God Changes Lives & Enriches Churches when We Fully Engage with Each Other

Families impacted by disability often feel isolated. And church must be the place where they belong, where they are encouraged, where they find hope and healing.

There are a growing number of churches that are being intentional about caring for and fully engaging with people who have atypical lives. These churches are doing more than just “being nice” to people with special needs. They are actually engaging in life with each other. They are resisting fears. They are stepping in faith despite concerns about being over-stretched. They are taking risks to be engaging. They are discovering that God changes lives and enriches churches when they care for and include each other, especially when life gets the most challenging.  

Accessibility isn’t just about ramps, elevators, special seating in the sanctuary and gluten free communion. The church—and Jesus most of all—needs to be emotionally and spritually accessible to all people. And that involves more than just being greeted nicely by an usher. 

Jesus was much more than just NICE to people. He fully engaged with them—their questions and their pain. He cared that people experienced belonging in His family and wanted them to feel assured they had tremendous value. Very often, Jesus physically reached out and actually touched hurting people. In fact, Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with people who were on the fringes, the hurting, the weak, the weary, the “different,” the ill, the disabled, the unpopular, the unglamorous and those who were seeking hope (even when they weren’t really sure where to look). 

What Jesus always did was engage in love and his foremost concern was and still always is for us to BELONG with Him and to have HEALTHY SOULS.  

An Enormous Opportunity for the Church

The Gospel answers hard questions and gives ultimate hope. The church has an enormous opportunity and responsibility to engage those questions, serve in love and wholeheartedly include people with disabilities in the life of the church family. 

Paul describes the church using the metaphor of the human body. God arranged the members of the body as he chose. Some parts were weaker but indispensable and others less respectable but treated with special honor and greater respect. 
(See 1 Corinthians 12:14-27.)

Doing life together well and according to the ways of Christ involves messiness.  The church can not be self-preservational. Still, we all need to be patient with each other. People experiencing disability, for example, deserve to be fully integrated in the life of our churches. Likewise, people facing challenges need to be patient with the persevering church. That kind of patience is a form of grace. 

Whole-Hearted Engagement With Those Who Suffer Isn’t Optional

Loving and praying for each other is not optional and scripture doesn’t leave room for anything but whole-hearted engagement with people who are suffering. True, it can be overwhelming, scary and messy learning to engage in the lives of others when their needs are  complex (e.g., disability, mental illness, aging, traumatic injury, chronic illness). But people with atypical lives are not a liability to the church. They are what enrich the church! 

No situation is too big or too complicated for God.


Wondering which way to go next?

There is a wide-open door for a great work here, 
although many oppose me.
1 Corinthians 16:9 

History resonates. Paul was anxious to meet up with his friend Timothy and enjoy an extended visit with old friends in Corinth. He had every intention of spending some quality, unrushed time with them even though there were plenty of other things competing for his time and attention. For example, prolonged stays in Ephesus and Macedonia kept Paul from his visit to Corinth for well over a year.

Do you ever feel like that? You want to go hang with friends or pursue some dream that excites you while there are other pressing matters all around? I sure relate!  And it can be hard sometimes to discern which of those “pressing matters” are actually as important as I think they are. Sometimes I feel like it’s moment-by-moment battle to discern what to do next, where I should make some intentional decisions about priorities and when I simply need to press in and make the best of circumstances out of my control. Paul seemed to be a master at all of this kind of discernment and submission. He recognized a ripe opportunity right in front of him and was willing to wait a little longer to see his friends so that he could do the “great work” right where he was and resist moving on too quickly.

Earlier this year when I was reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, this verse from 1 Corinthians 16:9 literally jumped off the page at me. Let me take a moment to tell you why. 
Since the beginning of Walk Right In Ministries (8 years this month), we have periodically asked the question: “Does God want this to be a ministry specific to people with disabilities or is He really moving us into a broad place to serve people facing a wide range of life challenges?” Our missions was clear (to help people connect and grow in Christ-centered community) and our general audience was clear (people feeling lonely or isolated and often existing on the fringes of the church).  What was not always clear is to what degree God wanted our “audience” to be targeted and in what specific ways He wanted to us to reach out.  
Probably like most of you, I have wrestled with these questions in my personal life as well. So when I read this verse and considered Paul’s situation, I got excited. I found great personal encouragement and felt it offered clarity for this current season of ministry. Immediately, I sensed this was a direct and timely Word for Walk Right In Ministries. We discussed it during a Board meeting and agreed the scripture was to be received as reassurance of our existing vision, plans and activities as well as exhortation to release concerns about whether we were becoming too narrowly focused.  So what that looks like today is that we are pouring our energies in three areas:
1.     Programs, services and resources that strengthen caregivers and families experiencing special needs
2.     Fostering inclusive communities that reflect the kind of atmosphere of belonging Jesus loves
3.     Equipping and encouraging leaders in disability and special needs ministry
I had been entertaining anxiety about missing His call. Instead, He was reaffirming our call and refining the vision for Walk Right In Ministries.  It was as if God Himself put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Lisa, it’s all good. Your wholehearted commitment is well placed right where it is!” As I thought about areas of this ministry where there has been growing momentum—areas like the Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection, Jammin’ Pie Fest, one-to-one coaching, public advocacy and speaking opportunities—I had been tempted to see the growing focus on the special needs community and feel restless. Yet God’s voice was clear: “Stay put. I understand you feel like you are leaning into a stiff wind. Progress seems slow and you face obstacles at many turns but I am in the midst of it all doing a great work. Look straight ahead through this door I’ve thrown wide open for you! Stay attentive to Me and the time will be equally clear, if and when I want you to throw your net in a different direction.” 
Please pray for Walk Right In Ministries. These are exciting days. We are busy and we are focused. We sense God’s presence, power and good fruit is steadily growing where He has carefully placed us in positions of influence. Yet we hold plans loosely with the understanding that the Holy Spirit is dynamic and brilliant. We are anticipating surprises in 2017 and are already seeing some sweet ones on their way. Scroll to the end of this post for an announcement about COOL NEWS! for 2017.
How about you?
  • When was the last time you wrestled with God about whether you are fulfilling your purpose or correctly hearing His call? Perhaps you’re making it too complicated when God has actually put a wide open door right in front of  you.
  • Do you ever look around at what others are doing and feel guilty or envious? Consider that God doesn’t want you to experience pressure. He wants to give you joy in knowing He has appointed you for something unique and He wants you to experience the kind of spiritual rest that comes from simply embracing the doors He is opening right in front of you every day.
  • Is this the time of year when you will begin wondering about how to invest yourself in 2017? We’re praying for you to have eyes to see and ears to hear when new doors open.
  • What obstacles or opponents are you facing that may be tempting you to change directions when, in fact, God wants you to run straight ahead and trust Him to do a great work despite those challenges? If there is repentance to be done, do it. If there is forgiveness to be offered or reconciliation to be sought, extend it and seek it (whether it is received or not). To what extent might the very things that are challenging you right now (e.g., health crisis, stretched finances, strained relationships, job dissatisfaction) are actually part of what God is using to make your effectiveness more significant?
  • Does this Thanksgiving and Christmas season bring any “open doors” to your mind? What opportunities may be right in front of you where your involvement could produce a great effect?
What joy lies before us when we embrace our current situations for all they are worth and trust God to cause tremendous Kingdom impact! 
Lord Jesus, thank you for answering when we prayerfully wrestle with You. Your encouragement to embrace our circumstances as opportunities is challenging at times but an exciting reminder that life can be a wonderful adventure.  Thank you for appointing us right into life and relationships where we can make a Kingdom difference. Help us to follow you faithfully and enthusiastically, without grumbling or succumbing to doubt. Increase our clarity and confidence so that we live, love and serve without reservation and in full trust that you will bring it all to great effect! AMEN

COOL NEWS!

I have been invited, along with my two oldest daughters Alex and Erin, to present a workshop titled “Parenting Special Siblings” at the 2017 Accessibility Summit in Washington DC. More information will be available when the full workshop schedule is announced in early December.  Until then, here is the low-down on what we will be offering:

Parenting Special Siblings
This interactive session opens a dialogue about the challenges, disappointments, advantages and opportunities of being a sibling in a family affected by disability. It is led by Lisa Jamieson, the mother of three adult children and author of Finding Glory in the Thorns. Lisa is joined by her adult daughters Alex and Erin who share candid perspectives about growing up with a sibling who has Angelman Syndrome which involves chronic health issues and severe developmental disabilities. Discussion topics will include sibling conflict, balancing attention, grief processing, dealing with social stigmas and misunderstanding, family vacations and managing stress.  Participants will leave encouraged with basic principles and numerous practical ideas about how to enjoy more victories and deeper graces despite the reality of weaknesses in every family.
Presenters:  Lisa Jamieson, Erin Jamieson, Alex Jamieson 
Theme Verse:  2 CORINTHIANS 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Lisa Jamieson is a national speaker, author, consultant and advocate who serves as executive director at Walk Right In Ministries and leads Minnesota’s Disability Ministry Connection. Her books include Finding Glory in the Thorns and Living Your Glory Story. She is also creator of the Finding Glory small group curriculum, a favorite of caregivers and others wanting Christ-centered discussion through challenges. Lisa and husband Larry have three adult daughters. Carly lives at home with Angelman Syndrome. Their story has been featured on Words to Live By, 100 Huntley Street and My Refuge Radio Belize.
Alex Jamieson is a senior audit assistant at Deloitte (Minneapolis). Active in her church and as a community soccer coach, Alex also volunteers with Walk Right In Ministries as an occasional speaker and regular encourager to families experiencing special needs. She is the oldest sibling to a sister who has Angelman syndrome. During her high school years, Alex worked as a personal care assistant and has since become a strong advocate for her sister Carly and others who experience disabilities. In her blog “Authentically Alex,” she reflects on a range of topics from setting goals to dealing with life’s transitions.
Erin Jamieson is a singer-songwriter and worship leader. Her songwriting, blogging and speaking is often inspired by challenges and insights experienced growing up in a family affected by disability. The title cut from her debut EP Without the Dark is featured in the movie Season of Miracles about a baseball player with autism. Erin is a senior at Belmont University in Nashville where she recently performed in the 2017 Christian Showcase. Her latest release No Dream Too Big is available on NoiseTrade. Erin’s youngest sister has Angelman Syndrome.

8 Things Pastors Can Do To Foster a Disability Effective Church

Here are eight things lead pastors can do to foster a disability effective church.
  1. Teach from the pulpit about the theology of disability and suffering.
  2. Support outreach and care coordinators.
  3. Provide a budget that values inclusion.
  4. Provide space in the building for inclusive activities, support groups and accessibility.
  5. Pray and encourage prayer for and with those who have atypical lives.
  6. Endorse and publicly affirm programs, services, missions and inclusive activities that fully engage children, youth and adults who experience atypical lives (e.g., disability, mental health, aging, caregiving, chronic illness).
  7. Provide personal encouragement to struggling families and teams who are serving.
  8. Model what it looks like to whole-heartedly engage with people who have atypical lives.

Love & Advocacy: Everyone’s Holiday Opportunity

Halloween is done. And that means some people are already dreaming about Thanksgiving pie, fireside card games with family, lunch and shopping with friends, high-fiving across the couch during a football game, delightful music and white Christmases. It also means that some people are already on the slide toward holiday season melancholy. 

And that gets me excited. “Weird and twisted,” you say? Well, it would be except for the fact that there is a very real opportunity to share the life-changing love of Jesus where there the “soil is soft” and hearts are ripe and receptive to receiving love. But seriously, so many of us walk around wondering about our purpose and wanting to be “significant for the Kingdom” when there are opportunities everywhere we look to love someone who is struggling and loneliness may be among the easiest problems to solve. That’s what Jesus would be doing. Plain and simple. Makes me wonder why we complicate it so much.

The subject of isolation and loneliness was up for discussion at a recent meeting of the Twin Cities Disability Ministry Connection. Although we weren’t discussing it in the context of holidays, I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight some of that reflection here because it could help ALL of us capture this opportunity during a season when loneliness is epidemic. Isolation is especially pronounced during the holidays but an opportunity that is always there. 

For many people in the midst of challenges, the sense of loneliness and isolation can feel more overwhelming than the crisis itself. Some even feel like they are being persecuted by God and/or others. For example, things like sleep deprivation, attrition of friendships, stigmas about mental health, lack of accessibility and rejection from Christians/churches can cause suffering that feels like oppression. 

Jesus would not turn too quickly to the feasts and festivities. Jesus would devote time, compassion, affection, prayer, eye contact, conversation. He would sit down and play trucks with a non-verbal boy, hang out with the bullied teen who isn’t invited to the New Year’s Eve parties and patiently re-teach King’s Corner to the older woman whose memory is fading. Jesus’ primary activity was pouring the practical power of His love into people (and so often in the form of healing mercies).

The conversation among church leaders during the Disability Ministry Connection meeting began looking at verses that speak directly to people who experience real or perceived isolation. For example, here are two verses that have brought comfort and encouragement to me personally during seasons when I have felt alone, apart or invisible and frustrated because caregiving makes me feel imprisoned sometimes.

PSALM 68:5-6A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

1 PETER 5:8-10Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lionlooking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. [emphasis mine]  

Jesus was regularly found reaching out to people who felt lonely, isolated or discouraged. 

Are we regularly doing this? 

Since disability ministry leaders, not much unlike any of us really, have a unique opportunity to be a voice for caregivers and people who are struggling with physical or intellectual challenges. They can educate others and advocate for those whose needs can get lost in the shuffle of things like busy lives and holiday festivities.

Ministry leaders asked this question: 
Where are we supposed to be on the spectrum of being program developer-implementers vs. educator/advocate/facilitator/culture influencers?  Both are needed and can influence our churches and culture to step out and step up when it comes to engaging with those who struggle. Each of us will lean a little more in one direction than the other depending on things like the season of circumstances/needs in our church, the particular resources available to us, our own personality and passions, or our unique gifting. But the need for us to educate our faith communities is strong and should not get forgotten in the midst of running programs.

Anyone who is not leading a ministry could ask a similar question: 
In what ways am I supposed to be reaching out in practical ways to someone who is struggling versus filling an advocate role in speaking up on behalf of those who need my voice and praying with intention? The reality is that we are all to do all of these things. 

“I’m not one of those advocate kind of people,” you say?

Consider this. Jesus told everyone to “go and make disciples.” No one was excused from sharing the Good News. Sure, some were better at it than others. Some were more passionate about it or comfortable with it than others. But Jesus didn’t put any qualifiers on it. He just said, “go.” It’s the same thing as it relates to engaging with people who are struggling. We’re all supposed to go and get engaged, even if it might get messy or we don’t feel particularly good at it.

I’ve been one of those “high maintenance messes” who has needed too much from others at times because I’m a full time caregiver to my daughter who has profound disabilities. I’ve also been in ministry long enough to have encountered more than a few people who stretched me a long way out of my comfort zone with their weighty needs. But when God puts an opportunity in front of us, we know it, don’t we? And He equips us to engage. If we stay attentive to Him, He also shows us when some boundaries may need to be established. (That’s part of what He means when He promises a light burden. He never wants us to overstep Him or His power at work within us. He never told us strive on our own part.) But God also beautifully affirms our inclusive choices. 

Living like Jesus means, in part, that we extend compassion, attention, time and care towards others. It also means speaking up for “the least of these.” Jesus specifically draws our attention to the needy, orphans and widows while also insisting we throw banquets (real or metaphorical) for the poor, crippled and lame (Luke 14, Matthew 6). These folks need extra care during the holidays and the rest of us tend to be paying a little more attention at this time of year. (It makes us feel good, and less guilty about all of our holiday indulgences, when we try to pour into others.) But what about the rest of the year?

I’m praying that we would all grow increasingly aware of the struggling people around us and become more lovingly engaged with each other. Let’s just be more like Jesus and quit getting distracted by busy work, popular/fancy programs and even well-intentioned church outreaches that take our eyes off of the needs right in front of us.

What can you do right now?

  • Pray. Ask the Lord to increase your awareness of people in your church, neighborhood, workplace, school or circle of influence who may be feeling socially and/or logistically limited by their circumstances (e.g., injury, illness, disability, aging, broken marriage). Consider a way you could connect with this person(s) during the holidays and even a few times a year thereafter. Practical helps like bringing a meal, doing some chores and giving a gift card are wonderful but a simple phone call, email, card game, cup of tea and hug can make a world of difference. Explore scripture and learn together with anyone who may be asking tough questions about the sovereignty of God in their situation. Ask for God’s help to move toward others as Jesus would.
  • Explore scripture and learn together with anyone who may be asking tough questions about the sovereignty of God in their situation. Ask for God’s help to move toward others as Jesus would and make discoveries with them. (There are some fantastic books available to help also. Contact Walk Right In Ministries or check out our Lending Library if you want ideas.)
  • Share this post with your friends on Facebook or via email to help stir appreciation for the needs and opportunities around us.
  • Share this post with leaders and pastors in your church. Let them know there are tremendously helpful ways of connecting right here in Minnesota to help us better understand and grow into the kinds of communities that delight God.  
  • Visit one of the monthly meetings of the Twin Cities Disability Ministry Connection if you are a leader or volunteer in a church. No matter where your church is on the spectrum of serving one family at a time or having an official disability program, these gatherings offer great inspiration and insight. Download the 2016-17 schedule here.
  • Join the Facebook discussion forum for leaders and volunteers wanting to learn about ministering as a church to people with special needs. The page is specifically designed to connect, encourage and grow churches ministering to special needs throughout the state of Minnesota. All group members are welcome to post about ideas, questions and resources to expand opportunities for collective support. The Facebook page is also a great opportunity for those in rural/outstate areas to connect when they can’t easily attend the monthly gatherings in the metro area. You can find us at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DisabilityMinistryCONNECTION