Back in December I wrote about the frustration and embarrassment of a particular church service with our 30-year-old son, Joel, who has autism. Joel could not sit still that day, blew out the Advent candles, muttered under his breath the entire service, walked into the bathroom and flushed the toilet several times (you have to understand that this is a very small church, and our one bathroom is adjacent to a portion of the congregation), and, at the end of the worship set, stood up front, clapped his hands and said, very loudly, “It’s time to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!”
It wasn’t all embarrassment and frustration that day. I also wrote about the acceptance of our amazing family of God at the Oxford Vineyard. I hope you have a minute to read that post before reading Part II of this amazing story.
The following Sunday, an anxiety attack struck me out of the blue just as we were getting ready to leave for church. I don’t know if you’ve ever had one, but panic attacks are often mistaken for a heart attack. It feels as if an elephant is sitting on your chest. You can’t breathe. Your heart feels like it’s going to beat right out of your chest.
There was no way I could go to church. I sent Wally and Joel on without me. After an hour of deep breathing and prayer, the anxiety faded. Little did I know what was happening at church during that time.
Wally told me about it over lunch. I was gob-smacked (don’t you just love that word?!).
Our pastor’s wife, Kim, approached Joel before the service. “Joel, it’s your job to blow out the Advent candles today, OK? So, when it’s time, you and I will walk up front together.”
Joel grinned. Instead of doing what he “knows” he shouldn’t do—but because of the perseverative part of his personality, just can’t help doing—Kim made it his job to do it!
The Advent candles were lit, and the scriptures read. Kim and Joel stood off to the side, waiting, Kim’s arm around Joel’s shoulders.
Becky, the candle-lighter, began to pray. And pray. And pray.
Waiting is not Joel’s forte. Kim tightened her one-armed hug around Joel, whispering in his ear, determined to hold him in place until the right moment.
Finally, the prayer over, Joel and Kim walked forward. Joel leaned forward to blow out the candles.
He started back toward his seat with a smile on his face.
“Wait, Joel!” our pastor John exclaimed. “The band’s going to play Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and you can lead us in singing!
The worship band started in on that time-worn Christmas classic (definitely NOT a church staple!), and Joel walked back toward the front, where John handed him a mic. The entire congregation joined in, faces wreathed in smiles.
This is what you call redemption. Here’s the definition of “redeem” from the Miriam Webster Dictionary:
- To buy back, repurchase; to get or win back
- To free from what distresses or harms; to free from captivity by payment of ransom; to extricate from or help to overcome something detrimental; to release from blame or debt, clear; to free from the consequences of sin
- To change for the better; reform
- Repair, restore
- By inviting Joel forward to be a part of the Advent candle tradition, Joel’s dignity had been won back
- Wally had been freed from embarrassment or the distress of worrying about Joel upsetting the church service. Joel was part of the service
- The entire church service was changed for the better that morning. Everyone won. Joel felt important, accepted, and loved. Wally worshipped without worrying about Joel’s untraditional behavior. The congregation was re-membered, put back together as the Body of Christ, with every part present, accounted for, and able to act out of their gifts
- The repair and restoration that happened that morning were irrevocable. This is the Body of Christ as it was meant to be.
Please, please, please, if you are not able to take your child to church because of embarrassment over behavior or shame or an unaccepting congregation, print out these two posts and share them with your pastor. Ask if you could take some time together to brainstorm ways in which your child might be a part of congregational life. Just as he or she is. Behaviors and all.
That’s why Jesus came to earth. To redeem us. To free us. To extricate us. To purify us. To make us whole.
If you are interested in reading about the ways in which other families have found redemption in autism and other disabilities, in the church and the community, read Kathy’s newest book, The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities