By Emily Colson, author of Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free, writing about going to church with her autistic son Max; posted July 1, 2016, at http://www.keyministry.org , a website that “promotes meaningful connection between churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ.” Image copyright Emily Colson.
Something happened at church. Or perhaps what you need to know is, what didn’t happen.
I pulled up to the church and Max bounced out of the car swinging his favorite vacuum. Several people were unsuspectingly milling around by the front door, exchanging greetings. “Watch out for the people!” I yelled behind Max as I watched his 8-pound Oreck swing like a ten ton wrecking ball. I fully expected to see the crowd part like the Red Sea, people diving into the bushes head first as Max and his vacuum bolted toward them. But instead, they extended their arms for a handshake, or a pat on his back.
Every time I walk through the doors of our church I remember the years we lived in isolation, and the five years of staying home on Sunday mornings when we could not find our place. Autism held us hostage. But it is not a bitter memory; it is the soil from which God grew a victory. When I cross that threshold now with Max, it feels like holy ground.
Max comes most Sundays to serve as a greeter, and at the Welcome Center, and as part of the clean up team, otherwise known as the “Grunt Crew.”
Max has clearly been given one of the lesser-known spiritual gifts of vacuuming.
But what has changed Max’s life is what has changed mine: He is loved. He belongs. He is indispensable. We have been back at church for twelve years now, and none of this has been easy— sitting quietly is not part of Max’s skill set. But it’s as if the whole church is learning to breathe a little deeper, and in that, we find there is enough room for everyone.
After a wonderful and slightly aerobic morning, we could see from our seats at the Welcome Center that Pastor Paul was finishing up the message, or “the talking” as Max calls it. That’s Max’s cue. He flew into the sanctuary and took his position in the back. This is Max’s spot, up several stairs beside the sound booth.
He worships there most Sundays, all 190 pounds of him, dancing above the congregation.
Most Sundays Max bounces so hard that one would expect him to go right through the wooden platform floor, dunk tank style. But he won’t. Some of the men at church noticed the same risk. They got together one day and reinforced the floor where Max dances. It was months before anyone told me what the men had done. There was no mention of cost or inconvenience; no suggestion that perhaps the sound booth should not be used as a 1960s GoGo booth. Instead, they just strengthened the floor. Maybe this is what we all want— to find the spot where we belong, and to know that others will hold us up in it. My friend, Pastor Brooks, said to me recently, “We move from a family attending church, to a church that becomes a family.”
Max and I could now see the music team taking their positions on stage. Max started dancing even before the music began, bouncing on his toes as if he were walking on hot sand. He was extra excited this morning, anticipating our church picnic that would follow the service. But when the music started, it wasn’t a dance song at all. Instead, it was slow and piercing, a quiet rhythm that pulled us forward. Everything became still. There was a shift in the room, as if the Spirit was pouring in like a gentle tide, surrounding us, lifting us, washing over our feet. The entire church rose in unison to stand in the deep, with our hearts turned to God. And when the song ended, no one moved.
Well, almost no one.
Max could no longer contain himself. He threw his arms over his head and leapt from the platform. He got some good air and then stuck the landing with the precision of a Russian gymnast. And when he landed, he yelled. Loudly. This was not your average run of the mill shout, or even the kind of noise one might expect when leaping from such a height. No, this was the kind of sound one exerts when instigating a food fight.
“BAR-BE-QUE!” Max yelled across the church, his arms still stretched to the sky.
I ducked down to make myself slightly more invisible in the now well-lit church, wishing there were a dressing room curtain I could quickly hide behind.
Through squinting eyes I watched as the church moved in unison once again. But this time every head fell forward, every shoulder curled. It was as if a single rogue wave had crashed over the entire congregation. A moment later those same heads bobbed back up for air with a burst of laughter that filled the sanctuary. And then the most remarkable thing happened. Or perhaps, didn’t happen.
No one stared . . . or sighed . . . or scowled. No one even turned around to see where the sound had come from. Instead, every person just turned to smile at the person beside them. The same sweeping tide that had lifted us to God in worship was drawing us together in love.
Max darted into the crowd and started shaking hands with people as if he were campaigning for office. I just leaned against that reinforced platform, trying to decide if this was completely embarrassing, or achingly beautiful. And then I heard something in the distance. It was a man’s voice, rising above the laughter in the church, saying, “That’s our Max.”
1 Corinthians 12:18…22 — But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be . . . (and) those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.
Galatians 6:2 — Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
2 Corinthians 12:9 — (God) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Romans 14:10…19 — You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Loving God, we come to you in prayer with all of our limitations. We confess that we often try to mask our challenges from those around us. We pretend that we are whole to mask the brokenness in our lives. Where there can be healing, we ask that you help restore us. Where healing is not possible, we ask that you give us acceptance of our limitations and the strength to forge on. Help us to be patient with ourselves and tolerant of others. Give us the wisdom to not focus our attention on our limitations as humans, but on our giftedness as your unique children. Help us to recognize the giftedness of others, even when they struggle to see the good in themselves. Shift our mindset from what we are not, to what we are and are yet to be. Move us forward together as a community for your glory and our neighbors’ good. Amen.
~~ Benjamin Walters, Pastor, Elizabethtown (PA) Church of the Brethren