Monday, February 24, 2014

The Big Red Marshmallow

“Hey!  How are you?”
“Great!  How are you?”

This exchange is repeated millions upon millions of times through the years by all of us as we casually pass others in church halls, throughout office spaces, at little league games, around our neighborhoods, and in grocery stores.  We give a smile and a wave, silently covering up the truth behind the original question – How are you?  

I’m not sure where we learned this polite reply that we give just to let the poor soul who asked the question off the hook from having to know the more accurate answer.  I’ve always been a huge fan of this exchange--smile on face, twinkle in the eye, tilt of the head, and PRESTO!  I fooled them again!  This is not to say that there aren’t times that this response is the truth for the moment.  Lots of my time is spent in a state of “good”.  As a matter of fact, I would dare to say that most of my life can be filed under “great”.  But, with a filing cabinet capable of holding folders from A-Z, there have to be real and true times of “not so good”.  

We’ve made it a kind of business to hide our times of weakness from others, when we should do just the opposite.  When we keep our problems, obstacles, or vulnerabilities to ourselves, too proud to admit them to the people around us who think we have it all together, what does that say for our trust in our fellow man?  

Each of us has something that is “not so good” going on at some point in our lives. This applies also to the times we are merely tired in our life and worn out by our circumstance and responsibilities.  Why should our husbands, wives, and families be the only ones to bear these times with us?  The Bible tells us to bring our troubles to the cross.  But who says we have to bring them alone?
I finally decided not to bare one of my larger burdens alone at the end of last summer.  Gathered in the living room of a friend from church, a group of ladies and I spent the evening in a Bible study.  I’ve been attending these types of studies for many years, each time mixing the familiar faces with the new.  At the end of our discussion on whatever topic we may be on at the moment, there is time left for prayer requests.  I don’t raise my hand often, but on this particular night, something grabbed me by the throat and choked a true confession out of me.  

“I’m overwhelmed.  There’s all sorts of stuff going on with Elise lately, and I am heavy with concern, anxiety, and fear.  I am tired.  She’s getting bigger and harder to handle, and my health is suffering.  We need a wheelchair accessible van, and I can’t see how it will ever happen.”

Or, as I saw myself saying that night, "BLAAAH"!

There it was, out in the open.  I didn’t have it all together.  I didn’t float around on a cloud of happiness all of the time, dealing with life’s challenges with a grin and a skip in my step.  I was broken and needed help.  

Talk about feeling awkward!  In the words of my 5-year-old son, “That’s embarrassing!”  What I have come to find out over the years, though, is that overcoming a little uneasiness to reach out is necessary.

From that seed I planted in my group of ladies at our Bible study, a shoot began to grow and roots took hold—a stem, and then leaves appeared.  My friend, Aubrey Knuckles, heard my cry and decided to answer it.  She and her husband worked with a local non-profit, Helping Hope Inc., to get started  making a wheelchair accessible van a reality.  My original seed was becoming a beautiful, thriving plant!

** Fast forward about 5 months, during which we raised an unbelievable $27,000 during a one-day fundraiser called National Giving Day, and other donations came in from friends, family, and even strangers. **

In the 10 years we have been at Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church, we have sat in the back of the sanctuary in the handicap seats.  We like to joke that they are the best seats in the house, especially for a family like mine.  Our position provides us a quick getaway, should Elise start crying, laughing, or humming over the preacher’s sermon.  Leaving for a bathroom break doesn’t interrupt those around us, and we definitely have more than enough leg room.  Another plus to sitting in the back, is that we are able to observe those in front of us who fill the sanctuary to praise the Lord and learn about Him.  I see people with their families, holding hands while they sing, whispering to their children to sit still, and leafing through their Bibles to look up passages.  Our seats may be far from the pulpit, but the message comes through loud and clear each week.  

Last Sunday, our little private oasis was abruptly disturbed when our names were heard over the microphone, being called down to the front.  It would take a whole other blog post to describe our feelings at that moment, but shock was at the top of the list.  Being kept in the dark, we thought we were going to have a meeting with our non-profit, Helping Hope, Inc., after church that day to discuss how we were going to raise the $10,000 that we were lacking toward buying our wheelchair accessible van.  I had no idea, however, that a charity, Therapy 2000, had picked up that large chunk of change many weeks before.  The van had been purchased, and was sitting behind a curtain on the stage of my church.  This information was all unknown to me, so when I began my walk to the stage, thoughts flooded my head with what could possibly be happening.

It is a long trek from the handicapped row in the back of the church all the way up to the front of the sanctuary.  That walk will stick in my head for the rest of my life.  It is then that I was able to look around that huge room into the sea of faces of people I know, people I laugh with, as well as people I have never met before.  In those faces, I saw compassion, excitement, and love. We may covet our sweet spot in the back, observing the whole of our church from afar, but the perspective that a view from the front gave us is worth more than the van itself.  

It’s an odd feeling to know everyone is looking at you, especially when one moment you were one of a very large group, and now you are just one.  After some talking, (and teasing), the van was revealed, much to the astonishment of my entire family.  

Who knew that all of these people cared enough to orchestrate such a surprise? 

What a humbling experience this was!  I have heard it said that humility is the realization that every good thing in my life is the result of either what God or other people have done for me.  Amen! 

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you."  
(1 Peter 5:6-7)

** I later learned that everyone involved in the keeping of the van secret at our church called it the “Marshmallow”, making sure the surprise wasn’t accidentally leaked in conversation.  We have since appropriately named the van “Big Red Marshmallow”.  **

This van represents the care and resourcefulness of organizations like our non-profit and other charities.  It exemplifies the love of strangers, the compassion of our friends, and power which God holds to bring people together amidst a situation that, from the outside, would be considered a tragedy. 

This is the dichotomy of Elise’s life.   It has been heartbreaking and heartwarming...confusing and draining and life giving.  It definitely is tragic that Elise has a brain injury.  It’s devastating that she will not grow up to live a full, long life with a family of her own.  But, she isn’t lacking in friends and supporters from all over the world, and a community that smothers her with love.  

Although each of my friends shouldered my hurt that night at Bible study just months before, and committed to pray over me, it only took one person to walk out of that house and take action.  Her trust in the Lord, and His power to work through many, turned my simple prayer request into a wheelchair accessible van!  THAT is God in action.  

There may be some of you out there who will read this story, and think, “It just looks like a lot of caring and giving people got together and supported a fellow human being.”  

You can think that, but you will be dead wrong.  There are tons of well-meaning people who do great things on this earth, but this was done by many WITH the help of the Lord.  

This isn’t something to be proved by me, and it doesn’t have to be.  I know how this worked, and so do most who were involved.  I also know that there are most likely people who donated to this van, or were involved in its purchase and delivery in some way, that do not know Jesus Christ.  I consider this a bonus!  What a wonderful opportunity for them to see Him at work in a big way!  I will continue to pray for all involved, believer or not, because without each of you, I would still be lifting Elise into her inept car seat, as well as her wheelchair in and out of our broken down van.  Elise and I don’t have to do that for even one more day…. Hallelujah!!!

We all know that God wants us to call on Him in our time of need, but we often forget that he also wants us to call on other believers that He has set in our path, ready to lend their hand.  I get it.  It can seem daunting to see and help others’ struggles when you are in the midst your own.  That’s like trying to put out your neighbor’s house fire, while your own home is engulfed in flames.  It can be done, though.  Last week was an example of that for our family.  My friend, who started this whole process for us after that revealing Bible study prayer time, has a large family of her own, and personal, daily experience with a child with special needs.  When I look at her, I wonder how she does it all.  When she looks at me, she wonders the same thing!  

Oftentimes, people will start to tell me about something tough that they are going through, prefaced with, “It’s nothing compared to what y’all are dealing with.”  This simply isn’t true.  My problems are no bigger than yours. Our non-profit charged ahead for us in the same way that they do for the needy families in our area without enough clothing, coats, food, or jobs. Our church family rallied around us just as they do around a country full of people with no food or clean water.   No one person’s need is any greater than the person beside them in the eyes of the Lord.

What I am most guilty of, though, is sitting back in my comfortable place of merely having really good thoughts.  

I sure wish the family mentioned in class today didn’t have to go through such financial stress.”  

I feel horrible for the friend at Bible study who has breast cancer.”

But, is that enough?  Well, I pray for them each day.  Is that enough?  

Good thoughts = More good thoughts
Taking action = Results on those good thoughts

The Bible tells us:

"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."  (1 John 3:16-18)

Each person involved in the purchase of our van was called to action.  Jesus, himself, didn’t just preach.  He healed the sick, raised the dead, and changed the world.  We can change someone else’s world, one action at a time.  I heard in a sermon once that in the Bible, love isn’t just an emotion, it’s an action.  

We each have our own “Big Red Marshmallow”.  Something that seems out of reach or so far gone if taken on alone.  

A child with special needs that are not under control
A spouse struggling with alcoholism or pornography
A sick or dying parent that is causing stress on your family
Financial troubles that are weighing you down
Depression that is crippling you to the point of desperation
Your own health that is impacting you as well as your family’s life

Of course, a wheelchair accessible van isn’t my only Big Red Marshmallow.  This van was something, though, that my fellow believers, friends, family, and strangers from all over the world could plainly see, understand, and provide help.

The next time I bare my soul, it may be for something much smaller in size or money, but just as large in importance.  If I keep nodding my head and smiling, without allowing any of the truth to seep through, how can I expect to be helped during my trials, however big or small, by others around me?  I have written before about how hard it is for me to ask for help, or show a weakness.  How selfish of me!  I like the way Nathan Brown, from Helping Hope, Inc., put it up on the stage at church that Sunday.  He said, “Their obstacle created opportunity for us.”  

My obstacle created an opportunity for God's love and power to be seen through so many.  That concept pretty much blindsided my entire family.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t all land on other people.  Caring friends don’t take away Elise’s issues and our daily struggles with her.  Generous people can’t give my daughter a renewed life of health and strength.  Fundraising can in no way erase the tears cried over my baby girl.  

Christ can do all of these things.  He takes away pain.  He renews health and strength.  He erases tears.  The Lord uses his followers here on earth to shine a light and give just a glimpse of what He has in store for us.  What a wonderful plan!

I remember telling the audience that morning that I thank God every day for Elise exactly how she it.  What I mean by that isn’t that I’m happy with what happened to her.  It merely means that through the biggest sorrows in our lives, amongst the deepest valleys, can come a light that shines brighter then we have ever experienced.  I have been forever transformed by what the Lord has done through Elise’s life.

Each time I see Elise’s life work for the Lord, it brings me great joy and satisfaction.  Although the world is changing as far as the acceptance and support given to children with severe special needs like Elise, I am very aware of those who may struggle to find the value in these children beyond the love felt by their families and friends.  By the world’s judgement, kids like Elise will not ever contribute to society.  We hear stories in the news about children with special needs being abused, discarded, or aborted before even given a chance at life.  

If only everyone could see what wondrous works could come from one simple life of a child who has no idea of their own impact on the ones around them.  No, she won’t excel at a sport, go to college, start a business, become a teacher, or cure a disease.  These are examples of the traditional meaning of the word “contribute”.  What Elise has to give to society is something that won’t earn her a trophy, get her a job, or impress those around her.  Her value, other than bringing me great happiness, is in how Christ uses her life to affect those around her.  

Following the surprise of our van, countless friends and strangers have come to Chris and me to tell us how blessed they were to witness the reveal.  One lady’s words were golden to me.  She said, “This was for all of us.”  

I have been searching for most of Elise’s life to find a group of parents that I could identify with.  Families with kids just like her.  After meeting people with children with Down Syndrome, Autism, various types of brain injury, Cerebral Palsy, and more, I realized that the ideal family for me to connect with just doesn’t exist.  There isn’t another kid enough like Elise for me to find that true camaraderie.  It was such a frustrating search, that I eventually gave it up, resigned to go through this journey alone.  It turns out, this unity I was looking for has been under my nose the whole time.  I am united with every person who prays for my family and Elise, every individual who asks how she is doing, every fellow follower of Christ who has used their time and energy toward showing us love over the last 9 ½ years of her life.  THAT is my group.  THAT is unity.  THAT is enough.  

It didn’t have to end this way for me to see Christ at work.  This was an extremely large, obvious example of what people with a heart for others and a desire for Christ can do.  Receiving the van was a very public, obvious statement of the unity we can all create as fellow believers and human beings.  But, what everyone else doesn’t see are the innumerable blessings that God has bestowed on our family throughout the years.  This van is not where the evidence of God’s grace began for us, and it isn’t the end.  It’s smack-dab in the middle of what will be a lifetime of Christ’s image being seen in my daughter and those who care around her.  

How does a little girl who cannot hear, see, walk, or utter a single word fill a church sanctuary teeming with tears, happiness, joy, generosity, surprise, and the absolute love of the Lord Jesus Christ?  Easy… she just sits back and lets God do His thing!

"Rejoice in the Lord always. 
I will say it again: Rejoice!"  (Phil 4:4)

I am determined to find this somewhere as a wall decal to put over Elise’s bed...

This is how the van was positioned on our stage.  It was behind the black curtain.  Our pastor, John Mark Caton, uses props and large items on stage at times during his sermons.  I thought that was what was going on behind the curtain...

Elise posing for her first pictures with the van

I thought this was an interesting pic.  My step-dad, Jerry, is standing in dismay, while my mom is going to the floor in shock!  She knew, as only a mother could, how important this moment was for her daughter...

Still had not registered in my brain that this just happened, and we had a beautiful van just right for our needs!

First outing... Target, of course!  It was easy-peasy, and Elise was able to sleep through the entire process.  Beautiful...

When I showed up at a Sunday School party last week with Elise at my side, I told my friends, "I brought her because I could!"

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be so jazzed to have this sticker on my car!

Elise wore a pretty red dress to church this week to match her new ride!  

Our friends who helped start this whole journey, Brian and Bree Knuckles :)

The awesome team of Helping Hope, Inc.  Without these people, we would not have a wheelchair accessible van today.  

A friend of mine passed this school letter along that his daughter wrote as part of an assignment for school.  She and her class friend, the frog, were there when we received the van.  This is an example of how even the youngest among us are listening and watching!

I took a couple of week-old fortune cookies out of my purse to eat the other day.  This is what each of them said on the side that teaches you words.  I thought it was funny... and dead wrong!

My 11-year-old, Lane, was probably the most excited out of us all.  The night before, he opened the sliding door of our old van with a little too much exuberance.  It came straight off of its track.  Chris couldn't get the door to close all the way, so on the way home from our friend's house, I worried that Ty was going to be sucked straight out of his car seat and out of the van! 
 You're off the hook now, Bud...

I walk through the house at random times of the day and want to yell to my family, "Get in the car!  We're going for a ride!"  I find myself just wanting to take her out for no reason at all...