Authority can come from surprising places in the church
A church I served at one point had two ‘handicapped’ people that attended regularly. They were both ‘miracles’ as far as medical people where concerned.
One was a male, at the time of these experiences he was about 50 years old. His mother had a STD when he was concieved and we were told that this is what had affected him. He was institutionalized from birth. He had very poor eyesight. He had trouble socializing appropriately. He was intelligent enough to carry on reasonable conversation and it was hard to tell if some things that we would take as handicaps were merely the result of institutional living. He loved country and western music, especially Tammy Wynette. He had Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles manerisms when music was happening. He played the harmonica, and often had one of the three he owned in his pocket in church and sometimes would try accompany a song. We once asked him to play for the offering and he did a fine job and was pleased as punch to contribute. He sat at the front, and he held the bible and the hymnal upside down, and seemed to enjoy if he made the children giggle by some of his oddities. He lived in a group home when I knew him. I will refer to him as Patrick for the purpose of this story, though I’d love to honour him or his memory by giving his full real name. I’m just not sure how appropriate that is.
The other miracle person was also around 50 at the time, and was a severe Down’s Syndrome person. Doctors had told her mother when she was born that she would not live long, that 12 years would be considered a full life for her. She had the classic long, thick tongue of the Syndrome, the other facial features as well, and had long arms and a way of walking that reminded one of various primates. (I mean only to be descriptive here, not demeaning). I will refer to her as May.
In this congregation’s worship practises we would have those attending share prayer requests before we went to prayer time. This was one time where both Patrick and May would actively play a part. People would raise their hands and wait to be acknowledged if they had something to share. Patrick would raise his too, and somehow he waited until near the end. He was never the first. I would acknowlege him and he would stand (no one else did) and he would give a list of the names of people to be prayed for. For several months I paid little attention to his patterns or his selections. They seemed to be random names associated with the congregation. Once in a while he would ask prayer for a cousin as well. Then, near the end of my time there, I began to pay some closer attention. I realized first of all that when he wanted to make a prayer request for himself his list of others to be prayed for would be twice as long as usual. Then he would finish with a line that always got a bit of a chuckle – which he clearly enjoyed “And while you’re at it, throw a word in there for me too Pastor Pete.” After noticing that pattern, I began to pay attention to the names he gave. I had earlier assumed they were the names of people who had driven him to church, or who had him over for supper, or who he had bumped into (literally) on the way into church. But some investigation proved that theory wrong. Then, about the fourth or third-last Sunday I was jolted to realize that at least three of the five names he gave to be prayed for that week were people with pastoral concerns I knew about as pastor, but which not even the elders knew. It seemed more than cooincidence. But what could explain it? My best theory to this day is that he might have had a spiritual sensitivity that had the Holy Spirit bring people to his awareness.
What added interest was that on that particular Sunday, a couple that had just moved to the area, came to me and complained that I allowed him the attention and the time. I had the impulse to ‘plant’ or ‘suggest’ their names to him before the next service… But I digress, as I often do.
On the last or second last Sunday of my time there, the service was going to be long, so I told the congregation that to save time they could just pray or say their requests in the prayer time, and that we would consider them part of the prayer. So we began, and a few people contributed out loud. Then there was a bit of a silence, and I was about to close the prayer time, when we suddenly heard Patrick’s voice piping up. I experienced a few fractional seconds of fear that things were about to get out of hand, but was immediately swept into the prayer he was praying and was astonished at it’s combination of eloquent simplicy and profound perspective. Here’s how the prayer began:
““God, it’s me Patrick here. I know you’re a busy guy, so you might not have much time for me, but I just needed to tell you God that you are doing a great job!””
It went one from that gut grabbing beginning. When he finished, I felt I would have diminished a gift from God had I added a closing to that prayer, and I was hearing multiple sniffles in the congregation, so I simply said “Amen.” When I looked up, almost half the congregation was in tears, moved by the power of being privy to a handicapped man’s heartfelt complimentary talk with God. Yes, I had a pang of envy, or jealousy. “Why can’t I have that effect?” or something like that rose in me, and I had to set it aside and thank God for what he had just shown us. We had heard an authentic prayer that was a treasure, and it had had spiritual authority and power in our lives. And it came from a surprising place. And it taught me to be more alert, more ready, more welcoming of God’s surprises, because they can come from least expected places.
That day, after the service, a man who was on his second visit to the church, came and told me he had decided to stay with us, saying “If you have room for him (pointing at Patrick), I know you you have room for me.”
May would raise her hand at the end of prayer request time too. And I would acknowledge her, and she would push a word or two past her tongue, words that at first sounded like a moaning grunts but which I learned to recognize as her saying “My Mom” and I would pray for her mom. She had a way of getting restless now and then in a service, especially if she felt it was taking too long, but people sat near her and pumped peppermints her way, and that could settle her down.
One Sunday, in the season of Advent, I was preaching a sermon on the theme “Expect the Unexpected,” on Elizabeth and Mary’s unexpected pregnancies that announced the expected saviour of God’s people was about to arrive. I drew that partly into a lesson that we are always to be alert for God’s unusual ways, because they are not always what we expect. Our Advent services had people participating in leading by coming up to the microphone and reading a piece of scripture or litany or doing a dramatic reading. Towards the end of my sermon May got very restless. The people managing her were not succeeding in keeping her settled. She would raise her hand, as if it was prayer request time and she wanted to give her request. At one point I stopped and told her it was not time for prayer requests yet. But she was insistent. I then noticed she was holding the litany sheet in her raised hand, and she wanted to get up. In fact I think she just started getting up and coming forward. I said something like this to the congregation “Folks, I’ve just been preaching we are to expect God to work in unexpected ways. May has not done this before, and she seems to urgently want to do something. I would completly dishonour what I have preached if I did not explore if this is something from God” So I said to May “What do you want? Go ahead.” Well, she shuffled out to the aisle from her seat, with people filing out into the same aisle to let her out, and came to the mike stand right beside me, turned to the congregation, held the sheet in front of her, and made like she was reading from it. Whatever the sounds she made meant were on a certain level completely uninteligible. But they spoke to us with power nonetheless. We watched and listened, transfixed, and waited. She finished, and started her waddling shuffle back to her place. I began to thank her for her contribution to the service, when suddenly her arm came straight up in a classic victory air punch, and she said, in the clearest words I’d ever heard her speak “I did it! I did it!”
The congregation joined her cheer and aplauded her and God for this unexpected moment of worship breakthrough.
God’s spiritual authority can come from unexpected places. Be as ready as you can.