If you want to experience church without the overly “churchy” parts, try attending a service for kids with disabilities. You’ll find the best of the Bible and sincere spirituality without getting hung up on things like staying in your seat.
My friend Suzy briefed me before the service, prepping me for Parables. She described it to me as, “a lot of random bouncing, a dog runs under foot, and one kid screams “Amen” nonstop. Occasionally someone has a meltdown and the pastor has to turn up the microphone to keep preaching. You’ll love it.”
It feels like home.
The chapel seems normal enough at first, until I notice the Golden Retriever. He’s curled up on the altar steps beside a boy wearing headphones. As the piano music starts, all hell breaks loose. A boy in the front waves his hands. He whoops it up and high-fives the girl next to him. No one in the audience gives a dirty look or a stern glance. This is how it’s supposed to be.
The marching begins. A procession of kids—some on foot, some being carried—tromp past my pew. The flapping stops. A gangly boy plops down on top of the dog like it’s a bean bag. Everyone joins in with the music, the best thing about singing your brains out when people don’t know the words is that the songs sound even better that way. Beneath the wild hymns, the girl in the striped tights hugs the boy on the dog and gives a thumbs-up.
Pastor Leslie takes everything in stride on her walk to the podium. She has a son with disabilities; she’s used to this energy. She steps over the dog, hugs every kid in her path and announces that we will light the candle of joy. I’m pretty sure it’s already burning.
Being around people that understand and accept us without question is what we always want, but so rarely feel. This is our safe sanctuary.
The music stops and Tim walks to the podium. He wears black pants and a matching shirt with a button that reads “Usher” pinned to his chest. He clearly means business. He tells us that he is a bag boy at his real job before starting the reading. “I take the groceries out to your car,” he says, shuffling his papers before leaning in close to the mic. “And I LOVE tips.”
Tim presents the Christmas church schedule since we are moving Parables one day earlier than normal. “Our next one is Christmas Eve and that’s a big shopping day, so I’ll miss our service here,” he pauses for effect. “You should probably still go.” His words say, “go,” but his expression disagrees. The striped-tights girl backs him up with a decisive thumbs-down.
Pastor Leslie speaks about the different kinds of love we experience. The Greeks used three separate words for it, with three distinct meanings: Philia, the love of a friend; Eros, romantic love; and Agape, unconditional love. We focus on the third type.
“Our children give us Agape,” she says.
The boy behind me yells “Amen!”
“The duration, intensity and frequency of their care is exhausting sometimes,” Pastor Leslie continues. I look towards the boy in the wheelchair a few rows down. He flaps and smiles. He reminds me of Porter in the way his grin sucks you in and makes you feel whole.
“We never guessed we’d still be feeding our children as teenagers,” says Leslie. “But there is something very intimate about placing food in another’s mouth. ”A small boy in horn rim glasses steps to the podium and hugs her leg. She pauses, then hugs him back.
“When Mother Teresa worked with people in extreme poverty and disability she said she found Jesus in his most distressing disguise. This is hard stuff.” A teenager in giant headphones walks down the aisle. “Sacrificial love,” he whispers to me.
Pastor Leslie shares one final Mother Teresa story.
“When she was in South America helping the poor, she met an impoverished family with a severely disabled daughter. She asked the mother what the girl’s name was. ‘We call her the teacher of love,’ the mother said.” The pastor pauses. The girl in tights pirouettes on the stage.
“Caring for these kids is hard work sometimes, but there is no greater love,” Leslie continues. “They teach us to get on our knees in the dark.”
To read more from Sarah Bridges, please buy her memoir “A Bad Reaction” (Skyhorse Publishing) available on Amazon.com. For more “Free Range Lives” messages, click and subscribe to the blog. We appreciate your support and your “shares” as we create a community of support and hope.