Pastor, Old Testament scholar, husband and father David Lynden presents the second segment in his blog series examining Spiritual Autism. Click here to read the first installment in the series.
I have a friend named Tom, who I have been investing in as a spiritual mentor. Tom is a very enthusiastic, very driven person who started off his journey as a Christian with an amazing zeal. Along the way, Tom began to be involved in more and more activities at the church until he began to feel a certain level of spiritual fatigue. The feeling of disconnect with God was also still evident, which confused Tom since it seemed logical that if one reads their Bible more and comes to more and more church activities, the connection should begin to grow, right? And yet, it had not.
“Man! I just feel like I am spiritually tired and God still seems so distant. What do I do?,” he said.
Having gotten to know Tom and his git-‘er-done, gung-ho spirit, I wondered if he had substituted events for relationship; if he had assumed that there was a simple equation like- Bible study + small group + ministry involvement = closer connection to God. It certainly seemed like a static system of fixed movements. So I gave him an assignment involving our son with autism.
“OK Tom, here is what I want you to do. If you are coming to church this Sunday, I want you to spend one of the hours watching Micah. And as you interact with him, I want you to think of yourself as God and Micah as you. In other words, use this little moment to see yourself through God’s eyes and tell me what you learn about yourself and your relationship with God.”
Tom, who is both very willing and very teachable, ran with it. I saw him that Sunday morning near the end of second service. The sweat was beading on his forehead. He was smiling, but clearly exhausted. Micah was twirling about the atrium while Tom was catching a breather. The service was ending with a time of dedication prayer for our graduating High School Seniors. Micah, who had lulled Tom into a false sense of security (one of his best tricks), saw his chance and made a break for it, running into the Worship Center while everyone prayed, with his eye on the drum set at the back of the platform. Tom’s eyes widened and he launched himself after Micah before he disrupted the service. Thankfully, my wife headed Micah off at the pass. Later that week, we debriefed. I asked Tom if he knew why I had given him that assignment.
“I think so. When I picked him up at the door, I reminded myself that I was to look at this as though I were God and Micah was me…and a lot of stuff makes so much more sense now.”
“How so?,” I asked as Tom leaned in, ready to share his thoughts.
“Well, Micah is a really sweet kid. He was really giggly and wanted to be tickled all of the time. By the way, what is a ‘Mike Tyson?’ He kept asking for that.”
“Oh, a ‘Mike Tyson’ is when I nibble on his ear.”, I responded.
Tom got a laugh out of that little inside joke and then continued-
“You know, I really wanted to connect with him, but he couldn’t seem to move beyond the basics. He had his own agenda. When we went to the playground outside, he used me as a human ladder to climb to the monkey bars. And then he would use me to get back down again. I wanted to talk, but he just didn’t seem to understand my words. And he was all over the place. He couldn’t sit still for one thing long enough to enjoy it or connect with me. He was off for another thing to get into. It was like he could play around me, but not play with me.”
“And how did you see you and God?”, I asked.
“I get it. That’s me with God. I cannot seem to slow down long enough to find God’s desire to connect with me in all the events of life. I kind of use God the way Micah was using me- like a vending machine or something to get what I want. Relating to him felt kind of mechanical. It wasn’t fluid. I could totally see myself in this exercise.”
That is where we start with this mysterious “relationship with God” that so many people refer to, but so few can clearly define- with a little perspective, with a little self-awareness. The story of the Bible starts out at two places- the goodness of creation and the utter disruption of rebellion. I wanted Tom to live a little bit in the world of brokenness, not as Tom, but as God working with the broken creation. It is a great exercise to glimpse things from God’s viewpoint. And one of the things I wanted Tom to see was how static, rather than fluid, our relationship with God really is. In my own reflections, autism really brings my disconnect with God into HD-level clarity.
Let me stop at this point and explain what I mean by “static” and “fluid” relationships. We are so used to looking at another person face-to-face while we talk that we take it for granted how complex communication really is. It is one of the relational features of what Dr. Steven Gutstein calls a “fluid communication system”. Gutstein, a clinical psychologist and autism researcher, explains the difference between relationships for people with and without autism in terms of “static systems” and “fluid systems” of communication.
Every time two or more people interact they create a temporary communication system. A “fluid system” is one in which there is a free-flow of communication; not just through words, but through body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, volume, etc… A fluid communication system is when you and a friend sit down “face-to-face” at a Starbucks to have some coffee and shoot the breeze. The conversation moves about without any pre-planned course. The topics change depending on the mood, the interest, the un-choreographed “dance” of the relationship.
A “static system” is just the opposite. It is outcome-oriented. There are very clear boundaries; the movements of the relationship are very predictable, very staged. Standing in line at the bank is a “static system”. You walk into the bank, stand at the back of the line, stay within the roped off aisles. When it is your turn, you step to the next available teller, who says to you, “How are you today?” and you reply, while turning in the bank slip, “I’m fine. How are you?” After the teller completes the task, you get a copy of the transaction statement, you say “thank you” and “have a nice day”, and you step off to the side and go back to your car. And no one would think it strange that you and the teller never made direct eye contact. It is unnecessary because the relationship is “static”; it is based purely on function.
A person with autism, while often able to learn static systems, struggles to function in a fluid system. Micah can verbally ask for a cookie or juice, but he cannot share an experience with me. Nor does he seem to understand when I say, “I love you.” In short, our relationship is imprisoned in the routine, in the choreographed.
And that is the analogy I used to help Tom face his checklist spirituality, his “static relationship with God.” Tom, like many of us, often relate to God through a series of activities. We read our Bibles. We pray. We show up on Sunday morning and maybe put some money in the plate. Perhaps we are even involved in some ministries. And yet, like Tom, many of us also feel like this is an “on-paper” relationship with God. We could walk through the whole routine and never make “eye contact”, so to speak, with God. It feels more like an equation than it does a give-and-take fluid system of communication. It can feel choreographed, routine, static and…well, empty.
 Gutstein, Steven E., Autism, Aspergers: Solving the relationship puzzle, pub. by Future Horizons Inc., 2000, pp. 33-35
 Lynden, David J., “Overcoming Spiritual Autism”, Discipleship Journal- Issue 168, March/April 2008, p. 66
Emily Colson will be joining us on Monday, April 7th at Key TV for the next installment of our Inclusion Fusion Disability Ministry Web Symposium. In A Conversation With Emily, she shares from her heart regarding her family’s experience of church while raising her son (Max) who has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Emily’s interview captures the incredible ways in which God blesses congregations that pursue families impacted by disability…families without which the church is incomplete. The video interview with Emily will be available every hour on the hour. Emily will be available to chat live at the Inclusion Fusion site from 12:15 PM to 1:30 PM Eastern and from 9:00 PM to 10:15 Eastern. Join us for a remarkable discussion on Monday with Emily and invite your friends!