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?

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.

Continue reading

Words Connor Has Said: Dinosaur

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When a father is told he’s going to have a son he realizes this is more than just a responsibility to raise a child–it’s the promise of a companion with whom he will share all his experiences. It’s a chance to go back to his own childhood and relive the things that brought him joy growing up.

How many baseball gloves are bought for children before they can even walk? How many “Lil’ Fishing Buddy” onsies do you see on newborns? I know a man who bought Legos by the barrel in anticipation of the things he would get to build with his son.

It’s part of our bonding experience, I guess. We want the best memories of our childhood–the things we did that made us men and the things we still long to do–we want those to be a part of our son’s world as well.connor_puzzle

I wasn’t much for sports growing up, so I never even considered investing in a ball glove. My childhood was filled with monster movies and creatures that both frightened and amazed me. I had monster posters hanging over my bed to scare away nightmares. I drew pictures of Dracula with long fangs and red eyes. And I had dinosaurs.

It started out with the usual bag of multi-colored plastic injection mold dinosaurs. I knew their names and exactly which ones were capable of eating the others. I had dinosaur books that I was certain were probably on the shelves of every paleontologist worth his salt (never mind that they were coloring books). And I had models–Aurora plastic snap-together dinosaur models that stood in terrifying poses. My room was like a miniature museum filled with tyrannosaurus rex, pterodactyls and sabertooth tigers (I know, I know…they’re not dinosaurs but they still counted for something).

Those were the things I imagined sharing with my son. Watching his eyes light up at the sight of a new dinosaur toy. Sitting close together at our fifteenth showing of Jurassic Park. Watching in amazement as he showed me how a velociraptor would stalk his prey and listening to how loud he could roar.

Connor’s autism took all that away.

One afternoon we stopped at the local library on the way home from school. My oldest was picking up some book–probably the latest teen-angst filled tale of sparkly vampires and brooding shirtless wearwolves. I took Gracie back to the children’s stacks to see what interested her. We looked through Dr. Seuss and the latest Blues Clues books. The whole time Connor simply sat in silence on my lap.

That’s when I heard him. I’ve learned that at times, when an autistic child breaks into our world it happens in shouts and big movement. It’s loud and active and very apparent that something has reached them. Other times, though it seems that the child is so amazed by a new discovery in our world that all they can do is whisper.

Connor whispered. I barely heard it.


I looked down at the shelf in front of us and there was a dinosaur book. It was one of those cardboard page books for small children with tiny fingers. Connor had seen the spine with the title that simply read, “Dinosaurs” and a picture of a T-Rex’s head.

I still wonder if it was the picture or the word he noticed. He’s an amazing reader.

That was the only time he said it, but it was enough for me. Since that day his life has been filled with dinosaur books and toys. He has dinosaur pajamas (I never even had those!) and we have made trips to the museum to see the remains of the creatures and feel their huge teeth.

And the iPad he uses for communication is filled with dinosaur apps that have pictures and animations of every terrible creature you can imagine. One of the apps has dinosaur flashcards. Connor flips through the pictures and the iPad reads the names of the various beasts to him. Another button bellows their fearsome roars.

Connor pushes the button. The dinosaurs roar and I roar back.

It’s a bonding thing.


Words Connor Has Said: I Poop

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We have always been fortunate in that Connor doesn’t have the outbursts and meltdowns like so many other kids with autism. When he was very young he was usually quiet and fairly compliant. At his babysitter’s this earned him the nickname, “The good boy.”


Damian was “The bad boy.”

Damian was the other boy at the sitter’s. It’s not that he was bad, really, it’s just that he was a boy. He was rambunctious, loud and everything you’d expect a boy to be. Damian played with toy guns, Damian teased girls, Damian pretended he was a superhero and beat up bad guys. Damian did boy stuff.

And he made an impression on Connor. Like many autistic children Connor doesn’t play with other kids, he plays alongside them. There’s no real interaction. However, I think that while he may not interact he does observe other kids. He might even learn from them about how to have fun. Especially boy fun.

I picked up Connor from the sitter and brought him home. It was a nice summer day so I headed out to the porch to sit and read and Connor followed. He ran, jumped, made noise and did everything he could to keep me from reading.


As I sat in my chair I heard a small noise behind me. It was Connor. He had passed gas. Then he stepped around to the side of my chair and did it again. This time it was louder. Then, with a cheesy grin on his face, giggling and looking me in the eye, Connor said, “I poop.”

He laughed and said it again. “I poop.”

He hadn’t. It was just gas. Stinky and hilarious gas.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about my son’s autism is how much like any other boy he is. He’s loud, he plays hard. He likes to reach up high and touch things. He loves to climb. Connor does boy stuff.

I for one am very pleased that my son appreciates fart jokes.