His Church, Our Weakness, Pure Joy.
The band hit the first note and people flooded forward, dancing before they had even left their seats. An oversized tricycle sat on the perimeter just in case it was needed, and jumper cables lay beside the alter. I could feel my heart race; I’d been waiting two years to experience this. Actually, I’d been waiting twenty years – every since the first moment my son Max was diagnosed with autism.
My dear friend Krista had a God-sized vision when she planted this church and built Benjamin’s Hope, a community named after her son and designed for those with and without disabilities. It is in Holland, Michigan, where people are born kinder than most, with hearts as big as the farmland stretching around them. The church, in the very center of Benjamin’s Hope, hosts a fully inclusive worship service every Sunday night called The Gathering. Dancing is encouraged. Jumping is expected. Sitting is optional.
When the music finished Pastor Eric stepped to the front and welcomed us. He is tall and tree-like, stretching above the congregation to offer us safe shelter. I looked at the faces around me; over 100 people had gathered, many with needs on the outside, all of us with needs on the inside. We sat beneath a huge white tent that rose above us like peaks of meringue. Pastor Eric began to tell us about God’s power to help us when we cry out to him, when we ask him for help. My heart hurt a little with the magnitude of needs around me. He then held up long gangly jumper cables to simulate how this transfer of power takes place. But before he could finish his point, a commotion broke out beside me. Two young women with disabilities were visibly upset, perhaps at each other.
“Is everything ok,” Pastor Eric asked gently as he turned toward our front row. “Should we stop and pray?”
As if waiting for the invitation, several young men who live at Benjamin’s Hope jumped forward to pray, eyes closed, hearts open. I ached at the simple beauty of stopping life, of asking to God to come to our rescue at this very minute, before we can go forward. “God, please help us love each other,” one young man with autism began to pray. “Please give us peace.” It took my breath away. This is who we should be in our churches, I thought to myself: totally transparent; willing to drop everything to be with one another in our needs; able to be present with someone without demanding that they change for our convenience. How many of our families affected by disability sit at home on Sunday mornings because they can’t find their way into a seemingly perfect church? How many people without disabilities stay home for exactly the same reason? Tears filled my eyes as if my heart had been pried opened. God wants us to come to him as we are, open, vulnerable, even in our most untidy state. Another young man stepped forward to take the microphone. “And God,” he added thoughtfully, assertively, “Please help these two girls to stop horsing around.”
Pastor Eric finished his sermon and the band began to play again. I jumped to my feet to dance with anyone and everyone. It was as if the whole congregation was effervescent. We swayed and hugged and cried. I glanced over my shoulder to look for Krista; I wanted to flash her a smile to tell her, ‘this changed my life.’ But she wasn’t looking towards me. Instead she was standing in front of her son Ben, who is twice her size now, just gazing into his eyes. I watched as Krista slowly reached up and tenderly cupped her hands around Ben’s face.
As The Gathering came to a close we began to sing the benediction,
may you grow in grace,
and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
I smiled as Krista reached for my hand, and then I noticed everyone else in the church holding hands too. We looked like a string of paper dolls. As we sang, the entire church lifted their locked hands up toward the sky. Everyone at The Gathering became connected, unified, as if the entire church had become part of a long twisting jumper cable. I could hear every kind of voice around me, some on key, some shouting out, and my own voice cracking with emotion. I didn’t want this moment to end. With my hands held high, I tipped my head back like a baby bird and drank it in.
“To God be the glory,” we sang,
“now and forever,
now and forever.”
By Emily Colson
For more information on The Gathering, go to www.Benjaminshope.net