October 12, 2011

Unusual Gifts

Awareness came slowly and uncertainly. Everything was hazy, and I was dimly aware that I hurt from the top of my head to my toes. Why couldn’t I see anything? Who was talking to me out of this fog?
Days later, after being moved out of the hospital neurological intensive-care unit to the orthopedic unit, I began to realize that I had been in an accident. The “someone” talking to me had been the eye specialist trying to explain to me that my eyes had been seriously damaged. The truth of my blindness dawned slowly.
As a newly graduated respiratory therapist, I had begun my new job in a hospital in sunny, southwest Florida. My wife, Sharon, our 1-year-old daughter, and I were setting up house in a new community, far away from our former home in suburban Washington, D.C. After six weeks I was beginning to settle into a routine of riding my new 10-speed bike to work at the hospital each morning, and pedaling home again in the afternoon. The bridge over the river was always a little challenge as I struggled up the half-mile rise. The speedy descent was more fun.
What They Told Me
Mother’s Day came upon me quickly, and I knew that I had to buy a present for Sharon. I planned a quick stop on my ride home after work that Sunday, May 11, 1980.
My ride down the fun side of the bridge brought me out to southbound traffic, heading north toward the shopping center. That’s the last thing I remember until waking to that dim voice of the eye specialist. The rest of the event has been pieced together from the accounts of others.

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Pulpit Partners: The author (left) and his current guide dog, Chief, sit with Jerry Rimer, pastor of the Hendersonville, Tennessee, Seventh-day Adventist Church.

At the first intersection after the bridge, I was met head-on by a Volks-wagon station wagon. Struck forcefully, I flew over the bike’s handlebars and landed with the left side of my head crashing through the windshield of the vehicle. As the driver pulled out into traffic, with me on the hood of his VW, he came to a stop, and I slid onto the pavement in a crumpled heap.
The ambulance EMTs felt it unlikely that I would survive the trip to the hospital. But God had other thoughts. My life did not end on that highway pavement. In some unusual ways, new chapters were beginning to open.
I didn’t see the positive side of my situation for quite some time. Well-meaning folk would visit me during my three-month stay in that hospital and ask, “Why did God let such a terrible thing happen to you?”
I didn’t have a direct answer for their questions, but even then I knew that God would not abandon me. After all, He had already experienced horrible pain and abandonment on my behalf.
On the frightening day of my discharge from the hospital, I was filled with fears of the future for my family and myself. How could a blind respiratory therapist support a new family in a new environment? I was consumed with doubts. I literally could not see the road ahead, and I felt powerless to control the future for the family I loved.
My New Normal
The next six months were filled with sometimes fruitless efforts to find a way to go back to work. The frustration was tremendous. But through the persistence of friends, the support of technology, and the guidance of my heavenly Father, I did go back to work at the hospital. I performed complex breathing tests by using a computer that spoke the details of the testing procedure. Various types of equipment helped me do other useful functions for the hospital department and staff. It seemed a miracle, and the paycheck seemed miraculous, too.

Time brought more and more comfort for me in my job. When I became director of the department, I had an opportunity to build new programs and services and strengthen the clinical expertise of the staff. I became president of the state respiratory therapy professional association.
Church leadership was another rewarding part of my life. I enjoyed teaching children’s Sabbath school and serving as local elder.
There remained a missing piece, however. I could feel the empty circle around me when others were happily chatting together in the church foyer after the worship service. My white cane clearly put people off; the discomfort of others was palpable. The church family was generally kind and generous, but why couldn’t they see that my family and I still needed friendship, just as before my accident?
A New Opportunity
“Come to Florida Hospital and learn how to minister to people with disabilities,” advertised the church bulletin insert. My mind started racing. If I could attend this seminar, perhaps I could help others see how to meet the needs of those with disabilities! Excitement filled my mind. Sharon shared my enthusiasm as we registered by phone for the program. Both of us received far more than we ever imagined.

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Pedal Partners: The author (left) with David Buckman, a friend since college, enjoy a day on the open road.

From that bulletin insert, God led us into a tremendously rewarding ministry. Because of that accident, because of my blindness, God has given me the privilege of working for people who, like me, have physical disabilities—a ministry that is not simply for my benefit, but can bless many others.
Because of my blindness, I have had the opportunity to travel and meet wonderful people, making eternal friendships. My first guide dog, Bo, taught me some of the most beautiful and deeply spiritual lessons. Because of this blindness, God has given me the ability to share God’s inclusive love with people who have been for too long excluded as a result of a disability. Blindness, God’s gift to me, has given me a richer, fuller, and deeper life than I could ever have hoped for.
An Unusual Gift
Yes, blindness can be a gift. It has been for me. An unusual gift, because our loving Father does not cause pain and difficulty. In a troubled world, though, God gives us some unusual but very effective tools.
The purpose of spiritual gifts, as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12, is to honor God’s name and bring others to an understanding of His lovely character.
I have to admit that, given the choice, I would rather have the gift of wisdom. Health is a desirable gift, as is financial security.

What Do You Think?
1. What life-changing event--either positive or negative--caused you to wonder about God's plans for your future?
2. Is it useful, or useless, to try to deciper God's will in the face of some tragedy? What is a more productive response?

3. To what segment of your community are you especially equipped to minister? How are taking advantage of that situation?

4. On a scale of one to five (with five the highest), how confident are you that you are where God wants you to be, doing what He wants you to do?

But if there were no blind followers of Jesus, who would relate to the people who are blind? Without deaf Christians, who would enter the deaf community and be a brother or sister to them? Can someone who has never suffered loss truly understand the lonely mother at the grave of her child? Shared experiences and common conditions build bonds that can be replaced by nothing else.
As the apostle Paul wrote: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:20, 22).
Indeed, a disability can be a gift. I have chosen for it to be so in my life. I don’t feel diminished in any way by the simple fact that I am blind. Certainly there are inconveniences, just as there are challenges for everyone. But these inconveniences do not define our lives, nor do they undermine an individual’s human value. Individuals are defined most clearly by the responses chosen to the gifts bestowed.
Life itself is a gift from our loving heavenly Father. Each person must choose whether the circumstances of this precious life will become a gift or a curse. In fact, the ability to choose may be the most universal and meaningful gift of all.
What are your gifts?
Michael S. Harrell lives in Gallatin, Tennessee, with his wife, Sharon. He is director of clinical education for Passy-Muir, Inc. This article was published October 13, 2011.