An Autism-Friendly Church Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

I just wrote a piece on autistics and the church for ClergyStuff.com‘s Exceptional People blog.

I’m a pastor and autistic. In my spare time I go around giving presentations to people about autism. When people learn this, they often want tips for their own congregation: what can they do to make it welcoming to autistics? They’re looking for something simple: maybe a quiet room, or stim toys in the pews. Some physical change they can make to the building that will make the space more autistic-friendly. Or maybe even a change to the service itself—something small, that will make a big difference.

Problem is, there’s no one thing—or even two, or five, or ten—that they can change about their worship space that will have the effect they want.

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On Being Autistic and “Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone.”

There’s this thing autistics get told A LOT when they don’t want to do things: “You just need to get out of your comfort zone!”

This immediately tells me that the person speaking doesn’t understand autism.  Because, you see, what most allistics* don’t understand is that their whole idea of what a “comfort zone” is and how much time an autistic spends in their “comfort zone” is completely wrong.

Most neurotypicals** spend most of their life feeling fairly comfortable.  This is because the world is designed for their neurology.  And the higher up the kyriarchy they are–the closer they are to heterosexual cisgender*** able-bodied neurotypical white culturally-Christian middle-or-upper-class male–the higher a percentage of their life they spend feeling relatively comfortable.  This is not to say that every moment is as relaxing as chilling on a warm beach with the beverage of their choice, but rather that even if things aren’t perfect they probably aren’t actively distressing.  So, sure, there are some things that will be difficult, that may stretch them, but they’re usually starting from a place where they are rested and refreshed and have a good reserve of mental, physical, and emotional energy with which to tackle the thing that is “out of their comfort zone.”  And, if they tackle that thing and do it, they will learn how to do it and it will cease to be out of their comfort zone.  So while the uncomfortable thing may be difficult, chances are it will still be achievable, and they will succeed, and their comfort zone will grow, and everything will be better.  In this case, being told to do something “out of your comfort zone” is very good advice.

This is not what things are like for autistics.  Our brains are wired differently from other peoples’ brains.  Things that are very comfortable for most people can be very uncomfortable for us.  Sometimes to an extreme degree.  The lights, the physical textures of things, the sounds and vibrations of the machinery that make modern life possible, the smells, the tastes, our own awareness of our own bodies–these are often harsh or unpleasant for us in ways that they are not for allistics.  Essential tasks are structured in such a way that they make sense to allistics and may not to us.  The rules of social interaction feel weird and alien because they are designed for neurotypicals who think differently than we do.  (Yes, we have emotions, and we have a need for social contact, but they are expressed differently.  We may have difficulty interpreting the thoughts and emotions and reactions of allistics, but they have even more trouble accurately interpreting OURS.)  And none of these things are things that can be solved.  I have learned to “fake normal” to deal with neurotypical people, but it’s not something that comes naturally and it takes a lot of mental and emotional effort.  It will never get easier.  It will always be outside of my comfort zone.

If you have a sensory sensitivity, chances are no amount of exposure will make it tolerable to you.  I find the vibrations and sounds of cars, buses, and planes to be really uncomfortable, and I’ve been riding in cars since my parents took me home from the hospital the day after I was born, and it’s never gotten any better, it’s never going to get any better, and I just have to figure out ways to deal with the fact that most forms of travel other than my own two feet are going to wear me down a lot more than they wear down other people.  It will always be outside my comfort zone.

Most autistics spend most of their lives deeply uncomfortable.  I don’t think I can explain what this is like to someone who’s never lived it, but it’s true.  It’s draining.  You can’t ever let down your guard, because there is always something rubbing you raw like sandpaper.  (Meanwhile, most of the allistics around you generally respond by telling you how unreasonable you are to complain about something that hurts you, because it doesn’t hurt them so they don’t believe it hurts you.)  I was lucky; my sensitivities are milder than a lot of other autistics, and my parents are awesome, and they always made sure our home was a comfortable and safe place for me to relax.  But lots of autistics aren’t so lucky.  There’s a documentary called “Vectors of Autism” about a woman named Laura Nagle.  She’s middle-aged, and in the documentary she goes to an autistic conference–one given BY autistic people FOR autistic people.  Everything in that conference was designed to be comfortable for autistics, no allistics.  While she’s there, Ms. Nagle turns to the camera and says it’s the first time in her life she’s ever been comfortable.  This is such an astonishing and remarkable thing to her that she has to invent a whole new word, for the feeling of being comfortable for the first time in your life.  Think about what that would be like, for a second.  Can you imagine what it would be like to reach the middle of your life without once being able to let down your guard and relax?

When neurotypicals tell autistics we need to get out of our comfort zone, they’re usually envisioning it something like this: you’re standing on the edge of the pool, and it’s a warm day and you dip your toes in and you go, oh, that’s colder than I thought, and you know you want to and it’ll be fine once you’re in but you just need to grit up your courage and jump in.  And your friends who are already in tell you, “just come on in, the water’s fine!”  And finally you jump, and get it over with, and you may splutter a bit at first but soon everything is fine.  That’s what they think they are, the friends saying “come on in, the water’s fine!”  After all, the water is fine.  For them.

But it may not be fine for the autistic.  For the autistic, it probably feels more like this: they’re out in the ocean in the middle of a hurricane, desperately clinging to some random piece of flotsam and trying not to drown.  It feels like the hurricane has lasted their whole life.  (Maybe it has.)  And up swims a mermaid.  “Come on in!” they say.  “Let go of that and dive down deep.  The water’s fine!”  After all, the water is fine.  For them.

And, you know, maybe the mermaid is right and there’s something great and helpful down there.  (Maybe even a submarine, so they could get out of the hurricane.)  But that autistic is battered and beaten and just trying to survive, they can barely catch their breath, they don’t have the strength or the stamina to dive down to find it.  On a different day–on a calm, clear day, when they had a boat to ride in instead of debris to cling to–they might be able to.  (Not always, but maybe.)  But it isn’t a calm, clear day.  And today, they can’t.  And no amount of the mermaid cajoling them is going to change that.

This isn’t to say that autistics never need to stretch or challenge themselves.  Nobody can grow without at least the occasional challenge or stretch.  But in order to succeed, you need to start from a place of at least basic ability.  You have to be able to rest and recuperate, you have to pick your challenges, you need space to be, space to be comfortable, space to build up your reserves.  Otherwise, you’re not going to be able to do anything but go splat when you try to stretch or challenge yourself.

This is one of the reasons autism can sometimes be a lot harder to identify in adults than in children.  Children do not control their environments; their parents, teachers, and other authority figures do.  If those authority figures don’t provide a safe and comfortable place for the child to relax and recover from the stresses of dealing with the world, that child is going to spend their whole life feeling like that drowning person in the middle of a hurricane, clinging desperately to their coping skills.  And some of those coping skills are some of the most stereotypically autistic behaviors.  They’re not bad things, they’re good things–if an autistic is prevented from using them when they need them, the internal psychological pressure becomes a heck of a lot worse.  But most adults do control their environment on a basic level.  They don’t have to go places that make them uncomfortable, they don’t have to wear fabrics that make them feel like their skin is on fire, they can arrange their lives so that they are as close to comfortable as they can possibly be.  So they’re likely to use the more stereotypical autistic coping skills less intensely.

The thing is, though, that just because you can arrange your life to give you a safer environment to live in doesn’t mean you will.  Just because you can arrange your schedule to give you the recovery and prep time you need to deal with the world doesn’t mean you will.  You get told your whole life that you “just need to stretch yourself” and “get outside your comfort zone” for everything to be “fixed,” you start to believe it.  You get told your whole life that your basic needs are unreasonable and unfair to everyone around you, and you start to believe that you don’t deserve to get any of your needs met.  You believe that trying to meet your own needs is inherently selfish and lazy.

I believed that for a long time.  I rarely got that sort of message from my family, but I got it from everyone else.  I’m sure they were just trying to motivate the bright-but-quirky girl.  But that’s not the way it felt to me.  By the time I went off to college, I was firmly convinced that if I ever stopped pushing myself–if I ever stopped forcing myself outside my comfort zone–if I ever actually paid attention to my own needs and attended to them and gave myself some breathing room–it was evidence that I was lazy and selfish and a bad friend and a bad person.  Now, pushing myself that far did result in some good things (for example, the college I went to was great, and going that far from home was certainly a major stretch), but mostly it just made me miserable and not able to get much out of even the good stuff, because I was constantly on the edge of mental and emotional collapse.  I spent years veering between pushing myself too hard and feeling like a failure because I was doing great things I couldn’t let myself take the time to appreciate, and being holed up in my room trying to recover from having pushed myself beyond endurance and beating myself up for being lazy and selfish and a bad friend and a bad girlfriend and a bad daughter and a bad person.  I don’t know what it looked like on the outside, but it was pretty bad from the inside.

Even when I stopped doing that, when I stopped pushing myself too hard and giving myself actual time and permission to build up reserves, to curate my activities and eliminate stuff that just wasn’t worth it to me, I kept that story inside me, of how I was just lazy and bad.  (I still have trouble not believing it, sometimes.)  I know I’m a smart, capable person who can do a lot of amazing things, and I always have been, and I can do even more now that I give myself permission to save my resources for the things that matter, and do them in whatever way works for me instead of the “normal” way.  But it’s hard to believe, sometimes.

And why is it hard to believe?  Why did I think I was lazy and selfish and bad for so long?  Well, a lot of it is all those people who told me, all those years, that I was being unreasonable, that I was being lazy, that I just needed to push myself, that I just needed to “get outside my comfort zone.”

 

 


*allistic: someone who is not autistic.

**neurotypical: someone whose brain works along the “typical” model.  They have no developmental disabilities or mental health challenges.  People who are not neurotypical are neurodiverse.  You can learn more here.

***cisgender: someone whose physical sex matches their mental gender, in other words, someone who is not transgender.

Waiting for the Baby’s Birth

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

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.

If you’ve been coming to church regularly the last month or so, you may have noticed a focus on the Kingdom of God. We’ve had parable after parable about the coming of the Kingdom—about staying awake, and how to prepare, and who is invited. If you were hoping that to change now that we’re in Advent—the season of preparing for Christ’s birth—you’re going to be disappointed. Because preparing for the coming of Christ doesn’t just mean getting the tree and presents ready, and lighting an advent wreath and admiring crèche scenes about the beautiful baby in Bethlehem. Preparing for the coming of Christ also means preparing for his coming in glory at the end of the age. The baby’s birth gets the ball rolling. The king coming again in glory is where it finishes.

And here’s the thing: for all that people—both Christians and people of other faiths—have spent thousands of years trying to predict when the end times come, nobody’s been right yet. We spend all this time and effort trying to figure out how to tell, when in our Gospel lesson Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when it’s going to happen—nobody knows but the Father.

When you think about it, it’s kind of like pregnancy. I mean, when a woman is pregnant, you know that baby is going to come out eventually. And, it will probably be roughly nine months from the time of conception. But exact dates, times? Nope. That baby comes in its own time. The best we can do is guess—and sometimes, our guesses are pretty wrong. My baby brother was due around June 12, 1998. Now, my middle brother and I were both in choirs that were going to be going on tour that summer. My choir was going to England, and Nels’ choir was going to Canada. And both of us were flying out with our choirs on June 22nd.   We might miss our baby brother’s birth, which we both wanted to be there for. There was only about ten days between his due date and the day we were scheduled to leave the country. So you can imagine how nervous we all were. Would we be there? What if the baby was later than we expected? We prayed for him to be early. As the day we hoped he’d be born came and went, we prayed each day that he would be born soon.

By June 20th, two days before Nels and I flew out of the country, we were all on tenterhooks waiting. We were looking for the signs. The baby had rotated head down, just like he was supposed to—that was great! That was a sign he would come soon! But not a definite clue as to when. Was mom getting backaches, which sometimes come just before contractions? Was anything happening? Was the baby ever going to come? And as we were waiting, we had stuff to do. So much stuff! We had to help Mom pack for the hospital—things she and dad and the baby would need, and also snacks and games and stuff to keep Nels and I occupied and out of the way. (Nels, by the way, kept drooling over the snacks—we rarely got chips and cookies and things, and so having a whole basket full them right by the front door for a couple of weeks was torture for him. All that good stuff that he could see but not enjoy, yet.) But, since we also were going on tour, we had to do all our packing for that. We needed to be packed before the baby was born, because what if he came the day we were supposed to leave? We’d be too busy then. So we packed early. While Nels and I were practicing music for the tour and making sure everything was packed, Mom and Dad were doing last-minute preparations, gathering supplies, practicing childbirth techniques, staying in touch with the doctor, and doing all the other things to keep ready. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

That’s kind of like what the life of a Christian is. We’re waiting for a baby to come, and we’ve got a lot to do to prepare for it. There’s the normal everyday stuff that still has to get done. But there’s also the stuff that needs to get ready specifically for the baby. What kinds of things do we need to do to be ready for the coming of Jesus? When a baby’s coming, you prepare the house. For the coming of Christ, shouldn’t we prepare our world? Our hearts? Ask yourselves this question: what do you think needs to be prepared in your life for the coming of Christ?

We spent a lot of time preparing for my baby brother to come. We waited, and waited. And then, just when we were starting to think that it was going to be too late, that Nels and I would have to miss it, Mom went into labor. And off we went to the hospital. It was quite a process: Dad driving and taking care of Mom, Nels and I handling the baggage and trying to help with Mom as much as we could. Then we got to the hospital, and things really got hectic. If you’ve ever had a baby or been present for a birth, you know what I mean. Doctors and nurses in and out, Mom yelling in pain, Dad taking care of her, me trying to keep Nels and I out of the way, blood and other bodily fluids … about as far from the serene and pretty picture that you see on Christmas cards as possible. But, eventually, it was over. The baby was out, cleaned, and nursing. And we were all so happy. Our baby brother Lars was born on June 20th. He was only two days old when he came with Mom and Dad to drop Nels and I off at the Portland Airport. We thought he would be too late—we thought his timing was bad—but it turned out, he was coming in his own time, not ours.

The thing was, we knew what the signs of labor were. I only knew from books and things because I didn’t remember Nels’ birth that clearly. But Mom and Dad, this was their third kid. They’d done this twice before. They knew the signs to look out for. But that didn’t mean they knew when he was coming. And that didn’t mean they couldn’t get fooled by false contractions or other symptoms. “Is this it?” Dad would ask Mom. “Well, maybe,” she would say. Until the labor was well and truly started, we didn’t know whether or not it was going to be just another false alarm.

That’s what the coming of a baby is like, but it’s also a little bit like the coming of the kingdom. Jesus lists signs and symbols of what will happen beforehand. The sun will be darkened, stars falling from heaven, powers shaken … Our reading from Isaiah mentions some more symptoms. Earthquakes, nations trembling. And Jesus says that we should be able to look at the signs and tell when the coming of God’s kingdom is near, just like you can look at a fruit tree budding out and tell that the seasons are changing. But the thing is, as anyone who lives in cold climates knows, the trees beginning to bud out is not necessarily a sure-fire sign that the season has changed—you can still get killer frosts after that point. In the same way, all those other signs Jesus and Isaiah point to—celestial events, natural disasters, political events—people have spent thousands of years looking at those signs and saying “see—this meteor shower means God is coming soon!” or, “That earthquake is a sign of the kingdom!” or, “This political catastrophe means the end of the world is coming!” But each time, the signs they were pointing to weren’t the real thing: they were like Braxton-Hicks contractions, false labor, that got people all excited and yet weren’t the big event. Christ is coming—he came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and he’s coming again—but we don’t know when.

The point isn’t to know for certain exactly when it’s going to happen. If you bet on an exact date, you’ll probably be just as wrong as people generally are at predicting the date of a baby’s birth. We can’t know, because even Jesus doesn’t know. The point is to be ready and waiting, to be paying attention and asking the question: is this it? Because, as sure as a baby can’t stay in the womb forever, sooner or later God’s kingdom will come. And if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not looking for it, you may miss the signs—just like pregnant women sometimes dismiss or ignore the signs of labor. My mom did that when my middle brother Nels was born. She assumed it would be a long labor, like she had with me, and so when she felt the first stirring she ignored it. Well, Nels came out a lot faster—and by the time she realized that, well, we almost didn’t make it to the hospital in time. It made his birth a lot more stressful and hard than it would have been if we’d been paying attention.

Then there’s the matter of preparation. Because once labor starts, you don’t have time to pack your bags. The time of getting ready is over and done with. If you’re not ready, well, you’re going to have to go as you are. You won’t have clothes to change into, or a toothbrush, or a camera, or anything else you might need. And that, too, will make the birth a lot more stressful than it needs to be.

We know how to get ready for an ordinary baby, but we’re not always sure how to get ready for the Holy Baby.  I mean, really, we know about Christmas trees and lights and things, but how much attention do we give to preparing our hearts and minds?  Preparing our world?  May we learn to watch and wait for the coming of Christ.

Amen.

Priorities

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32), Year A, November 9, 2014

 

Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70m 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

 

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.

 

I don’t know about you guys, but I went to camp every year as a child. It was a church camp, Camp Lutherwood, in the hills and forests north of Eugene, Oregon. I loved every minute of it. I loved the pool, and the creek, and the huge trees, and the hills that towered over the camp, and the cabins, and the songs, and the crafts, and the counselors, and the special activities—one year I went to horse camp, and another I went to model rocket camp. But, once I got old enough to pack my own bag, I knew one thing for certain and sure: no matter how closely I followed the packing instructions they sent out each year, I would forget something. One year, it was pajamas, and I had to sleep in a t-shirt all week. Another year, it was a flashlight.

Now, a flashlight is a very important thing at camp. Oregon is further south than North Dakota, so our summer days aren’t quite as long as they are here. By the time evening campfire was over and it was time to go back to our cabins for the night, it would always be dark, and we would have to walk through narrow forest trails, down the gully and up the other side, in the dark. There was a lamp by the dining hall, but it would only light the way if you took the long way around by the gravel road, which we never did. Then we would gather our things from our cabin and make our way across the back field to the bathrooms, where we would brush our teeth and wash up and get ready for bed, and then trek back to the cabin. And that year, I was out in the tent cabins which didn’t have electricity—after dark, the only light we had was our flashlights. You can see why not having a flashlight was A BIG DEAL.

So, I get why the five foolish bridesmaids were freaked out that they didn’t have enough oil. Been there, done that. And I also get why the wise bridesmaids didn’t want to share the oil, because it wouldn’t have been enough. I mean, say I’d had a flashlight without batteries in it. If one of my friends had given me half her batteries, then neither flashlight would have enough batteries to work. And that doesn’t make any sense.

What I don’t get is this: why didn’t they share the lamps that had oil in them? I mean, yeah, sure, it’s better to have your own lamp or flashlight, but I know from experience that one flashlight can be shared between two girls, and things will work out just fine. Because that’s what we did, that year I forgot my flashlight. I paired up with one of the other girls, and we kept close together after dark. Even walking through a dark and scary forest at night, and then rooting around in your bag to get your toothbrush and soap and washcloth and stuff, you can share one flashlight between you. It may take a little longer, it may be less convenient, but there will be enough light. You don’t have to have enough oil for both lamps if you can use one lamp for both of you.

And, sure, the wise bridesmaids didn’t offer to share the lamps. They probably should have, but they didn’t. But on the other hand, the foolish bridesmaids didn’t think to ask, either. Getting light from someone else wasn’t enough. They needed their own light. So they went out in search of the oil they needed to make it. And because they were out getting supplies, they missed the bridegroom, and weren’t let back in to the wedding party.

That’s a crucial point, there. They weren’t let back in. You see, they were already there, in the house, waiting for the bridegroom to come. They left, before the party started. And here’s the thing. The bridegroom didn’t say to them, “hey, you need oil for your lamps, or you can’t come to the party.” Nobody said that. Nobody said they had to have lamps at all. I bet you that at a party, the guy throwing the party would have enough supplies so that everyone could have a good time. I bet you there were lamps full of oil in the house just waiting to be lit. Sure, having their own lamps might have made things a little brighter, but every party I’ve ever been to the host has made sure they had more than enough of everything to take care of their guests. And if something runs out, well, the party continues without it. Because the important part of a party is the people, gathered together to have fun. All the other stuff, from food and drink to decorations and party games, you plan it and get more than you think you need and if you run out—or if you forget to get something—you figure out a way to deal with it, or you shrug your shoulders and get back to the party. If people are having fun together, you can get by without whatever it is that you’re missing. And if people aren’t having fun together, well, whatever’s missing probably wouldn’t have changed much anyway.

The foolish bridesmaids don’t seem to have figured this out. They made sure they looked right, that they looked like they were prepared—they brought lamps with them, and until it was time to light the lamps, they looked no different than the wise bridesmaids. If everything had happened like they expected—if the bridegroom had come during the day when they thought he was coming—they would have been fine. But he didn’t come until it was night, and then everyone could see that their lamps were just for show. And they didn’t want to look foolish, carrying around lamps that weren’t lit. Maybe they thought the bridegroom would only let them be bridesmaids if they had their lamps lit. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they didn’t trust their host to take care of them and provide enough lamps to see by. Maybe they thought that since their fellow bridesmaids couldn’t share the oil, they wouldn’t share the light from their lamps. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, they couldn’t enjoy the wedding and the party without their own lamps. Having enough oil of their own to have their own light was more important to them than the wedding. So they left to get some. And the bridegroom came while they were out knocking on the door of the shopkeeper to sell them oil in the middle of the night. While they were out running around town in a panic about not having enough oil, the wedding happened, and the party started. And they missed it.

So my question is, what’s the lamp oil in our lives? What is it that we think is more important than anything else? The thing that will send us panicking out to get, the thing that distracts us from the coming of Christ? What’s the thing we think we can’t possibly do without, the thing we think we need more deeply than anything else? The thing we don’t trust Jesus to provide for us? Think about that, for a second. I would bet you that most of the people here have something they think they need more than Jesus, when push comes to shove. You might not put it quite that directly—I bet you if you had asked those bridesmaids, they wouldn’t have said they needed oil more than they needed the bridegroom, but their actions proved it. Oil was a higher priority for them than the bridegroom. They might have said they needed the oil to properly welcome him, but they were so busy trying to get it that they missed him completely.

Even if you think you put Jesus above everything else in your life, do you really? Think about how you act. Think about what you do. Think about where your priorities prove about you. Here are some things that people tend to put as more important in their lives than anything else, things that distract themselves from Jesus Christ. One of them is money. Money is a big one, it’s something that a lot of good Christians spend a lot of time pursuing and not a lot of time using as God might want, which is why we don’t like talking about it in church. But there are a lot of other things on that list, too. How about power? Respectability? Land and crops? Technology? Fashion? Romance? Something else? These just scratch the surface. There are so many things that we put first in our lives, sometimes without even realizing it.

We are saved by Jesus Christ, and invited to the party. We are all bridesmaids at the great wedding feast of our Lord. God calls all people to himself, good and bad, rich and poor, male and female. We don’t have to do anything to earn that invitation, for it is freely given to everyone. But we can leave the party. We can pursue things we think we need, ignoring everything that God gives us. We can put our priorities in things that don’t matter in the end, just as the foolish bridesmaids did. May we learn from the lesson they teach, and follow Christ no matter what.

Amen.

An Easy Yoke

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14), Year A, July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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.

Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Isn’t it lovely? We take our burdens to Jesus, and he will give us rest. Wonderful. Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem comes when you examine it a little more closely. We lay down our own burdens at Jesus’ feet, and he gives us rest from them: but he also gives us his burden, his yoke. Yes, it’s easy and light, but still. We don’t see yokes often in our daily lives, so it’s easy to romanticize this saying, a lot easier for us than for people who used them in daily lives. Consider this woman. She needs water for her household: for cooking and cleaning. But without indoor plumbing, she has to go and get it and carry it back. So she has two buckets, hung from a yoke. This is so she can carry more weight than if she were just carrying two buckets in her hands. It’s easier to walk with the weight, too, without the buckets banging in to your shins the whole way. But still, water is heavy. And two bucketfuls of water isn’t that much. She’ll probably have to go back and get more. Sure, a yoke makes her task easier, but it’s still a heavy, hard thing. Wouldn’t it be nicer if Jesus had just left out that part?

A historical re-enactor carrying two buckets on a yoke over her shoulders.

When I was a child, I worked for my parents at their photography studio. I started out doing basic janitor chores for $1 an hour—vacuuming, taking out the trash, that sort of thing. It was work that needed to be done, and I was part of the family so I needed to help out with the family business just like farm kids help out with chores around the farm. It teaches responsibility, it helps out the family, it’s good experience later in life. But here’s the thing. I didn’t like doing those chores—in fact, I hated them. I would much rather have been reading or playing with my best friend Chrissy who lived only a block away from the Studio. But those chores needed to get done and I was the one who had to do them. So I’d get to the studio after school each day and hide with my books, trying to get out of doing my chores. Or I’d try and figure out some way so that it would look like I had done my chores without having to actually do them.

There really isn’t a way to do that with the trash; either it’s been taken out or it hasn’t. Vacuuming, however. Vacuuming is harder to tell. I mean, if there’s big dirt or stuff on the carpet, then you can tell, but otherwise, you may not be able to tell until it gets really bad. Particularly on the kinds of carpets that are designed not to show stains and stuff, which the studio had. So I had a bright idea! I’d just pick up the little debris that was visible to the eye, and call it good. I wouldn’t have to vacuum. I could get out of doing my chores. I could fool my parents into thinking I’d done what I was supposed to do. Awesome! Except for the fact that I had to keep looking over my shoulder to keep my parents from seeing what I was doing, and I had this fear of getting caught hanging over my head. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. And also, crawling on the floor to pick up the dirt wasn’t fun, either. But I told myself that, hey, it was better than doing the vacuuming!

Of course, it didn’t take my parents long to figure it out. My dad saw me crawling along the floor, picking up dirt and little bits of garbage. “You know,” he said, “It takes a lot more time and effort to do that than it does to actually vacuum. If you’d just done what you were supposed to do, you would be done by now.” And I was all, but I hate vacuuming, and this way I don’t have to! “Do you like crawling along the floor picking up dirt better?” Dad asked. “Vacuuming is easier, does a better job, and gets done quicker.” And you know what? He was right! When you stop and think about all the stuff I was having to do to get out of doing what needed to be done, I was doing more work, a worse job, and having to spend more time and energy dealing with it than I would be if I just did what I was supposed to do. But I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t want to do the right thing. I just wanted to get out of a chore I hated, and I didn’t pay any attention to the costs of my actions. I focused on the wrong thing, and it led me to make some stupid choices.

Humans do this all the time, and often on a much bigger scale. We often know what we should be doing, but we don’t want to do it. We find all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t have to. Even when, in our heads, we know what to do and what not to do, all too often we find ways to let our heart overrule us. Or when our hearts burn within us to act, we step back and let our minds come up with all the reasons why we shouldn’t. And when we don’t do the right thing, we hurt ourselves and others, so we feel guilty, so we find reasons why it’s not our fault, reasons why we did the right thing, reasons why it wasn’t really hurting anyone, reasons why other people are so unreasonable for expecting anything different. And it builds and builds and goes round and round chasing its tail, and each sin leads us deeper into the next, and on, and on.

That’s what our second reading is about. Paul is talking about sin, and how it dominates our lives. For Paul, sin is not just an action, something we do or don’t do. Sin is a state of being: it’s how we are. It’s the whole big muddle of how we keep screwing up, even when we know better. We do something wrong, so we feel bad, so we try to justify ourselves, so we dig the hole deeper and do more bad things trying to get out of doing what we know we should, and on, and on. It’s an endless cycle, like a rat in a cage, running in a wheel and getting nowhere. If you listen to the way Paul uses language in this passage, he really evokes that feeling of spinning your wheels. Listen: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Three sentences later: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Two sentences later: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Do you feel how repetitive this is, how he keeps circling around? It’s that feeling of dread and futility you get when you know you’re screwing up and you know you’re not going to change. That’s the burden of sin. That part of ourselves that keeps us running on a hamster wheel to nowhere, hurting ourselves and others in the process, focused on the wrong things and blinding ourselves to the true cost of our actions and inactions.

Woman on a hamster wheel

Finally, Paul stops dead in his tracks. He can’t do this on his own. He can’t break the chains of sin. He can’t pull himself up by his bootstraps. He can’t stop the cycle, and he can no longer pretend that things are okay. The burden is too much. “Wretched man that I am!” he says. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because Paul can’t do it. But he knows, if he gives his burden to Jesus, if he trusts Jesus Christ to help him, he’ll be saved. Jesus can break the pattern. Jesus can stop the cycle that goes nowhere. Jesus can give him rest from the pointless and heartbreaking hamster wheel. Jesus can take his burden, the burden of sin that does nothing but pull Paul down and chain him to futility, and replace it with something lighter. Something that matters. Something good.

Consider the woman with the yoke. She’s a re-enactor, showing what life was like in Colonial Williamsburg. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, and they didn’t have pumps. But people still needed water, so it had to be carried from the well to the house. This is a true and deep need. Water is a source of life. By carrying the water, she is helping herself and others in her household. If you have a hard job to do—a job that needs to be done—you want to do it well and as quickly as possible instead of wasting your time trying to get out of it. The yoke helps. The strain of the water’s weight is transferred to her shoulders, instead of her hands. She won’t bruise her shins with the buckets bouncing off them. She can carry more, and carry it faster, meaning the chore of getting water takes less time, and her body will hurt less than if she’d carried the buckets by hand. She’s doing the right thing and it’s easier because of the yoke.

That’s the kind of yoke Jesus is talking about. The kind of yoke that makes a job go better. As followers of Jesus, there are a lot of things we are called to do that we wouldn’t necessarily want to do. They’re the right thing, but they seem harder. Like forgiving someone we don’t like, or welcoming someone who’s not like us, or helping someone when we’d much rather do nothing. All the things that we know are right, that need to be done, but don’t want to do. Jesus’ yoke helps us to do them. Jesus’ yoke makes them easier. Jesus’ yoke makes the burden lighter. Jesus breaks the burdens and chains that keep us doing pointless stuff that hurts ourselves and others, and Jesus replaces it with a yoke that will help us do the right thing, and do it better than we could without Jesus. He brings rest that truly satisfies, and work that accomplishes good things.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Aspergers and Me

When I was in college, my baby brother was diagnosed with autism.  As we learned more about his condition, it became really clear that it ran in the family.  Autism is one form of an “autism spectrum disorder.”  Many people have a few characteristics of autism in a very mild fashion; some people have most or all of the characteristics of autism in a very intense fashion.  The more characteristics you have and the stronger they are, the further along the spectrum you are considered.  I have Aspergers, which is about halfway between autism and “normal.”  But because it ran in the family, nobody had ever considered it something worth talking with a doctor about; for my family, it’s “normal.”  (Side note: autism is absolutely not caused by vaccines; the so-called scientist who claimed that it was faked his data because he stood to make a lot of money from vaccines he had created to replace the standard ones.)

Most people think Aspergers and autism are horrible things to have.  I don’t.  I am happy with who I am, and how God created me.  Yes, there are some things that are harder because I have Aspergers, but there are also some great gifts and blessings that come along with it, too, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  Nobody is perfectly “normal,” and the world would be a very boring place if we all were!

What symptoms do I have that affect me as your pastor?  Some people on the spectrum have issues with their senses or with being touched, but I don’t.  On the other hand, I do have the autism spectrum tendency to focus obsessively on certain issues.  One of my major areas that I love learning about and talking about is the Bible, theology, and general things having to do with the Christian faith.  (Which is handy for a pastor!)

I have difficulties “reading” other peoples’ social cues.  Things like body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions can be difficult for me to interpret.  I have to be concentrating on it specifically.  Most people understand body language without much need to focus on it.  For me, I have to stop whatever else I’m doing and look at a person and say to myself, “He’s sitting back in his chair, his arms are folded, and he’s looking off to the side a bit.  That probably means he’s bored.”  I can do it, but the more other things that are going on (and the more tired I am) the harder it is.  Because it’s difficult for me to read social cues, I sometimes put my foot in it and offend people.  If I ever do that, please let me know—I can’t fix the problem if I don’t know there is a problem.  When I miss things, it’s not because I don’t care; it’s because I can’t always see things that other people think are obvious.

My own social cues (body language, tone of voice, etc.) don’t naturally fit expected norms.  My voice is often very loud (at age thirty, I still struggle with “inside voice”), and my body language is often very closed off.  Sometimes (particularly when I’m tired or distracted), I have trouble figuring out how much eye contact is enough and how much is too little or too much.  So people sometimes think I’m upset or angry when I’m actually happy.  I have learned to “act normal,” to use body language and tone of voice that most people will understand, but it is hard for me and often slips when I’m concentrating on something else or when I’m tired.  In the year I’ve been here, there have been a couple of times that I’ve heard second-hand that people think I’m angry with them, and in each case, it wasn’t true.  I still don’t know exactly what it was I did to give them that impression, which is frustrating because then I don’t know how to do things differently so it doesn’t happen again.  If you think I’m upset with you, please come and talk with me.  Chances are, it’s just a misunderstanding, and even if it isn’t, I’d much rather deal with things directly than let them fester.

Those are the two big issues, for me and for many people on the autism spectrum.  Taken together, they’re why some people think we have no emotions.

You may have noticed that I can be pretty single-minded.  This is also one of my symptoms.  For me, changing the subject can be hard.  Here’s an analogy: my thoughts sometimes feel like they’re a train going down a track.  To switch topics, I have to derail the train and get it started down another set of tracks.  (This is why small talk will never come naturally to me, although I’ve learned to do it.)  Normally, this isn’t a big deal for me, but sometimes it can be.  I also tend to be very literal; I have a sense of humor, but even when I’m laughing at a joke I may have an urge to correct the absurdity that makes it funny.

Like many people on the autism spectrum, I do repetitive things.  I’ve trained myself to mostly do things people don’t usually notice, when I’m in public, like tapping a foot.  But if you stop by my office on a weekday and see me pacing, that’s also repetitive behavior.  I think better when I’m pacing.

If you want to learn more about how my Aspergers specifically affects me, you’re welcome to ask me about it in person.  If you want to know more about the autism spectrum generally, I highly recommend books by Temple Grandin and John Elder Robinson.  There is also a very good HBO movie about Temple Grandin.  Two of my favorite websites are http://autismandempathyblog.wordpress.com/ and http://autismwomensnetwork.org/blog/.  Please ignore the advocacy network “Autism Speaks” and psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, as both are notorious for ignoring the experience and perspectives of people who actually have an autism spectrum disorder.  Both Autism Speaks and Dr. Baron-Cohen are very prominent, but they tend to be unhelpful at best, if not actively harmful.