One Sunday morning during worship service, our pastor conducted a poll, asking the question: Who has done the most good in our world? Several people answered: ‘Billy Graham’, or ‘Mother Theresa’. Then, from my family’s row, one voice loudly called out, “Oprah Winfrey!” Embarrassed, I slid down in my seat, wishing that I could suddenly disappear. I did not even have to look over to figure out that Lynnea was the one who had spoken. Lynnea has a mental disability – a condition that affects at least 3% of the people living here in the United States. Yet Lynnea is not just a statistic. She is my friend and neighbor of over thirteen years, and God has used our unique friendship to draw me closer to Him and to teach me many valuable lessons.
Today, I want to share what I’ve learned through my experiences with Lynnea about how important it is to love people – even the difficult ones – that God has placed in your life. Thus, I will examine three crucial aspects of loving difficult people: stepping out of the comfort zone, cultivating an attitude of patience, and seeing people through the eyes of Jesus.
Lynnea and I met as young girls, and played together nearly every day; I was five, and she was seven. Lynnea didn’t get much attention at home because both of her parents worked, so she came over as often as she could. If I had chores to do, she would help me complete them so that we could start playing sooner. Sometimes, though, we did have a hard time getting along. Lynnea had a bad temper, and if provoked, I, too, could get pretty angry. Once, I said something that she didn’t like, so she punched me hard in the nose. You can imagine how angry I was at that point! Yet despite all of our differences, and our faults, we became good friends.
Over the years, I began to realize that Lynnea and I were not growing older in the same way – although I continued to develop both physically and mentally, Lynnea’s mind stayed at the level of a young child. Even though she was two-and-a-half years older than I was, Lynnea stammered quite a bit when she spoke, and as the years passed, I became conscious of the fact that people didn’t look at her in the same way that I did. Nearly all of the neighborhood children made fun of Lynnea, mimicking her slow, stuttering speech, and teasing her because she could not do things as well as we could.
During the last few years, I have learned that stepping out of my comfort zone is crucial to loving people. This has been a challenge for me as I’ve interacted with Lynnea. One example is my tenth birthday party, when I decided to invite over a few friends, including Lynnea. I was a little afraid that she would say or do something embarrassing, but to my relief, everything seemed to go smoothly. Later on, however, one of my friends told me that everyone had thought that Lynnea was strange, and shouldn’t have been invited. I was crushed, because I had been so sure that my homeschooling friends would accept Lynnea for who she was.
Inviting Lynnea to go to church with my family was another step out of my comfort zone. Lynnea’s family were not Christians, and I knew that Lynnea needed to know that God loved her, especially since she had a hard time being accepted among other people.
The thought of inviting Lynnea to church scared me. I was worried that people wouldn’t be able to look beyond her disability, that they wouldn’t see Lynnea for who she truly was – a person loved by God, in need of salvation. After praying about it though, I realized that going to church is not about me, it’s about God. The whole purpose for the church is to worship God and to point people to Him. After realizing this, I finally asked Lynnea to go with us.
On that first Sunday, I nervously introduced Lynnea to my Sunday school group. To my surprise and delight, everyone was kind to Lynnea. My friends made a special point to include Lynnea in conversations and games, welcoming her with open arms. Of course, Lynnea loved all of the attention. She began looking forward to going back to church on Sundays, and talking about it during the week. All of this because I decided to take that step out of my comfort zone.
I have also learned that cultivating an attitude of patience is essential. This has continued to be quite a struggle for me. Many times, I have been absolutely frustrated with Lynnea because she cannot understand a simple concept, or cannot keep her mind focused on the subject at hand. I’ve been annoyed by the fact that at church, she follows me around like a shadow, leaving me little opportunity to engage other friends in meaningful conversation. In the middle of a conversation, Lynnea will latch on to a familiar word, and then her mind goes off on a tangent, talking persistently about the subject that one word conjures up. Eventually, we have to suspend the conversation until later, when Lynnea is not around. Yet despite my frustration, these experiences have helped me to grow in patience.
Another experience that demanded patience was the Bible study that Lynnea and I had begun together, soon after she had started going to church with us. This proved to be difficult, because Lynnea cannot read well, and has a hard time understanding many words. With Lynnea, I had to read the passage beforehand, and delve deep into its meaning, trying to figure out how to present it to her in such a way that she could understand it and take it to heart. It was discouraging, uphill work, and I felt that we would never progress. But every once in a while, Lynnea would surprise me by speaking up in Sunday school, explaining something that we had learned in our Bible study weeks before! Needless to say, whenever this happened, I was encouraged, and threw myself into Bible study with renewed vigor.
Despite all of my struggles and frustration, God had been working. In February 2010, Lynnea decided to trust Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Our family had praying and waiting for this moment for over ten years. How excited we all were, and how full of joy I felt! It’s been wonderful to see some of the changes that God has made in her life since then.
Finally, God is teaching me to see people through His eyes. God made Lynnea. She is an equal of every single person on this earth, and Jesus died to save her from her sins just as he died to save me from mine. Because God loves and cares for Lynnea, and for others who are disabled or hurting, my obligation is this: To love others – even those who are different from me. In John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I confess to you that I have not always obeyed this command – time and time again, I have been angry with Lynnea for ruining a conversation or embarrassing me in front of others, not thinking about the fact that she cannot help it. It is so easy to simply do the ‘right’ thing, outwardly showing kindness to Lynnea, but then inwardly resenting her. At these times, I selfishly want nothing more than to gratify my own desires, instead of troubling myself about others’ needs.
Even after all of these years, I am still learning to love Lynnea, constantly having to ask God to give me the strength and resolve to change my attitude towards her from one of intolerance or indifference, to one of love. Through my interaction with Lynnea, God has opened my eyes and my heart. I am learning to relate to and love people who have disabilities, and to love people in all circumstances, knowing that it is not only important to love them for their own sake, but also so that we might be a witness to them of Christ’s love.
Having told of my struggle to love Lynnea, and my decision to see her through God’s eyes, I now ask this question: ‘How many times in our lives do we simply tolerate the people around us?’ That verse I mentioned earlier, John 13:34-35 states clearly that we are to love others. It is Jesus’ command. I do not deny that loving others is hard. And I agree if you say that it seems nearly impossible. Yet, although it is impossible for us to accomplish anything by ourselves, we have God to help us. As it says in Phillipians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Looking back, I can see God’s hand at work, even throughout all my struggles. He placed Lynnea and me together early in our lives to teach us how to serve others, and to know and love Him more. I know that there will be more ‘Oprah’ moments, those times when Lynnea says or does something embarrassing. But I also know that no matter what she does, I will still be her friend, because God loves her – and strange though it may seem, so do I.