Lessons From Autism: #1

Prior to meeting my wife, Kerri, I had limited exposure to Autism.  Sure, there were students with Autism on the campus where I taught English at the time. I’d see the them in the hallway or stop by their classroom to say “hello,” but that’s about all I knew.

When Kerri and I began writing back and forth via an online dating website it was clear there was a connection between the two of us.  The writing went on longer than I experienced as typical [typical: I’ll return to this word often].  Anyhow. ..I began to wonder if things would ever progress to a phone call.

“She’s hiding something. . .I know it!” I thought.  Hmmm.

AS205So, I nudged. And still she held out on giving out her phone number.   “I get it,” I thought. She’s a single mom of two. . .doesn’t want to jump in to things.   But there was a connection!  Why the hesitation? Surely this is worth of a phone conversation. So, I twisted her arm in a virtual sense and, finally, the digits.

Several conversations later, Kerri took a significant personal risk and told me about her son with Autism. This, I later learned, went against the advice of her friends.  To my own surprise I didn’t flinch.  I wanted to hear about him. The connect only grew stronger and I could explain why. Little did I know I was standing a the two roads that diverged in a yellow wood.

After that conversation, I had multiple epiphanies.  This was a big deal for Kerri.  It’s kind of disclosure that results in a great deal of vulnerability.  And it’s the kind of information  would cause the recipient to bow out and move on. This is a real fear of many single parents with Autistic children…”Will the person I’ve grown to love leave?”

I’ll be honest.  If I had met Kerri a few years earlier I might have been that person to take my first exit.  But I was experiencing something I hadn’t in a long time.   My spiritual, emotional, and mental heath had simultaneously found a calm place.  The time was right for, not just any relationship, but one that would involve anything but the typical state of affairs.

I’ve learned a great deal about life in the past two years.  There have been, and will continue to be, frustrations that challenge every ounce of human patience.  Likewise, there are moments that reach the peak of joy.  And there is literally every emotion in between.  Autism, like other disabilities, brings perspective to life.  There is little energy to spend on matters that are  of little consequence (and those matters differ from person to person).

One of the many lessons I have learned thus far is to challenge people  who say, “I couldn’t do what you do.”  My response?  “Yes, you can, and someday you likely will.”  It might be caring for a child with a disability, a parent that develops Alzheimer’s, a sibling who suddenly needs lifelong care, or a spouse that one day needs you to feed them.

Sure, there will always be those who cut and run because they are too afraid to come out of their narcissism.  For the most of us, however, love and compassion will prevail.  And we will deepen our understanding what it means to be human.

 

 

“Damn, Daniel,” I can’t compete with you.

Like many fellow teachers, I struggle to find what will motivate students to take ownership of their learning. You know . . .so they can hopefully make something of themselves and contribute to society.

But when I’m competing with the notion that all one has to do is produce a viral video featuring nothing of any consequence, nor offers anything productive to society, I realize what I’m selling is no match for it.  “Damn, Daniel!”  You got free Vans for life.  You win.

Pope Francis on Walls and being Christian

Today Pope Francis reminded the world that building walls isn’t Christian.  Donald Trump took this personally.  But Pope Francis got it right.  The Judeo- Christian texts are filled with instances of God breaking down walls, removing barriers, and lifting veils.  Nothing- not even the powers-that-be, as the Apostle Paul reminds us-  can separate us from the love of God.  This is not metaphorical for Paul.  The Christian faith is about community.  We can’t have authentic community when barriers stand between us, especially those built by fear mongering politicians.  Putting up a wall between nations, especially in the 21st century, runs counter to all our ancient texts proclaim.

For centuries, political hopefuls have co-opted the Good News, corrupted it, disembodied it, and gutted it of its economic and social implications in order to posture themselves for more power.  Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are merely the latest in a long line of offenders.  But they didn’t get where they are on their own. They had help.  They have been aided and abetted by “Christian” leaders and their followers for a very long time.

The Gospel of Jesus is, both, spiritual and social.  They cannot be separated. God’s justice is for all. It is distributive. It is not limited one faith over another.  And it certainly isn’t about this business of building walls.

If the question is whether or not Pope Francis as any business calling out potential world leaders for misrepresenting the Christian faith, the answer is: absolutely he does.  In fact, a leader in his position had better call them out or further risk the integrity of the church universal.

There are seismic shifts occurring in religious communities everywhere.  People of all faiths are tired of their religion being used as a justification for terrorism, or a shield for some to stand behind, while they deny the civil rights of other, or as an excuse to carry out xenophobic and oppressive policies.

So, a word of gratitude for Pope Francis and those like him who muster the courage to spoke for the voiceless in our world and calling out those who misrepresent the Good News.

**I recognize the Pope lives behind walls as do many people.  The point is that bridges send an entirely different signal than barriers.  Our world needs a different kind of leadership.  I think the Pope is expressing, in part, what that kind of leadership looks like. 

 

The Mystery of Death: Lent 2016

We don’t like to ponder our own death. In fact, our culture makes every effort to defy that all of us will die. I believe this denial is toxic to our lives.

Several years ago I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani Monastery, which rests in the bluegrass hills of Kentucky.  At the time I was struggling with my own faith, with my belief in the resurrection, and with my direction in life.  The community homilist at the time,  the late Fr. Matthew Kelty, took time to listen to my story. So, he invited me to the funeral mass of a fellow monk who died same week I was on retreat.  He said “it would do me some good.” 

That night I sat in the balcony of the sanctuary  into the early morning hours before the funeral mass.  I listened as the Brothers prayed the Psalms in tandem over the deceased, whose body lie resting in the center aisle of the nave.  I was moved to tears by the time the deceased was laid to rest.

Fr. Matthew was right.  I can’t really explain it, but one of my most profound encounters with God took place at the funeral of a Cistercian monk I never knew. 

Fr. Matthew said death is the ultimate mystery.  He writes about that mystery in this way:

“For birth and death are perhaps, indeed undoubtedly, the most profound of human experiences. And there is no getting used to them.  We come and we go. Where did we come from? Where are we going? The sort of questions children ask. And everyone with children knows that they can be profound, deep, upsetting.  Hence, being a Christian, being a person of faith, enables us to answer the child, to respond to a sudden encounter, or an anticipated joy, the ultimate.

We come from God and we go to God.

It’s as simple as that. And as beautiful. As profound. It is not only the usual answer.   It is the answer.”

Allow the ritual of Ash Wednesday to linger during Lent. It is a powerful reminder that we only have a limited time in which to experience the creation that surrounds and and the beautiful people that enrich our lives. Be humbled and give in to love. In the words of Ansarit of Herat:

Would you become a pilgrim
on the road to Love?
The first condition is that
you make yourself
humble as dust and ashes.

Mortal Flesh and Ash

dust-from-hand

Ash Wednesday. There is no other day like Ash Wednesday. The proud and the meek, the arrogant and the humble all made equal on Ash Wednesday. The healthy and the sick, the assured and the sick in spirit, all make their way to church in the gray morning or in the dusty afternoon. They line up silently, eyes downcast, bony fingers counting the beads of the rosary, lips mumbling prayers. All are repentant, all are preparing themselves for the shock of the laying of the ashes on the forehead and the priest’s agonizing words, “Thou dust, and to dust thou shalt return .”

Rudolfo A. Anaya

The Handicap Placard: Why We Use It

UnknownOn occasion one will find my vehicle parked in a handicapped space. And there’s a good reason for it.

This post is not a defense, nor is it an apology. It is an explanation to increase awareness.

Obtaining a handicap placard isn’t as easy as some people assume. There are specific disabilities that qualify an individual (or his or her driver) to park in reserved parking. Some of these disabilities are visible to the eye: some are not. Therein lies the problem for those who do not understand, or worse, roll their eyes and cast stones when they see someone using a handicap space that they think shouldn’t be.

Imagine an 8 year old boy whose neurological processing does not allow for the same awareness of surroundings as the typical individual. Place that boy in a crowded and busy parking lot and the likelihood of him running in front of a moving vehicle is increased exponentially. To an onlooker it’s the child of a neglectful parent. In reality, it’s a boy with autism who, growing stronger everyday, that, at any moment, will impulsively pull away from his parents and run haphazardly into danger.

My wife and I use the placard when we feel it’s necessary, especially when visiting a “big box” store. Most of the time we don’t. But when we do passersby won’t see Jakob’s disability. But it’s there. And our job as parents is to get him safely from the car to the front door.

So, to those who are quick to judge those without visible disabilities, please give pause and consider what limitations lie beneath the surface.

Likewise, to those who have a family member that qualifies for a handicap placard, please don’t use it if that person isn’t in the car. It doesn’t help the rest of us.

Use [Choose] Your Words

When my stepson, Jakob, wants something he typically communicates via an assistive application on his iPad. The phrase “I want popsicle please,” spoken in a computerized voice, is frequently heard in our household.

But he often tries to get away with an “uhhhhh”, while simultaneously pointing to whatever it is he wants. Kerri and I have to remind him, “Use your words.” We either prompt him to speak (assuming it’s a word he’s practiced) or use the iPad.

The ability to speak and articulate with a voice is, for most of us, something easily taken for granted.

When I was seventeen I was involved in a bicycle accident that I was fortunate to survive. But escaping death wasn’t the end of the story. For the next several weeks there was a question as to whether I would be able to speak again. This was devastating news to someone considering becoming a pastor. Thankfully, I recovered.

I’ve often understood my recovery in terms of a calling to, not only use “my words,” but to choose my words carefully. I felt called to speak up for those whose voice is muted or who have no voice at all: like the marginalized, the dehumanized, the ignored, and even people like Jakob. I haven’t always used my voice in the most faithful and productive way. But these last few months in my new role as a stepfather to a child with autism and apraxia have helped me regain some perspective.

Words have power- the power to convey hate or love, indifference or compassion, injury or healing, division or reconciliation, and so on.

Unfortunately, I fear our world is losing its verbal nerve. Public speech is sour and toxic. Interpersonal conversation is often disingenuous. Words between loved ones are often sharp. Hateful and snarky comments plague social media. Productive dialogue is broken.

The words we choose have real consequences. The health of our personal relationships, as well as our local and global communities depend, in part, on how we communicate with one another.

This poignant video was shared with me today. It’s a couple of years old but it’s new to me. Its message is on point. Enjoy.