On community, society, and self-definition: An Autistic Perspective

Yesterday, in a private (but large) Facebook group I belong to, the mother of an autistic child “got up on her soapbox” to explain that we should never call anyone “autistic,” but rather say that they “have autism.”  Because, she said, “Autism is not his primary identifier. The same is true for all who live with autism.”

This is MANIFESTLY, COMPLETELY, TOTALLY UNTRUE.  The two largest autistic advocacy groups in the US–that is, the two largest run by autistics themselves, rather than by parents of “children with autism”–are the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network.  The communities of autistics that form both groups STRONGLY prefer identity-first language, that is, “autistic” instead of “person with autism.”  Many autistics (including myself) greatly prefer identity-first language, for a variety of reasons; the ASAN website has a nice post on why, and quite a number of us (although not myself) have blogged about it.

So I got up on my soapbox, and commented to the Facebook post, explaining why I and many other autistics strongly prefer identity-first instead of person-first language.  She and another lady tried to argue me out of it, or at least claim that by doing so I was denying other people the right to be called what they preferred.  When they couldn’t get me to back down and admit I was wrong, the OP said this:  “To be honest, it makes me feel sad that you self-identify primarily as autistic.…”

It was like a punch to the gut.  Half an hour later, my hands were still trembling; an hour later, I was still occasionally fighting back tears.  Let me explain why … and why the OP thought she could speak for autistics in the first place.

(The rest of this post is not about her; I know very little about her, beyond my interactions with her in the comments on that post, and I’m not trying to claim or imply that she’s like some of the people I talk about.  This post is about the experiences in my life that made her words strike such a strong chord in me.)

There are two autism communities in the US.  One, by far the most vocal, is made up primarily of therapists, parents, and teachers.  They’re the ones who run Autism Speaks, which is probably the only autism “charity” you’ve ever heard of.  (Here’s a good rundown of why AS is pretty terrible.)  This community started back in the 40s and 50s when Kanner et al were first diagnosing all these “abnormal” children, spinning all kinds of theories about what was wrong with them and experimenting with how to make them “normal” with very little (sometimes no) ethical oversight.  Then Lovaas came along, the father of behaviorism, claiming that autistics weren’t really people, just people-shaped animals, and that only when we became more “normal” would we really be people.  The autism community was joined by parents eager to make their child “normal,” or as “normal” as possible (without ever stopping to consider whether there might be a difference between “normal” and “healthy”).

Today its leading lights are psychologists who talk about our “lack of emotions” and say we’re wrong when we insist we have them, therapists who advocate 40+ hours a week of therapy designed to force us into compliance, and parents who blog about all the worst things their child does and how terrible autism is, in order to get sympathy and money.  It rallies around Autism Speaks, which spreads lies about autism “stealing your child” (we’re not gone, were here–we’re just different) and “destroying marriages” (studies in both Canada and the US have shown that the divorce rate is no higher for parents of autistic kids than for any other married couple).  Most of the parents and therapists aren’t bad people; they’ve just … never questioned any of these basic assumptions.  And there’s only a place for someone who actually has autism in this community if they completely agree with all of it.  (Which is why AS can occasionally get an autistic person to work with them on a high level, such as John Eldar Robinson, but can’t keep them.)  This is the autism community that largely shapes public discourse about autism, controls what programs and services are available to autistics and their families, and insists on person-first language (“person with/having autism”).

Let me tell you what life is like as an autistic in a world where this community shapes the public dialogue and perception.  It’s pitying looks, because obviously, autism has destroyed my life (it hasn’t) and I must be miserable and lonely (I’m not).  It’s listening to people explain why they absolutely won’t vaccinate their kids, because in a choice between their child (and others) dying of a preventable disease or becoming autistic, they would rather their child died.  (Think about it.  They would literally rather their child died.  People can and do die of things like rubella, mumps, polio, and other vaccine-preventable diseases.  Vaccines don’t cause autism, this has been proven many times over, but they believe it does and, believing that, they would rather risk their child dying than risk them turning out like me or my dad or my baby brother.)

It’s taking care of my baby brother when he was nonverbal or barely-verbal, and hearing people talk about what a shame it was and what a tragedy it was and what a burden he was, right next to us, as if him not talking meant he couldn’t hear.   I’m lucky; our parents would never have said anything like that to either of us.  I have too many autistic friends whose parents would say the same things, and then say, “of course I love my child, I just don’t love their autism.”  Leaving them, at age three and seven and ten and fifteen, wondering what about themselves was so terrible even their own mother and father couldn’t love them.

It’s years spent terrified of people finding out, because I knew how they treated and talked about my baby brother.  Years of feeling like I was drowning, years of social anxiety building up and up, years spent without reaching for help because I was afraid of being labelled and knew how cruel and thoughtless the world can be.  (But I don’t for a second regret “coming out” with my disability.  Yes, some people have been really nasty or condescending about it … but let’s be real, most of them would have been able to tell I was different/weird anyway, and would still have treated me badly because of it.  What coming out really did was open up the possibility of honesty and real connection with people willing to learn and hear my story.)

It’s hearing people talk about how they’d never let their daughter date an autistic boy, because everyone knows autistics have no emotions and so couldn’t really love her, would just be using her for sex.  (That’s actually the good version.  Once, it was because “all autistics are sociopaths.”)

It’s being only listened to when I talk about the bad parts of autism.  Problems, sure, everyone wants to hear about my struggles (and how “inspiring” I am for overcoming them).  But dare to talk about anything positive outside a select community, and I get jumped on.  Everything bad about me must be caused by my autism; anything good about me must be completely unrelated.  And anything that is neither good nor bad, merely different, must be bad if it’s related to my autism.  Example: I struggle with executive dysfunction, and get really focused on things such that I have trouble stopping doing one thing and starting another.  If that autistic focus prevents me from doing things that are more important, it’s terrible how my autism hinders me.  If that autistic focus helps me do a lot of work in a short time, however, it’s wonderful how much I have accomplished despite my autism!  Because nothing good can ever come from autism.

I also have very sensitive hearing.  This makes some things (events in large, echoing spaces, for example) very difficult, but it also makes me very musical.  If my auditory issues give me problems at a high school basketball game, isn’t autism terrible.  But if I dare to talk about how my autistic sensory issues with hearing gives me pleasure in listening to music or has made singing and playing instruments easier, well, there’s a good chance any autism parent, therapist, or teacher in the vicinity is going to jump all over me.  Because how dare I suggest that autism has any positives.

It’s people not believing me when I tell them how my autism affects me.  You see, I’m “high functioning,” which means that in many situation I can pass for “normal.”  (Basically, it means I’m a decent actress, because that’s what passing for “normal” is–acting.)  Therefore, if ever I slip and do or say something that isn’t “normal,” it’s because I’m deliberately trying to be a jerk.  If I’m trying my absolute best to act “normal” and still slip up, well, I just need to try harder.  If there are things I can’t do because I’m close to a meltdown, it’s because I’m being “lazy.”  And if I try to explain (difficult, when you’re on the edge of a meltdown), “Well, everyone’s tired, Anna, not just you.  It’s not that hard.”  (It’s not hard for you.  But my brain works differently, and right now, it’s impossible for me.)  I’m “high-functioning,” so to a lot of people I shouldn’t need any accommodations or special understanding.

It’s society assuming that I’m always the one who needs to change if there is an incompatibility (however slight) between me and “normal.”  If there is a conflict between my deepest needs and someone else’s convenience, well.  Obviously, expecting them to accommodate me is completely unreasonable.  (But if there’s something they want to do for me, something that will make them feel good about helping the poor autistic, I must always let them do it and be grateful for it.  Even if it’s not anything I need or want, even if it’s something that actually causes me problems.  Because they’re being Nice, so it would be offensive if I don’t fall all over myself with gratitude.)

It’s parents of autistic kids being thrilled to meet me–at first.  They’re so happy, I give them hope that their kid will be “normal,” they hope their kid turns out just like me!  Except that a lot of the time, that only lasts as long as I’m the “good” autistic who agrees with everything they think, say, and do.  If I don’t, if I suggest things they don’t want to hear or offer an explanation of their child’s behavior that doesn’t fit their models, well, obviously I can’t know what I’m talking about, because I’m nothing like their child.  (Maybe–after all, autism is a fairly wide and deep spectrum, more like a color wheel than a straight line.  But if the parents are neurotypical, I bet I’m still a heck of a lot more like their child than they are.  Also: are you different as an adult than you were as a child?  Yes?  Well!  Guess what!  So am I!)

It’s listening to all the autistics I know who had (and many still have) worse childhoods and lives than mine, filled with well-meaning parents and therapists so focused on “helping” them be “normal” that they couldn’t see the trauma they were causing, the stress, the anxiety, the scars that still hobble them in many cases.  It’s hearing how so many of their parents still claim that they were doing the right thing, and their children should be grateful to them for getting that dehumanizing therapy.  (Note: not all therapy is bad, in fact there are a lot of things that therapy can help autistics with.  But unfortunately, there is SO MUCH autism therapy out there that is damaging rather than helpful, and while things are getting better, you still have to be VERY careful.  Particularly with anything labelled “behavioral,” ABA, or IBI.  My autism resource list has a whole section on this.)

It’s seeing scientific studies come out every six months or so with “revolutionary new findings about autism,” which is really only confirming something actual autistics have been trying to tell people for the last thirty years.  There’s never any acknowledgment of this.  We get belittled and pooh-poohed for trying to say it; they get glowing reviews.

It’s seeing the news every time the parent of an autistic kid murders their child because “raising a child who has autism is so hard.”  And seeing news outlets and talk shows fall all over themselves to exonerate the murderer and blame the victim for their own death. (Parents murder autistic children in the US at an average rate of about one every month.  In the past five years, over 180 people with disabilities have been murdered by parents and caregivers, with autistics making up a large percentage of the total.)  (I use person-first language here because while some disability communities, notably the Deaf community and Autistic community, prefer identity-first language, most other groups prefer person-first language, making it best when speaking of the larger whole.)

It’s steeling myself whenever I see an article or ad or blog post or book about autism, because chances are very good it’s going to be terrible and hurtful.  It’s probably spreading terrible stereotypes.  If not, good chance it includes at least some mention of all the terrible things that society, parents, therapists, and teachers can do to autistic kids.

It’s steeling myself every time there’s a mass shooting, because long before any facts are known, the media will be throwing around theories about the killer being mentally ill and/or autistic–this despite the fact that there has never been a mass shooting committed by an autistic, and very few mass shootings are committed by anyone with any mental illness or intellectual disability.  We are far more likely to be injured or murdered by “normal,” able-bodied folks than vice versa.  But it’s  easier to demonize us than to ask what it is about our society that makes otherwise mentally-stable young men decide to take their frustrations out by shooting up schools, churches, and other public places.

It’s knowing that most autistic-coded characters on TV are like Sheldon from the Big Bang theory–where it’s implied but never stated that they are on the autism spectrum, so half the time the show can occasionally toy with something resembling understanding, while half the time implying that it’s not a different neurology, he’s just a selfish jerk.  And all the time playing it for laughs.  (“Oh! You must love Sheldon Cooper, then,” people say when they find out I’m autistic.  No.  I don’t.  He makes me cringe.  Some autistics do like him, I’m not saying he’s a bad character or that there are no autistics who are selfish jerks.  I’m just saying, when my choices for seeing people like me on TV are him and the occasional Rain Man-esque autistic savant …. no thank you.)

It’s telling people that I’m autistic, and have them lecture me about what autism is like because their father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate’s kid is autistic and they met them for five minutes at a birthday party once, and then later read an article about autism, so obviously they know more than me.

Some of the biggest autism challenges in my life aren’t caused by autism itself, they’re caused by the way society thinks about and deals with autistics.  Especially the “autism society” that is made up of “experts” and parents, who only want what’s best for us … but who assume that only they can know what “best” is, and that obviously they know our minds and bodies better than we do ourselves.  So we’re welcome only as long as we agree with them and do what they say.  We’re welcome only as long as autism is only ever bad, and they’re heroes for “helping” us.

Which is why another autism society exists.  Autistic society.  Made up by and for people who actually are autistic.  (You can find us at ASAN, AWN, a large variety of blogs, and on most social media sites–look for #actuallyautistic and variations thereof.)  Our motto is “Nothing About Us Without Us.”  (Also, “Autism Speaks Doesn’t Speak For Me.”)

And most of that society starts with saying NO.

NO.  You do not get to tell us you know better than we do about our own brains and bodies.

NO.  You do not get to speak for us or tell us how we should think about ourselves.

NO.  You do not get to make us feel ashamed of who we are.

NO.  You do not get to pity us.

NO.  You do not get to say our lives are terrible and we’d be better off dead.

NO.  You do not get to exclude us from conversations about our own lives.

NO.  You do not get to decide what “normal” is, and that “normal” is always the ultimate goal.  (Healthy and happy are much better ones.)

NO.  You do not get to chop off the bad bits of our lives and say “this is autism.”

NO.  You do not get to declare that some of the good bits of are lives are bad just because you can’t separate them from our autism.

NO.  You do not get to decide that obviously, any good part of our lives is unrelated to our autism.

NO.  You do not get to decide that anything inconvenient to you is bad.

NO.  You do not get to demonize our condition to get sympathy and money and turn around and say you’re doing it for our own good.

NO.  You do not get to divide us up with the catch-22 of “high functioning” vs. “low functioning.”

NO.  You do not get to decide what accommodations I need, and when I need them.

NO.  You do not get to decide that my life is a tragedy because I’m autistic.

NO.  You do not get to control what language we use about ourselves or how we see ourselves.

NO.  My autism is not about you.  Your child’s autism is not about the problems it causes you and what an awesome parent you are for dealing with it.  Your patient’s autism is not about how great a therapist you are for changing their behavior and personality into something you like better.

NO.  You do not get to decide we’re unfeeling–or even sociopaths–because the body language and facial expressions and tone of voice and words we use to express our emotions are different than yours.

NO.  You do not get to make us ashamed of who we are.  And you do not get to be condescending and superior about trying.

I am autistic.  I am not ashamed, I am proud.  And I am not alone.  We are not alone.  We are the autistic community, and we speak with many voices.  Our lives are our own.  We define ourselves.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made by a creator who made us different, but not less.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.–Psalm 139:13-14

Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

We Gather to Eat and Remember

Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Meals are important.  And I don’t just mean in the literal “if you don’t eat you’ll starve to death” sense.  Meals are important on a psychological level, too, and on a social level.  Meals bring us together.  There’s a reason that pretty much every holiday is accompanied by a special, traditional meal.  Christmas?  It’s a religious holiday, but there are a lot of people (even a lot of Christians!) for whom Christmas dinner is more important than going to worship.  Easter?  Yup.  Thanksgiving?  That one is all about the meal.  Fourth of July?  It’s just not the same without a barbecue.  Birthdays?  Even if you don’t have a special birthday dinner, you gotta have cake and ice cream.  And it’s not just about the food itself.  While a wonderful holiday dinner with friends and family can be a joy and a heart-warming event you’ll remember for years to come, eating the same food by yourself can be just depressing.  We eat when we come together, but it’s not just about the food: it’s about the community, the family, the relationships that are built around that meal.

Those relationships are built partly through the act of eating together, and partly through memories.  The memories that get shared again and again—I’m sure there are some stories your family tells repeatedly at holiday dinners.  The time your brother fell asleep at his own birthday party.  The time your uncles got into a fight and everyone went home mad.  The great aunt who always brings that dish everyone hates.  The time your mom and dad got each other the same present.  There are some holiday stories that happened before I was born, that I know because they got told so often.  And those stories shape us!  They tell us “this is who we are, as a family; this is how we get along (or don’t get along); this is where we came from; these are the things that make us a family and not just a collection of people who happen to share genetics.”  The food brings us together, the food helps us remember our stories by giving us a tangible reminder of times past—smells, tastes, sights—all working together to help make the memories real and relevant to our current experiences.

Tonight we have heard two stories about meals in our readings.  Meals that were remembered.  Meals that were celebrated.  Meals that brought people together and built up relationships.  The first was the story of the first Passover meal, eaten on the last night the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  This is the night that changed things.  This is the night where God finally convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.  This is the night when they truly became his people, the night that was the foundation for all the rest of their experiences.  This is the night when they passed from slavery to freedom, from death to life.  This is the night when they learned that their God was a God who saves people, a God who frees people from bondage, a God who brings new life and new possibilities.  This meal, this Passover, which God told them to share every year together, is to reinforce those memories. It’s a night to remember who they are and where they come from.  A night to remember who God is, and what God has done.  A night to imagine, a night to contemplate what that means for their lives.  It’s not just about the past.  It’s about what that means for the future.

In the three thousand years since that first Passover, the Jews have faithfully gathered for a Passover meal and to remember God’s saving actions every year.  Two thousand years ago, a thousand years after the first Passover, Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate Passover and share a meal.  They told the story.  They remembered how God saved them from slavery and death.  They remembered what kind of a God they worshipped.  And then Jesus did something different—something that would, as time passed, become a new treasured memory for those Jews and Gentiles who followed him.  A memory that they—we—would tell and retell, that we would re-enact and think about, that would tell us what it means to follow Jesus.

He put on a towel and went to wash his disciples’ feet.  Now, that was a bold statement.  It’s not something a lord would do, or an ordinary citizen—it’s something that a slave would do.  Washing someone means serving them, and it’s an intimate form of service.  If you’re not doing it because it’s your job, you do it out of love, like a parent giving their child a bath or a friend coming over to take care of you when you’re weak and sick from chemo.  This is what it means to be a follower of God, Jesus says.  This is what should guide your life: love.  I love you, and I’ve put that love into action, so you, too, should love others, and put that love into action.

Then he returned to the meal.  And as they shared the Passover wine and bread, he added a new layer of meaning: this bread, the bread of affliction and freedom, is Jesus’ body.  Jesus’ body, that will be broken for us so that we might be freed from slavery and death.  This wine, the wine of God’s promise, is Jesus’ blood.  Jesus’ blood, which will be poured out for us and for all people to fulfill God’s promise of salvation.

The first Passover celebrated God’s saving work.  It taught them that their God was a God of salvation, a God who brought people from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from pain into joy.  It taught them what kind of a God they worshipped, and who they were as God’s people.  And that was a lesson they learned every time they shared that meal and told those storied.  When Jesus celebrated it with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, before he was handed over to sin and death, it was a potent reminder to them: the God who saved their ancestors, who brought them out of slavery and death, was still saving people.  God was saving people from slavery to sin and death of body and soul.  And it wasn’t something that happened to other people, a long time ago, far away.  It was something that was happening right there and then.  Because saving people is God’s nature.  It’s what God does.  When God sees people in bondage, whether physical or mental, God acts to free them.  Sometimes it’s big showy acts, sometimes it’s little things, and often it’s through other people.  God saves people.

And God does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus washing their feet symbolized.  God loves people—even smelly, dirty, weak, sinful humans.  And that’s not just an abstract feeling; God acts that love out in many and various ways.  God loves people, and so God helps them, and saves them.  That’s who God is.  That’s what God does.  And that means that if we’re going to be God’s people, we can’t ever forget that.  We need to remember who God is, and what God calls us to do.  We need to look for the love and salvation and freedom that God gives us every day, and we need to let that love shape us and form us as God’s people.

That’s why we remember this night, every time we celebrate Communion and especially once a year on Maundy Thursday.  We remember who God is and what God has done.  And we know that God is present with us, here, now, giving us his love and salvation and strengthening us to be God’s people, to do God’s work in the world.  Because when Jesus said the bread and wine was his body and blood, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we proclaim his death until he comes again.  We know that he died for us, but that death was not the end of the story.  We know that he is here, with us, that in this bread and wine we can touch and taste and see and smell him, that in this bread and wine he is strengthening us and forming us as his people.  We remember, but we know there is more to this meal than memory.  It’s about who God is—the one who saves, the one who loves—and who we are as God’s people: the ones who are called to put that love into word and deed and action.  Even when it’s difficult.  Even when it’s smelly or unpleasant, like washing feet.  Even in the midst of betrayal like Judas’ betrayal, and anger like the Elders’ anger, and even when it’s in the middle of pain and sorrow and suffering.  Even when love seems like the hardest thing in the world.  We worship a God of salvation and freedom and love.  And so we love, as God first loved us.

May these memories, shared around this meal, form us as God’s people and help us to truly know God’s love and salvation, and follow his command to share that love with all the world.

Amen.

Choosing Life

Lent Wednesday 5, March 16th, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 16, Galatians 2:15-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our readings tonight have two common threads: they talk about God’s commandments, and about life.  Now, whenever we talk about the law, we can focus on two aspects: the legalistic aspects of it—what’s the minimum I need to do to skate by—and the spirit of it.  When Jesus was asked about God’s commandments, he summed up the whole law this way: love God with all your strength and heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  The law, the commandments, the prophets, the Gospels and letters, everything in Scripture, Jesus said, can be summed up by those two statements.  Love God, and love your neighbor.  If you love God and your neighbor, and you put that love into action, it doesn’t matter whether or not you fulfill the legalistic parts of the law, because Christ lives in you.  And if you follow all the law’s demands, but don’t love God and your neighbor, you actually haven’t gained anything.

At a very fundamental level, it’s about what kind of life are you going to live.  Are you going to live in Christ, a life that leads to more love in this world and blessings in the next?  Or are you going to live a life that leads to more pain and fear and death in this world, and draws you away from God?  To quote Moses from our first reading, the scriptures put before us life and death, blessings and curses, and asks us to choose life, so that we and our descendants may live.

Moses is not being poetic, and it’s not just about getting into heaven, either.  It’s about life.  Are we going to lead the kind of lives that inspire and bring about more life and love and faithfulness, or are we going to lead the kind of lives that lead to pain and fear and more death in the world?  Think about it this way: when we’re afraid, or angry, or jealous, we tend to strike out against the people we fear or dislike, sometimes with words and sometimes with physical attack and sometimes with lawsuits or rumors or other means of attack.  And then they fear us, and respond in kind.  And so it escalates.  You expect them to treat you badly, so you protect yourself—and hurt them in the process, so they hurt you back.  And maybe you don’t want to talk about how afraid you are, or how jealous you are, so you turn it into anger and lash out, or you bury it down deep where it eats away at you.

And all of that leads to death.  On an individual level, it can lead to the kind of escalating behavior that leads to fights and a cold war of resentment.  We curse others, and they curse us, and sometimes it’s just words and sometimes that curse bites deeper.  The kind of life where that’s your reality may be living, but it’s not a good life.  Sometimes all those negative emotions boil over into physical violence—sometime even into killing.  Most cases of physical violence and killing are between people who know one another—family, neighbors, coworkers.  Fear and anger and resentment and jealousy, they lead to broken lives and to death.  You can be following the letter of the law, and still be hurting yourself and other people.

But the way of death isn’t the only way.  We can open our lives to Christ, to let Christ live in us, to follow God’s command to love God and our neighbor.  And we may not be able to fix every problem—we may not be able to change other people who are acting out of fear and anger—but at least we won’t be making things worse.  And we won’t be trapping ourselves in all that pain.  Opening yourself and choosing love doesn’t mean that you pretend everything is fine when it isn’t, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you forget what you’ve been through.  It just means that you let go the bad things so you’re not dragging them around with you anymore.  It means that you focus on the good, instead of the bad.  When you are open to Christ, when love of God and others is the guiding force in your life, amazing things are possible.  So chose life.  Choose to bless the world around you, rather than curse it.  Chose the love that can lead to healing and growth and freedom in Christ.  Chose the love that will leave the world better than it was.

We choose between death and life on a community and country-wide level, too.  And again, it comes back to love versus fear and hate.  When we act out of love for our neighbors—not just the neighbors who live next door, but all people throughout our nation and our world—we help those in need and treat one another fairly.  We create the conditions that allow life to flourish.  We create a society that is a blessing for all people, not just us and our friends.  We do this in the things we do face-to-face, through how we spend our money, through how we vote, and in many other ways.  And when we act out of less noble motives—fear and greed and resentment and jealousy and prejudice—we act selfishly.  We look for ways to protect ourselves and hurt anyone who isn’t on our side.  We lash out verbally against anyone who disagrees with us.  We look out for number one, even if it means hurting others.  We follow politicians who say they can protect us from what we’re afraid of, and they enact policies that benefit us at the expense of those we don’t like.  We create a society that is a curse for some people.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we live in the light of the one who died and gave himself for us.  We live because God loves us more than we can imagine.  We live because God’s generosity is greater than anything else in the universe.  And we have a choice.  We can respond to that love, that generosity, and live in the light of it, opening our lives to Christ and blessing the whole world with the love of God.  Or we can turn away.  We can say “yes, but real life isn’t like that” and ignore the love, returning pain for pain and lashing out so that we deepen the curse of sin that lays on the world.

I have set before you live and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.

Amen.

Seizing the moment

Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13th, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

You know, maybe it’s that we’re in an election year—and a particularly nasty one, at that—but Judas comes off a lot like a politician in this reading.  Maybe you noticed.  Judas is about to betray Jesus, and he’s been dipping into the group funds; he’s as crooked as they come.  But he doesn’t want to look crooked.  So he accuses someone else—Mary—of wrongdoing in order to divert attention from his own crimes, and in the process make himself look pious.  Can’t argue with charity, right?  That always plays well.  “Will someone think of those poor starving children!”

Of course, usually when a politician pulls this, they’re attacking another politician who may very well be no better.  In this case, however, Judas is attacking Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, one of Jesus’ closest followers.  She is a better disciple than the Disciples, and after the resurrection Jesus will make her the first apostle.  (Apostle literally means “one who is sent,” and that’s the word the risen Jesus uses to send her to tell the rest of his followers that he had risen from the grave.)  And here she is, showing a devotion and a love of Jesus that none of his other followers can match.  Not just in words, but in deeds—she is literally putting her money where her mouth is.  A few days later, Jesus will wrap a towel around his own waist, and wash the feet of his disciples, telling them that it is a sign of love and service, and that they should do the same for each other—which they don’t, at least not then.  But here is Mary, washing Jesus’ feet, showing her devotion, anticipating Jesus’ words before he’s spoken them.

I wonder if it made Judas uncomfortable.  He, the faithless one, is being shown what faithfulness looks like.  He’s considering betraying Jesus to his death, and here Mary is showing him what he should be doing instead.  I wonder if he had trouble looking her and Jesus and the rest of the disciples in the eye, or if he decided to brazen it out and make a fuss about the cost of it to distract himself.

I wonder about the other disciples, too—how uncomfortable were they?  After all, Lazarus had been dead for four days, and Jesus raised him.  This wasn’t a case of a coma mistaken for death—he’d started to rot.  And here he is, alive and well, sharing a meal with them.  More than that—the smell of the perfume Mary used filled the house.  And in those days, perfume was used mostly to cover up unpleasant scents.  For example, the stench of death.  Dead bodies were coated with perfumed ointment to cover up the smell of rotting flesh in the time before they were buried.  Remember, they don’t have embalming fluid or refrigerated morgues, and they live in the desert.  Bodies start to smell pretty darn quickly.  So you have to use a lot of perfume to cover it up.  The smell would fill the house.  You know how some smells make you think of Christmas, or other holidays?  Well, this smell would make them think of death.  And here they are, gathered for a meal in the house of a dead man, and the smell of perfume starts to fill the house.  And Mary starts to wash Jesus’ feet, showing a care and love that they claim to have but have never been willing to put into action.  And then she begins to anoint him—just like you would anoint a body for burial.  Jesus has been predicting his death for a while, now, and the disciples have been trying to deny it, and here she is anointing him for burial.

I bet that was one uncomfortable meal.  I imagine a silence you could cut with a knife, as the disciples hold their breath and try to ignore the meaning of what she’s doing, the love and the acknowledgment of death both.  I imagine them trying to find some way to change the subject, stop her, get the perfume back into the bottle and the smell of death out of the air.  I bet a couple of them agreed with Judas—yes, what an excellent way to stop her, change the subject, get them back into their comfortable habits.  They’re used to charity.  They like doing it, it makes them feel good, and they know that caring for the needy is something Jesus approves of.  They don’t like witnessing this love Mary has shown—it points out where they fall short, and it rubs their nose in the thing they want least to acknowledge: the reality of Jesus’ coming death.

And I wonder about Mary.  I wonder what gave her such clear vision, such great love, when most of the people around her were deep in denial.  She had broken all social rules to join publicly in learning from a male teacher like Jesus.  She had taken a risk that few people would have, to step out of the conventional role assigned to a woman and dedicate herself to learning about God and serving him.  And then her brother died, and she grieved his death, and then Jesus raised him from the dead.  And now here she is breaking convention, again, by showing such attention to a man she’s not related to.  She’s showing her love, and she’s breaking the silence about what’s coming.  They all have to know, by this point, that the authorities hate Jesus and his disciples.  They all have to know that they are under suspicion, and that things are getting dangerous.  They’ve been warned, by friends and relatives, by religious leaders, by Jesus himself that death is coming.  And everyone else is trying to bury their heads in the sand and pretend they’re safe, but not Mary.  Not Mary.  Mary faces it.  If Jesus is taken and executed, who knows if they’ll get his body back to bury it?  This may be her only chance to anoint him.  This may be her last chance to show her love and loyalty, because they could all be arrested at any moment.  And so Mary seizes the moment, and acts.  In normal circumstances, this would be extravagant and wasteful.  But these aren’t normal circumstances.

Mary knows who Jesus is.  And she knows how much the love of God means; she knows that even in the middle of a dangerous and deadly situation, God is with them.  She believes in the resurrection; she’s seen it, a foretaste of it, in her brother’s rising.  She knows there is death all around them, but she also knows that there is hope.  And everyone else may be willing to pretend they’ll get through this without any pains, but Mary knows better, and Mary is acts on that knowledge without counting the cost, because she trusts God in Jesus Christ that their pain will not be in vain, that evil will not win, that death will not get the last word.  And so she anoints Jesus here before his death, and after his death she will go to his tomb to finish this grim task, and find him risen, and he will send her out as his apostle to tell the Good News to the disciples.

Judas was a traitor, and though he wanted to stay close to Jesus, he was more concerned with covering up his own sins than with following Jesus.  The disciples were better, but they purposefully closed their ears and eyes to any truth Jesus told that they didn’t want to hear, and let their fears keep them from hearing Jesus’ message about his death … and that same refusal deafened them to the hope that would be found in his resurrection.  Mary listened better, and Mary let her love for Jesus be stronger than her fears.  Mary let her love for Jesus guide her actions.

I wonder, which of them are we more like?  Are we like Judas, aware of our guilt but trying to hide it rather than atone for it?  Sometimes, I think.  Sometimes, we would rather get away with our sins than repent of them; and then we attack the ones who remind us of them.  Or are we like the disciples, only listening to Jesus when he tells us things we want to hear, and closing our ears when he speaks grim truths—even when that means we cannot hear the hope and new life that Jesus promises?  Do we, like the disciples, stay silent when people are attacked for doing the loving—but inconvenient—thing?  Or are we Mary, knowing the hurts and dangers the world keeps waiting just outside the door, but filled with the Spirit to act in love even when staying silent would be easier?

May the Holy Spirit fill us with love and courage like Mary’s, that we may see the truth and act in love and grace.

Amen.

Baptism of Our …

Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012

 

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas.  On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display.  The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales.  And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.

No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany.  The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ.  And what do the magi bring?  Presents!  So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts.  And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.

Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism.  If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is.  We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation.  You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God created it out of nothingness.  Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God.  Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father.  One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something.  The Spirit never stands still.  The Spirit is never stagnant.  And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being.  The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.

The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world.  But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely.  That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children.  What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?

John the Baptist knew that.  “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life.  When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away.  It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people.  But it wasn’t permanent.  Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again.  It was a never-ending cycle.

Jesus’ baptism is not like that.  Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo.  When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him.  And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship.  And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.

When we are baptized, we are claimed by God.  The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us.  And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what.  The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness.  Think about that, for a second.  God is with us no matter what.  God loves us no matter what.  And through us, God is doing amazing things.  What greater gift could we possibly receive?

As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others.  And I’m not talking about how expensive they are.  When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about.  Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument.  My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude.  Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use.  Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out.  But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.

Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something.  The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  The problem is, so often we don’t listen.  We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us.  We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst.  The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.  When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it.  We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.

And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still.  God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things.  God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence.  I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us?  What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work?  What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?

As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font.  In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure.  In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us.  This is not just about money.  This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries.  Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work.  We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world.  We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation.  I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.

But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work.  Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about.  Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian.  As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding.  As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you.  Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word.  May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

Day of Mourning

By Anna C. Haugen.  This article first appeared in Gather: The Magazine of Women of the ELCA in the March 2016 issue.  It was written in November of 2015.  For more information on Disability Day of Mourning, see the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Anti-Filicide Toolkit.

As I write this, I have just heard the news that a woman in Georgia has murdered her autistic son, Dustin, and shot herself. It sits in my gut like lead. In the last five years, more than 90 disabled people in the U.S. (many of them autistic) have been murdered by parents or caregivers. More than 90 people betrayed by those who should have protected them.

I sit in the land of death. I close my eyes and pray for young Dustin, and for Tracey, Melissa, Daniel and all those who went before him. I trust they are safe in God’s arms. It’s cold comfort.

I don’t have to turn on the TV to know what some are saying. It’s always the same. “He was such a burden.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be the parent of an autistic child.” “Can you really blame her?” “He was severely disabled—what kind of life would that be, anyway?” It will probably come out, eventually, that his mother abused Dustin long before she murdered him, taking her frustrations out on him (and worsening his condition in the process). If so, few will care.

I’m autistic, and so is my baby brother. I can’t help thinking that if our parents shared that mindset, that news story could have been us. When I share this, people try to comfort me: “Oh, you’re so much higher-functioning. You’d never have to worry about that!” As if the fact that I look more “normal” means I’m more worthy of life, of love. Yes, autism brings challenges. Yes, it has a profound impact on our lives, and sometimes limits what we can do. But there is also joy and happiness and great ability—in spite of our autism and because of it. I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who made me different, but not less. So was Dustin.

Many people can’t see that. And so, in this sinful, broken world, they take their fear, their hate, their frustration and their grief out on the vulnerable. Sometimes it’s “just” abuse. Sometimes it’s murder. We need better support systems, but more than that, we need to realize that disabled people are people—not burdens or tragedies. Every March 1st, the autistic community joins other disabled groups in a Day of Mourning. We hold vigils. We remember the names and stories of those who have died. We speak out against a society that excuses the murderers and blames the victims. We cry.

I sit in the land of death, hearing stories about people like me being abused and killed. I wait for the morning, for the light of new life coming from the empty tomb. I wait for the day Christ comes back and all the dead are raised—including Dustin—and we live in a world free from abuse and violence.

I live in the land of death, but I hope for new life.