Some of the biggest life lessons I’ve learned have been reinforced to me by little people. It was almost as if God used them to put an exclamation mark at the end of these lifelong lessons. Those of you who have heard me speak or read my book will recognize these stories, but I felt compelled to share these with the world this weekend. Please help me pass them on.
Alicia – Give What You Have to Give
It was a struggle learning to live with paralysis. Not only could I do very little for myself, but I also felt I could do so little for other people. This bothered me because I felt I had nothing to give to anyone. I had always based my self-worth on what I could do physically for myself and for others.
During my third summer at home, I rolled down the street to the city pool. My mission was to give out flyers telling about a Bible school we were hosting at church. While I was sitting by the pool, the cutest little eight-year- old girl I had ever seen came walking up to me. She had brown eyes, brown hair, and a smile that made me feel blessed to be alive.
Alicia stood beside me, talking, asking questions, and smiling from ear to ear. We talked for thirty minutes; then she jumped back into the water. I watched as she swam and splashed, but then I looked away to talk to some other kids. When I turned back, she had disappeared. Next thing I knew, Alicia stood beside me, smiling. She had that I’m-up-to-something look on her face. She had slipped a Butterfinger onto the armrest of my wheelchair.
As she ate her own Butterfinger, she seemed to realize I needed help to eat mine.
“Do you want me to feed you?” she asked.
“That would be great,” I replied.
Fortunately, I love Butterfingers, but for her, I think I would have eaten a can of worms. I’ll never forget how special I felt to know that Alicia willingly took some of the money she had been given and used it for me, knowing she would never get it back.
I went home feeling blessed to be alive. Alicia had unknowingly proven to me that life’s greatest gifts are often the small things and that giving what I had to give was more important than what I had to give. I couldn’t give much to others physically, but I could give to others mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Miranda – Look Beyond Your Limitations
Although I could never be used for the things I once took so much pride in doing, and often saw myself as worthless, the truth was, I was not worthless. I just needed to stop focusing on all the things I could not do and look for things I could do.
During my first year tutoring fifth-graders, I met Miranda. Miranda had a cute little smile and the biggest heart in town. She also had a sense of humor and a unique way of looking at things.
For her science project, she and I decided to make a solar cooker out of a cylinder-shaped Quaker-oatmeal container. She cut one side of the container off, leaving the two ends and about two-thirds of the body intact. On the inside, she lined it with aluminum foil; and on the center of each end, she poked a hole just big enough to stick a wire through.
For several days, we loaded the cooker with hot dogs and marshmallows. We kept track of the temperature outside, the amount of sunshine, and the time it took to “brown” our hot dogs or melt our marshmallows. We tried cooking with no lid on our oven versus cooking with a lid. Toward the end, we even added a thermometer to record the temperature inside the oven.
As Miranda became comfortable around me, she said and did whatever came to mind without fear that I would be offended. I liked that because I didn’t want kids to feel uncomfortable around me. I wanted them to see that although I had physical limitations, I was just a normal guy.
One day while we were working on her project, the wind blew Miranda’s papers everywhere. I felt helpless as I watched her hurry around the yard picking up papers. She ran back towards me, picked up my hand, and put all her papers underneath it. With a sheepish grin, she said, “You make a good paperweight.”
Finding things I was useful for became a fun game we played the rest of the year. She discovered my lap made a good shopping cart to carry all her stuff. My feet made a doorstop when nothing else would hold the door open.
This was my first experience working with a child on a science project, but we were both rewarded. Miranda earned a gold medal in the science fair, and I learned that if I would look beyond my physical limitations, I could find many new ways to be useful.
Sierra – Trust God Even When You Don’t Know Where He Is Taking You
One positive thing I could see from being paralyzed was that in many cases it actually helped me build relationships with the kids. They were curious to know why I couldn’t feel them touching my arms or legs. Seems like I answered the question, can you feel this? a half million times. They were also fascinated by how I could blow and suck in a straw to make my wheelchair move. They were even more interested when I started giving them rides on the back.
The driveway at Cherry Street was no more than seventy feet long, but long enough to go full speed and give the kids a wild ride. For each passenger, I drove at top speed toward the chain-link gate at the end of the drive. When I reached the gate, I would suck on my straw to stop, then turn around and drive back to where we had begun.
One day as I was giving rides, a kindergarten girl starting running towards me from across the playground. She obviously thought riding on my chair looked like fun, but she didn’t know my rules. I allowed only one rider at a time, and everyone had to wait in line. The girl on the back, Sierra, was older and knew my rules; so when the younger girl got close, Sierra stiff-armed her. I should have stopped or slowed down, but I didn’t. I kept going.
When I reached the gate, I sucked on my straw to stop, but nothing happened. My feet hit the gate, it swung open, and we headed for the street. I didn’t realize it, but while reaching for my chair, the younger girl had grabbed the tube that connects the small computer to my driving straw and pulled it off.
Sierra used to sneak up behind me and turn my wheelchair off just for fun, so I hollered, “Turn the chair off! I can’t stop.”
It was April 1. She thought I was April-fooling her. I panicked when I realized she didn’t believe me. My mother had taught me to look both ways before crossing the street, so I did. I thanked God no one was coming, then swallowed hard. I had no control over where we were going.
Instead of going straight across the street and hitting the curb, my chair started turning slowly to the right. I looked all around for padded walls or giant marshmallows, but the street was lined with cement curbs and vehicles. The only way we were going to stop was to crash, and at full speed we were going to crash hard.
Sierra was still hanging on behind me, but we were now headed up the street, right down the middle. The brick street we were now traveling down went straight ahead for about four blocks before coming to a T. It was not level. It sloped down toward both sides. At the end of the first block was a large drainage ditch where all the excess water ran off. My chair veered to the left toward the opening that led to the ditch.
In a matter of seconds, an endless number of possible outcomes flashed through my mind. The slope of the street caused my chair to veer sharply to the left, and before I knew it, we crashed into the side of my own van. It was a miracle. We were stopped, I was still in my chair, and Sierra was untouched! She was now convinced I wasn’t April-fooling her, so she reached up and turned off my chair.
My footrests had absorbed the majority of the impact. As I looked around to assess the damages, I noticed my feet were sitting nicely on top of the running boards. My shoes didn’t have a scuff on them. Sierra ran back to the youth center for help.
When I went back inside the building, I found Sierra and asked, “Where did you think I was taking you?”
She said, “I don’t know. I thought you might have been taking me to my friend’s house or something.”
As I thought about Sierra’s response, I realized she did not know where I was taking her, but she trusted me because she believed I had a place in mind. I immediately thought of those moments in my hospital room and that inner voice urging me to trust. The lesson for me was clear. I needed to trust God with my life like Sierra trusted me for a ride. I needed to remember He has places in mind, even when I don’t know where He is taking me.
Justin – Live for God’s Purposes, Not Just Your Own
Being in a wheelchair and working with kids was never in any of my life plans, but as time passed, I began to like the many new ways I had found to be useful. God was using me for purposes I never imagined, and I found it fulfilling.
A few minutes into a class I was teaching at Cherry Street, I asked Justin to read the Bible verse in Matthew 4:4 that says, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I was shocked when he read, “Man does not live to breed alone. . . .”
I started to correct him, but decided it was best not to draw attention to his mistake. The room was full of fourth- and fifth-graders, and I did not want to spend the next ten minutes teaching them about breeding. Inwardly I was laughing hysterically, but as he read on, the words seemed to be an exclamation mark on the end of a long lesson God had been teaching me. Satisfaction does not come from getting what we want physically; it comes from getting what we need spiritually.
I had always thought living out my dream and having a relationship with the right girl would fill the emptiness in my heart, but I was wrong. In giving up the things I wanted out of life in order to give of myself to children, I had received something in return that I had never had when all I lived for was my own purposes. I received the sense of satisfaction I had always longed for.
So as Justin read on that day, I realized his words were for me; there is more to life than just “to breed alone.” Life is not about my getting everything I dreamed of; it’s about my fulfilling God’s purposes for my life.
Renee – Serve Others Joyfully and Willingly
Being paralyzed and being a youth minister, I required a lot of help from others to do my job. During the four years I worked in the small town of Fredonia, Kansas, I often relied on the kids. Over time I began to see that Renee was one teenager I could count on to help me do just about anything. Never did I ask her to do something and see her respond with anything but a smile . . . except one time.
We were at a weekend youth conference. It was early Saturday morning, and we were pressed for time. After my friend Kevin sat me in my wheelchair, I went outside our hotel room with the van keys on my armrest. My plan was to have one of the kids help me into the van while Kevin finished getting himself ready.
When Renee came out of her room and I saw that she was ready, I asked her to take my keys, unlock the van, and let the lift down. From the look on her face, you would have thought I had asked her to tear down the engine and reassemble it. She reluctantly took the keys and started towards the van. Her friend Tasha walked alongside her. It was obvious they did not want to open my van, and they were whispering back and forth.
I was surprised at Renee’s seemingly bad attitude towards doing this simple task, because she was a great example of what a servant should be. She was a hard worker, she was one of only a few who consistently stayed to help clean up after meals, and she rarely complained. I had no idea what was wrong with her. Maybe she was having a bad day, or maybe I had done something to make her mad.
I watched as they carefully opened my van. Soon I discovered the reason for Renee’s reluctance. She and her friend had put toothpaste on all the door handles. I had foiled their plan to initiate my friend.
I laugh every time I think of this story, but I am also reminded of the huge difference in the way people serve others. There are some people who are like Renee. You can ask them to do something for you, and they almost always do it with a smile. You can tell they really want to help, and they consider it a privilege. But there are also some people who are not like Renee, and they have a bad attitude towards serving. Sure, they might do the task, but they do it reluctantly, often making sure someone hears how much of an effort it was for them to do the good deed.
Through being paralyzed and needing to be served by others, I realized that I had learned how I should serve others. Being a good servant is all about attitude. It involves being humble and putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Philippians 2:5–7 says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.”
When I think of Renee, I’m reminded to serve others willingly with humility, a positive attitude, and a smile—never reluctantly.
Christian – Learn from Your Experiences
In the fall of 1999, I watched a little boy named Christian climb onto the monkey bars. He climbed up the ladder, grabbed a hold of the bars, and “monkeyed” across. When he reached the end, he let go of the bar above him without taking time to position his feet on the bar beneath him. As he let go, his feet slipped and he fell backwards over another bar, scraping his backbone. When he finally hit the ground, he turned and looked up at the bar in disgust. I could almost hear his thoughts: “That hurt. I’ll never do that again.”
At this point in my life, I was working full-time as a tutor and youth minister. My family had enabled me to live in my own house, and I was making enough money to be off Social Security. I had accomplished much since becoming paralyzed, but I had been pondering why some things in life have to hurt so badly.
As I watched Christian experience the pain from his fall, I realized there were a lot of things I’d done that I would never do again because they hurt or cost me something: diving without thinking of the consequences, trying to date two girls at once, hammering a nail into an electrical outlet. My list goes on. I also realized that if some things did not hurt, we would keep doing them over and over and might never learn from them.
Webster’s defines an experience as “the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation in events or in a particular activity.” In my book, that means something happened, you either saw it or were directly involved in it, you were somehow affected by it, and you learned something from it. I found it interesting that the definition implies we are to gain knowledge through our experiences.
As time went on following my accident, I began to see that whether something is your fault, someone else’s, or it just happened, painful experiences often serve important purposes. They give us knowledge that we can use to help ourselves or help others.
Sarah – Find Joy in the Simple Things
In the spring of 2005, two neighbor girls were playing next door with the kittens. MaKenzie, age seven, and Sarah, age six, were no strangers to the six-hundred block of South Malcolm. They knew who lived in every house, and they knew the name of every dog and cat on the block. They had never really ventured into my yard to talk to me, so I took this as my chance to befriend them.
They were wearing roller blades, and I knew if they had any reservations about being around a guy in a wheelchair, I could fix that by pulling them behind my chair. A few laps up and down my driveway and I was certain we would become buddies.
Somehow I went from being the “train engine” to the guy who was “it” in a game of tag. The girls were laughing and teasing me, saying, “You can’t catch us! You can’t catch us!” I decided that flattening one of these girls would not help me make friends with them, so I chased them on the driveway, knowing I would always be “it.”
Playing with the girls and taking walks to the park became a daily ritual. There were countless wheelchair rides and more games of tag. Even after they learned I could not catch them, I still had to be “it.” As summer turned to fall, our time outside diminished. Many of our games gave way to paints and colors and animal charades.
When Christmas came, Sarah brought me some drawings and a card she had made. They were not in an envelope. She had wrapped them with Christmas wrapping paper.
The card read, “Dear Kevin, you bring me great joy when you try to run over me. Merry Christmas. Love, Sarah.”
As I read Sarah’s words, I was reminded that it is the simple things in life that often bring the greatest joy.