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Friday, July 22, 2011

GIFT IN DISGUISE


I was hyperactive, had a short attention span and acted on impulse. I thought I would never amount to anything.
When I was a kid, my hyperactivity was always getting me into trouble. Most people figured I would grow 
up to be a criminal. A little voice inside me convinced me I was a failure, that I would never amount to anything. I had what's known today as A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder). Back then, they called it B.R.A.T. But, I wasn't your normal brat. I was so off-the-wall that I had air bags on my baby buggy. I was seven years old before I knew my name wasn't 'Settle Down'. At school, I tried to behave and be like the other kids but I had a short attention span and was in perpetual motion. Things popped into my brain that I had no control over, like, 'Get up and run around the room'. Something brilliant was always escaping my mouth before I could stop it.

When I was in the third grade, I had a teacher who understood kids like me. Mrs. Hollan was an older lady with big fluffy hands; she loved children. When I couldn't sit still, she'd ask the student teacher to take over the class. We would go for a walk around the Hollibrook Elementary School and she would tell me, "Mark, it's okay to be hyperactive. God likes hyperactive kids."

Now, I had heard people say God loved me, before, but I had never heard anybody say God liked me. Knowing that helped because I had a big self-image problem. Other kids made fun of me because I had a little bitty body and a huge head. When I wore a ball cap, it looked like a thimble sitting on a grapefruit. And I never was any good at sports. Besides the fact that I was about as coordinated as a blob of Silly Putty, I had a hard time staying still long enough for a ball to get to me. When I went out for baseball, they made me the water boy.

For most of my childhood, I was on Ritalin. I could have been the poster boy for hyperactivity. Every day, I came home from school with notes hanging on my lapel, from teachers, telling about all the messes I had managed to get myself into. But, at night, Mama and Daddy always tucked me into bed and reassured me: "There are not enough trees and there's not enough paper for us to stop loving you. And, God is even better than that. One day, God's going to use you, Mark. But, until he does, take this pill."

By the grace of God, I managed to get through high school. In 1976, I went away to college to study business and, during that time, I felt God was calling me into the music ministry. Nobody was more surprised than I was because I couldn't read music.

I began singing with the college evangelistic team. However, an encounter between our van and an 18-wheeler one night, on the way home from a church concert, was the end of that. I thought my ministry was over but a friend decided he would be my booking agent. This guy was amazing. He called churches where they didn't know him and didn't know me. And, next thing I knew, I was booked for 43 concerts in 41 days. I set out on the road with my clothes on a rod across the back seat of my car and a sound system in my trunk.

When I sang in churches, I got antsy while soundtracks were being changed. Those few seconds seemed like an eternity. To pass the time and lighten things up, I found myself telling stories about my life - my hyperactive childhood, my visits with a psychiatrist as a third grader and my older brother, who was so perfect we used his halo for a night-light.

Something began to happen. People laughed at my monologues. At first, I thought they were laughing at my testimony but, then, I figured it out. Here would come Mr. Serious in a polyester suit and vest singing a soft, slow song that practically put an audience into a coma. Who expected humor to be coming next? Soon, my singing was just an act that I used to lull folks before I zinged 'em.

For eight years, I traveled around the country and slept on pastors' couches, ate in their homes, schmoozed the congregations and got nowhere. The road got to be a real downer. I remember one gig, in particular. I had sung every song I knew, told all my stories and did the best I could. After the applause died down, the pastor walked up to me, stuck out his hand, gave me a big old smile and said, "Thank you for coming." Then, he just walked away. That was it. No love offering, not even ten bucks for gas money.

I was tired and hungry and, deep down inside, I was ticked. Not at the church folks - I was mad at God. I drove down the Pennsylvania Turnpike and, for a solid hour, I told God exactly what I thought. "Your employee didn't get paid tonight," I reminded Him. "My stomach likes food. This car likes gas. We'll be hitching rides in a matter of days. What are we going to do?"

Every year, I went to Estes ParkColorado, for the Christian Artists Seminar in the Rockies. During the day, I took songwriting courses and entered competitions with other aspiring artists. At night, we saw acts featuring established performers. As I watched from back in the registrant area, I thought, "I can't sing as good as any of them but I can sure talk as good as any of them. If I could just get up there on stage, I know I could say something everybody could relate to."

Then, in 1988, while I was in Los Angeles to perform at some churches, I had dinner with my good friend, Lynn Barrington. Lynn really knows the record industry and I'd always found her to be a straightforward, objective person. We cornered ourselves off at a quiet table at the Moustache CafĂ©.

"I just don't understand it," I confided, as I polished off a chocolate soufflĂ©. "I'm doing two hundred concerts a year. People like my stories. I've gone to Estes Park for eight years in a row but I can't get a record company even to look at me."

Lynn didn't mince words. "The people at Estes Park aren't your source, Mark. God is. All your bills are being paid and you've never missed a meal - obviously. You've never had to work Monday through Friday so you could go out and sing on the weekends. You know what your problem is? You're ungrateful. Why should God give you any more when you haven't even stopped to thank Him for what you've already got?"

I gulped. She was right. I didn't have to be somewhere Monday morning asking, "You want fries with that?" God had taken a hyperactive kid who most folks thought would be locked up by then and given him all these opportunities. I hadn't even thought to thank Him. As soon as I was alone, I prayed: "From day one, you've taken care of me, God. Please forgive me."

Once I began to appreciate my blessings, my whole outlook changed. In fact, I grew so content that, when a door finally opened at Estes Park six months later, I almost didn't walk through it. I was having a blast working with kids at a camp at Jekyll IslandGeorgia, when the call came offering me a spot on the program. I couldn't see flying all the way to Colorado, performing for ten minutes and, then, flying right back to camp. But, friends kept the phone lines hot. "You've just got to do this," they pressed.

When I got there, Sandi Patty was hosting the program. When Sandi sings, sometimes my goosebumps get goosebumps. All of a sudden, she introduced me and I was scared out of my mind. I took the mic and immediately started hyperventilating, praying and talking. (I can do three things at once; it's one of the benefits of being hyperactive.) "If Sandi laughs, I'll do anything you want me to do, God. I'll go to Africa. I'll wear polyester Bermuda shorts for the rest of my life..."

"I grew up in a strict church home," I began, "and, ever since, I've wanted to do a church my way. I'm putting in La-Z-Boys with Big Gulp holders and a remote control. I figure, if you're going to sleep, you might as well enjoy it."

Everyone howled and I was on a roll. "When the church doors were open," I continued, "the Lowry family was all right there. But, don't think I didn't try to get out of going - like any normal kid. Many times, I'd say 'Daddy, I'm too sick to go to church'. He'd say, 'Throw up and prove it'. If I couldn't throw up, I went to church. And, if I did throw up, he'd say, 'Now, don't you feel better? Let's go to church'."

When I looked out into the audience, Sandi Patty was leaned over - laughing. All those years, I had looked up to her and, now, I was making this dear, gifted person laugh. Thank you, God. Thank you.

As I left that exhilarating standing ovation behind to go back to camp, at last I understood. God had designed me a little differently to fill the place in his plan reserved just for me. My hyperactivity, short attention span and impulsiveness weren't defects at all. Rather, they were God's gifts in disguise. When I turned them over to Him, He channeled them into a package of skills just perfect for a comedian: high energy, enthusiasm, creativity, spontaneity, the ability to read an audience quickly. It's like that verse in the Bible says: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (II Corinthians 12:9, NIV).

Mama and Daddy were right. God was going to use me. And, wherever that might be, I would do it joyfully. These days, through the use of humor, I try to get people to take God more seriously and themselves less seriously. For I believe, with all my heart, that when God hears His children's laughter, He smiles.

This article, written by Mark Lowry, first appeared in Guideposts magazine. 

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