It is inevitable that conflict will come when two people live, work, play or worship together.  An extremely quotable pastor from years past, Jack Green, once said, “If two people live together, there will be conflict, unless one of the two people is dead.”

I’ve always assumed that if there is a conflict between two people at least one of those people is angry.  That does not mean, of course, that one of the two people is sinning.  The Bible clearly says, “Be angry and sin not.”  This makes it pretty clear that you can be angry and not sin.

I am area director of Special Gathering of Indian River, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community. Our mission is to do classic ministry, evangelizing and discipling the people we serve.  Like every other pastor who ministers to a particular group, we deliberately tackle issues that are relevant to our members.  We talk about the sheltered workshop and having a job on the outside.  We try to deal with the issue of having to live with your parents FOREVER.  Proper behavior with your girl/boyfriend is a scorching hot topic.  Yet, I’ve never squarely faced with our members the issue of siblings–until last week.

Our sermon was on Jacob and Esau.  We are all familiar with the bitter rivalry that these men faced, even in the womb.  Both mother and father were guilty of fostering these battles, which eventually led to resentments.  This week in our sermon I explained to our members that their brothers and sisters have given up a lot for them.  Because many of them were sick as children and they always have had special needs, their siblings lives were different from others.  I urged them to say thank you to their brothers or sisters for helping them and for being kind to them.

I was surprised because one especially sensitive young woman, Michal, spoke up and said, “I don’t have to, my sister loves me.”  While I don’t often welcome interruptions during our devotion time, I was happy for this one.  As she spoke several of our members vocally agreed with her.  Obviously, I’d not made my point clearly.

“No!”  I tried to clarify.  “I’m not saying that they resent you so you need to say thank you.  I’m saying they have given up a lot for you, and for that reason you need to say thank you. Recently, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and said, “You are so involved with what you don’t have that you don’t appreciate what you do have.”

It is true that our members are discriminated against almost everywhere.  But in their homes, they often receive preferential treatment.  Siblings see it.  They may even be angry but it’s been my experience that few of them sin.  They embrace their disabled partner in family life and move on, helping where they can.  Siblings deserve a big thank you for their love, understanding, and caring.

Is there someone in your life that you need to thank?  Perhaps your husband or wife who does so many little things to please you?  What about one of your members who is careful to help you each time you meet?

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?

Today was a day that sat down about seven or eight time to write an entry but I couldn’t seem to get my buzzing thoughts together.  There was so much that I wanted to share that I couldn’t seem to get one thing to focus.

Therefore, I got busy doing other tasks, instead of trying to settle my thoughts on one issue.  Now that it’s night, there is one thing which has continued buzzing though my brain that I’d like to share. 

Yesterday, I spent about an hour on the phone with the executive director of Special Gathering.  He was helping me solve a problem I was having with our data base. 

I have a love/hate relationship with all data bases.  Because we’ve recently switched from our old familiar one to a new system, I now have a hate/love relationship with it.  Patiently, Richard Stimson, our exec, helped to maneuver me through the problems I was having.  I am deeply grateful for his help and his encouragement.  It was a problem that I’d been struggling with for about three months.

When I got off the phone, I went pour myself a fresh cup of decaf.  Silently, I prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for sending people to help me.  Thanks you for Special Gathering.  Thank you for Richard Stimson.”

Over the years, I’ve seen that most people who labor within the mentally challenged community are a pretty lonely lot.  There are few people who understand why persons who are developmentally disabled need ministry.  Many who do understand the importance of evanglizing and discipling our population believe the ministry must be in an inclusive setting. 

In the 20 years that I’ve ministered in this population, I have been exceptionally blessed to be surrounded by a group of wonderfully supportive ministers who share a passion to see our population come to know Jesus in a vital way.  For them, I’m deeply grateful. 

I am so thankful to the Lord for all the help he brings my way.  And I know that we are the exception, not the rule.  And, of course, it isn’t only in the disability community that lonely reigns.  Yesterday, I sat with a pastor who serves on one of our boards, he was weak from discouragement and the feeling that he was laboring alone.  We all need to uplift and support each other. 

Who are some of the people that you look to for support and help?  Do you have a support network when you are facing problems that you can’t seem to handle?

Outside church, Tom and friends

Her buggy was full of garden items.  A couple of expensive but unnecessary statues, two rare and costly orchids, several upscale flower pots and a couple of bags of fertilizer.  She stood in the middle of the aisle.  Her conversation was loud and engaging.  She was obviously entertaining the entire garden section with her antidotes and comments. 

“There is no middle-class anymore,”  she concluded her rhetoric.  “You are either very, very rich or very, very poor.”  Disliking the jingle that threatened to interrupt her, she silenced her cell phone with precisely manicured nails.  Her Liz Claiborne shorts had not come from Wal-Mart and neither had her Aigner sandals.

“So which are you?  Very, very rich?  Or very, very poor?”  I asked.

“I am very, very poor,”  she smiled, cheerfully.

“No, ma’am,” I said, smiling back.  “According to the standards of the world, you are not very, very poor. And neither am I.”  I wanted to tell her that her shopping basket, clothes, cell phone, shoes and nails all told me that even according to the US standards, she was not very, very poor.  But I didn’t.

Somehow, we have adapted within ourselves an I’m-so-poor mentality.  The first time I heard this silliness, we were sitting eating steak in a large four bedroom home in one of the nicer residential sections of town.  The dinner guest sitting next to me carefully cut a large piece of rib eye.  She perched the beef morsel on her fork, readying it for her mouth, and said, “We are living in a high-class depression.”  Unfortunately, I erupted into loud laughter and then I realized from her face that this woman was not kidding.

While I know there are large pockets of poverty that rip through our nation, most of us aren’t going to bed hungry.  So why do we pretend to be part of the down-trodden masses pining for food and shelter?

Is it a great guilt that we all shoulder because we are such a  blessed nation?  Or is it our insatiable need for more?  I work with the poorest of poor in our nation.  People who are intellectually disabled exist on welfare, food stamps, rental subsidies and Social security checks.  And believe it or not, they have greater wealth than my family had when I was a child. 

 Yet, in those years, we were considered middle-class.

Because of my position in The Special Gathering, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community, I have the privilege to work with people who are developmentally disabled.  They are a group of people who are poor but rich in thankfulness and gratitude.  Downtrodden and misunderstood but seldom envious of what others have.  Their broken bodies and undeveloped minds don’t rob their gifted spirits of the wonder they enjoy by being a child of the King of the Universe.  It’s great to live in a holy place.  I only wish that dear woman with her expensive purchases and lovely clothes knew the riches that my members know. 

How many of your members are wealthy?  How many are considered poor?  Does their wealth or lack of wealth make them happy? 

Outside the lunch room at Camp Agape

Last Saturday, the Brevard County Recreation Department, South Sector, hosted a marvelous barbecue picnic for people with disabilities and their parents.  There was an ample surplus of food.  The day was warm with a soft summer breeze that refreshed everyone, except the cook, of course.  He was kept busy all day.  He was preparing the food, cooking the food, making up plates for people who wanted to take food home with them and finally cleaning up as the others disbursed.

After the wonderful barbecue and the paper plate mess had been thrown away, scrap papers picked up, and table wiped, my good friend, Marlo,  went up to the man who had cooked all day for the picnickers.  “Thank you so much.  I know how hard you worked today.” 

Marlo is a Special Gathering volunteer who is also a parent.  Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Our purpose is to evangelize and disciple people with developmental disabilities.  After the picnic, Marlo had helped clean up the mess along with Barbara Mitchell, the South Sector Director, and a couple of other people, including the cook. 

“Yes,” the cook said in response to her comment about his hard work.  Marlo had found out during the course of the day that the cook had also supplied most of the food.  This man is not a parent or a professional working within the mentally challenged community.  He is a volunteer who wanted to do something to help people with disabilities.  “It was my pleasure,” he continued, “but I don’t understand something.  You are the only person who came up to me to say thank you.”

Marlo’s questioned me later in the week, “Why do some people in the mentally challenged community have a sense of entitlement?  Can’t we see that the government and other people can’t do it all.  We must be able to do something for ourselves.  Can’t we see that because of our great need, we must have a great deal of gratefulness?  When did we become takers who aren’t thankful to all the people who give to us and then give again?”

Of course, I’ve seen the same thing.  Though I must say that I’ve never experienced this myself.  I am greatly appreciated by all my members and parents.  While probably 90 percent of people in the mentally challenged community are hard-working people who only want a job so they can pay their fair-share of taxes, there are some who have come to expect others to do for them.  This is not a good trend. 

I’ve seen over the years, that people will do anything for me, as long as I am grateful.  In fact, I’m the same way.  I’ll do and do, as long as I sense a grateful heart.  Yet, my gut grinds when I feel I’m being taken advantage.  

Please and thank you are still those charmingly old-fashioned words that open doors and tell the world that we are grateful for the help we receive.  What some ways you’ve learned to be grateful by your members?  What are a few things they do for you that show their gratitude?

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?

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?