Monday, May 31, 2010

The Autism Gospel

Its been said “what doesn’t kill, us makes us stronger”. I’m not sure if I necessarily believe that’s true but I do believe that, most of the time, the times we wish it would kill us takes us to a new level of understanding. That has been my journey with autism.

I’ve heard it compared with planning a trip to one place and finding yourself in a very different destination upon arrival. I guess that’s kind of true but most of life really doesn’t turn out the way we had expected it would does it? There is also a great deal of debate about whether or not the puzzle piece is the best representation for the cause. Some people are very offended by the idea that their child “is a puzzle”. Quite frankly, I’ve never one who isn’t a puzzle at one time or another. (I suggested they make it a bottle of anti-depressants for the parent’s sake but not everyone believes in “better living through pharmaceuticals” I guess.)

For me, autism has just refined me into a better version of me. Please don’t misunderstand me - it hasn’t always (and isn’t still) an easy path. Most of the time we are a – track with me here – a Public Spectacle. We wear earmuffs in July into restaurants that are too noisy and laugh at COMPLETELY in appropriate things. But despite all the bizarre ways we are different, I am finding a peaceful coexistence with autism. As a matter of fact, I think we are better off for it.

My son has given me insight and perspective into so many facets of life that I wish I’d started writing them all down years ago, but I was too busy reading textbooks about how to get him to make eye contact and speak. But not many days go by that God doesn’t bring something to mind that says: Ya’ll are marked for a different, wonderful existence that, in it’s own peculiar way, will point to me. So I thought Theology Barbie could put some of her more specialized skills into practice and exegete our experience once in a while.

Most recently, I wrote about Noah’s Batman Theology (see April 1, 2010) as he theorized that Jesus came to save the super villains too because “Jesus loves them more than they are bad”. Yes sir he does, and praise God none of us are getting what we really deserve. My little peacemaker plays with the villains as much as he does with the heroes because he sees their redemption, where I cannot. I wish I could do that. Jesus did. Tax collectors and zealots, Roman soldiers and Pharisees, women of “ill repute” and thieves on crosses all had redemptive qualities in the eyes of Jesus. So when Noah made a WANTED poster for Mr. Penguin, it was simply because he thought Jesus would have wanted him.

Maybe Noah remembers what it was like to be cast to the side and unwanted himself. I know what it’s like to be the parent of the child everyone had hoped was staying home that day. (Hey, I was a teacher too so I’m not judging anyone here.) I remember seeing it in their eyes as I dropped him off a little late (because we’d has to wrestle socks onto his feet amid shrieks of torture). Their mouth said, “Noah is here!” but their eyes said, “Excedrin – now!”

When Noah was between 2 and 4 years of age, you really had to look hard for those charming redemptive qualities you find in “normal” kids. Almost completely mute, and most definitely unintelligible, communication was difficult on it’s best day. Coupled with lack of eye contact and a serious aversion to touch and other human beings in general, Noah was a real charmer. But baby sitters loved him because in his own environs he was quiet and easy. I found myself saying, “Noah pretty much just does his own thing” quite a bit. I know part of it can be attributed to neurological processes that were occurring in his brain at the time, but I also wonder if Noah just instinctively knew on some level that we weren’t ready for him. Whereas I often took his aloofness as rejection, he was merely protecting part of himself that he knew would be misunderstood at the time.

Now call me crazy (trust me, better people than you have done it) but I think about this every time I read Jesus telling someone not to speak of a miracle he had performed. Early in Mark’s account of Jesus, we see him heal a man with leprosy and send him “away at once with a strong warning: see that you don’t tell this to anyone” (1:43). Again in chapter 3, Mark tells of Jesus driving out demons giving them “strict orders not to tell others about him” (v.12). I used to wonder why Jesus would even bother to heal someone if it had to be kept a secret. I mean, seriously, how could you go and present an offering for ceremonial cleansing when everybody knew you had been a leper yesterday and not tell them what happened! But we know that Jesus didn’t want the notoriety and frenzy that he knew would soon follow the truth about who he was. The people were ready for it yet.

They weren’t ready for the concept of “God with us”. It was too much too soon. He needed time to bring about his kingdom slowly and methodically. There was so much he wanted to teach them before he became a public figure, so he often isolated himself and withdrew to “lonely places” (1:45). It would have been too beautiful for them to see all at once.

I’m reminded of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. In act 3 Emily, one of the main characters whom we watch grow through adolescence into adulthood, dies during childbirth. The scene takes place at her graveside as Emily begins to converse with the dead around her during her funeral. As they watch, they ruminate on life saying, “I’d forgotten all about that. My, wasn’t life awful- and wonderful”. Emily is given the gift of returning to life for one day and wants to choose a “happy one”, but is advised not to select a special day because it would be too painful. Their words prove true as Emily becomes overwhelmed with emotion watching scenes from her 12th birthday. She realizes how wonderful and complex the little things are when viewed in perspective. She says to one of the dead, “They don’t understand do they?” who replies, “No dear, they don’t understand.”

In the same way I wouldn’t have understood had Noah been able to reveal himself to me all at once. I wouldn’t have been able to grasp all the wonderful ways his neurological diversity would point to God. It would have been too “awful – and wonderful” at the same time. No, I needed to be taught lots of things along the way. I had to take the journey, or acknowledge the puzzle, in order to be prepared for the wonderful Gospel of Autism – where every villain is offered redemption and it’s only normal to be different.

Together, Noah and I have journeyed to some “lonely places” of our own. But much like an X marking a remote spot on a treasure map, we have found something priceless in each place. The Autism Gospel has given much more to my life than it has taken away and I am a better me because of it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Church in Room 409

I pretty much went to the Information Session on a dare. College was a dream long forgotten, but to appease a friend I thought I’d go and hear what they had to say. It was in the Library Board Room with 36 strangers that I first heard the word “cohort”. If anyone had told me that word would become central to my academic and spiritual development I probably would’ve laughed in their face.

I still remember the night of the first class. I threw up before I left home and, truthfully, almost turned around 3 times on the 2 mile ride from my house to the college. I kept thinking to myself, “What on earth am I doing?” I convinced myself to make it through the first course before I dropped out. I believed that if I could just go in, focus on the task and talk to NO ONE maybe, just maybe, I could make it for 5 weeks. I was unprepared for what would happen next.

My personality is best described as “all point and corners”. Miss Congeniality – I am not. Even so, my plan of sitting alone and pushing through this would be thwarted by several factors. I learned quickly that we’d be introducing ourselves in every course by telling the professor and our cohort something they didn’t know about us. As I sat trying to come up with a creative, yet violent, federal offense I might have been convicted of that would keep everyone away from me something began to happen in that room. People began to tell their stories. Some of them were wilder than the stuff I was trying to come up with to scare people away so I gave up on that option. These people were, well, all over the map.

Some of them described themselves as “lay pastors” with jobs in offices. Others told of coming to ACC by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some told us they were relatively new believers. Others could recount breaking free from lives of addiction and sin. I’d love to tell you that I immediately embraced this motley crew of would be disciples, but I didn’t. I became even more convinced that I couldn’t be a part of this. I couldn’t be this real with people. Then I rationalized that maybe I could just coast my way through using my award winning personality and distance as my offensive weapons. Then the instructor dropped the bomb all of us would come to dread…group projects.

I thought I had died and gone to Hell. (I’m still not totally convinced there won’t be group projects in Hell, by the way.) Not only would we need to work together to present a project in EVERY STINKING CLASS to complete this degree, we had to use our so-called Strengths to do it. So much for staying under the radar and coasting my way through this degree. It appeared they were really going to make me get to know these people! And so it began.

Pretty soon new cohorts were formed and we found ourselves getting to know even more people (imagine my joy). We got moved from the Library Board Room to Room 409 in Hathcock. By then we were mixed up with Cohorts 1-3 all in the same group, all studying Bible. While the idea that we would be there to study Bible was somewhat unifying, there were as many Biblical/Church traditions represented in that room as there were people. We were like a box of Crayola crayons – even the similar backgrounds were shaded differently because of our personal experience. We were hippies and addicts, conservatives and liberals, black and white, young and old. I remember thinking, “Now the group projects will get REALLY interesting! I can’t wait to watch these poor professors deal with this group!” But deal with us they did, and they did it well.

I wish I could go back and remember exactly when I knew it was happening. For the life of me I can’t recall. All I know is, somewhere along the way, we began to be a community. Maybe it was how we began each Tuesday night with prayer. At first the requests would be pretty superficial, but you can’t spend 4 hours trapped in a room with someone every week without getting to know something about the rhythms of their life. I can remember praying for at-risk pregnancies and loved ones who were being deployed to Afghanistan. There were requests for sick family members and jobs that were lost. Then the requests became more personal. Tears were shed one evening as someone asked for prayer for a loved one who did not know the Lord. Another one of us asked for prayer as they were anticipating being reunited with a parent they hadn’t seen in years. Our marriages were in jeopardy. Our children were hurting. Our faith was rocked and we all became very attuned to one another’s lives.

Cell phone numbers were exchanged and if you were late, you were bound to get a call from someone asking if you’d broken down or if you were just stuck in traffic. And if you missed a class due to illness, you could expect your inbox to be full on Wednesday with emails from everyone wanting to know if you were okay. We were becoming more than a community – we were becoming family. As you can imagine, it was impossible to stay invisible in this group. They began to wear down my “points and corners” personality and get under my skin and into my heart.

As students of the Bible, we’ve studied some pretty heavy topics. (I think we are all still surprised we lived through Biblical Theology with Rodenbeck.) But amazingly, somewhere along the way we all lost the need to be correct in our own belief system and learned to listen and process the viewpoints of others. When our theology led one of us to a hard place in the road, we all found ourselves there and what’s more – not one of us was willing to leave another behind in confusion. We haven’t let each other quit when it got hard. We have forced one another out of confused isolation into family so that burdens could be shared among many shoulders.

Somewhere along the way, we became a church. More than mere members of a cohort, we’ve defined ourselves as a group of people called out to live under the authority of scripture. We identify with each other in certainty and confusion, in victory and in sorrow, through happiness and tears. We’ve become a group of disciples devoted to the teaching of God’s Word and to one another. There have been many “pastors” who’ve led us for five weeks at a time. They’ve become dear to us and part of our fellowship. They may have come to teach a class, but I think they realized that they actually joined a church too.

To answer the question, “What on earth was I doing?” I can say: Something NOT of this earth. Something that looks very different from the Kingdom of this World. Each Tuesday has been what I think church was meant to be. We’re a group of VERY different people who’ve become bound by Jesus Christ. Our variety doesn’t scare us. While we tease each other about our differences, we’d fiercely defend one another should a stranger try and do the same. Our love and devotion to Jesus Christ has bound us together in a way nothing else could. In Christ, we’ve been liberated to love one another the way we never could’ve outside Room 409.

I understand not every cohort has had this experience. For that matter, everyone within my cohort may not have had this experience. To that all I can say is: I’m so sorry. The Church in Room 409 has been one of the most precious gifts God has ever allowed me to experience. I could never have asked for or anticipated anything like it. God has used this church to grow and change me in many ways. The Church in Room 409 will stay in m heart and my prayers for years to come.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Who is Theology Barbie?

It started out as a way to make fun of me and my passion for God's Word. I won't say who started it:) It caught on and friends have added to the joke by accessorizing her with a laptop (with Logos) and a t-shirt that reads "I'd rather be exegeting". I won't get into some of the things my closest friends have suggested she might say...

What started out as a joke has actually become something that works for me. I'm the kind of person who never really "fit in" anyplace they ever tried. My personality is best described as "all points and corners". I've always been too much and not enough all at the same time. But when I really began to think about and embrace Theology Barbie, suddenly none of that mattered any longer.

So at this transition time in my life (as graduation and seminary loom ahead of me) I'm changing out the title I carried as Children's Minister for so long (High Grand Diva) to who I think I really might've been created to be - Theology Barbie. Lest you think too highly of me - or think that I think highly of myself - let me tell you a few things about Theology Barbie:

She doesn't have as many answers as she used to. She reads the Sermon on the Mount A LOT and wonders how it should be transforming her life. She asks "who is Jesus and what difference does it make?" Upon waking every morning her question is likely to be: okay, who is going to be God today? She is trying to live out the personhood of Jesus Christ in all she does - not just on Sunday mornings. You are likely to find her camped out with her theology books and a beer trying to make sense of how she should behave in this world as a resident alien of it. (She prays it doesn't involve giving up the beer by the way:)

So if you are looking for answers, her blog is not the likely place to find them. But if you are a fellow wanderer in the wilderness, if you too feel like you don't belong, or if you are also struggling with the idea of "kingdom" and what it looks like you might find some useful musings.

The perfect, sinless people need read no further...