Friday, July 27, 2012

Aspie Faith and Ministry

The following is in response to some friends and cohorts asking for my reaction to: Church Stories: Embracing Faith as an Aspie (by Erin Thomas) as found on Rachel Held Evans' blog.

When I awoke this morning I had a plan:

  1. Get up
  2. Get ready
  3. Go see Wife and Mother in Law downstairs
  4. Check email and social media
  5. Test and take medicine (diabetic)
  6. Get to work on polishing my sermon for Sunday

I have Aspergers' syndrome, I like my plans.  I need them to keep my stress level in check some days. But this morning, like many mornings, things didn't go as planned.  As soon as I got downstairs and on my computer there were a number of people asking what I thought about this blog.  Suddenly the TV was loud, my clothes were uncomfortable (tags, I hate them sometimes) and my focus was shot.  I was off of the plan, but because I was asked for an opinion, I needed to respond. So here we go:

A little background into my own experience as an Aspie in the church.  I was in some ways lucky, I was introduced to the faith at 4 at a random baptist VBS that I went to for just one night.  I heard the closing speaker talk about having a real friend in Jesus and that's what got me.  I'm an extrovert, an EXTREME extrovert who is always seeking interactions with others, of course as an Aspie, I don't adhere to social norms well at all and take everything too too literally, so friends are not something I make at all easily.  But the idea of a friend who would never leave you hooked me.  They then dunked me and gave me a bible, telling me it was all about Jesus and this relationship.  I went home and read the whole thing over the next few days. The bible is gibberish to a 4 yr old, but I did scribble down lots of questions to ask.

I got into church after that, I needed some place where people could answer my questions.  Many Aspies tend to have obsessions, things they get stuck on and love to talk about.  I certainly do.  I love theology, quantum physics and human communication theory.  My desire to make the bible make sense is key to my faith because of this.  It should be noted that I was not diagnosed until I was an adult, I didn't know for much of my childhood what I was doing was weird, or that you weren't supposed to question certain things.  I was obsessed with making the Bible and later this whole Christianity thing make sense. This continues today, even as I am now out of Seminary and in the ministry.

Back to the blog response.

Point 1: STOP SCARING KIDS! I have a number of kids in my church on the spectrum (Autistic, Aspie, etc.), one of whom asked me "how does the devil get you?" I remember thinking about that sort of thing due to pop and Christian culture. This child thought the devil was going to grab him and pull him underground to hell when he had done too many bad things.  This sort of cheap theology is junk, and does nothing more than what Erin says in her post. It leads to people who cannot get around fear and worry and that can continue an entire lifetime.  Every time we tell a kid something, some are going to believe it completely as the one and only truth, which leads to

Point 2: The church needs to leave space for people to think and form their own viewpoints, not give a set of rules and standards.  One of my earliest struggles was between a God who is Love and a God who punishes.  I didn't get it.  I played so much by the rules that told to stay somewhere when my parents had to rush to the hospital, our neighbors had to cover me in blankets for the night because I wouldn't go in with them. "Mom told me to stay here." So the punishment never scared me as such, I just did it because I was told to.  But I didn't GET punishment, and couldn't picture a God who wanted to create also wanting to destroy.  Even those of us who tend to preach and teach a fully God is Love gospel often define what that love is to look like in no uncertain terms "Boycott this, listen to them, fight against that teaching."  For those of us who are extremely logical and for many others this is nonsensical.  We have got to work on helping people be faithful to the things they feel called to and not making so many universal statements on contextual things.

Point 3: STOP THE GAME!  This is a hard one, but win-lose Christianity is bull, and we need to get away from it.  We don't know what happens after this world, and the world here has enough games of its own without us adding one about heaven and hell on top of it all.  Yes, there is some peace in knowing of a loving God beyond death, but we are called to act here justly and to change the rules of the world's games.  To add the salvation game on top of things not only leads most Aspies to worry and stress, but I see it happening in so many NTs as well.

Point 4: The relational aspect of Christianity needs to be addressed better.  My obsession with Human Communication Theory and my extroversion  make this a hard one for me.  Relational Christianity is an issue for Aspies, myself included.  Most also are introverts, and as Erin says playing the social extroverts game and forcing ourselves to meet those social norms will basically make us all want to go hide and recover.  In some ways it's even harder as an Aspie Extrovert, I NEED that interaction and connection, but pretty much fail to find it because I'm so socially uncomfortable, and even when I start getting close, I may just melt down from the exhaustion of trying to meet social norms.  Yes, I do believe that we are relational creatures, but there is in the church a power imbalance that favors extroverts and NTs and that needs to be changed.  We need to look at ways to connect to the entire spectrum of humanity and do more to bring balance to our faith.

Point 5: We need to do more to help people understand that we're all different and that's okay.  Not only is it okay, it needs to be EMBRACED by the church.  It's not enough to say "Sammy is autistic so it's okay that he doesn't sit through the service."  But we need to find better ways to embrace our differences and do more  to allow all to be fully part of church and a shared faith.  I'm not going to remember your name, but I can probably engage with you on certain topics very well. That is okay and encouraged.  I think by turning Christianity into a social extrovert's game we've actually done a real disservice to what it means to be in relationship.  I am very capable of sharing your burden, very capable of emphasizing with you,  very capable of walking with you, allow me to do that.  How we form relationships is not one size fits all, and that is good.

Point 6: Not just for Aspies, but for most all, we need to realize that some parts of church are actually hurtful.   To ask one to be social, vulnerable, connected, loved, touched, joyful, open, and other things means potentially asking someone to not just be uncomfortable and pushed to grow, but often to open up hurts to a point where love and trust fail.  We are quick to judge.  I have worked hard to make eye contact, but it is exhausting, but because I can I'm judged as "not acting like an Aspie".  I have a youth who if they haven't found comfort in EXACTLY what's going to happen at an event will only be found under a blanket in a ball in her car.  Her mom told me once that if she did it again she'd be punished, I responded that we needed to get better about meeting her needs because it seemed if she was punished enough by being asked to come.  This needs to change.  We need to adjust and meet people, not expect others to go where it hurts.

Point 7: We need to change soon.  Too many people are hurt by the church, not because we intentionally do things to harm them, but because we are busy playing our games and think everyone should play along.  We miss how what we do can create anxiety, confusion, depression, fear, and guilt.  We need to hear the voices of those who can see where teachings have gone haywire, those like Erin who stay with the faith even when so much of it seems like it was crazy.  God did not create any of us to be distanced from God.  I found a friend in God because of my Aspie-ness, it was the logic that brought me to a loving God, one who called us to be faithful in our attempts at acting in this world.  Reading Erin, I realize how easy it would have been to have needed to find this in spite of my Aspie-ness.  That's scary my friends, we're pushing away more and more people by playing these games.  We need to change, we need to hear these voices, we need to stop the games that look a lot like those the world plays, and create something new that looks completely different where all of our complexities are truly welcome, and not just (at best) "understood".  That's our call, let's stop playing around.

Thank you Erin for sharing your journey and thoughts.  Her blog is The Underground Railroad.

Now off to test and take my meds. :)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Call the Question

I put a motion to vote
But debate keeps hitting 1 note
So here with the paddle I tote
To put an end to your say

I'd trade some money for time
So tired I'm speaking in rhyme
I think that to be kind
I'll do this anyway

Your just repeating, and your debate is boring
Oh is my paddle showing?
What are you doing, lady?

Hey, I just got here
Mic time at the session
I've just got to say
Can we call the question? 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Frisbee and Faith

Tonight while playing Ultimate Frisbee there was a moment that reminded me a lot of what I've seen going on through social media with my the PCUSA.  In this blog I want to present a series of quotes (as I best remember them) that I heard there and how I've seen them at play in my denomination recently.

First some background: I've played with the same basic group of people for the last 5 years.  Some members have come and we've added some new ones but there has always been a core group that had come together just to have fun and play.  We've had a few come in with different views of what "fun" was but they tended to come and go fairly quickly.  Recently the always open invite has brought a large group of diverse points of views, and tonight the core group was certainly a minority.  A number of college and club players were there as well as others who "want" to fit into that world. 

So that is where we start.  And it doesn't take long for tensions to increase and interactions such as the following to begin. (all expletives are adjusted out)

"You can take it out and bring it back in"
"Sorry, that's not how we play here"

"Cut IN, Why won't you cut?"
"Because that's a normal throw to make."
"Not if you're REALLY playing"
"Well that's how we play"

"What's that?"

These types of interactions I find common in the PCUSA.  It's like we're speaking two different languages and the longer we don't feel like others are getting what we're trying to say, the more agitated we get. 

Finally after some comment that I did not hear one of the core group (we'll call him Kurt) started picking up the cones (his) and running off.  The rest of the core group also slowly faded to the sidelines.  As Kurt ran away from the field he yelled "Who do they think they are, they came to play in OUR game!"  One of the other players yelled back "We're just trying to play the right way."  At that point the rest of the core group outside of me left as well (mostly just uncomfortable with what happened). 

I again see this time and again in PCUSA.  Take our toys and go home? Sure.  Tell people that they need to get with the "right" way to do things or to think?  Sure.  Yell it back and forth because both sides have decided to hold their ground at all costs? For Sure! 

As they left, a series of questions and comments came my way as we made use of waterbottles and hats as cones. 
"You've played with them the longest, what was that about?"
"Let them go, let's just play"
"Seriously, are they always like that?"
"I've never seen them that way, what's going on?"
"That was uncalled for"

I wasn't sure what to say.  No one really wanted the answer it didn't seem ("You've taken what they saw as fun and made it something they don't recognize without really including them in the changes."  "Why they are here doesn't mix with this well without first feeling like you respect who they see themselves as")

Yet, so often I feel like that's what I'm called to try to explain within my church and denomination.  Why does one side not see the world the way another side does on an issue or as we tend to camp together with like thoughts as a general worldview. 

Both sides didn't want to dialogue, they didn't want to work together, they wanted what they wanted and wanted it now because they both felt like they had the "right" answer and the "right" to dictate how things should be.  They wanted to poke holes in what the other side wanted and prove to them why they should change.  They didn't want to hear a different viewpoint and then find a way to move forward and find what would be what things "should" be for the good of all.  Yes, the good of all may have ended the same way, but really there was no desire to do so. 

So often this is exactly what I hear.  I work with a conservative Head of Staff who really wants to dialogue but gets defensive because he's been attacked so often.  I tweet regularly with people who consider themselves progressive and liberal who likewise take up defensive stances from the attacks they've suffered.  I can't blame either side for being defensive honestly from a cultural point of view, but I feel we're called to be counter cultural as the church.  So how do we begin to actually dialogue, discern, and live faithfully together into whatever the future will bring?  We're far from it, our current GA thus far seems to be pointing to a culture much like our Frisbee game.  Some are tired of fighting, some are very much standing their ground, some are stuck and unwilling or more likely unable to help anyone move forward.  Regardless of what you want for the church, we need to move against the culture of "us" vs "them" and show another way to struggle with things that are divisive and with worldviews that just do not match up. 

In Acts 10, Peter sees a vision of a sheet and it is filled with things that he correctly labels as unclean, yet God gives him a new way to interpret what he sees.  It is not a simple revelation, it is one we see many struggle with over time: "Do Not Call Common (Unclean) What God Has Purified."  I believe we all have sheets, some of them include people we disagree with, some include actions we find unforgivable, some include things we don't understand in others lives, but we all have a sheet.  We need to realize that God has created all of us in God's image and God is always working towards unknown ends.  That will always leave us with a certain uncertainty, and it is that uncertainty that we need to focus on.  We don't have the answers, we're just asked to struggle together towards that distant, hazy goal that is beyond all the stuff that we have to get through to get there.  Let us focus on struggling together, realizing we don't KNOW anything about what is going to happen or how it is going to happen and live at peace with the uncertainty of "What's Next" or even "What Now."  If we are able to do that we may have a chance to do discernment together and be something more than people fighting over how to play a game.