Blog Contest Winner – Glen

  • By: Joni and Friends
  • Sept. 10, 2014

Glen with his wife, Emily, and son, GabrielTo celebrate 35 years of Joni and Friends ministry, we recently held our first blog contest. We invited you to share on your personal blog how Joni and Friends has impacted your life! This week, we’re featuring the winning entries. Today’s post was written by Glen S. – his son Gabriel was born with Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome. As a winner, he’s receiving a copy of Another Kind of Courage: God’s Design for Fathers of Families Affected by Disability, co-written by Joni and Friends President Doug Mazza and VP Steve Bundy, and the Joni feature film. Please take a moment to read Glen's post and leave him a comment of congratulations!

A Bereaved Father’s Retrospect on Joni and Friends Family Retreat

“And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves." Mark 6:31-32 (ESV)

Emily, my wife, and I recently returned from visiting Joni and Friends Family Retreat – Bonclarken, NC. It was our second such visit in the 2 ½ years since our son, Gabriel, passed away. Before Gabriel died we were privileged to attend Joni and Friends Family Retreat – Bonclarken, NC as campers a total of four times. I am sometimes asked why the retreats have made such a lasting impact on both my wife and I? I have struggled to give a really good answer for this question even in more formal interviews – until this last visit.

“And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.’ Mark 14:32-34 (ESV)

My best friend Thomas explains that the quality of life of a family dealing with the effects of a disability is not summed up in the services provided by our churches or by the state.  Rather the quality of a life of our families is affected most by the quality of the relationships we have with others – first with the Father through Jesus, then nuclear and extended families, finally with our church and community. On what can only be concluded as the toughest night of His earthly life, Jesus called together the friends who would stand with Him to pray with him. Even Jesus, the Son of God, in His humanity desired to be comforted by friends.

As fathers we spend the majority of our day in an attempt to provide for our families. During Gabriel’s lifetime, I averaged 3 ½ hours of sleep each night in an attempt to meet his and Emily’s needs. This is exhausting. I required many individuals and our church to help see me through these difficult times. Yet, the constant struggle to meet Gabriel’s many needs and the effect that it was having on me was often the very things which kept me from building the relationships which I so desperately needed.

So how does Joni and Friends Family Retreats fit into this equation? At Family Retreat, fathers from around the region and country come together to fellowship. For five days, we allow each other to be the wounded warriors that we are. How is it that a group of men, many of whom are strangers at the start of the week, quickly overcome male bravado or inhibition and allow themselves to become vulnerable?

I recently explained this phenomenon with “The Elephant in the Room Analogy.” It goes something like this. The disability of our family member is often a stumbling block in our relationships with others. Many times they don’t know or understand the difficulties which we face every day. When they do know or seek to understand, how can we expect them to completely empathize with how lengthy sleep deprivation is affecting us or how the constant absence from corporate worship drains our spirits? This is “the elephant in the room.”

At Joni and Friends Family Retreat, the presence of a disability within the family is assumed. It is understood. Its presence within each relationship forged at Family Retreat is, therefore, not just expected but celebrated. It is understood by all that at some point the family member who has a disability may need us. (This need is greatly reduced by the presence of Short Term Missionaries, whose task it is to help meet the needs of our loved one.) It is realized by all parties that the other is probably sleep deprived. It is expected that the new friend is dealing with a hurt, pain, or wound in relation to the disability. So the disability becomes a constant within new relationship rather than a variable. So with the disability a constant, “the elephant” is taken out of the room.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

With the presence of a disability understood, expected, and even celebrated, men from around the country become vulnerable. We allow ourselves to express our wounds which we have felt the need to keep hidden from the world and even sometimes our families. Relationships, which usually take years to forge, often only take hours because a commonality has been established simply by our mutual presence at the Family Retreat. Much of the work of relationship building has already been done. Often by the Friday Closing Ceremony, new lifelong friendships have been forged. Just the kind of relationship we need to increase the quality of life of our family.

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The Stephen's family was a precious family that attended our retreats for 4 years with their little boy, Gabriel. Gabriel delighted our hearts and lit up the room when he was in it. We thank our Heavenly Father that He allowed us to meet and spend time with Gabriel before taking him home to Himself. Gabriel taught his family and all of us much. Thank you Glen for your powerful testimony of what family retreat means to a family impacted by special needs.
  • Sept. 11, 2014
  • 7:14 a.m.
  • Chris
Amen, and glory be to God! First of all, I am sorry for your loss.But thank you for sharing your heart and the impact Joni and Friends has had on your life. My brother is severely disabled and I can understand the 'elephant in room'. But being able to connect with others who share some of the same challenges you face is so rewarding in so many ways. AMEN!
  • Sept. 10, 2014
  • 4:47 p.m.
  • Melissa Vermey
Thank you for sharing your heart with us Glen. Thank you for helping us to understand. The elephant in the room makes it so clear. I understand not being able to fellowship with the body but not for the most difficult of circumstances as yours were. Well done Glen.
  • Sept. 10, 2014
  • 9:49 a.m.
  • Theresa Schwartz