Thursday, April 29, 2010

The School of Suffering


"...And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." (Romans 5: 2b-5, NIV)

The other day, a woman I'm acquainted with through Twitter posted the comment, "Infertility is not for sissies". This thought took me back, as my husband and I went to great lengths to conceive our first two children. During what seems like a lifetime ago, we suffered through repeated miscarriage, surgeries, humiliating tests and "stupid human tricks" to finally arrive at the gift of our now 13 year old daughter and also our 10 year old son.

That season of our lives was fraught with emotion. Days felt like weeks, and weeks felt like years. The constant temperature taking before ever rising from bed made child-bearing the premier subject of each new morning. The repeated disappointment each month we didn't conceive was heartbreaking. Procedures were not only causing stress through their expense, but were also painful and embarrassing. I wanted to hurt people with their trite statements like, "Just relax and you'll get pregnant." Even clergy were annoying in their response. The ignorance and coldness of others was astonishing!

During this infertility journey, I would spend countless hours praying, reading scripture and questioning why God wouldn't want us to have children. After our last miscarriage, a friend had invited us to a Bible study that truly changed us forever. How the attendees of that Bible study ever put up with me, returning week after week only to hear me crying and angrily questioning God's promises, I'll never know! Still, something in me knew that I was on the right path by pursuing God's truth through Jesus.

Eventually, both my husband and I came to a place of surrender where our only desire was that God's will be done. That was a huge step! We began to walk down the path of adoption at the same time we were in the final phases of our infertility treatment, knowing that God would either make us parents by some means or would remove that burning desire to be parents from our hearts. It was a phase of liberating joy and peace.
Eventually, our journey resulted in a successful pregnancy and the birth of our eldest daughter. Immediately, I could see how infertility treatment had matured me and made me a more self-less mother. Since she did not come to us easily, every challenge with her was a treasure, a gift. I know that had I not gone through that, I more than likely would have treated my child like just another possession or goal checked off a list. It's terrible to admit that, but in reflecting, I can readily see the track my life was on.
In conceiving our second child, we went through even more trials and procedures than the first. Foolishly, we thought that these troubles would exempt us from any further trauma, despite the fact that we knew hemophilia, running in my sister's family, may be a possibility. Fortunately, during that pregnancy, I read a book that remains one of my favorites to this day, THE HIDING PLACE, by Corrie Ten Boom. The book overwhelmingly showed how God had prepared this family in advance for their ministry in the World War II German concentration camps. In one chapter, the author describes her frustration with her sister who exclaims, "Thank you, God, for fleas," but then finds that the fleas in their dorm provide them with protection from the guards at the camp.
Because of that remarkable story, my husband and I, through tearful eyes were able to in turn profess, "Thank you, God, for hemophilia," when our son was diagnosed the day after his birth. We didn't know why we were thanking God, but through our infertility treatment, we were able to gain the insight to know that our Loving Father would use this terrible disorder for our good and His glory. (Read Romans 8:28!)
It didn't take long to see how useful our infertility journey had been when we came to live with our son's bleeding disorder. As we sought to become parents, we learned to be our own best medical advocates, seeking answers and options. I was able to quickly do the same when it came to hemophilia. During infertility treatment, we learned to weigh all the options and make the best choices for our own personal lives in light of the information we had combed through. We had discovered how to be respectfully assertive when we didn't agree with doctors. We had gained experienced at steering our own treatment, forging paths that hadn't been forged before. Because our previous infertility trials had strengthened us and given us wisdom, we found ourselves more than once being a family of "firsts" -- "first family to bring their own infusion medication with them to the emergency room for more prompt treatment," "youngest child in the state of WI approved for home venipuncture," and so on.
In turn, it's not been hard to see how God has used hemophilia in our lives! The entire ministry that was launched came about as the result of our need in parenting a child with this bleeding disorder. God, in His wisdom and our foolishness, sent US to serve others, not be served like we had originally desired. Countless families have been able to connect and receive resources as a result of our suffering and my gift for gab.
As I'm sure you can see, I could write an entire book on this topic, and someday I may. But please, please come away from this realizing that there are certain lessons we can only learn by being students of "The School of Suffering". If God can use a silly house-frau from the suburbs like me to do His great work, then He can use YOU and your challenges! And every tough step you go through is merely another tool in the tool box that makes you a more effective person in other people's lives.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Patchwork Quilt of Care


A person's body is one thing, but it has many parts. Though there are many parts to a body, all those parts make only one body. Christ is like that also. Some of us are Jews, and some are Greeks. Some of us are slaves, and some are free. But we were all baptized into one body through one Spirit. And we were all made to share in the one Spirit.
The human body has many parts.The foot might say, "Because I am not a hand, I am not part of the body." But saying this would not stop the foot from being a part of the body. The ear might say, "Because I am not an eye, I am not part of the body." But saying this would not stop the ear from being a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, it would not be able to hear. If the whole body were an ear, it would not be able to smell.If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body. But truly God put all the parts, each one of them, in the body as he wanted them. So then there are many parts, but only one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-20)


There's possibly nothing more overwhelming than a disability conference. For souls wishing to help themselves or those with special needs, the mountains of information and areas that require attention can leave an attendee with a nasty case of sensory overload.

That's why I always find it intriguing when someone says, "I want to start a special needs ministry at my church." I find that remark as vague as someone saying, "I want to start an organization for girls." That encompasses an awfully huge area to serve. Nothing delineates the wide variety of service required in special needs ministry quite like a disability conference.

At a recent conference I went to, there were at least 3 dozen workshops and over 5 dozen exhibitors. Visitors to such an event could encounter everything from a companion animal group to a college just for individuals with special needs. There were professionals who had expertise in special needs trusts, and publishers of Sunday School curriculum. Camps for individuals with special needs displayed their information along side government programs and hospitals.

The point in sharing all of this with you is to emphasize that the special needs community is one huge mission field! Do you want to serve children? If so, at what ages? What about adults? Do you want to integrate these individuals into your church community? Are you looking to offer respite care?
There are as many ways to serve in the disability community as there are gifts from God. We have one woman who serves the special needs families by praying for them while she upholsters furniture in her workshop. I know many who blog about special needs. Even amongst those bloggers, some focus on one specific diagnosis. Several seasoned organizations run group homes or camps. Therapeutic riding stables are also a unique area of ministry. And many have been inspired and encouraged by those gifted in music who also happen to have a special need.
I've often explained the dynamics of these different areas of similar ministry as a "patchwork quilt of care". My square is to minister to the parents of children with special needs. Your area might be in youth ministry, and another in orchestrating worship services. But our little squares all intersect and butt-up against one another, overlapping and creating that full, loving quilt to wrap around the wounded. Without each ones specific piece, the quilt is not complete, it has holes in it and leaves the needy cold.

What square does your Creator want YOU to be working on? No matter what talent God has gifted you with, you have something to offer those with special needs. In turn, they have something utterly unique to offer you. Explore the possibilities of ministering to this under-served and largely un-churched population. You'll be glad you did!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mere Coincidence?


"You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways." (Psalm 139:3, NIV)

READ: Psalm 139

I don't know about you, but I could write a book about the ridiculous number of "coincidences" that have happened in my life. If you took the time to really sit back and think about it, I'll bet you could come up with just as many as I can.

"Freaky" is the word one friend used when I shared a conversation with her recently about someone who had connected with me. A young gentleman had merely made the connection because I was a person who lives with hemophilia under their roof. As we got to know each other a bit, he discovered that a good friend of his had been deeply involved in an award our ministry had received last year. When we chatted on the phone, we found out we had other amazing beliefs and experiences in common. It was awesome.

I came to know another gentleman recently through a project he is devoting his life to. We were both at a leadership gathering. As he shared his vision, I was drawn in, deeply impressed knowing what positive impact his work would have on families who live with a special need. As we got in touch with one another after the meeting, I discovered that I had already been working the past 2 years with his sister on completely different programming impacting those with special needs.

Laughably, I even met my husband in such a fashion. Not only was my girlfriend dating his brother, but I also worked with my husband's best friend.

In a 1929 short story, author Frigyes Karinthy focused on the concept of six degrees of separation. This concept makes the case that each person on earth is at most only six steps away from relationship to any other person on earth.

Take that people and relationship concept out of the way, and think of other coincidences you've encountered. Some of mine include a tax refund showing up in the mail on just the day we were wondering how we were going to put the next meal on the table or pay the mortgage.

The best one I tell is of the tools found under the hood of my car. Frustratingly uncooperative, the cranky vehicle we owned miraculously healed itself after previously being unwilling to start. Nobody had lifted that hood to look at the engine between the time it stalled and the time it restarted. But when my husband felt he should still follow-through on making sure all was okay, he found a rag and a set of tools under the hood. It still gives me goosebumps to recall the situation.

While I find the concept of six degrees of separation intriguing, I would have to say that we are kidding ourselves if we think so many of these things in life are mere coincidence. Jesus says to his disciples in Luke 12:7, "Indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." (NIV) This reveals to me, to us, that we have a Maker who is deeply aware of and concerned with our every need. While we fritter away our time worrying, He's got us covered in surprising and seemingly coincidental ways. How easily we forget that God works in and through people and circumstances.

Today, drink in the awesomeness that the Creator of the Universe cares for YOU! Praise and thank Him for the amazing ways He ministers to us through the coincidental circumstances of life. And as you focus on how He works in your life, your problems will loosen their tight and onerous grip.

Friday, April 16, 2010

YOUR RESPONSIBILITY


"When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required." (Luke 12:48, NLT)

So often, the above scripture is thought of in reference to those who have been entrusted with monetary wealth. Of course, God repeatedly states throughout His word that He pours affluence out in order that we might share that blessing with others. But money is only part of the equation.

Have you ever stopped to realize that your child's diagnosis is something that you've been entrusted with? Talk about being given much! Think about all that has been put in your care by living with and through the type of situation you have with your child! You have gained knowledge in a specific area of care that the average person does not have. Medical knowledge and experience have increased as you travel on this journey. Awareness of how to deal with insurance companies, government programs, financial aid and schools have all become a part of your repertoire of experience.
Aside from the practical gifts you've been given, there are emotional and spiritual gifts to share as well. No one should have empathy and compassion like a person who understands what another is going through. You have a personal story of perseverance and hope to share with others. If your child has beat the odds or survived an amazing trauma, you have valuable encouragement to share. Transparency about your situation makes it safe for other parents to share their sorrows and frustrations around you. Honesty about your wrestlings with the Lord and all the ways He's been good to you are something that can bless others as well.
I continue to be impressed with people who "get" the message of Luke 12:48! I have the great honor of knowing two women who have turned their challenges into an amazing organization, Good Friend Inc. (http://www.goodfriendinc.com/) that creates awareness, acceptance and empathy towards those with autism spectrum disorders. There's another mother involved in our organization who is gifted as a cook, working in a local school district, and who is always the first to offer a meal to families struggling through a hospitalization or trauma. Both the parents and siblings of a special kid who lived with a rare neuromuscular disease which took his life in 1994, continue to bless countless individuals through Camp Daniel (http://campdaniel.org). Blogging is the forte of one mother who recently decided to candidly share their story in order to encourage others in "The Road Home" (http://talkingisgolden.blogspot.com). And yet another mother, who lost her toddler son a mere 6 months ago, blesses other parents by giving them a way to network through her web group (http://specialteams.ning.com).
No matter what your personal skill, YOU have been given much! Your journey of parenting a child with special needs has left you with a responsibility that goes far beyond the care of your child. You have been given the awesome call to be "Jesus with skin on" to weary travelers in need of some hope. Will you live up to what is expected of you?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Celebrating and Grieving


"For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest... A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance."
 (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, 4, NLT)

This weekend we celebrated my son's 10th birthday. What an awfully special time, leaving the single digits and being at the doorstep of junior high! I remember when my eldest reached that age. It was a time of great celebrating and moving toward responsibility.

But this was very different. You see, with the joy of our son's birthday always comes the sad anniversary of his diagnosis. Try as I might, I can't help but feel that flood of painful memories come back as I recall his birth. The day after his delivery, his pediatrician entered my hospital room and said, "Well, there's no easy way to say it. He's got hemophilia." I can still feel the shock, the hot numbing of my face, the sense of altered reality in my brain that came rushing in at that moment. I remember sitting and kissing his newborn fuzz as I rocked him at home, bawling my eyes out asking, Why. I still recall how when I changed his little sleeper, seeing that first purple and almost black hematoma on his tiny infant bicep took my breath away in shock.

In a culture where we're continually admonished to "pick yourself up by your bootstraps", it might seem odd to be grieving on the arrival of such a landmark birthday. But it does not seem odd within the culture of special needs parenting. So many of us share that same experience of the heartbreak of discovering our child has a serious diagnosis at birth.
Despite our desire to joyfully celebrate our child's birthday, as well we should, there is also the great need to face up to and work out those feelings of loss that we'd rather ignore. "Express, don't repress" is a little phrase thrown around in psychological circles. And God's words in Ecclesiastes only reinforce that. There is a time where we need to pause and let the tears flow. And the anniversary of a child's diagnosis, no matter when, is the appropriate time to allow ourselves to grieve.

Recently, in the flood of information that I consume on behalf of special needs parents every day, I ran across an article that stated how common grief is to any individual with a chronic illness. The article (whose link I desperately wish I could locate for you) stated that each time an individual with MS reaches a new phase in their illness, they grieve once again. The recurring realization that everything is not as it should be causes a person to feel that sense of loss.

It is notable to realize that working through these feelings is a process, one that is not exempt from being revisited. And when our child's challenges continue through the various seasons of their youth, that sorrow can easily be felt afresh.

Ironically, reflection and perspective are the surprise gifts to celebrating in the midst of that grief. I can't help but ruminate about how precious that boy is, what a blessing he's been to our family, how sweet these past years have been with him. After some of the things he's endured, his life is nothing short of a miracle! Gratitude gushes forth as I remember all that God has brought us through in our journey with our son. We've been so blessed with great medical care. What if he hadn't been born in this country?! Early in the journey, we were so scared and clueless. Now we've developed a confidence and competence in dealing with this. Our lives are surrounded with so many people who are either on this same journey or who have skills to help us. Where would we be without them?! We've come so far. Our faith has been tested and grown. We've been given a unique opportunity to share with others what God has done in our lives and our son's life. What a treasure to have moved from a sense of desperate sorrow to one of infinite purpose!

My prayer is that you enjoy the fullness of emotion, the fullness of experience with that precious child God has entrusted to your care. When He calls, He equips. Don't be afraid to let yourself experience each season He has granted.

PRAY: Gracious God, the painful parts of our lives only serve to create space for your glory to shine through. Strengthen us to embrace the difficult with the good because it makes the good that much better.

~ Barb Dittrich

Friday, April 9, 2010

Crumbs & Leftovers


"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16, NIV)

I woke in the middle of the night aching with the thought, I really do need to get in touch with a doctor for my own health issues. How often I've spoken to mothers in the same position as myself over the years. Unless it's a crisis, we fall to the bottom of the list.

Caring for a family usually puts mom on the back burner, but it's especially true when parenting a child with special needs. When never a week goes by without being at a doctor's office, hospital or therapist's, it's hard to carve out time for oneself! With a less-than-stellar cash flow, even spending money on a decent haircut or cup of designer coffee becomes a thing of the past. Heck, we're not just getting a cold dinner - We get the crumbs and leftovers in every aspect of our complicated lives!

It's easy to become discouraged. Still, as always, our loving Savior holds out hope for us. We may feel our efforts go mostly unnoticed and taken for granted, but we have a God who sees us! ("El Roi" - see Genesis 16:13-14) He sees our every tear, our every sacrifice and our tireless efforts as caregivers of these precious children.

In Matthew 20:16, Jesus reminds us of His infinite generosity and mercy. It's not the big shots who go to the head of the class, but the obedient servants who live out His message. While it may feel like we are plodding on in glamorless fashion, we hold great value in our Savior's eyes. Our dutiful daily care of our special children holds infinite value to God! How often do we think that only those doing something more "important", influential or professional is all that counts? How many days do we collapse in the evening feeling like we've accomplished nothing? Take heart! The Lord is showing you that your often thankless work, done in love, puts you at the front of the line!

While this is good news, do be mindful that we cannot give away what we do not possess to begin with. We must make sure we maintain at least some level of personal care lest we wind up broken down, burned out and hospitalized! Being deliberate about making so much time to briefly engage in a favorite activity (reading, crafting, having a cup of coffee) each week is key to becoming a sane, healthy parent.

However, at those times when crisis with our kids put us at the absolute bottom of the list, we can persevere, knowing that the King of Kings considers us to be most cherished of followers. "For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Looking in All the Wrong Places


On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" Luke 24:1-5

"Why do you look for the living among the dead?" Those words have been haunting me this Easter weekend. Probably because they have much wider implications than that of notifying a group of women venturing to anoint a body that this man has risen. I can't help but feel those words directed at me. How often do I seek to find life by journeying to a lifeless place?

I could write a book on all the ways we humans seek life in dead ways. But let me share some thoughts on just an obvious few.

One way of seeking the living among the dead is when I turn to people for their opinions before I ever seek God's. What a foolish pursuit it is turning to fallible humans for a definitive answer when I have a Sovereign Father who is the Creator of all wisdom! 1 Corinthians 1:25 says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." Yet, so often without thinking I'll pick up the phone, confusing myself by trying to survey friends on how to deal with a tough situation. Now, I'm not saying that we should avoid gaining insights from other people. However, discerning God's will should be the primary goal and begin with prayer and the word. Adding the select wisdom or experience of a godly few should follow that. Some of the worst decisions of my life have been made when I proceeded without even consulting God! How dead it truly is to have my life guided solely by the opinions of others!

Another way I have sought the living among the dead is when I thought I'd feel better with the consistent habit of complaining. There seems to be a popular thought in our culture that letting it all hang out gets it out and helps us feel better. But living in a perpetual state of verbal spewing because I feel I have the right, does neither myself nor others any good. God warns us in Proverbs 29:11 "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control." When I just jump right in to bash that which I dislike or irritates me, I'm seeking to feel better by looking in a very dead place. Not only that, but I'm also making myself look pretty bad to others in the process.

A last way that I'm going to mention here where I look for the living among the dead may seem radical to some. That way is when I seek to avoid suffering at all costs. To suffer is to be human, to live. Still, I have spent too many years trying to buy into the cultural lie that suffering is bad. How easily I forget that one of the last things Jesus warned His disciples was, "...In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) There is no life that is untouched by sorrow. Suffering is that part of life which grows us, gives us wisdom and hopefully, imparts compassion. Trying to skip that part of the equation is looking for life where it does not exist.

I could go on with more examples, but these few ideas should cause you to think of ways that you too have looked in all the wrong places. Let's learn from the women arriving at Christ's tomb that first Easter morning. When we seek the living among the dead, we come up empty. Only in our willingness to leave the vacant tomb of our mistaken ways of thinking do we experience the joy of the Resurrection. Admitting that God has a much better ending to our story than we could ever fathom brings us back to the path of blessing that He has planned for our lives.

PRAY:  Holy Spirit, remind us that we are Easter people with boundless hope at hand.  Tap on our shoulder and redirect our focus when we wander into looking for life in dead places.

~ Barb Dittrich