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

I just wrote a piece on autistics and the church for‘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.


My Ordination: October 27th, 2012

At my ordination
At my ordination
As part of the ordination service, other pastors and diaconal ministers lay hands on the ordinand bless her
As part of the ordination service, other pastors and diaconal ministers lay hands on the ordinand bless her
The newly ordained pastor is presented to the congregation
The newly ordained pastor is presented to the congregation
I'm the one in the middle, with Bishop Brauer-Rieke behind me and the pastors and diaconal minister who participated in my ordination around us.
I’m the one in the middle, with Bishop Brauer-Rieke behind me and the pastors and diaconal minister who participated in my ordination around us.
My family and I after the ordination
My family and I after the ordination
The flowers given by my new congregations, Augustana Lutheran Church and Birka Lutheran Church.
The flowers given by my new congregations, Augustana Lutheran Church and Birka Lutheran Church.
Me in a green quilted stole with the tree of life and trinity symbols.
This stole was made for me by Pam Duren of Philomath, Oregon. It was commissioned by Trinity Lutheran Church of Somerset, PA.
Me in a green quilted stole
This stole was made for me by Kay Mitchell.
Me in a red stole with flames symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
This stole was made for me for my ordination by Donna Wolfe.

Video of my Ordination

The Boy Who Shared His Lunch

Last night, at the Wednedsay Evening Lenten service, a child of the congregation and I performed a dialogue/skit that I wrote about the boy who shared the loaves and fish (John 6:1-14).  Here is the script.  Like everything on this blog, it is licensed under a Creative Commons license.  This means that you can use it for any purpose besides to sell it, as long as you credit me and link back to this blog.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Boy Who Shared His Lunch

Jacob enters, carrying a basket

Salomé: Ah, Jacob, my son, there you are!  It’s getting late, I was wondering when your cousins were going to bring you home—how was your day?

Jacob: It was wonderful, mother!  I had so much fun—it was a lot nicer than spending all day mending and cleaning fish nets!

Salomé:  I know, but the taxes on fishing are so high—everyone in our family must work.  There is no time for play, if we are to feed ourselves and meet our obligations.  Soon, you too will be out with your father and uncles and cousins, fishing, while your younger brothers mend the nets.  You should be grateful we could spare you for a day to go do something fun!

Jacob: I know, and thank you!  It was wonderful!  Such a beautiful day.  We walked for miles, and the sun was shining and I’ve never been so far from home! I don’t think Matthew and Jonah had ever been that far, either—we got lost.  But there were so many other people going to see the teacher, we could follow them, and so we got there in the end.

Salomé: I know this traveling preacher is a popular fellow, but times are hard—so many people are losing their land and becoming tenant farmers these days, I’m surprised anyone could spare the time to go and listen.  How many were there?

Jacob:  Lots!  If they were all fish, it would be more than our whole family could catch in a week!  There were all kinds of people.  I saw some people dressed in finer robes than I’ve ever seen, and others dressed in rags. And people in between—I saw fishermen, farmers, day laborers, craftsmen.  I didn’t know that many people lived in all of Judea.

Salomé: This teacher must be something special, then.  What was his name again?  Where is he from?

Jacob: His name is Jesus, and he’s from a town called Nazareth.  I think his family are craftsmen, but most of his followers are fishermen.

Salomé: I know—it was such a scandal when Zebedee bar-Jonathan’s son’s left their family to follow that preacher.  Of course, all parents dream of their children being pious and learning the Scriptures, so it was an honor that they were chosen … but they left in such a hurry!  And they were two of their family’s hardest workers.  Without their help, their family almost couldn’t pay for their fishing license!

Jacob: I can see why they followed him, though—when he talks, it sounds like he’s talking right to you, even if you’re on the edges of a big crowd!  There were a lot of people who were sick or had demons, there, and he healed them all!  One woman fell down in fits, and shook a lot, and Jesus spoke to her and she stopped.  Then there was a blind man, and Jesus touched him and he could see!

Salomé: Well, that’s worth travelling all day for, I must say.  But you and your cousins weren’t sick.

Jacob: Oh, but it was wonderful to see.  And he talked.  I didn’t understand everything he said, but I would have listened to him forever.  He talked about treating people with respect and honor, and following God’s commands, and being generous instead of stingy, and caring for all people, even those who aren’t part of your family.  He said we should love everybody, because we’re all God’s children.

Salomé: Very true!  The world would be a better place if more people thought like he did.Was there anything else?  Did he talk about Rome?  Did he talk about King Herod?  He’s one of us, he knows how hard times are.  Why, with the taxes on fishing, we barely make enough to feed and clothe ourselves, slaving away all day every day except the Sabbath.  The tax collectors cheat us and live in mansions while we can barely keep a roof over our heads, and the soldiers mock us and beat us, and our own king spends more time bowing to Rome than to God.  If this Jesus is a man of God who can work miracles, surely he can throw out the Romans!  If he can gather crowds like that, he should be able to raise an army, too.  I heard people talking in the marketplace that he’s the messiah, King David’s heir come to restore the kingdom of Israel.

Jacob: He didn’t say anything about that.  I know my cousins were disappointed.  But I liked listening to him anyway.

Salomé.  Well, maybe he’ll start talking about rebellion later.  I’m glad you had such a good day—there’s still some light left, you can do your chores.

Jacob: I have a present for you, mother!

Salomé: What is it?

Jacob hands her his basket

Jacob: Bread!  So you won’t have to bake tomorrow.

Salomé: Jacob!  There is so much bread here—where did you get it?

Jacob: From Jesus!  There were so many people in the crowd who had no money, and no food.  Thank you for packing us such a nice lunch, it made me sad to see all the people there who didn’t have anything.  My cousins made me carry our food, all five loaves of bread and two fish.

Salomé: They did, did they?  Three men and one boy, and they make the boy do the work?  I’ll have to talk to their mother!

Jacob:  I don’t mind, because it worked out for the best!  Jesus was sorry for all the people with no food, so he sent his disciples over to ask me if I would share.  They weren’t very nice about it; I don’t think they wanted to have to ask a kid for a favor.  But I said yes, because Jesus had just been talking about being generous, and I knew I would have food here when I got home if I was hungry.  My cousins didn’t like it, but I was the one who had carried the food, and so I thought it only fair that I get to decide.  And Jesus thanked me!

Salomé: An important man like that, bothering to notice a child?  And thanking him, no less?  This Jesus is certainly unusual.

Jacob: I don’t think Jesus cares about who is rich and powerful and who is not—I think he only cares about who needs him.  And the hungry people sure needed him!  Jesus took the bread and the fish—all five loaves and two fish—and blessed them, and told his followers to pass them around for everyone to share.  And he told everyone to take as much as they could eat, but not to hoard it to take home, because he wanted everyone to be fed.  And they did!  And when everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets full of leftover pieces of bread!  They gave me one of them to take home to you as a thank you for giving the original loaves and fish.

Salomé: He fed the whole crowd with just the lunch I packed for you and your cousins?  That is truly a sign and a wonder!  Did anyone else bring food from home that they shared?

Jacob: I didn’t see any, but I suppose it’s possible.  I bet those rich people had food with them.  And a lot of the craftspeople and farmers and fishers probably brought lunch, too.  But that still wouldn’t be enough to fill all twelve baskets of leftovers!

Salomé: No, it wouldn’t.  Well, no matter how much food he started with, it was certainly a miracle.  Not just the bread and fish being enough for the whole crowd, but that people shared—with times so hard, people look out for their own family first and anyone else a distant second.  You would think they would eat their fill and keep the rest for their families.

Jacob: But they didn’t, everyone shared with everyone else!  Just like Jesus asked them to.

Salomé: That was a miracle!  And you were the first to share, Jacob.  Because you were generous, you participated in one of God’s miracles!  You helped people who were poor and hungry.  I’m so proud of you!

Salomé hugs Jacob

Jacob: Does that mean I don’t have to do my chores tonight?

Salomé: Sorry.  There’s still a lot of work to do, and everyone must help.

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Preached by Anna C. Haugen

Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, 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.


My grandparents often listen to old Andrews Sisters music.  Since I spent a lot of time at their house as a child, I know many of those old songs by heart.  One of them, sung with Bing Crosby, is called “Accentuate the Positive.”  I’m sure many of you have heard the chorus: “You’ve got to Accentuate the Positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”  It’s a good anthem for the power of positive thinking.  And in many cases, it’s good advice.  But it also has a downside: you can’t always eliminate the negative, and when you can’t, too many people try to ignore it.  We try to shove the unpleasant parts of life under the rug, so they don’t bother us.  We try to bury the ways in which our pleasures—the things that we want, the things that seem good—are connected to injustice or selfishness or other sins.  But you can’t ignore the negative forever.

The positive is fun—people usually don’t need any extra encouragement to go to a party, for example.  Facing up to unpleasant realities is a whole different kettle of fish.  It’s a lot harder, and in the short run at least, less pleasant.  How many people around the world and in our own congregation went to Mardi Gras parties last night, who didn’t come to Ash Wednesday services today? Who can blame people for preferring pancakes, sausages, and doughnuts to ashes, and the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?

And yet, the truth is that we were created out of the dust of the earth, and to that dust we will all return some day.  We were sinners from our mothers womb, and we cannot free ourselves from the sin and evil and brokenness which holds us captive.  A lot of the time, we can’t even see the bonds that hold us and keep us from reaching our full potential as God’s beloved children.  Sometimes, we can’t see them because we don’t want to—all we want to see is the good stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff we like.  We don’t want to admit that the things and activities we like may not always be good for us, for our fellow humans, or for the world God has entrusted to us.  But the problem is, until we are willing to see that we are held captive by sin and brokenness, we can never be free of them.

We come here on Ash Wednesday, knowing that no matter how hard we try to follow God’s commands, we fall short.  We come here knowing that there is nothing we can do to free ourselves from sin.  And yet we also come here knowing that God loves us, that our savior Jesus Christ came into this world to set us free from the chains that bind us.  We return to the Lord our God, knowing that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, knowing that if we turn to him and acknowledge our brokenness, he will create clean hearts in us, and put his Spirit within us.

Yes, we are sinners, and we will inevitably return to the dust.  And yet, our God is with us, and our God calls us back to him, to redeem us and set us free.  It is only through Jesus Christ that we may be washed from our sins, renewed and set free to be truly ourselves, healed and whole.  In Christ, we are reconciled to God, and that grace gives us a peace and joy that goes beyond any human understanding.  Instead of burying our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is fine, we are given the strength and support we need to face reality, sure in the knowledge that we are loved and redeemed, and that our sin and brokenness don’t have the final word.  Through Christ, we are given the freedom and power to work for God’s good creation.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.  But our God is the one who created us out of that dust, who brings healing and renewal to all who come to him.  He loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake.  We are tied to our Lord’s death and resurrection, and the ashes we wear tonight, real though they are, only tell part of the story.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but we are also beloved children of God, in whom we are washed and set free.


Sing to the Lord a New Song: hymns from around the world

Why is music so important to us?  Why is it that the introduction of a new hymn or liturgy can create such a dramatic battle within a church?  One reason is that music speaks to our heart; the songs we grow up singing are the songs that we remember throughout our lives.  Long after a sermon or a scripture reading has been forgotten, we remember melodies and lyrics.  They help us learn and they shape our faith in deep and sometimes unacknowledged ways.  Music for worship should always be carefully chosen.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently produced a new hymnal, “Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” replacing the old Lutheran Book of Worship.  Now, this is a fairly common happening; Lutheran hymnals seem to have a shelf life of between twenty and thirty years, before they need to be updated.  Lyrics are “modernized,” new liturgies written to match new styles of worship, new hymns added and old rarely-used ones removed.  It’s always a controversial process.

In this new book, however, there’s a far greater percentage of what might be called “multi-cultural hymns,” that is, hymns written around the world by a wide variety of Christians.  Hymns from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, hymns written by Native Americans, by African Americans, old Gospel favorites–a far cry from previous hymnbooks, in which only hymns from the Lutheran heartlands (i.e. northern Europe and certain parts of North America) were included.  Now, there are still plenty of those classics in the new book; the editors of the ELW have taken the stance that it’s more important to have everything–a smorgasbord of worship and praise–than it is to have a manageable number of liturgies and hymns.  Each congregation can then pick and choose which hymns and liturgies that suit it.  And from what I’ve seen, churches are mainly sticking to the old favorites they already knew, or ones similar in style and theme to old classics.

So why bother with all the “multicultural” hymns?  Why include them in a hymnal that’s already overstuffed?  The most common answer that I’ve heard is that if we want to be a multicultural church–one that is welcoming of people from different cultural backgrounds–we need to have music that they recognize, that makes them feel welcomed.  But however practical an answer that might be, it misses a deeper theological point: music is a powerful tool for shaping our theology and our relationship with God and our community.  So, theologically, why include those hymns?

It’s important to include those hymns–and to use them!–because God is great, not only greater than we know but greater than we can know.  God is wonderful beyond the limits of our knowledge or imagination.  God is a god of all places and times, not just those which are most familiar to us.  We have seen and experienced how God works in our own lives, and the lives of our forefathers and foremothers; the hymns and songs and liturgies we regularly use reflect that.  But just as God works in Europe and North America, so too God works in Africa and Asia and South America.  Christians in those places have lives that are very different from ours, and see the world differently than we do.  Yet the one God who created all things and all people, who redeems us, who draws us together into one body in Christ, is with them just as he is with us.  And they put their experience of God into their songs and hymns just as we do into ours.

If we only sing the hymns we are familiar with and comfortable with, we limit our understanding and experience of the ways God works in the world.  It becomes easier to forget that God speaks in many languages.

By singing these “multicultural” hymns, by adding them to our rich musical heritage, we become more connected to the Body of Christ around the world.