we can't get close enough to the ground
This auditorium has different lines than the one in which we usually worship. Pews make up the rows instead of the moveable interlocking chairs with which we’re so familiar, and something makes the room feel broad. The moment we push quietly in, there’s the impression of red velvet, though the seating arrangment feels spacious and casual, as though we have all gathered on blankets for a picnic. It occurs to me that this fits, this blend of formality and living room comfort. We are children of the most High God, but we’re adopted and redeemed, vulnerable, fallible, drawn together by our awkward angles, by the cracks He reshapes into something all new. Worship is always both fiercely holy and warmly familial. We gather around the King’s table for a feast, and it’s Thanksgiving dinner every time. Or, it should be. Or, it would be, if we could be but emptied of ourselves and our unknowing, of our dedication to temporary, selfish things.
We are late. We are almost always late. Try as we might to pick the right time to leave, unexpected things impede our progress—blood sugars, insulin reservoirs, obsessions, compulsions, routines, anxiety, seizures, lethargy; things we breathe like air. I explain, but no one really knows unless they hold these things in their own hands. I told Adam three times where we were going, how long it would be. I wrote it on his schedule. But he has this thing about a snack at a certain time, and his socks have to be exactly right on his feet, and he doesn’t like unfamiliar places. He argues with me all the way through putting on his shoes, grabbing a tote bag and a thousand must have items he doesn’t really need but can’t just leave at home. But then, we all struggle over leaving our stuff behind to worship. “Set the timer for…” He says to me, tapping one finger on his watch. “Unity service until…”
When I don’t answer, because I think the answer will come out as a growl, because I worry that the words will jerk and rip, Adam starts making up his own answers. “5 more minutes. Set the timer for 5 minutes. Unity service until,” and he says the hour, the minutes. He says now. He says it this way because he doesn’t know another way to tell me that he doesn’t want to go. He bends toward me, urgently tapping his watch, trying to stay in front of me, trying to hold my eyes with his own while I move through the house. This is important to him.
These rushing minutes feel like a blur as we walk into the auditorium, into the already singing. It feels like Zoe pointedly announced her blood sugar in the last moments before we left, “Mom, I’m 45,” just as I flipped the light on on the porch, while Adam tapped his watch. It feels like I said, “Well, you know what to do,” sending her in the kitchen for a fast sugar of some kind—orange juice or raisins. It feels like Riley had been hard at work writing addresses on cards to go in the mail, noting mailing and delivery dates, highlighting the most immediate ones. It feels like I had to interrupt her, like her eyes flashed stress, but I’m not finished, I need to finish, I want to get these out on time. It feels that way, but the exact details slip away as we enter the room and the blend of so many voices, the rich river of Truth, washes over my head, my face, my hands. Sometimes I walk in a room and I feel this testimony: the Spirit is here. And when I allow myself to feel this testimony, the temporary details lose their grip.
We file into a pew beside someone we know—me, Zoe, Adam, Riley, Kevin, and take up their song as our own. He touches my arm, this brother, our friend, and then returns to his singing.
Adam’s eyes skirt the room. He glances quickly out and then tucks his gaze back in again, pulling his chin down so as not to see anymore. This is another auditorium, another building, and many of the people inside are strangers to him. Once a year, the local congregations of our fellowship gather for a unity service. We blend into each other, dozens of shades and shapes and personalities, all bound by the same hope. The song leader at the front of the room has black framed glasses, a plaid shirt, a bald head. His skin is pale. Even his hands seem shiny. He’s lean and tall, and unfamiliar. Everything about him feels crisp and polished, but his voice is warm and he smiles when he sings, and he sometimes turns his head at unusual angles. He keeps time with his hand swinging in the air in front of him, and behind him a screen flickers as we move through the phrases of the song, displaying words and images that inspire worship—a cross on a hill, a line of people with emptied hands lifted.
I watch Adam’s face as he absorbs the song leader, the singing, the people. His bottom lip trembles, the corners pulling into a frown, and he shifts back and forth on his feet. He’s still struggling over the details. He leans over Zoe’s back and I lean toward him, and into my ear, he whispers, “Unity service, until…”
“7:30,” I whisper back, running my hand along the strong line of his jaw as I move away from him.
I know why this feels so hard to him. It’s a lot at once when none of the details escape him, when he has no ability to prioritize any of the sensory information. And worship has always shattered him because he has none of the careful fascades behind which the rest of us stay hidden. He feels God tenderly. He always has. He used to weep after every service, and I would hold him where he crumpled on my lap or stand where he buried his head in my shoulder, and ask, “Why are you sad?” He could only say, “Because I’m crying,” and I didn’t know if this was because he didn’t understand his own feelings or just didn’t know how to explain. We had circular conversations. I’d reply, “Well, why are you crying,” and he’d say, “because I’m sad,” and none of it would stop his tears. And then one day, he managed to say something else, just a desperate wail, just a calling out that escaped like a breath, but clear. Jesus. And then more tears.
Once, on our way out the door, he said, “Singing hurts. Singing is finished,” and it reminded me of something I once heard articulated by an eloquently verbal adult woman with autism as she explained why people with autism have trouble looking into another person’s eyes. She said, “There’s just so much information there, so much feeling, and it’s terrifying. It’s too much. We’re not equipped to handle it.” I wonder if it’s this overwhelming of his soul with feeling, the pure, yielded experience of bigness and too much and deep love of God that he alternately loves and fears? And isn’t that how it should feel to feast on Thanksgiving dinner at the King’s table?
Adam tries hard to flatten his lips, to keep them from drooping at the edges. He touches his own chin. He rubs his eyes. He shifts, back and forth, swallowing. Zoe sees all this and moves down to sit by her dad so that I can be next to Adam.
I pull him close to me, squeezing his shoulder with my hand. “It’s okay,” I whisper into his ear.
He swallows, and the crinkle between his eyebrows deepens, and he lifts my fingers off of his shoulder with his hand, as though he can’t quite manage my touch. He tries to sing, but he has to stop every few moments to swallow, to control his face, to keep the emotion from seeping out. Alternately, I turn to worship and look over to measure his feelings. I feel so tender toward my son that I can hardly think of him without swallowing back my own tears. I know him. I feel him.
And then, it’s time to pray. Another man moves to the front to the auditorium, but I don’t see him because my eyes are on Adam. We stand in rows, and everyone closes eyes and bows heads just slightly in the familiar way. But my son cannot get close enough to the floor. He bends at the waist, leaning until his arms rest on the back of the pew in front of us. He clasps his hands together until his knuckles are white. He squeezes his eyes shut. The expression on his face is so vulnerable, so open that it rips right into me. For him, this is not just some ritual. I think if he did not believe he was supposed to stand with the rest of us, he might just kneel or lay flat on the floor.
Sometimes when I pray uncluttered, when I really open up my soul to the conversation, God feels so immense, so heavy, so terrifyingly tremendous that I press myself against the floor. I can’t get low enough. I can’t open my eyes. I can’t even remember then what I meant to say. The only thing I can manage in those moments is surrender. Empty before Him, I can only plead, Fill me. Use me. Change me. But that kind of prayer is rare for me, because most of the time I can’t empty myself of self that way.
Still, when I see my son press himself lower, when I watch his face, I know this is what he feels, this unfathomable depth, this intimidating presence.
I’ve noticed lately that he almost always does this when we pray together in worship. He alters his posture low. If we’re sitting, he will bend almost in half, as though his legs are just in the way of the floor. And everytime I feel him do it, I am gripped and overcome that such a sweet, tender soul should humble himself in such a way before God. And we think we know more of God than he does because we can use words to speak of Him.
There are those who think Adam doesn’t really understand, that he doesn’t know why we worship. I see it in their blank expressions when I share these things, in the limited way they evaluate a boy who has trouble communicating. I’m not sure I would believe it either if I didn’t know Adam and love the same God, if I didn’t worship with my son, if I didn’t work so hard to understand, to hear. It is our limitation–not his–if we believe that because he can’t reach far enough into his mind to retrieve words, he really doesn’t know much of God. My son can’t tell the story of the resurrection. He can’t explain with carefully shaped phrases that he lives because God breathes right into him. But he weeps when he worships and speaks The Name through his tears, and when he prays, he can’t get close enough to the ground. I say he knows far more of God than I do.
This man up front praying flows, his words tumbling, propelled by the current of Spirit. His voice sounds light, gentle. The words dissolve the moment he speaks them, borne away.
I swallow hard and close my eyes and yield.
When the leader says, “Amen,” let it be so, Adam straightens next to me, suddenly stilled, his face placid. The song leader returns to his place, and the Truth washes over my head, my face, my hands. And beside me, Adam sings, now free of the anxiety that made him shift on his feet. Down the row, I see Riley reach out in front of her, her hands flat and empty, as though she moves to gather something up in her arms, to grasp it in those blank palms. That’s when I realize my own hands are open too, and that my children are teaching me what it means to worship with an emptied, uncluttered soul. And I can’t get close enough to the ground.