Tag Archives: God

Communio: A Poem

 

 candle

There are times when the words and symbols spark
Lighting up our world, illuminating the dark
And in our mundane world magic appears
To strengthen resolve or to calm our fears
With a community of saints on holy ground
Where the remnants of ancient faith are found
 
In those rare times, you can almost feel
The mystery hiding behind the real
Where good and evil struggle and strive
And God and the devil are still alive
Where water and wine and flesh and stone
Unite us together. We are not alone
 
Where God’s presence has come to earth to dwell
And deep runs the water in the spiritual well
Where hope emerges from the pain
And the drought ends in heavenly rain
Where we see again the world made new
And the magic returns to me and to you

What I learned about myself, life and God from my child on the Autistic Spectrum: Part 4

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

This is my final installment on this for the time being. There are certainly more things I have learned but for now this is enough to say.

8.  Familial Image of God, this comes more from the experience of being a father in general, rather than the father of my son in particular, but being a father made me realize the amount of personal investment I have in my own son—and that would not be something I would be able to walk away from, nor would my son be able to end his relationship to me as his father. Aren will always, no matter what he does throughout his life, have a place in my heart and nothing will change that. There is nothing he could do that would make me disown him. So long as I live I will not give up on him. I will always attempt to support him as best I can. On the other hand, he is his own person and I want him to grow up and continue to develop his own personality and identity. I want him to have the ability to follow his own dreams and make his own mistakes. I want him to have the freedom to fail, to stumble and to get back up and I think that is part of what the concept of grace is all about. Who he is as my son will never change, he will always be that, but who he is as a person I want him to determine on his own, and I will be his biggest cheerleader throughout that process but I will not force him to follow in my footsteps. The more I encounter God, the more I think there is something to this picture of God as a Father who is not uninvolved, but who is gracious. A God who wants us to find our own identity, but we also never lose our identity as children of God.  I try to as best I can to be the type of father who models the way Martin Luther talks about God the Father who want us to come to him as loving children come to a loving father.

9. Dealing with the dark side of reality. I have been accused of being the eternal optimist, that even in the darkest experiences of life (which I have had my share of) I still seek for the gift in the suffering, the lesson in the pain and I know this does not come immediately, yet my son wrestles with the self destructive and environmentally destructive nature of humanity with a very different lens. One of the most profound conversations I have had with my sons a couple times over the last year is , “With all the evil that people do, what right do we have to exist?” No otherworldly vision of Christianity has an answer to this, yet the faith of the early Christians was very worldly, and they took very serious the reality that God indeed loved the world, and in strong contrast to many modern Christian belief systems the entire purpose of life was not to escape the world (actually that was the worldview of one of the early Christian heresies called Gnosticism) but rather that as followers of Christ (or more generally God) they were caught up in the dream of God for the renewal and reconciliation of the world.  Both the Jewish people and early Christians had the audacious view that they were a part of God’s plan for the renewal of creation, this is the reason Paul can write in Romans that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” The dark side of reality is present, real and painful and yet part of the Christian hope is that it is not the final answer and in hope we yearn (and work) for something better.  

10. The reality that even when we are unable to receive love, love is still given. I think most parents have times throughout their childrens’ lives where they have trouble connecting, where the advice, care, support and love are not able to be accepted because the children themselves are in a process of growing up and becoming their own selves. My son in his own way is navigating the early teenage years where his journey is different than mine was, and yet there is definitely a change. He no longer needs or honestly wants the same level of attention, he is becoming more self sufficient and I am proud of him for that. Are there times I grieve the type of relationship we had earlier, yes, but I try to let him know that he is loved and valued but there are times where he doesn’t seem to want to hear this anymore.  I think many of us go through this in our relationship with others and with God as well. I think many, and I certainly did, go through a phase where we have to figure out who we are as individuals, and individuals trying to negotiate different and new relationships and sometimes (at least for a time) the old relationships get put to the side and the ones that are valued are come back to. I also have had several points in my own journey with God where I have had to argue something through, I’ve gone through several difficult things in my life that I had to make sense of, and part of making sense of that was arguing with God about it for me. In those times when I may have been arguing with God and may not have always wanted to hear what God had to say, when I may have wanted to push God away I found God waiting patiently through the process.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the Autistic Spectrum: Part 3

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

5. We often value people for very superficial reasons part 1: There are a whole set of criteria that people are judged by constantly by those around them including, but not limited to: physical appearance and dress, weight, proportions, muscle tone, skin coloration, the manner in which a person carries themselves, appropriate social interactions and even smell plays into game of subconscious evaluation of others based on appearance. In less formal language we quickly determine who is cool and who is not within a group of peers, which people are noticed for being popular, who are the geeks, who are the outcast and who are the invisible members of a group. One of the gifts of learning to see things through my son’s eyes is that none of these things matter to him, he would say that he honestly doesn’t care about other’s evaluation of him even though he is entering an age where these things are very important to his peers. I found it interesting that his first real friend at his current school is another student who is also very smart but has Cerebral Palsy, and so is also unable to interact in the same manner as many of their peers. In fact Aren finds most of the social games played by his classmates as not only distracting but annoying. To me one of the gifts of the Christian tradition is the practice of communion or the Lord’s Supper where we gather around the table with others who have been drawn to be a part of the fellowship we share in Christ and around the table none of the typical valuations matter. All come on an equal footing to share in the foretaste of the feast that God promises us God’s kingdom. In the community I serve we have a number of people who may not rank very high on the social ladder for many of the reasons listed above and yet they are all people of value in the body of Christ.

6. We often judge people for very superficial reasons part 2: I am a very smart, tough and capable person and throughout my experience in schooling, the army and even within the church I learned quickly to judge a person based upon how competent they were. Competence looks like different things in different environments but this reduces a person’s worth to their functionality. My son is a very smart and capable young man but in a world that judges by physical attraction and social interaction he is at a disadvantage, on the other hand he tends to view the world even more harshly in terms of functionality than I ever did. There may be ways in which we use metrics to measure a person’s competence at a skill or a task, this is the whole world of testing in both the academic and business world, but we should never confuse competence with value. People have value regardless of their level of competence or physical or social traits. Within the world of competence also falls status, wealth, education, political power and fame which we also learn increase the value of a person in our eyes, yet this is precisely the type of valuation that Christians should be immune to (but apparently even the early church struggled with this due to the frequency it is addressed in the letters within the New Testament). I have on my wall a plaque that Nate Frambach, my advisor in seminary, gave me upon my graduation which states, “Neil Eric White, you are a baptized child of God, whatever else you are remember you are that for that is the basis of all that you are.” My valuation comes not from my own personal competence, wealth, power, physical appearance, social prowess or any other measure-it is a gift from God that I am valued (and not only me, and I would argue not only Christians).

7. Just because someone doesn’t seem to be paying attention doesn’t mean they aren’t listening and watching what you are doing. Now this applies to people regardless, but I mention it because in learning to see the world through my son’s eyes I realized that not everyone has to look to pay attention. I was always taught (and yes, I realize this is a very masculine way of approaching things) to look a person in the eye when they talk to you and by extension that if a person did not look at you they weren’t paying attention. The eyes for most of us take in a lot of the information that we interpret in our brains and in a world where eye contact is not only a symbol of paying attention but at times a symbol of confidence (in contrast not looking a person in the eye was perceived as either dishonesty or lack of trust in one’s ability). Most autistic people do not like to make direct eye contact, it is uncomfortable for them, and they may be involved in one task that seems unrelated to what is going on around them yet be able to see, hear and perceive everything that is being said. In fact for my son he actually listens better when he is not directly looking at something. That being said he watches and listens to everything. I remember Nate Frambach once sharing, “don’t worry that your kids aren’t listening to you, worry intensely that they are watching everything you are doing.” Over the past ten years I have become increasingly aware of the number of ways that people listen and process information and I have learned to become much more aware of my own biases in the ways I learned to communicate.

Still not done, so stay tuned for at least one more installment

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the autistic spectrum: Part 2

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

This is part 2 of a reflection in honor of Autism awareness month.

3. We live in an incredibly complex world and human communication is even more complex. Because of what I do, as a pastor, I am constantly interacting with other people in various formats. I, like most people, took the process of communicating for granted because I naturally picked up the ability to read eyes, body language, vocal tone and inflection, pay attention to the environment selectively in addition to paying attention to the words being said. I am actually a fairly gifted watcher and listener, and this comes in particularly when I am counseling people (so much so that some people have remarked I am almost clairvoyant in reading not only messages but people). The entire process of communication involves knowing what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to, and as I tried to understand the process of communication from my son’s perspective I began to realize how many incredible functions my eyes, ears, other senses and ultimately my mind was taking in, sorting and analyzing and responding to. For example, Aren has difficult understanding many types of verbal humor because it involves the way something is said as much as what is said  One example of how easy it is to misunderstand communication came up when he was in elementary school and we went to meet with Aren’s teachers because Aren felt he was being picked on by one student when this student had been wanting to play with Aren and Aren never responded (he is quite happy being on his own) and the student, who couldn’t understand this at this point, kept asking to play with him. This has made me more sensitive to the polyvalent character of communication, one group of words can have several sets of meaning based on context, environment, vocal inflection, body language and so much more. As an interpreter of texts, I have become increasingly aware of how important the reader’s predisposition is to what is actually being said, and we necessarily impose meaning on words to give them a broader picture. When I was growing up, one of the churches I attended tended to approach reading the Bible in a way that was flat and conveyed no emotion, so as not to impose meaning on the text (unfortunately they did impose meaning on the text, but it was a meaning that it was flat, dull and emotionless). People also have very different abilities to hear and to communicate, some have a natural talent for this and in general women are better at reading and responding to communication than men-yet everyone has something to contribute.

4. Spirituality is a function of imagination. This is a huge statement and something I am wrestling through and before people get up in arms about it let me explain what I am attempting to say. Spirituality (not religion, per se) involves the ability to wonder and to try to understand the world in a way that is not based entirely on empirical observations. A person in the modern world can understand the world, their existence and their values based entirely upon a scientific worldview and feel no need for anything more (this is not a new phenomenon). I find it interesting that both atheism and religious fundamentalism there is a huge need to convert others to their dogmatic view of the world and I believe that part of the common issue is a need to lock everything within a concrete system which often leaves little room for questioning and wonder. My son struggles with the concept of God (which is interesting and at time challenging as a pastor) but I also am aware of many autistic children and adults who are fundamentalist Christians who find great comfort in the dogmatic worldview. There is a desire for simplicity that is simply not there in the world (nor the Bible for that matter) and there tends to be less openness to a sense of spirituality which can doubt, question and wonder. I am by no means an expert at the relationship between imagination, wonder, doubt and the ability to ask questions that challenge preconceptions but my theory is that they are related. (Perhaps something to explore, another good question) We live in a world where imagination is viewed as a function of childhood, and therefore something which is not highly valued, but I believe that imagination is more vital part of our lives than we often understand. What I do know is that it is difficult for my son to understand and approach the world in the way I have learned to do, especially in the last couple years. This doesn’t make him any less valuable than me, but his view of spirituality will be different than mine (like the manners and ways in which he expresses emotions, love and communicates). My spirituality and the imaginative act of understanding God and the world doesn’t force me to be confined within my understanding. I have also learned to value those who feel more comfortable within a more rigid view of the world, much like the compression my son needed for emotional and cognitive stabilization when he was a child his worldview provides comfort for him in his life.

More to come…

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the autistic spectrum: Part 1

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(deviantart.com)

I remember vividly standing in the backyard of the parsonage in Blanchardville, Wisconsin the day we finally received my son’s diagnosis of PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) and yelling at God, “What more do you want from me, I’ve followed you to seminary, I’m trying to do what you tell me to do, what more do you want?”  For those who are not as familiar with the landscape of the autistic spectrum this is one of the diagnoses within the spectrum that falls under the autism umbrella. That was ten years ago, my son was four at that point and my ex-wife were pouring our time and effort into my son and his newborn baby sister, trying to make ends meet and get him the therapy he needed while in seminary and on internship prior to my ordination in 2004. At that point in my life I was dealing with too many broken dreams to see the gift that Aren has become, but now ten years later I realize how much he has taught me about love, being human and in a strange way I have learned to see God in a different light through these experiences.

1.       Broken dreams do not necessarily mean a broken relationship. As I stood there yelling at God, I was in the process of mourning a broken set of dreams and expectations for my son. We all have a set of expectations for our children, that in some ways they will follow in our footsteps and make us proud. Prior to going into the ministry I had graduated from the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M and then served for four and a half years as an officer in the military. Aren was born while I was stationed at Ft. Polk, Louisiana and as a proud father I dreamed of one day seeing my son put on his senior boots at Texas A&M. It had been such a rich and formative opportunity for me at that stage in my life and I wanted the same for him, and that was one of the dreams that laid there on the floor shattered that day. I never stopped loving and caring for my son, even in the midst of his worst temper tantrums at that stage, or at the moments where I couldn’t understand how or why his speech wasn’t developing like most children’s speech just naturally did. Yet, somehow that dream for him had to die so that I could accept him where he was. Ten years later, as my son is on the threshold of entering high school, I am very proud of him for who he is. Even though he is incredibly smart and very well behaved and will probably do very well with his life there are still times where I watch his peers and grieve a little because there are things that I just can’t share with him because they are not important to him. Over the last ten years I have come to know more about Thomas the Tank Engine, Spongebob Squarepants, Fairly Odd Parents, Phineas and Ferb and countless other cartoons as he has recited to me entire episodes (which I have already seen anyways), I have become the subject matter expert on dinosaurs, sea creatures, space exploration, monsters and mythology and the latest video game on the Wii or DS or PS3. These are the places I can meet him and see what brings him joy, and so I learn about things that may not be of great interest to me, because I value my son and I want him to know that he is loved and valued.

2.       Relationships do not have to be reciprocal. Every parental relationship starts with the parents pouring love into their children when they are born. At the earliest stages of life children are not able to reciprocate the love and emotion and nurturing that their parents pour into them, but as children develop there is the expectation that there will be a reciprocation of the love they have received. It is not that autistic children do not love, or even that they do not express love, but they are not hardwired to provide the love and feedback in the same way that most children will. It doesn’t mean that their parents love them less—in fact most parents of autistic children have invested more in their children to try to set them up for success even without the reward of the hugs and kisses that other children begin to give. As I have tried to learn, as best I can, to see the world through my sons eyes and to attempt to understand things the way he might. I have learned to love him for who he is and to value the ways in which he is able to express his affection. He will always be my son, and that relationship is not dependent on any reciprocity. It reminds me of the baptism service which end with the child (or adult) is marked with oil and the words of promise are “name, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Parents and even God may desire reciprocity in their relationship with their children, but the relationship is not contingent on that reciprocity. We are who we are by the relationship because by birth or by adoption we have been joined to be a part of a family and we will be valued for who we are.

More to Come…

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com