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The Autism Gospel – Come And Die

We have been talking with Noah for years about baptism. We probably started when he was about eight or nine years of age. All the rest of the kids his age were starting to make the decision to “give their life to Jesus,” so we assumed Noah would be excited to do so as well. After all, he has always been more at home in water than dry land so fear of drowning wasn’t an issue. He had heard all the stories, could give all the correct answers and say all the right things. So what was holding us back?

But Noah was unequivocally uninterested. More than that, he promptly shut down any conversation about Jesus that led to his own immersion in the waters of baptism. I would ask if he believed “in Jesus.” Noah would look at me strangely. I would elaborate. “Noah, what do you believe about Jesus?” He said, “Well, he was Jesus.”

So I got very specific. “Noah, what do you know about Jesus? What was true about him?” Suddenly he could converse about Jesus’ love for people, his compassion, miracles, healings, the Virgin Birth, his death on the cross – all of it.

This once frustrated me. But I think, after some research, I understand why. Paul Collins, in his book Not Even Wrong, chronicles autism throughout history. A historian and the parent of an autistic son, he describes these disparate views as “not even wrong.” He writes,

“Wolfgang Pauli used to deride colleagues in theoretical physics who disagreed with him as ‘not even wrong’. He meant this as a put down – that the questions they were asking were so off-base that their answers were irrelevant. Yet Pauli’s notion could also be applied to those who are autistic. They do not respond in expected ways to questions or to social cues…but then, only a person working from the same shared set of expectations could give a truly wrong answer. The autist is working on a different problem with a different set of parameters; they are not even wrong.”

Here is what I came to understand. Noah did not necessarily think he should have a personal “point of view” about Jesus. Our expectation is that people come to “accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” For Noah, Jesus is who he was. I don’t think he has a sense of urgency to develop an opinion about something that is, to him, a fact. On that count, I think Noah was not even wrong.

Still, Noah’s fear plagued me. He finally asked us just last weekend if we thought autistic people would “go to hell” if they weren’t baptized. We knew he was very close to a decision about what it would mean for him if he did not make a choice to do this. My husband took a very different approach as we continued this conversation.

He said, “Noah baptism is a symbol. Just like the icons on your ipad are symbols. When you open that symbol, you know what kind of program you are going to find there. Baptism is a symbol to everyone that you are a Christ follower. If people were to spend time around you and get to know you and kind of ‘open you up’ like that icon, they would see a person who believes in Jesus and wants to follow him.”

Noah replied, “Then I want to do that symbol. I want to do it this Sunday.”

We practiced giving his confession and prepared him as best we could for the freezing waters of our apartment pool – since our church doesn’t have a baptistery. I asked Noah what strategies he would need to make this less stressful, like his earplugs or swim mask. He said, “Earplugs are fine but I’m not wearing my swim mask. I’ll just have to get water in my face. This is not swimming. It is a symbol.”

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When all was said and done, later that night Noah began to cry during dinner. Tenderly I pulled him aside and asked him what was wrong. He tearfully explained that he was afraid of what would happen now. He said, “Now that I follow Jesus what if something happens and I die? What if you die?”

I couldn’t understand his sudden panic. I reassured him that I was not sick and planning to die anytime soon. I re-explained that baptism had been a symbol of how we live, not just of what happens after we die. Then he said, “But following Jesus is hard. We might die. I don’t want you to die yet. I don’t want to die yet. But now I am following him so I have to. Now I am a symbol.”

Then I realized that Noah had really internalized Jesus’ command to “follow me” – a call to come and die. Die to yourself and anything you want that stands in the way of kingdom. A call to die to our desires and motives and, instead, live for his plans for our life. Die to comfort and security and embrace faith in the unseen. Die to our own fears and live as a symbol of Christ to the world.

It took Noah longer to get here than I probably would have liked. But when he arrived, boy did he arrive! I think Noah fully comprehends the way of the cross in ways I might like to try and forget. When he repeated that Good Confession yesterday, he completely embraced a way of life that not only means living follower of Christ daily, but also living a life marked by a symbol of death.

After all, he did bid us come and die.

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The Autism Gospel: Delay – Not Defeat

I am sure the clerk at the shoe store did not anticipate the look of sheer horror on my face as he answered my question. “No ma’am, we do not carry shoes that size with Velcro closure.” My heart began to race and out of the corner of my eye I could see Noah’s wrists begin that small wringing motion that accompanies his anxiety.

 I always knew the day would come when his foot would outgrow our long trusted accommodation for not being able to tie shoes. Each year I have offered the silent (and sometimes vocal) prayer: God bless you for Velcro. But not this year.

With all the calmness I could muster I turned to Noah and announced that it was time we conquered shoe tying. He was appropriately mortified. I asked him to pick out shoes of any color that he liked. His response was, “I don’t know. I don’t care. There is no Velcro.” This was cycle was repeated about 5 times among the crowded aisles of new smelling shoes. My stomach churned.

My husband deftly began pulling shoes off the shelves and instructed Noah and I to sit while he brought us option after option. Numbly, I shoved his foot into shoe after shoe while Noah discussed, at length, how he didn’t know how to tie shoes. Noticing my desperation he finally said, “Well, I guess we are going to have to learn this, huh Mom?”

When your child is developmentally delayed, you learn to carefully select which “hill you are going to die on” as far as acquiring skills. For instance, while most children were proudly learning how to tie their shoes, we were still mastering potty training and learning to speak. It simply did not make sense to add shoe tying to a list of things we needed to learn at that time. At that time, I assumed we would pick up that skill later.

But, I confess, as years passed I grew doubtful that we would ever attain this goal. There just seemed to be some disconnect that prevented Noah from being able to see the steps and transfer them to the fine motor movements required to make the laces obey. And I, working on many other skills that did not have a ready accommodation like Velcro, chose to let that milestone pass us. As a matter of fact, it was so far in the distance that I had forgotten about it until that unfortunate day in the shoe store. 

I write this for the parents of so many “delayed” children who easily identify with watching a milestone pass you by. I remember the pain as so many of my friends commemorated milestones in baby books and scrapbooks that I wasn’t sure we could ever hope to celebrate. You make a kind of peace with it, knowing you can’t make those events happen and you try to push those to the back of your mind.

Today I have good news for you. Delayed doesn’t mean you will never reach your destination – it just means you will be arriving by a different route and on a different timetable. If a flight or train is delayed, we don’t automatically assume that it will never come and that we will NEVER see our loved ones. We are discouraged but not desperate and without hope. Instead we settle in for a wait and try to amuse ourselves for the duration of the postponement. Somehow, that message isn’t always conveyed when we discuss developmental delays in people.

I know how easy it is to get discouraged. I realize that it may even be a valuable part of the grieving process to “give up” on certain goals in the name of acceptance and sound mental health. But I also know that delay doesn’t mean inevitable defeat. Time can be kinder than we initially assume and some of us just need a little more of it to reach our destination.

Noah learned how to tie his shoes in just a few hours this weekend. He proudly announced, “I can do it now! And it isn’t even so hard this time.” It was an admission that while he could not accomplish this goal just a few years ago, now his brain has advanced to a different stage making it not so hard “this time.” At 12 years of age, we have finally learned to tie our shoes. “Now arriving at Platform 12…Shoe Tying…” There has not been a victory so sweet in a long time.

Perhaps this is because this speaks to all of us. So many of us thought we’d be further along by now. Maybe you thought you would have advanced further in your vocation at this point in your life. Or maybe you are still waiting on an interview after months and months of searching for a job. Or you might have an inner struggle or physical illness from which you have been awaiting healing yet still no healing comes. You have been delayed. Faithfully you wait on a day when it either won’t hurt so much – or it just won’t matter. Until then you put your life together with Velcro and do your best to get on with your life. But you still experience the pain of delay.

This weekend, Noah taught me to have the faith to still watch the tracks for the arrival of that delayed train. I keep my ear attuned for the sound of a blessed whistle that will announce the advent of deliverance from hopelessness. No, a delay doesn’t mean inevitable defeat. We must simply find the faith to wait.

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God bless the hands that tied these shoes. You enabled his fingers to acquire this skill at just the right time. I praise you for your faithfulness! Guide these hands today as he learns even more new things. Bless these hands to serve others. Direct the path his feet will take today. Bring us ever closer to you. Amen.