Growing up, Christmas was all about the presents piled under the tree. My favorite childhood Christmas was the year I unwrapped a brand-new pair of ice skates, a record player for my collection of 45’s, and “The Complete Sherlock Holmes.” Heaven!
I still enjoy prettily wrapped presents under the tree. But these days my favorite part of Christmas is the Christmas Eve service at church, which, of course, has nothing to do with presents.
Or, so I thought.
I can count on two hands the times over the past 26 years that my son Joel, who has autism, has been celebrated within the Church for who he is. Don’t get me wrong—plenty of people have smiled at Joel on Sunday morning. Many have said hello, shook his hand, or offered a hug. A high school student spent a year as Joel’s best buddy in Sunday school. A husband and wife team spent two years of Sunday mornings teaching Joel the basics of our faith. He was asked, once, to be a part of the Nativity play at an Advent breakfast. But treated, on a regular basis, as a fully contributing member of the Body of Christ? Not really.
People often ask me to speak to ways that churches can be more welcoming to families that live with disability. I’m considered an “expert” in the field because I’ve written three books, one of which is a handbook for churches on ways to be more inclusive (A Place Called Acceptance: Ministry with Families of Children with Disabilities). The other two books (Autism & Alleluias; His Name is Joel: Searching for God in a Son’s Disability) are written from the personal perspective of raising a son with autism.
It’s much easier to be the expert when the children and families I’m talking about are not my own—when the churches I’m speaking to are full of strangers. As Joel’s mom, feelings often run too deep for comfort. Like most moms of children with autism, I’ve often watched people at church reject, ostracize, or simply ignore my son. It’s hard to play the expert when you’re crying.
We knew God had big plans for us when he led us last year from Cincinnati to Oxford, Ohio and the Oxford Vineyard. But we didn’t realize how deeply those plans would impact Joel, who had moved out of our home the year before. A week before Christmas, my husband Wally and I had plans to go out of town for the weekend. We were worried about the impact of changing Joel’s routine. Joel spends Saturday nights with us, and loves going to church with us on Sunday mornings. Disrupting Joel’s schedule can throw his behavior out of whack for several days, and we didn’t want that to happen. Christmas itself is enough of a routine-buster. And because Christmas was just around the corner, we hesitated to ask any of our new friends to step in and help.
But when Wally asked Amy and Dirk if they’d be able to pick up Joel and take him to The Oxford Vineyard that Sunday, they responded with enthusiasm. Joel’s new home, Safe Haven Farms, is a 30 minute drive from church, so this meant Amy and Dirk were not only committing to an hour church service with a young man who has a hard time sitting still, but to over an hour in the car as well. Wow.
Amy called me from their car that Sunday morning, with Joel on speaker-phone, to let us know they were having a blast singing Christmas carols on the drive to church, and that they’d been thrilled, the night before at the Safe Haven Christmas Party (we didn’t even know they were going to go!), to discover that Joel’s a great singer.
“He knows the words to all the Christmas carols! You should have seen him up front with the microphone! He sang his heart out!”
I didn’t think anything could top this—no one besides paid staff had ever offered to take Joel to church before, much less had such a good time with him—but once again I’d underestimated God.
On Christmas Eve, the Oxford Vineyard holds a very informal church service.
“Who would like to lead us in some Christmas carols?” John, the pastor, stood up front with the microphone, trying to marshall everyone’s attention.
“Joel’s a really good singer,” Amy called out.
Joel grinned and walked toward the front of the church.
“You want to lead us, Joel?” John asked.
Joel’s grin widened as he grabbed the microphone.
Wally strode forward and stood beside Joel. “How ’bout “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,”?” he asked, knowing this is one of Joel’s favorites,
Joel smiled his agreement. Wally started the song and Joel joined in, softly singing the words into the microphone, a bit off tune, but sweetly and clearly.
When he finished, everyone burst into applause. Someone in the back cried out, “Encore! ‘Silent Night!’”
This time, Joel led the congregation with confidence, his voice cracking a bit at the high parts.
I sat, glued to my chair, my head filled not only with the sound of Joel’s amplified voice, but with a chorus of angels singing “Alleluia!”
As Paul so eloquently wrote to the church in Corinth:
“21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
This year I received the very best Christmas gift of all on Christmas Eve. It was a gift that trumped, by far, those presents my twelve-year-old self believed so heavenly. This present didn’t come gift-wrapped in foil under a shining tree, but in a poorly lit store-front church. The Body of Christ, where so many parts of the Body are so often are missing, had just been re-membered.
And heaven itself was rejoicing.