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The Autism Gospel of Samaritans and Green Beans

I’ve been asked recently what kind of things can help bring disabled people into the body of the Church as members in community. In the spirit of answering that questions (and of Throwback Thursday) I’m reposting a blog from several years ago. I’ll always be thankful to North River Church for making us members.

 

“Mom, don’t have hurt feelings, it’s just a growing up thing to do.”

 This is how Noah started a heart-to-heart conversation with me about a month ago. I was terrified as to what would follow this declaration of independence, but encouraged him to continue. Not a fan of “small talk”, Noah got straight to the point. “Mom, I want to put myself to bed at night.” I tried not to emotionally respond to this newly found sense of autonomy but my heart cried out, “No! Not the bedtime routine!” (Sometimes I wonder who the autistic person around here is…maybe it’s contagious after all.) So without any emotional affect at all, I asked what this might entail. Just which parts of our routine was I to forego in the spirit of pre-adolescent development? To my surprise, his idea of putting himself to bed meant that Noah would say his prayers himself.

Now I should say that when we first received our diagnosis one of the most bone chilling prospects of 299.0 was the “lack of social or emotional reciprocity”. What was that going to mean for Noah? Would he be capable of a conscious or was he destined to become a serial killer? Many nights would find me bleary eyed cruising the internet for adaptive behavioral methods that might be the cure for our curse. My biggest fear was what this would mean for Noah’s spiritual life. Without emotional reciprocity, could he ever respond to God as his Savior and forever friend? And he couldn’t even talk to me or conceive of me as a person when I was right in front of him. Could Noah ever conceive of a God who loved him enough to send his son to die for him? Would he be able to ever communicate with God?

To say these thoughts plagued me daily in our early years is the epitome understatement. I methodically tried different approaches to break through to a place where I could access Noah’s soul. My only solution to the prayer problem was to make a small photo album with pictures of those for whom we could pray. Using photos from Christmas cards, I used this book each night to hopefully convey to Noah that praying included talking to God about other people. While it has been a long time since I’ve needed to use the book to break through to Noah, I have still often wondered at night: Does he even listen to the words I pray or is this just part of the routine to him? Like the parent of any “normal child”, I have wondered if my child would internalize his faith.

While I am sometimes tempted to feel that autism has robbed me of certain liberties as a parent, I am constantly reminded that it has given me far more than it ever took away.  While I don’t even pretend to have this disorder “by the tail”, I can say that I’ve found there is much more happening than often appears on the surface with an autistic individual. Whereas before I might have deduced from certain behaviors that my son lacked emotional reciprocity, I now see that I believe Noah has been gifted with heightened senses. I can only speak for “our case”, but I know that Noah feels and sees things that elude those unfortunate enough to be normal. Here is how I know…

 

Our church supports a local food co-op to provide for families in need. We’ve participated before by bringing in assorted canned goods and allowing Noah to place them in the grocery cart located in the foyer. However, last Sunday’s emphasis was on green beans. Somehow, Noah really caught on to this specific idea. All week long he inundated me with reminders that we had to get green beans for the “hungry people”. And when I say that Noah reminded me, I mean SEVERAL times a day because when we focus on something we REALLY focus on it.

So on Saturday when we did our grocery shopping I patiently waited while Noah picked out just the right can of green beans – which turned out to be a 4-pack but this is for the Kingdom right? He placed them in the buggy and checked on them several times as we continued to shop. When we got to the check out, Noah dug them out from under the rest of the groceries so that they would be checked out first. I grimaced as his arms flapped when they “beeped” over the scanner. Then I promptly forgot about the green beans. That “to do” had been checked off my mental list.

Last Saturday evening, I stood at the door listening to Noah’s prayers. Even though it’s a  “growing up thing to do” Noah still prays aloud with his hands clasped to his chest. I heard him say, “And dear God, please don’t let me forget the green beans! Don’t’ let me forget the hungry people.” My mouth went dry. I swear that I believe the salvia was immediately redirected into tears because I instantly wept.

 

Dear Lord, please don’t let me forget the green beans and the hungry people. When was the last time I prayed with the sincere spirit to remember and not forget?

 

It was then that I remembered Noah has also been fixated on the story of The Good Samaritan – or as he calls it “The Story of the Guy on the Road”. I find it interesting that Noah doesn’t identify with the hero, but with the wounded. I’ve acted out this story dozens of times in Sunday School lessons. No one really wants to be “the guy on the road”. It’s the Samaritan that is the hero. We even make a big deal about how marginalized the people of Samaria were and how extraordinary it was for Jesus to choose this unlikely hero. But Noah never seems to get past the image of the wounded man. It seems Noah has a heightened awareness for those in pain and need. I don’t have to wonder why.

I can still see Noah laying under the table in most of the Sunday School classes he attended as the rest of the class sat obediently around the story circle. My wounded little boy would stay on the fringes of his own society, paralyzed by his own brain for many years. I wonder if when Noah sees the picture of the man prostrate on the road, some part of him doesn’t transport his mind’s eye to the perspective of laying on the ground himself. I believe that even though we could not see it at the time, Noah was desperate for someone to come along and be his Samaritan. And many teachers did just that. In this way, he identifies with the wounded and passed by in a way most of us cannot.

What I find difficult to grasp is Noah’s desperate plea not to forget those in pain. Having experienced so much pain himself, why would he want to remember more? Well for Noah, I guess he can still see from the perspective on someone on the road. And contrary to all logic, Noah prays to remember and not forget. He prays not to forget the pain and suffering with which he identifies. In his own way, he is willing to relive that scenario in his memory in order to keep his perspective. Most of us spend our energies avoiding personal suffering or, at the very least, trying to put it behind us so that we can “go on”. But Noah asks to remember.

I hope that one day, I can grow to a place where I can ask God to help me remember my pain and not forget it in order to benefit someone along the road. Until then, I will remain inspired by green beans and Samaritans.

 

 

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Author:

Vangie writes, teaches and speaks about her experience as the parent of a child with Autism. She holds a B.S. in Christian Ministry and an M.A. in Contemporary Theology. She seeks to synthesize perspectives in theology, disability and ministry.

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