On August 14, 2023 we celebrated the life of a precious saint in our church. She and her husband of almost 54 years were both born wirh cerebral palsy. It was an honor to preach her homegoing service.
I’d like to begin by reading Psalm 131:
1 Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I do not get involved with things
too great or too wondrous for me.
2 Instead, I have calmed and quieted my soul
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
both now and forever.
On behalf of Vivian’s family, I want to thank you for being here to celebrate her life. As we gather, we want to do three things.
We want to honor Vivian and comfort Ellis and her sisters. But most importantly, we want to bring glory to Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life.
Let’s pray together.
Prayer: Lord God, you have created all things bright and beautiful. You created all creatures great and small. You created all things wise and wonderful. And so, Lord God, we have absolute faith that your hands made and fashioned Vivan just exactly the way you intended to.
Today, people describe people like Vivian as “special needs adults.” And sometimes, we struggle with trying to keep up with whatever the current politically correct label is.
But Lord, as we reflect on the life of this, your precious child, would you please help us get over ourselves enough to realize that all of us have special needs? Every one of us is helpless without your help.
We are lonely without your presence.
We are simple without your wisdom.
We are lame without your strength.
We are speechless without your Word.
So Lord, as we celebrate the life of Vivian, we celebrate the fact that our every need is met in our life with you, Lord Jesus. God, we pray for Vivian’s family right now. We know that, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we don’t grieve like those who have no hope, We know where Vivian is and we know we will see her again. But that doesn’t mean we don’t grieve. So I pray for Ellis, and for Glenda, and for Nancy, and for all the rest of Vivian’s family in the coming days. I pray for her friends and caregivers. I pray that they will share cherished memories of Vivian, and draw comfort from one another’s stories. Continue to guide our time as we celebrate Vivian’s life; comfort Vivian’s family, and worship Vivian’s Savior, in Whose name we pray, Amen.
It has been a delight to know Ellis and Vivian and to serve them as their pastor. When I first came to Glynwood six years ago, they were there every Sunday, sitting about halfway down on the left center section. I will admit, I was intimidated by them. Especially Vivian! I was intimidated because I couldn’t always understand what Vivian was asking or saying to me. When you are a pastor, you are supposed to be really good at listening to people, and in those first conversations, I was not good at listening to Vivian. Sometimes I responded to what I thought she was saying, and I was wrong. I learned to repeat back what I thought I had heard, and she would correct me (the one word I never had a hard time understanding from Vivian was “No, no…” By the way, Ellis, you don’t know how much you ministered to me the other day when you told me how you and Vivian met. You and Vivian met at the Elk’s Club Memorial Center in 1963. You told me, and I quote, “She ran her mouth ninety to nothing and I couldn’t understand a word she said!” So thank you, Ellis, for letting me know I wasn’t the only one!
Vivian made me a better pastor because I had to learn to listen. I had to learn to pay attention. We need “special needs” adults because the need to be heard and understood is not special at all.
I was also afraid I would disappoint Vivian. Any new pastor is afraid they won’t meet the expectations of people. And Vivian was one of those folks that would let people know if they weren’t meeting her expectations! She told Ellis flat out that she would not marry him until he joined the church. So he did.
Just before the service started, a woman in our church told me that she would always sit at the end of the aisle next to Vivian in her wheelchair. One day this woman came into the service late and had to sit on the side wing. She had not been home for five minutes before the phone rang. It was Vivian, saying, “You didn’t sit with me this morning.” The woman apologized and said, “I’m so sorry, I came in late.” To which Vivian said, “Well don’t be late.”
Part of the reason for these high expectations was that Vivian herself set the bar high in ministering to people. She was one of the most faithful prayer warriors I’ve ever met. There wasn’t a single visit to Vivian’s house that I didn’t see the current prayer list on the table next to her chair. And Vivian didn’t just pray for people once and then forget about it. I learned that I needed to do some research before I came to Vivian’s house, because she would ask me about everyone on the prayer list. Everyone. So I needed to know who was still at the hospital, who was home, whether so-and-so had a job yet, whether the family that had lost everything in the tornado had found a place to stay. Everyone on the prayer list.
Vivian truly made me a better minister by the example she set in praying for people. Eventually, I realized I didn’t have to be afraid of Vivian. I didn’t have to be intimidated. Because I realized that she was praying for me as much if not more as she was praying for everyone else on the list. Whenever I came to see Vivian and Ellis, I would always sit on the couch to the left of Vivian’s chair. But the other day, when I came to the house after Vivian had passed to share the news with Ellis, I sat down in her chair. And the very first thing I noticed was a prayer list with my name at the top of it. And it dawned on me that all of her questions about me and my wife and my sons and my grandson were not just idle conversation. She was absorbing every detail so she would know how to pray for me better.
Psalm 139:13-16 says
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
In beautiful language, David talks about life. He mentions three things, that are true or every person who was ever born.
1. God creates us. That’s true of David, Vivian, you, me, everybody.
2. God sees us. “Your eyes saw my unformed body.” Which means that God also saw Vivian’s unformed body.
3. God plans our days. At first glance it is probably hard to reconcile the image from Psalm 139, “that God knits us together in our mother’s womb” and the reality that some babies are born with any type of disability. In a perfect world that wouldn’t happen. But it does happen. That’s because we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a fallen world that is far from perfect. But that does not change the fact that life is so very precious. And it does not change the fact that Vivian’s life was precious. But we have to ask, was her life precious “in spite of” her disabilities?
I say no. Vivian’s life wasn’t valuable “even though” she had cerebral palsy. Vivian’s life was valuable precisely because she had cerebral palsy.
You see, God has never been one to move someone to the front of the line because they were smarter, or stronger, or better looking, or physically fit. In fact, the gospel is exactly the opposite. When Jesus came to the pool of Bethesda in John 5, he saw a paralytic that for 38 years had been pushed to the back of the line. Every time he had a chance to be healed, he couldn’t move fast enough. He couldn’t get to the water first. And because he was helpless, because everyone else pushed and shoved and jostled their way to the head of the line, he probably just figured he would be “special needs” for the rest of his life. But Jesus looked at him and asked, “Do you want to get well?” And suddenly, this man moved to the front of the line. Jesus knew his glory would be displayed more completely in the life of the man who could do nothing for himself. So he turned to the most “special needs” man at the pool and said, “Get up. Take up your mat and walk.”
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:28-30)
The fact is, we all have special needs. The problem is that most of us don’t realize it. Sometimes people ask me if people with intellectual disabilities can respond to the gospel. My answer is that they may be some of the only ones who truly can. To come to Jesus, you have to admit you need him.
Some people think religion is a crutch. And maybe it is. But you know what? When you’re crippled, that’s not bad.
Some people wonder if there will be people with disabilities in heaven. And I think there’s two answers to that. On one hand, I believe that right now, _______ is completely whole. She is strong in mind and body. She is speaking clearly. She is no longer seeing through a glass darkly. She has been made perfect.
But on the other hand, the only people who are in heaven are people who recognize they are helpless without Jesus. Is Heaven handicapped accessible? Friends, I am here to tell you that Heaven is handicapped required.
So please permit me to close by explaining what you might think of as the wheelchair ramp to a relationship with Jesus. It doesn’t require a seminary education. Vivian never went to seminary. She never wrote a sermon or taught a Sunday school lesson. But I believe we can learn more from her simple faith, and her genuine care for others than we could learn from the most profound theologian.
Karl Barth was one of the most brilliant theologians of the 20th century. In 1919, at the age of twenty-eight he published his commentary on Romans. In 1931, he began work on his massive, twelve volume, 9,000 page, six million word Church Dogmatics, one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written. And if you are unfamiliar with the term “systematic theology” it is just the attempt to organize every doctrine and every teaching of Scripture in a logical order. It typically starts with one fundamental principle, and then works to show how everything we know about God is united by that one principle. Karl Barth took 9,000 pages to do that.
In 1962, six years before his death, Barth was asked how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published on the nature of God and the principles of theology. Dr. Barth, what if you didn’t have have twelve volumes. Could you state your fundamental principle in one sentence? Karl Barth smiled, and said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Beloved, that truth is the wheelchair ramp on to a relationship with Jesus.
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