesterday, this was the song he sang,

Jesus, You alone are worthy,

And I lift my voice to you.

Jesus, You alone are worthy.

I will worship none but you.

 While emotions are an important part of our human make-up, they can’t always be trusted.  However, God’s economy is amazingly green.  He can be trusted to turn what some people consider unusable into life-changing treasures. 

Has God used someone that you thought was unusable in your life?  How have your members ministered to you?

The hardest part about directing a choir of mentally challenged people is teaching them to look at me.  In the twenty years that I have been a choir director for persons who are developmentally delayed for The Special Gathering, this has been a constant and consistent problem. 

In the 1960’s when the Jesus Movement was sweeping across America, my husband and I were swept into the miraculous wonder of the Holy Spirit’s healing touch.  Though I was very young, almost daily, I had the privilege of praying for people.  Occasionally, these were African-American women who were visiting our home.  With this wonderful population of women, I was always faced with the same problem.  They refused to look at me. 

No matter how bold they had been in conversation, when it came time to pray, they all took the same posture.  They would sit with their heads pressed to their chests and their hands clasped in their laps, too timid to move or speak. 

I felt that the Lord told me that part of what was needed for them was to insist that they raise their heads and look at me, eye to eye.  At times, I had to physically force their heads upward.  Amazingly, once these women began to look up, there was a visual transformation that happened every time.  They seemed to come alive with joy and acceptance.   Laughing and crying at the same time, they would say, usually in a reverent whisper, “I’m free!”

I wasn’t totally surprised to also have this problem in the mentally challenged community.  This cloistered, sub-culture is made up of individuals who are told all their lives,  “Sit down.  Be quiet and don’t draw attention to yourself.” 

Even if those words are not spoken, they are told that a million times in their lives in a multitude of different ways.  I remember a funeral that I attended.  The father of one our members had died.  At that time, Nora was in her mid-thirties.  She is a high functioning, well-spoken, sophisticated woman.  Several times before and after the funeral service, her mother, brother and two sisters gathered in a circle.  Comforting each other,  they joined in a large group hug.  Nora was never a part of the hug.  She stood on the outside grasping her arms close to her chest, weeping alone. 

I don’t care how tonally correct the members of the choir sing but I do care whether they look at me or not.  For some of the members, this is especially difficult. For it is not only part of our culture to not look people in the eye; but it is also part of their disability.  Yet, I have never had one person who has not learned to overcome his training and disability.  They have all learned to look at me. 

Each new member thinks I’m incredible horrible when I harp on them, not allowing them to look away for a second.  Usually by the time they have trained themselves to look at me, another person will join the choir. Then she sees that I have to go through the same thing with the new, fledgling performer.  Almost, without exception, she will say in a patient, mentoring voice, “You can do it.  I had to learn and you can too.”

There is an element of self-worth that is essential in maturing in the Christian faith.  Through Christ’s sacrifice, God makes us his children, not his slaves or lackeys.  Perhaps the greatest joy I have when the choir performs is not the musical quality or the correct enunciation of all the words but 12 sets of eyes that meet mine and look at me, eye to eye.  Equal partners in ministry, holding our heads and hearts high. 

It makes me want to have a large, group hug with no one left outside grasping their arms.

What have you found to be the hardest thing for your members to do?  Have you found that making eye contact is important to self-worth?  What are some other signs of a good self-worth?

When we travel with The Special Gathering Choir which is composed of people who are mentally challenged, our custom is to bring someone to help in case there is a seizure.  While the primary diagnosis for most of our members is mental retardation, many of them also have seizures.  Our procedure is simple.  When a seizure begins,  we allow the person to fall and for the seizure to take its usual course.  If the seizure goes for more than three minutes, we call 911. 

It was in the middle of summer and, of course, the temperature was hot in sub-tropical Central Florida.  We had been invited to sing after a luncheon for a large group of “seasoned citizens.”  Just before his solo, Doug started to seizure.  Because he suffers from grand mall seizures, I always put him on the floor away from tables or furniture that could harm him in the event that he had a seizure.  My helper came up immediately to time the duration of the episode. 

The choir continued to sing.  

As soon as the seizure was over, Doug returned to his place in the choir.  None of the choir members diverted their gaze from me.  With great discipline, they kept the beat and didn’t lose the words.  If you knew them well, you could detect that their smiles turned to grins as Doug eased himself stage left into the front row.

Then Richard fainted.  He was in the back row on the stage, three steps up.  He went down as though he were moving in slow motion.  My vigilant helper saw him as he went down.  Quietly, he moved from his front row seat, to the back of the stage.  The choir kept their rhythm as they continued to sing.

The men who are standing beside Richard moved over slightly to give him room on the floor.

But they continued to sing, “Make me a servant, humble and meek…” 

Quietly, my helper lifted Richard up and escorted him to the end of the stage.  Because Richard doesn’t seizure but had all the classic symptoms of a heart attack, an ambulance was called. 

Finally, we finished our 45 minute concert.  By that time, the EMT’s had come and they were taking Richard to the hospital.  My helper was with the ambulance driver as they loaded Richard on to the back of the vehicle.  Doug had fully recovered.  We were moving off the stage when Joanne seizured.  Calmly, one choir member grabbed her arm.  Another choir member slipped a chair underneath her and they gently helped Joanne sit in a chair, as I closed in prayer.   Doug looked at his watch to time the seizure.  Within 30 to 45 seconds, she had recovered and we were able to leave the community center.

At times, we jokingly say, “We do seizures.”  But we all know that our members who are in the midst of a seizure are pivoting between life and death.  Even though we understand the deadly seriousness of the events, we can’t help but see the humor of the situation in those nervous, relief hours after the crisis has passed.  We do sit back and laugh at ourselves and the events.  The faces of the audience usually go from shock, to fear, and finally admiration for the discipline shown by the choir members. 

I’ve noticed that our members seem to understand life and death better than most “normal” people.  These are issue that we live with each day.  I had to announce during our chapel services today that John is critically ill and would probably die soon.  All of us have known for three years that John’s cancer is terminal.  Several of our members cried.  Many came forward to ask our deacons (who are their peers) to pray for John.   It was a quiet, holy time.  But when we spoke to John’s faith and our assurance that he would see Jesus soon,  the tears were mingled with smiles.  Chrissy giggled and there were more smiles.

In the cloistered, sub-culture where I live, seizures do complicate our lives but they also make us realize that life is a precious gift from God.  Perhaps it even lets us appreciate the gift of life more than “normal” folks. 

Have there be events in your ministry in which you have seen the Lord move through your members in a crisis time?  When have you reacted in inappropriate ways?