Autism, Incarnation, and Joy

Jack and Emily CrainMy son Jack will be two years old at the end of January. He is beautiful and healthy. He has an amazing laugh. He makes adorable car noises when he plays with his Elmo automobile in the bathtub. He thinks snow is the weirdest thing ever and his mind was blown this week by Jello, which he couldn’t decide whether to treat as a food or a toy. He likes our little 20 pound white Westie dog, but he’s still learning how to pet her gently. His favorite book is Alpha Ducks and, frankly, it’s a dreadful read. Sometimes he’ll be in the middle of playing with some blocks or eating a snack and will stop everything to walk over and give me a hug and a kiss. It only happens about once a week, but when he does that…it feels like the world stops for one perfect moment.

Six weeks ago Jack was diagnosed with autism.

Even now there are tears welling up in my eyes as I type that. In my best moments I am deeply saddened because I know this world is difficult enough without having to start out at a disadvantage from most people. In my worst moments I am deeply saddened because the picture in my mind of what our lives would look like — what we would enjoy doing together, what his interests might be, what his capacity might be — has become far less certain. Autism is an incredibly broad spectrum, and it ranges from severe and debilitating to mild and unnoticeable once someone has had therapy.

The truth is we don’t know what this will mean for him. And we don’t know what it will mean for us. What I do know is this: my son is still the same little boy today that he was seven weeks ago before we got the diagnosis. He’s the same little boy who loves snow and Jello and dreadfully written books. And while he may or may not be able to live what we would consider a “normal” life, he can still stop the world for perfect moments. How many people can say that?

I am learning what it is to be a father in so many different ways, but this latest news brought to mind a comment Henry Nouwen once made about God’s glorious love: “I cannot fathom how all of God’s children can be favorites. And still, they are. . . God loves with a divine love, a love that cedes to all women and men their uniqueness without ever comparing.”

Jack may not ever “measure up” to a standard of grading that the world holds to. Or he may. What I am learning is that he is my favorite. And it doesn’t matter if he makes the grade. I love him with a love so perfect, so pure, that all I know to call it is divine. It feels like a love that I have on loan from God. The love of a father on loan from the Father.

Ancient Community in NYC

New York CityThis evening I joined with 100 church leaders from all over the country to do three things: contemplate our Christian faith, worship, and enjoy a Sabbath meal together.

I believe Christianity is true for lots of reasons: philosophical reasons, textual-critical reasons, archeological reasons, scientific reasons, and even narrative reasons. In fact I spent several years immersing myself in arguments for and against God and it was quite some time before I felt comfortable affirming my faith based on these different criteria.

But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Tonight I found myself in awe of the community of faith I found myself in. That 100 people from all over the country gathered in the basement of a hotel in New York City and worshipped together; pursued God together; broke bread and blessed food together. Something happens in a group like that — community, connection, fellowship. We find ourselves a part of something so much bigger than us. And while there are other religions and other people of faith who have their own traditions, none of them seek to humbly approach the Divine in quite the same way that Christians do.

And my tribe has been doing it for thousands of years.

Even if I lay aside all of my reasoned arguments for being a follower of Christ, I find something immensely valuable in being a part of this community; of contributing my little part in the context of the whole.

I was reminded of that tonight.

Q Practices – Day One

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A few days ago I wrote a review of Eugene Peterson’s book, The Pastor. Today I had the privilege of participating in a small gathering of church leaders in New York City who have come to be mentored by Peterson this Tuesday and Wednesday.

We’re discussing practices of spiritual wholeness: keeping the Sabbath, establishing a rhythm of prayer, living simply. These are the rituals of the Christian seeking God, and of God seeking his people.

I thought I’d share a few things that stood out for me today.

Peterson on growing up Pentecostal:

I was lucky to grow up Pentecostal because I believed that everything in the Bible was livable. I wasn’t concerned with whether everything was literal, but I believed it to be livable.

On the never-boring and intriguing vocation of pastoring:

The only time there was ever any order was for an hour on Sunday morning. As soon as the benediction had been spoken all hell broke loose.

On the a non-formulaic approach to pastoring:

Being a pastor is the most context-specific vocation that exists. You can’t simply copy techniques because you have a unique congregation and you are a unique person who has specific gifts, strengths, and callings. Don’t try to be someone else. I think we’ve got to be content to not do some things when we don’t know how to do them.

On what surprised Peterson most about Jesus’ prayers:

How short they were. They were so short, succinct, and punchy. It turns out that prayers don’t need to be long, but the prayerful life should be long and we should live a life of prayerfulness.

There is a lot more I could post here, but I just wanted to give you a taste of what we’re discussing. For those who are interested, one hour of Peterson’s discussion will be live-streamed tomorrow on the Q website.

I’ll try and do another post tomorrow or later this week to give a few more updates.

Book Review: The Pastor

The PastorSometimes a great book catches me by surprise.

Last year I read The Pastor by Eugene Peterson based solely on the outstanding reviews it had received on Amazon’s website. I rarely purchase anything on the strength of its reviews alone — Transformers is sitting with 4 out of 5 stars at the moment, so you know the system doesn’t always work — but Peterson intrigued me.

Before reading the book all I knew of Eugene Peterson was that he was the author/translator of The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible that I’d used on occasion. The audience Peterson had in mind with The Message was contemporary — another way of saying that many Biblical scholars didn’t care for it because Peterson didn’t write a word-for-word translation. I had found it incredibly helpful for those who were reading Scripture for the first time and those who were looking to revitalize their Scripture-reading with a fresh take on this ancient text.

The Pastor is a memoir; it filled me with respect for Eugene Peterson and I was incredibly encouraged by his journey and his commitment to seeing his people grow in Christ-likeness. He pastored the same church for 29 years before retiring in 1991 and he has used the time in between to shepherd younger leaders and to help a new generation understand the Biblical texts.

Peterson recalls so many Christ-filled moments in his book, but I thought I’d share a few of my favorites.

On redeeming his congregation:

If the life of David that comprised prayer and adultery and murder could be written and told as a gospel story, no one in my congregation would be written off. For me, my congregation would become a work-in-progress—a novel in which everyone and everything is connected in a salvation story in which Jesus has the last word. No reductions to stereotype…

On refusing to boil the work of the pastorate down to “fixing” people:

In the disordered times in which we live, pastors can’t get along without [psychologists] Dr. Wall and Dr. Hansen. But their work is not my work. Knowing they are there to do their work, I am free to do my work. And my work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life.

On his wife Jan’s calling to be a pastor’s wife:

For Jan, “pastor’s wife” was not just being married to a pastor; it was far more vocational than that, a way of life. It meant participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God’s grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who didn’t fit were welcomed, where neglected children were noticed, where the stories of Jesus were told, and people who had no stories found that they did have stories, stories that were part of the Jesus story. Being a pastor’s wife would place her strategically yet unobtrusively at a heavily trafficked intersection between heaven and earth.

I could go on like this for a long time. I have well over 100 highlights in this book, and I had to restrain myself from coloring every page yellow.

If you’re serving as a pastor, I can’t recommend this book enough. Read it, marinate in it. I legitimately believe that Peterson’s book has already helped to shape my ministry and I look forward to re-reading it on an annual basis.

Help Me Doubt

doubtI need your help.

Next weekend I’m leading a retreat for the high school students of Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church. We’re calling it “Curious” and the goal of the weekend is to get students to think about their faith.

Within a few short years, every single one of these students will be leaving high school to begin college or a new career. If they haven’t thought about their faith by then, they’ll certainly be forced to do so quickly. We want to give them the tools to question everything.

College almost wrecked my faith. I questioned God, Christianity, the problem of evil, faith vs. science, the eternal destiny of every person, etc. For a long time I wasn’t sure where I would land.

Did I mention I went to a Christian school?

If I hadn’t discovered the tools to think for myself I likely wouldn’t still be in the church today. We want to begin crafting that in these students.

So this is where I need your help: put yourself back in high school. What do you wish you would have known about doubt, questioning, your faith, the Bible, etc. that would have been helpful as you entered your college years? If you felt inadequately prepared to face the world with your version of Christianity, what would have aided you in thinking for yourself?

Please put your responses in the comments section. Feel free to post anonymously if you feel the need.

God and Steve Jobs

life magazine biafraA few months ago I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple who passed away in October of 2011. I was impressed with the book and enjoyed the level of access Jobs had allowed Isaacson while researching it.

Much could be said about the biography, but I wanted to draw your attention to what might appear an insignificant event toward the beginning of the book. Isaacson is explaining Jobs’s faith background and shares this encounter between a young Steve and his pastor:

Even though they were not fervent about their faith, Jobs’s parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays. That came to an end when he was thirteen. In July 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?”

The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.”

Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?”

“Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”

Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church.

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