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 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 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!