February 20

Enter Autism

I’ve posted in the past (here and here) about my struggles with mental health. During my adult life, I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar, and psychotic episodes. All of these conditions “required” medication, which in every case made the problem worse. (Not to mention ten years of self-medication with alcohol, cocaine, and opiates, which nearly killed me.)

A year ago, our toddler (then 18 months old) was diagnosed with autism. It was too early then to assign a severity; he’s now been diagnosed Level 2 & 3– pretty severe. At the time, neither my wife nor I knew anything about autism.

My wife is quite the researcher, so she went to work. She would come back with these “revelations.”

Her: “Did you know that people with autism often can’t see faces?”

Me: “Wait, I can’t see faces.”

Her: “No, I mean they can’t read nonverbal cues, like even body language.”

Me: “Yeah, I can’t read body language.”

Her: “Did you know that people with autism often see the world in patterns or pictures?”

Me: “Um, that’s not normal?”

The more she learned the more I realized that there was something going on with me that I had never realized. In fact, I have most of the symptoms of autism (though some of them I’ve learned to manage fairly well).

For example, I’m face-blind. I recognize people by their voices, shapes, contexts, and hairstyles. I don’t read nonverbal cues. I have trouble identifying and expressing my emotions. I don’t read emotions well in others. I’m extremely sensitive to audio and visual chaos. (My wife says that what I call “chaos,” most people call normal sensory input.) I struggle with being aware of social appropriateness– I have a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and have no idea why it’s inappropriate. I tend to understand verbal expressions literally. (“Look at my face!” “OK, I did.”) I have no idea how to navigate a conversation with more than one person at a time.

It’s better now than it was when I was a child. I’ve learned to compensate in basic social situations. Still, when I read the DSM-V description of communications difficulties, I felt like they were writing about me:

A.      Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

1.       Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

2.       Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

3.       Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

I remember, when I was in elementary school, planning out conversations before I approached someone. I would think, “I’ll say this, and they’ll say that, and I’ll respond like this…” and so forth. I could never understand why conversations went off the rails or what to do about it. And I couldn’t understand why, in the middle of a softball game, the other kids didn’t want to hear about dinosaurs or math.

And yes, I do have repetitive behaviors, but they’re subtle. I didn’t even realize I was doing them until I learned what “stimming” was. I fidget with my fingers, play computer solitaire, and pace.

My mind sees the world in processes, so I strive to understand why something is true. That makes it difficult for me to learn disconnected facts, like vocabulary or names, but easy to learn grammar and dates. If I can fit it into a “system,” I can learn it. Abstract ideas tend to make my head hurt.

I often look at a situation and see patterns that are not obvious to other people. The most obvious example of this was my response to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It was the most written-abut war since World War II, and yet no one ever seemed to ask what made it tick. To me, that was the obvious question. I spent a year studying, interviewing, and analyzing, and came up with a paradigm that explained the political relationships that drove the war. This became the basis for the Peace Initiative that started in 1999, and eventually led to a Cease Fire Agreement in 2002 that lasted for six years.

I think this helps me be a good writer. I “see” the story that I’m writing before I begin. I may not have all the pieces yet, but I know where it needs to go. And I can see how the plot elements contribute to the whole (and what’s missing).

As I’m learning, autism offers challenges that have greatly affected my life. My adolescence was an extremely painful experience of isolation and feeling different from everyone else.

But it also offers some unusual benefits. I see the world differently than most other people, and that means I have something unique to offer.

February 19

Behold a Pale Horse: A Vision

I had planned to write a different blog post today. But I had this vision while at church this morning, and it seemed appropriate to change direction.

Behold a pale horse, and on it a black rider, and he came down from between the hills into the valley wielding a sword of fire.

(I had seen this once before, clearly echoing Revelation 6:8, about two months ago. It’s the first time a vision has repeated itself. But this time it continued.)

And there we were, our homes built on stone foundations, but they were made of wood and they could not withstand him. Our locks were of no value, nor were our fences. And all our weapons failed us, for there was only one weapon that could be used against him. That was the Sword of Righteousness, which is the tongue of Jesus. But who can wield it? For it feels strange in your hand. Would that, knowing this day would come, you had taken up that sword and made it your own! For the day is come, and what is not done will remain undone.

This I have revealed to you that you may do what must be done before the time is ended. For can you build a house by thinking about a hammer, or by showing it off to your friends and family? No, you must swing that hammer until it becomes part of your arm, your body, and your heart.

It is just so with the Word. Begin now, before that day comes, that you may be ready.

Until now, my visions have suggested a cyclical event (See the cycle of Judges, for example: “Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… and they abandoned the Lord…” Judges 2:11-12, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1 and so forth, after which the Israelites are first punished and then restored.) My previous visions suggest that we have strayed from the ways of the Lord, and we will be disciplined until we return to his ways.

This vision uses the term, “that day.” Does it refer to a final, eschatological event? Or is it the day on which our discipline comes? I’m not sure. In the context of my previous visions, I tend to think it’s the latter, but I could be wrong.

However, the message remains true to my previous visions, especially the one which assured that “Those who dwell in the Kingdom will not be harmed.” It seems obvious to me that to “dwell in the Kingdom” and to live out the Word “until it becomes part of… your heart” are one and the same command.

For those who may be reassured because they profess that Jesus is Lord, let me say that it seems clear to me that God is demanding more than lip service. To “dwell in the Kingdom” or to use the Word as a tool and way of life demands an outward expression of the Holy Spirit that is obviously lacking, else I wouldn’t be getting these visions. And I would add that personally I am not reassured. My outward expression is perhaps more than some, surely less than others, and I am not convinced it represents evidence of the radical change of heart God wants.

As I’ve written before, the existence of a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Luke 22:20, Hebrews 8:6-13) insists on a relationship in which both parties have responsibilities. We haven’t yet lived up to our part, and God is getting impatient.

February 12

God’s Call

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

God is calling us. And he’s getting impatient.

But what exactly does God want us to do?

The answer is simpler than we can imagine. And it is, for many of us, more difficult than we can imagine.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that God wants us to inscribe his law on our hearts. But how exactly do we do that? Is it a decision we make? Is it a specific action? Do we need a tattoo parlor?

Surely it is a decision, but it’s a decision that begins somewhere else. After all, we are saved by grace. But how do we open our hearts to that grace? And how do we know if we have it?

The second question is easily answered: We know we have received God’s grace when his law is written on our hearts. As James says so poignantly (though often misconstrued),

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith [alone] save you?… Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith… Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? (James 2:14, 18, 20)

We know we have received God’s grace when our faith drives us to act accordingly.

And here’s the rub: it’s easy to say we have faith. It’s easy to say we believe. But are we willing yet to follow Jesus as a disciple? Are we ready to “do the works that I do and, in fact, do greater works than these”? (John 14:12) Are we truly ready to follow him?

I look at my life, and I have to admit that I am not yet ready. But I’m getting there.

How do we ask for the grace to follow Jesus? It’s in small, simple actions that are nevertheless difficult– and, in our culture, almost unthinkable:

  1. Admit that we are sinners. For me, that’s obvious. For years, I carried the weight of sins I thought were unforgivable. I eventually learned that God would and did forgive them. But I still commit less grievous sins every day. I fall short of what God asks of me. If I don’t admit it, I can’t get any closer to God, because I’m not acknowledging my need for grace.
  2. Confess our sins to God and to one another. We admit that we are sinners, yet somehow we like to deny that we sin– at least when we’re talking to other people. Yet confessing our sins not only frees us from our sin, it shows us that every one of us falls short, reminding us not to judge each other.
  3. Repent. Renounce those sins that we continually commit. Make them right wherever possible. Yes, there are some stubborn ones that I am not yet rid of (and may never be rid of), but repentance has freed me from many of my more troubling frequent sins, like losing my temper, refusing to forgive others, and refusing to forgive myself.
  4. Forgive. This doesn’t mean forgive and forget. As someone once wisely observed, “No one forgets where they buried the hatchet.” No, it means adopting a lifestyle in which we recognize God as sovereign, and every human being (including ourselves) as both made in his image and living in a fallen world. Every one of us has the potential to do evil. Every one of us is offered the opportunity to repent by God. And the Gospel tells us we, too, are to accept a person’s repentance (Matthew 6:14-15, Luke 17:3-4). This doesn’t come easily. When someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back. But that’s falling short of God’s desire for me. It is sin. But as I live into this way of forgiveness, I find that it happens less often. Not only do I have less desire for revenge, but I find that the harms I receive are not so grievous as I once thought.
  5. Pray and worship often. Speaking for myself, it’s easy for me to forget about God. Regular prayer and worship reminds me, and also challenges me to think more broadly than what God can do for me. Which leads to the last point:
  6. Serve. If Jesus is my Lord, the only question I can have is: What can I do for him? Am I ready to become part of a community of Christ founded on “proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and proclaim the forgiveness of debts”? (Luke 4:18, paraphrased)

But isn’t this what Christians already do?

Surely it’s what we are supposed to do. Yet the evidence suggests that we don’t do it as fully as we are asked to. Our lives do not yet reflect the teachings of Jesus. If you’re like me, even a casual self-examination will reveal that our lives fall at least a little short of this call.

 

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