A couple of weeks ago I had the joy of leading worship at Joni and Friends Family Retreat outside Phoenix. I have long been a fan of the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada, and these family camps are just one small sliver of the immeasurable joy and hope she has brought to people with special needs and their families around the world. If you're not familiar with Joni, you need to be (Click here)! I can't think of anyone who epitomizes more the power of allowing God to bring tremendous fruit out of a tragic loss. Joni became paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident almost 50 years ago and rather than give up, became a champion for the cause of disabilities as well as powerful writer, speaker, teacher of the Word and His truths. Her faith, tenacity, and energy are humbling and inspiring. She is truly my hero.
Anyways, I had the joy of leading worship at one of the family camps Joni and Friends organize. The families have at least one child with a special need (one family had FOUR kids with autism). Some kids were in wheelchairs, some had cerebral palsy, one had cystic fibrosis, some were young and others were in their twenties...all of them beautiful, powerful illustrations of the love of God. A few years back, the Lord rocked me from the inside out when I led worship for these kids. I had it all wrong. God sees so differently than we do. He sees through His lens of eternity, His lens of the beauty and perfection of each soul. These kids ARE SPECIAL in powerful, eternally significant ways. And how they worship...only God sees their hearts, but I FELT something beyond description.
A few things that all of these families had in common was a life of sacrifice for their child(ren), a desire to love them as best they could, and that they were pretty tired...all...the...time. Parenting is tiring in the best of circumstances, but mix in special needs, and honestly, these parents (and the siblings) know the definition of self-sacrifice. I was blessed and humbled beyond measure to see them loving on their kids with such patience and teamwork. One night very late I wandered into the common area of the bunkhouse where I was staying for some cold water out of the fridge. I saw one of the dads doing breathing treatments and some kind of lung clearing that looked kind of scary to me for his son, speaking to him gently and lovingly. Once while out on a walk, I came across one of the dads with a seriously autistic son, letting him run. They were missing breakfast. Parents wiped up messes, prepared special foods, during meetings some of their kids had noisy outbursts or wandered up on the stage (which by the way were beautifully, refreshingly no big deal to anyone at this special camp). Sleep is interrupted, meals are interrupted and missed, and the best laid plans often get tossed to the wind for these families. These folks are my heroes too.
I was also deeply moved to see the Joni and Friends volunteers who served these families all week long. I showed up early to lead a little worship for them during their training before the families arrived, and was so struck by the hearts of the leadership (led by Pam Baldwin) and volunteers. They just wanted to bless and serve these families. These courageous volunteers learned about these kids' needs and took over for good chunks of time, giving up their meals and sleep and free time for the families, with joy and humility and prayer. The parents finally got a break in order to be together, take a walk, eat a meal, hear a message of encouragement, be pampered a little. Have you ever experienced a "hand-washing" ceremony? I hadn't. I know of foot-washings, which can be brutally intimate. Before the families arrived, these volunteers had their hands washed by the leaders, as they offered them to serve Jesus by serving these families. It was so beautiful. I cried when they washed mine. It reminded me that I was there to serve. I am always to serve Jesus by serving others with my hands, my everything.
I have to admit that when I saw the schedule of activities, at first glance I thought it looked too sparse, that there wouldn't be enough going on to keep these families busy. But it was beautifully intentional. Families relaxed, strolled, played board games, fished, rode horses, ate in a leisurely fashion (great food, btw). Conversations took place in rocking chairs on the porch, in the grass by the lake. I saw families holding hands. There was just nothing rushed about it. And little by little...I relaxed, too. I didn't play music or listen to podcasts during the free time. I strolled. I did take two morning runs, but at 7200 feet elevation, I was forced to stroll.
The camp backed up to a ranch where cows roamed freely and grazed. One late morning I sat and watched them for I don't know how long. I just sat there, mesmerized as they mooed, flicked flies with their ears and tails, and gradually rambled along in search of better things to munch. What a boring existence, I thought at first. But I couldn't stop watching them. And what a gift this was to me. I returned each day to that window and watched them for 20, 30, 40 minutes, unaware of anything except those cows and the breeze. When in the world was the last time I did that? We NEED times like this, I was reminded. We need some time to just observe God's creation. He speaks through it. He settles us. He reminds us that He's in charge of it all and delights in it all. This quiet was a balm to my soul that I didn't even realize I needed. At night I could hear absolutely nothing...just a little bit of wind. I lay in my bed and just listened to the breeze...and thanked God for all of this quiet.
My home is Orange County, CA...a very busy place. I do my best to take time every day to be with the Lord, read His Word, listen, pray. But that list of to-do's is always just a foot away from me, and it distracts me. Too quickly I check out of this treasured quiet time and get busy at a quick pace, not wanting to waste a precious minute. I don't think Jesus was ever frenetically busy. His life was one of ultimate importance and purpose, but clearly He strolled. And He knew when it was time to pull away and rest with the Father. He often pulled away from demands of ministry and relationships, went off to lonely places and rested His SOUL, communing with the Father. I wonder if He spent some time just looking at creation like I looked at those cows? What does the Creator think? Something like, "We did pretty good when we made that didn't We? " Now, that's a thought. Anyways, slipping away, getting quiet and drinking in God's creation is a good thing for all of us to do.
We can be weary, heavy-laden with worries, disappointments, concerns. May you and I remember that Jesus calls us to REST. That is my prayer for these dear families at JAF Family Camp I met who desperately need rest (I saw that rest happen for them!). Its my prayer for each one of us, who get so busy with our work and ministry and families, it seems there is no place to wedge in times of quiet. Let's try harder...hire someone if we have to, get away, watch cows, go fishing, turn off the music, sit on a rocking chair on the porch...just sit. With Jesus.
"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light." Matthew 11: 28-30