Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Autism Gospel - The Barefoot Confession

Today I baptized one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known. I’ve written about my Gillian in previous blogs. She is a child affected by autism and it’s challenges. I wrote about how her first word was Jesus and all she had taught me about that “Name above all Names”. Today, Gillian taught me another lesson about the Kingdom of God.

She has displayed a deep love of Jesus Christ for many years now. Despite her attention deficiency and sensory issues, I could always depend on Gillian’s piercing blue eyes to be glued to my face whenever I taught. Those eyes always caught me off guard. I am accustomed to the autistic child who avoids eye contact, but this was never the case with Gillian. At one time, I confess, I considered her stare blank and vacant. It seemed her gaze just rested on you without intention. What I came to discover was that, while her gaze was without “intention” it was not vacant or without cognition. I say it was without intention because I learned that when Gillian gave you her interest, her eyes would reflect that she took you at face value. Perhaps because of her social difficulties, she didn’t expect anything from me during our interactions. The result of this was that Gillian was able to process and reflect on my words much more quickly than other children.

Perhaps my favorite Gillian story was from our unit on The Prophets. One of our first lessons highlighted the life and story of Isaiah. We presented the call of Isaiah in a tandem-story method that allowed me and another storyteller to narrate the story together at a pace that moved the excitement of the story in a direction that communicated the wonder of Isaiah’s encounter with God. We told about Isaiah’s vision of God complete with seraphs and the train of his robe that filled the throne room and everyone crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” For many of the children this was the first time they’d heard this portion of scripture. I was especially concerned about the younger children and wondered if they would fully understand the significance of this passage.

Immediately after the lesson, I felt a tug on my pants and turned to see Gillian’s big blue eyes meeting my own. Her commentary on the lesson still rings in my mind. She said, “Miss Vangie, when you told me about Isaiah and those flying snakes and everybody crying ‘holy, holy’, I forgot my tights were itchy!” In other words, the passage had made her forget her momentary (but very real) physical and neurological discomfort. I told my co-teacher we’d never hit a home run like that again no matter how hard we tried.

Soon after this Gillian began to say, “Here I am Lord, send me!” in own special way as she began to discuss her desire to be baptized. Always cautious, her mother and I continued to dialog with Gillian but wanted to be sure she “understood” the significance of her decision. Looking back now, I could kick us both. I should have realized that Gillian’s response was exactly like that of the prophet. She was ready to have her life given over to someone who’d be with her always.

So a few weeks ago Gillian finally had enough and asked her mother, “Why do I have to wait?” Her mother hadn’t made her older sister wait. Gillian could see that she was being handled differently. She is generally at peace with being treated differently because she knows that she is different from her siblings. But on this issue, Gillian had had enough and stated in no uncertain terms that it was time for her to be immersed.

I’ve found that autistic children, perhaps all children really, tend to have what I call a “person”. This is usually someone to which they have developed a close attachment. Often, these bonds are formed as their “person” guides them through a difficult time or transition. I am humbled to say that I am “Gillian’s person”. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to put this covenant into words in order to make myself accountable to the responsibilities of being her person. So when the question was posed as to who would baptize Gillian, there was no question in her mind that I would perform this honor. I can’t describe what the process of immersing a child into Jesus Christ means to me. But to be chosen by Gillian to be both her “person” and the one to immerse her, all I can say is that it takes my breath away.

This morning I got an S.O.S. from the Children’s Ministry Intern letting me know that I might want to arrive at church early to reassure Gillian. This was shortly followed by a text from Gillian’s mother expressing the same idea. I was reassured to know that Gillian was expressing “normal” tendencies toward nervous anxiety and it confirmed for me that Gillian really did understand the magnitude of her decision. When I arrived early, I walked her into the Sanctuary to rehearse The Good Confession once again. It was here that Gillian reminded me of a critical Kingdom Principle.

As I knelt in front of her and explained that her current Children’s Minister would be taking her confession Gillian said, “I can say it, but can you hold me while I do it?” What she wanted was for me to kneel behind her with my hands around her waist as she spoke those precious words she holds so dear. She knew she believed them, she was ready to say them, but she wasn’t afraid to ask to be “held” as she carried out what she knew God wanted her to do. Oh that we all could be the Arms of The Kingdom for those in the family of God who need to be held as they carry out God’s work in their lives!

Instead, we try to bravely go at this life alone either hiding our inadequacies or pretending as if they don’t exist at all. I have a feeling many more of us are paralyzed by fear than admit it. We see our fear as a lack of faith and a limitation in righteousness. And because we can’t share our own fears and doubts, when others live out circumstances in their own lives that indicate struggles, we move quickly to forming an opinion about that person. Before we know it, we’ve judged them based on their fallen humanity without ever recognizing our own.

So how is it that these neurologically challenged children can embrace this kingdom ideal and we cannot? I think part of it lies in their so-called social deficit. It never occurred to Gillian that 1). It was unnatural to ask for support or 2). I would say “no”. I also believe her ability to take me at face value (or at my word) made it easier for her to diminish any suspicions she might have had to my response. She needed me and I am her “person”, so naturally, I would be there in her time of need.

As I knelt behind Gillian and felt her heart pounding through her little back, I was reminded of the morning’s New Testament scripture reading from Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I might also like to add: “Shall an imbalance in sensory input, or decreased social skills, or pervasive and repetitive behaviors or neurological deficit separate us? Will the way the world views those who just happen to hear the electricity run through the walls keep us from internalizing the message of the Kingdom? Will those whose speech cannot express the inner workings of their mind be left out of this kingdom?”

Conversely, I believe people like Gillian and Noah are here to show us the kingdom in it’s purest, most undiluted form. In their minds, if someone needs it and I have it to give – well, they can have it. When presented with the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings, these children have the ability to internalize and accept them. Why? It is kind of like Gillian’s piercing stare – they take Jesus at his word. There is no doubt that he is True. Jesus becomes their “person”. How many of us can say “Jesus is my person?”

And what a beautiful Jesus they internalize – full of compassion, love, mercy and grace! To them he is a Savior for the marginalized and forgotten. He is the Redeemer of Broken Toys. Fully recognizing their own brokenness, they not only welcome a humble Messiah, they are able to turn their hearts completely to him in obedience without fear or reservation.

I mentioned in my previous blog that Gillian prefers not to wear socks and shoes. She was intent on looking her best this morning - after all she was meeting her very forever friend today. However, her choice of shoes was already an issue by the end of Sunday School. As I was walking with her, I noticed she was having problems with her praxis and foot placement. When I asked her if she was alright she said, “Oh Miss Vangie, it’s my shoes. They are pretty but they are so tight. They hurt my feet and I can’t think.” My heart melted for this dear child who wanted so badly to have a “normal moment” just like everyone else, but was unable to function because of something most people can compartmentalize.

I told Gillian what we’ve said before: “If Jesus is in your heart he can’t see your shoes. Take them off Gilly…you stand on holy ground.” She replies, “Just like Moses and the bush that burned.” With tears I said, “Yes, baby girl. Your shoes don’t matter – your heart does.”

She gave her Good Confession barefooted. Today, that piece of ground was holier because of a wondrously created child of God who confessed him with volume and confidence without reservation, overcoming great odds beyond her control.

Holy ground indeed.