We would never travel across the country without stopping in to spend several days enjoying time with Cynthia and David Dann, our cherished friends. We always enjoy our conversations, shared encouragement and plenty of laughs during the times that David preached for us several times in Oregon, and when Mark had preached for the Dann’s congregation when they lived in Texas.
After worshipping at the Hebron Lane church of Christ in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, where David teaches, I couldn’t decide which of their many strengths I would choose to highlight. I loved how both David Dann and Ron Halbrook’s sermons were so also thorough and also direct, and yet clear and easily understood.
I also appreciated that during the announcements, a longer list of options for accessing Bible information was included --- resources most every congregation offers, but does not often say much about: downloaded copies of sermons upon request, Bible correspondence courses, website resources, offering a study with the preacher, and so on.
I thought it wise that several times during the course of worship, we were reminded of something along the lines of... “this very moment is the best to make your life right with God, and Ron Halbrook’s loving, expectant, eye to eye stare down into the eyes of individuals within the congregation singing the invitation song, could not be missed.
In addition, this congregation is blessed to have seasoned, accomplished preacher Connie and Bobbie Adams worshipping and working alongside them as well. I could talk about that, but there’s another different thing about the churches of Christ. The most accomplished preachers often remain quite humble and see themselves as servants, not rock stars and they do what they do because they love souls and deeply desire to hear God say one day to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant”. Special attention is awkward for it’s smacking of denominational showmanship in order “to be seen by men” (Matthew 6:1), so I knew I wouldn’t write about that. It was going to be a hard call, that is until little Luke Jermont energetically ran past with his mom, Jodie, not too far behind. Ah, yes. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19:14), I thought to myself. And “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” I thought, admiring Luke from afar. “God… gives grace to the humble” I recalled, feeling a theme for this congregation coming on.
Luke stopped to show off his new skill at bye-bye waves and I squatted down to try to coax the special little man my way for a little more conversation. All I got was more bye-bye waves, but they were cute enough I felt satisfied. I stood up and laughed with his mother explaining my determination, “I’m a little bit partial, I admit. Years ago we were expecting a child with Down Syndrome, but he died in utero right before delivery.” Jodie threw out several guesses as to how our son died --- plausible guesses only the mother of a child with Downs Syndrome could take and we exchanged stories. Her matter-of-fact attitude reminded me of my own. I could relate to her. We don’t really know how our son died. He just did.
It was 1989, in around my third month of pregnancy when we learned our son, Mark Maxwell Dunagan, would have Down Syndrome. It took it hard, especially because the year before we had lost a full term baby girl named Karena Charmaine Dunagan to anencephaly. Carrying a child to term who had zero chance of survival outside the womb was especially difficult because we needed my income and in order to have that income I had to interact all day with hundreds of customers going through my grocery line congratulating me and asking if I was hoping for a boy or a girl. I knew once I got through that year, things would be better. But this new diagnosis was for life. So I spent the whole pregnancy preparing for that life, reading books on the topic, going to classrooms where special needs children were being taught, and going to a center in Vancouver, Washington who helped teach mothers how to meet the special needs of their children with Down Syndrome. It was there that I remember meeting a beautiful, young mother with quite an assortment of adopted children --- all with Down Syndrome. She was energetic, laughing and looked to be having the time of her life. As we chatted, she informed me that children with Down Syndrome were her “favorite” and that she was going to adopt as many as the state would allow her. I was both stunned and delighted to realize I could choose to perceive my situation with that kind of attitude. This lovely mother was the first of many I would meet who would talk about everything from “This child was the best thing that ever happened to our family” to “I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.” It was inspiring. As was this new family I had met at the Hebron Lane church of Christ.
I friended Luke’s mom, Jodie, on Facebook, and privately messaged her about giving her perspective about being Luke’s mom, and especially what the local family of God has done to encourage Jermonts as a family, so that other congregations can love similarly challenged families well.
When Jodie and her husband Chad found out she was pregnant, they were jubilant and knew they both REALLY wanted a boy. Then about 12 weeks into her pregnancy, a routine scan came back abnormal. They grieved hard for about a week over the contrast between what they had expected, and now not really know WHAT they could expect. They just knew it would not be easy. For that dark week, Chad was “the strong one”, which gave Jodie to feel the extent of her pain and to be held up by Chad’s unconditional love. “We got our boy”, he encouraged her, and with that kind of steadfast love, Jodie decided to “do what you gotta do” and take life one day at a time.
When Luke was born, Jodie remembers “The second I saw his face - I knew everything would be okay” and when Luke smiled, her heart melted to such an extent, she knew her love was deep enough to go the distance, no matter what. And that distance has been no cakewalk these six years. The list of surgeries, close calls, difficult judgment calls, setbacks, and discouraging health news has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride, but from the time they announced to their spiritual family Luke’s challenges and that baby shower was given to celebrate Luke and welcome him to the world, Jodie has found the family of God to so thoroughly meet her family’s unique needs, the times she needs to go to her local network of mothers of children who have Downs Syndrome to be far and few between.
One of the most encouraging conversations she had was with a brother in Christ, told Jodie she and her husband were talking one night about how happy Luke is and how much they loved being around him and the husband said he was always scared or felt like he wouldn’t know how to take of a kid with special needs, if he ever had one, but then he met Luke and he just saw how happy he was and how easy it was to be around him and he realized it wouldn’t be easy but he knew because of his experience with Luke, that if he had a baby that had Down's Syndrome or something similar, he said he could do it because Luke just changed his perspective on everything.
As it turns out, Luke is a kind of ambassador who, like many children with Down Syndrome, teach us to not be so afraid. Children with Downs Syndrome teach the church, and everyone else, to love a little better and to perhaps think less often about achievement. They show us how to express joy with less inhibition --- to stop striving for position or dominance and instead to cheer others on. They teach us to have a faith that trusts more completely, with questioning of God. They show us how to slow down and find delight in simple things and accept what is before us.
The challenges these families face vary, of course, and one of the hardest, Jodie says, is a future so uncertain that it is hard to plan a life ten or twenty years from now. “What will Luke’s set of life skills look like?” she wonders. Are most of his health challenges in the past? Will he in adulthood be able to live at least semi-independently? Everything remains to be seen, so instead the Jermonts live more in the moment, which is quite a Biblical perspective when we think about Jesus’s words “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself” Matthew 6:34.
So while Chad and Jodie live in the moment they take note of the wins: the fact that since day one, Luke slept through the night (feeding tubes are a hassle and a half, but they DO have the advantage of a baby who is never hungry). And now that Luke eats like everyone else, he’ll happily eat up whatever is placed before him. The milestones are not easily obtained and are anticipated longer, but somehow when Luke learns a new skill, the joy is felt that much more deeply. And the best “win” is how much Luke loves people, and how much people love Luke. In fact, Luke’s teacher has sent Jodie videos of the other students collectively cheering him on at recess like he’s a superstar, building his confidence that the world is on his side. We are Mr. Luke. We are on your side. And at the end of the day, you’ll be snuggling your mommy more years than most the other boys, and she’ll count it a win that you still haven’t outgrown being rocked to sleep. While you are rocking with mom, the words from the very mouth of God that have kept mom’s spirit fed through the joys and sorrows of this, her unexpected life, will forever gently soothe her spirit while she’s rocking you:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6
Thank you, body of Christ, for loving those God loves. He gives grace to the humble, and so do you.
Hebron Lane church of Christ
3221 E. Hebron Lane
Shepherdsville, KY 40165