Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Perfectly Imperfect Christmas

Hope and me seated on the floor, just outside the sanctuary at Broadstreet United Methodist Church

It came in the mail, a rather ordinary invitation probably sent to the entire city.  A mass mailer.  Those things we all hate.  The 5 X 7 card said my family was invited to attend the Christmas Eve service at Broadstreet United Methodist Church.  My perfectly imperfect family invited to what would be a perfect Christmas Eve service, one that had probably been planned and rehearsed for weeks.  I read it aloud to Lydia and actually smirked when I said:  "Oh, OUR family is definitely not invited!"  Then I tossed it in the garbage. 

The entire week, I thought about that invitation.  I couldn't get it out of my mind.  'Were we really invited?' I wondered.  Would they accept two non-verbal kiddos who make lots of random (sometimes loud) noises?  Would they show grace and mercy to a couple of little ones who are unable to sit still?  There was only one way to find out.  

We arrived at 10:45pm.  

While unloading Hope and Charlie from the car, a homeless man approached us with his arms raised, "May I approach you, Ma'am?"  I honestly didn't have any cash to give him, but I told him we were going to the church on the corner and asked if he was planning to attend.  He said something I couldn't understand and shook his head.  In response, Hope melted, likely feeling unsure about the stranger, so I ended up hauling all 50+ pounds of her down the sidewalk, up the steps, and into the church.  
'Is our family invited?'

We made our way up into the balcony (uhhhm, yes, I was still carrying Hope) and onto the back row.  Why they began the evening with a trumpet solo, I cannot fathom.  But they did.   Charlie, to everyone's surprise, immediately began to mimic the sound....and was actually louder and more shrill than the trumpeter.  After being seated for all of two or three minutes, we quickly rose to our feet, scooted at maximum speed out of the balcony with horn baby in tow, and made our way back down the steps.  
'Is our family invited?'

We decided to have a seat in the floor, just outside one of the doors leading into the sanctuary.  We literally plopped right onto the floor.  All was going fairly well, too, until the homeless guy waltzed in and made a bee line straight for us.  I still couldn't understand anything he said, only something about "the children", but he seemed nice enough.  And Hopey began making giggling noises at him.  One of the church workers eventually came and offered the man a seat in the church.  And after getting him situated, the worker returned to us, bent down on the floor, and spoke to both Hope and Charlie.  The kindness in his voice caused me to well up and nearly bawl.  
'Our family is invited.'

The message centered around the shepherds who were the first to get news about the newborn King of Kings.  They were considered the lowest of the low in that time, the poorest of the poor.  My mind immediately went to the homeless man.  The shepherds were probably a lot like him.  Sleeping outside must have made them dirty.  I bet their hair was wiry and clothes tattered.  The homeless man was seated in a pew in that church just like everyone else.  He may of been seated next to someone accomplished, well educated, or wealthy.  It didn't matter.  He was listening to the message of Good News.  The BEST news.  The news that was and is for ALL people.  
'The homeless man is invited.'

The evening ended with communion.  An usher, not forgetting us, brought communion to us....in the floor.  He didn't act like it was odd that everyone else in the church was seated in either a pew or a chair.  Honestly, he didn't seem to notice.  Following communion, candles were lit and the moment we'd all come for began.  It was finally midnight; the chimes tolled twelve times.  Christmas had officially arrived.  We gathered our two special ones and took them into the sanctuary to be engulfed by the worship of the One who came to earth so OUR family could be invited....so the homeless man could be invited....so we ALL could be invited.

Hope couldn't contain her joy.  Her arms flapped wildly as a smile took over her entire face.  "This is for you,"  I whispered in her ear, having a difficult time containing my own delight, "Jesus came and did all of this for you."

Maybe you found an invitation in your mailbox this holiday season just like I did.  Or maybe you didn't.  The true invitation is an open one that doesn't come in the form of a 5 X 7 card, but instead, comes wrapped in swaddling cloths as a baby.  God came to earth to change the world; He came because of His absolute boundless love for you!  
YOU are invited!

Merry Christmas!


Friday, December 5, 2014

The Magic That Makes Christmas....Well, Christmas

We were victims of a three car bump up on the way to the Christmas Tree lighting festivities last night.  Lydia, Hope, Charlie, and I were only twelve minutes away from our destination, sitting at a stop light sharing what was left of two large orders of Chic-Fil-A waffle fries, when we felt the impact.  A car hit another car that finally hit us.  The cops came, traffic was backed up, and people were honking horns and waving fingers at us.  It wasn't pretty.  But thirty very long minutes later, we arrived on Broad Street to see the 45 foot live tree, planted back in 1960 in front of what used to be the old post office, already lit.  Standing tall and majestic.  Waiting for us.  We were twenty minutes late for the evening's festivities, but we made it.  



Noticing a very large group of people moving as one down the street, away from St. Luke's Episcopal Church, I darted off to join them, calling for Lydia to follow.  

"Where are they going?"  Lydia screeched, pushing Charlie in his stroller as I forged on ahead with Hopey.

What a crazy question.  Was it not obvious we did not have time to worry about details?  Couldn't the kid see the throng of strangers moving away from us at a fairly fast clip of speed, likely headed toward something joyful?  "I don't know where they're going,"  I pronounced, now pushing Hopey in her handicap stroller like a woman gone mad, my long black sweater flying behind me, "just hurry up and stay with me!" 

She was panting rather loudly, trying to keep up:  "Why are we running after them if we don't know where they're going?"  

"Lord, normal teenagers like to follow the crowd, right?"  For a split second I began to wonder why I was left to raise the one rebel.  "Listen, you should be thanking me for helping you burn those Chic-Fil-A waffle fries." 

"You look like Batman with a long cape,"  she snarked, trying to be funny.  It wasn't funny.  Bat woman might have been funny, but not Batman.        

How appropriate it was that we all stopped in front of what used to be my church, the former First Baptist Church building.  A quartet of men came out on the front porch to lead us in carols, and within seconds, the outdoor scene became a pseudo worship service as a mish-mashed group wondrously became one through familiar song.  "Joy To The World", "Hark The Herald Angels Sing", and "Away In A Manger" rang out through the voices of both the young and old, the rich and poor, the abled and disabled.  Then it happened.  Magic.  The Christmas magic we all anticipate each year.  The magic that makes Christmas....well, Christmas.     



The tempo slowed and voices softened from that of a roaring wind to the gentlest breeze, permeating the night air with the song of all songs.  However, what began as a delicate revering of the One for whom the song was written, crescendoed, without warning, into harmonies, growing louder and more powerful as each phrase of "Silent Night" was articulated....yes, what was initially a simple melody serenaded to the baby in a manger burst forth and erupted into the praise and celebration of Who that baby was.   Husbands, in response, reached for the hand of their wives, parents bent down and squeezed their children, and nearly everyone wiped a tear or two.   



Hope and Charlie are nine and six and still very much non-verbal.  Even though they couldn't physically sing last night, their spirits were rejoicing in song on a level beyond what my mind can imagine.  I felt it when they reached for me, hugging me and kissing me over and over again, smiles covering their faces, uninhibited love spilling out, covering me.  No words needed.  The Love of Christ.



You've experienced it too.  It's what keeps us all pressing forward even when times are so tough, we don't know where our next breath is going to come from.  It's what picks us up and dusts us off when we've been kicked down.  It's the filler for those empty spaces left by loved ones who have gone before us, the glue in families who are living far a part, a certain peace that settles in the midst of chaos, and the flicker of light shining in the face of darkness.  It's the baby in the manger, the cross on the hill, and the empty tomb.  And it sneaks up on us and finds us in the most unexpected places.  Last night, after a three car bump up, it found me in Cleveland, TN.



As you hurry and scurry about during the next days preparing for Christmas morning, my wish for you is that you find the magic that makes Christmas....well, Christmas.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Chubby fingers and teensy toes.
Angelic eyes above a turned up nose.
No words you speak....no songs you sing;
Yet perfect joy, to me, you bring.


Oceans of salt and grains of sand.
Become treasure in your little hand.

Your wonder is not lost on me;
Never-ending innocence, like the waves of the sea.
Funny faces and a playful whim;
The world to you is a jungle gym.


A mischievous grin...Seldom shedding a tear;
Each moment a play ground,
You know no fear!

You right my wrongs in so many ways;
Now Thanksgiving is a
gift that comes every day!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

HOW THE SHARK TANK SAVED MY DAUGHTER FROM FAT CAT BOYS:


Several months ago, my daughter, Lydia, had a friend over to spend the night.  Harmless, right? Well, think again.  When that girl left, I was asked the following question:

"Am I going to have to get married when I turn nineteen or twenty so some guy can support me?"

After feeling of her head to make sure she wasn't experiencing a raging fever and then dousing my own face with a handful of cold water from the tap at the kitchen sink, I quickly learned that Lydia's teenage friend is being taught that a woman's place is to find a husband....with cash-ola.  As a mother of both boys and girls, I can tell you, this revelation nearly gave me the dry heaves.  Let's be clear on the subject.  I don't want my son marrying a girl who has been out treasure hunting for a guy who'll support her, and absolutely will not stand idly by while my daughter goes out scouting for a big bank account.

After making her best attempt to drag me off of my soap box, she continued:  

"But I have Dyslexia which will make college a near impossibility, and let's face it, all I'm really good at is music." Obviously her "friend" had driven the point home to her.  And a mighty sharp point it was.

You see, being from Nashville, the term "all I'm really good at is music" is like the death knell, and although only sixteen, Lydia knows it's true.  There are more starving musicians playing in open mic bars around this city than you can shake a stick at. Literally, some folks around here have been known to pay the bar owner for a space on stage when only a handful of regulars are expected to show up. Truth was, I couldn't let my baby girl think for one more moment that she had to find some fat cat boy to take care of her.  And more important than that, it would be over my dead body that she'd still be singing "Delta Dawn, What's That Flower You've Got On" from a small stage in Leipers Fork at the age of forty two.  So, like all truly southern girls who have been raised on cornbread, pinto beans, and a healthy dose of redneck moxie, I decided to solve the problem. I gathered myself and spoke up:

"Lydia, I'm sorry, but your friend doesn't have the good sense God gave a goose.  The fact that you are so good at music means you are creative, so do you know what we're going to do? We're going to invent something totally new. And we're going to do it right now."

Fortunately for me, Chappy, my own fat cat (what can I say? I don't always lead by example), was out of town with Caleb on a college visit, so that day it was just Lydia, Hope, Charlie, and me.  She had no choice but to indulge me and my brand new dream. We sat around for hours cookin' up things we could get into when we finally thought up the Bowtie Backslider.


"Now, honey,"  I told her, "this project can be your husband.  If you'll really nurture the Bowtie Backslider, it will buy you a car, send you on trips around the world, and even give you a big old comfy house to sleep in.  And the best part is, it won't ever talk back to you, tell you 'no', or ask you to go parading around the bedroom wearing high heels and a tiny nightie."  Her face was still showing a bit of skepticism, so I was forced to pull out the big guns:  "And plus, we could try to pitch it to the Shark Tank."

With that, the girl was sold.  Praise the Lord she is such a huge fan of Mark Cuban, Mr. Wonderful, and Lori Greiner.  Thanks to them, I won't be planning a wedding anytime soon!

On July 24th we will be traveling to Greenville, North Carolina to audition for The Shark Tank with our Bowtie Backsliders, and you can bet we will use every bit of charm we can muster to lure those highfalutin TV producers in to bite on our new business venture.  Until then, we'd sure appreciate it if you'd check out our new website and help us pass the word along:
CLICK HERE TO VISIT www.bowtiebacksliders.com  

TENNESSEE AND BAMA BOWTIE BACKSLIDERS
And just one more thing for that friend of Lydia's: You've got a mind, so you don't need a man.  
Marry for love, because you want to,
Not for money, because you have to! 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Homewrecker"

I am thrilled to announce that my first novel, "Homewrecker", is available for purchase by clicking here for a physical copy:  Purchase "Homewrecker"

And here for a Kindle version:  Order via Kindle 

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

"Many have already found a place in their hearts for the southern sweethearts, Mary and Philip Montgomery, but change is coming, threatening to destroy all they hold dear.  Miss Charity, their youngest child who has Down syndrome, faces possible health issues, while their oldest, Wills, tests boundaries related to drugs, sex, and alcohol. Meanwhile, Mary's hilarious mother, who is known for being quite a busy body, doesn't disappoint as she guides the family her way, whether they like it or not.

Featuring a lovable cast of characters most everyone can relate to, "Homewrecker" will have you laughing and crying, angry and rejoicing, and willing to fight for love above all else.  This is the first book of the Loyalty Lock Series, which denotes the common denominator all successful families share....Locking Loyalty for the long haul!"

During the next month, ALL proceeds from book sales will go to benefit 15 year old Hunter Garstin, who was left paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury in December when wrestling for a local high school team. This precious family is in need of support to get Hunter all the therapy and equipment he needs to walk again.  Here is a picture of him with Hopey and Charlie:



(To all those who asked for a book back in March, you should receive your copies in the next couple of weeks.  If you don't, email me @ melaniekhollis@gmail.com) 

  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reactive Attachment Disorder (Part Two)


When crisis mode hit in our house, it looked like a nervous break down.  I've heard the term "nervous break down" my whole life:

 "After your great grandmother lost her son and husband to unexpected heart attacks, she had a nervous break down and was never the same again" 

"If you're not careful, you're gonna have a nervous break down" 

and my favorite:  "You are so wound up, if you don't calm down, you're going to cause me to have a nervous break down".  

The term was bantered around in my upbringing as often as sweet tea was served at the dinner table....and for those who are not from the south, that is a whole lot!  I often wondered what a nervous break down was.  Did my great grandmother actually mentally break and fall to the ground?  I wasn't sure, but I knew I didn't want to have one or to see one because it sounded like a horrible thing.   

Natalie had her break down in November of 2012.  I recognized it when it happened, and it scared me half to death.  It was in our great room, in front of our fireplace, and she did literally drop to the ground.  She then pounded the floor with her fists over and over and over again while screaming:  "Please, get me some help!  I need help or I'm going to kill myself!  Why won't anyone listen to me?  Can't you see I need help?"  

I knelt by my daughter's side and tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't respond.  And when I touched her, trying to pull her to me, she didn't seem to have the ability to realize I was near her, trying to help her.  Natalie's body was stiff and wouldn't be moved, and her face was red, covered in snot and tears, as she pounded the floor with her fists, screaming with an other-worldly guttural sound I had never heard before.  Lydia, my other teenage daughter, was in the room as well, and she began to scream out in a frenzy:  "Help her mom, do something....help her!"  And all I could think to ask her was: "Lydia, oh God, what do I do?"  I was in a panic too. 

I finally gathered enough composure to think of dialing an emergency number; they immediately re-routed my call to a mental hospital in town where I was asked a series of questions.  For the record, on a side note, I was unaware at the time that we had mental hospitals in the Nashville area.  It is odd to me now to consider that I had never given mental health any thought at all until that day.  During the entire phone call, which lasted for around fifteen minutes, Natalie never stopped screaming or hitting the floor. The person on the other end of the phone call seemed unfazed by it.  Lydia, by this time, had taken her two younger siblings into a bedroom and locked the door to keep them from the scene.  

"Bring her here and we'll admit her," the female who answered the call calmly instructed.  

Meanwhile, my mind raced:  "Admission.... into a mental hospital?  Do you really think that's necessary?" 

She continued:  "Bring a few changes of clothes for her to stay for several days.  She may even need to be here for a few weeks."  

"Oh, no, that won't be necessary,"  I remember telling her while my daughter was wailing in the background, "maybe a doctor can just meet with us and get this all straightened out pretty fast."  

I was such an air brain, wasn't I?  Laughably ignorant.  The red flag was waving in my face, but I still didn't want to see it.

"Mrs. Hollis, you've just given me the details of every member of your family, correct?"  the woman asked firmly.  I detected a hint of an attitude in her voice.

"Yes,"  I answered, feeling like the elementary school girl who had just been caught with gum in her mouth.  Was I in trouble with this woman, or what?

"When you mentioned your daughter Hope and her heart condition, you said she has gone through multiple surgeries, life saving surgeries, is that correct?"  

Yes, the lady on the other end of the line was becoming notably more agitated with me. And the entire time, Natalie's screams were simultaneously getting louder.  

"That's right, Hope has had three open heart surgeries and still has an aneurysm in her heart,"  I managed.

"So, you are willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to save Hope's life, but not Natalie's.  Why is that?"  she asked.

Literally, I felt my heart sink to my feet.  After hanging up the phone, I called my husband and told him where to meet me, and a few short hours later, Natalie, my daughter, was introduced to the mental health care system.  And so was I.

When we first walked up to the electric doors, I expected them to open.  We do it all the time, right?  When entering a grocery store, Walmart, or Target, the doors automatically open.  But not here.  To my left I found a call button and pushed it:

"I'm here with my daughter, Natalie.  I think you are expecting us?"  

No answer.  I heard a buzz, and the door opened.  After an hour of questions with an intake nurse, Natalie and I were taken upstairs to the youth unit where we were surrounded by teenage boys and girls.  The doors were bolted behind us when we entered.  

The teenagers looked so normal.  Oddly normal.  They acted like friends, laughing and talking to one another, which took me off guard.  I don't know what I expected....I'm sure I didn't expect for there to be so many in number, but I also didn't expect them to appear so happy and well-adjusted in a mental hospital.  "Hello?"  I thought, "you guys do know you are in a psyche ward, don't you?"  

We were welcomed by a nurse who took us into another room to ask yet one more round of questions.  At one point, I told her:  "It's crazy how happy all these kids seem around here,"  and quickly followed my remark with:  "Oh, I shouldn't have used the word 'crazy' in a mental hospital, I am so sorry for being inconsiderate.  I'm going to have to get used to not using that word so much, because I use it all the time....."  and I rambled on nervously until she finally interrupted:  "It's OK, really, it is."  To this day, I am careful about how I use that word.

After the second round of questioning, we were ushered into a private bathroom where Natalie was made to remove her clothing so cuts and abrasions could be noted in a folder.  She was told her body would be checked on a regular basis.  

"Is that really necessary?"  I asked.  "Isn't that embarrassing for these young girls?"

"She's in a hospital, and it's for her own protection,"  the nurse assured me.  

What did I know?  At that point, I felt at a loss.  Natalie was finally acting stable, and that was a good thing.  We were given a few minutes alone before I was told to leave.

I looked Natalie straight in the face, holding her shoulders tightly with my hands:  "Are you alright?" 

She is such a beautiful girl.  A turned up nose, dark brown eyes, and a soft voice have accompanied her since the first day we met.  Although she is nearly sixteen, she looks to be about twelve or thirteen, so young and innocent:  

"I hope this place will help me; I don't want to feel like this anymore, Mom." 

We cried and hugged, said our good-byes, and I was escorted out. Again, the doors were bolted behind me.  Group visitations were to be on Sunday afternoons for thirty minutes and all other visits would be on an 'as needed' basis determined by her therapists and doctors.  Can you believe that day marked the first time Natalie spent the night away from home without me?  Throughout the years she'd been asked to sleep overs, but had always refused to be away from me.  The irony of it made me sick as I drove away and left her behind.  

The following day, after calling and checking in with one of Natalie's nurses to make sure she had done well through the night, I decided to take Lydia shopping, hoping she would open up to me and be willing to discuss how she was processing what was going on with her sister.  We entered a store and were promptly greeted by a girl who used to attend school with my older son, Caleb.  We knew who she was, but she didn't know us.  

"Can I help you?"  she asked.

"We're just looking around, but thanks," I answered.  

She followed us back to the junior section, staying right on our heels:

"You both have very pretty hair.  I hate my hair."  

"No, you're hair is pretty too,"  I smiled, "I don't have curls like you and always wished I did."

"Could I pet your hair?"  she asked.  "I mean, would you mind if I touched it?"

Lydia immediately shot me a look of shock.  Her jaw nearly hit the floor.  The girl didn't notice; thankfully, her eyes were fixated on my hair.   I don't know if it was because of the bizarre time I'd had with Natalie the day before or if it was a God-thing, but I didn't even hesitate.  I answered as if her question was one I was asked every day of the week:  "Of course you can,"  I said.

So we stood there in the back corner of the store with my hair in her hands.  Lydia was a spectator, taking in the whole scene when she was suddenly pulled in:

"Can I pet your hair too?" she asked, admiring Lydia's long hair, "you both have gorgeous hair."

Lydia wasn't as poised as I was, but she murmured an: "Uhhhhm, sure, I guess."

The experience was surreal.  

A few days later, I was allowed to take Lydia with me for a therapy visit with Natalie.  I looked up at one point and caught a glance of that same girl who had petted our hair whisking by.  I later learned from Natalie the girl had attempted suicide and daily pulled out globs of her own hair, leaving piles of blond curls hidden beneath her bed.  

After a two week stay, Natalie was sent home.  The mental hospital requested she stay longer, but insurance didn't cooperate.  She was home just over twenty four hours when she melted again, hands pounding on the floor, screaming for help.  On the second visit to the mental hospital, I was left in a holding area while Natalie was taken back to be questioned alone.  The hospital wasn't as frightening to me the second time.

A man and his teenage son came in as I sat waiting for Natalie.  They sat in the holding room with me, actually right next to me, even though there were several available chairs in the room.  For the longest time I sat next to them in silence, wondering if I should say something.  What do you say in a mental hospital, right?  The man, who I assumed was the boys' father, appeared shaken.  Bent over, his elbows rested on his knees as he rocked back and forth.  His son, however, sat upright staring straight ahead.  The difference between the two was glaring.  After debating what to say, I finally broke the silence:  

"This isn't the best place to visit, is it?"  I offered a half smile.  That simple question was all the man needed.  He immediately began telling me all about his son, who he had adopted as a baby.  

"He has always been a good student and an excellent baseball player,"  he said.  "Several months ago, he was driving home....it wasn't a rainy night and he wasn't drinking or speeding, so we don't know what happened....but when we he was found, his car had hit a tree and he was unconscious.  There wasn't a scratch on him, but it turned out he had a brain injury."  At this point, the man's face was covered in tears and his hands were trembling.  His son still sat upright, rather stoic, unmoving.  He continued:  "My wife and I could never have children, so when we adopted our son, he became the center of our world,"  he patted his son's leg, "we love him so much."  For a few seconds he cried out loud, wiping the tears as fast as they fell.  The son still showed no emotion; as for me, though, I was crying right along with my new friend.  "He started having seizures and has lost his ability to learn.  School used to be so easy for him, but not anymore.  He had been offered a scholarship to play baseball, but now has lost it because he can't play anymore.  The brain injury has taken his ability to learn and to play ball away from my boy and so he wants to die.   And he's going to do it....I'm afraid he's going to kill himself."

Then, for the first time, the boy turned to me and spoke:  "I am going to kill myself.  I've got no reason to live anymore."

After those words, the father cried like I have never seen any grown man cry in my life.  His whole body shook, and the stark room was filled with the sound of heartbreak.  

Within minutes, Natalie was brought back into the room with an intake nurse and I was asked to come join them on the journey back up to the psyche floor.  On my way out, the man rose to his feet and we gave each other an awkward hug.  I whispered in his ear:  "My daughter wants to take her life too....you pray for us and we'll be praying for you."  

I still think of that teenage girl and boy often.  Their brief time in my life has had a larger impact on me than some relationships that have lasted tens of years.  They opened my eyes to the world around me in a brand new way, helping me to see humanity in the realm of mental illness.  It was no longer a foreign subject to me, but it was three very real people now....and one of those three, was my daughter.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Do You Ever Wish....?

Something profound happened in my home just a few days ago when one of our big kiddos asked me a question that began with four seemingly harmless words:

"Do you ever wish....."

The question went something like this:  

"Do you ever wish... you were like other women your age? That you could enjoy the freedom to go out and meet friends for a day of shopping or to meet them for coffee whenever you wanted to?  or to travel to other countries? or go to regular church like everyone else? or to just go to a restaurant without having to worry about Hope and Charlie having a sensory meltdown?"  

It was an honest question and a good one, so I paused to consider it. But my silence, although brief, was too much for this teenager who instantly kicked into guilt mode:  

"Mom, you know I'm not saying I would change Hope and Charlie, don't you?....I love them exactly the way they are....I was just wondering how YOU FEEL sometimes.  If you ever wish you could just be YOU instead of being Hope and Charlie's CARETAKER.  Is it OK for me to ask a question like that?  I feel bad for asking it now."

Isn't it funny how human nature forces us to tip-toe around certain subjects even in our own families?  

"No,"  I answered, "please don't feel bad about asking the question...I was just thinking about how I wanted to answer it."


Do I sometimes wish little bodies were SITTING ON my chairs instead of STANDING in them?





That those same little bodies were USING the potty instead of PLAYING in it?




That they would simply LIE DOWN in their beds instead of playing BENEATH them?



EAT from tables and not SIT ON them?




Do I sometimes wish I didn't have a child who has a SERIOUS HEART CONDITION?



And do I ever long for children who don't enjoy PAINTING THEIR BODIES in dirt, mud, or mulch on a daily basis?


Do I wonder what it would be like if a certain boy didn't enjoy HANGING from precarious places....




LEAVING a marked trail behind him wherever he goes....



And ALWAYS FINDING SOMETHING to get into?


My answer, when I found it, took not only my older child off guard, but me as well.  This, in a nutshell, is what I said:


"Before Hope and Charlie, I was a different person.  But once they came along, I believe the Lord gave my heart a complete overhaul. He changed the way I think and feel, my wants and my desires, and He even turned my dreams around.  Don't ever worry about me, because I have no desire to do anything more or different with my life, and I can honestly say I have never resented a single moment. Not ever.  And THAT is God."


I paused again to bring the conversation back around to the one who had asked the question:


"But do you know what is most amazing?"  I asked, enjoying the full attention of a wide-eyed child who is fast becoming all grown up, "I get a glimpse of Jesus every day because I get to see the truest, most perfect love played out for me as I watch YOU selflessly love your brother and sister.  And it never ceases to blow me away."

This is a few seconds of 15 year old Lydia, unknowingly caught by me on camera, displaying exactly what I'm referring to:



video

What I realized, when I took those few moments to consider the question, is that I actually believe I am one of the most fortunate people in the world.  Each day of my life is an adventure, promising to present at least a challenge or two.  I get to laugh, cry, scream, and celebrate multiple times throughout every day.  Life is never boring.  And even more remarkable than that, my love is reciprocated unconditionally and I am always needed. 

Do I ever wish?  The answer is NO!


1st Corinthians 12:  "Love is patient and kind; does not envy or boast; is not arrogant or rude; does not insist on it own way; is not irritable or resentful....Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things....Love never fails!" 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Reactive Attachment Disorder (Part One)

THIS IS MY FAMILY'S MIRACLE STORY:

Throughout my life I've encountered some hard knocks which have, in a lot of ways, left me cynical. Consequently, over the years, you might have heard me repeat the old adage:  "A leopard can't change it's spots".  Simply put, I have never bought into the idea that people change.  I now recant that statement and admit I was wrong, foolishly wrong, because I now know a leopard who DID change her spots. My teenage daughter, Natalie, is that person.  What once was a child who wanted to die, is a young woman who is eager to live. The rage has been replaced with peace, and the heartache with joy. I see the change, Praise God!  It is real.  

We adopted Natalie when she was three years old from a run-down neglectful Russian orphanage.  What we didn't know at the time was that we were bringing home a special needs child, one who had never been held or called by her name, one who had not been bathed or cared for, and one who, as a result of all of this, lacked the ability to attach.  The connection that is made inside the brains of babes when their mommas meet their needs with diaper changes, milk, and cuddles was never made with Natalie.  Instead, there is a something missing, and she has felt it every day of her life. The medical community has given the empty space a name:  Reactive Attachment Disorder.  This is our story:



"Does my child have Reactive Attachment Disorder?"  If you have ever asked the question, she probably does.  Let that sink in.  Your child likely has RAD, which means you are parenting a special needs child.  As more research is being done, conservative studies now project 30-35% of children who are adopted from other countries as well as children who have had experience being bounced around in the foster care system in our own country WILL struggle with some degree of attachment issues.  I believe, however, the number is actually much higher.  Like all other mental illnesses, the numbers gathered are based only on reported cases.  As I am finding out from the many messages I continue to receive from parents who have children showing signs of RAD, many cases are not being reported at all.     

Most parents are probably a lot like me.  They see warning signs, conduct that is not "typical", but because the behavior is sporadic instead of constant, those parents don't seek help until the behavior is close to full crisis mode.  Looking back, Natalie showed symptoms of RAD early on;  but because she came from a Russian orphanage, didn't speak our language, and had no idea how to belong to a family, my expectations of her were poles apart from the expectations I had for the children I'd birthed.  I made the decision to accept her as she came to us and to allow her to blend into our family in her own way and on her own time frame.  She was three, how hard would that be, right?  (Insert a gigantic gulp)

Bringing up Natalie, from the beginning, proved to be one of the most difficult tasks of my life.  Daily, the brand new little three year old who didn't speak my language gathered up small objects and hid them under her bed, in her closet, and in all kinds of other strange places.  At one time, our guest bathtub was filled with silverware, every baking pan I owned, Q-tips, Bandaids, and her brother's Pokemon underwear.  Uhhhm, talk about random.  Nothing was off limits.  Even when we visited the homes of friends and family members, I'd have to check her pockets to rescue little treasures she'd picked up to take home for her collection.  Ok, I told myself, I would probably hoard everything too if I'd never possessed anything in my life.  How could she understand, after all?  Well, when a child is still hoarding at the age of thirteen, developing an ingenious craft out of stealing while at the same time finding brilliant locations to horde (including cutting a hole into the seams of winter coats and hiding the goods beneath the lining of the coats), you know you've got a problem.     

Another big warning sign included mood changes.  She'd go from a happy giggling little girl at home to very sad and withdrawn when going out to a public place.  Being uneducated on RAD and mental disorders in general, I believed she simply didn't like to leave home and that she would eventually grow out of it.  I imagined her mood swings being brought on by a possible fear that we would leave home and take her to live with another family or even back to the orphanage, but it was deeper than that.  Natalie learned at a very early age that she could control her surroundings and the behavior of others through her own actions.  Her orphanage was rough.  Indescribable.  When there, my husband and I noticed whenever the workers were around, Natalie would hold her head down and stand perfectly still.  But as soon as they were out of the room, and she was safe in our care, she would morph into an animated, playful, charming little girl.  We falsely attributed it to a bizarre survival tactic, even laughed about it when we were in Russia, but it was actually so much more than that.  Natalie had learned to control her surroundings through behavior, and in doing so, thought she had learned to control her own life.  

This behavior continued into adolescence and carried into her teenage years.  As time passed, though, I no longer paid attention to it as much.  My mom would comment on how she always seemed to have a little dark cloud following her around whenever we went out, but I'd answer:  "That's just Natalie".  I remember, at one point, receiving an email from a concerned youth leader at church.  She informed me that Natalie always stood off by herself during the youth service, with her head down, weekly telling the leaders her heart felt very sad.  It was when Lydia and Caleb, her older siblings, began to report to me how Natalie had a group of adult leaders at church gathered around her week after week that I finally put two and two together.  I thought back on the many years of her showing the same behavior at the grocery store, at a social gathering, or at a restaurant....and sure enough, most times when we were out, and when she was acting all sad and blue, an adult (typically a woman) would seek her out and give her a word of encouragement or a compliment.  The little rascal was working her environment all along, even at the age of three in the orphanage.  The hole in her heart needed to be filled, and the attention of others filled that hole even if only for short spurts of time.

Two other behaviors that stick out to me as I look back are that she lied often and lacked impulse control.  Both were tied together like a redneck and his dually truck.  (If you are from the south, you totally know what I'm talking about).  For instance, when Natalie was eight years old, she developed a curiosity with my cold cream.    That's right, my beauty secret is Pond's Cold Cream, what of it?  Anyway, she would stand and watch me slathering it all over my face each night, rubbing my eyes until they looked like those of a raccoon, and then carefully wiping it clean.  She wanted to smell it, touch it, and asked me to put it on her face.  "I'll put a little bit on your face, but it might be too strong for your skin, so we'll have to be careful,"  I recall telling her one evening.  A few days later, I noticed she had very quietly disappeared, which was usually not a good sign. After searching the house in a panic, I found her in my bathroom with a towel, attempting to wipe up the white cold cream that was now coating every square inch of the carpet, the countertop, Natalie's body, and the cat.  As soon as she saw me, she pointed to the poor cat and said:  "Cassie did it and I was cleaning it up so she wouldn't get in trouble."  If this had been in the days of Facebook or Instagram, I would've posted it.  It is still a vivid picture in my mind.  And I can actually laugh about it now.

Another example was during a time when we were visiting my mom's house.  Not remembering to avoid candles at all cost when children are around,  especially Natalie, my mom had one lit in her bathroom when we arrived.  The scent of vanilla drew Natalie and her sister right to it.  And once again, after noticing they had quietly disappeared, I rushed to find them standing over the candle, sniffing in the aroma and filling their lungs with smoke (or so I feared at the time).  My mom asked Lydia to bend down and blow out the candle.  I believe she actually said it like this:  "Lydia, your mom is in a tizzy over that candle, so will you lean over and blow it out so she'll hush?"  I actually played out what was going to happen before Lydia had time to pucker her lips to blow.  Just as I was screaming "NOOOOOOO!", Natalie quickly bent her head down and blew that candle with all the air she could muster, blowing hot wax all over Lydia's face and hair.  Then, without hesitation and without a sign of guilt, she stood and said:  "Oh, I thought GiGi said for me to blow it out.  I'm sorry."  OK, Mom, do you now see why I was in such a "tizzy"?  Such is the life with RAD.

Natalie's symptom list is long, and with each one, I made an excuse:

1.  Wrestling with school work = Probably a learning delay
2.  Temper tantrum = She is high spirited, that's all
3.  Wanting her own way = The classic strong willed child
4.  Stubborn = Give her credit, the girl knows what she wants
5.  Obsessive Compulsive = She likes things orderly
6.  Lies = Lot's of kids tell lies, but they grow out of it
7.  Binging on food = Her body is growing
8.  No impulse control = She's just immature for her age
9.  Unusual speech patterns = Her first three years were spent in an orphanage where no one spoke to her, so I shouldn't expect too much.  

I am the mom of five children, and the two youngest have Down syndrome. Because their disability was diagnosed pre-birth and is something I can daily see with my eyes, I accept it and am eager to give them the help they need.  Natalie, on the other hand, didn't have a diagnosis and her appearance is that of a very healthy, typical girl.  So I denied it.  I totally missed it.  RAD stared me in the face every day, bearing nearly every symptom on the list, and I didn't recognize it.  THIS is the reason I believe it is much more prevalent than statistical data suggests.  If I didn't see RAD in my daughter, it's likely others don't see it in their families either. 

We adopted Natalie in 2001, making us one of those families who caught the awesome "save the orphan" tidal wave just as it was beginning.  Since that time, thousands of orphans have been saved and now have forever families in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Many of those children have RAD, some more pronounced than others, but all of them are in need of early intervention.  If I had caught Natalie's RAD sooner, I think we could have avoided the long term treatment center route.  And that is why it is vital to consider and identify RAD early.  Know the signs, be willing to recognize symptoms of RAD in your own child, and then implement early intervention techniques.   
............
      

Friday, May 2, 2014

Welcome Home Natalie! Rescued Twice...Loved Always!

Chappy has picked Natalie up and they are on their way home. HOME!!! HOME!!! HOME!!!

Tonight, my family will be whole and complete again. We rescued Natalie from an orphanage in Russia in 2001...today, we rescue her again from Reactive Attachment Disorder.
 

Rescued twice....but loved always! 

After 12 months of therapy at a boarding school out of state, she has proven to be an overcomer. With God, ALL things are possible. Thank you for your prayers, support, and words of encouragement. 

This is a song Lydia wrote and recorded for Natalie; we've put pictures to the music to tell her story.  We are so excited about our new beginning:

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Children Are A Reflection Of Their Parents" Is a LIE! (An update on Natalie)

Natalie has successfully completed her twelve month therapeutic program and returns home Friday.  That is a sentence I never dreamed I would write.  Me?  A mother who has a child struggling with serious emotional issues?  A child who has spent months in a therapeutic boarding school?  I would have bet the entire bank against it.  

The control freak inside of me wants you Doubting Thomas's to know that I've dotted my i's and crossed every t.  I'm so much like you.  Each morning, I wake my children with hugs, kisses, and silly songs.  I also tell them multiple times a day how much I love them, carefully making sure to list specific traits I find particularly special.  I've done it their whole lives.  When they have a problem, I tune out the rest of the world to sit and listen.  And when they take on a hobby, I whole-heartedly jump in with them.  We eat dinner around the table, we only watch family-friendly TV, and we all know Jesus.  My life has been a glowing case of text book parenting, so why do I have a child who struggles?

That's what I've been asking myself for twelve months.  I've spent hours and days wondering if I might have had a better result with Natalie if I had parented her in a different way.  My problem is probably glaring to you, but it wasn't so obvious to me until recently.  This isn't about I, I, I or me, me, me at all.  This is about Natalie.  I am responsible for being me, and she, simply, is responsible for being she.  

I became a mom in the extremely popular 'Focus on the Family' era when books like "The Strong Willed Child", "Parenting Isn't For Cowards", "Bringing Up Boys",  etc.  were akin to the Holy Bible and were touted in every Christian circle.   Thousands upon thousands of us bought into it to the tune of millions of dollars in book sales.  And in the wake of that well-intentioned rubbish training, some of us have come to realize there is no magical blueprint for success when it comes to parenting.  It scares me too death to think of the puffed up pride I would have in my children if it hadn't been for Natalie's struggles.  Geez, I might've written my own instructional book for parents (insert roll of the eyes).  The gift of humility comes crashing in on us in the most unexpected ways, doesn't it?  The truth is, the successes of our children have very little to do with us, and much more to do with "who" they are.  (Ouch!)  

When Natalie returns on Friday, I'll hopefully be a better mom.  I'll still belt out my silly songs, dole out hugs, and lord over what TV shows are appropriate for our home, but I will view my family and my own role in it in a brand new way.  The old adage, "Children are a reflection of their parents", is a lie.  Don't believe it.  Children, instead, were created to reflect the Creator's plan and purpose for their lives.  To believe anything else is pure apostasy, a rebellion of God's Word.   

I still don't know why God allowed Natalie to be dumped in a run down orphanage by a teenage mom who was also an orphan, to endure electric shocks, and to be treated more like an animal than a human for the first three years of her life.  I don't know what method He used to choose my family to be the ones to pluck her out and make her a part of our own family, and I don't guess I'll ever understand why He didn't spare her from Reactive Attachment Disorder and all the psychotic behavior that has accompanied it.  But He knows.  And He holds her future.  For me, from this point forward, that is all that matters.

To close, Natalie, if you ever stumble upon this post, I want you to be reminded again how much you are loved and valued.  Sweet girl, YOU HAVE VALUE!  Reactive Attachment Disorder and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, while they are unwanted companions, do not define who you are.  We will continue to persevere with you through whatever comes and know we will all get through this together.  We are so proud of the hard work you continually put into your treatment and look forward to everything the Lord has in store for you.  He is not capable of making mistakes; you have been perfectly created to be everything He wants you to be.  Love, Love, Love you....        

If you live in the Nashville area and have been praying for Natalie, I want to invite you to come to our church service this Sunday to celebrate her return home.  Following the service, we'll celebrate with lots of sugary treats and allow friends time to greet her, meet her, and give hugs with words of encouragement:

Where:  
The Refuge Church
2001 Campbell Station Parkway, Suite A-7
Spring Hill, TN 37174

When:  Sunday, the 4th of May

Time:  5:10pm

         

Monday, April 21, 2014

Raising Special Needs Children ; Finding Hope In The Sorrow



I'm running from the darkness.  Out of breath.  Frantically looking for an escape.  But the darkness continues to pursue me.  Fast becoming haggard from the chase,  there are times when I want to sit down, out in the open, with my arms raised up to the sky, allowing my enemy to capture me.  I imagine myself screaming:  "Go ahead, throw me into your foul pit, slam the door, and swallow the key.  I don't care anymore!"  Wouldn't I then be free in a curious sort of way?  

But I don't do it.  Though tempted and exhausted, I carry on the race because I believe there is a God.  I question His ways at every turn only to find my faith is as tangible as my legs. Though my head tries to deceive me, my legs keep on moving toward the shadow of the Almighty, where beneath His pinions I will find refuge and strength.  

The enemy's name?  Sorrow.

I've been fighting the good fight for more years than I'd like to admit.  Being a mom to three special needs children is, to be quite honest, much tougher than I'd ever imagined.  It is so much more than a full time job that yields no pay.  It is being on your toes, fully in, at all times, while simultaneously juggling the unyielding scrutiny of others.        

Last night, I found myself sitting all alone on the bed with a very giggly girl.  She turns nine in September, but is the size of a six or seven year old.   And she still can't speak.  After a few minutes of wrestling with "The Tickle Monster", she gently rubbed my hair with her little fingers, gave me a big hug, and finally cuddled up to settle in my lap.  Looking down, I noticed a small bruise on the top center of her forehead and kissed it.  

"Why do you bang your head when you get frustrated?" I asked.

She pursed her lips, and for the one billionth time, melted my heart with those gigantic puppy dog eyes.  

"I want you to talk," I continued, "so I can know all the thoughts in that cute little head....then you won't be frustrated anymore."  I again placed a peck on top of her head.

The one way discussion was going well, or so I thought.  Like a light switching on in the darkness, Hope rose from my lap and shot straight up.  At once she went from a snuggly momma's girl to wide-eyed wild child.  Her eyes darted about the room as she gave out full bursts of belly laughs. 


"Your angels?"  I questioned, allowing my own eyes to follow in the direction of hers.  "Hello angels. Thanks for interrupting,"  My words flat, bearing more than a hint of mockery.  "Why don't you tell your Commander I'd rather He send Hope a few words instead of play mates."

Hope ignored me completely.  The angels probably did too, for all I know, because she continued to laugh out loud and flap her arms all around. 

I felt aggravated.  I felt sorrowful.  I felt like a momma who desperately wants to communicate with her child.

Hope flipped up to her feet, and totally uninhibited, began jumping up and down with abandon.  Giggling and bouncing.  Giggling and bouncing.  Playing with her angels....and no longer playing with me.  Feeling that familiar tinge of jealousy, I decided to enter her world.

Standing up on the King sized bed that had been made with care earlier in the day, I jumped with her, holding her hands.  She forgot the angels and totally engaged with me.  Her eyes on my eyes.  Her laughter directed at me.  And I, too, forgot everything else in life except for her.  

I found Hope in the sorrow.  

In that moment, I'd like to think God saw the two of us as His little girls communicating with the same heart of "JOY", drowning out the sorrow as children often do, with play.  Perhaps He even sent His angels to goad me toward it.  

Hope and I ended our day the way we have many times before, learning the same lesson we've both been taught over and over and over again:  words are not needed when you have an abundance of love.  

Our race is not going to be an easy one.  We will continue to be met with challenges along the course that has been laid out for us.  However, if we'll remember to "come to Him as little children"....to laugh...to faith....and to love....we'll make it.  In fact, I believe we'll MORE than make it!


"I have fought the good fight, I have stayed on course and have finished the race.  And through it all, I have kept believing."
(1 Timothy 4:7)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Heart Of Worship...Jubilee

"Worship" triggers many responses:


RaIsEd HaNdS... Dancing...   singing...
    TEARs...    Shouts of Joy...  Corporate Prayer...   {PEACE}...


But for Jubilee, a teenage girl with Multiple Sclerosis who attends our special needs church service each week, it means all these things and much more.

Tugging on my arm:  "Ma'am, Ma'am,"  Jubilee always calls me Ma'am, even though I've told her my name dozens of times, "God gave me a new song and I want to sing it for you."

Lydia and I were in the church sanctuary waiting on everyone else to arrive.  The blind teenager who depends upon a walker was already sitting down on the front row.  "Sure, we'd love to hear it,"  I said, just as she began to sing:

"Angels watching over me...."

I couldn't understand all of the words, but I did catch those.  She began softly, but as the song progressed, her intensity grew and grew until she finally grabbed onto her walker, held it tight, and pushed it forward allowing herself to drop to her knees with a loud thump.  Instinctively, Lydia and I leaned forward to steady her, but she had everything under control.  

With Jubilee's head now bowed, and arms raised high, the song continued:  "His angels watch over me....His angels watch over you."  Lydia and I continued to look down upon the girl now kneeling on the floor, completely silent, careful not to do anything to disturb her.  The song became soft again until she, too, fell still and quiet.  She then pushed herself up, holding onto her walker, and said aloud:  "Thank you, Jesus, for giving me that song; it sure is a good song."  

After helping guide her back into her seat, we told her how much we enjoyed her singing.  She grabbed my arm once again and whispered:  "Ma'am, angels watch over Hope.  I'm praying God will help her talk."  (notice, she can remember Hope's name, but not mine.  hahaha!)

I lost my breath.  If the Lord is going to answer anyone's prayers, I thought, surely it is the prayers of Jubilee.  Then I hugged her.  Tight.  

"That really hurt my knees when I went down to sing,"  she said rubbing her knees with a giggle.

Lydia and I cracked up.  In response, Jubilee leaned back in the chair, slapped her leg and laughed out loud with us. 

Pretty soon the rest of our group lingered in, ready for worship to begin.  But I couldn't stop thinking about that brief time with a young girl most of the world looks over without notice each day....how she had a song to sing and sang it.  She didn't wait for the crowd to hear it.  She didn't have a four piece band backing her up.  Most of her words couldn't be understood, she didn't sing in key, and there was no rhythm to her simple song.  But it ranked up as high as all of the most beautiful melodies Lydia and I have ever heard.

Yesterday, Jubilee arrived at our church service extra early again.  This time, she asked if she could babysit Hope for me while we waited for everyone else to get there.  She and I, together, pushed Hope around and around and around the little church.    

"I'm a good babysitter,"  she said, out of breath from all the pushing and walking.

"You're the best,"  I replied, marveling at this girl so eager to serve others.

"I'm still praying that Hope will talk."

After wiping a tear and gathering my composure, I answered:  "And I think He's gonna answer that prayer."

"Me too." 

Oh, Father, give me Jubilee's heart of worship


Monday, March 31, 2014

Meet The "REAL" Jesus In The Special Needs Church


Most ministries begin with a goal; ours began with a purpose.  Unable to find a church home where Hope and Charlie could fit in, our family decided if we were to fellowship with other believers on Sundays, we'd have to step out and begin our own service.  So several months ago, in cooperation with a local church (The Refuge Church), we began a service specifically geared to meet the needs of the special needs community.  I'll be the first to unapologetically admit that we've smacked inclusion in the face, but it works.  

Our mission is simple as we set out to deliberately extend the love of Jesus to all people, regardless of ability or disability, by simply offering an opportunity for whole families to celebrate Him freely, without hindrance.  And the keyword here is "freely".  Can't sit still for 45 minutes?  Need to move around?  No problem.  Is your child non-verbal?  Does he/she make loud noises?  You'll fit right in.  Medically fragile?  Physically handicapped?  Bring it on.  This place is intentional.  No one is going to stare or judge.  Those who show up at this service, with the exception of the few who regularly come to support what we're doing, are walking the same walk.  Each time we meet, I welcome the experience as an escape from real life.

Each service begins with upbeat easy-to-sing-along-with music and closes with a prayer tunnel.  We started utilizing puppets several weeks ago, and were pleasantly surprised with the response.  Last week, a family brought several puppets to share with the group.  One of their sons, who has Autism, socked a dog puppet on his hand and stood up front next to me and my puppet, Rosey, before the service began.  For the sake of privacy, I'll call this little boy 'Smiley'.  'Smiley' has dark wavy hair, chocolate brown eyes, and sweeping eyelashes.  He is a gorgeous boy and is so smart, but he struggles with communication and some behavior issues.   With the puppet on his hand, he walked right over to me to show it off:

"Hey Rosey!"  (It never ceases to amaze me how the kids sometimes forget my name, but they never forget Rosey's) 

My puppet replied:  "Well hello there, what's your name little dog?"  

He quickly answered:  "I'm Ralph!"  (which was such a genius response for a whole other reason)

Rosey told him how happy she was to meet him and how she hoped he'd sing along with her when the music began.  The entire time Rosey spoke, his sweet face lit up like the sunshine.  When Rosey finally took a breath (she is sometimes way too talkative), he pointed above the stage with his free hand while still working the dog puppet with his other hand.  Creating a voice for Ralph, which was very unlike his own voice, he asked me about a sign hanging on the wall behind the stage:  

"What's that?"

The Refuge Church had added a large glowing detour sign to go along with their brand new quarterly sermon series.  I hadn't really paid that much attention to it, but this little guy had not only seen it, but was disturbed by it.  His dad had told me a few minutes earlier Smiley almost didn't walk into the sanctuary because of it...so I was prepared:

"I don't know, looks like a sign to me....a big orange glowing sign....what do you think about it?"  Rosey asked him in her high pitched voice, adding lots of her typical drama.

"It's a sign."  he replied, still working his puppet.

I continued through Rosey:  "It doesn't bother me.  I think that sign is just going to hang out up there on the wall and not bother us at all while we sing.  By the way, will you sing with me today Ralph?"  

"YEH!!"  Smiley replied, shaking the puppets head up and down.  

And he did.  When the music began, Smiley and his puppet remained up front, helping Rosey, me, and the others lead worship with songs.  

At one point, I used my puppet to bend down in front of Hope and Charlie to sing....Rosey kissed their cheeks....Hopey even reached out and hugged Rosey's furry body.  I didn't know "Smiley" was paying such close attention, but he was.  Next thing you know, he took his puppet and bent down to allow it to sing for Hope and Charlie, he then went over to an older gentleman sitting nearby and allowed his puppet to give the gentleman a kiss on his cheek.  The joy never left Smiley's face.  He led worship, openly sharing the love of Jesus.  He was comfortable... endearing...  charismatic... and perfect.

Later in the service, a new visitor raised her hand during prayer requests and asked if she could say something.  I'll call her Jubilee.  This young woman has Multiple Sclerosis, is legally blind and dependent upon a walker.  Though her words and thoughts form easily, delivery is difficult.  I had already watched her letting go of her walker to raise her hands during praise and worship, singing out with her whole heart, so I was anxious to hear what she had to say (this is me trying to remember it all):

"I had MS since I was four.  I went to the doctor because I was in so much pain.  I asked God to take my pain away because it was so bad.  My parents put me in a mental facility and I was there for a lot of years until my aunt and my grandmother got me out.  My time there was very bad.  When I got out I was baptized in February.  He saved me.  I'm still in a lot of pain but I trust Him and I want to tell everybody that Jesus loves me and He loves you too."

A few other people shared and then Jubilee's hand shot up once again.  She had something else to say:

"Can I sing a song for everybody that I wrote?" she asked. 

Well of course we all wanted to hear it.  She made her way up to the front, sat on the edge of the stage and sang a song written from her heart called: "Don't Give Up".  I imagine it had been her battle cry for those years she was shuffled from one treatment center to another.   She sang it again for us during last night's service.  Blind, body wrecked with pain, Jubilee became a minister, leading worship as she openly shared the love of Jesus.  She was comfortable... endearing... charismatic... perfect. 

There's another woman.  She's in her thirties and her disability has never been diagnosed.  I'm going to call her "Ruby" because to me, she has become a treasure.  "Ruby" loves my Charlie.  I mean, she LOVES Charlie.  She can't say his name, so she calls him "C" along with giving the sign for "C".   Each week, when Ruby walks in, she immediately begins to bellow:  "C"...."C"...."C" .   Charlie, sitting in his stroller, is then pushed away from me to go along and sit with Ruby and her momma.  Charlie, at age 5, has a mix of Down syndrome and Autism.  If left to his own devices, he'd be happy to stay in what we call "Charlie's World" most of the time, not interacting with anyone.  

Well, for two hours each Sunday evening, Charlie can count on being yanked out of "Charlie's World" by Ruby.  She dotes on him, pets him, picks at him, gets down in his face and says:  "C"...."C"...."C"  over and over and over again.  She kisses him, hugs him, and pushes him in that stroller through the building.  Ruby absolutely showers the love of Jesus upon my little Charlie every week, and in the process, she ministers to me.  Ruby is comfortable... endearing... charismatic... perfect.

I could tell you more stories..... about a mother who's teenage son was kicked out of school by people who couldn't understand his disability....about how she is teaching him to continue to stand with a heart of forgiveness in the face of adversity and to be strong in the Lord..... 

I could go on for days about the father who patiently dances with his daughter each week because he can't resist how she comes to life with the most infectious laughter you've ever heard when the music begins... I could tell you about how this little girl has impacted my own daughter's life....about how Lydia can't wait to see her each week.

I could share with you about a single mom who has adopted two beautiful girls....about how she sacrifices so they can have all they need...

and I could also tell you about two parents who spend hours teaching their young son to recite scripture so he'll be ready for a world that won't always accept him... and about how they're teaching their daughter to come alongside him as an encourager and helper. 

For me, this is church!  This, I believe, is a place where Jesus might choose to come and worship if He were still physically living among us today.  In my mind's eye, I can see the Savior hoping Smiley would use his dog puppet to give Him a kiss on the cheek.  He'd probably raise His hands and sing along to Jubilee's song:  "Don't Give Up!"  And who knows?  Ruby might nickname him "J".

At one time I wondered if Jesus were to show up, would He put on a big healing service and heal them all?  Would He give Hopey words to speak?  And heal her heart defect?  Would He bring Charlie out of "Charlie's World" for good.... and would He give sight to Jubilee?  A "normal" life to Ruby?  With one big swoop of His outstretched arms, would He bring complete healing to them all?  

I don't believe He would.  That thought doesn't even cross my mind anymore.

Worshipping with these precious ones who have been perfectly and purposely created has taught me they are the true ministers of the gospel.  Through the veil of something society has deemed to be a disability, the Father has imbued these special soldiers with the supernatural gift of being real.  Like Him.  And the truth is, they can be nothing less.  No masks.  No hidden agenda.  No false pretenses.  Uninhibited, they are child-like, free, and present.  

And that's who I want to be.  

If something frightens me or makes me uncomfortable, I want to muster the strength and honesty of Smiley....to find a way to verbalize my fears and insecurities instead of hiding them.  

When God places a song in my heart, I want to have the courage of Jubilee to get up in front of a crowd and sing it with abandon.  And when my heart is overflowing with love for Jesus, I want to have Jubilee's unwavering excitement to raise my hand and share my story. 

And finally, when someone around me is in need, I want to have Ruby's keen perception.  Oh, to have her unwavering compassion, willing to pour myself out for others with nothing to gain from it. 

This is our ministry.  This is our Jesus.  This is our life.  If you are ever in the Nashville area on a Sunday evening, please come meet Smiley, Jubilee, and Ruby for yourself.  Consider this an open invitation to come see Jesus in a brand new way!