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The Christmas Bear

PhotoGrid_1386946044501For Angie…with love at Christmas.

Once upon a time there were two Christmas Bears that sat on a shelf in a gift shop. Jointed at both the arms and legs, they were covered in cheerful fabric with a floral pattern of yellow, red and green. Around their neck was tied a simple red ribbon that was more beautiful because of its simplicity. But they were very small (only three inches in height) and didn’t have very much hope in being selected among the bigger and more extravagant gifts in the shop.

And once upon a time, there were also two college freshmen. They had met as strangers in August, but by December had begun what would become a life-long friendship. Neither of these girls had jobs or families able to support them in a comfortable style. That year, neither of them would do holiday shopping. But on a cold Arkansas day the girls blew into a gift shop along with the blustery winter air.

While perusing the many wares and holiday offerings of the gift shop, both girls found themselves staring in delight at the two, little Christmas Bears. Standing hip to hip, the girls reached up to the shelf where the bears were poised. They gently played with their hinged joints and loving fingered the small red bows around the neck of each bear. Without a moment of hesitation, the girls decided to purchase them for one another. Digging the last of their monies from their college i.d. holders, which also doubled as their wallets, they paid for their priceless treasures and exchanged them on the spot.

Each time I see him, I’ll think of you,” said one girl to the other. And so, each Christmas Bear found its own home. That year, those Christmas Bears were the only adornment of the season in their simple dorm rooms.

Soon the girls wouldn’t share the same suite, or even the same state. The next Christmas, as one of the girls unpacked her one, humble shoebox box labeled “Christmas stuff,” she found a small red tissue wrapped bundle in the corner of the box. When she unwrapped it, tears sprang to her eyes as she rediscovered her Christmas Bear. More than just rediscovering an ornament, at that moment she rediscovered her friendship as if it were all happening in that single moment.

In an instant she relived it all. They sat on a white swing on campus having their first heart to heart conversation. In that same moment, they laughed over ridiculous people they encountered, survived Pledge Week, expressed frustration at professors, studied for exam after exam, helped one another dress for dates and formals, ate many cafeteria meals, and cried over broken hearts.

With no long-distance calling plan, she immediately rummaged through a drawer to find an old calling card. She prayed aloud there would be just a few minutes left so that she could hear her friends voice and feel her near.

It only took a few rings for the other girl to answer. Almost in one breath, she told the story of finding her bear and what it meant to her. Hearing the tears in the voice of her dear friend, the other girl replied that she had also experienced the same sensation when she uncovered her Christmas Bear the day before. With time running out on their call, they promised to unwrap their bears each year and rediscover all they had meant to one another.

As years passed, they saw less and less of one another yet still managed to be present for one another’s life. Separated by no less than 600 miles at any given time, they managed to stand at one another’s side when they married. When marriage proved lonelier than they had expected and they were homesick for one another, they managed phone calls and letters. When it wasn’t possible to call one another, they recorded one side of a conversation on cassette tapes and sent them back and forth in the mail, knowing the consolation the voice of the other could provide.

And each year, at Christmas, each would unwrap their Christmas Bear and remember one another.

As one of the girls experienced difficulties conceiving a child, the other girl had a baby. Even though this typically drives a wedge between friends in these circumstances, it was the friend 600 miles away with a newborn that the girl called after each disappointing doctor’s appointment. And when she did finally conceive, the joyful news was received amid the screams of an irate toddler hundreds miles away.

They would experience much of their friendship by telephone, and later, text message, email and Facebook. They would both experience the terminal illness of a parent, calling one another from hospital waiting rooms with updates throughout the weeks. Whereas they once stood beside one another in bridesmaid’s gowns, soon they would stand hip to hip in funeral black.

As each experienced a disappointment or difficulty, they would know it as one. Together they experienced the diagnosis autism, illness, depression, struggles with their faith and the divorce of each girl. There were many dark days, hands curled desperately around a telephone as their only lifeline. For months on end, they may talk only once every two weeks. But during some seasons, they would speak twice a day because the voice of the other reminded them of the Truth and gave them hope to withstand their storms.

While they endured those difficult years, experiencing the holidays seemed especially wretched. But the highlight of decorating for each of them was uncovering the memories of their friendship when they unwrapped their Christmas bear. Indeed, one desperate year, one girl decided not to put away her bear with the decorations but to keep it at her bedside in consolation. And her night table is where it has sat as a reminder of hope and faithfulness all year long to this day.

Just as they saw one another through their grief, they would again celebrate with one another as well. Once again, they would celebrate joyfully as each would marry again. Each went back to college and they found themselves calling one another on “study breaks” despite being in their late 30s. Then they would laugh and remind one another why people should do this when they are young and without children and other jobs.

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And with each passing year, the story rediscovered through the Christmas Bears grows. It seems right that these small gifts were given at a time of year when Christ’s coming to Earth is commemorated. Also arriving in a small, seemingly insignificant package, he would be the hope of mankind. It was, indeed, the faith in that very hope that each girl was able to offer to the other throughout time. Just as the Christmas Story is one of God’s faithfulness to humanity, the story of the Christmas Bears is one of faithfulness and consolation. A faithfulness that we could one give one another through the example of that baby in the Christmas Story.

It has been more than twenty years since these Christmas Bears were first given in love. But for my part, I experience the hope of Christmas every morning and evening when I see it there on my nightstand.

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The Autism Gospel – Hope for Misfit Toys

A post a wrote a few years ago about Noah’s view on a holiday classic…enjoy!

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I’ve been doing “research” for a talk I’m giving next month. It’s a holiday gathering so the theme is preset, and I’ve got a pretty good idea where I’m going with it but I still like to research thoroughly. In doing my research, Noah and I have been watching some of the classic holiday movies. Watching a movie with Noah can be a strenuous experience. You have to be prepared for a lot of stopping and rewinding so that he can memorize a line in order to quote it perfectly 2 months later. As far as Noah is concerned, on the 8th day God made TiVo.

We were watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. As we began Noah had several comments to make about how the characters looked, or how much he loves Christmas and how excited he is that “its almost here”. But his comments about Rudolph gave me cause to muse. It wasn’t very far into the plot before Noah grabbed the remote and, instead of rewinding, paused the dvd and said, “Now that is my favorite character – Hermie the Elf.”

I replied, “What do you like about Hermie so much?” Noah answered, “Well, we both have kind of yellow hair and also, Hermie is happy and sad at the same time.” When I asked how it is possible to be happy and sad at the same time, Noah said, “Well, you see Mom, he is a misfit. He is happy because he wants to be a dentist, but sad because no one understands him. So he is happy and sad at the same time.” Not passing up on a “Noah moment” I asked, “Are you happy and sad at the same time?” Noah answered, “Yes I am, it just depends on how I open my eyes.” While I pondered the weirdness of that statement, he began the video again.

Soon, Rudolph and Hermie have teamed up and run away in an effort to “be independent together”. They jump on an iceberg and head out for points unknown and arrive at The Island of Misfit Toys. At this point, Noah stops the video again and says, “Mom pay attention, this is the important part.” (At this point, I also grabbed my laptop.) They are greeted first by the sentry who appears to be a Jack-in-the-Box, but informs them that he is actually a Charlie-in-the-Box. This is why he is a misfit – because, “…no child wants to play with a Charlie-in-the-Box.” Soon many other toys that have peculiar traits greet them.

“How would you like to be a spotted elephant, or a Choo-Choo with square wheels on its caboose, or a bird that can’t fly but swims?” they are asked by the toys. When Hermie and Rudolph inquire how they got to the island they answer that the king of the island, King Moonraiser, searches for toys that no one wants and brings them to live on the island until someone wants them. Noah turns to me and says, “See, the king has open eyes.”

Now its quite possible that Noah was just discussing the finer points of 1964 made for tv animation, but somehow I don’t think so. You see, it’s a story of Hope. Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ and a part of that larger story is Hope. In fact, it is woven all the way through scripture. In this story, the toys on the island have cause for Hope because they have a King that sought them out when no one else wanted them. And more than that, he provides for them a safe place of respite until they are wanted again. Please don’t miss the point – the King searched for them. This is the best part of the Hope: because the King had ‘open eyes’ no toy – no matter how big a misfit – went unredeemed. All toys are of value to the King, no matter how broken.

Noah changed the direction of my research. He indicated we can be happy or sad about who we are, it just depends on how we “open” our eyes. I rolled that over again and again in my brain all evening. I finally gave up around 4am and grabbed my Bible and began reading. Here are a few passages I was led to:

 For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. 

2 Chronicles 16:9

I praise God for the Hope I can find because I have a King that came looking for me. Unwilling to allow me to remain a misplaced, misfit – he is redeeming the parts of me that he can work with and discarding the parts that he can’t. I’ve got Hope.

 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2

I thank God for the Hope of the season that comes in the form of a source on which to fix my eyes. I’m a misfit, but he isn’t done with me yet. I am actually beginning to suspect that we misfits might be his favorites. Maybe it’s easier to show us how to direct our gaze. After all, it’s all in how we choose to open or focus our eyes. I’ve got Hope.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Cor. 4:18

I thank God for embracing the misfits and then using us in a wonderful way to show his glory. We have a marvelous Hope because we open our eyes to the eternal and not only the temporal. We’ve got Hope.

To all the misfit toys out there, Noah says there is Hope for us yet…it just depends on how we open our eyes.

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Bells Will Be Ringing

A post I wrote last year about Christmas and autism. I pray it blesses a parent who is enduring the holidays as many of us struggle to do.

Most people look forward to the holiday season with a kind of mania. In the sweltering heat of a late Georgia summer it isn’t uncommon to hear, “Only 120 shopping days until Christmas!” I’ve never enjoyed holiday shopping, but my son’s autism completely cured me of any interest in this phenomenon.

The extra lights, smells, and sounds of the holidays often proved to be a tipping point into complete hysteria for Noah when he was younger. Blinking lights made him squint his little eyes or cover them with his hands. Christmas carols blaring over the speakers in a store declaring that it was “the most wonderful time of the year” were offensive to his sensitive auditory system. Strong smells of cinnamon brooms and pine resulted in repetitive hand flapping and other self-stimulatory activities that do not go ignored by other shoppers. We once went to see a holiday light display at a large garden only to have Noah completely loose his balance and fall in a lily pond. I am convinced he couldn’t even retain his sense of balance because of all the sensory input. It only took a few holiday seasons to leave me feeling particularly “grinchy” about the entire affair.

But worst by far was the assault we would encounter on a simple trip to the grocery store during the holidays. As soon as I would open the car door, Noah would begin frantically chewing on his pacifier (or later a toy) in a fear response. I learned to register his panic and could immediately diagnose the source – that shrill, incessant ringing. Never decreasing in frequency, its high-pitched and piercing clanging grew as you approached the storefront. Some of you know that of which I speak – the Salvation Army bell.

I am convinced that these people do an excellent work, but for the life of me I searched high and low for stores to patronize at which they were absent. The assault brought on by the ringing of those bells caused Noah’s nervous system to be overloaded for hours. It simply was not worth anything I needed from a store if I had to deal with an anxious autistic child for several hours to obtain it.

In subsequent years, Noah would learn to integrate sights and smells into the tangled mass of schema his nervous system interprets. Visiting holiday light displays would become a favorite activity of his. He even learned to tolerate what we came to call the “Santa smell” so that he could visit that jolly old elf and present a handwritten list of toys he wanted for Christmas. But that bell continued to be despised by one and all, causing him to race through parking lots with hands over his ears to escape its alarming sound – until this year.

A few weeks ago we arrived at our neighborhood Kroger store to pick up a few items for supper. I knew the bell was there and had taken Noah by the shoulder as we got out of the car to insure he wouldn’t rapidly run through the parking lot to avoid the noise. Suddenly, Noah turned back to the car saying he had forgotten something. I assumed he was retrieving a toy to manipulate in order to self-soothe or even a set of the earplugs that I keep in the glove box now for such occasions. I saw him hastily shove items in his pocket and return to my side. After we traversed the parking lot he surprised me at the curb by speaking to the Salvation Army bell ringer. We have been working on social skills, but it seemed odd to me that Noah should seek out the perpetrator of our discomfort for a random meet-and-greet. I rushed him into the store and we began our shopping.

At he conclusion of our purchases, I began to maneuver the shopping cart through the automatic door only to have Noah race out in front of me. I hurriedly abandoned the cart to prevent him from dashing into on-coming traffic only to be brought up short by an astonishing sight.

The bell had stopped ringing and Noah was standing face to face with the Salvation Army volunteer. I did not know what he had said to begin the conversation but the response from volunteer was, “Well thank you young man.” And with that, Noah began to empty his pockets into the red cauldron. When Noah had returned to the car for what I assumed was an object to soothe himself, he had actually emptied all of the change from the console. When I arrived at the scene the volunteer said, “Your son just thanked me for my service. What a considerate young man!” I thought, “You have no idea what it took for him to approach you sir.”

Before we walked away Noah insisted on placing a sticker from a roll the lady at the cash register had given him on the apron of the volunteer. The man laughed and smiled and shook Noah’s hand. (If you happen upon a Salvation Army volunteer in the greater Cumming area with an “I’ve Gone Krogering” sticker on their apron you’ll know we’ve been there.) I was overwhelmed with questions as we walked through the parking lot.

Once settled in the car, I asked Noah about what he had done. He said, “That bell is terrible but he is working to be kind for others. That is what I want to be when I grow up. I want a job where I can be kind to others. Its like Jesus.” I suppose sometimes we have to be willing to allow ourselves to be assaulted by the overwhelming and uncomfortable in order to show the kindness Jesus calls us to.

Teachers and administrators at Noah’s school have told me that he displays an atypical amount of empathy for a child with his diagnosis. The word autism comes from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self.” And there is an element of this disease that gives Noah the appearance that he is preoccupied, primarily with himself and his feelings. What I have observed, however, is that this does not mean that Noah does not concern himself with the feelings of others. Rather, as Noah detects the circumstances and feelings of those around him his autism cues him to apply those feelings to himself. In this way, Noah experiences more of the feelings and emotions of those around him – not less. He has more empathy because everything that happens to those around him actually happens to him too.

I believe this is what prompted Noah to actively move beyond his comfort zone to participate in kindness. His life is more experiential than mine. From the excess of senses that his brain funnels through his nervous system to the way he encounters the hardship of others, Noah’s life is more textured and richer because autism gifts him in this way. Astonishingly, his empathy response prevails over the anxiety and fear triggers and Noah can be more like Jesus than I can.

Noah’s occupational goals now include Salvation Army Bell Ringer. God bless us, every one.