The package was pretty ugly — Parkinson’s Disease, but the gift was beautiful.  Actually, God gave the gift.  Actually the gift was already there, Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s provided a tool for opening the package, pulling out the gift and letting people see it. 

Sometimes harsh judgments are made about churches and church folks.  There are the caricatures of people who attend church regularly as hypocrites and self-righteous, harsh, judgmental and unloving people.  Of course all those things are true to a certain extent, just as they are true of the general population, whether they happen to go to church or not. 

What actually has been so in my experience with congregations, ones I have served in forty years of ministry and many I have heard about from fellow clergy is exactly the opposite.  I have seen true community in action in my years in the ministry.  By true community, I mean people who are connected in a way that frees them to express that connection in action — people who help one another. 

Community was expressed in a former congregation by surrounding a handicapped member with support in every way, functioning as family for her.  When the bombing in Oklahoma City took one of the members of that congregation, her husband was surrounded with loving and caring actions.  When the bombing happened, I saw first hand an entire city express community, as crime ceased for a time, people came together to support one another, doing anything and everything they could to help those suffering, to support the ones who were doing the hands on rescue work.

The congregation I served the last twelve and a half years in my role as Pastor of a congregation had always expressed community in one way or another.  People visited and cared for those who were going through difficult times, especially due to health or aging.  The gift that came with Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s was an opportunity, an opportunity to go public with those expressions of community. 

Mary Ann’s circumstances provided some very clearly identifiable needs.  The needs were concrete.  I could not continue to serve as Pastor of the congregation without those needs being filled.  The response was a natural one for people who understood and lived in community with one another, quietly going about the business of supporting one another in times of need.  My vantage point may have skewed my view of reality, but it seemed to me that Mary Ann’s and my needs, so public, and the response to them, helped crystallize the self-image of the congregation.  What had always been so gained a higher profile and became visible.   That visibility became a witness to the poeple in the congregation and others who learned about it. 

I think the truth of the matter is that people in community with one another find much satisfaction in helping each other if they can figure out what to do that will actually help.  People surrounded our household with the basic needs of companionship for Mary Ann with all that demanded in terms of help with personal needs and whatever came up.  There was sometimes food brought over, grocery shopping done when we were homebound or Mary Ann was hospitalized.  There were sometimes basic household needs covered, chores done, ironing done.  Margaret, Carol (single-handedly for over six years), Mary, Edie, Daughter Lisa, all who coordinated  clusters of Volunteers, gave them instructions on what to do, answered their questions.  A free online scheduler just for that purpose helped organize times and tasks.  It is available at no charge to any individual who needs it: www.lotsahelpinghands.com

The specific gift Mary Ann gave the congregation was opening herself to allowing people into her life to help her.  Community can’t be experienced fully without people’s willingness to allow themselves to become vulnerable to others.  There is a risk when allowing people to help.  Will you become indebted to them?  How will you pay them back?  If you don’t pay them back, will they somehow own a little piece of you?  We simply had no choice.  There was so much help that there was no way we could ever repay all the people.  We occasionally made small symbolic efforts and saying thank you.  Mary Ann enjoyed doing an open house every once in a while, Volunteers helping with it.  She sometimes made or designed token gifts intended to say thank you.  There was just no way to do enough.  We simply had to allow the help with no possibility of ever repaying or saying enough thank you’s. 

The good news is that people helped because they chose to do so.  They helped because they have been wired by their Creator to do so.  They helped because there was meaning and satisfaction and fulfillment in doing so.  By helping, they actually had a part in the Pastoral ministry to the congregation.   Because they were doing what they were doing I could do what I was Called to do as my part in the community. 

Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s freed the true community that already existed to float to the surface and become more visible, defining the congregation in its own eyes and the eyes of those who heard about it.   

By making these observations about the gifts that came into our lives and the lives of many others on account of the Parkinson’s, I am in no way lessening the horror of what Mary Ann went through.  We would not wish that struggle on anyone.  It was not a good thing.  It was a very ugly disease that stole from Mary Ann everything she had enjoyed doing with her hands and her sharp, creative mind.  In spite of that, God brought some good gifts to her, to me, to a congregation and to our family.  More about that in later posts.

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