Doubled by Wonder

Really, it was a small thing. Just a silly text message.

My son Jack, who has autism, is a child of routines. He wants to know what’s happening so he can know what’s happening next. Over the past month or so, he has added something to his Sunday routine. He’s started watching football games with me.

I’ve told the story many times of Jack’s birth and my expectations: how Sara went into labor right in the middle of the Super Bowl XL in 2006, and how I took it as an omen about our life together; how I thought he would share in my passions for sports, books, and deep discussions over strong coffee; and how those cliché fantasies imploded when Jack’s regression hit. Autism required me to re-calibrate all my visions of fatherhood. I eventually came to accept the fact that life with Jack would not include all the staples of my own family culture, but it took years to get there.

Then, on Sunday, I got a text from my daughter who had already come home from church with her brothers. “Jack’s asking for football,” she said.

Truly, it was a small thing.

But something else happened last weekend. Uncle George came to town for Thanksgiving, and he had big things to share.

I’ve told a little of George’s story before, too: how we had worked together for years with him and his precious wife Karen; how Karen beat cancer twice, but couldn’t beat it a third time. How we mourned with him, and drew closer.

Before Karen’s premature death (she was just thirty-three), the two of them had been traveling the country, planning and raising funds to start an AIDS orphanage in George’s homeland of Papua New Guinea. HIV had been ravaging his nation for years, and they wanted to do something about it. The two of them decided they would go together. It was a bold dream.

Then came the wheelchair, the seizure, the blurry days in intensive care, and she was gone.

It’s been eight years.

You would expect that the old dream must have lain dormant without Karen helping to carry it. And maybe it did for a time. But not for long.

On Sunday, the same morning I got the text message from my daughter, I watched my old friend George standing before hundreds of people, telling the tale of his young and growing ministry. It is happening. He is doing it. He told our congregation about the tragedies in Papua New Guinea–of families turning out their HIV positive daughters, and of scared teenage mothers selling their newborn children on the hospital steps. And he told us about the hope he’s planting right in the middle of the mess–of children rescued and mothers finding warm hands to care for them.

Here was the best part, though. While George talked, his new wife Crystal sat beside him. Their adopted baby–himself a child of an HIV positive birth mother–was laughing in her arms, and Karen’s own diamond sparkled boldly from her wedding ring. Theirs is a staggeringly beautiful tale. Both of them know they are living a redemption story. It’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Not only was love and joy reborn in George’s heart, his dream, too, came back from the ashes.

As I watched my two friends on stage, I wondered whether any of our young, untested dreams are good for anything until they are first ruined. All of us have visions when we are young. We think we’ll sail with dragons and live in castles and save the world through our heroism. Then the harsh winter comes. The dark night steps on our souls, and we realize we’re not as strong as we expected to be.

And as devastating as that can be, I’ve also found hope in such breakings.

For it is right there, in the aftermath of a shattered vision, that God meets us again. There, we find the shards of stubbornness to accomplish real good in the world. When the flame is on the verge of burning itself out, we often find the enduring embers of faithfulness. Young dreams come and go, but the dream of one who hoped, then lost, then hoped again? There is power in that one. Not only is his resolve like steal, but his dream itself is better than it used to be.

Big redemption stories like George’s inspire me, even in the midst of my tiny, insignificant one.

When I came home on Sunday, I did what my son asked. I turned on the football game and stretched out on the couch. Then, Jack grabbed his blanket and curled up next to me. We stayed like that for hours. I sighed in gratitude.

G.K. Chesterton defined gratitude as “happiness doubled by wonder.” That’s what I feel this week. Doubled by wonders great and small. Bowled over by the generosity of heaven.

I have no idea if Jack understands sports, or if we will ever discuss the works of C.S. Lewis together. He doesn’t say anything when he watches football with me. He won’t cheer or boo, or comment on how great Tony Romo is in the booth. I used to think I wanted those things most of all, but that was the old, untested vision. That was before the breaking.

And maybe it’s all hindsight now, but I think this is what I was really dreaming for all along: to be next to my son; to pull him close and share the warm and sprawling stillness of family.


To find out more about George & Crystal’s ministry, watch this video, and visit iCare4U’s website.

(Special thanks to Tami Jenkins of Hot Flash Photography, as well as my kids Sam and Emily for the pics.)

When the Bad News Slimes Us

I had to close my laptop this morning. I couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. Man cannot live on bad news alone, after all. We can’t survive on a steady diet of devastating exposés.

But how can we avoid them? Our lives are full of open windows. National tragedies, investigative reports, and so many allegations. So many unsettling stories… these things have a way of finding us. They tumble into our living spaces, these torrents of tragedy, and they drag with them an endless stream of simmering hot takes. And at the end of the infinite scroll, all of us feel slimed.

And I know, it is probably good for us to be disturbed once in a while. Truth has to shine, after all, even if it stings our eyes.The internet, that giant spider web of gossip and cat pictures, does some good in this regard. It can be a victim’s sword to cut from the wolves their sheep’s clothing; a smooth stone for a shepherd’s sling. Some giants must be felled, and felled publicly, for the good of everyone.

The air around dead giants grows toxic quickly, however.

How long can we go on breathing it? At some point, the ache in our hearts becomes too heavy, and we have to step away from it all.

I reached that point this morning, so I closed my windows, and folded up my laptop. Out the door I marched, armed with an Apostle’s ancient urgings to think on better things. Pure things. The lovely. The true, the holy, the honorable and commendable, the excellent and the just. (Phil 4:8)

Such advice sounds antiquated in a world of chronic anxiety and 24-7 news cycles. What good is it to think about rainbows while so many storm clouds hover overhead? Didn’t Paul know about the dangers of denial?

But then, denial is hardly a serious risk nowadays. Is it even possible to miss the depravity of mankind?

If you’re like me, you have the opposite problem. You stew over the bad news, not the good news, because bad news still sells best. Even in the digital world, heat rises. The wicked and reprehensible things climb our timelines and lord over our feeds. Bad news always existed. Now, it seems, it is the only thing that exists.

Except it isn’t. It never was.

So I took a walk this morning. The air was cool. Street puddles shown back the sun like funhouse mirrors on the floor of the world. The ground was littered with the remnants of last month’s ticker-tape parade we call autumn. Whimsical purples and golds, crumpled but still pumpkin-bright, all served to remind me of one thing: joy still happens here.

The trees were the best part. They are mostly bare now, but they live on, stretching their naked branches heavenward. It is nearly winter, but spring will come again.

Sadness and vileness and loss… these are real things. But then, so are laughter and survival and redemption. How many victories do those trees oversee? How much love is shared in the houses I passed? How much laughter is traded? How much beauty is created?

And then I consider my own home. How much joy do my children bring me? How much do I adore my wife? How blessed are we to have friends who so readily embrace us?

We will think about and grapple with many, many issues, but we must meditate on these things. Because in the age of bad news, they are easiest to forget.


Feature photo courtesy of Pixel2013 at Pixabay

When we Can’t Carry them In Anymore

Our church’s special needs classroom used to be a safe haven for my autistic son, Jack. It was a respite for him; a twenty-third Psalm reprieve from the throng of kind, caffeinated congregants hoping to win a “good morning” from him, or at least a hi-five. Not anymore. Six months ago, we moved his beloved “Open Heavens Room” to a larger classroom across the hall. Our boy doesn’t like change, and this change pushed all of his OCD panic buttons. It spooked him.

He refuses to step foot in there now, so he sits with the adults through both the singing and the sermon, eyes glued to a visual timer on his mother’s iPhone.

It’s not a bad trade, in one way. Sara and I would prefer our son to join the congregation and be with his peers, but the arrangement has complicated all of our lives. We work at church, but the whole place makes him antsy now. Someone always has to sit with him through the service in case he tries to bolt without warning, or randomly yells “Syndrome’s remote!” from the Incredibles. Both have happened.

When Jack was little, this kind of thing wasn’t a big deal. We would take the same approach as we would with any of our other kids: we would simply pick him up and carry him into the room against his will. Because he would be fine. Kids get over things quickly, right?

Well, maybe, but he is eleven now, and he’s getting stronger from all that sock flapping. He’s almost as tall as his sisters, and his will has only hardened in his growth spurt. It’s no use trying to force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. More to the point: it is counter-productive.

The “pick him up and make him go in” phase of parenting is supposed to be short.

Small children are too young to understand why they must brush their teeth every night, or why they have to fasten their seat belts, or why they have to go to class. As parents who do understand, we sometimes have to make those decisions for them. They are growing, however, and soon, they will have to choose on their own. We won’t be able to carry them in anymore.

How do we prepare for that eventuality? By ceding control in small increments. We phase out coercive parenting little by little, and begin to lead instead through influence. We begin to regularly offer them choices, and we explain why some choices are inherently better than others. And while we do all of this, we hope and pray that our children’s comprehension will grow apace with their stature.

But there’s the rub. This hasn’t happened with Jack. In many cases, his understanding (as far as we can tell) hasn’t kept up with his limbs. Sometimes he is just being stubborn like any other eleven year old, sometimes he is overstimulated and overwhelmed, but many times, it seems like he truly doesn’t get it.

My boy is growing, and it’s exciting and wonderful and scary and endlessly complicated.

So how do we lead him? Certainly not by authoritarian measures. Coercion is a last resort now. Jack’s will has begun to blossom, and our tactics have necessarily changed. We have had to stop pushing and start leading.

I suppose in this way, my son is not any different than the rest of us. In order to lead him, you have to invest in him. You have to walk beside him. You have to show him you care about him. You have to build trust, and trust-building takes time.

In our current struggle, I am grateful to have friends who live this principle. Isaac and Lori, who often work with Jack on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, are playing the long game, opting to guide him gently. They’ve sat with him. They’ve talked with him. They’ve taken walks past the big, scary door to the Open Heavens Room, and have assured him that everything is going to be okay.

This is what real leadership looks like, and it’s beginning to pay off.

Jack is starting to come around now. He even took a couple steps through the door last week. He kept his eyes shut, but he did it. You can see it in Isaac’s video below.

It will take more time, though, and that’s okay. This is our life now. We don’t rush things anymore. The days of causation and coercion are coming to a close. This is the age of coaxing and calling; of hand-holding and shoulder squeezing; of “take a deep breath, son” and, “you can do this, buddy. I know you can.”

And he will. Just wait and see.


(Many thanks to Isaac for the video and for the patience. We are fortunate to have you in our lives.)
Feature photo by Anne Nunn Photographers

Autism, Anxiety, and Stillness (A Letter to Jack)

Dear Jack,

I heard your footsteps at midnight last night, fast and frantic. They took you to the sofa in the dark. I found you there and asked if you were okay.

“Did you have a bad dream?”

You didn’t answer.

“It’s okay. It wasn’t real, buddy. “

I tried to lead you back to your room with your bedding and favorite pictures—items that whisper of safety and home. Your yanked your hand back in protest and yelled,

“No fank you! No fank you!”

So I brought your pillow to the living room and wrapped your stiff frame in your blanket. You had to turn it the other way round so the soft side was up. I muttered my apologies. I know that’s how you like it. It was just dark, and I was half-awake.

Then, you just sat there, still and stoic, leaning into the arm of the sofa. I couldn’t see your eyes, but you did not object when I went back to bed.

Your mother was breathing softly next to me. I lay there wondering about your anxiety, and why you feel the world has turned against you this year. It’s not just bad dreams. It’s everything. The Oregon countryside used to give you delight. The lakes and riverside trails would brighten your eyes. Swimming and exploring brought your laughter and joy. You were an outside boy.

This year, though, the open air has morphed into your enemy. We can’t figure out why. You have become the keeper of the sliding glass door; it must stay shut. Always. You never spin in your outdoor swing anymore, and you don’t want to join us in the back yard even for evening campfires. The only way we can bring you to the lake or to the park is if we bring your traveling tabernacle: a little blue tent and a timer. You will sit in there and stare at the countdown clock as it ticks back down to home.

Then there’s your OT appointments. Miss Molly was one of your very favorite people in the world. But now you don’t even want to go. You love these people, son. You love these places. I promise, you do.

In the darkness, you interrupted my thoughts with a frantic cry, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

I rushed back out to the living room. Then, you gave one of those perfectly-timed, fully-formed movie quotes that continue to astonish us:

“I am completely terrified.”

It’s a line from Happy Feet, apparently, where a penguin is alone on a floating chunk of ice in the ocean. Your voice was flat with those borrowed words, but I could feel the emotion in the tight grip of your fingers. You wouldn’t let me leave.

And then I remember that other line you’ve been quoting so often from The Good Dinosaur: “I ain’t a coward!”

No. You’re not a coward. What causes your nerves to awaken like this, son? What is it that stiffens your limbs and sends your heart pounding?

Maybe that’s a silly question, though. The fact is, for the past two months, I’ve been stiff and skittish, just like you. It’s this book I’m writing, I think. It’s hard for me to dig up our story—yours and mine—without also digging up the bitter water I drank for so long. That water made me unsure of myself. Of everything, really. It made me run away from things that did me good.

We all do that sometimes when we are scared and hurting. We lose track of the things that refresh us and bring us joy. We think, “I’ve changed. I don’t like these things anymore.” but we haven’t really changed. Our hearts have just forgotten, that’s all, and they need to be reminded.

You and I have both come so far the last few years, and this is what troubles me. It feels like we’ve regressed again. It feels like the anxiety is pulling us both backward, and it’s hard to find our deep gladness. I can see what is troubling me, but what about you? What makes you afraid? What makes you forget?

Sometimes, when you panic at bedtime, you scream for the “Jesus Storybook Bible.” Your favorite is the “Captain of the Storm” story, where people in the boat are so scared until Jesus speaks to the wind and the waves. Then, the peace returns.

You love that story, I think, because it is your heart’s prayer: you want our impossibly loud and blinking world to calm down. You want to breath easy again and rediscover stillness. Know this, my son: it is my prayer, too. I’m in that boat with you. So let’s hold to one another tightly. Let’s look up together and listen again for the whispers of Home.


This is a profound and beautiful book. You should totally get it. The audiobook is excellent, too.

Image credit: my daughter, Jenna

Autism and the Gift of a Metaphor

There were fingerprints all over the screen, and the NBA Finals game was about to start. I tried to scrub them off, but they were sticky.

“Jack, this is gross. You’ve got to stop touching the screen, especially after you eat those cookie balls.”

He wouldn’t acknowledge me, except to parrot back a few words as if to mollify my frustration.

Our television is raised up fairly high, and Jack, my eleven year old autistic son, has been secretly smuggling chairs into the living room in order to get high enough to touch the top of it. Part of that, I suspect, is an attempt to mimic Arlo from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, who reaches up high with his foot and says, “I’m gonna make my mark.”

But there’s more to the mystery than that. The fact is, our boy has been bringing a little extra OCD to the autism party as of late. He refuses to enter the special needs room at church. He gets frantic, kicking and screaming with a “there’s-a-great-white-shark-in-the-room” kind of terror. And at home, he melts down at our gentlest prodding to go on a bike ride, or to do anything, really, that he doesn’t want to do. The screaming that follows the words “back yard” must raise eyebrows in the neighborhood from time to time. He won’t touch my phone (he’s scared of that, too), and now he won’t even touch some of his treasured laminated pictures that literally line our bookshelves. Yet he will touch the TV screen. Often. Just another puzzle…

Seasons like these can be draining, because the boy won’t give an inch. He would fight every battle if we let him. We have to pick where to aim our energies. It can be a bit depressing. The world requires flexibility of its citizens, and he is more inflexible today than he’s ever been. What will all this mean for his future?

But then, these seasons contain reassuring moments, too. Case in point: on Friday, I came home with my daughters in the late afternoon, and Jack and Sara were alone in the house. The soundtrack from The Good Dinosaur was filling the house, and Jack was curled up beneath his favorite blanket with his new penguin book. He was in his happiest place, and his face showed it. When he saw me, he beamed as if to say, “Dad you’re home! Now I have everything I will ever need.” And it made me think of the first penguin book and the moment three years ago when everything changed. He wore the same smile.

I saw something else the next day, too. Through open door in my bedroom, I could see Jack sneaking the chair beneath the tv, and climbing on it. There was no movie playing, only various pictures floating slowly upward. Our AppleTV screensaver was set to National Geographic wildlife images. Jack reached up with one finger. The screen distorted to purple around the spot he touched. Irritation flashed in me. He’s going to ruin that screen, I thought, sitting up.

Then I saw it. A penguin. He was touching all the penguin pictures.

I sat back down and closed my mouth. In a season of such sticky obsessions and meltdowns, the boy still draws strength and peace from his penguins. It started with the original Jack and Daddy book. He remembers it as well as I do. It’s why he has been keeping this new book close to him, and why he’s asking to watch the penguin documentaries on Netflix. We are a story family, and penguins were Jack’s very first metaphor. They stand for me and him. For us, together. More broadly, penguins represent family.

I’m writing about this today to remind myself how much it all matters. I am speaking to my own soul. True, right now, the horizon doesn’t look especially bright. Jack is eleven. Soon he will be a teenager. His intensifying behaviors are going to complicate his transition into adolescence. All our concerns about his future feel more solid than ever.

And yet, our greatest concern has been assuaged once and for all: Jack is not oblivious to his family’s affection. Rather, he is still captivated by it. He loves us and we love him. He may not be able to tell us in sentences, but he can show us with a picture.

So there goes my son now, pushing his chair further into the living room and deeper into life. We don’t know what storms this season might bring, but our boy is not alone. He is armed with the power of a metaphor, and with it, he will find a way to stand tall. He will make his mark.

 


Feature image courtesy of the always awesome Anne Nunn Photographers.

“When I was Young I Knew Everything”

It was twenty years ago. A lifetime. We were walking the streets of Manhattan late in the evening after a Broadway Show. There were ten of us — seven graduating seniors from a tiny Christian school in east Texas, and three adults. The big city awed us southern kids in all the ways you’d expect: the bright lights, the endless mass of humanity, and the breakneck pace at which they all went about their lives. It’s true they looked like ants from the top of the Empire State Building, and that was only appropriate. They never, ever stopped moving.

But even the spell of the New York couldn’t shake me from the fact that I was right and my friend was wrong, and I had to keep telling her. We had just seen Miss Saigon on stage, the famous story of a Vietnamese orphan girl and her American G.I. lover. Their romance produced a child, but the soldier had already gone home, leaving her to provide for her son as a dancer and prostitute (I might have some of the details wrong here. It’s been twenty years…).

“She was desperate,” my friend said. “What do you expect a mother to do?”

“It doesn’t matter. That lifestyle is wrong,” I told her.

She was done discussing it, but I wasn’t, so I kept pushing. Kept hounding her.

I don’t remember what I said, but I remember it was too much. My friend knew this side of me well. I was a brash eighteen year old who had to have the last word. She usually rolled her eyes and let me have it. That night, though, I’m pretty sure I made her cry.

When I think of that year, I think of the hit song that dominated our mix tapes: “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe. The sad, grungy ballad opened with the words, “When I was young, I knew everything.” How fitting that I never understood the line back then.

I wince when I think of those days. I wince because of the essay I wrote and read aloud in English class: how to always be right about everything. I wince because of the stupid thing I said in my speech on graduation night: “I can’t wait to throw my two cents into the arena of ideas.” I didn’t have two cents of my own to throw. I had pennies borrowed from other sources–some of them wise, but most just loud.  I wince because even though I had never experienced a lick of genuine hardship, I walked with an arrogant strut, blasting my beliefs without a shred of gentleness or humility.

And of course, nothing has gone according to plan since then. It never does. Rather than changing the world with my big ideas, the world broke me.

***

“For the life of me, I cannot remember what made us think that we were wise…”

It is a cliche to say that men are fixers, and that cliche doesn’t fit me anyway. I don’t fix things; I have friends who fix things I break. But even for the inept guys like me, the stereotype usually fits. We crave resolution. We lean into it. When we don’t get it, we fall off our axis. Our worlds start to tilt.

My world tilted eleven years after I graduated from high school. Within fifteen months, I lost a dear friend to cancer, my infant son underwent open-heart surgery, and my three year old drifted into the fog of severe autism. For me, this triple-blow was especially debilitating, because up until then, I had never experienced one real crisis let alone three.

Answers had always come easily before that storm. Theology and logic had been obvious things. Truth glimmered so brightly, I wondered why everyone couldn’t just see it. Not after that.

Jack’s autism was the hardest because it lingered. It still lingers. And even though I’m not walking in perpetual numbness and sorrow anymore, his wordlessness, his seizing, his panic attacks and overwhelming shrieking… those things still throb beneath my surface. I can’t bring resolution to those pains in him or in me.

And yet those same pains do some good. They make me more aware of my need for God and for renewed redemption. They remind me daily that I am inept at life, and that I don’t have all the answers. Not anymore.

***

“And now I’m guilt stricken…”

It’s been twenty years since I hounded my friend about the themes of goodness and morality; twenty years since I donned the cap and gown and charged into a world I couldn’t possibly understand.  I don’t know half as much as I did then, and yet here I am, dealing out words and assertions for a living. It’s a little terrifying. I’m a teacher and preacher, and my writing is starting to reach larger audiences. I’m thirty-eight years old, which is safer than eighteen, I suppose, but I still look back at pieces I wrote just a few years ago and I wince again. Was I too flippant?  Were my words haughty? Or maybe I went too far the other way, pulling punches beneath the ghost of an eighteen year old ignoramus. Will I ever be wise and gentle enough to say anything without regret?

It’s been twenty years since I knew everything, and I want to take it all back. I want to tell my old schoolmates I’m sorry for my arrogance; for my snotty, brutish arguments that carried neither substance nor kindness; for my hasty opinions and unfeeling judgments, and for the way I looked down on those who were limping. Forgive me. I hadn’t been broken yet. I wish I had been broken earlier. I can only pray I am broken enough now.

 

Let This Carry You

Sunday afternoon, our whole community showed up to support him. Monday evening, he melted down again.

Anxiety attacks have haunted Jack nearly every day this month. They’re not temper tantrums. Rather, they’re like onslaughts of sheer, icy panic; floods of emotion he can’t hold back. He runs toward the nearest glowing screen and starts pushing buttons—a digital itch he must scratch. We tell him, “no movies, son,” and he begins punching his forehead. We raise our voices, but before we even get the words out, he screams, “No helmet!”

“Stop hitting yourself, then,” we say.

Then, the tears spill out in shrieks. All we can do is pull him close and whisper his requested reassurance: “first sleep, then morning, then Cars 2.”

It happened Monday night when I was alone with the boys. His 5 year old brother set him off with an actual temper tantrum. Jack couldn’t recover, and he ended up huddled close to me on the couch.  “I love you, son,” I told him. Our heads were touching. “First sleep, then morning, then Cars 2.”

On evenings like that, I often feel the old tug of despair on my sleeve, and the temptation to let it wash over me like it used to: Jack’s anguish; his future; our lack of connection. It still gets the best of me from time to time. But on this occasion, the sadness didn’t win. It couldn’t win. Not after what happened the day before.

***

It rained during the 5K Race for Autism, but nobody cared. They are Oregonians, after all. Some didn’t even bother with sweaters or raincoats, letting Team FlapJack shirts shine with pride. The blue was more prominent than any other color or costume theme. A team of over sixty. You couldn’t miss us.

I stood next to the boy himself, who was wearing a brown coat over his own blue. We had talked about the race all week long.

“Look at all these blue shirts, buddy. They’re here for you!”

Half my church showed up, and others too. Old friends. Former teacher. Staff from his early intervention years. Even his beloved Mrs. E. When he saw her, he leaned in with an expression of dazed wonderment that spoke more clearly than words ever could: “I can’t believe she’s here.”

Indeed, I couldn’t believe they were there, either. All of them showing their support for my family. All of them cheering on my boy. So many of them. And the other teams, too, all celebrating beloved children who are so often forgotten. So much joy.

The race was cold and beautiful. We wound through a riverside park, past Autzen stadium over a long footbridge, and back along the edge of the University of Oregon campus. A caravan of friends ran with me to keep me honest. I didn’t want to walk this thing. I wanted to run it through to the end. They didn’t have to prod me much, though. With a pack of friends running the same race, who needs policing?

***

I sat in Doug’s office the next morning and reflected on it all. Doug is a mentor and a friend who has walked with me through the thick depressing years, and prayed me through my innumerable ups and downs.

“Let yesterday carry you,” he told me.

I knew at once what he meant. All those beaming faces, the sea of royal blue runners, the overwhelming show of support. Not every day is like that, but Sunday was. Sunday was solid and real. Sunday could never be taken away from me. It ought to be a stake in the ground; my stone of remembrance.

And this advice was coming from a man who’s just been walking through the greatest, most painful trial of his own life. His wife of over forty years is battling severe Alzheimers. His best friend is slipping away by inches. He knows all about ups and downs, bright days and dark ones. Memories are more than gold-laden treasures; they are his swords.

In a culture so enamored with romantic tragedy, it sounds almost naive to think that memories can be used to fight despair rather than lead to it.

Here in the west though, despair is as decorative as a henna tattoo. In our worst moments, we are the goths, dressed in midnight and hellbent on mourning. Our laughter is bitter and hoarse, our diversions dark with apocalyptic foretelling, and even the pineapple rays of sunshine just serve to make the shadows more stark. Joy becomes a scarlet letter worn by the privileged few who are not outraged, and therefore not paying attention.

“How can we celebrate while the innocents suffer?” they demand. We stutter, so they press on, insisting the party-goers silence the whooping and whistling, and all the waving of palm-branches; that deliverance is a myth as long as some innocent still sits in a cell, and we all know injustice abounds.

So round and round we go on a carousel of hand-wringing and hashtags. Happy faces are all ablur and out of touch. We have no time for them. Days gone by are faded cold. We have no time for them. And hope for tomorrow hides beneath our beds like a monster waiting to see the skin of our ankles.

In such a culture, it feels natural to surrender to it all, because despair is easier than joy. Despair is memory foam, yielding to the weight of the worlds we carry on our shoulders. 

Joy, though… Joy makes demands on us. Joy insists I remember that I am small, and my drama is limited. Joy asks me to offer thanks to God for his gifts even while they elude me. I might be barren, but a couple down the hall just delivered. I might be living in a drought, but somewhere, some thankful farmer is dancing in the rain. My current experience is simply not wide enough to define eternal truths. Creation cannot be wholly bitter at least, in a world of newborn children. As long as there is laughter, reality can’t be wholly cruel, and God can’t be wholly unseeing.

Even on days when the wine dries up, the dancing music goes silent, and there is no merriment to be found, we can, at least, hold in our minds the paintings of better hours. Those pictures are whispered reassurances from a calming Father, “there is still beauty. It’s not all used up.” And on the blue-shirted backs of these memories we climb, and ride them through till morning.


Here’s the news report:

Images provided by my friends Jaymie Starr Photography, Ariah Richardson, and Chris Pietsch of the Bridgeway House. Thank you all!

Autism, Fatherhood, and the Lure of Isolation

There was an article in the Boston Globe last week about how men tend to let friendships slip away over time. The resulting loneliness has dramatic implications on our physical health, to say nothing of mental health. Why? Because we are hard-wired for “phileo”.

We talk a lot about the need to be loved, but by that, we usually mean the big, obvious kinds. We need agape love, unconditional affection from our parents, our families, and from God. We feel the need for eros, romantic love with sexual expression. But we talk less of our need phileo, the deep, friendship variety. Brotherly love, as it’s called.

As D.C. McAllister wrote, phileo is “a kind of love we desperately need in our lives—passionate, nonsexual love. But we’re so uncomfortable with the expression of intimate, familiar feelings among men that we’ve given it its own name—bromance.” She’s right. Phileo has become a pop-culture punchline. I have to think that is part of what’s driving the trend toward isolation. We don’t take friendship seriously.

Phileo is a need. So why do I run away from it?

When describing my autistic son’s initial regression, I often say he went into a fog. He became distant, he lost his vocabulary, and he refused to look us in the eye. What I don’t say often is that I followed him. I went into my own fog. I became sluggish, troubled, and increasingly introverted. While Jack drifted into autism, I drifted into depression. And I fed that depression with a self-imposed isolation.

Sorrow hung over me for years. I had friends, but I didn’t call them. Instead, I would fold myself into my laptop, plug in some earbuds, and tune out the helplessness, even while my kids tried everything short of setting my socks on fire to get my attention. I would offer a wry nod, then go back to whatever on-screen emergency I had just invented.

Studies show that parents of special needs kids have significantly elevated risks of anxiety and depression.

That makes sense. The physical strain of sleepless nights, the psychological fears of wandering, bullying, and the future all contribute to that risk. But for fathers at least, there’s another factor. Men are fixers. I know, that’s a cliché, but there’s a reason for the stereotype. Men crave resolution. We lean into it. And when we encounter something we can’t resolve — especially something as confounding as autism — we lose our sense of equilibrium. Our confidence comes crashing down.

I wasn’t seeing a counselor during my dark season, but I was fortunate enough to have my boss and senior pastor, Joshua, down the hall. For months on end (or was it years?), I would sit in his office and fall apart on a weekly basis. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have hurt to double down with a therapist.

But then, what are counselors if not friends we pay for out of desperation?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful and immensely helpful profession, but if people talked to their friends more often—-I mean real conversations in the bond of phileo-—don’t you think many of us would find healing organically?

I had organic friends. I just didn’t hang out with them. And for that reason, it took me far too long to mend.

Then one Sunday, I was onstage preaching about going through pain, and it all came out in a rush. Jack was going through a frightful season, and we were all hurting with him. I ended up awash in tears. Big, ugly tears.

When it was all over, two men stood at the foot of the stage, looking up at me with red eyes of solidarity. Two good men. Friends. I stepped toward them, and they embraced me together without shame. I wept some more, right out in the open. I think they did, too.

And at that moment, I swear I heard a whisper deep inside me: “I have given you brothers.”

Indeed, I have brothers, but even years later, I still have to fight the urge to live as if I don’t. Because I’m a man, see, and “I got this! What? You don’t think I got this?”

Yeah… I don’t got this. “It is not good for man to live alone.” We quote those words at weddings, but it’s as true for phileo as it is for eros. It is not good for man (or woman) to live without friends. We are relational beings, like it or not. When we pull away from relationships, we suffer. That is part of our design. Life is built to be shared, not hidden.

I recently joined some guys for a weekend at the coast. I was too busy to go, but I went anyway. We had no agenda, and ended up wasting time together over beach bocci ball, grilled meats, and an assortment of grizzly banter. But of course it was more than that. We were sharing troubles. We were trading life. We were lending strength.

One of those mornings, I walked to an overlook at Seal Rock beach, the same hidden paradise where we shot our viral video last summer. For an instant, it was as if I stood above my entire journey with Jack. All the heartache of his diagnosis, the depression, the growth and the setbacks, the hiddenness turned shockingly public with a single upload—-all of it hit me afresh. And again, I heard the words, “I have given you brothers.”

I am glad to be out of the fog, and to see the path again. But most of all, I am grateful I do not journey alone.

***

Feature image provided by Daniel Horacio Agostini at Flickr.com under Creative Commons License.

On Learning to Love a Tow Truck

If you’ve read anything I’ve written this year, you know that Jack, my autistic eleven year old, loves the movie Cars 2, and I don’t. I’m a grown man and a Pixar apologist (there should be a badge for people like me), but I cannot abide the studio’s version of The Fast and The Furious. The story is jumbled and lame, the noise is loud and unrelenting, and the rusty protagonist drives me backwards insane.

I grew up in East Texas, so you’d think I had some appreciation for Mater the Tow Truck, but so help me, the man who voices him, Larry the Cable Guy, strikes me as decidedly unfunny. This character grates on me from the beginning, and he does not let up for the entire ninety minutes. It’s exhausting.

But oh, my dear son . . . he disagrees. Jack adores Mater, and he has watched his bumbling heroics hundreds of times without ever tiring of it.

The English writer G.K. Chesterton maintained that, “Part of God’s infinity is manifested in a little child’s propensity to exalt in the monotonous.”

A child glories for weeks in his only two knock-knock jokes. He gets tossed in the air and laughs and says, “do it again!” God, too, makes the sun rise and says, “do it again!”

Adults though? Dad, especially? Monotony is hard for us. It is the opposite of adventure. There are no twists, no surprises, no opportunity for Keizer Soze’s hand to un-cripple itself or for Jack Buck to call, “I don’t believe what I just saw!” Monotony is wonder-less.

Except there they are: our children, especially our children on the spectrum. There they are, watching the same tow truck bumble his way around the world as the same accidental spy, and get the same inexplicable knighthood in the end. And even after the five-hundredth viewing, there is fairy-tale affection in their eyes.

Why do our children delight? Is it that their young minds are so limited and their tastes so unrefined? Are they just bored and don’t even realize it?

Or maybe we are the problem. Maybe our culture is simply addicted to novelty.

Maybe we get bored so easily because our imaginations have become petulant tyrants, suspicious of routine, and demanding newness all the time.

I’ll be honest, even the word “routine” sucks the imagination right out of me. And that, friends, is my problem, not my son’s.

For Jack, routine is more than a necessity. It is a comfort. For my son, repetition is not the droning, looping script that I hear, but a room of friendly voices, casting the the place in warm tones, classic jokes, and action sequences that never stop being awesome.

Parents, hear me: we need to slow down and get younger. We need to let our children teach us from time to time. They still believe in pixie dust, in spy cars, and in houses that fly, and the main reason we don’t is we’re too easily exasperated. My old headmaster used to say, “if you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.” I think he was right. And just because we’re boring and cynical doesn’t mean ours is the better way.

There are treasures in slowness. There is beauty in the retellings. There is wonder even in predictability.

I’m trying to learn it. I’m trying to make peace with Jack’s looping obsessions. I’m even trying to like Cars 2. Really. And you know what I’ve discovered? The Italian racer, Francesco, is actually quite hilarious. And even Mater . . . well, there was this one moment when he asks about a drink for McQueen, and he misunderstands Guido, and . . . I laughed.

I’m never going to be a big fan of this movie, or of this character. He will never rank next to Sheriff Woody or Mr. Incredible or Remi the Rat or Carl Frederickson. But through repeated viewings, I am starting to at least see what Jack sees in him, if only just a little. The awkward misfit just wants to do what’s right; to have fun, and be a hero.

If Mater’s antics serve to reinforce those ideals, I can live with that. If monotonous viewings of a mediocre film cause my son’s mind to explode with possibility, then I will sit next to him and squint my eyes to find the wonder. I will never have the infinite patience of God Himself, but I think I can re-learn some measure of child-likeness. And that is appropriate, for as we know, the kingdom of heaven does not belong to the most refined among us, but to the wide-eyed and hopeful. To children.

Autism, OCD, and the Longing for Home

We all heard him screaming; not everyone knew who it was. But I’m Jack’s dad, and I know his voice. I was in the auditorium, teaching a Wednesday night class on the book of Acts. He was in a different classroom across the hall. It’s our church’s special room for kids with developmental delays. We call it the “Open Heavens Room.”

I knew from his scream that he was frantic but not in pain. His mom would be two rooms away, teaching a gaggle of children. I swallowed.

“I’m sorry, guys, that’s Jack. Mind if I… I’ll be right back.” My class was gracious. They know the drill by now. I love our people…

I ran out of the sanctuary and Jack saw me at once over the split door that keeps him safe. His eyes were red and he was screeching the words, “Smart Writer One.”

I knew at once what he needed.

“Smart Writer One” is the name of Jack’s favored electronic toy. Why the “One” in his name? He has a twin, you see: “Smart Writer Two.” We found the twin on eBay. It was all Jack wanted for Christmas. He inspected every Amazon package that came to the door over the entire holiday season, begging us to open it. You’d never have guessed he was waiting for something he already had. What’s better than a Smart Writer? Two identical Smart Writers, that’s what!

So now, the boy plays with his two favorite toys for hours every day, and they alone share his pillow. His sister, on a whim, suggested that he change Smart Writer One’s name to “Gary One.” It made no sense, of course, because her mind operates on random thirteen year old frequencies, but for some reason Jack capitulated. He liked the nickname.

“Gary One,” he said in approval. And of course, the new guy is “Gary Two.”

The Garys never leave the house. They are much too precious. Oh, believe me, we’ve tried to bring them along. We’ve told Jack how much more fun his drives to Portland would be with his two favorite toys, but every time we’ve tried, he’s pushed them toward their hiding spot in the cupboard.

“No fank you! No fank you!”

Well okay then.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not uncommon for kids on the autism spectrum.

In fact, OCD is one of the primary markers that experts look for. In our experience, these obsessions can change over time. Jack had a tower of bean cans that he kept in our living room for months. He also had a shirt he refused to take off. And then there are the movie phases. We’ve had “My name is John” videos, and seasons of Pooh Bear, Dragons, and uncountable viewings of Cars 2.

Food, too, reflects those OCD tendencies. Jack eats, like, three different foods. That’s it. He does chips, waffles, and these slimy cookie ball things that help him to decorate our sliding glass door with handprints. Sara hides all manner of nutrition in everything he eats because that’s the only way he will get what he needs. His diet is just too limited.

Whenever he makes a shift to allow something new into his life, we all breath a sigh of relief. It’s good for him to stretch. It’s good for all of us to stretch.

Right now, his Smart Writers are his best friends on the planet, and whenever he’s out and about, their existence is always on the edge of his consciousness. They anchor him to where he comes from. When he cries out the name “Smart Writer One,” then, we know what it means. It means he wishes he was home.

That night in the hallway, I pulled my microphone off my ear and hugged him over the split door. His eyes were red and he told me one more time, “Smart Writer One?” It had become a question, and he turned his ear to my lips to receive my expected answer.

“First Open Heavens Room,” I whispered, “Then Smart Writer One.”

That is our script. Yes, son, we know you don’t want to be here. Yes, you will see your toys soon. We have some things to do before then, but it won’t be long. First this, then home.

Jack wiped his eyes and turned back toward the couch where his laminated pictures sat. That was all he needed the rest of the night. All the kids in that room have their coping mechanisms. Jack’s are actually quite simple. He just needs a reassurance that we haven’t forgotten about him, and that things won’t be that way forever.

Indeed, that is a truth we can all settle into. Life can make us anxious and angsty. Irritants can masquerade as emergencies. And soon, everything turns frantic.

At such times, we need to a good reminder of the temporariness of things. Life might seem acutely exhausting right now, but it won’t be like that forever. There will be better days when peace returns, joy comes roaring back, and the air around us smells like home again. First, the hard stuff, then the break. First pain, then home.

All it takes is a whisper from our Father.

A Clash of Gray and Gold: A Reflection on Self-Pity

“What do you want to talk about today, Jack?” my wife asked our autistic eleven year old.

“Cars 2.”

Sara is good at this “work time” thing. She takes him into his room, pulls out a big alphabet stencil, and asks him questions. Sometimes he waits for options before he answers. He likes picking options. But other times, he starts pointing to the letters to spell out his answers. And on the best days—-golden days-—he just says the words. Today was a combination.

“Cars 2 is…my favorite,” he chose. Of course, it was because of Mater, the Tow Truck. We know this.

She asked him why he liked Mater so much. Was it because he was happy? Or helpful? Or a hero? Or because he was a friend?

“Hero,” he said aloud. And then came the words: “I want to be.”

“Want to be what? Like Mater?”

“I want to be… hero.”

***

A month earlier, that same boy was sitting under his blanket for the tenth straight day, still as a scarecrow. There was no expression in his eyes. His face was pale and his lips were open just enough for a current of air to fill his lungs, then depart. But the thing that haunted me the most was his frailty. He looked like one of those boys in National Geographic. How much weight had he lost since he got sick? Was it the meds? The ones that are supposed to hold back the seizures? They’re only holding back his appetite and he’s having seizures anyway.

I looked into his blank eyes and wondered whether I ought to stay home from the conference. Sara was canceling because of this, and I was disappointed, even though I knew it was the right thing. A boy needs his mother. But no, he didn’t need me right then. Clearly. And that fact stung.

So I loaded up and said goodbye to him. He parroted the words back to me in breaths.

“Bye buddy.”

“Bye buddy.”

“I love you.”

“I wuv you.”

It was only two nights and Sara had plenty of help, so I sighed and got into the car. For the first half hour, I couldn’t shake it. The self-pity, I mean.

I kept thinking, my son doesn’t need me. It’s true, isn’t it?

I settled into my empty room at the conference which was not really a conference at all. It was a retreat for pastors and ministry leaders who need to remember Why they do what they do. At least I had a great view from my window. The mighty Pacific waves were pounding the mouth of a small river, pumping white foam back through the bends to where the seagulls play. And out in the ocean itself was a jagged rock with an impossible lighthouse standing guard over the coast. I wondered how the light keeper would get out there, and how lonely he must feel.

***

Special needs parents know about a lot of things. We know about hustle and perseverance and elbow grease. We know how to diffuse a meltdown and how to survive an IEP meeting on two hours of sleep. We know how to celebrate small victories, how to find the most obscure action figures on eBay, and how to never stop believing.

Some of us—many of us-—also know about self-pity.

We might feel it most acutely on social media. Anything can trigger the involuntary comparison machine: a typical picture of a neuro-typical kid doing neuro-typical things. Moments our child might never have.

Other times, simple isolation might bring it on. That comes on helpless afternoons when our kid won’t snap out of it. Won’t respond. We start muttering, “there’s nothing I can do, then what am I even good for, right?”

Seasons of sadness are inevitable. But sometimes that sadness snowballs, all the beautiful reds and blues and yellows desaturate. All the smiles we relish, the progress we are making, the joy our children deliver in the midst of the mess—we forget it all. We feel alone on a rock, surrounded by threatening waves, wondering how in the world we got there. It is a scary place to visit, and an altogether unhealthy one to stay.

The preachers tell us, “you can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.” This is as true of self-pity as it is of lust or anger. Sadness will fly overhead. Trouble will come. And while it is pure folly to pretend everything is fine, it is equal folly to live inside the shadows it casts. When we do, we rob our families of the joy they need from us, and we rob ourselves of the joy we need from them. Those joys can’t dissolve the sadness, no, but they have a way of pulling us back into the vibrance of a healthy life. We must not flee them.

I know there are deep grays. But there are also sunsets made of gold.

***

When I returned two days later to my family room, refreshed from rest, prayer, and ocean air, Jack wasn’t wrapped up in his sick blanket anymore. He was sitting shirtless and cross-legged in front of his favorite heater in the corner of the room. When he saw me, a smile crept up one side of his face, then the other. He held my gaze and I held his, and just like that all the colors came back.

“I want to be hero,” he said to his mother.

He already is.

(Feature photo provided under Creative Commons license by Judd Hall

Dear Perfection (A Letter on Valentine’s Day)

Dear Perfection,

It’s an honor, first of all. I mean, there are so many of us who are online begging for your attention, so it means a lot that you would read this. I’m talking about the Valentine pictures, friendaversary videos, and those filtered collages of vacations we actually hated. You know what the good book says, right? “Instagram filters covereth a multitude of sins.”

But more to my point, there are millions of parents out there who are looking for your stamp of approval, and that’s really why I’m bothering you. I see what you’re doing, and we both know it’s not right.

When I think of you, Perfection, I think of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Kinkade is at once maligned and envied.  We mock him for his idyllic cottages by the sea with their pristine puffs of chimney smoke. We roll our eyes and say, “life isn’t like that!”

But then, in the next breath, there we are sharing our own cobblestone collages of our adoring and adorable children. There is no dirt here. There are no pudding hands. There is no perimeter of poorly aimed urine caked to the bathroom floor. Neither are there flashes of cutting sarcasm about half-empty cocoa mugs strewn across the living room, because we would never resort to such measures even if our kids ever forgot anything… assuming of course they drank such unhealthy concoctions. We don’t. They don’t. Because we’re all perfect. Just check out our timelines if you don’t believe us.

Of course you don’t believe us. We don’t believe us, either.

We know the truth about ourselves and our shortcomings. We know the truth about our own parenting: we are all imperfect.

But Perfection, you sly dog, you’ve done something sneaky to stay relevant. You’ve told us everything is yours. You’ve said it’s all perfect: the dirt and the pudding, the receding hairlines, the addictions, the insecurities and all the fears. And it such is a lovely sentiment, like those DOVE commercials where none of the women wants to walk under the “pretty” sign because they don’t think they’re beautiful enough, because they don’t realize that everyone is equally beautiful. Life comes in many shapes and sizes and ages and neurologies and pre-existing conditions and character flaws and temperaments. Some have jobs that bring home more bacon and earn more sacred ‘attaboys. “But none of it matters,” you assure us. “You are, all of you, perfect.”

There is, however, a sinkhole beneath that beachside cottage: You are implying that we must have you, Perfection, in order to have value.

You say we must make ourselves worthy of love. God help us, but it is a lie.

Still, we have chased your impossible standards with abandon. We ache for true validation and affection. We offer humble brags about our achievements and we edit our selfies to prove to the world-—and to ourselves-—that we are unblemished enough, even though we know it’s no use. There are unmistakable wrinkles in our foreheads. There is too much sadness in our brows. We know what failures lie behind our acned skin. Calling it perfection leaves us even more empty.

You are the carrot on the string; always before us, but never attained. You tempt but never satisfy.

One day, we’ll all awake to an older, deeper truth that will finally unseat you: there is value already baked inside us. There is a construct of worth that precedes success or failure, youth or atrophy, the flawless and the marred, and that construct cannot be removed by mere human inadequacies. There are fingerprints in our cells—Divine fingerprints—that no amount of brokenness can erase.

On the day of waking, we will remember we are loved.

We are flawed, and yet we are loved.

We are going gray, and we are loved.

We fail hard, and still we are loved.

Our kids sometimes sass us and we sometimes sass them back. We are immature parents, often petty, usually desperate, and almost always clueless. We fall a hundred miles short of your standard, but never short of the worth bestowed upon us by our Father.

I admit, I’m worse than imperfect. I am hopelessly broken and thoroughly incapable of putting myself back together.  That is the plain truth. But I am also fearlessly, eternally, unconditionally embraced. Fully known and fully loved. This is a wonder beyond Kinkadian fantasy; it is true perfection.

So Happy Valentines Day I guess, but we don’t need you anymore.

Regards,

Jason

A Letter to my Autistic Son on His 11th Birthday

Dear Jack,

You told us something the other day, something that broke our hearts. Mom pulled out the paper and pencil and sat you down in your room. She asked you how you were feeling. You said “sad,” and that you didn’t want to go to school. She kept prodding you, and you said the word “awkward.” Then she helped you find more words: “Mater the Tow Truck.” You said you were awkward like Mater. Then, you did something you almost never do: you spoke a full, clear sentence out loud. You said, “Kids laugh at me.”

Moments like this make us sad because you are sad. They make us a little angry, because people should be more kind. And they make us hopeful too, because you were able to use your words in a very special kind of way, letting us know about a tender thing happening inside you. That is what we long for more than anything, son. We want to know what is happening deep inside you. And now that we know you are hurting, it brings us back to sadness.

I think I know why you feel awkward.

It’s because you have movies playing inside your head, and you can’t make them stop. You start reciting lines from the beginning of Cars 2, where Finn McMissile is on the boat. Then you continue on through Radiator Springs. We hear the voice of Larry the Cable Guy and Owen Wilson. We hear Weezer singing that old song, “You might Think I’m Foolish,” only it isn’t Weezer, it’s you. On a trip to Portland last month, I think you made it through the whole movie.

There is a word we use for this. We call it “scripting.” Lots of people with autism do it. And it’s okay. It really is. We like it, because you can make your voice sound like the characters you are quoting and it makes us smile.

But I know, sometimes it can be embarrassing because not everybody knows you, and not everybody likes it. Sometimes they get irritated with you. Sometimes they laugh. They don’t understand how those predictable movie quotes help you to calm down in such a scary, unpredictable world. They just think you’re talking to yourself, and they can’t tell what you’re saying.

They don’t know you.

They don’t know how gentle you are when the little babies come over. They haven’t seen you bring a tissue to a crying little girl. They don’t know how much you get distressed when your brother gets hurt, or how you smile big when someone in your family comes back after being gone a few days. They don’t know that you love dance parties, or that you carry the electric salt shaker all around the house in case a waffle shows up.

No. They don’t know you, son.

But here’s the thing: there are many of us who do know you, and in our opinion, you are easily one of the top ten eleven year olds that ever was. Your heart is kind, your smile is infectious, and your Timon and Pumba impressions are straight fire. What’s more? You work so hard to communicate with us. I know it’s not easy, but you don’t ever quit.

When you let us into your world like you did on Friday, you know what it does? It actually makes you stronger. I know, that sounds silly, but it’s true. When you tell us how you hurt, it means you don’t have to hurt alone anymore. It lets us come close to you, to hug you, to cry with you, and to help you carry those heavy feelings that weigh you down. And then, we get to remind you how valuable you are, for you bear the image of God himself, and nothing—-neither seizures nor scripting nor children who laugh—-will ever separate you from His affection or ours. You are our son. Our delight.

I wish I could say life will get easier as you grow up. It won’t. Growing up means there will be more hard mornings, more mean kids, and more afternoons where your head aches because your little brother is screaming about absolutely nothing. While I can’t protect you from things that make you cry, I can promise you that you won’t have to cry by yourself. We will go through it all together, and we’ll make it, because that’s what families do. They hold each other, then they turn on Cars 2 music and dance around the living room until the laughter comes back.

Today, as you turn eleven, I want to ask you if you will let us in even more. We count it a privilege to share all the happy scenes with you, and to help you shoulder the sad ones. Indeed, it is our joy.

Happy birthday, son. I am so proud of you. We all are.

Dad



Images graciously provided by Anne Nunn Photographers. You really should go like Anne’s page.

To Be Satisfied by Wonder

It’s not supposed to be snowing. Not like this. And yet here we are at the base of Oregon’s mild Willamette Valley, with windfalls of white drifting down like cotton silver dollars. My boys are behind me in a sled we thought we bought for the mountain pass, and I am pulling them down the middle of the street over four inches of slick powder. It crunches under my feet.

“You’re a reindeer, daddy!” my five-year-old hollers before descending into calls of ” Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” It’s January.

The ever-thoughtful and poetic Timothy Willard posted this quote today:

I read Tim’s words, and I thought about how Jack, my autistic son, reacts to surprises not with words but with his whole body: the snow comes and his eyes widen, his muscles tighten, and he starts to jump in place, flappers ablaze. I thought about how special needs parents must also learn to savor God’s little surprises lest we starve for the lack of big ones.

Last night we had dinner at our friends’ house. The younger boys all retreated to watch Star Wars together while Jack sat with us adults, waiting for us to finish talking. He was waiting for a while, though. The four of us can talk…

After ninety minutes or so, he had had enough. He touched Sara’s chin. “Smart Writer one?” he asked. He was referring to the electronic toy he prizes so much that he can’t bear to bring it with him anywhere because he’s too afraid of losing it.

Sara smiled. The boy was being so patient. “First friends, then home and Smart Writer one.”

That mollified him. Our conversation resumed. Thirty seconds later, though, he was tipping his ear to Sara’s lips, wanting whispered reassurance that we hadn’t forgotten his request.

She complied in a hushed tone: “First friends, then home and Smart Writer one.”

He relaxed again, then he disappeared, and the four adults returned to our conversation. We talked of God and growth, and how grace has a way of covering all our arrogant tendencies, all our insecurities, all our broken places, of which we had many. Grace, like a white blanket of valley snow.

A few minutes later, Jack was back, but this time it was different. The boy had taken the initiative to put his coat on–something he never does without parental initiation. Then, he took his mother’s hand, turned it toward our hosts, and made it wave goodbye.

We all four fell into laughter. Our boy had made his point abundantly clear. We crave communication, and this was the epitome of clear communication; a small burst of joy to nourish our souls just a little bit more. It wasn’t a nine-course breakthrough, but it was the kind of wonder-food I’m learning to savor.

And here we are today, sliding around the neighborhood on a sheet of sheer white magic. I tow my sons between laughing houses where slumber parties become snow-ball fights, and wannabe photographers snap pictures of the strange, empty streets. And all of it is as beautiful as the new year itself; a frozen coat to cover our muddy tracks of regret. Sins like scarlet, grace like snow.

I hear my sons giggling behind me, and I’m singing along with Johnnyswim as they croon,

“I don’t know what’s coming…
I don’t know what’s coming…
I don’t know what’s coming,
but I know it’s gonna be good.”


Photos by my daughter Jenna, our friend Bethany, and my wife Sara, in that order.

When Life Loops

We were standing on a narrow beach in Northern California, my family and I, when came my favorite moment of the year. The girls were exploring the fresh water stream with their mother and the little boys behind me, and I was staring over Jack’s head at the swells of water elbowing their way between the two massive jutting rocks that frame the landscape. Those waves always looked too big to fit, but without fail, they would tumble through toward the sand like a throng of angry peasants storming the castle gates. It was mesmerizing.

Soon, I realized Jack wasn’t watching the water, though. He was watching me over his shoulder, and he wore his sneaky grin. What are you getting at, I thought, as he tiptoed toward the waves, eyes still fixed back on me. And then it hit me: He wants me to chase him. He’s reliving our video. The “Jack and Daddy” video, as he calls it. The one that went bananas on the internet this year.

I took off running toward him, and he braced himself, laughter spilling out of him. I picked him up and ran into the surf and started spinning round and round the way we did in the film, and when I set him down, he squeezed my hand and started running down the beach like we did when the drone flew overhead. We were both laughing now. It was pure, unfiltered Jack-style affection.

It was a feedback loop of reality and play: Life imitates art imitates life.

Loops are familiar to autism families. We live with repetition, and I don’t just mean routines of screen time and trips to school. I mean loops of scripted movie dialogue and songs. I mean repeated phrases shouted out during storms of anxiety. I mean the dizzying patterns of progress and regress.

It’s been that kind of loopy year for us. Jack was doing well at the beginning of 2016, but then had his biggest regression since The One that started it all. He went silent on us for two months and when his voice returned, he had forgotten words and basic letter sounds, not to mention strength and motor skills. The change was so startling we found a neurologist and began a battery of tests. “Whatever it is,” the doctor said with a shrug, “we’re dealing with something beyond autism.”

The tests results strongly hinted at a form of epilepsy. Jack doesn’t have scary, obvious seizures, but he does stare off sometimes. Well, oftentimes. If those stares are absence seizures, they could be resetting his progress. one step forward, one step back. Sometimes more.

I confess I felt a little vindicated. I thought now, at long last, it might be acceptable for me to be upset about Jack’s condition. In my circles, you are supposed to celebrate all that autism brings, but it’s more or less okay to dislike things like epilepsy. And I’ve done my best. I strive for “autism acceptance” in that I want to see a world where everybody accepts our kids no matter what their neurological condition. But sometimes there comes a pressure to pretend to be happy about it all. Try as I might, I haven’t ever been able to cross that bridge. It’s not that I’m miserable; I’m not. We don’t hate the kind of life we received, but we’re not always thrilled about it, either. Is autism a blessing or a blight? As I said in my video, “I don’t know, and I’m weary of caring.” So I’ve tried to write from a neutral position.

Then, when that same video went viral, things shifted.

Suddenly, people were asking me to speak about this and contribute pieces to that, and they got all excited when I commented on their posts. I wrote a poem they liked, so they saw me as a spokesman. An autism advocate.

But the truth is, I’m not a very good advocate. A good advocate lets the truth be known, and lets it be known loudly when necessary. A good advocate raises hell and doesn’t take anyone’s crap. A good advocate knows what to think. I don’t. One day, I’m thankful for the enormous strides we’ve made in culural autism accommodation. The next day I bemoan the lack of remedial understanding. We have come so far. We have so far to go.

And that’s my problem. I haven’t arrived at enough conclusions yet. My story is, for now, a looping story. We step forward and we step back. We progress and we regress.

Times are good and times are terrible, and then they turn good again.

Jack regressed in 2016, yes, but I’m happy to report he’s come roaring back this fall. My boy is now spelling out his own thoughts on the letters of a laminated keyboard. He told us he likes to sing, that he wants a cat, and that he really likes family time, especially when we re-enact Winnie the Pooh scenes. We rejoice at breakthroughs, and when they go away, we ache to see them again. It can be a dizzying ride. One day, we will arrive at some form of certainty. We will understand what is really going on with my son and how to proceed into his adolescent years, and maybe then I will know what to think.

But for now, we loop forward. We spin round and round like a scratched CD, sputtering and reaching and praying for the next moment of unbroken melody. We spin like father and beloved son, ankle deep in cold oceans. And while we spin, we cannot help but laugh.


(For those who didn’t see it back in August…)

Story Advocacy: The Genius of “Life, Animated”

I have this old pixelated video of twelve month old Jack learning to walk. He is  stumbling back and forth between me and his two sisters like a tipsy teddy bear, his mouth wide with triumph, and his eyes alive with laughter. They are so clear and cloudless. Sara is behind the camera offering whoops of victory, and we are all four cheering. It is the only real evidence I have that my memory didn’t play a trick on me. There really was a time before Jack went into the fog.

That clip represents the first bit of kinship I felt with Ron Suskind, autism father and author of the magnificent bestselling memoir “Life, Animated.” I fell in love with the book last summer, and was thrilled to learn about the film adaptation of the same name. Roger Ross Williams’ documentary is a masterwork of storytelling. It rocked me like few films have, and I think everyone should see it, especially those with loved ones on the autism spectrum.

“Life, Animated” is the story of Ron’s son Owen, who experienced his own regression into autism at the age of three. Like our story, this one really begins with a video: Owen is a tiny Peter Pan, and his dad is Captain Hook, and the two talk and whirl around in the autumn foliage, tumbling through leaves and laughter. It is a perfect picture with nothing missing.

And then… and then…

Regressive autism, Ron says, felt like a kidnapper.

The disappearance of Owen’s language and relational faculties felt like more a crime scene than a medical mystery. Ron’s recounting of those early days of wordlessness and distance would have cut my heart to ribbons even if his story hadn’t mirrored my own so well.

From there, the film shifts back and forth between Owen the child and Owen the young adult. We can see right away that he is no longer non-verbal. On the contrary, he is a grown man with grown language dealing with coming of age dilemmas that all grown-ups face. He has graduated. He is moving out on his own (sort of.) He has a girlfriend, and is looking for a job. He still has more than his share of challenges, of course, but he is facing his fears and beating them back. He even creates his own illustrated stories of Disney sidekicks. Owen is, in every way, growing up.

So how did he get there? That is what makes his story unique. Owen overcame his regression through the things he loved most: Disney movies. His affinity with the hand-drawn classics taught him not only how to speak English but how to interpret the language of human interaction. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took years for his parents to get any language out of him, and much longer to get any actual conversation, but it happened. And even today as a young man, Owen relates everything to Disney. He quotes long strings of dialogue, sings the songs in convincing voices, and when he gets anxious, he paces in circles, mumbling his way through entire scenes. Early on, his family became students of all things Disney until they too could speak the language fluently. They entered into their son’s animated world, took him by the hand, and led him back into theirs.

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Even before the book came out, Ron began preaching the gospel of “affinity therapy” for autistic children, and more and more kids are finding significant breakthroughs by way of their own passions. Our boy is finding success here, too. I wrote about it earlier this year. Jack’s internal index of Disney and Pixar movie quotes has given him verbal options to communicate with since he can’t come up with the words on his own. He pulled out a good one recently when was bundled up in his hospital bed for his sleep study. When the nurse raised the guard to keep him from falling out, he mimicked Winnie the Pooh trying to get out of Rabbit’s hole: “Oh help and bother. I’m stuck.” We shouldn’t have laughed, maybe, but we did.

The Disney connection isn’t what made me love the movie, however. It was the positioning. At age ten, my Jack stands between young, nonverbal Owen and Owen the young, emerging man. The gut wrenching days of no eye contact and no connection–those are over, thanks be to God. The heaviest fog has lifted.

But then there’s the future. This world is not built for boys like Owen and Jack–mysterious innocents as they are-—and that brings a fog of its own. I don’t like it. I want to fan it all away for him. I want to prepare the schools, the jobs, the friends for him ahead of time. I want the culture to make room for him, but I can’t do it fast enough. Time is working against us. The boy is growing too quickly, and we won’t always be here for him.

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So what is a father to do? What is a writer to do?

Should he sound the autism awareness misery alarm? Should he sing a dirge across cyberspace about the rise in numbers and lack of funding? Or should he go the other way, carefully editing happy songs about spectrum living in order to promote autism acceptance? Ron Suskind answers the question by simply telling us Owen’s story.

Indeed, this is why I loved the film so much, and it’s why I want everyone to see it. We need more of this kind of advocacy. I want to respond to the endless tug-o-wars with a sound mind and a full heart. I want to meet them all in the middle and say, “Here is my son. He has immense challenges behind him and before him, but he is as kind as a Pooh Bear and as happy as a Tigger. His name is Jack. I hope you’ll make room for him.”


Life Animated is available online through iTunes, Amazon, and everywhere else.

To Be Worthy of Your Trust (A Letter to Jack)

Dear Jack,

Up until now, I’ve only written you letters on your birthdays, but I’m going to change that, because you might look back on days like yesterday and wonder, “what was that even about?” Well, I’ll tell you.

Mom woke you up at midnight and wouldn’t let you go back to sleep. She pulled you out of bed and led you into the living room where Winnie the Pooh and Tigger entertained you all through night. It was still dark when the three of us got in the van. We didn’t make you put your shirt on, of course, because the van is just as much home as your own bedroom. And when you feel like you’re home, you go shirtless. It’s your thing.

Mom sat next to you in the back in order to keep you awake, but soon she fell asleep. I watched you both in the mirror. Your eyes were open, and your head rested on her shoulder.

You both looked so beautiful. So full of peace.

We drove two hours to that big hospital on the hill. You know the one. When we got inside, a nurse took us into a little exam room and scratched your head with a q-tip and cream that felt like sandpaper. You screamed and kicked and we tried to restrain you. Your eyes were frightened, and your lips were offended. I took your chin in my hands and said, “look at me, son. Look at me. It’s okay. It will only take a minute.”

Your eyes met mine for a moment, and you stopped fighting. You took a breath. You understood me, and you chose to trust us. We have lots of these moments, now. You seem to understand so much of what we say, and even though you can’t respond in kind, you choose to go along with us. It is a pure, sweet faith, but it is weighty, too. It pulls our shoulders low, and makes us remember our naked need for wisdom from beyond.

The nurse put a bunch of sticky nodes all over your head, then you laid down next to mom. She wrapped you in her soft arms under your soft blanket. We told you you could sleep without a shirt, but you said no. I brought out your little blue-glowing pyramid that puffs out sleepy-time smells, then hit repeat on the Monsters University audio story. All the other lights went out.

You were confused. This was not “orange home,” and the hour was not bedtime. We tried to explain it all to you, and I think you might have understood, but just in case, I’ll try again:

The doctors think there might be something going on inside your brain, son.

Something that shouldn’t be going on. They think there must be a reason why your your words have gone away so drastically this year, and why your legs won’t peddle your bike anymore, and… there are just lots of things. Of course, you have autism, but this seems to us like something more.

img_1085-copyThat’s why we keep coming to the hospital. That’s why we put those sticky nodes on your head. We are trying to learn. We are trying to help you. But even the smartest brain doctors aren’t sure where to start, or how many tests to do. It’s easy for a parent to talk big and say, “we’ll do whatever we can to get to the bottom of this,” but the truth is, you’re the one that has to get poked and scratched made to wait in rooms that make you panic. And your mom and I don’t know how far to push with our investigations. How many pokes are too many?

Your bedtime story looped again and again, and you tossed and turned in that blue-soaked room. We prayed with you. We whispered in your ear. You took my hand and pressed it against your eyes, but you would not rest. And I kept wishing you would just take your shirt off, but you wouldn’t do it.

Finally I sat in the rocking chair and prayed silently for God to give you peace. Mom put some lavender on your blanket, and at last, your body went still in her embrace.

I realized then what a wise and healthy thing you had done in keeping your shirt on. You hadn’t felt settled enough to strip it off, because the hospital is not your home. And it should never feel like your home. These tests are not part of your routine.

You are our son, not our science experiment.

I wish I could say there won’t be anymore tests. There will. But if you ever start to feel as comfortable in an exam room as you do in your bedroom, we will have gone too far. I hope you will find a way to say so. I hope you will find the perfect movie quote to alert us to our overwrought efforts. We want to build you a future, son, but not at the expense of your joy. If we are to be worthy of your sacred trust, we will need that wisdom from beyond.

For now, I will tell you what you told yourself when the lights came back on and the test was over: “Well done, Mister Wazowski.” We are proud of you, kid.

 

-Dad

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#Blessed in the Land of Unanswered Prayer

Yesterday, I read this heartfelt post by Phoebe Holmes, the blogger behind Herding Cats. Like me, Phoebe is the parent of special needs child, lives in the Pacific Northwest, and laments the exuberant overuse of hashtags. Here is an excerpt:

I see this all the time. People who are all “God answers prayers!” and hashtagging photos with things like #miracles and #blessed and all that. And I can’t help myself, I roll my eyes.

… And I wonder… what must they think of us? I mean, if praying to God fixes things in their life, what am I doing wrong? Why is Maura still the way she is? Why didn’t God answer my prayers with her?

I wonder, do they all thing I’m not praying right? That I’m not a good enough Christian? I mean, back in the day, if you had a child with some sort of problem, it was seen as a punishment from God for the sins of the parents. Do they think my child’s health status is because of a lousy prayer life? That I should find Jesus and have a talk with Him about things, and then poof! My daughter is healed.

Good stuff, right? I mean, you might not agree, but she gets full marks for honesty. Haven’t we all felt this way?

There are two issues she raises that I want to address: the  meaning of “blessed,” and the implications of unanswered prayer.

First, I am going to come right out and say that I am blessed, but not in the way you might think. My life is far from perfect. I have experienced my share of heartache and hardship, and I’m still waiting for God to answer my prayers for my Jackson.

Even with those prayers unanswered, however, I still say I’m blessed.

After all, I have Jackson. He’s my son. I’ve got four other amazing kids, too, and a wife who has stuck with me for seventeen years. I also have a steady job, a house, and I live in one of the prettiest places anywhere. And you know what I’ve done to be so blessed? Nothing. I don’t deserve any of it.

Does that mean God is biased toward me? Certainly not. It is unfortunate that so many people think He rolls that way:  their business is doing well, so God must be endorsing their practice; their kids are healthy, so they must have prayed for the right amount of time; they experience an unexplainable positive turn of events–a miracle, even–so God must like them extra.

It’s just not true. God doesn’t play favorites. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”

Rain is a blessing for parched crops, but a curse for flooded streets. In short, there are too many factors we can’t see. We didn’t call down sickness or neurological disorders on our children, and neither do we pull down a forcefield of health and riches. Reality is far more complicated than that. Life just happens sometimes.

When I say I am blessed, I simply mean I am thankful. Most people do, I think. If every good and perfect gift really does come from the Father of Lights like the scripture says, I can look for all the good things in my life and marvel with gratitude. In fact, as a believer, this is my responsibility.

When Jesus used the word “blessed” in His famous beatitudes, He was making an even greater point: God’s face is turned toward all of us. His kingdom has come even to the poor, the mourners, and the persecuted. All of us are #blessed.

So why the unanswered prayers? Why does my blogger friend feel so forgotten by a God who is supposed to be good above all things? Why has my Jackson’s language gone away again? Why is there epilepsy? Why bloodshed? Why cancer? Why AIDS? Why terror and hate?

My answer, I admit, is radically unsatisfying:

I don’t know why.

I don’t know why it pours when it rains. I don’t understand the flooding. I don’t know why this one gets breakthrough while that one doesn’t. But I know we can’t pull a lever and win his favor. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “it isn’t as if He was a tame Lion.”

So I stand next to Phoebe with shoulders slumping at all the death, all the sickness, all the brokenness of this world, and all the brokenness inside my own heart. I want it all fixed. I want God to put it back together. And on the great day of resolution, I believe He will.

For now, though, on this side of eternity, we go on grappling. We research. Like the persistent widow, we ask, then we ask again. We pray and keep on praying. Who knows? Maybe He will finally answer us with an unexpected breakthrough. If that happens to us, we ought to celebrate. It’s only right. Hashtags away!

But what if it doesn’t happen for us? What if it happens for someone else? Herein lies the challenge.

We will want to roll our eyes, to torpedo their hashtags, to resent their gain, as if it has anything to do with our loss. That link, however, exists only in our minds. We can’t pin our disappointment on the joyful.

The Apostle Paul offers a different course of action. He says to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Who would have thought the rejoicing part would be the harder of the two?

No, it isn’t easy, but there is a new strength that comes when we celebrate one another’s victories. It is a painful brand of thanksgiving, but it is worth it. Community is born out of such sacrifice. Family happens here.

And when the party is over, when the “congratulations” comment threads die down, we can return to God to remind Hm of all the things left undone.

“God, I am still hurting. Still waiting. What’s taking You so long? Do you still see me?” God invites us there, to that raw and prayerful place, so we can pour out all our frustrations, all our anger, all our confusion. Our complaints might come out like David’s poems, complete with the snot and the vitriol and the cursing. That’s okay. God meets us there anyway. The Comforter can only sooth our aching places when we actually admit to having aching places.

Indeed, that is where He meets me. And most of the time, His answers comes not in a resolution but in a whisper that recalls the beautiful, throbbing tensions permeating the land of unanswered prayer. Yes, there is pain, but in oh so many ways, I am still blessed.

 

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Photos by my good buddy Robert Bearden

Parenting Dory: An Autism Dad’s Take on Pixar’s Latest Film

I’m a huge Pixar fan, and I was thrilled to hear reports that the Nemo sequel “Finding Dory” was essentially the story of a special needs child. So I took team Hague to watch it this weekend, leaving only Jackson, my 10-year old autistic son, behind. That sounds ironic, I know, but Jackson hates the original film. We think the sharks scared him off. Anyway, we loved the movie, and I want to share my perspective as an autism dad.

Ready? Good. SPOILERS AHOY!

***

Dory is, of course, the friend of Nemo and Marlin, and she suffers from short-term memory loss. This film flashes back and forth between Dory’s childhood and her new quest to find her parents.  As a side character in “Finding Nemo,” Dory’s forgetfulness created some delicious hurdles for Marlin, but this time, those memory issues take center stage. The flashbacks were of greatest interest to me. It was amusing to watch Dory continually botch Nemo’s name in the first movie, but it is much harder this time to watch her parents try to protect her in spite of her disability. Dory is an insatiable explorer, after all. A wanderer. This makes her vulnerable, and her parents can only do their best to drill their safety lessons through the gaps in her memory. They can only hope…

These lessons, these endless repetitions, were instantly familiar to me. My heart sank a little as I watched the faces of her parents struggle to stay optimistic, even while their child forgets her instructions for the thousandth time. I get it. All of us with wanderers get it. The dangers outside are all too real. The world is too cruel a place for such innocence.

Dory’s parents know they are swimming upstream in this fight, so they fall back on social stories, hoping that they will be more effective. She has an affinity for shells, so they turn this into therapy, teaching her to follow lines of shells toward home if she ever gets lost. But there is a sense of inevitability in their voices. All they can do is tell her again and again. All they can do is assure her of their love.

But of course, their lessons are not enough. Dory forgets. She gets lost, and the world finds her.

And now no one understands her. She is a foreigner everywhere she goes. “I suffer from short-term memory loss,” she repeats ad nauseum. The fish smile politely, then swim away out of sheer awkwardness.

Indeed, special needs can create a world of awkwardness. Strangers don’t know how to respond. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. So they back away. I’ve seen the way many kids react to Jackson. They look at him sideways, unsure of what to say or do. They are polite, but, you know, it just feels better to be with other kids. Normal kids. Kids who talk and stuff.

But that’s okay. Dory didn’t need a hundred friends. She needed one friend who would stick around. That was Marlin. When she found him and joined his cause something took. He didn’t run away, but became her new reference point. Now, he becomes an ally on her quest.

Our kids, too, need allies. Safe people. They need communities.

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This is community. (Jack being hemmed in by his brothers at the river…

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…and his sisters at Crater Lake.)

 

Yes, of course, all kids need community, but those with special needs need it more. Because, duh, these are special cases. My wife and I are beyond blessed to have such a community with our church family. I don’t know how people possibly get on without one…

But, as we soon learn, even the safest faces can wound a child. In one poignant scene, Marlin loses his patience with Dory’s disability. He snaps at her to go away and forget. “It’s what you do best.” He says it in frustration, not really expecting his words to sink in. She’ll just forget them anyway, right? Except she doesn’t. His words bruise her in a deep place—somewhere in her subconscious. Somewhere below her disability.

This also rang true. Jackson, despite being essentially non-verbal (again…) is listening. Always. And I know he takes in far more than he acknowledges. This remains a sobering consideration: how many times have I lost my cool with him? How many times have I stormed out of the room when his stimms gets too loud, or just thrown down an ugly “go away, kid!” I shudder with shame at the thought. It makes me want to embrace him all the more, and to reassure him time and again that I not only love him, but I also like him. That I take immense pleasure being with him. Those feelings are far more real than any fleeting frustration I might occasionally give into. But words aren’t easily forgotten.

Back to Dory… Soon, images and clues begin to filter through the fog of her memory, providing her clues that advance her cause. The more she remembers, the closer she gets.

This development may be the film’s most subtly subversive theme: Dory’s disability really has been a disability.

It’s not a strength in disguise. Dory’s memory loss has been the obstacle that has kept her from her parents, but now it’s fading, if only a little. And what’s more? Her disadvantage has given rise to a new strength: improvisation. Since Dory hasn’t been able to remember, she acts with her gut, often to great effect.

It’s a good lesson. Sometimes a child’s special needs turn into special strengths. Sometimes. But if these needs were predominately advantageous, then a diagnosis would earn a child a cape rather than a caring, understanding community. Lest we forget, special needs are, first, needs.

In the end, Dory requires more than improvisation to find her parents. She also needs a few good memories to come back, and a few good friends to come along. That combination does it at last: Dory is found. Or rather, Dory finds.

My son’s disability, like Dory’s, is an actual obstacle. It does no good to sentimentalize it.

Something has stilled Jackson’s tongue and confused his brain. We don’t know whether it’s his autism or some form of epilepsy or something else. We’re testing it all right now. But the diagnosis never was the point. My son’s value was never rooted in his abilities in the first place. He is not “special” because of his autism or because of some viral-video-ready talent that has popped up in lieu of communication skills. No, he is special because he’s our son.

Years ago, my wife started a blog which she called “Finding Jackson.” It remains an apt title. Our son’s autism was regressive. He was in full bloom before he went into his fog. And even though he’s broken through that fog in many ways, we are still in the process of finding him. We see the helpless expression on his face every day and miss his conversation. He wants to say more. We can see it on his face. He wants to tell us what troubles him. What delights him. He wants to let us in on his jokes, his irritations, his affections. But his mind just won’t allow his body cooperate.

So what does a special needs parent do? We heap love on him right here. Right where he’s at. And then, we do what Dory’s parents taught her: We “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” We keep trying to find him, because I promise you, he’s trying to find us.

 

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An Ovation For Mrs. E. (And all Special Ed Teachers Who Go Beyond)

It was a cool February evening, and Jack was running around shirtless, ignoring the Super Bowl festivities in the living room. It was also the day after his birthday. The boy remembered what happened two years earlier when he turned eight: snow fell on the valley. The angels had gifted him a white blanket of wonder that had lasted several days. It was a present we haven’t yet matched. They set the bar too high.

Still, he seemed grateful enough with his new Monster’s University read-along book and CD, and was meandering to and fro in front of the game, flapping his socks at anything he found interesting.

The doorbell rang.

“Oh good, you’re here,” the familiar lady said when we greeted her. She waved for her husband to come over. He carried something large in his arms. A white chest.

“Jack, Mrs. E. brought a present for you,” we called.

IMG_0064He came over, eyeing his favorite teacher with only a little out-of-context confusion. They opened the chest together.

“You brought him snow?!?” Sara and I exclaimed.

I’ve got a friend from Papua New Guinea who, in joyful moments, used to say, “If I was a dog, you should see my tail.” It’s one of my favorite of his many native phrases. Dogs smile with their entire body. And Jackson, in moments of exultation, does the same.

You should have seen his face erupt in awe. You should have seen him jumping up and down flapping the snow at humming-bird speed. You should have seen him sprinting zig-zags around the house in barely containable laughter.

“Jack, are you happy about the snow?”

He could only answer with red faced giggles; the kind where you run out of breath and have to gasp for more air. It went on for days.

That gift encapsulated the beauty and care of the fantastic Mrs. E. She taught our boy for the past four years, working with him one on one through endless hours of math and music, reading and recess, but her gentle care for him never stopped at the 2:30 bell.  She never accepted Jack’s rebuffs, and oh, does he rebuff! Our boy has perfected the use of the A-card. He often hides his capabilities from his teachers, pretending not to know the answers. Mrs. E. never accepted that. Rather, she would text us late into the evening, asking questions, probing for new ways to challenge him. To break through to him.

And break through she did.

Jack knows how to add and subtract now. He knows how to put sounds together to read words. There are a host of lessons—academic and social—that our boy has learned only because Mrs. E. cared enough to look past his protests and apply the right amount of pressure.

Why has he responded so well to her? Part of it, I’m sure, was sheer personality. She’s impossible not to like. Her spirit is both fun and gentle, and kids like him pick up on that more easily than the rest of us. But it can’t be that simple. Lots of people have great personalities. Only a precious few can “get through” to individuals the way that Mrs. E. did.

No, I think it was this: she laughed with him. She took fun pictures of him on field trips and sent them to us so he could look at them later. She sent him videos of her and her husband with Lightning McQueen on their vacation to Disney Land. She delighted in him.

Rather, she chose to delight in him. And he could tell.

Of course, she’s not alone. All of Jack’s teachers and aides have been terrific. The whole school has shown extraordinary kindness to him, and the administration has prepared the entire student body to understand some of the mysteries of autism. The other kids greet him every day in the hallway, and they celebrate when a rare word escapes his lips. It’s a beautiful culture the staff has created, and one which makes us rest a little easier in our son’s future. He will have people looking out for him as long as he lives in this town.

He will have to move forward, however, without his beloved Mrs. E., who retired earlier this spring due to health issues. Her absence has been felt by all of us. Jack has regressed these last months. Most of his language has gone away again, and we’re running a battery of neurology tests to figure out why. It’s not her fault, of course. Jack’s regression began before she left. But he misses her. School hasn’t been the same for him. Not by a long shot. She was more than a teacher.

Some will argue, “why should we be so impressed by someone who simply cares our kids? Shouldn’t we all be doing this?” And yeah, of course we should all care. Of course we should all take a special interest in people, especially those with special needs. But what of those who know go beyond what they merely ought to do? To call that type of care “pedestrian” is a great insult.

We should never shrug at the devotion of those who love with extravagance.

We can’t all deliver chests of snow to our young friends who crave it on their birthdays. But perhaps we can aim to love at least one person in the same way. And the only way to do that is to learn the delights of those we aim to love.

That is why Mrs. E. succeeded. Indeed, that is how all of our greatest special needs therapists and teachers break through to our children. And that effort is worthy of a standing ovation.

Thank you, Mrs. E. For everything.

In Defense of Jeremiah 29:11 (For the Graduate)

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)

Jeremiah 29:11 used to be a safe sentiment; a well-respected, if predictable, sliver of scripture to write on a graduation card. That isn’t true anymore. We are in the midst of a backlash against this well-known verse, especially on the Christian internet.  There have been a myriad of snarky blog posts and smug Facebook updates pointing out the fact that Jeremiah wrote those words to Jewish exiles who had survived the destruction of Jerusalem 2600 years ago. As such, his encouragement should not be applied to a modern graduate.

The critiques come in all snarks and sizes. Some are harsh, and some hilarious. Take this one from the Babylon Bee, a Christian satire site that I happen to love: “Man with Jeremiah 29:11 Tattoo Recounts His Time in Babylonian Captivity”. And on Twitter, there was this, my personal favorite:

While technically correct and entertaining, I find this to be a curious critique. After all, Jeremiah 29:11 is not so different from any other scripture. Every piece of the Bible has a specific context. A real author was writing to a real audience in a real circumstance a real long time ago. Jesus spoke the words of John 3:16 to an anxious first century Pharisee in the middle of the night. James directed his instructions about caring for the widow and orphan to “the twelve tribes dispersed abroad.” Micah’s admonition to “do justly and love mercy” was intended for the split kingdoms of Israel and Judah seven hundred years before Christ. We quote and adopt these scriptures all the time.

And you know what? It’s okay, because we read the scriptures not as direct recipients but as beneficiaries. They are our inheritance. The bible was not written to us but for us. Together, as a church, we read over shoulders of our ancestors in the faith: the Galatians, Pastor Timothy, the church of Ephesus, and yes, even the exiles in Babylon. We eavesdrop on history. Then, with the help of the church and the Holy Spirit, we figure out how to apply those stories, those covenants, those sacred truths to our lives.

The question, then, is not whether it’s acceptable to quote a Bible verse that was written for another, but whether the verse in question is applicable and true in our current circumstance.

So what about it? Does God have a plan to give a good future to a freshly-tassled graduate?

In a general sense, the answer is obvious. God has good plans for everyone. It’s why Christ came to earth in the first place. He has a particular affection for the human race, and he wants us all to experience the fullness of joy, which is life with Him. The Gospel of the Kingdom proclaims the promise of Christ’s utter re-ordering of the world toward restoration. Broken things will be rebuilt. Ashes to beauty. Orphans to sons and daughters. This is message of redemption: regardless of the circumstances, God has a plan for our good.

There are particulars to be haggled over, of course, concerning judgments, hardships, and the circumstances that lead us to the cold realms of pain and destruction. The scriptures foretell of those grim realities. We will have trouble in this world. Nevertheless, Christ goes through all of it with us, and His modus operandi is hope.

The fact that the vast majority of Christians would agree with this principle leads me to think the real problem is less theological than cultural. In the digital age where we celebrate SELF above all else, we tend approach everything, even the scripture, with a narrow, individualistic bias. It is hard to fault a modern dreamer, then, for reading Jeremiah 29:11 through the lens of his own material success. He reads the words of the prophet and sees visions of his own professional triumphs and creative conquests. And somewhere inside him, he thinks, “Wow. God’s about to make me into something extra special!”

In this case, the critics make a crucial point. Jeremiah 29:11 is not a guarantee of personal achievement or even a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

Worldly success has never been the measure of God’s intentions. Rather, He calls us all into a life of self-sacrifice and generous humility. In short, He calls us to enter into His redemption story.

I cannot speculate about what God’s customized dreams might be for the graduate, but I am confident in this: His plan is good. He calls us to receive His love and to give it away for the rest of our days. He will show us how to do that, step by step, provided we will listen well and stay humble.

Whether we are living on the banks of the rivers of Babylon, or in an off-campus apartment above the Waffle House, that is a hope worthy of embracing.


photo credit: As The World Keeps Turning … via photopin (license)

To Preserve Their Innocence

It’s a crisp evening in small-town Oregon, and the boys and girls of summer are out early, crowding the metal bench in  numerical order from the white numbers on the backs of their navy blue jerseys. Aligned like this, they look like too many birds on a wire. They are first and second graders, and the game is coach-pitch baseball. There is no score-keeping, except the mental tallies running inside the heads of most of the players.

The golden-haired number three–that’s Sam. He’s mine. You can hear his voice above the others, leading the cheer for his comrade at bat: “Let’s go Ezra, let’s go! Let’s go Ezra, let’s go!” They’ll go on like that for every batter, unfettered by the grown up notions of monotony and self-awareness. Their voices sweeten the breeze. You can’t help but smile. When a kid gets a hit, they “Woo-hoo!” If he strikes out, they “Awww. Good try,” and raise up the chant for the next batter.

“I love how they cheer for each other,” I tell Gonzalo, my friend and fellow dad.

“It won’t be like this forever,” he says.

I sigh. He is right. Soon, these innocents will discover the ugly sides of humanity, and even baseball will look different. They will taste betrayal and mockery. They will feel the stings of their own failures. They will find that they do not measure up to anyone’s standards, least of all their own. And then, they will be tempted by jadedness. The ugliness of experience will pollute the evening breeze, and cheering will all die down.

As a dad, my first inclination is to keep my son here on this field of simplicity. I don’t want him to taste the temptations to vanity and lust. Not yet. I don’t want him to learn of the horrors of Auschwitz. Not yet. I don’t want him to find out he is more Clark Kent than Superman, made from the same deformed flesh as the father he still considers indestructible. Not yet.

I swallow, thinking of his sisters. In a month, they will both be teenagers, eyes already wide to humanity. I feel a pang of embarrassment the more they learn. “Yes, this is the world we have all prepared for you. We should have done better. I’m so sorry.” They take it all in, accepting. Knowing. Not as surprised as I would have hoped. The depravity of this world began its desensitizing magic long ago.

If a father’s job is to shield his children, we have all failed already. Their jerseys will be soiled by spots of blood and the stench of regret.

But what if a father’s job is not to prevent brokenness, but to show our children how to be mended? How to admit where life hurts, and to receive the balm of forgiveness and grace? What if a father’s job is to model the process of restoration?

I cannot prevent their hearts from aching, but I can point them toward true healing. I can let them hear my own regrets, and show them my own scars. I can model the words, “please forgive me.” I can teach them prayers of confession, for I am not strong enough or pure enough to overcome the world. There is only One who is. And He waits for them.

I am being mended. If my children will let themselves be mended too, we can all–with gloves in our hands, crutches under our arms, and ice packs at our ankles–limp back out to the diamond, laughing the laugh of the redeemed.

***

Sam is all shoulders at the plate. He swings awkwardly, prompting the coach’s wife to come out and adjust his stance. A little closer to the plate. Bat a little higher. There. He hears his name chanted from the bench, but misses again. The coach has one more ball at his feet. He tosses it. Sam swings.

The ball dribbles down the first base line. He takes off running and kicks up dirt all the way to first base. He is safe. For now. Today is a gift that will not last forever, so I breath in the innocent air and say a prayer about tomorrow.

A Letter to My Autistic Son on his 10th Birthday

Dear Jackson,

Ten years ago, I was watching Super Bowl 40 when your mom went into labor. The silly woman… did you know she told me we could watch the rest of the game before we left for your delivery? She really did! But I knew that decision might come back to haunt me, and I was eager to see you anyway. My first boy.

We left during the game and met you a few hours later. We gave you the middle name Landry after the legendary Cowboys’ coach, because football is a part of Hague culture. Part of my world. Like every dad, I had visions about sharing my world with you. We would watch sports and read Narnia, and you would have lots of friends to better annoy your sisters.

By now, you know what happened next. When you turned two, you lost all your words, and we felt like we lost you. We couldn’t bring you into our world. That’s when we began searching for ways to reach you. To connect with you. We’ve been on that same journey for years now, and the truest piece of advice we have heard was this:

“Stop trying so hard to bring him into your world. Come into his world instead.”

We’ve done our best to follow that advice, son, especially this past year. And right now, on the eve of your 10th birthday, the most prominent features in your world are your movies. I confess, I don’t understand the appeal of all the DVD covers and screenshots that adorn our living room bookshelves, but that doesn’t matter. You do. You line them up, you flap them, you quote them, and you sometimes even watch them.

It is only natural, then, that these movies have become our access point into your world. Into Jackson-ville. We have become experts in Pixar and Dreamworks. We watch everything from Monsters to Minions, we do the voices, and we create all manner of fan art for you. And I suspect that you love it.

Last month, you asked a random question. “Cars 2 or Despicable Me 2?”

You might have been talking to yourself, but Jenna and mom took it as a question.

“Well I don’t really like Cars 2,” mom said.

“Yeah,” Jenna agreed. “Despicable Me 2 is funny. Cars 2 is not as good.”

You responded with this crystalline jewel:

“All right, just because everybody hates it doesn’t mean it’s not good!”

The house exploded in laughs and wonder. You may not be classified as “non-verbal” anymore, but you don’t ever string that many words together to make a sentence. We knew right away that you were quoting Gru from Despicable Me after he tasted Dr. Nefario’s new jelly recipe. You even delivered the line in Steve Carrel’s vaguely Russian-ish accent.

Scripting movie lines is an hourly occurance for you. What excited us was the question of timing. Had you just re-purposed that quote for your current conversation? Were you using Gru’s words to defend Cars 2? Had you just found a way to communicate to us using your own favorite things?

Maybe some day you can set us straight on your intentions, but for now, it takes faith. And I’m okay with faith. There are plenty of reasons to believe.

* * *

“Come on, Jack. It’s bed time,” Jenna said.

You resisted for tradition’s sake.

“Jack, let’s go. I’ve got to brush your teeth.”

You put on a pouty expression and gave another quote from an agitated Gru: “You’ve got to be pulling on my leg!”

* * *

“Jack, do you like school?” mom asked early one morning when the house was quiet.

“No, okay,” you said. That’s just how you say no.

“Why don’t you like school, bud?”

“Awkward,” you said, lifting the line from Rio.

“Oh, is it awkward at school?”

Your voice went low as you answered her. “I… awkward.”

* * *

These are the moments that make us believe you know exactly what you are saying. You are in there, son. We know you are. We know that there is more to your world than we ever could have imagined.

Do you already understand all our conversations? Do you just sit back and take it in? Do you feel frustrated that your body has trouble making words of its own? And why do you like Cars 2 so much? Is it Mater? Do you relate to him? Do you feel… awkward?

My dear boy, your family cheers for you. We want so badly to share your frustrations, to join your laughter, and help shoulder your fears. We want to experience the beautiful messiness of life with you. And it is beginning to happen. Thanks be to God, it is beginning.

* * *

When I got in the van you were waiting for me in the front seat, all buckled up and giddy. I was taking you to get McDonalds fries, your favorite sticker-chart reward. When I started the van, you looked up at me with one special request: “Hiccup?” You asked.

I launched right in, doing my best impression of the Stoick the Vast from How to Train Your Dragon. “Hiccup, son! We’ve got to gooo gaaaate yer fraaaainch friesss!”

Your eyes glowed. I know why. The scene is made up, but familiar. A boy and his father.

“I don’t know, dad…” I countered in Hiccup’s ever-quivering voice. “What if a dragon takes one?”

Your smile stretched as I switched back to Stoick.

“They woooon’t, son! Not if ya eeeeat them fossssterrrrr!”

You fell apart in laughter even before the tickling began. We shared every drop of that moment.

There are so many moments. So much laughter is ours now.

Your future can look however you want, son. Jackson-ville is your world after all, not mine. But I’m so glad you have chosen to let us in. Thank you for letting us in.

We love you, buddy. Happy Birthday.

When our Prayers Fly like Pebbles From a Widow’s Hand

There is a widow hiding outside the judge’s bedroom in the dead of night. I’ve seen her. Don’t worry, she isn’t up to anything salacious. She just wants him to hear her case. As if 2 a.m. is an opportune time. As if this particular judge would listen at any hour. She’s exhausted, leaning up against a tree in the shadows with a fist full of pebbles, but she’s not going away.

It’s dangerous. It’s stupid. Someone else might see her and haul her away. Yet there she is, sizing up the wide window across the lawn just above where the old man sleeps. She feels a stab of guilt for even knowing that fact. It took some snooping. What must the neighbors think?

She takes a breath, wipes the hair out of her eyes, cocks her arm back and lets the stone fly.

Tap.

She holds her breath. Did a light just come on? For a moment, she panics and hurls herself back into the shadows. What if the man sees her? Wait–that’s the point of this entire plan, isn’t it?

The widow makes her face hard. No desperation. Just focus. He can’t outlast her. That is the message. This issue is not going away, so he might as well give in.

She steps out of the shadow. Slowly. The curtain inside rustles, then yanks to the side. And there he is. Eyes sunken. Hair in knots. He’s wearing a bathrobe and waving a white flag. He tells her he will listen. For the sake of his own sanity, he will give her a hearing.

And the great Storyteller says,

“Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (Lk 18:6-8 MSG)

I always thought this story was about the judge. About how he’s different than God. He’s arrogant and unfeeling. And if even he will give in, than how much easier will God give us breakthrough?

I was wrong. This story isn’t about the judge. It’s about me.

I’ve been praying for breakthrough for a long time. I want to have a conversation with my autistic son. A real, honest-to-God “how was your day, buddy? // not bad, except i skinned my knee” exchange. I want to cut through all the scripting gibberish and hear where he is aching. Is it his legs? His head? His heart? I want him push pause on all his glassy-eyed flapping so he can finally answer when I ask, “what are you thinking about, pal?”

I’ve been praying for years. Even though we’ve seen some growth, we are still miles and miles from any kind of language that ushers in relationship. And relationship is everything.

The widow’s tale, then, is my story. And if you still pray unanswered prayers, it’s your story, too.

The challenge for us is simple: many years from now, at the end of everything, will people like us still retain the courage to throw our pebbles? Because faith is sometimes measured in the asking. Pestering judges is not a trait of weakness but a badge of high belief.

Wear that badge, friend. You hurt, but you have not lost heart. How do I know? Because you’re still asking.

It’s been six years, and I’m still here, too, waiting behind my tree. Some nights I just lean up against the trunk and go to sleep. But not tonight. Tonight I remember my son and take aim at the Judge’s window. He’s a good Judge, this One. He hasn’t answered me yet, but He’s a good Judge. And maybe tonight is my night…

For Those who Ache on Father’s Day

I know this day sucks for you. You’ve been ripped off in the dad department. Most days, you hardly even think about it. Sure, there’s that dull ache in your psyche, but you can usually ignore it now. You’ve taught yourself how. Just like you’ve taught yourself all manner of things.

Does it help you to realize you’re not alone? I’m sure you know that already. Even if your friends haven’t shown you the scabs on their memories, you have seen it in the culture. You’ve seen it in the cynical presentation of fathers on TV. When was the last time you saw a good one? A really good one? My friends and I used to pose this question all the time. Why are TV dads so distant and aloof? Why are they incapable of being serious? Why can’t they, for the life of them, offer one piece of solid advice that their wives do not have to come sweep up afterward?

Cliff Huxtable was the shiniest of exceptions. He was always caring, but firm. He knew his kids inside and out, and he did not let them walk all over him. He was smarter than they were, but always deft enough to validated them, and guided them toward better wisdom. He was never intimidated by his wife’s graceful brilliance, but welcomed it and complimented her with his own keen insights.

We loved Cliff. He was a fantasy father for the millions who did not have one, and an uncle, at least, for those who did.

But I can hear you objecting: “Yeah, but look what happened! Even Cliff Huxtable turned out to be a—-”

Yes. Yes, I know the real-life allegations, and I can only imagine how that twists the knife on a day like today. Another father, letting us all down…

Listen, this is a crappy day. I’m not going to try to cheer you up, or tell you that you shouldn’t feel the way you do. That resentment… that frustration… those are real pains, and you have a right to feel them. Your dad had a job to do, and it was more than just helping you into the world. He was a sub-creator, and a sub-caretaker. He was duty bound, in everything, represent the One who brought all of us into the world: to bandage your knee; to hold you close; to listen. Oh, how he should have listened! But he didn’t.

This throbbing pain that rises to the surface on a day like today—this reason you want to stay home from church and mute any reference to “father’s day” on Twitter—it is a wound not easily healed. Even Dr. Huxtable, when he was still squeaky clean, could not do it. You cannot sub-lease a pop culture stand-in and live vicariously through his child actors. Fantasy only has the power to distract, not to fix. No matter how you bury your pain, you will get the same temporary result. It will resurface.

There is only One with the power to soothe those old wounds.

He is the One who your father was supposed to represent. And now, even that title makes it difficult for you to trust Him. How can you call God “Father,” and why would He even want you to?

Friend, I cannot explain why things worked out the way they did, but I can assure you of one thing: this original Father of yours is different than the one who hurt you. He has wept with you in your loneliness. He felt every fear, ached with every disappointment, burned with you in the midst of every searing-hot betrayal that branded your soul and convinced you that you were an orphan.

But you were not an orphan.

I will not try to push you toward Him today. I will simply tell you that He waits for you on His porch swing with tenderness and feasting. And through His gentle embrace, He will give you reason to trust again.


photo credit: Memory Lane via photopin (license)

To Know What Would Have Happened

I will spare you the melodrama and tell you plainly what happened last weekend. It was one of the scenarios parents of autistic kids fear most. For the first time in two years, Jack ran off.

We were having a perfect Saturday. The kids were playing outside in our freshly cut lawn, Sara was making lunch, I was writing fiction, and Josh Garrels was crooning in the background about “Home.” Then, my phone rang. It was my buddy Aaron.

“Dude, I just got Jack! He was running on the other side of 6th street.”

I bolted up and, for an instant, found myself scanning the room for him against all logic, as if my friend had found the wrong kid. Because Jack wasn’t gone. He couldn’t be gone. He was in the backyard…

“Jack got out!” I yelled for my wife to hear.

They were five blocks away. I ran outside to cross the street, but I had to wait for an inexplicable line of traffic. On my honor, there were more cars than I have ever seen on this street. And Jack had just crossed it…

Sara grabbed the van and picked me up two blocks down. We drove the remaining three blocks and found the two of them waiting across another busy street at a fenced in playground next to some basketball courts. Jack was standing atop the slide, shirtless as always, wearing elastic pants that were sagging halfway down his bum. He was clearly proud of himself.

“I didn’t know where else to bring him,” Aaron said. “He was just running down the sidewalk.”

“Shhh. Quiet,” Jack was scripting when he saw me. It was a line from Monster’s University, his latest obsession, but it was also a clue into what he had just done. He had sneaked away on purpose, just like Mike and Sully in the Monster’s library, and he thought it was funny.

We promptly installed an extra noisy alarm on our front door, put a new lock on the back gate, and have been scouring the internet for GPS bracelets—the kind that don’t come off without a fight. We also figured out where he was headed that day: to a house where he had recently seen a DVD case that he wanted (from the first Monsters movie, of course). He was running in the right direction, but he had another nine blocks to go.

Two words dominate a parent’s mind in moments like that: “What if?”

What if he had taken a different street? What if Aaron hadn’t been walking through his front yard to spot him? What if some creeper saw him? What if the drivers on 6th had not seen him? What would have happened?

And then I think of the words CS Lewis spoke through Aslan the lion: “To know what would have happened, child?… No. Nobody is ever told that.”

I have often read that scene and wondered if it was true. Is no one ever told? And is there not some benefit in visiting the specters of alternate history?

This week, my mind is settled. No, there is no benefit. Speculative horrors are an inevitable prison for those prone to worry. Negative fantasies—future or past—leave no room for gratitude or peace. When I do anything more than acknowledge them, I cannot stop and take a deep breath. Even the happiest, sun-shiniest days become tainted with two concerns over which I have no control: things that might have happened, and things that still might. Some day. Any day now.

So how do we recovering pessimists vanquish these ghosts? By focusing on what actually is.

This story of Jack’s escape, it is, truly, a happy story! My son is safe. He went on his own adventure. He crossed two busy streets without incident, and just so happened to walk by the house of my one of my dear friend who already knows and loves him, and who just so happened to be working in his front yard.

I must take note of these positive plot twists, and acknowledge that Providence Himself must have been watching over him that day, coaxing him to safety, whispering, “Shhh, quiet. You know what? I love you, son.”

When We Thought You Might Die

“Six years old,” I say to myself, looking at my son from across the little MacDonald’s booth. He is disassembling his bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. I tell him he can eat it like a sandwich.

“I know,” he says smiling, continuing to pull his food apart. He is always confident, but today is his birthday. He can do whatever he wants.

Six years. How could it be six years. It was yesterday. No, it was a hundred years ago.

“Sam, I haven’t told you much about your heart. Do you know how worried your mom and I were for you when you were born?”

“No,” he says, ripping out a piece of bacon.

“We found out your heart had a problem right when you were a tiny baby. Real tiny. And we were scared.”

“Why were you scared?”

I swallow. We have never spelled this out to him before.

“Because sometimes little babies who have heart problems don’t live.” There it is.

“You thought I might die?”

“Yes.”

*****

I grew up crisis free.

My parents loved me. I never wondered whether they were proud of me because they told me they were. My family was whole. My teachers were encouraging, my friends were loyal, and I had only the tiniest acquaintance with death. It all added up to an unsettling form of insecurity. I knew my good fortune would not last forever. I knew crisis would find me. And I wasn’t sure if I would be able to survive it when it did.

When Sam was born, his heart sounded like Darth Vader. They called it a murmur, but I heard a breathy, almost squishy sound. They sent us to San Francisco for tests. I was on edge when the nurse called us back for the results.

“Come on in. Take a seat.”

My heart–my healthy heart–pounded when I stepped into the cardiologist’s office. My eyes went straight past the thin, gray haired man to the giant window overlooking Golden Gate Park. It had to be one of the finest office views on the planet. I clench the back of the leather chair, not wanting to move.

The doctor looked up at me with feigned nonchalance.

“Why don’t you sit down,” he said.

One thought dominated all others: “So this is what crisis feels like.”

*****

Sam is soaking it all in.

He listens intently while taking small bites and staring out the window. This is his thoughtful posture, where he goes from ninja-hero-superspy-cowboy to tiny young adult. He could be a therapist. Tomorrow.

“The doctor wanted to fix your heart, but you were so small, and it is very dangerous to try to fix a little baby’s heart. So Mommy had to keep you alone at home. Just you and her and Jack. Nobody could come over and visit you because we didn’t want you to get sick.”

“He wanted me to get bigger so he could fix my heart?”

“Yeah.”

*****

We sat with him in a small room adjacent to the big metal doors.

sam_6 months

The scariest doors in San Fransisco. A lady came out in a mask and blue scrubs. She knelt in front of us.

“Hi little guy,” she cooed.

He smiled the greatest six month old smile that ever was. Then again, he always smiled. Sam had broken all Hague baby protocols by refusing to cry. It was the greatest relief in our nine year marriage: this child, of all children, did not cry. His cardiologist had warned us that crying could deplete the oxygen in his blood. He could wear himself out and turn blue. He could pass out. It could cause brain damage. It could…

“Oh, look at that smile. You want to come see me? Come here.” He reaches for her like he reaches for any happy face.

I squeeze my wife’s hand. We wear phony grins. Lumps like softballs are lodged in our throats. Our eyes are wet with fear.

“You want to come with me little man? Okay. Let’s go. Say goodbye to mommy and daddy.”

We wave. They disappear behind those doors. Those wicked, violent, life-saving doors. And all of creation stands still.

*****

“So the doctors had to cut open your heart so they could fix it.”

I take a sip of my coffee.

“I didn’t feel it?” he says, already knowing this part. He takes great pride in the scars on his chest, like any boy would.

“No, because they gave you medicine. They poked you with a needle and the medicine made you fall asleep. You couldn’t feel anything.”

“Could I hear anything?”

“Nothing.”

“Not even the cars?”

I grin. “Not even the cars.”

*****

We spent four hours in the waiting room.

My wife sent out texts to family, and I read a spy novel. Three hours passed, and I put the book down. Now I was concerned, but not for my son. I was concerned for me, because I felt I should be concerned for my son but I wasn’t anymore. I had been on edge for the past six months. But now, in the very moment that his most vital organ was being sliced open, I felt nothing but peace and confidence. And I was sure I had broken something inside myself. Some emotional muscle.

And the angels giggled above me. For they know the mystery of a “peace that passes all understanding.”

******

Sam sips his orange juice, drinking it in slowly with the tale.

sam_born“Now you’re six years old. You will still have to see doctors about your heart. That’s why we went to Portland a few months ago. And they will have to fix your heart again. But we’re not scared anymore. It’s not an emergency now. God protected you.”

“Mmm-hmmm,” he says with a grown up sigh. “God always protects his people.”

Six years old. I look down on him, thinking about the complexities of life and theology. How sometimes even God’s people go through horrendous pain. How there will be unanswered prayers and sickness, and heartache. I think about his big brother, whose life has been defined by his “severe autism” diagnosis. How his mind might be whole for all we know, but whose mouth is still held hostage by his uncooperative body. How his diagnosis came on the heels of Sam’s surgery. How that double crisis had us reeling for months on end, leaving us feeling decidedly unprotected.

Yes, there will be many questions Sam will have to wrestle through. So much uncertainty. And more crisis. But I know this boy will be all right, because he will never be alone. God always protects His people. Sometimes through doctors. Sometimes through miracles. And sometimes through the comfort that follows the river of tears.

We walk to school together, and he hands me his orange juice because his hands are getting cold. I smile and ask him what he wants to do this year. His seventh year.

“You want to become a spy? Or a Dallas Cowboys football player?”

He skips in front of me. “Yeah. Just whatever.”

Just whatever. He can be whatever. Because he is whole. The angels are giggling again. And I can hear them whisper, “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights.”

In Defense of Happy Stories

My friend Janae only wants to watch “H.E.A.” movies (Happily Ever After.) If it doesn’t end with with the shy guy and the pretty girl riding away on the gilded stallion, she’s not terribly interested. Every time I make fun of her about it, she makes me this falsetto Chewbacca growl and tells me to back off. Nobody ever accused Janae of being a pushover.

“HEA movies” are the bane of postmodern existence, second only to Thomas Kinkade paintings. They don’t win the awards or critical acclaim because they aren’t realistic. Life isn’t all kisses and sighs and sunsets. It’s full of coldness and blood and starvation and cancer. The stories we tell with art should reflect those factors. Besides, it is not nice to raise people’s expectations to unrealistic levels.

There are shorter H.E.A. stories all over the internet now. You’ve seen them. They are tailor made to go viral:

“Dalmatian Puppy Shows the True Meaning of Christmas!”
“Boy Without Feet Auditions for a Tap-Dancing Role, and YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HE CAN DO!”
“Dolphin and Her Former Shark Enemy Finally Meet Face to Face, and we DARE YOU NOT TO CRY!”

Autism parents get more of these than most others, I’d wager, and they usually look something like this:

“Boy with Autism Sings a Michael Buble Hit, and it will BRING YOU TO TEARS!”

Or like this:

“Yada Yada Yada, Something About Carly Fleischmann.”

And you know what I do when I see these? I move on. I almost never click them. Because I am such a postmodernist: I sneer at H.E.A. stories.

These stories come to me face to face even more often, especially on Sunday mornings. I’ve preached openly about my own struggles with Jack’s condition—even stood up on stage and cried like a baby once—and whenever I do, I get a boatload of encouragement from a congregation that has embraced my son. I love these people. But in the midst of the encouragement, I often meet a first time visitor who wants to tell me about a friend’s cousin who has an autistic daughter who was doing badly but now is doing so great, and…

*Eyes… glazing over.*
*Concentration… Waning.*
*Head… Nodding anyway.*
*Keep… Smiling…*

My mind presents arguments against the stories. Every kid is different. They’re not all as severe as Jack. Not all kids have special skills that will “BRING THE AUDIENCE TO THEIR FEET!” Not all kids are going to break out of that non-verbal box they live in.

Nice to meet you, first time visitor, but can’t you see I’m trying to manage my hopes here?

This scenario played out a few weeks ago, but something changed. Just when my customary eye glazing began, I caught myself. This story I was hearing was not fiction. There was a real kid who had real breakthrough. Her parents had probably felt all that I had felt. They were tired of the H.E.A. stories just like as I was. And then… breakthrough.

I forced myself to listen. I forced myself to be encouraged. And you know what? It worked.

There is an inherent weakness in the postmodern insistence on despair, and that is this: the reality of joy. Of breakthrough. Of Good News. Joy flies in the face of our desaturated tragedian lives and emo soundtracks. The major chord has a way of breaking through the dissonance, and it is indeed beautiful.

The happy stories remind me of the childlike wonder of fairy tales. The promise that we can overcome. They whisper to us, as Lewis says, of the mountain where all the beauty came from.

And all of this humbles me. It makes me want to kick a rock and hang my head and tell my friend Janae that I am wrong and she is right. That I need H.E.A. stories as much as I need the sad ones. Because joy is at least as realistic as sorrow.

A Letter to My Autistic Son on his 8th Birthday

Dear Jack,

You’re turning 8 today, and the snow is falling just for you. We don’t get much snow in the valley, but all of a sudden, it’s coming down, and you are right now glorying in the experience. It is a testament to you that none of us doubts the possibility that God sent the snow just for your birthday. Because you delight us, son, and it stands to reason that you delight the hosts of heaven even more.

While I hope the snow lingers a bit, it must not interrupt the mail, because your present is coming. The “American Spy Car.” You’ve been checking the mailbox for it every day. When it comes, you will do what you always do. You will line it up on the bookshelf with other toys of its genre–in this case, Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Finn McMissile–and then you’ll flap the daylights out of them all. And I will think of the autistic boy in Japan, who could not speak but learned to type. He wrote a book explaining why he does the things he does. Flapping? He explained that light can be so harsh sometimes, and the act of flapping filtered it. Calmed it. Made whatever he was looking at more beautiful.

Is that why you flap, son? To make things more beautiful?

There was a time when these questions depressed me, but they intrigue me now. You intrigue me. Especially after what happened last week.

You brought this book home from school. It was a red, cardboard book for very young children. Every page showed the same two characters: a big penguin and a little penguin. “I like it when we hold hands,” one page said, or “I like it when you tickle me.” You opened it up next to your mother and smiled brilliantly, pointing at the big penguin, then the little one:

“Jack and Daddy,” you said.

Mommy sent me a frantic message about it. When I came home, you were almost as eager to say it again as I was to hear it.

“Jack and Daddy.” It made you giggle. Your eyes were alight. And mine were welling up.

It’s not a simple thing, son, to understand relationship. This has been why your mom and I sometimes still get so sad about your experiences. The limitations of your autism have stopped your tongue, and severely hampered your connections with people. With us. And this is not the way it is supposed to be. It is wrong.

You have probably heard me say things like “God created us for relationship,” because I am a preacher, and I say that often. I believe it with all my heart, and that is the top reason why we fight for you. Because you are our son, and we want you to experience all you were meant to experience. And the most basic experience a child ought to feel is the love of his own family.

We didn’t know you felt it.

But then came, “Jack and Daddy.”

Did you understand what those words would mean to us, my boy? Did you say them on purpose, to assure us that you do know our love? That you get us?

I hope that you can read this someday, and understand the joy that comes with your overtures of affection. Just a glance from your eye does wild things to our hearts, son. And I am honored beyond words to be penguins with you.

On Praying Dangerous Prayers

Once, there were three brothers who found a magic lamp. They were good brothers, passionate brothers, with a deep affection for justice. So when the Genie emerged and offered them three wishes, none of them even considered themselves. They all thought of the terrifying lions which had long threatened the safety of their village.

The older brother knew what he wanted right away. “We need awareness. I wish for an advanced early warning alarm system that will sound when predators are near.”

“Brilliant!” the second one agreed, “And lions are beautiful, but dangerous. So for my wish, I want for everyone in our village to understand just how dangerous lions can be.”

The Genie snapped his fingers. “Both requests… done.”

The two slapped each other on the back and turned to their younger brother. His mouth was twisted in consideration.

“What’s it gonna be, kid?” the Genie asked.

“Make me a lion tamer.”


* * * * *

I spent last week with a gang of young lion tamers in Texas who are not satiated by “awareness” alone. They stand out amidst a culture obsessed with educating one another. We pin colored ribbons to our jackets, and pat ourselves on the back for telling people why. We find enlightening quotes over filtered images. Then we pin them, share them, and urge our friends in 140 characters or less, “Be aware of my cause!”

We bloggers are often the most guilty, especially on sites like this one. We write about subjects that many people know only a little bit about. We say a few honest words about these subjects, and then, out of nowhere, people gush about how “courageous” we are for saying them. Because that word, especially, has lost its meaning. Its worth.

Real courage does more than speak. It does more than raise awareness about personal difficulties or societal sins.

Real courage does.

These young people I mentioned, they are doers. Even now, they are preparing to roll back blatant injustices in far off lands. Places the rest of us might not even be aware of. Places where injustice does not even bother hiding. They will smell it everywhere they go. It will break their hearts in a hundred places. And yet, they go with healing in their hands and songs on their lips.

They do not have to go. In fact, they are paying through the nose for the opportunity. But they are volunteering anyway, because they understand “what is good and what the Lord requires,… to do justly, and to love mercy.” They go because they ache for the broken. They go because Jesus went.

One of the evenings I was them, I told this group all about my son Jack, and about the risks that special needs children face. After my talk, one young lady opened her mouth to pray, and courage—real courage—came out. “Lord, give us opportunities to love these children. Bring them into our lives.” In another setting, with different people, those might have been empty words. Not in this group. I knew she meant them, because she already is doing. And I fully expect her request to be answered. Dangerous prayers usually are.

I want to pray dangerous prayers, too. I want to live a wilder story. After all, as Mr. Lewis reminded us, Christ Himself is not a Tame Lion.

Savoring Somersaults

When a five year old yells out, “Wanna see a somersault?” it is not a question. When he is already dressed like Superman, you had better be watching.

I was watching, from five states away, through my 3.5″ iPhone screen. I watched him plant his head into the carpet, kick up, then fall sideways. Enthusiastic cheering ensued from all sides. My girls tried to take the phone–they just wanted to tell me about their day–but their brothers kept stealing the limelight with their dancing and super hero moves. The phone shook with my wife’s laughter.

I lay there and considered the miracles of technology that allowed me to be with my family, even when I was two thousand miles away. I marveled about how grown up my daughters are, and what a little brute my 2 year old is. But most of all, I thought about apps: “I wonder if there’s a way to record Facetime calls so I can watch this again later.” That thought dominated my capacities for the next 5 minutes.

When I recognized what I was doing, I felt a sting of rebuke. Rather than tasting the moment, I was asking for a to-go box. How utterly silly that was, especially when I could just call them again the next day. Why was I trying to hoard this experience like someone who is about to lose it? It was a small thing, and I might have let myself off the hook, but this is a trend for me.

I try so hard to save things that I forget to savor them.

Case in point: we are a family who takes walks to the park. They usually involve a double stroller, a couple of bikes, and sometimes a tricycle. When we reach the playground, I pull out my phone, and my kids pull out their processed-cheeeeeese-smiles. I follow Jack around the most. “C’mon kid, this is for the blog,” I say. He looks at his feet and tries to duck away from me. “Smile, buddy,” I plead.

“My-o, buddy,” he parrots back.

I squeeze the trigger rapidly and stop when he runs away. I don’t know whether he’s headed for the slide or the bench, because I want to see if I got any good ones first. I flip through them and pass the phone around. “Awww, that’s a good one, dad. He’s almost looking at you,” my girls tell me. And they’re a little interested, I suppose, but they really just want to play lava monster.

When it gets dark, we head for home, where we will relive our playground adventure. I might even throw on a sepia filter. It will go nicely in my digital library with the other thousands of forgotten moments. The best ones will go in a Facebook album, because I’m cool like that.

And years down the road, my kids might even remember that precious evening when we had yet another photo shoot.

Pictures used to prompt memory. Now they can replace it.

I worry about these Instagram filters and Facebook albums. I worry that they could become graven images; sacred stones of remembrance that, by sheer accident, replace the tangible affection with loved ones. I worry that our retina displays are getting between us; that we are living vicariously through our own thumbs.

I’m not assuming that you are the same way. My wife finds joy in the act of taking pictures. Plus, she has a lousy memory, so iPhone photography is a healthy activity. If you’re like her, I applaud you.

But this is about the rest of us. The ones who enjoy gadgetry too much. The ones who take our phones out and flip it between our fingers when we’re idle for more than thirty seconds. For me, technology has become like a nervous tick. I don’t bite my nails, I read the news online. All of it leaves me dryer. More detached from the beauty around me.

And I’m tired of it.

My wife and I went to a Civil Wars concert a couple of summers ago, and I couldn’t wait to hear them sing Poison and Wine. There’s this one part in the final chorus where John Paul and Joy jump the scales together in crystalline harmony. It’s my favorite moment on the entire album. When the song came, I got ready. When the chorus came, I started recording. And when the song wound down, I realized I the moment had flown past me. I couldn’t even remember it.

Oh sure, I had captured it with my hand-held sub-sub-sub par recording device, and I could enjoy that muffled, 20-rows-back, heads-in-the-way rendition ad nauseam. But as for that genuine raw, live beauty… I had missed it. It missed me.

I don’t want to miss live beauty anymore. Especially when it’s doing somersault in my living room.

Waiting in the Land of In-Betweens

It happened at the end of a long church conference. I was exhausted, but the preacher was in no hurry. I hate it when they don’t hurry. 

“If you are the parent of a special needs child, come up and get prayer.”

I wanted to slip out the back, but six of our church staff were with me, and I knew they wouldn’t let me wimp out like that even if I tried. They had held up my arms for too long.  So I dragged myself to the front of the sanctuary where a line of young ministry students stood eager to pounce. I chose a tall Canadian man in a brown, business-like sweater.

“My son Jack has severe autism,” I told him beneath the ringing synthesizers. “He’s seven, and he can’t speak and… yeah…” I stopped there to brace myself for a loud and sweaty prayer. But my Canadian merely closed his eyes and started to whisper. I leaned in to hear. He sounded gentle and confident. A prince next to his father’s throne. And then it happened: He said the word “breakthrough,” and I started to weep. 

It was a frustrating moment because I thought I was done with all that. For more than two years, I had walked that familiar path of grief. Denial I remember, but only because my mom used it in an email, as in: “I think Jack has autism and you are in denial.” I laughed, thus proving her point.

Anger and Bargaining came and went quickly, but Depression lingered. There were two, maybe three years of numbness and hiding places. There were specialists and therapies for Jack, and for me, a new personality that wanted to be left alone. I used to be an extrovert, they say. 

At the time, I failed to recognized the commonness of my journey. Only when I reached the end of it did my friend tell me,

“You’ve been going through the stages of grief, and I think you just reached Acceptance.” 

It was a surprising revelation for two reasons. First, I had always thought of grief as something that follows funerals and longs for the past. I missed the obvious other kind; the kind that slumps forward, casting a permanent shadow over tomorrow that can no longer be.

But even more significantly, my friend’s assessment of my progress was spot on. I had come to terms with Jack’s condition. We had been playing together and laughing together like never before. Even on bad days, when he might be in the middle of an epic melt-down, I could still feel peace. Joy, even.

And yet despite all this, I still found myself at the front of a sanctuary in a snotty mess. Still craving “breakthrough” more than anything in the world.

Seven months have passed since that night, but I haven’t really left the foot of the stage.

I confess I want holes knocked through the wall that keeps my boy distant from me, my wife and children. I want sunbursts of language, comprehension, and relational abilities. I want him to have a future.

Some have told me to let this hope die and embrace my new normal. They say autism is part of who my son is, and if I struggle with it—if I treat his condition as a thing to be cured by human or Divine hands—I am rejecting him. This viewpoint has its merits, but the accusation inside it knocks the breath out of me, because I already accept and embrace my son. For everything he is. I delight in him, his curiosity, his affection, his laughter. And if he never learns speech, or safety, or independence, I will love him no less. 

Others have told me just to try harder and refuse contentment. They imply that it’s my fault Jack hasn’t been healed or cured yet, and if I would just get with the right therapy or take authority (i.e., pray louder), then I would finally catch my breakthrough. That accusation hurts, too, because they don’t know how hard we have tried; how many nights we have held him, wept and begged God to intervene. 

Here is my dilemma: if I pray too hard, I start fixating on change, and I become less satisfied with who Jack is today. But if I accept too hard, then I give up on a better future for my boy. And try as I might, I cannot see how to call that “loving.”

How, then, am I supposed to live? Neither of these extremes is correct. Not for me, anyway, and not for many parents of special needs children. I trust there is a solution, but it must come from Christ Himself. Who else knows how to hope all things, endure all disappointments, and love without condition?

So for now, I wait in a land just east of Acceptance and west of Breakthrough. Here, I get swept up in my son’s unbridled laughter, then in quick flashes of torrential fear. Here, I thank my Father for my boy, who is enough, and in the next breath, beg Him for more. This is where I wrestle with God: in the already not yet kingdom. The Land of In-Betweens. 

What my Autistic Son is Teaching Me About Measuring Results

Here’s an accomplishment: I’m 34, and already on my fourth midlife crisis.

My wife says it has all been one crisis chained together. She might be right. All I know is I want a Harley, or something less practical for a father of five…

What’s my problem? Oh, just the same old midlife-crisisey stuff, but mostly this: I feel like I’m not where I should be. I have yet to finished a book I’ve been trying to write for five years. I do not have a master’s degree. I have never been picked for “So You Think You Can Dance,” and it’s been like, four years since I have won my fantasy football league.

Results are hard to measure. Success looks so relative. For me, every time I accomplish something, I look up to see a dozen other people who accomplished it ten years earlier, with ten times the results. “Oh you’re blogging? And you’ve got almost 400 followers? That’s cute. I’ve got half a million, and a book deal with Harper Collins.

Stupid twenty-five year olds getting their stupid books published…

But then I look at my son. By almost every societal measure, Jack is years behind his peer group. At seven, he doesn’t talk, ride a bike, tie his shoes, or soap himself up. He has no interest in wiffle ball or show-n-tell.

There are some formidable challenges here that can weigh down on the psyche of any parent. Concerns about the future (let alone the present!) can consume me during rough patches, especially during regressions: awful days of stress and meltdowns. Defeats. However those instances do not create a complete picture of Jack’s progress. If I insist on counting defeats, then I must also count victories. My own intellectual integrity demands it.

For example, in the past two years, Jack has learned:

  • How to initiate play with his siblings
  • How to say “mommy” and “daddy”
  • How to go potty by himself (!!!!)
  • How to stall his bedtime by claiming the potty privilege 3 times an evening. (Isn’t that so NORMAL? I love it!)
  • How to find the Netflix app no matter what folder we hide it in

There are more, of course, and most of them aren’t earth shattering discoveries either. Just real, measurable results. And these simple victories seem to fuel him.

Simple victories. I’ve had a few of those recently, too.

  • I learned to whistle two years ago, and now I rock the Andy Griffith theme like a boss. An old boss.
  • I’ve preached some sermons this year that I thought were decent, and one in March that I was actually quite proud of (because I didn’t say “are you with me?” or “does that make sense?” fifteen times…)
  • I am writing often, and some people are even reading what I write.
  • And then, of course, the bigger victories:

    • I bought a house for my family last fall, and we adore it.
    • I got a beautiful girl to marry me fourteen years ago, and she hasn’t left yet.
    • We made five kids, and all of them like me.
    • I came through a long, hard season, and I did not lose my faith that God is good.

    In order to properly measure success in life, we must acknowledge our wins and not just our losses. Then, we must, like Jack, take at least a little satisfaction in those wins.

    It’s a simple lesson, but it’s sturdy enough to help me laugh off my own fake midlife crises. (Yeah, they’re fake. Mostly.) I might not be as far along as I’d like, but I’m a blessed man with an amazing family. And together, we are moving forward.


    * Photo by Sugar Beats Photography

    Forgiving Cosmo Kramer

    In the 90’s, Thursday nights were a high point of my week, because I knew Kramer was going to find another way to explode into Jerry’s apartment, and it was going to be awesome. But then, years after the show, the entire country saw Kramer explode on stage during a stand-up routine, and it was not awesome. To say Michael Richards’ rant was ugly is far too kind. He turned on his audience. The hecklers were black, and his storm of vitriol zeroed in on that fact. It became a racist, almost frightening tirade. Say it aint so, Kramer!

    Richards has pretty much disappeared form the public eye since that disgrace, and I only recently saw him resurface in Jerry Seinfeld’s simple, ingenious little web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” I’m not able to embed the video, but the picture will take you to it. It get’s serious and heavy around 14 minutes in. I’m not ashamed to say I almost teared up.

    I wrote last week about people who demand mercy when they’ve been caught doing something. Brokenness and humility are a pre-requisite to restoration. What struck me most from watching this, aside from the fact that Jerry Seinfeld is an excellent friend, is that Michael Richards is a broken man. He obviously still feels the weight of it every single day. He ruined his career that night, and while he has apologized, he himself has never gotten over it. And I confess, I feel sorry for him. I want to see him restored as a man, and one day, even as an artist. I want him to be forgiven.

    Some will certainly scoff at that. After all, what he did… it was awful.

    Tell me, who needs forgiveness if not the people who sin awfully? Who needs more grace in today’s society than the recovering racist?

    David was an adulterous murderer. Peter was a coward and a backstabber. John was a scheming opportunist. Paul was a religious bully and an agent of violence. Christ came to forgive them of those crimes, and me of my aggressive self-righteousness.

    I realize that Michael Richards did not offend my race. I get that it’s easier for me to forgive than it is for others. But when a person humbles himself, comes to terms with his sins, and does not demand absolution… isn’t that the kind of man we want to see absolved?

    To See Your Thoughts Take Shape

    I want to trip inside your head
    Spend the day there…
    To hear the things you haven’t said
    And see what you might see

    I want to hear you when you call
    Do you feel anything at all?
    I want to see your thoughts take shape
    And walk right out.

    -U2 (“Miracle Drug”)

    “Waffle! Waffle! Waffle!”

    The word rushes out of Jack’s mouth. He is panicked. We try to calm him down. We offer him waffles, but he turns his head. We know it’s not about the waffles, but we had to try.

    I get down to his level. “What’s the problem, bud? What do you want?”

    He reaches up my shirt sleeves and digs his nails into my arm. “No scratching, Jack,” I snap, a little too harshly. He doesn’t hear me.

    “Waffle! Waffle!”

    That’s when the screaming starts. As a baby, long before his autism diagnosis, Jack had the rare ability to cry like a Ring Wraith (Nerd points to you if you catch that reference and can hear it right now.) He grew out of it, but found it again all of a sudden when he was five. It took us two weeks to discover why: he had been on a Monsters, Inc kick. If you’re like Jack, there’s a lot of fine screaming to emulate in that film. We made the DVD disappear, and he soon forgot about his talent.

    In the last six months, however, the scream has resurfaced. And this summer, he has perfected it. It’s loud, a bit scary, and immensely sad.

    Sometimes his problem is obvious: he is annoyed by the baby’s crying, or the iPad battery died, or he can’t find one of his prized cans of Bush’s Baked Beans. Other times, his cries are a complete mystery. He cannot tell us what’s wrong. The screams are not respecters of setting: they come out in the car, the grocery store, or the backyard. I worry that one of our neighbors might call the police, and not out of suspicion, but out of sheer concern for the boy (“Hurry! It sounds like he’s dying, officer!”).

    Yes, it’s been a long, lousy couple of moths of tantrums and regressions. Not that this is new. Summer is always hard. I suppose if you’re as OCD as Jack, the lack of a routine must be frustrating.

    Sara has caught the brunt of it. I’m at the office for most of the day while she’s at home trying to decipher all of this. She told me tonight she thinks that “waffle” is just his frantic attempt to communicate that something is wrong. Maybe he is scared. Maybe he is hurting. Or maybe something just seems off. So he reaches for a word–any word–and that’s the one that comes. It makes sense since he eats waffles every day.

    I like her theory, if only because it sounds so normal. When stress comes, we all have our go-tos for comfort: Nail biting, griping, eating. Given enough stress and enough habit, those responses can morph into unhealthy addictions. For Jack, maybe just the idea of waffles is enough to fill that comfort gap.

    But that’s the most troubling part. We don’t know why he needs comfort, and he cannot tell us.

    Forgive me. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic. We’re okay. We’ll get through this. I just hate that this wall still stands, four years after his diagnosis.

    I want to see your thoughts take shape, boy. More than anything else.


    Non-Apology Apologies

    Paula Dean, Anthony Weiner, Ryan Braun, Riley Cooper, A-Rod… Is it just me, or do scandals come in clusters? All of them did something. Said something. Took something. And when the news broke, they crafted carefully worded speeches to atone for their sins, just like thousands of embarrassed celebrities that came before them.

    Sometimes they seem sincere and contrite. Other times, they offer stubborn, ridiculous defiance. Worst of all, some offer maddening, squishy Non-Apology Apologies.

    I recognize these, because I have used one or two of them myself. They don’t work out well for celebrities, and they don’t work out for regular folks who blow it, either. These are really just disguised defenses. Nothing more. And in a court of law, only those who plead “not guilty” are allowed to defend themselves. (And if you’re not guilty, then why are you apologizing?)

    So here they are, for all of us: the top 5 Non-apology Apologies. If you’re saying “I’m sorry” while using these phrases, you’re probably doing it wrong:

    5) “If I’ve offended anyone…”

    You have. That’s why you’re here. And it sounds like you’re still not sure “if” you did anything wrong. If you’re not sure, then stop and listen to the one(s) you’ve offended. Because what you have there is not an apology, son.

    4) “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through…”

    What, this thing that you did to yourself? I’m sure it sucks! And I have sympathy. I really do. But why do you seem to think you are the victim all of a sudden? If you are the guilty party, then by definition, you aren’t the victim. (And for future reference, sin generally does injure the sinner. True story.)

    3) “I realize now I’ve made mistakes.”

    Gosh, I hate to sound snarky, but most of us realized that about ourselves when we were six. And even back then, it didn’t work as “get out of jail free” card. We know you’ve made mistakes. But right now, it’s all about specifics. What did you do?

    2) “I deserve a second chance.”

    Wait, you deserve a second chance? Methinks you are confusing mercy with justice. Nobody in the history of sin has deserved a second chance. We call grace “amazing” precisely because it is undeserved. Forgiveness is only beautiful because guilt is so hideous. If you think you can demand mercy, you are probably not ready for it. (Note to Christians: If you are the offended party, you don’t have much a choice, here. You need to forgive. Jesus was pretty clear on that.)

    1) “I’m not perfect. There’s only ever been one perfect man…”

    Do you hear that head banging against the wall? That’s St. Augustine. Even he isn’t buying this one. Yes, all of us have sinned. But right now, we’re not talking about any of that. We’re talking about you. We’re talking about now. Did you do this thing? Because you didn’t have to, and you know that’s true. You’re too powerful to play this card. Don’t do it.

    So there they have it. Five apologies that will actually make it harder for other people to forgive you. And since we are looking for actual reconciliation here, best to stay away from them.

    My Son has a Reputation

    Two days ago, Jack got one of those embarrassing bruises on his chin. You know, one of those that makes you scared to take him to the grocery store for fear of being reported to Child Protective Services. It happened at school during recess. He is totally fine, but it looks like someone colored purple marker all over his chin.

    Then this morning, I was walking him to his class. He goes to “regular” class with a personal teacher for the first half-hour, and then to his special autism classroom. In the hallway, an irregular flood of students greeted him.
    Read more

    A Letter to My Autistic Son on His 7th Birthday

    Dear Jack,

    I’m writing this letter in faith that one day you will be able to read it, understand it, and forgive us for the mistakes we are making with you.

    Tomorrow is your birthday. Seven years ago, I was watching the first quarter of the Super Bowl and your mom’s water broke. I joked that it meant something. That you wanted to come out and watch the Steelers beat the Seahawks. I took it for granted that we would someday watch football games together and practice fade routs in the back yard. Read more

    Confessing Cocaine and Twinkies

    It was a Hall of Fame calibre excuse. One which hasn’t been seen since the Twinkie Defense. And it worked.

    Here’s the story: A professional tennis player tested positive for cocaine. Big trouble for him. But his explanation was profound. He claimed the cocaine kissed off. Read more

    When Moses Needed Matt Foley

    mattfoleyandmosesThe Burning Bush episode in Exodus 3 and 4 ranks among the most compelling scenes in the Old Testament. Here’s Moses, once full of promise and potential, but now considered the biggest Draft Bust in history. He’s a total washout now, living with a desert tribe, traveling in tents, looking after sheep.

    Then he sees a bush on fire. He watches it for a minute, and notices that it’s not falling. It’s not turning to ash. Somehow, the thing still looks completely intact. He just has to take a closer look. Read more

    On Grief, Gratitude, and Whether to Take Your Suit to the Hospital

    Today, I am honored to share a story I wrote about friendship, mourning, and thanksgiving over at a wonderful blog called Confessions of a Funeral Director. Read more

    The Shirt and His Boy

    jack & tigerThis is my son Jack. He has autism, as some of you know. But chances are, you have never met his favorite shirt, Tiger.

    Tiger got his name from a character in Kung Fu Panda. Technically, it was TigRESS, but that’s unimportant. What matters is that Jack looked down at his striped sleeves one day while watching the movie, said the word “tiger,” and fell in love. He refused to take it off. Read more

    The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

    Spiritual Warfare by Ron DiCianniIt’s been three weeks since Newtown, and I think we’ve pretty much talked about everything. Guns, mental health, medication, school security, and especially God. God-talk is always trending at times like this. People “turn to God,” and “lean on God,” and “find God” in the midst of suffering. Others ask “where was God?” or “why, God?” or “how could a good God do this?” In almost every case, the speaker rightly assumes that God is at least supposed to be the good guy. What I don’t understand is this: why is there so little talk of the bad guy?

    The fictional villain Keyser Soze rightly said, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” It’s true. Read more

    “It’s Your Job to Make Me Believe”

    Gabriel and ZachariasHappy 2013, friends. A new year also means a fresh start in Bible Reading plans. I’m going with the Life Journal plan, developed by Dr. Wayne Cordeiro. It will take me through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice, plus a healthy dose of Psalms and Proverbs. I’m planning to blog at least once a week about what I’m reading, in addition to my other topics of autism, stories, etc. Read more

    Life Through Wide Angle Lenses

    lamppostWhenever tragedy strikes, we make statements like “That really puts it in perspective.” And it’s true. Jarring events impose themselves on us, forcing us to remember the treasures we have neglected. Treasures wearing our rings, or wrapped in footy pajamas. And then, when the sadness fades, we revert again to our old patterns, glorifying the trivial over the truly precious.

    Do we need bad news to keep us grateful? Do we need death and sickness to remind us of the beauty of life? Are we that pathetic?

    In a word, yes. As a society, I’m afraid we are. But we don’t have to be. Read more

    Do Bad Worship Lyrics Keep Us Wretchy?

    I recently read a beautiful post by Addie Zierman over at her blog “How To Talk Evangelical” about hyperbole in worship. In it, Addie talks about our tendency to go over the top in the songs we sing, as if we really have had nothing but joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts all the time and every day, since we gave our lives to Jesus. As if the Christian life is all unicorns and grassy hills full of strawberries. Her main point: Let’s be real, friends. We need authenticity in our worship.

    Addie is right about all of this, but I want to take one more step. Our lyric problems do not end when we embrace authenticity. In fact, if we stop there, we might end up in spiritual defeatism. It happens accidentally, but it happens often. Read more

    “Invisible” Autism Families; How the Church can Help

    My family doesn’t get out much. You might see two or three of us at the grocery store, the school parking lot, or even at the movies. But you would never know that we have five children, because we almost never go out as a family. Restaurants are not worth it, and don’t even get me started on theme parks and state fairs.

    We are like many invisible families with autistic children. We stay home. Read more

    50 First Dates with My Autistic Son

    Note: This article originally appeared in Prodigal Magazine online in August of 2012.


    Last week, I put on my strict daddy face and stared down my daughter from across the table. “You’re nine years old today. This has gone on far enough. You must STOP growing!”

    She grinned back at me and repeated the word “nine” at least seventy-four times. I slumped into a puddle of self pity and shut my ears.

    It is a game we have played for years. When Jenna turned two, she traded her onesies for princess dresses, and I missed the good ole days. Not long after, the dresses were nixed for cowgirl jeans. Before I knew it, the whole thing spiraled out of control, and now I hardly recognize my little girl. She’s putting feathers in her hair, drinking mochas, writing grown up sounding stories and obsessing over Phil Mickelson (Yes, the golfer. I’m as puzzled by this as you are.)

    So I tell her I want her to stop growing up. But I am lying.

    Because as hard as it is to watch your kids grow older, it is infinitely harder to watch them stay the same age.

    I should know. I have a six year old with Autism.

    Jackson was diagnosed when he was three, but we knew something was wrong for a year before hand. He had been a normal boy, laughing and interacting with his sisters, learning new vocabulary and throwing it in whenever he had the chance.

    Then he hit a wall. I cannot remember exactly when he regressed, but I remember that he stopped exploring. Stopped playing. Stopped looking us in the eyes. Everything he had learned about his world was gone.

    Specialists have worked with him for the past three years. We enrolled him in a school with autism experts. We put him on a special gluten-free, casien-free diet. We bought him an iPad for the special education apps. And we have loved the cheese out of him every day.

    In some ways he has improved. Unlike many autistic children, Jackson is very affectionate and good natured. He actually enjoys being with us–something we could not have said three years ago.

    But in other ways he is still three.

    He does not speak to us, except to ask to go outside, get a snack, or to play with our phones. These are usually two or three word sentences. Some days he remembers his words, but most days, he just pulls our hand to the thing he wants, and we have to remind him what to say.

    “I… want… chips… please…”

    How many times have we taught him that sentence? Hundreds. No exaggeration. He will learn it, and the next day, we have to teach it all over again. I feel like Adam Sandler with Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates!

    The most frustrating aspect of this is that my wife and I are both skilled teachers. We thrive on boiling down difficult concepts into concrete ideas that are easy to absorb. Our son, for whatever reason, simply cannot absorb language. We’ve thrown everything we have at him, and very little seems to stick. The experts are just as baffled as we are, and there is no answer in sight.

    Early on, the cycle of hope and disappointment nearly sidelined me as a dad. I had to let go of all my visions for the future, to clean the slate and start engaging my son with real love–the kind that is full of patience and empty of any performance requirements.

    In short, I had to learn to love like my Father.

    G.K. Chesterton wrote about God’s child-like ability to exalt in the monotonous. God makes the sun rise, and then, like a little boy being tossed into the air by his father, He says “do it again!” It seems the Creator does not get bored as easily as I do.

    I get tired of the duplicate lessons that teach the same words over and over again. But in moments of more relaxed clarity, I smile to myself. Is it really so bad to have to teach my son to say “I want chips please”? After all, it is short and simple, and unlike more complex petitions with multiple subordinate clauses, it always earns a salty, delicious reward.

    “I want chips please” is a perfectly good sentence, and I look forward to teaching it to my son again tomorrow.

    Can I Love my Son AND Pray for Change?

    Jackson woke up this morning at 6 with a drum solo. It was pretty awesome. He started by beating his hands on the sliding glass door, waking his sisters from their living room slumber party. I smiled. He really does have great rhythm. Then he turned the microwave into a bass drum. I got up.

    I took his hand and led him to the conga drum next to the TV and said “Dude, this is a drum. Play this.”

    He scrunched up his nose and smiled. Then, he played a masterful hand-drum concerto. It lasted for five seconds. (The glass door is so much more interesting…) Read more

    Fighting Autism with Lame Theology

    Jack sitting in the barnI just finished reading a great post entitled “THE AUTISM DADDY RELIGOUS MANIFESTO.” The anonymous blogger has a nine year old boy with severe autism–worse than my son’s, whose is formidable enough–and was put off by trite religious platitudes that were supposed to make things better. He is not a believer, but he is honest, and I want to stand next to him in addressing this “comforting” statement to autism parents:

    “God never gives you anything you can’t handle.”

    First of all… really? Are we still using that line? I had hoped it would go out of fashion with TestaMints. Because nobody in the history of pain has ever been healed by religious denial. Ever. Read more