“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.” (1 Corinthians 12:18-23)
Sitting with my son through an entire church service is no easy task. As a matter of statistical fact, most parents of special needs children choose to not attend church (or they attend sparingly) because of the stress that accompanies potential, attention-grabbing disturbances caused by their child’s disability.
It’s easier to stay home and stay out of the congregational eye—the eye that seemingly stares and judges and blinks and winks.
“Yet the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
Indispensable: Not subject to being set aside or neglected; absolutely necessary; essential. (Merriam Webster)
My son is a 20-year-old autistic man with the cognitive mentality of a 2-year-old child, yet he is indispensable to the congregation of Redemption Church. He cannot speak (although he can make plenty of noise) yet he is indispensable to the worship service. He constantly kicks the chair of the person in front of him, he claps during the quiet times and cannot sit still for five minutes, much less the length of a sermon. Yet he is indispensable to the church—indispensable to the Body of Christ.
How can the least become essential and the weaker become indispensable in God’s seemingly backwards, upside down and inside out church body? With Jesus as the head, let me show you a picture of God’s great grace in the Body of Christ—His Church.
It’s Sunday morning and Jake is sitting in the very back row of the sanctuary. We are not placed in the back because we are unimportant; we choose the back mostly for strategic reasons. A hasty exit is sometimes required. Four seats are reserved for our family. This is just one of the ways our church ministers to us.
My wife sits on one side of Jake and I sit on the other. We take turns stroking his arms and his back to keep him calm enough to sit through an entire worship service. His mother runs her fingers through his thinning auburn hair. It has always been Jake’s sedative.
But this service is different. The pastor has just preached one of his final messages from an entire sermon series in the book of Romans and has come to a key verse that obviously catches Jake’s attention. The verse is Romans 16:16 “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.”
Jake perks up and listens as the pastor begins to apply the text, asking the congregation, “Why don’t we do that anymore? Why don’t we show affection in the church? Why don’t we greet each other with hugs and kisses? Why are we afraid of touch?”
Jake nods in approval of the pastor’s plea and gives an affirming grunt—his unmistakable, “Amen!”
I give my wife that silent look. She knows what it means. We have learned to speak clearly without words over the years—across rooms, through crowds, over noise, and in church. It’s a head slightly tilted forward, wide-eyed, pursed lip look. A nervous mix of, “Isn’t that cute” and “Batten down the hatches, something is about to happen!”
The pastor continues as he concludes his sermon. “We’re going to try something new today. (Just what every good church member wants to hear) After The Lord’s Supper, turn to the person next to you and give him or her a hug. And show some affection!”
You could feel the uncomfortable anticipation creep across the room as people began to think, “Is he serious? We have to touch each other, beyond a casual handshake?” I imagined what the visitors were thinking that morning; some after sneaking quietly into the room, now were exposed to their worst fear—being ousted from their anonymity and physically embraced by complete strangers.
People were looking around the room, checking out their neighbors, their prospective huggers, and the nearest exits.
I honestly remember thinking to myself, “If some guy tries to kiss me, I’m going to put him on the ground.” My heart began to drift—like hearts do, when they are afraid.
But the man-child moved to the edge of his seat and leaned in to the pastor’s words.
As the final prayer was prayed, the “amen” was sounded and the congregation dismissed, people began to mill uncomfortably towards each other. Some even tried to head for the door and avoid the offending invasion of their personal comfort zones.
The pastor gently prodded, “Come on now, find someone to hug before you leave!”
Two or three married couples at the front of the church, closest to the pastor, did a lean in shoulder bump with a patronizing pat on the back. Then a few more followed suite, as most of the congregation simply did not know how to respond to the awkward invitation and were content to go through the motions to please the pastor.
And that’s when it happened.
That’s when the broken little toe led the foot, and the foot led the leg, and the leg led the body, and the weaker member became indispensable.
Jake sprung from his seat and bolted into the isle before we could catch him. He ran straight over to an older gentleman (who was trying to exit the building unnoticed and presumably untouched) and nearly knocked him off his feet with a bear hug. It wasn’t gentle and it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t short lived. Jake held onto the man until I could get through the crowd of people to pull him off. The stern look on the man’s face told me this was an uninvited intrusion into his wide, impermeable bubble.
But just as I began to unwrap Jake’s grip from the victim’s shoulders and apologize for the inconvenience, I noticed wetness in the older man’s eyes. Jake held tight and the man resigned his objection; his body went somewhat limp as sternness melted to a smile and unsure hands reciprocated the embrace.
My son finally released the man and I thought all was well and complete, but before I could redirect Jake back to his seat or to an exit door, he broke loose again. This time instead of restraining him, I let him go—because sometimes you have to set people free to experience the greatest freedom yourself.
He ran to hug another, and another, and yet another. He was laughing and jumping and hugging and loving. It was sloppy and loud and rough and painful. And the entire body was watching and learning and discovering what “indispensable” really meant.
Soon others joined in and the hugs spread like sparks jumping from a small, intense fire. As the wind of the Spirit blew where it pleased, the sparks turned to flames and raged through the church. But the only thing that burned up that day was the long-standing boundaries around comfort zones of personal pride and inward self-esteem.
People were laughing and talking and whooping and hugging—real hugs—feet off the ground, cheek to cheek, steal your breath hugs. And unbeknownst to most of the congregation, Jake was in the middle of it all, like an imprisoned apostle set free; like a preacher without a voice, called by God to “go and make disciples”.
That Sunday started something new for Jake, and something new for the local body of Christ at Redemption Church—a sort of mini revival set afire by the unsuspecting, silent ember of one indispensable blazing heart.
Now every Sunday he sits, waiting for the end of the service. Waiting for the Lord’s Supper, the closing benediction and the final “Amen”. Not so he can get home and watch Sunday afternoon football or fix Sunday dinner or take a Sunday nap. Those things are the farthest from his simple mind.
He lives to apply the meaning of the message with complete lack of inhibition for his unbridled, bubble busting, in your face, knock you to the ground, God honoring, Jesus exalting, Spirit saturated —joy!
Sometimes it’s loud and painful. Sometimes he pokes an eye, or lands a knee, or leaves a slobbered wet spot on someone’s clean Sunday best. Sometimes we have to restrain his ambition just a bit for the protection of the elderly and the petite. Sometimes we wince when a visitor gets picked for the embrace. It’s usually awkward and it’s almost always uncomfortable.
But every Sunday after church, the real worship begins in the heart of obscurity. And an autistic, non-verbal, disabled, man-child shines like a white hot spotlight of God’s grace for the motley, multifaceted church body to see and understand—
“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor.