Unexpected Joy

Unexpected Joy

Living in the glow of daily surrender.

by Lyla Swafford

Mom says I was a beautiful baby when I was born, except for the ring around my neck — my umbilical cord. On the day of my arrival, the cord designed to support me for nine months became a lasso around my neck and kept me from a safe entry into the world.

The doctors pronounced me dead three times. But God had other plans.

Troubling condition

It must have seemed like gray storm clouds forming on the horizon for my family when I couldn’t move around like other young children. Mom intuitively knew something was amiss.

At the age of two, after many appointments with doctors, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The lack of oxygen at birth had affected every part of my body, and the impact on my life has been profound.

Limitations

One of my earliest memories of that impact was on my parents’ wheat farm in Montana, a wonderful place for my siblings and friends to run and play. Even at a young age, my heart longed to keep up with my peers, but my crippled legs made it hard for me to join them.

When I needed to move quickly because it was cold or the wind was whipping across the prairie, I couldn’t breathe unless I nestled my face into my dad’s chest. I tried to help Dad, wanting him to hurry while carrying me into the house on a cold winter’s night or when helping me catch up to my playmate.

Unfortunately, doing this made his task more difficult because my body always stiffened. In time, I learned to relax in Dad’s arms so he could carry me easily. I didn’t dwell on what I couldn’t do. I was too busy laughing and joking and talking and telling my younger brother what to do.

Seeds of faith

Wednesday was my favorite day of the week because Mom’s friend, Crystal, volunteered to lead a Good News Club. She planted seeds of faith in my heart by telling Bible stories using a flannel board and brightly colored felt images.

I would have sung songs all the way home from those meetings, but my little brother complained and whined, “Mom, please make her stop singing.” Crystal helped me understand that Jesus loved me. I gave my heart to Him and began to walk by faith.

Schooling

At age four, I started attending special schools where I underwent painful therapy. All of the schools were a long way from home. Too young to be away from my family, I stayed with foster families for several years until Dad finished harvesting and moved the family to the area where I lived.

By age twelve, after several years of going to special schools for therapy, my dream of attending public school came true. Mainstreaming children with disabilities wasn’t law until 1975, but the school in our small farming community made an exception for me.

Study stress

I thought going to public school meant I was “normal,” but the gray cloud of feeling different still hung over me when I was teased worse than ever. My experience didn’t live up to my expectations.

Although Mom helped with my homework, I worried about keeping up so much, I almost developed ulcers. But quarter after quarter, I passed all my classes.

New direction

Finally, with high school graduation a few months away, I asked God to show me what He wanted me to do next. My girlfriend invited me to a retreat with her youth group. I struggled to walk around the campground, but my new friends helped me. Pastor Ron’s messages about Jesus and the singing filled me with joy.

When my parents picked me up after the retreat, I said, “I had a great time! The speaker was very encouraging. He told us that God has a plan for our lives.”

Then I took a deep breath and continued, “He’s from George Fox, a Christian college in Oregon. I think it sounds like a perfect place for me to go to college!”

Parental concerns

My parents were hesitant when I sprang this idea on them. “Honey,” my dad replied, “that’s too big of a decision to make just by hearing a guy talk.”

Reality began to sink in as Mom added, “We’ve never heard of George Fox. Besides, it’s a long way from home.”

Breakthrough

Over the next several months, it was as though the Red Sea opened. The principal of my small high school allowed me to invite Chaplain Ron to speak at my graduation.

After the ceremony, he came out to my house and had a long talk with my parents. Then I was on my way to George Fox in Newberg, Oregon!

College challenges

On the first day, I feared my college days were over because I fell on my way to class and sprained my ankle. I hobbled to class, but I couldn’t stand when class ended. So some strong guy lifted my chair and carried me to my dorm.

The energy it took to walk around campus and keep up with my homework drained me. Often on my way to lunch, I visited the prayer chapel to ask for strength to finish the day.

Helpful friends

All the way through college, God hand-picked my friends to do a variety of tasks for me. I couldn’t read my handwriting, so they used carbon paper to make copies of their notes for me. I didn’t have an electric scooter or a computer, so friends offered to carry my books. Sarah agreed to type the final drafts of my term papers.

At my college graduation, the audience probably prayed I wouldn’t fall when I walked forward unsteadily to receive my diploma in 1976. I’m thankful I didn’t fall. My heart was beating fast, full of dreams of how I would glorify God.

Shattered dream

I thought I would do this by supporting myself and helping others overcome their disabilities. I thought my plans were from God but later discovered I was interpreting God’s will based on what I saw other people doing.

My dream of supporting myself shattered because I couldn’t find a job. When I needed to move into subsidized housing, I wondered what the Lord had in store for me.

I believed Proverbs 3:5, 6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (KJV). Yet in my studio apartment, I was feeling alone and discouraged.

Calling

One dreary October afternoon in 1980, I staggered several blocks to catch a bus to my friend’s home. I enjoyed a delicious dinner, then other friends arrived for our weekly Bible study.

Our guest speaker, Bettie Mitchell, shared how God had called her to teaching and counseling. As the founder and director of Good Samaritan Ministries (GSM), she has helped many people find a way out of victim mentality.

I visited Bettie for counseling. My gray clouds of discouragement broke apart when I accepted that God wanted to use me for His purposes. I’ve been a member of GSM ever since, both as a client in need of counseling and then as a counselor, enjoying weekly Samaritan training for many years.

Marriage and family

Not too long after college graduation, I met a man who lived in the apartment house across the street from where I lived. He was the first man who’d ever shown interest in me.

We married within a few months, and I had the blessing of becoming a mother. I was thrilled to take care of my little girl, but my physical limitations frustrated me. I wound up in tears the first time I dressed her, because I couldn’t fasten the snaps on her outfit. My mom solved the problem by putting Velcro on Rachael’s baby clothes.

Although our difficult marriage ended in divorce, God has provided a team of friends to walk beside me and help me throughout my life.

Surrender

A friend asked me to write and present a devotional about surrender. I laughed when he said, “You do it so well because of all the practice you’ve had.”

That’s true. Every new season in life has brought about different circumstances. I learned that surrendering to God goes against our human nature and that all of us are being transformed into the image of God. It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve walked with the Lord or how many challenges we face, surrendering is always difficult.

Yet each time I do so, God floods me with joy. I can’t get down on the floor and play with my grandchildren, but I turn to God, and He guides me to what I can do. Several times a day, God gives me a choice to do things my way or let Him help me. He gives me joy in return.

Faithful God

I’ve struggled with the prospect that my life will become more restrictive as I age and become more dependent on other people. But the gray clouds of fear break up when I remember how God has faithfully carried me through all my ups and downs.

I choose to listen to wise words from C.S. Lewis: “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing yet had been done.”

I also relate to the psalmist’s words: “Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help. You turned my wailing into dancing . . . and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever” (Psalm 30:10-12, NIV).

Despite the difficulties of cerebral palsy, I have profound joy in God’s grace now and for as long as I live.