“The Scream” on Christmas Eve

This Christmas Eve the painting, “The Scream” comes to mind. In “The Scream,” Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch depicted a figure who is visibly pained, the person is holding their hands beside their head and apparently screaming. Of course, as viewers of this haunting image we can’t literally hear the iconic scream, but we can imagine that the scream comes from deep within.

For highly sensitive people who feel, hear, think and experience life differently, moments crafted to illicit joy can turn into what seems like an eternity of anguish. As a mother of a highly sensitive child, about five minutes into the Christmas Eve worship service at church, we discovered that the worship service was too loud for him.

The sanctuary pews were packed, extra chairs lined the back wall and outside freshly fallen snow glistened all around. This picture perfect Christmas Eve inspired singing from the gut. Christmas hymns accompanied by the organ and brass quartet filled the sanctuary, reverberating off the walls, creating a festive spirit of joyful celebration and anticipation.

Yet next to me on the pew my child was curled up screaming. Like the Munch figure in the painting, he looked pained, had his hands covering his ears and he was yelling. But I couldn’t hear him. The Trumpets. The Organ. The soprano in front of us in the red and white striped sweater dress. It was all too much. My heart broke. We attended this church regularly and yet this service with all its goodness was not good for my son. While my husband stayed in the sanctuary, I took our son out of church.

Holding his hand, we squeezed through the crowds during the second hymn and ducked out the back and left the worship service through the side door. We found a quiet room with a couch, a green pen and white paper. After some more tears of frustration he quieted down and began drawing. In this room adjacent to the sanctuary we could hear the angels singing, the organ, and the trumpets, yet these sounds were muted. The scream was silenced.

He wanted to go home. My husband and I wanted to stay. So we negotiated that we would re-enter the service for communion and the lighting of the candles at the very end of the worship service. So after 45 minutes of waiting in the room, I heard over the speaker system the pastor’s invitation to the table. And in those words she said that the meal Jesus shared was for all of us.

Part of me felt disappointed and frustrated not to be in the sanctuary for the worship service. Yet I decided to not dwell in resentment or feel sorry for myself, but to turn my energy and focus to my child who needed compassion and support. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what do other people do who are highly sensitive. I couldn’t help but wonder how, despite our best intentions, to create worship that is more welcoming and inclusive. Why did this worship environment make him scream?

I love my child and I love my church. I love the community of love, justice, hope and peace that church creates. So I find myself this Christmas wondering how we can honor the Christ who comes to us in a highly sensitive child. How can church be a safe, welcoming and inclusive place for us all, especially for children (and all ages) with special needs? Are there churches who have already figured this out and provide family worship experiences that are sensitive to how loud sounds can be overwhelming, uncomfortable, and even painful?

Is it fair to ask churches to consider adapting their worship services for the wellbeing of a small minority? I don’t think that the answers are simple or easy. And I don’t think the answer is that kids and families like mine should just stay home and not go to church.

Perhaps as parents we should take more responsibility. We have sound canceling headphones that we bought for this very reason. He has used them in church before. Yet we forgot to bring the headphones because he hasn’t needed them in church for at least a year. We thought he had gotten better. We didn’t think about the brass quartet on Christmas Eve.

Perhaps just as we’ve come to expect health related warnings for flashing lights for people with various health challenges, we could identify services that have a certain threshold for volume level. What if we began to pay attention to this reality in our churches?

We left church after the Christmas Eve worship service was over to find the quiet snow still falling and it was peaceful. At home we made a special dinner, exchanged presents by the Christmas tree, and then sat by the fireplace reading books, doing crossword puzzles and playing with Legos. I was glad for my son’s happiness. He was no longer screaming. All was calm and all was bright. God’s tenderness has arrived again and it is good.

Now it is the day after Christmas and I am already wondering: what about next year? What about the other families like mine?

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