The Most Inspiring

In my high school yearbook, which I have purposefully lost, I am listed in a rundown of categorization as “the most bashful.” I have wondered about that rather unique claim to high school infamy. Most bashful. Not most likely to succeed. Not best dressed. Not most likely to be president. But most bashful. Introversion had a lot to do with it. Low self-image surely had something to do with it. Living in a rural town in the middle of nowhere also had something to do with it. Anyway, I am okay with being bashful. There’s worst things to be.

I am not sure if there is a “Most Inspiring” in high school yearbooks these days. Maybe there is. There wasn’t in mine. And if there were, I would not have been deemed Most Inspiring either, that’s for sure. I cannot think of a senior classmate who would have been deemed that. Even the cheerleaders were Gen-X cynical.

I begin with this to say I’ve been pondering the importance of being inspiring as a pastor. In the latter part of my 5 years here, I’ve been pondering this.  This is what is clear to me. One person can never, ever be the most inspiring reality. It is unfair to expect this from a person. Why? Because at its heart, inspiration comes from somewhere else. We may be conduits of inspiration. We may even be good at being conduits of inspiration. But inspiration by definition comes from a source outside of ourselves. 

So what is the most inspiring thing? The most inspiring reality is the reality at the source of all inspiration.  

The word inspiration, its etymology, helps us understand what I am saying. Inspiration literally means the state of being breathed into. Now folks often put a self-help, motivational speaker slant on this. In this idea, inspiration comes from hearing someone inspire us or from our finding it in ourselves or a combination of these two.

But inspiration in the literal sense points to breath and a source of breath. Something breathed life into us. The first book of the Bible offers an idea about who the source of our breath is.

Genesis 2:7 says this: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

This is the original inspiration, the ultimate inspiration, the inspiration that never dissipates. God breathed life into us. God literally inspired us. And in every breath in the world, not just our own which of course will end, but in every breath breathed in the world, we have evidence of God inspiring us.

So if you are having a bad day, if the world has got you down, if you come to CCNOT Sunday morning and the preacher puts you to sleep, if the next minister turns out to be as boring as I am in the end, you can find hope in this – our very breath, humanity’s breath, the earth’s breaths, is a testimony to God’s inspiration. Truly taking that in, making a practice of it, cannot help but inspire us.

Even if you doubt the existence of an external God, the reality of breaths in the world being the source of inspiration still applies. Take away all the trees in the world and what would happen? Take away all the water from the world, what would happen? Take away all the oxygen? Take any of those away, and our breath would eventually stop. Our breath relies on the breath of trees, on water, and on oxygen. The environment around us literally gives us breath.

So if you are having a bad day, if the world has got you down, you can find inspiration by doing something very simple – deeply look at the trees, at water, at our own breath, and ponder their gifts to us. The gratitude found in this simple practice will naturally lead to feeling inspired.

We are talking about inspiration in the truest sense, as connected to the breath which is born of God who Zerself is Breath (“God is Spirit or Breath”). We are talking about the breath sustained by the Community of the Earth. Yes, it helps to be reminded of these things. But there is nothing more helpful than developing your own practice of going back to your breath and appreciating what it represents. God’s ultimate gift is found in our own breath. The earth’s ultimate gift is also found in our own breath. And these are gifts that keep giving. If not to us on this earth, then to the newborns in the world taking in their first independent breath and to us in the realm of God’s very breath, heaven. What can be more inspiring than a gift that keeps giving?

What Autism Teaches Religious Communities

A religious community – what is it? A religious community is a group of people holding to religious faith that join together as a community to make the world better and to enjoy the benefits of faith and community. So there is a religious/spiritual component to religious community. There is a social component, of course. And there is an emotional component.

As you might perceive, for kids on the Spectrum, engaging these three components are not so simple. First of all, religion and spirituality. As has been noted by psychologists and people who study these things, people on the Spectrum are far more likely to be atheists. According to a survey done not too long ago, “respondents with high-functioning autism were more likely than control subjects to be atheists and less likely to belong to an organized religion… And atheists were higher on the autistic spectrum than Christians and Jews.”

Thinking about what Autism is, it is not so difficult to see why this might be so. For people on the Spectrum, it is hard to understand figurative language and anthropomorphic language, which is language that takes abstract truth and wraps it in human thinking, forms, and feelings. People on the Spectrum can get abstract concepts. Many are physics and engineers. But wrapping it in human emotions and human choices and nuance is difficult for them, usually. Often, a personal God is more difficult for ASD people than an impersonal force.

Next, is the social component. Social groups and social engagement is difficult for ASD kids. The difficulty becomes even more acute when we are talking about a large group of people. Add in religion and spirituality, which ASD kids might feel disconnection from, and the issues become more pronounced. There can be social isolation and there can be intellectual isolation involved in church.

So Corey is a great example. He has difficulty entering a social group, that is clear. School 5 days a week wears him out and there are issues almost weekly we hear about from his teachers and professionals. Corey also does not connect to ideas of God and religion. He simply doesn’t, at least not yet. He likes a good story and we focus on that. In fact, we are reading through the Old Testament together. But religious faith is hard for him. And church is all about social engagement wrapped in religious faith. So it is doubly difficult.

Lastly, there is the emotional component. Many of us have a built-in incentive to come to church. We enjoy getting with friends and people we like. We feel satisfaction in knowing we are coming together to do good in the community, for example. We enjoy feeling emotionally connected to others and to God. In other words, there is an emotional payoff to church. For many on the Spectrum, this built-in emotional incentive doesn’t exist. Emotional payoffs are simply harder to come by for ASD kids. Most people on the Spectrum have in the whole of their life just three close relationships at most. That is all that is needed. And more than that would be difficult to manage. Knowing this, you can see why church, especially large churches, would be hard. There is no emotional payoff and sometimes the opposite. There can be a real emotional drain involved.

So what does this all tell us as a religious community? What can we learn?
Well, here are some ideas as we come to a close.

Autism teaches us that a spirit of acceptance, flexibility and inclusion is fundamental. There is nothing worse than being expected to give complete conformity when complete conformity is not neurologically possible. As I said last week, diversity, including neurodiversity, diversity in how people approach the world, is a given. We should experience others and interact with others accordingly. With openness, curiosity, and nonjudgment.  

Secondly, on a very practical level, Autism teaches us the importance of routine. People on the Spectrum usually want routine. Thus, sticking with a liturgy and avoiding changing it is helpful. A regular, structured, routine Liturgy and Order of Service can be of comfort. There would be nothing worse for someone with ASD than changing the format every month with a lot of improvisation in each service.

Thirdly, again on a practical level, Autism teaches us the importance of speaking to different levels of approaching the world. People on the Spectrum think structurally and systematically and have difficulty with expressing emotion or reading emotion. Feeling inspired can come harder for them. Relating to abstract poetry or emotional stories and even nuanced jokes can be harder for them. They relate more to reasoned out thoughts and well-structured and orderly ideas. So balancing emotionality with systematic ideas in the sermon, for example, becomes crucial. Think of an engineer attending Sunday service, which many on 
the Spectrum are. How do we reach them too?

Fourth, Autism teaches us to avoid forced intimacy, which I am thankful this church does avoid. Passing the Peace type segments where people are encouraged to get up, say hello to people, and interact? That would be a no for someone on the Spectrum. Asking congregants to look at their neighbor and say I love you in the Lord as I’ve experienced in one church? That would be a no. Having folks hold hands at the end of the service and singing a closing hymn like a church I was once a part of? Again, a no. This – forced intimacy – is torture for many ASD people. They will either check out or act out.

Fifth, Autism teaches us to be mindful of sensory overload. A lot of movement, standing up, sitting down, loud music, blinking screens, over the top emotionality, this can be very counterproductive for ASD folks. Again, they will either check out or act out.

Lastly, Autism teaches us the importance of alternative formats to just Worship.  Great examples of this involve very small groups focused on areas of interest is great for ASD folks as well. For example, a Star Wars club, that would be a very ASD friendly club. Incorporating the spiritual themes of Star Wars in a natural and unforced way (pardon the pun), that is a best practice that might reap benefits.

So, I close with this. We live in a society where conformity is expected, don’t we? We live in a society where doing things the way they’ve always been done is the norm, especially when it comes to the church world. "Mind your manners," how many times have we heard and said that? But Autism reminds us that conformity, typicality, good manners are not always possible. 

And thinking about this, it is good to remember, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Maybe God is teaching us through people like Corey that the world is diverse, each human brain is different and approaches the world differently, and yet amid this diversity and difference, each human being carries God’s image and is hence beautiful. Like all of us, people on the Spectrum carry the image of God and reveal it in the world. In other words, there is a little bit of the Spectrum in God and its expressed in kids like Corey. Ponder that one for a bit.

So last week we visited Friendly’s Restaurant in Gardner. Per usual, Corey said hi to everyone on the way to being seated as well as once seated, including to the waitress, more than once. It is an example of his repetitive behaviors that are core to ASD. He was his usual extroverted, unique, 20 questions self. And in the process, in the process of breaking up the monotony plodding around that restaurant that day, Corey broke through. 

In talking with the waitress, Corey shared that he is on the Spectrum. In reply, she said, "well, you are beautiful." Corey quipped, "but I am a boy." To which she answered, "boys can be beautiful too." 

At the end of our time in a Friendly world, Corey told the waitress you’d make a great mom. She was a mom – of five kids and two grandchildren. 

As we left, the waitress stopped us and looked at Corey and said, “you made my day, Corey.” I believe she meant it. To quote a songwriter, "sometimes life can be so grand!” This is what Corey regularly teaches me.