Using our sanctified imaginations a little might help us move this elusive relationship with God into a more fluid way. So let me suggest a few exercises that I have found to be very helpful in overcoming our “spiritual autism”.
- Locate yourself in God’s story
As we grow closer to God, the difficult thing is knowing where we have come from- not just individually, but also collectively as human beings. The world as it once was is so hard to grasp. It is much like a dream- a wonderful, vivid dream that we do not want to wake from and yet, when we are awake, we lose the dream quickly from our mind’s eye. The cares and speed of the day sweep those visions into the air like a small dust cloud that quickly dissipates in the wind and disappears into the background of the outdoor world. A person with a more fluid relationship with God will work hard at seeing the world that God created and then see the heights of our fall from grace in a broader context. As we locate ourselves in God’s story, we are on the other side of a perfect world, that like our dreams, escapes our minds and imaginations much too quickly! At the same time, we are being drawn towards an ending in which all things come to a climax of restoration, having seen the plot take a sharp turn away from the downward spiral of despair at the cross and the empty tomb.
This is so important because without a metanarrative (the larger story we find ourselves located in), the day-to-day events feel like individual and unrelated moments. They easily break down into a black-and-white evaluation of what happened and why. We experience a difficulty, for instance, and try to figure out if we had it coming, if it was fair or unfair, if there is someone to blame? The event is not seen against the backdrop of any larger story and thus its’ meaning to us is relegated to a static sentence is a chapter-less existence. This is symptomatic of ‘spiritual autism”.
The story of the Bible starts us off “in the beginning” when the relationship with God was unhindered and fluid. It shows us how we ended up where we are currently at and then where we are going. In other words, the beginning of God’s narrative offers us the background for the pages and chapters of our day-to-day moments, encounters and troubles in life. The world as it once was gives a point of comparison and contrast. It allows us to see our moments from the 30,000 foot perspective.
I remember when I was on a mission trip in the mountains of Guatemala and for the first time ever, I saw the Milky Way. It looked like someone had smeared the stars across the black sky! And a friend of mine who had served in the military in the Middle East told me that in the middle of the desert- far from any artificial light- the stars come right down to the bottom of the horizon. Beauty- be it in nature or in the perfection of a newborn baby or in a piece of music that has the markings of genius and soul- these are all glimpses into a world that once was; these are all traces of a world that has disappeared, but not completely.
Yet, from this 30,000 foot vantage point, there are also many pictures of the brokenness as well. The same desert my friend found himself in was due to the Iraq War. We were in Guatemala because we were trying to aid a church in dire poverty. And beautiful newborns can still grow up to be quite rebellious. All of this points us towards the upcoming chapters and where the plot will turn next.
Relating to God starts with finding your location in the story He is telling. The relationship, like any other relationship, starts with context. Otherwise, it is simply a functional relationship like that of a bank teller and a person making a deposit or withdrawal from their checking account. No eye contact required.
- Understand how you are the one disconnecting
Whenever I talk to people about their feeling of disconnect with God, it always seems- whether consciously or unconsciously- that they seem to blame God for the problem of unfamiliarity. Rarely do I meet people who both struggle to know God AND at the same time see themselves as the ones with the problem. But, one of the most important first steps in relating to God is to see yourself in a way that you may have never considered before- that the communication breakdown is on your shoulders, not God’s. There are practices to help us shift perspectives. For Tom, it was an hour with a special needs child and the task of trying to look through God’s eyes to see himself. For others, it might be asking an honest friend how often you miss things being said to you or how frequently you seem to tune out in the middle of a conversation. If we do this with others, we surely do it with God!
- Don’t confuse activity with connection
Culturally speaking, we are so into “doing” that we struggle with “being”. We are notorious for checklists and events and noise and busyness. Dallas Willard wrote about the potential terrors of ceasing the busyness and just listening when he wrote,
“Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God. And in that quiet, what if there turns out to be very little to ‘just us and God’?”
Connection comes from multiple sources- through service, through Bible study, through the Spirit’s healing power- but to practice the presence of God, to slow down and listen, well…I have rarely had anyone walk away from an extended time of silence and solitude and say to me, “What a colossal waste of my time!” One of the biggest red flags of spiritual autism is the inability to be still, to quiet oneself, to set aside the compulsive need to occupy all space with an activity or with sound. The din of such frenzied activity actually drowns out the possibility of connecting with God. It exchanges fluidity with God to a static system.
More aware than we might realize
I think that there is another line of reasoning that we typically get backwards. Not only do I think we tend to see our disconnect as rooted in God instead of in ourselves, but I also think we have it backwards in terms of who is pursuing who. Some of the suggestions above might convey the idea that we are the ones pursuing God. In fact, it is just the opposite. Over and over again, the biblical storyline pictures humans as straying sheep that the Shepherd must go after…or we are lost coins or prodigal sons. God is the one pursuing us. That is the point in God’s story of Jesus’ arrival to this planet- to pursue us as one of us; to encounter us in our isolated, spiritually-autistic routines and confusion and sin. Yet, there is a response to this pursuit. Soon, if we are engaged with God, we realize that He is the one coming towards us, re-connecting the lines of communication and we respond by moving towards Him…and discovering new levels of fluidity, new levels of awareness.
Like I warned Tom, Micah is much more aware of what is going on around him than he lets on. But, a lot of that is from me and my wife pursuing Micah. It is us who began initiating tickle time after school- 30+ minutes of going upstairs, away from the distractions and just playing and tickling. And now, as Micah has seen the value of this time, it is him who grabs one of us by the hand asking for “tickles” or “upstairs” or “Mike Tysons”. The time we have spent with Micah has caught his attention and now he responsively pursues us for more connection. But, the connection has also enhanced the fluidity and even now, in all of the severity of Micah’s autism, he has begun to break out of his static systems…most recently through telling a joke.
A “joke” may be a slight exaggeration. How about using humor in his interaction with me? So there we were, in his room. It was after school tickle-time. He asked for interaction- “I would tickles please, I would like tickles please” and I tickled him, and then waited. “I would like tickles please, I would like tickles please.” More tickling, more waiting for the next request. Suddenly, Micah sat up, looked me in the eye and got this enormous grin on his face. “I love you…MOMMY!” “Mommy?!”, I said as he began to giggle. “Do I look like Mommy to you?” “YES!!”, he shouted followed by a long, gut-splitting belly laugh. And as we laughed, I saw the functional, choreographed, static system briefly dissipate. I saw trajectory- from a world of fluid connection that fell into chaos that substituted routines for real relationship to the end for which God intends it. I saw myself with God in the brief moments when He breaks through my own autistic, chapter-less existence and into His grand redemption story. There is no equation for this. There is God pursuing us through Jesus of Nazareth and us beginning to make eye contact again.
 Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of the Disciplines- Understanding How God Changes Lives, pub. by HarperCollins, 1988, p. 163
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!