I would like to introduce you to two remarkable people I have met. They reminded me of something that we all know, but too easily forget. May I show you what I mean?
Brian Gault is in some ways an average man. He lives in an average house, in an ordinary town and drives a small car. What makes Brian unusual is that he was born without any arms.
Brian is one of the 400 or so British survivors of the Thalidomide disaster 40 years ago. Thalidomide was a wonder drug that among other things greatly relieved the symptoms of morning sickness for pregnant women. But—too late—it was discovered that it had a terrible side effect. If taken early in pregnancy, it would stop, or stunt the development of the baby’s limbs. Thousands of children around the world, including Brian, were born with missing or severely deformed arms or legs.
Brian’s early life was miserable, mainly because of the well-intentioned efforts of a remorseful government to fit him with artificial arms. When, at the age of 3, he was told he would be given arms, he thought it meant arms like everyone else. But they fitted him with a contraption that was state of the art prosthetic limbs.
"I hated them, and would take them off every chance I had," Brian told me. "I didn’t need them because I had learned to use my legs and feet as most people use their arms and hands."
At age 13, the well-meaning therapists gave up, and accepted that Brian could live a normal life without arms. And he still does. He drives a car, landscapes his garden, decorates his home, plays soccer and runs a successful business venture.
And Brian and his wife, May, both staunch Christians, have found a cause to which they have devoted their lives. You see, Thalidomide is still being used in some countries, such as Brazil, where it is effective in alleviating the effects of leprosy. But tragically, some pregnant women do not understand the warning and dozens of children are still being born without limbs.
The Gaults have formed a charity called Look No Hands to help.
The other man I’d like to tell you about is Joe Cushman. Joe is serving a life without mercy sentence in West Virginia. In that state, life without mercy means just that, and it is unlikely that Joe will ever be released.
It is hard to imagine a more "legalistic" place than Mount Olive maximum security jail. Its stark cell blocks are surrounded by 20-foot high chain link fences, topped with relentless coils of razor wire. Armed guards watch every move. Just to get in I had to show two kinds of photo identification, and was then searched, photographed, tagged electronically, stamped with an ultraviolet imprint, searched again, passed through a metal detector and sniffed at by a dog trained to detect drugs. And I was just visiting!
But Joe Cushman does not behave like a man trapped behind bars. In this graceless environment, he lives a full and purposeful life. He will tell you enthusiastically: "I made mistakes, and messed up every relationship I had. The world punished me with a life without mercy. But in Jesus Christ I found mercy, forgiveness and a friend who would never leave me or forsake me. That allows me to live a life filled with purpose and joy. Yes, even in here."
Joe means it. It concerns him that his friends (naturally enough) are preoccupied with trying to help him become free.
"I understand why they are, but that just focuses me on what I don’t have. I may not have freedom, but that does not stop me living a life that is purposeful and useful."
Joe has that "peace that passes understanding" that Paul talked about. He is a tonic to visit. He gives new dimensions to my ideas of mercy, freedom and grace.
Brian and Joe are living examples of something many of us forget. Simply: let what you have define what you are, not what you don’t have.
"If I think of myself as a man without arms, I define myself as a cripple," explained Brian. "Wearing those artificial arms made me feel handicapped. I compared myself to people with normal arms. But I can live quite well using my legs and feet. In fact, about the only thing I can’t do is tuck my own shirt in. I am enabled by my legs and feet, not disabled by my lack of arms and hands."
Joe Cushman has arms, but his life is limited by prison walls if he allows it to be. But he refuses to let what he does not have—freedom—restrict him.
"I am free to serve, to work for the kingdom, and to enjoy that most important relationship of all. I really am a free man in all the ways that matter."
It is all too easy to let what we don’t have or are not to establish the boundaries and potential of our lives. I do not mean we should be kidding ourselves or living in a fantasy world. As individuals, and as a church fellowship, we must face reality. But see that reality as opportunity, not limitations. OK, so we are not as big a church as we were. We don’t have the income, resources, facilities or numbers of members that we once had. That can paralyze us and lead us to a bad attack of "if only."
Brian Gault refuses to think in terms of "if only I had arms." And I have never heard my friend Joe Cushman say, "If only I was free."
They realize they can do so much as they are and where they are. And there is so much we can do, as we are, where we are. It is whose you are, not who you are, or who you wish you were that counts. Jesus Christ is quite able to build the kingdom with widows’ mites and the "off-scourings of the earth."
When we compare our church today with what we were 15 years ago, it is tempting to dwell on what we don’t have. But that is a sure formula for thinking of ourselves as prisoners and cripples. No Christians need think that way. Jesus Christ said he has made us whole and free.
Actually we are still very much abled. We are still a worldwide fellowship, and that of itself is a wonderful asset. We are a disciplined and praying people. We know our Bibles. We are used to working together to do a work. And we have had our understanding reinforced and corrected by the gospel of grace.
We may not look quite as impressive as we once did. But having to wear a prison uniform doesn’t hold Joe Cushman back. Not being able to tuck his shirt in doesn’t stop Brian Gault.
Joe and Brian have taken Jesus at his word.