Servant Lessons

(This is what I wrote for Laity Sunday at my church. It is the message I brought – things God taught me while caring for Amber. I thought I’d share it.)

Good morning. I’ve been thinking about what to say today for quite some time. It has been about a year since I was asked to speak. I’m not sure why, but, from the moment I said yes, I have felt a real peace about doing it, and usually, I am a person who struggles with fear. But, for some reason I knew that God would be with me, and that sharing with all of you, my church family, would not be something to be afraid of. I think it is important for us to share with each other about who we really are. That can only bring us closer to one another and strengthen our bonds.

I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from one of the greatest earthly teachers I have known, my daughter Amber. For those of you who don’t know, my girl Amber was born early and suffered brain bleeding at birth. This gave her cerebral palsy, making her physical body fairly helpless. She needed care for all of her daily needs and most of that care came from me. But, she was not a burden at all.
Many times people would express how sorry they felt for me to be bearing the burden of an unhealthy child, as they’d see Amber beside me in her wheelchair. They were unaware that she was able to hear and understand perfectly what they were saying. I admit to feeling anger rise when people suggested to me that she was a burden. I never wanted her to feel that way. I would remain calm and tell them that she was a blessing. And, she really was. My blessing changed on March 28, of 2011, when Amber passed away at age 23. It changed, but it did not go away. I will always be blessed at having Amber for a daughter.

But, because of the challenges of her disabilities, there were many lessons I had to learn and they were difficult. The most important one was how to lean on God. I know that sounds simple, but it wasn’t for me. I suspect this is true for many, actually. You see, when Amber was 3, my marriage fell apart, and for eight years, I raised her as a single mom. Lots of life trauma came our way at once, conspiring to overwhelm us, and our marriage was a casualty. It was like a bomb went off in my life and it felt like everything was being blown away. My life was a burned-out building, teetering. People told me to leave South Carolina and go back to Indiana, where family lived, so I’d have their support. That was tempting. I was so scared.

But, God had other plans. I felt him urge me to stay and learn to trust him first, before I leaned on other people. I decided to obey that prompting and from that moment on, it was like I had entered God’s schoolhouse.

One important lesson that I learned during this time, was just what faith is. I was raised in church, but the lessons I learned in Sunday School did not become real until I was really tested.

Raising Amber by myself had moments of downright desperation. I had a full-time job, and Amber had a lot of needs. She had therapy every week. She had doctor’s appointments, surgeries, there were five hip surgeries in her life – complete with body casts and braces. And, she got sick a lot. When she was sick, I couldn’t leave her alone for any length of time, especially when she was little. I had to hold her almost constantly because if she threw up, she could choke. There were times when I went without sleep for what seemed like an eternity, and barely ate either. Amber would scream and wail during these times too, the sound was quite stressful and heartbreaking. Sometimes, it felt like God had forgotten all about me.

I remember one night, sitting with Amber, completely exhausted. I felt like I was in the deepest, darkest pit in the world, with no light at all. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There wasn’t even a tunnel – just a pit. And, I reached a point where I’d had enough. I picked up a toy from the floor and threw it at the ceiling as if to throw it at God and I screamed, “Why don’t you help me?” He felt so far away.

But he answered me. He told me, “faith is for the hard times. If you only have faith when things go your way, it isn’t faith at all.” He suggested that as an act of faith, I sing praise songs, even when I felt like there was nothing to praise God for. I did just that small thing and God honored it. Not everything magically changed for the better because of it. But, God was gently transforming me and giving me a foundation of faith that would help keep me from being blown away by the storms of life. Eventually, the transformation and God’s grace healed my marriage and I can’t tell you what a miracle it felt like when my husband and I were re-married, with Amber there this time. She beamed with joy at the wonderful day.
But, before that time, I had another lesson to learn about servanthood. Once the foundation of Faith was formed under me, I had to learn how to be humble enough to accept help from other people. It’s so much easier to give help than to receive it. It feels good to give, and not so good for someone with pride like mine, to be in need.

I was working full time, and as I said, Amber had a lot of needs. I was often quite exhausted and didn’t have much time. I was also involved in church, and was in the choir. One thing that suffered because of the busyness in my life was the cleanliness of my apartment. Things got out of hand when Amber was sick, and then it was hard to catch up again.

One evening, my friend came over and I was so ashamed for her to see my place. After she left, I fell to my knees, begging God to help me keep my apartment clean. Almost as soon as I got up, the phone rang and it was my friend. She asked if I needed help cleaning. I was taken aback and my pride had me saying, “um, no. I can handle it.”

As soon as I hung up, it felt like God was slapping me on the head like in those V-8 commercials, saying, “hello! I just answered your prayer! What are you doing?”

I had to call my friend back and accept her kind offer. She laughed at my pride, and then told me that if I would have said no, I would have deprived her of the blessing of serving God by helping me. That made me think. When we try to do everything ourselves, whose blessing are we taking away? There may be someone who needs to serve God by helping us, but our pride won’t let us give them a chance. We have to be humble enough to accept help. Even Jesus needed help. So, let’s not keep others from being blessed by refusing to let them see our needs.

Another lesson from this incident was that God doesn’t always answer our prayers like we think he will, or like we want him to. I wanted God to make me super woman, able to do everything myself. But, God had other plans, and his ways were better than mine. How might God be wanting to answer your prayers? Are you open to his answers if they don’t match up with our own vision? It’s something to think about.

One final lesson that I want to share is something I think about so often. You see, Amber was helpless by the world’s standards. She often felt as if she could do nothing to serve God with her limitations. What could a disabled girl do to be used by God anyway?

Let me tell you, I have never met a person with a more powerful, pure love than Amber. She didn’t just love people, she ADORED them! When she looked at you, she made you feel like a celebrity in her presence.
I remember there was a young boy at our church in South Carolina who had ADHD. He was always getting into trouble and I remember hearing his name constantly, “Tim stop. Tim, don’t do that.” But, with Amber, it was different. He loved being with her. One day, during a kids’ activity, he came up to her, put her arm around her chair and said, “Amber’s my best friend.” God used her to touch his heart in a way few others could.

And, there was nobody who listened like Amber did. She wouldn’t miss a thing when you were talking with her. She never zoned out like so many of us do when people talk to us. We used to tease her about eavesdropping on peoples’ conversations at restaurants. It was funny to see her craning her neck to hear and then see her face turn red when we caught her.

She was a unique person and God was not limited by her limitations.

We all feel inadequate to serve at one time or another. Our life verse became this, because of our own feelings of powerlessness and I hope you can remember it whenever you feel that you don’t have what it takes to serve God.

It’s 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10 CEB
He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.

So many times I have felt like I didn’t have what it takes to serve God in a way he was calling me to serve. I’m sure you’ve been there too. But, serving isn’t about us. God has no limitations and he is the one who empowers us. So many times people have told me that I’m the strongest person they know. It always baffles me because inside, I feel so weak and shaky. But, it’s not me who is strong, it’s God.

Sometimes, all you have to do to serve is show up. If God is with you, he can do such powerful things with you if you let him. Never in a million years did I think I’d bring a message in front of a church, but God knew. And God is here. He is here with me speaking, with all who are serving today, and with all who are listening. All we have to do is be here with each other and let God’s Spirit shine through us. If we do that, there isn’t a power on Earth that can stop us.

I want to thank you for the blessing of allowing me to serve you by bringing this message and sharing with you the things God taught me about serving by using my own special child. Thanks and God bless you.

Hometown Hero?

IMG_0566I was reading in Luke this morning, trying to get inspired for my Saturday alone, with hubby away. I read the passage in Luke 4, just after Jesus had returned from the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. He came away from this encounter filled with the Holy Spirit and with power, and he was preaching in synagogues all over. When he came to his hometown in Nazareth, and spoke in that synagogue things went well at first. He quoted Isaiah, a beautiful passage —
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[e]

He told them that the scripture they’d heard him recite was coming true in front of them. And, the people seemed to eat it up. It says the people were impressed by him and talking amongst themselves about how Jesus was Joseph’s son, a neighborhood kid. When Jesus then recounted to them stories from scripture to prove that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown, stories that challenged their smugness, about how Elijah had gone to help a widow from far away Zarephath instead of any widow in Israel, and how Elisha had healed a Syrian leper, Naaman, instead of a Jewish leper, they suddenly turned on him and wanted to kill him.
That passage always impacts me, the way the crowd so quickly turned on him for simply bringing up passages from their own scriptures to refute their smug ideas about themselves. It doesn’t matter where criticism comes from, nobody likes to be challenged. I see it today too. I’ve had a friend turn on me on a dime, calling me Satanic — angry that I quoted Jesus’ story about helping the least of these – how that is a litmus test for who is truly serving him. The story pricked at him and he didn’t like it. It challenged his smug political ideas about what a Christian nation should look like. For him, a Christian nation – the one he boasts about – should have authority to limit what people do in their bedrooms, who they marry, what happens to an unborn child – but that authority should not extend to his own wallet. To him, taxes that help the poor are somehow wrong. And, I was trying to point out the double standard, and challenging the notion that a Christian nation would focus on social issues that Jesus rarely, if ever, talked about, but ignores helping the poor – something Jesus talks quite a bit about.
I saw the same thing happen when Pope Francis visited the U.S. Certain Christian groups have labeled this pope dangerous, communist, etc., for daring to quote Jesus and challenging their ideas about how a godly government should behave.
Mankind’s nature has not changed since Jesus spoke that day in the synagogue and challenged the neighbors in his hometown. They were fine with Jesus claiming to fulfill scripture about God freeing slaves and healing. They were his biggest fans then. But, when he changed the subject and showed how God also loves outsiders – their love turned to hate in an instant.
It still happens today. We still have Christians who, in one moment, praise Jesus and love him, and in the next become angry, labeling and judging and hating anyone who comes to them with a message that flies in the face of what they’ve been taught for generations. But, I think what Jesus was doing in the synagogue, and what many prophetic Christians are doing today, is challenging believers to open their hearts and minds – to not be afraid of thinking outside of the box. God is too big for the box we try to put him inside. I’ve been told that certain Christian authors are dangerous for me to read and I should be careful when reading them. Well, my God is big enough to handle ideas that don’t fit into anyone’s dogma. I know people will dismiss what I’m saying, in anger, in judgement that I am just some idealist, some soft, liberal wishful thinker who doesn’t know much about the real world. There are some who won’t bother to read what I’ve got to say. But, I’m simply sharing what struck me about a passage of Scripture I read today in my quiet time.
I think when God stirs something inside of me enough to write about it, that maybe it’s something someone else needs to read and think about. I certainly do not claim to know all answers. But, God does. I feel God stirring in me passion to see the church humble itself and open up its heart to the possibilities that God isn’t someone you can fit into a bullet list of talking points, or someone any of us can fully define. Be open to the possibility that you don’t know it all either. Stop claiming to know everything there is to know about God and how to interpret his word without error. There are other people, just as learned as you, who have also studied and interpreted things in a different way. Just because they disagree doesn’t mean their ideas should be quickly dismissed. Ideas are not threats. God transforms us by the renewing of our minds. Scripture says so. And, I’m thankful that my mind is being renewed day by day. It’s exciting to learn more about him every day. Open up and see if the hometown hero, Jesus, might have something new to say to you today. Please don’t turn into an angry mob, plugging your ears to his pleading. Why not take some time to let him stir your heart and mind today?