Asperger’s and faith

Last year, during my weekly New Wine discipleship course, I had to lead morning devotions for one session, and I was asked to discuss how being on the autistic spectrum affects my faith. My immediate reaction was to think that having Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t relevant to every little thing in my life. I mean, there are plenty of factors that have shaped my beliefs, and my attitude towards church. But is AS really one of them?

It would be nice if I had some fascinating backstory of how I became a Christian, but the truth is, I was raised going to church. I was very lonely as a teenager, and it was while my confidence was at rock bottom that I got more involved with church youth activities. I went from being unable to talk about autism to being able to explain how it affected me without being afraid of judgement. Here was a social scene that was outside the norm, and as well as fitting right in, I was learning what being a Christian was really about. So in that sense, autism did have a role to play.

Churches in general are often a real mixed bag. From the outside, it would be easy to see Christians as either deluded, self righteous fools, or as people who cannot be anything but kind and inclusive to their neighbours. But people just aren’t that black and white, and Christians are no exception. And I would be lying if I said Christianity has been an easy ride for me, because it hasn’t. There are opinions I struggle to agree with, and many more issues I don’t even understand.

Besides, a church community is a social group like any other, and that means people, and mixed messages, and complex relationship dynamics. At the beginning of my discipleship course, I was surrounded by other young people who I would be spending a whole day with every week. Some people already knew each other, some didn’t, but we were encouraged to “go deeper” with each other from day one, and the very idea spooked me.

While other people bonded within the first month, I got off to a shaky start and I thought I’d never get used to it. It would have been so easy to withdraw and keep everyone at arm’s length, but I made myself get to know them, remember their names and make friends. Before I knew it, I had completed my first mission trip and was talking about everything I had learned in front of an audience. Seems that God really does see us through these things!

Which brings me back to my morning devotions talk. Having been on the course for three months, I reflected on my experiences at church so far, and the message I wanted to share came to me. So that morning, I got everyone to discuss the passage in Genesis in which Moses insists that he doesn’t have the skills to lead. And the thought I left open to discussion was: We all have something that shakes our confidence in our potential. Moses’s was his fear of public speaking. Mine is having a form of autism. What’s yours?

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What I’ve learned about myself this year

What have you done this year to make you feel proud?

Feel free to break into song at this point.

For me, 2017 has been almost as significant a year as 2016. I went on my first mission trip. I finished my internship. I became the magazine News and Sports editor at my old university. I got my first job, then lost it on my second day. I saw my sister Rhian go from being dangerously ill in hospital to joining the professionals on stage. Ups and downs seem to come without much warning.

It may be clichéd, but you do learn more when key things happen in your life, and you find you’ve passed yet more milestones. I spend so much of my time these days feeling like I’m growing mentally stale with no schedule being written for me. But then something will happen that will challenge me emotionally, and spark off so many reflections that I cannot record them in my journal quickly enough.

Now I am no life guru, or self help professional. Nor do I aspire to be. I just thought I’d share a few self reflections that I have managed to pin down this year.

  1. I’ve often said that uni helped me be more assertive, and I stand by that. And it shows in my friendships; I’m less afraid of judgement, less inclined to want to keep the peace at all costs, and somehow more open and emotionally intimate with my friends.
  2. If I’m not careful, I have a tendency to accept sub-ideal conditions until they go from bad to worse. This can be in any situation, be it toxic friendships, volunteering somewhere where I get shouted at, or ignoring a malfunctioning lightbulb in my room until all three of them have died…
  3. I actually do have a taste for adventure, which I think was awakened during the Ukraine mission trip. I may have had a panic attack on the plane, struggled to find vegetarian food that wasn’t chips or cake, nearly got lost on the underground, and been out of my comfort zone spiritually and socially…*deep breath* yet I still see the appeal in seeing a new country with a group of friends without knowing what to expect.
  4. I like to think I’m emotionally intelligent, but if I’m in the thick of a bad time, I will see my emotions as invalid, and press on until I either get ill or have a panic attack. Or feel ill because I’m panicking. Or panic because I feel ill. You get the picture…
  5. My weaknesses don’t seem to have changed, and include handling conflict, socialising in groups, and self righteous anger about anything that goes against my morals. A couple of examples would be cat prejudice and misogyny, and perhaps they are worthy causes to fight for. But when I simmer with resentment over ways in which other Christians – whether I know them or not – treat others in ways that go against what the Bible says about compassion, I forget how much don’t understand the Bible, and how much I struggle with certain aspects of it.

And with all that in mind, onwards and upwards! Meanwhile, here are just a few of this year’s highlights:

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Last orchestra concert

 

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24th birthday

 

Ukraine mission trip

 

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Jennie and Jan’s wedding

 

 

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My sister, Princess Tiger Lilly!

Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

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DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

Easter musings

It’s Easter Sunday, and the immediate family members are busy socialising after a slap-up roast. I, on the other hand, am doing what I do best: hiding in my room hunched over a computer, thinking I should be more productive. And of course, eating chocolate. Because that’s what Easter’s about. Right?

I’ve been trying to think of possible Easter-y things to say on my blog, and for a while, I was on the brink of not bothering. Not because I can’t be bothered with Easter, but because I couldn’t think of anything to say that hasn’t already been said on the internet a gazillion times. After a little reflection, I do actually have a couple of thoughts to mull over. So I’m making this post a quickie.

As a Christian myself, the idea of being able to be Christians despite our imperfections because Jesus was crucified has often puzzled me. Crucifixion sounds like a brutal way to go. And all people, back then and today, are imperfect. But what is the connection between these two facts? I was thinking about this a while back, and realised: the physical consequences of the events of the Easter story aren’t important. Rather, it’s the idea of absolute good surrendering to absolute evil and still winning.

I’ll be honest; reading this back makes me realise there is still so much I don’t understand. But then I pretty much live in that realisation. Besides, whatever your personal beliefs, no-one can claim to have all the answers about big topics like this.

And then this gem from Mum, who I made famous (practically) a couple of blog posts ago. To complete today’s dinner, she made a simnel cake. What’s a simnel cake? This is*:

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The marzipan balls, by the way, represent each of Jesus’s disciples. While there were 12, most simnel cakes miss out a ball for Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Mum, a firm believer in social justice, has included a 12th ball on hers. Firstly, because Judas was guilty for what he did. Come on, he hanged himself! Secondly, it was supposed to happen. And lastly, as Christians, and as decent human beings, forgiveness is key. Especially when it’s been over 2,000 years.

So those are my two thoughts for the day. Working in a Christian bookshop, there’s plenty of inspiration around me for a blog post like this. Then again, between tidying greetings cards, keeping the Easter egg stack symmetrical, and saying “Yes, we do have palm crosses…can I take your surname please?” to the fifth person on the phone that day, remembering to latch onto it isn’t easy.

 

 

*(DISCLAIMER – neither the cake, nor the photo, are ours. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/topdrawersausage/4492925419)

Off to work I go…

You know that weird adjustment phase when you go from being a complete couch potato to suddenly being busy? And you have only a few days’ warning before you have to dive head first into the world of work? And suddenly you are that person behind the till, saying “That’ll be £9.99,” “Would you like a bag with that?” and especially “I’m sorry, I’m still new, I’ll just get my colleague!”

As it happens, I do. Having spent the summer haplessly job hunting, I heard on the Navigators Facebook page about an internship vacancy at a Christian bookshop. Full time retail experience and training – Christian literature themed, at that – complete with a Discipleship course once a week. Right up my street.

So I applied, and was subsequently interviewed. Nothing too scary, just questions about how I work, how I became a Christian, how my Asperger’s affects me, what books do I like. What followed was a period of increasing anxiety. What were my chances? Was I again to be turned down due to my special needs? Would they think that the books I’ve recently read – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Dalai Llama’s Cat – were for sinners? Irrational, I know, but how calm can you realistically stay?

Yet somehow, I was accepted. I was still in Spain, and annoyingly, the day I found out was the day my phone stopped having signal at Grandad‘s house. But my now-manager contacted Mum, who contacted Grandad, and only a few days later, I was off to work.

Working for the first time is an ample situation in which to demonstrate what you are and aren’t yet capable of. For example, I seem to be incapable of not breaking the price gun at least once. But on a positive note, I now know how to take sales. Here’s your receipt, have a nice day!

My Discipleship course so far is proving mildly stressful. The people there are all lovely, and in terms of of spiritual growth, it looks very promising. It’s just that, for all the non-autistic tendencies I have learned, I still don’t present myself at my best in a room full of new people.

Or when I am given an hour to write a five minute talk on a parable. I’m used to writing under pressure, I’m used to Bible studies, I’m used to social situations. Somehow I still panicked. Somehow, with extra time, I managed to complete and perform my talk. My audience was enthusiastic, and whether this was out of genuine admiration or sympathy, I really appreciate their kindness.

And on that note, I’m also raising a glass to all my more experienced colleagues, who have been endlessly patient with me. Hopefully I’ll learn how to get more ink out of the price gun without destroying it.

Post uni summer part 2: Camping, aka Momentum

I may have mentioned I’m not good at keeping up with trending topics. It seems that this even covers recent events in my own life. I did say that I’d get around to writing about this, though, and nearly 3 weeks later, I am actually getting around to it.

Momentum, for those of you who don’t know, is a yearly Christian festival with music, talks, seminars and camping. Lots of camping. In other words, dirt, unpredictable weather, muddy toilets, muddy showers, no alone time, poor sleeping and a diet of cereal bars, apples and crisps. When you put it like that, I really don’t know why I enjoy it. But I suppose Jesus survived in the wilderness with no resources at all, so…

Also, it helped that I had a lot of lovely people to hang out with. I’m just going to name the two who have given me permission to mention them: Kathryn (middle), proud tent owner who I’ve known for years, and Chantelle (right) who I became friends with through Kat. We did nearly everything together, and I can’t think who I would rather be squashed in car full of luggage with.

One of the good things about Momentum is that it isn’t some token religious convention. Young adults and youth leaders come to learn, to challenge themselves and to have a good time with their friends. I like to think I managed all three. The majority of the day is made up of seminars. From personality types to relationships to “what does the bible say about x?” A lot of stuff to be learned.

And the main meetings. As well as opportunities for worship and reflection, these comprise talks that strike the right balance between deep, nitty gritty heart-to-heart stuff and comedy gold. Lead by Watford pastor Mike Pilavachi, known for his skill at bringing people to faith, love of food and slightly quirky humour. Who better to give such talks?

Finally, the venues. Who said that Christian events are nothing more than old buildings full of middle aged people singing in time to organ music? Come on, there’s a skating rink, a drive in cinema, book stalls, souvenir stalls, take away outlets, a silent disco and cafes that do hot chocolate and cake to die for. Ok, I refused to set foot on the skating rink and never found the cinema. But I readily explored the rest.

I guess what I’m trying to put across is that these events are not just for one social category. Yes, they help bring people to faith and deepen existing faith, and Momentum does a brilliant job there. But it’s not just for hard-and-fast Christians. It’s for those who struggle with faith, it’s for non-believers who are curious, it’s for people who have been through hell and back seeking healing, prayer and answers. In other words, there is something there for everyone.

Well, everyone who can tolerate a week of camping.