Saturday, March 15th, 2014 – The Second Saturday in Lent
How Do You Experience God?
Christopher suggested one of those little, soul-searching questions upon which to base a meditation. “How do you experience God?” Carrying such a heavy question during the day and taking it to bed at night causes lively thought and wakefulness. I finally realized how often I experience God in my interactions with other people. I have chosen a familiar subject, the Special Olympics, and a favorite image from that program to demonstrate my answer.
As the parent of a child with disabilities, I have had to alter certain parental expectations and to redefine success to fit our realities. When my daughter was invited to join the Special Olympics program at New Trier during her sophomore year, I discovered a philosophy in action that celebrates those altered expectations and new definitions of success.
My daughter’s Special Education teacher, Lew, was the leader of the Special Olympics program. He was a genius at recruiting adult volunteer coaches, adult volunteers, student helpers, and Northwestern University students, so that each of his Special Olympians had a personal coach, two student helpers, and another adult or a Northwestern undergraduate as a support group. As observers, we parents watched a well-crafted service operation and a developing community, where everyone was teaching, learning, and caring for one another. One night a week for five months, the Olympians practiced to develop skills in their chosen event with the help of their group of supporters. I witnessed the presence of a loving, patient God by observing the dedication of the volunteers and the dignity of the competitors. The student helpers served their special athletes with encouragement, comfort, and care. During that time they also learned to recognize the courage and humanity of the young people they were serving.
On the day of the Track and Field Special Olympics, I relish the boisterous, bittersweet pageantry of the Parade of Athletes and Volunteers. As families, friends, and fans of the program clap and cheer, the Olympians pass the grandstand with or without the assistance of their helpers, until they reach the spot where they watch the Opening Ceremonies. At the end of these festivities, clustered in colorful groups, wearing the colors of their schools or sponsoring organizations, the athletes recite the Special Olympics oath. “Let me win. If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
I watch with happiness and apprehension, whenever the athletes test the skills they have practiced for five months. Although they have all worked hard enough to capture a gold medal, many will go home with a ribbon instead. I attend my daughter’s events and those of the other athletes as they face their challenges. For years, we, the grandstand crowd, waited for Tom, a New Trier Special Olympian, the only competitor possessing the necessary strength, stamina, and coordination to run in a mile-long event. When Tom sprinted across the starting line as a solitary runner, he escaped his daily limitations and raced the four laps around the stadium with a galloping, gold medal joy. We spectators always erupted with noisy exuberance as we shared his liberation.
To answer Christopher’s question, I offer Julie, a New Trier Special Olympics adult volunteer coach, who spent five months preparing Brian for his ten meter assisted walk. Since he usually used a wheelchair or a walker, we wondered how he would meet the challenge. On the afternoon of the competition, Julie and Brian’s helpers steadied him at the starting line. Parents, teachers, students, and friends gathered at the finish line to cheer his effort. As Brian laboriously walked the distance from start to finish without assistance, Julie did a modified duck-walk behind him with her arms surrounding him in a supportive embrace without ever touching him. Julie whispered encouragement and displayed an unforgettable smile of joy at his progress. They crossed the finish line as an awkward, beautiful unit. We celebrated Brian’s accomplishment with hugs and tears. Julie celebrated with that radiant smile. Julie is my favorite metaphor to describe a loving, patient, steadfast God who walks with us during our struggle from our starting points to our finish lines. Julie is one example of how I experience God.