Posted in musings

response to a sermon on worship

I can definitely be an over-sensitive perfectionist, but I don’t think it is irrational to be hurt by a sermon about the role of the body and communication in worship that doesn’t even mention disability. There wasn’t anything technically incorrect with what was preached, but everything had to be translated, contextualized, or rephrased if it were to be relevant to the life of someone with a physical disability or social communication disorder. And it just leaves me feeling so unwanted in the church – feeling that people like me can never fully participate in the body of Christ because of issues with how our own bodies and brains both respond to our environments and express our emotions.

It is important to give the best of ourselves to God: all of our mind, heart, and body, as the gospels say. For the Israelites of Malachi’s time (the source text for the sermon was Malachi 1), it was important to offer the sacrifices according to the law instead of just giving Him their leftover and damaged animals, and it is good and right for us to remember that principle and follow God with singleness of mind and whole-hearted devotion. Translating that to the lived reality of worship music during Sunday service is not so clear-cut, however. I remember when I was in high school and thought I knew what was best for worship music: what types of music would best glorify God and lead people to honor and meditate on Him – and I wrote about it in a public forum, and I received the most graciously pointed rebuke I have ever been given for my arrogance. Fifteen years later, I am more aware of the diversity of the body of Christ: how each of us responds in a different way to different words and styles of music; how each of us can offer worship in a unique way; and how when we worship together we all must bend and accommodate others, both sharing from and holding back on our individuality so that we can worship as a unified body.

It is for this reason that I participate in the musical worship at our church, although it is difficult for me in multiple ways. I wear ear plugs so I can tolerate the volume; I sit on the end of a row so I won’t feel overwhelmed by the people around me; and when it’s really bad, I try to sit in a small area just off the sanctuary instead of going outside so that I can still be part of the service. I sing even the songs that I don’t particularly like (although I will skip lines that I feel are theologically inaccurate…), and when I can’t sing I try to meditate on the message of the songs. I don’t expect the worship service to be tailored to my preferences and needs, and I often find great beauty and encouragement through music I would never have sought out on my own.

When a pastor tries to tell his congregants how to worship, however, with the fear hanging over their heads that if they don’t get this right they will be guilty of offering their secondhand, broken leftovers instead of a worthy sacrifice, it is reminiscent of the same arrogance I had at sixteen. Jesus told the woman at the well that the time was coming in which God’s people would worship Him in spirit and in truth – so the way we move our bodies during a praise song doesn’t matter if we are centered on God and praising Him. Additionally, to imply that there are right and wrong ways to physically conduct oneself during musical worship – and then not to say what those ways are because everyone should know – is to pave a straight and smooth path to anxiety, shame, and a sense of inadequacy for anyone in the congregation who struggles with reading social norms and expressing feelings in an “acceptable” way.

I am positive that if autistic and intellectually disabled adults were moving and responding in worship in an expressive way that felt authentic to them, someone in the church would call it disruptive and try to make them conform to a more “normal” behavioral pattern. This same attitude is just as toxic in reverse, when it lands on people who tend to not show any emotional expression with their bodies. I prefer not to move in large ways, not to lift my hands and be exposed and vulnerable with a crowd of strangers around me, not to share my emotions with people I do not know well. God knows what is in my heart, and it is that which I offer to Him – He will not judge me for not moving my body in a way that aligns with neurotypical standards for deep emotional responses. He will not make me feel ashamed because my anxiety and sensory overload cause me to respond in a less than perfect way.

If the church wants to be truly inclusive, truly open and welcoming to those of us who feel and respond and behave differently, then the least it can do is acknowledge our presence. Acknowledge that some people cannot physically respond with lifting of hands or kneeling because of chronic pain or age or muscular dystrophy or any other disability. Acknowledge that for some people a verbal response is the most genuine and whole-hearted response they can offer in worship, because their authentic physical responses are buried under years of practice at masking to fit in with a neurotypical society. Stress the importance of the heart centered on God, and acknowledge the reality that the outward response can look radically different because disability and neurodivergence are real things that affect real people present in the body of Christ.

Posted in musings

making accommodations for myself

Every fall and spring the women’s ministry at our church creates a Bible study and hosts a few events for all the women at the church (in addition to the regularly-meeting discipleship small groups). I’ve never attended any of the events before, or been part of the study groups, just because life has been busy, but I have been feeling the need for more structure in my spiritual life to give me direction and motivation, so I went to the first meeting of the year a few weeks ago (leaving Paul to do bedtime with all three kids 😉 )

Large group events like this can be challenging for me for a number of reasons. The first is simply the uncertainty: I had no way of knowing the schedule or plan for the event, nor did I know if anyone I knew well would be attending. The second is the number of people and the accompanying audio and visual (and potentially olfactory) stimulation. I often have significant anxiety or discomfort in church every Sunday because of this factor, and there was no reason to expect it to be different at this event. A third reason is my desire to appear normal and fit in; I really don’t like attention and so I somehow needed to find a way to handle any stress without looking like I was stressed (this is called masking).

Fortunately, as a 29 year-old, I’ve developed a few strategies for coping with these challenges.

To deal with my uncertainty, I thought back to other group events I’ve been to in the past and created a potential outline for the night: mingling, some talking from the front, maybe some music, probably some discussion questions. Other than knowing that mingling always comes first, I figured the schedule would be some modular arrangement of those four activity types, and I would just need to be prepared for all of them. I put my smile on, focused on looking at least near people’s faces when conversing, and thought of some basic questions to bring up that no one would be offended by (like asking about their previous experiences with the women’s ministry at our church – a particularly good icebreaker for the kickoff event for a new semester).

For coping with sensory overload (during both mingling and music) and for staying focused during the presentations from the front, I brought my fidget cube and a pen and paper. I am not really a note-taker, but writing is a fairly effective stim when listening to a speaker; the fidget cube is perfect during discussion and small talk as it is small and discreet, and can even be used during music. My goal for the night was not to pick my skin at all, and thanks to near-constant use of my alternate stims I mostly succeeded! I definitely flapped a lot in the car on my way home to shake off the tense/overloaded feeling though 🙂

[Flapping connects back to the masking issue: hand-flapping has never been a major stim for me because it is just such a big obvious motion and I feel extremely anxious and self-conscious if I do it anywhere anyone can see me. Skin-picking is more typically more subtle (unless I start bleeding…), as is rubbing my fingers together back and forth, and the fidget cube and writing are almost normal. But as I’ve been learning more about the purpose of stimming, which is to help the body cope with sensory processing difficulties, I’ve been trying to give my body opportunities to stim naturally without instantly shutting it down because of my social anxiety. Right now that looks like stepping out of an overwhelming environment and letting my body work through the overload before going back or moving on to something else, and finding a more private space where I can relax in the way that works most efficiently for me. Bluntly, I’ll leave church a few minutes early (like I always have, to pick up the kids), and instead of just walking to their classrooms I’ll let myself flap on the way; it only takes a minute or so and it decreases my inner tension so much.

Also I dislike the word “flap” but that’s what the action is usually called so it’s not really up to me to rename it…]

Anyway, the event was overall a success! Was it exhausting? Yes, of course – but it was also spiritually encouraging. I got to be with other women who love God, talking about Him, reading His word, singing songs of praise and worship to Him, and I even got to have a long-ish chat (far away from the realm of small talk) at the end of the night with an incredible woman who I deeply respect for a number of reasons, leaving me better equipped to pray for her and for family.

While my definition of a challenge may be very different than yours, I think it is true for everyone that it is sometimes very worthwhile to attempt challenging things – and that it is always worthwhile to give yourself the compassion, understanding, and acceptance needed to adequately prepare for and evaluate yourself during those challenging things. These were some of the ways I accepted and made accommodations for my own struggles (instead of telling myself I should just fight through them and be normal) – what are some of your strategies for doing so?