Courage to Differ and Grace to Differ Graciously

About two weeks ago, ahead of his most recent book release, a theologian I admire formed an online community opening up a “safe place” for people to discuss issues of faith without fear of judgment or ridicule. This progressive Christian writer formed this community primarily as a way to promote and discuss his new book, but it has also allowed many folks who are evolving in their faith to come together and speak freely with others who, may share similar points of view or have great input and feedback regarding complicated spiritual issues. I felt overwhelming relief when I was accepted as a part of this small community and read some of the other introduction posts. We are a diverse bunch, all coming from different backgrounds and worshiping in a variety of ways in many different denominations (and elsewhere). The group is welcoming, engaged, knowledgeable, friendly, spiritual, and fun!

Since leaving Lancaster Theological Seminary to move to Germany as a duty assignment for my husband, this openness has been largely missing from my life. Recently, I have found a few friends (at least one locally) who are engaged with these questions and are comfortable living in the tension that comes with asking the tough questions. Since I enjoy discussing issues that are rather controversial, these relationships (and now this group), have allowed me the freedom to spread my wings a bit and share ideas, questions, and possible responses (even when we disagree on these issues, which happens often).

I expect that I will have more to write about this soon, without divulging too many details (it is a “secret” group for now) but for today, I will keep it short.

I recently finished McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity.” In one of the final chapters, he discusses how important it is “to hold in tension two indispensable elements,” as we move forward on this quest. The first is what his friend Mabiala Kenzo calls the “courage to differ.” We should not feel compelled to pretend we agree with people who hold views and beliefs with which we do not agree. It’s okay to have differing opinions, and we ought to have the courage to speak openly about our disagreement, or at least not to falsely “go along to get along” on these important matters.

The second, and equally important, element is that we hold onto what he calls “the grace to differ graciously.” It is important to acknowledge that 1.) we do not need to “convert” everyone our way of thinking and 2.) doing so can frequently put us in a place of unproductive contention rather than fruitful conversation. One of the greatest blessings of seeking to grow spiritually is to keep us engaging in discussion and community with one another. God knew Adam needed a community, so God created Eve and had the two populate the Earth. If, in the human community, we cannot hold both of these elements in mind, conversation is stifled and growth, love, and fellowship do not occur.

I will not pretend that either of these attitudes is easy to hold all of the time. I struggle more, I think, with expressing the former, but both of these can be a challenge at times. What I want for the community of folks who read my work is simply that we try to be both courageous and gracious in our differences. Bearing this in mind will save much hurt, anger, nastiness, and hopefully keep people from withdrawing reflexively from what could otherwise be great discussion. If the ideas are too controversial, it is, of course, okay not to read or discuss further. At a certain point, some people just have to agree to disagree.

It is in our ability to recognize areas of agreement, find the courage to disagree, allow ourselves the grace to disagree graciously, and use our wisdom to know when to agree to disagree peacefully that will keep community healthy.

Grace and peace to all on this beautiful Thursday morning!

Respecting Freedom

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I am the wife of an American Airman who, three years in, has yet to deploy. We have not sacrificed in the same way that many of my friends and family members have, but we have sacrificed. Among other things, we have moved our little family across the world twice and faced a few separations (6 months and 3 months) from my husband. As I reflect on the meaning of Independence Day, I am thankful for the sacrifices of my fellow military spouses and their significant others. As violence, hate, fear and discord spread around the world and make it an increasingly frightening place, I am also thankful for the people all over who work for peace. Many of them work in other ways that do not involve military service, I am thankful for them, too.

I have seen some progressive voices decrying this day because they view it as one honoring some misguided sense of American supremacy and a celebration of war and violence. I have to respectfully disagree. I can understand and echo the sentiment of worrying about nationalistic worship inside the walls of a church and pairing it with where our true allegiance ought to be, but I cannot get on the side of condemning people who wish to honor this day and the courage of those who came before us.

This is not a day to glorify war, and I don’t think you will find many service families celebrating today because of that. None of us like war. We do, however, celebrate our freedom. We honor the brave souls who, military or not, have sacrificed in service to that ideal. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness still means something today because of all who have worked for freedom and peace throughout this country and beyond. On July 2, 1776, our forefathers declared their independence from the tyranny of a king an ocean away. It is true that what followed included violence and war, and yes, America has a history of many misdeeds in addition to its long list good deeds. Yet the purpose of the American democratic experiment has largely been accomplished. It has made us a nation of free people who, in many ways, are still trying to figure out how best to make this whole experiment work. Various voices share their opinions on how to get there and what it means to live in a free country, but on days like this, the united sentiment–united in our freedom and our wish to honor those who have fought so bravely for that freedom–is a good thing. It does not make us less Christian or more Christian, but it makes us appreciative and thankful to live in America.

And so I’ll just end by saying, “Happy birthday, America.”

Autism, Life, and the Fear of the Unknown

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My little superhero happily covered in sandtable sand

 

This month marks the fourth birthday of my little superhero, Weston. Since he was diagnosed with autism just over a year ago, the flood of emotions I experience daily has intensified. Let me just note that, prior to this, I would not have thought that possible, given that I am already an intensely sensitive person. I mean, have you SEEN the title of this blog? Where Weston is concerned a typical hour can see me ranging from excited to see progress, to sad about repetitive behaviors that are flaring up, to proud of some new accomplishment or word, and then either remarkably confident or dramatically worried for his future. All children on the spectrum are different. The internet meme I come across often lately is, “If you’ve met one child with autism… you’ve met one child with autism.” In my experience, that is quite true. The spectrum is wide and no two people are alike (this goes for everyone, of course, not just people on the spectrum).

Perhaps most worrisome of all is the dreaded “fear of the unknown.” While everyone has opinions, no one can tell me what Weston’s future may or may not hold (but who can say that about any child?). I sometimes sit and hold on to willfully blind hope that he will have an active and engaged social life exactly like everyone else (nevermind that no one is “like everyone else” is and that he comes from two parents who are quite seriously introverted). I assume his intelligence will lead him to excel in academics and that he will at least participate in athletics or some extracurricular activity. I dream that he will fall in love one day and get married. I hold onto hope that he will have children (forgetting that even neurotypical people often decide *not* to get married or have kids for a variety of reasons). He shows such promise that I just expect that these typical life events are not just possible, but likely for him, regardless of his current diagnosis. He’s a bright, loving, happy child who is intensely sensitive and has succeeded in leaps and bounds over the six months that he has been in school and receiving consistent therapies.

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Isaac being a goof on the slide

The fear of the unknown also seeps in where my youngest child is concerned. Isaac presents as more or less typical. At this point, I have no reason to believe that he will be otherwise. At almost 17 months, he says some words and babbles with seeming purpose, understands most of what we say, makes great eye contact, interacts with people, points to things in what seems like a social way (and to indicate he wants something), and–though he doesn’t wave frequently–blows kisses almost on demand.

Yet, despite the evidence to the contrary, there is still a huge, looming, dark cloud of fear hulking in the back of my mind. Every time he does anything that might be even slightly neurologically unique, I hold my breath waiting for the next shoe to drop. I know Weston’s developmental doctor in Germany meant well, but his statement that Isaac would be watched closely (because of the high incidence of ASD appearing in siblings) puts me a little “on edge” at every well-check and every time we are around kids the same age as him. I ask copious questions of the doctors Isaac sees. I watch carefully to make sure he is keeping up with the other kids developmentally. I enjoy spending time with my friends socially, but sometimes I probe for their observations to make sure I’m not missing anything with Isaac.

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Engaging with Isaac at the Museum of Discovery

Stories sweep through my mind about children who did not present with any autism “symptoms” until they were three, so I will probably worry up to and maybe even after he hits that mark. But, if I am being honest, I may not be that different from parents of neurotypical (“typical”) kids. Do I worry *more* now than I did before Weston was diagnosed? Well, yes. But I worried before, too, just a little less frequently and about different things. Did I wait breathless at every well-check before Weston was diagnosed? No, but I still breathed a sigh of relief at any doctor visit wherein good health was the verdict.

At the beginning of this journey, I was told that I would lose friends and maybe family because of Weston’s diagnosis. I was told there would be typical families who would steer clear of us because of behaviors or even merely because of the word “autism.” So far, I am thankful to report this has not been the case. I have found nothing but love, acceptance, and attempts to understand. Some of the bonds I have with family members have strengthened. No one treats my son badly or, to my knowledge, stays away from us because of his “diagnosis.” I have not lost any friends because of the autism–in fact, I have made many more both because of the autism and just because I try to be a friendly person.

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Weston and his daddy in a canoe at the Museum of Discovery

Some people tell me they don’t know how I manage. Well, I have a wonderful support system, a patient, loving husband, and Weston’s a great kid who is relatively happy and high-functioning. But really, you don’t know what you are capable of until you have no choice but to equip yourself. I say the same thing to people when they remark on how “strong” I am to battle lupus or fibromyalgia for 17+ years. When you have to do it, you find a way. You find the strength. There are moments when being the parent of a child with special needs is probably more stressful and challenging than being the parent of a child without similar needs, but I do not feel I deserve a badge of honor for it.

I follow many autism blogs and Facebook pages and sometimes I have to just hide them when it begins to feel like it’s “us” (autism or special needs parents) vs. “them” (typical parents). I do not think that attitude helps spread acceptance, understanding, or love–and, quite frankly, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For some people, maybe that is helpful, and that’s fine. I say, in most areas of life, do what works for you and steer clear of what is not helpful. Stay away from things and people that are hurtful or harmful and look for the good. Look for the good in and for you, your family, and the world. Look at the positive impact you can make and make it. As the inimitable Maya Angelou famously said:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”