the way he worships
I can hear him beside me and his voice is reverently light, soft and piercing. But the thing is: Adam never just sings. He worships.
We sit beneath the trees when the sun is soft and dying. A breeze blows through–a Spirit-wind, and I hear him quietly crooning, oh the grace reaching out for me. We’re all singing; many voices blending in the bowing of the afternoon. The trees sigh, and I can’t make out whether it’s limbs moving or leaves, but that voice—his voice—sounds singularly beautiful.
When I turn toward him, he looks away, turns his back. Don’t look, don’t look. I can feel him pleading with me. If he looks at me, he’ll shatter. We both know this. As a younger boy, he used to let it happen. I remember the way his voice broke when his blue eyes caught mine, the way he would lean into me and let his tears fall on my shoulder. At the end of Sunday morning services, he would wrap his arms around my neck, burying his face against me, releasing whatever wreck of emotion he’d managed to hold at bay in order to form the words and sounds of worship. Our friends remember too. They would ask me what was wrong, if Adam was okay, bending to catch a glimpse of his face. Hearing and tortured, he would let go of me and leave the room quickly, searching for a chair somewhere away. Friends would come find me to tell me he was sitting in the lobby, weeping. But this Adam becoming a young man, he finds that spiritual nakedness completely unbearable. It’s something I wish every skeptic could witness, the unveiled way he worships, the way it opens a window into his heart.
Adam is not naturally given to embarrassment, nor does he truly possess any modesty when it comes to the things most of us hide. We had to teach him to close the bathroom door, for example, and even now, I’m not sure he understands why that rule is so important to the rest of us. We’ve learned not to change Adam’s insulin pump in front of any windows, especially if it happens to be attached to his thigh. Oh, he wants his clothes on, but he feels no shame about nakedness. Adam lives with unvarnished honesty and nothing to hide, an existential beauty not uncommon among people with autism. He offers us his pain, his enthusiasm, his confusion, and his complaint without censure, though he has learned that there are times when it’s best to keep his voice down.
I reach up and squeeze Adam’s shoulder and he barely turns, acknowledging me, squinting. He dare not let me see his eyes, though even squinting, I can see the glint of gathered tears. How can it be, he sings, bending his head away again, away from my watching. I feel the muscles of his shoulder tense, withdrawing. Please. I turn away, resolved to give him some peace, content just to hear the tone he reserves just for worship.
Adam will not sing in any other context, and if he were able, he’d tell you he would prefer that the rest of us refrain as well. He’s given up now, but he used to ask me to please stop if he found me singing random phrases in the kitchen. With the exception of Happy Birthday, Adam opposes singing of any kind outside of worship. I used to pretend to hold a microphone in front of his lips, and he would speak–never sing—a few words into my hand and then push it away with an incredulous no. All this, and music has always been Adam’s favorite thing. I have a theory that Adam considers singing uniquely useful for worship, but that in other contexts, he finds it, well, inappropriate.
In college, I learned that the brain behaves similarly when a person sings and reads aloud, and that both are whole-brain activities with a mysteriously positve impact on language development and comprehension. Scientists alternately theorize that singing is either a highly adaptive, complex skill or a foundational precursor to spoken language. To put it simply, it’s as though singing creates a wider door for communication, but the question is whether it starts that way or we’ve learned to push it open. “Too much information” is the reason many articulate autistic adults cite for their inability to make consistent eye contact, so much information at once, in fact, that receiving it hurts. That’s what I feel now when my son bends away from me in worship, the avoidance of pain.
Of course in college I had little imagination for the day I would notice that Adam sometimes creates tonal slides for words that seemed “stuck” in his mind. And now, sitting beside him with the sun warm on our faces, I can’t help but think of the number of times God tells us to sing in worship. When my son worships, it’s easy to see that he not only understands well but finds the depth of expression–both given and received–excruciatingly vulnerable.
But then, so do the rest of us. We hide it a bit better than Adam does, sometimes carefully wrapped in strong opinions about worship forms, sometimes veiled in worshipful stances that express spirituality but hide any true glimpse of our broken spirits and contrite hearts. I am always tempted to close my eyes and incline my head toward the sky, and that’s partly to focus, but I realize now, that’s not all of it. I scan other faces in our gathering, catching a friend’s eye. She stops singing and smiles. I’ve not thought of it before, but it’s true that all of us feel our own spiritual nakedness in worship, and that in our own individual, socially acceptable ways, we struggle to wrangle control of how much of that is visible to others. In a way, worship uniquely requires us to yield to God’s deeply intimate embrace, and congregational worship requires us to do that together, in recognition of our wholeness as the Bride of Christ. That happens not just locally, here in this beautiful backyard where we’ve gathered, but globally. In other places at the same time, others incline their hearts to God, and we are all gathered up in the same embrace.
Suddenly I am afraid that I, that we, have unintentionally taught my son another social rule he doesn’t understand: Don’t let them see how broken you feel.
This song we’re all singing, it’s achingly beautiful, a recent favorite of mine by Lauren Daigle.
I am guilty
Ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become
These hands are dirty
I dare not lift them up to the Holy one
I wonder how it would be if we all felt safe enough to just let the truth of it break us apart, just to lean into each other and let the tears fall, just to let joy crack us into laughter? Some of us are closer to that than we once were, I think. At the end of the song, our sighs fall too, with the sighing of the trees, and Adam drops his head and clears his throat.
Thank you to Lauren Daigle for the artistry and vulnerability of this art: