Christmas struggle, Easter Joy

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Bethlehem walk – Coldsprings

I was sitting in the back of the church sanctuary, a place that has become familiar. The longer I listened to the seasonal lyrics the greater the contrasts of two realities came into focus. The disconnect was real. It was strange to find myself in tears as the congregants were singing in wonderful harmony.

Silent night, Holy night…

The lyrics made associations with the celebratory nature of Christmas. At that moment the ‘merry’ part of Christmas was not within my reach. As the carol singing continued, I was wandering in a confused and disrupted mental landscape.

The neural loading during the first part of the worship service had been gradual and subtle. The ‘greeting’ part of the liturgy was two long minutes of chaos; handshakes all around and brief introductions. I had joined in the responsive reading that followed till I lost focus.

The meaning of the words got lost navigating my compromised neural network. My network lacked the necessary efficiency to comprehend the full message. My mind wandered a few lines into the reading.

All is calm, all is bright...

Each element of the liturgy gradually and subtly moved me away from a calm and focused worship. This, along with the pains which resurfaced with my recent struggles added to the nagging discomfort whether I sit, stand or walk. As my body pendulated between headache and fatigue a sense of calm eluded me.

Away in a manger no crib for…

The disrupted sleep added to both the fatigue and headaches. While in recovery mode any available energy is redirected to the essential areas. The brain is an opportunist that co-opts whatever energy happens to presents itself and claims it for the most essential job of mending the compromised neural network.

… no crying he makes…

These discomforts added to my emotional vulnerability, and left me out of tune with the spirit of the music. Tears filled my eyes much too easily.

As I lost focus I retreated into myself. I questioned the authenticity of the line from the lyrics that echoed in my brain. I choose to believe that like any other baby, that the Christ baby cried, probably even screamed. It’s definitely more reassuring to consider he cried. He would have cried for all the world to hear when he was hungry because his mother’s milk was slow to come in. He would have cried when the swaddling clothes were soiled and Mary hadn’t noticed it because the manure from the animals would have distracted her.

Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the …

At one point I once again joined in the singing.

While I have always enjoyed singing, (though choir participation never was my forte,) lately music moves me more deeply. Singing and live music has a vibrancy that can’t be missed. It touches me deeper than almost any  other art form, the words, the melody, the reverberations of tones and overtones. While my sensory loading reached it’s manageable limit there was a comfort that came with the emotions that emerged.

… to all he brings, risen with healing in his …

Deep down I know that Christmas is a message of hope. Hope for those who don’t find it anywhere else. The promise of healing reaches deeper than the merry greetings of Christmas. That’s what helped me close the gap between the lyrics and the space I found myself in.

Once in royal David’s city … he feels for all our sadness …

The lyrics affirmed me. It gave me a sense of hope, a reason to celebrate.

Praise the Lord, … and forget not all his benefits… and heals all my diseases … crowns me with love and compassion… Ps 103 in the Communion liturgy

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My grandson thought it was fitting to wrap Christmas presents with a cross on it

My grandson held my hand as we joined the procession to the communion table. Observing Christ’s death as a preparation for marking the birth of Christ?

Communion actually brings the Christmas message into focus. After all, isn’t his birth the quiet but official marking of “Let His Suffering Begin.” His suffering with a definite purpose.

With a short but pronounced slurp my grandson cleared the last drops of grape juice from the individual communion shot glass.

This makes Easter joy a reality, makes it real. It reaffirmed that the birth of Christ was to accept his invitation of healing, of bringing wholeness and restoration to my life.

Joy to the world the Lord has come ...
... No more let sin and sorrow grow
 nor thorns infest the ground; 
he comes to make his blessings flow
 far as the curse if found ...

Even while I struggle I look forward to marking Christmas as a time of laughter, a celebration with family, friends and community. Not with the same spontaneity or exuberance but nevertheless with a sense of Joy that comes when celebrating with people who can be authentic with each other; sharing tears, sharing joy, sharing hopes for tomorrow.

Let me wish you dear reader – Joyeux Noel.

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A Multi-Sensory Worship Experience – Really?!?!

20160726_104527A Multi-Sensory Worship Experience – Really?!?!

My guess is, if you were to to describe a multi-sensory worship experience you would likely give some variation of the following description.

You might picture a convention hall or auditorium with a stage large enough to accommodate a drummer with a full drum kit, a bass player, two electric guitar players, possibly a saxophone player, two pianists and six vocalists each with their own mic. I also see multiple projectors displaying lyrics against a video background. Oh, and there are over a thousand seats filled with enthusiastic worshipper raising their voices, singing from the heart and giving further expression through the rhythmic waving of their arms while dancing at their seat or in the aisle.

My Reality

This is my description. We have one pianist and one song leader who leads the singing for about 120 worshippers. The lyrics are projected on a 20 foot section of wall, usually with still backgrounds. The singing is a combination of young and old creating rich harmony.

Dissecting My Realty

Despite the apparent contrast between the two worship venue descriptions, the church I attend causes me to experience sensory overload. In the first couple months after acquiring a brain injury I would reach my threshold within 10 to 15 minutes. This would hardly allow me to take in even the first part of the service. Other times I would intentionally wait and come in part way through the worship service.

In addition to experiencing sensory overload during the worship service, it would take me a day or two to recover from the immediate effects. Needless to say, after a few attempts I decided it was best to stay away. I did not relish the predictable setbacks. The irony of not finding healing in a sanctuary was not lost on me.

After absenting myself for several months I thought I would see if I had experienced enough natural healing to more fully participate in worship. Having been absent for several months, I felt I had abandoned the community of worshippers who have shown me love, care, and support. This community, which I have been part of for thirty years, showed a desire to understand my struggles.

Sensory loading: Music20160726_104415

I now come armed with musician ear plugs. These are designed to reduce the intensity of the sound by about 15 decibels. This created the opportunity to participate in worship for an extra ten to fifteen minutes. It partially mitigates one aspect of my struggle with sensory loading.

The down side of wearing earplugs is that it makes me feel like a spectator. It puts me at a distance from the worship experience. The sense of feeling like a spectator is exacerbated by my choice of taking a back row seat so I can make an inconspicuous exit when needed.

Needless to say, the accommodations I’ve made makes for a worship experience that leaves much to be desired. To partially counter that, I will remove my ear plugs for one or two songs during the service just to remind me what it’s like to experience the full impact of the lyrics and music.

The sensory load is not only influenced by the intensity of the sound. Live music has a much greater impact than recorded music. Recorded music is flat. It lacks depth, resonance and emotion. Live music conveys a heart response to how the spirit is moving.

There are times when I don’t make it past the annex of the building. Those are times when, in simply approaching the sanctuary the music will hit me like a wall. It will stop me short in my tracks. I’ll immediately retreat from the sanctuary and need ten or fifteen minutes to recover from the immediate impact.

Sensory loading: cognitive

The sensory loading during worship is not limited to the music. It also builds while listening to the sermon. The cognitive demands add to the sensory load. I know I’m reaching my threshold when I start to lose focus. I find myself getting restless and can no longer follow the story line or the message that is being shared.

Sensory loading: empathy

The sharing of prayer requests also contributes to the sensory load. The sharing of requests can bring out a range of emotions. It’s the sharing of situations in which people are asking for prayer and support due to hurts and loss that are particularly difficult. Interestingly, prayer requests in which people share about healing of relationships and miraculous recovery, I find creates similar sensory loading. At times, following the sharing of prayer requests, I need several minutes to recover. This creates a break in my participation in the worship.

Each part of worship, the lyrics of a song, the text of a responsive reading, the message of the sermon, the petitions of a prayer, the confession, the giving of alms for specific ministries, each is meant to put us in touch with who we are and give expression to our life purpose. Each part of worship contributes in different ways to my sensory loading.

Managing my Time

To manage my sensory load, my strategy is to exit from the auditorium during some of the singing and selective parts of the service. At times it begins to feel more like a smorgasbord, rather than a wholesome worship experience.

Following the worship service I enjoy mingling with others over refreshments. At times the worship time puts me at the threshold of sensory overload. I will then look for a quiet place to give myself ten or fifteen minutes before joining others.

Even when I think I’m doing quite well by the end of a worship service, friends have noticed that I look tired, or my complexion lacks colour. For me Monday is my recuperation day. I generally will not schedule anything significant.

Worship is still part of my life. Worship is not confined to a building with a structured set of activities. Life provides many other times and places to experience God’s presence.  The presence of God and the fellowship of Christians can be experienced when two or three people meet.