What a Roller Coaster Ride with my Autistic Son Taught Me about My Heavenly Father

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“Connor understands more than he lets on.” If I’ve heard that once I’ve heard it 1000 times. I believe it’s true. Autism might have left my son’s world silent but his mind is very active. People who spend any time interacting with him soon come to realize that there’s a lot going on upstairs.

But how much does he really understand? How much can he comprehend of this world around him? That’s always a big concern for us and it was in the forefront of our minds when we took Connor and Grace to Holiday World a few weeks ago. Continue reading

You Can’t Earn God’s Grace . . . Or Can You?

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We use the word “grace” a lot and we do our best to define it. I think our definitions always come up short, though.

We say things like “God’s unmerited favor” and we all “oooh” and “aaah” at such a notion. It sounds good, but it’s still confusing.

We say that grace is a gift, which is accurate. We tell people, “you can’t earn a gift.” But deep down we know we can. In fact, we know we have earned gifts.

When we were little our parents would leave us with a sitter and tell us, “Now, you be good and I’ll bring you a present.” A present is a gift, right? We did our best. We may not have been all that good, but we were close. When they got home we asked where our present was and we received a gift. It was a reward for being good.

Let’s just admit it, that’s how gifts work. That’s how birthdays work, it’s how Christmas works. Just ask any kid who has been threatened with a stocking full of coal. It was in the words of our Christmas anthem. “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So be good, for goodness sake!”

And so we grow up with this understanding that if we’re good we will get a gift. Then we come to church and we’re told that we are saved by grace “through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8, 9 ESV)” We sing the songs that tells us we were a wretch and were lost but we know that somehow we caught God’s attention and he gave us a gift. If years of gift-receiving has taught us anything it’s that we must have been good.

Maybe our problem isn’t with the definition of grace, though. Maybe the problem is with our identification with the receiver of a gift.

My wife and I named our youngest daughter “Grace” because we realized we had been the recipients of God’s grace. However, I think it’s my son Connor who has taught me more about what it means to receive grace from God. As I’ve written before, Connor is profoundly autistic. He is non-verbal (but noisy) and he is very much controlled by his own desire for sensory input and stimulus. If he weren’t so cute you would think he was a self-centered little jerk.

Connor’s birthday is October 3rd and the truth is he doesn’t care. To him it’s just another day. Connor doesn’t have a calendar where he marks off the days until his birthday. He doesn’t start dropping hints about what he wants around the middle of September. There are no sleepless nights in anticipation of what he will receive the next day.

Every year my wife asks me, “what are we getting Connor for his birthday?” And there are times when I have answered, “Does it matter?” We could get him a cardboard box and he would be happy. He doesn’t know it’s his birthday. He doesn’t understand the fuss (though he likes the cake). And most importantly, Connor doesn’t know how to be good so he will get a present. So does he still get a present?

You bet he does!

Connor gets a present because we love him. He gets a present because we consider him worth celebrating. We give him presents because his weakness, his lack of understanding, does not change the fact that I am his daddy and he is my son.

One of Connor’s favorite gifts is a green stuffed animal named “Scout.” In fact, Connor has received three of them over the years and will probably receive a fourth this October (Scouts tends to get loved so much the Velveteen Rabbit would be green with envy). Connor cherishes Scout, but he doesn’t boast about his gift. He doesn’t tell other people about what a good boy he was to receive such a gift–he just enjoys it. He hugs Scout, plays with it and falls asleep next to it. And on his birthday when Scout suddenly becomes stain-free and re-fluffed he will simply go on loving his gift.

Now, how do you receive the grace of God?

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God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

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Today I preached the second sermon in my summer series, “Did God Really Say . . . ?” The topic was the often quoted but completely unbiblical old chestnut, “God helps those who help themselves.” The challenge I’m finding with this series is tying an unbiblical idea to a Biblical passage. I did a lot of research last week and finally settled on Paul’s struggle with his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, a great example of God’s help in our weakness rather than our strength.

I feel like I overcame what I feared would be a huge obstacle in these sermons. I didn’t spend too much time focusing on the negative. Of course, neither does Paul.

I have a couple thoughts about illustrations from this sermon. I’m not one of those story telling preachers (I really wish I was). I use illustrations sparingly. In this sermon I started out with a story of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” bit. That was more of a lead in than an illustration, though. I cited Donald Trump’s rise to riches and subsequent troubles. I think that worked well, especially with the visual of his 1987 book cover for “Trump: The Art of the Deal” bursting into flames and being replaced with a modern photo of him with his bad haircut (how I love Keynote!).

The big illustration that I got comments on was that of my son Connor found at 14:35 in the sermon. I’ve written several times in the past about Connor and his autism. I occasionally use Connor as an illustration, though I’m cautious when I do it. For those who only see Connor from the outside these illustrations could look more like attempts to pull heart strings. “That poor dear, and what that family must go through to care for him.” If they only saw the rampant goofiness and fun we have inside the house they would probably think, “That poor dear, to be stuck with such parents!”

I feel we have to be cautious when we have a life situation that illustrates weakness or our own sufferings. You can’t go to that well very often. Whether it’s a struggle with sickness or a disability in the family, use it sparingly and make sure it connects to the ever present struggles of the hearers rather than elevates your own struggle.

I really wonder if that’s why Paul refused to disclose what his “thorn in the flesh” was. If he had named it there would have been the temptation of some to say, “OH! I suffer from the same thing! I know Paul’s pain!” And then there would have been others who would have thought, “Bah! Paul thinks he’s got it rough. He’s just got a thorn; I’ve got a whole spike in my flesh!”

Giving Connor Back His Voice

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One of the realizations we had to come to as parents was that we didn’t lose our son to autism. Autism muzzled him, muffled his voice, clouded his head and put a barrier between him and our world. As devastating as that was, I’m constantly reminded that there is a little boy still in there. He laughs, he cries, he eats like a horse. He loves his daddy and interacts with me as best as he can. We have a pretty good time together.

AutismWhen we determined that something was wrong with Connor’s development we immediately went looking for help. One of the best resources we found has been Eastern Illinois University’s Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic. The instructors are incredible and the student clinicians are receiving great training with excellent oversight. Connor gets wonderful care there and many opportunities for growth.

With growth comes success. As we began therapy I quickly found myself looking for any glimmer of hope we could build on. As opportunities to communicate were given to Connor I started looking for more intentionality in the things he was already doing. Continue reading

Words Connor Has Said: Night Night

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When Connor was born no one wearing a labcoat and carrying a clipboard came into our hospital room and said, “I’m sorry to inform you, your son has autism.” That’s not how autism works. Autism is subtle at first. We left the hospital with a healthy and happy baby boy. Our hopes and dreams were intact and life progressed normally.

I sang with all three of my kids when they were little. Mostly “Old McDonald.” I would start the song and they would join in with the “EIEIO” part. I remember teaching the song to ConnoAutismr and his eyes lighting up as I sang, “Old McDonald had a farm.” He looked me in the eye, completely engaged and said, “OH! EIEIO!” We proceeded with cows and pigs and other farm animals, each time he would join in, “EIEIO!”

It was at about fifteen months when we first noticed something was wrong. He stopped making eye contact. Interest gave way to obsession. He would simply sit and rock or wave his arms for what seemed like hours. And he was losing his language.

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