Of Autism, Grace, and Jesus, Who Loves the Little Children–No Matter What

Nobody ever said parenting would be easy.

But if you add the demands of a special needs child on top of the usual issues of childhood, your life goes from manageably hard to something that must be like a slightly more malevolent take on Dante’s first circle of hell, the eternal mediocrity of Limbo reserved for the righteous pagans.  In this version, bureaucracy is constantly hampering and hindering any progress you may hope to make.  Like Prometheus, there is no respite from the daily ministrations of the liver-eating birds.  You have nothing to look forward to but more of the same, day after day.

The very people you trust to be the advocates for your child, the schools, may turn on you and actively try to thwart any attempt you make to give your child a fighting chance.  If you are different, their solution may be to hide you away in a remote facility and let you mark time until they can unceremoniously dump you from the system, secure in having supplied a “Free Appropriate Education” as guaranteed by federal law.

“Appropriate” is the operative word.  What some see as “appropriate” may seem wholly inappropriate to anyone who seeks to give a child that fighting chance to achieve something in life.

Of course, I write this as a seemingly embittered an embattled father who is discouraged on a regular basis by the roadblocks that people throw up in addition to dealing with the rigors of autism proper.  My son is reaching an age where children are increasingly unkind toward him.  The taunts appear to be increasing, not only from his age-peers, but also from the establishment.  I know adults who have made less than sensitive comments about mentally challenged cafeteria workers.  I have nearly chewed a hole in my cheek preventing an outburst that might be something like, “You may be talking about my son in a few years.”

But I continue to pray that he will turn a proverbial corner and make massive strides toward some semblance of normalcy.  But as I do this, I know the odds are against it.  Yet nothing is impossible.

———————–

I hate autism.

I hate it for what it does to people and families.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.  There is no “blessing” in autism.  If I read another article where someone paints a rosy picture of life with autism, I think I’ll scream.  Seriously.

I hate it for what it does to my son.  His neurological wiring is working against him.  He can learn, he can achieve.  But not in the same way that “normally developing” children can and do.  He is different.  He is supposed to receive an individualized education.  In actuality, there appears very little that is individualized in terms of how he is being taught.  Many of the accommodations we have discussed are left by the wayside, although they are part of a legally binding document.  The educational assistant that works with him apparently has some kind of personality conflict with him: on numerous occasions he has come home and said “…she’s not my friend.”  If you can’t see the person who is supposed to help you as your friend, the relationship will not be fruitful.

When the person who is supposed to be in charge of the situation is ostensibly a brother or sister in Christ, the conflict becomes almost enough to make you doubt your faith.

I think about how unkind the world can be to a special needs child—or adult—and I just want to pull a Job and demand that God answer my question of “why?”

And then I think about Jesus.

One of my favorite scenes in the Gospels is where Jesus welcomes the little children in Matthew 19.

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

The disciples rebuked the crowd for letting children near Jesus.  But imagine Jesus rebuking them, and welcoming the children with out-stretched arms.  He must have been smiling as the children crowded around him.  All of them may have been perfectly healthy and happy kids.  But maybe there was a child with a physical deformity, or a child with a vision problem or hearing deficit.

And maybe there was a child with autism.

Like my son.

Jesus welcomed these children and blessed them.  Maybe he hugged them and tousled their hair and reminded them to mind their parents and always be good.

And that is what we are called to do.  To welcome every person with open arms and open hearts.  To see their strengths and strengthen them in their weaknesses.  To accept and to love despite physical or mental problems.

I am not enough like Jesus to do that.  At least not consistently.  But I know in my heart and in my very soul that he knows about these struggles and he cares.  He may not be here physically, but he challenges me on a daily basis to be his hands and voice in this world today.

In Luke 4, right after the account of the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus went home to Nazareth and went to the synagogue.  The passage he selected from Isaiah was a declaration of prophetic fulfillment, the proclamation of the dawning of the great Jubilee, when captives would be freed, the blind given sight, and the oppressed relieved.

“16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Autism is oppression.  Plain and simple.  Not only is it a hardship in and of itself, it engenders meanness and cruelty in others.  Maybe they don’t see it as cruel, but it is.

Sometimes, when I feel that no-one cares about the whole situation, I think about Jesus and how he cared for the little children.  He cares for them still.  And those who may never grow up in their minds.  And those who care deeply for them.

Sometimes I wrap my arms around my son and stare into the face of the hazy uncertainty of the future and I feel lost.  I know I won’t always be here for him.  I’ve probably not done enough for him as it is.

But Jesus will always be there.

His grace is sufficient.  He told Paul in 2 Corinthians 12.9-10,

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

I know that rationally, intellectually.  It may take some time for my faith to catch up with my mind, but I will keep on it.

For the sake of my friend, Jesus.

And for the sake of my boy.

I owe it to them both.

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The Gift of Personality

Self-administered psychology tests are interesting.  I’ve taken lots of on-line quizzes to try and understand a little more about myself, and I usually wind up a little skeptical.  Even in high school, I remember taking a career aptitude test, and it told me that I should be a greeting card editor.  No kidding.  After my recent sticker shock over my wife’s Valentine’s Day card, I think I may have been in the wrong business after all….

At any rate, I recently took a modified Myers-Briggs Personality Test on-line, and was really shocked at how accurate the write up was.  The Briggs-Myers Personality Types were based on personality theory advanced by 20th century psychologist, Carl Jung. 

In M-B speak, I wound up as an INFJ, an Introvert with a preference for iNtuition over sensing, Feeling over thinking, and Judging over perceiving.  According to the site, I am actually a fairly rare type.  That basically means that while I need alone time to recharge, I do actually have some close friends, and I really like to help people.  I am often prone to emotional overload because I get too involved in human issues.  I am frequently seen as “a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden.”  I may have some enhanced self-awareness, but I may not be able to convey or communicate my deepest feelings.  Self-expression is easier in print (Hey, I’m a frustrated writer at heart), and I do have a fairly comfortable fluency with language and an ability to learn a language fairly easily.  INFJ’s tend toward the “inspirational” professions, like education (I’m a college professor) and religion.

All in all, the description was so to the point that it was scary.

And it told me that I am pretty much practically perfect in every way….at least for me.  There is no right or wrong in terms of personality types.  There are only differences.  We gravitate toward careers that we find fit us well, whatever our type.  If we don’t we are miserable.

The great benefit in knowing about personality types is not only in understanding yourself better, but also in learning more about your limitations so you can improve on them or learn to work around them, and learning how to deal with others of varying types.

The old saying is true, that it takes all kinds to make the world.

But that is not in any way new.  If we consider that our personality types are essentially gifts, then it is easy to make a connection with the various gifts that Paul discussed in Romans 12. There, in verses 3-8, Paul discusses various gifts that need not necessarily be construed as miraculous as in I Corinthians 12-14. 

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 

One person’s gift is no greater than another with respect to this list.  They are all of benefit, and it is very likely that no one person will have all of the gifts, which is quite obvious especially for the miraculous gifts discussed in I Corinthians.  The point is that we are complementary to each other; in fact, together we may be greater than the sum of the individual parts. 

Paul says we have different gifts according to the grace given to us.  My gift may be different from yours, but neither is inferior or superior—just different and should be used to the benefit of all.  All can and must serve.  But some are just better attuned to see and address needs.  Each Christian should be able to teach.  But some have a gift for explaining hard concepts better than others.  Like our various personality types, we all have gifts that we can and should use to their fullest extent. 

Indeed, it takes all kinds.  And like it usually shows, God knew exactly what he was doing when he set all of this in motion.  The world would not be better if populated with INFJ’s, despite what I might like to think when things aren’t going right and no-one quite understands me.  Thank God for the differences that make each of us special, and make us stronger in their sharing.       

The Devil’s in the Details

The Bible is a book filled with wisdom, comfort, mystery, and conflict.  The source of wisdom and comfort is none other than God.  Mystery arises where knowledge is incomplete: the unknown piques our fear as much as our curiosity.  But conflict essentially has a single source—Satan.

Just who Satan may be is quite unclear, at least it is to me.  There is no concise or encyclopedic study of the origin of the devil in scripture.  Some have pieced together a patchwork pedigree that places him as a fallen angel, one who led a rebellion against God, but for whatever reason was not crushed by the Almighty for his treason against Heaven’s kingdom. Some have tried to make the devil something of a freedom fighter, a rebel against God’s “tyranny” in Heaven.  Again, there is no accepted evidence to support that, nor would I ever suggest that such might be true.

In all of pop culture, the question of the devil has never been framed more succinctly than by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in their song, “Sympathy for the Devil.”  While reciting a litany of atrocities wrought by humankind under the devil’s influence, the “man of wealth and taste” continues to taunt his listener with, 

“…Pleased to meet you

 Hope you guess my name

 But what’s puzzling you

Is the nature of my game…”

I don’t claim to have any great insight into Satan’s origin, but I do know a few things about him, based on comments and accounts in the Bible.  In John 8.44, Jesus relates, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  Perhaps he was harkening back to the Garden, when Eve was deceived by the Serpent’s subtle subversion of reality in Genesis 3:

 1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

2  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3  but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

4  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

I have long been fascinated by this story.  Satan, apparently in the guise of a serpent, uses a simple suggestion hinged on a single word to introduce humankind to the dark side—“You will not surely die.”  It was a simple contradiction of a divine directive, with an explanation of why that mean old God didn’t want his creation to partake.

I have often wondered why he didn’t tell her to eat of the tree of life first….that would have made them more like God than what would become the burden and  heartbreak of knowing evil. 

But that is the devil’s game.

As I have related before, C.S. Lewis suggested that the devil is incapable of creative activity, but that his power is in contorting and distorting God’s truth into something else.  He called this abstraction.  So much of human experience is potentially perverted from the beauty of its original divine conception by that devilish abstraction.  Sex is a good example.  Between loving, bonded mates, it is a beautiful expression of love and should strengthen that bond over time.  As practiced and praised by so much of society today, sex is no more than a bodily function, an itch to be scratched and forgotten until the next itch comes along.  But meaningless sex compared to real shared intimacy that includes sex is like fast food compared to a sumptuous feast.  The burger may fill you up as may the banquet, but the banquet will be far more memorable and satisfying.

This limitation on creative activity is evident in the book of Job, where God and Satan are locked in what can only be considered a game, with Job as pawn.  God draws attention to Job as an upright man with no equal in righteousness in all the earth.  Satan sneers and says anyone would revere God as long as God hedges him in and protects him from life’s cruel realities.  God tells him to do his worst, but to spare Job’s life.  Satan obliges, and Job is then tossed into the theological crucible of trying to understand why God would allow such things to happen to him.  With the help of his so-called friends, Job ponders his estate, ultimately wins an audience with God, and is subsequently schooled in humility.

 In the scene in Matthew 4 where Satan tempts Jesus at the end of his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness following his baptism as recorded in chapter 3, the devil approaches him with all of the things that would divert the attention of mere mortals.  He tempted Jesus to show his power over nature by turning stones to bread while in a weakened state of hunger.  He tempted his pride again by challenging Jesus to throw himself from the “pinnacle of the Temple” in order to call down a host of heavenly angels to protect him.  In the third temptation, Satan offers him all the kingdoms of the earth in exchange for his worship.

Now, if Jesus’ mission were to ultimately reach all of humankind with the establishment of an earthly kingdom, then this last offer would have moved the process along without the physical pain and suffering that he would have to endure.  But this would be wrong on two counts: Satan was not worthy of worship, and demanding that the Son of God bow down before him was the ultimate expression of prideful arrogance.  Second, had Jesus accepted the offer, then that would have taken away all possibility of free will for Jesus’ followers.  They would have been coerced into service, a conquered people.  But Jesus wants his followers to come to him out of love and respect for what he teaches and what he can offer, not the least of which being rest for weary souls.

 Notice that in the case of Job as with Jesus, Satan made nothing appear ex nihilo.  He used existing devices and forces to do his bidding.  A great wind killed Job’s children, not an army of demons.  Marauders took Job’s herds, not monsters conjured for that purpose and for the terror they might invoke.

Similarly, the power of Satan today is in twisting words to wring the truth from them.  From the time of Eve, inserting a barely noticeable negative into what God ordained remains a most effective strategy.  This can be expanded to many different levels: perverting promised liberty with the chains of interpolated law.  Using silence to effectively prohibit anything not specifically addressed.  Keeping the apparent, perceived letter of the law without exercising the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.  Painting a God of mercy as petty, vengeful and cruel.

There is an old saying that “The devil is in the details.”  That is truer than we usually imagine.  By inserting his craft into the finest of grain, the devil’s abstraction is practically imperceptible, especially to those who are too close to an issue.  It is only when we step back away from those details and view the larger scene that we see the distortion.  The Pharisees were sticklers for detail in tithing down to the smallest quantity of herbs.  But by ignoring justice and mercy, their strict adherence to detail was meaningless.  Their religion was honed to the letter of the law, but their hearts were empty of the love and compassion that God has demanded from the beginning.  In a sense, his image was not found in them.  By planting the notion that the visible demonstration of faithfulness was more important than internalizing it, the devil won that round.

But in the wider landscape view, the rules remain the same, no matter the age, and no matter the devil’s cheats. Through the diligent exercise and cultivation of our faith and by means of God’s own grace, we can win the game.  It is grace that tips the odds in our favor.  And in the end, the devil will be shown for the loser he is.

Legacy and Perspective

I recently read an article that asserted that Charles Darwin left a legacy of hate, evil and genocide owing to his theory of descent by natural selection.  If I read the article correctly, it even asserted that there was an influence of “social Darwinism” three years before the publication of the Origin of Species!  That is an utterly illogical argument. That so many people latched onto such ideas for the purpose of advancing their own agendas is not unexpected: people have done that for as long as there have been people.

If we examine a few other embarrassing issues in human history, we can see other connections that may not be quite as palatable as demonizing a scientific theory.  For example, during the era of slave trade in the United States, Christian proponents of slavery appealed to the Bible for support.  Surely, if Paul told slaves to obey their masters, God approved of the institution.  Who are we to go against God?

During the Middle Ages, the bloody (and largely unsuccessful) Crusades were launched ostensibly to rout the Muslim infidels from the Holy Land and reclaim Jerusalem for Christendom.  Likely as not, the real reason was a lust for treasure.  The Spanish Inquisition was perpetrated in the name of religion.  During the Reformation, Catholics persecuted Protestants, Protestants fought wars with other Protestants, because each side thought it had all truth and the blessing of Heaven.

More recently, Einstein’s famous equation relating matter and energy, E=mc2, was part of the foundation for developing the atomic bomb, a weapon used to end the greatest war in history—but at the cost of thousands of civilians’ lives in the short term and the threat of global annihilation for on-going generations.

I mention these examples to pose a question:  If so much death and destruction and uncertainty and insecurity have resulted from Einstein’s work on a fundamental principle of physics, was he evil to propose it?  Should he have kept it to himself?  Should we expunge all knowledge of that principle from our libraries?  Are atoms evil for possessing their fundamental properties?  More to the deeper point, if so much evil has been perpetrated in the name of God, does that make God or faith in God evil?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that the devil’s game is not in creation, but rather in abstraction.  Thus, we can see that nature, declared by God himself to be “very good,” cannot lie, obfuscate, or deceive, but by that principle of abstraction, it can be misinterpreted.  Of itself, it cannot conspire to any evil plot.  It simply exists.  How we use nature and our knowledge of it makes the difference.  If we choose to ignore the better angels of our nature, we have no-one to blame but ourselves.  If we determine to sink to the level of sheerest animal survival by remaining “red in tooth and claw,” we neglect those better angels that remind us we are made in God’s image, despite our earthy nature.

The image of God is not physical.  The image of God is goodness and mercy, love and kindness, justice and peace.  It is reason in the service of humanity and all of creation.  It is everything that baser nature cannot be, because it is contrary to the motives of individual, self-centered survival and selfish advancement.

Evolution and natural selection cannot be demonized any more than the propagation of a nerve impulse or the movement of water in a plant or the action of a predator in feeding its young can be construed as inherently evil.  These things exist as neither good nor evil.  If we ignore the evidence that evolution can and does occur, and that natural selection is a plausible and observable mechanism to drive such changes, then we are willfully blind to a truth of nature. To ignore them is to disrespect their ultimate author.  To deny them is to limit the ongoing creative power and work of the God that we profess to honor and serve.

When we arbitrarily determine what God can or cannot do, we dance perilously close to the precipice of hubris.  We succumb to the ultimate expression of pride in that we make God in our own image.  In doing so, we make him weak and powerless and of limited intelligence and creativity.

But the creature can never be greater than its creator, nor can it be his equal.  The ultimate teacher can never be bested by his pupil. When we make God in our image, we see only our own feeble limitations amplified.  It is not our place to put God in a box.  The infinite is beyond our reach but it is God’s playground.  When we finally begin to focus on what God has done, on what he is doing now, and on what he can continue to do in both the realm of nature and the realm of spirit, we will begin to appreciate wisdom beyond comprehension and unlimited horizons.  Ours is a God of infinite possibilities.  Be still and know that he is God.

Shaping Faith

I’ve been reading articles on a newly re-visioned website, wineskins.org, that I certainly hope will become a popular gathering place among people seeking a simple and grace-filled exercise of their faith.  I deeply respect the honesty, faith and scholarship of the featured writers as well as the positive way they present their ideas, even if I may differ on some of them.  The recent focus has been on “People Who Shaped Our Faith.”  I suppose everyone has stories of how they came to be of the religious conviction that they are, or are not, or are no longer.  I recently spoke with a friend who is a lapsed Catholic and presently considers himself to hold no religious beliefs, owing at least partially if not largely to the dark actions and unkind deeds of those who would claim to be the followers of the Prince of Peace.  I assured him that not all Christians are like that.  But I do understand his reasoning, having seen the same kinds of things.  He and I, however, have taken different paths at that particular fork in the road.  Where some may reject all issues of faith, others may seek to understand the reasoning for what they behold, and seek for a genuine experience of what they see as having become a twisted and polluted expression. 

As I think about those that had some impact on shaping my faith, I cannot help but consider the obvious ones: my parents and grand-parents who set examples of diligence, caring, and true devotion to something they could not see, but by their faith knew to be real and true.  I recall the story of how my grandmother, Lecta, had quoted from her hospital bed, very near the end of her battle with breast cancer, the words of Paul, when he said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4.17)  That is faith, to stare into the jaws of your own mortality and find peace.

My mother, Fay, never seemed to get too deep into doctrinal issues.  Having been the wife of a preacher for most of her life, she knew more of those arguments than most, and had seen churches at their best and worst.  But aside from church issues, she was to me, the most shining example of what a true Christian must be: she epitomized love and concern for people.  She genuinely cared about them, and showed it by caring for them.  Even when people were unkind, she soldiered on, doing what she knew to be right.  Her life was exactly as Paul wrote in Philippians 1.21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Her passing was indeed a gain for her, but a great loss to this aching world.  I miss her every day, but she is always with me.

Of course, my father, Max, has inspired and shaped much of who I am in terms of faith.  I was a religiously rebellious youth, not the kind prone to trouble in the earthly sense, but troubled in the spiritual sense.  Despite the frequent, constant teachings, I could never make sense of the issue of faith.  But perhaps one of the most important things he ever did for me was to suggest I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  I avoided it for a while, but when I found a copy in the bargain bin at the Vanderbilt Bookstore, I surreptitiously purchased it, and made myself read it.  It took time to internalize the message.  But when I saw, as my father eventually taught that religion, faith, and Christianity are not about law and punishment, but about love, I made a commitment, and I as have previously reflected, I never looked back.

Through his trials and difficulties as he has studied and evolved in his own understanding, I have witnessed a transition toward a deeper understanding and embrace of that most elusive property of the Christian experience—grace.  He has found a voice in sharing his faith far beyond the confines of a legalist’s pulpit. 

When I came to Martin, I placed membership with a small group in the next town west, and was practically adopted by Harold and Bettye Jenkins.  Bettye remains a beacon in my life, showing me the quiet dedication and deep understanding that a life of Christian service affords. She surprises me with different views from time to time, and I find her take on issues to be refreshing, thoughtful, and filled with just good common sense.  She is eminently practical, and I find myself needing that sort of grounding.

Her husband, Harold, was a banker for many years, but had on occasion taught classes and preached for area churches.  He was a wealth of Biblical knowledge, and a man of broad views and understanding, having converted to this church from another faith heritage.  He reminded me of the encouraging comment he was once given by a famous preacher, that there won’t be anyone in Heaven or hell who shouldn’t be there, that God is just and merciful and that he will have the final say, not those of us here with limited understanding.  As his health deteriorated, his mind grew dimmer, but I recall a few months before he passed away, he told me how fortunate he believed the congregation was to have me there.  I was touched and didn’t know what to say, thinking that it was far more fortunate to have him.  I led the singing at his funeral, and I sang some of his favorite hymns, including “Count Your Blessings,” perhaps fitting for a banker, but more so for a gentle man who truly believed he was truly blessed.  I can’t sing that song without thinking of him.    

These were obvious choices for mention in this topic.  But included in this list are three men of faith with whom I have been at least marginally associated, and whom I have admired.  And perhaps less expected from a middle class white man, born in the ‘60’s and raised in the South, all three of these men were African-American.

First, I think of Richard Harris, who placed his membership with the congregation where my father was preaching in South Carolina.  I did not know him well, nor did I know him for long.  But I recall that he once inquired as to my intentions regarding the faith, as I was in my rebellious youth phase.  I got away from him as quickly and politely as I could, but the encounter stuck with me.  He was not rude or obnoxious about it.  He gently asked a question to which I was neither ready nor intellectually able to respond at the time.  He was an old man, and as happens too frequently with men of that age, death came quickly and unexpectedly, and I never had the chance to get to know him better.  But I saw faith and gentleness in the man. 

After I had been in Martin for several years, I came to know a man who placed his membership with the congregation that had become my home.  Harold Milligan had a seasonal lawn care business, where he mowed lawns and planted gardens.  But his true passion was preaching.  Harold apprenticed himself to the preacher in the congregation to learn the preacher’s craft.  He was put through the exercises of memorizing verses, learning the proof texts to be instant, in season and out of season as Paul instructed Timothy.  Personally, I think his best work was early in his presentations to us.  I recall one where he was absolutely himself, where he fell into the lyrical cadence of the Black preacher.  I was mesmerized by the presentation.  Once that genuine expression was pressed out of him, he became more of a flat, two-dimensional but darker-skinned copy of the typical preachers for my tribe. 

I may not have agreed with Harold on every point, but I deeply respected his faith.  I have never seen a man of deeper faith.  Why do I say that?  When Harold Milligan was diagnosed with stomach cancer, his health deteriorated rapidly, perhaps as a result of his poverty leaving him at the mercy of a healthcare system that was more worried about money than people.  The last Sunday he was able to attend the worship service, he weakly took to the pulpit, and with quiet voice spoke his last sermon.  He concluded with, “Don’t you worry about Brother Milligan.  I’m going to be all right.”  And I believe he is more than alright, comforted in ways this world never afforded him.

Finally, Barry Barber was a man who placed his membership with us only a few years ago.  Barry was in a wheelchair, paralyzed as a result of an accident some years earlier.  His body was wracked by the ravages of immobility; he developed diabetes, and ultimately, a rapidly spreading cancer.  The chemotherapy he was taking made him sicker; his mouth was often dry, which meant that he was no longer able to lead songs for the congregation.  But before that happened, I recall he led with strength and feeling that no one in our little group had ever mustered, nor has since been able to approach.  His body was broken, but his mind was amazingly sharp.  He had questions and insights that I looked forward to when I taught the Bible class.  I respected him deeply. 

And then he was gone.  The cancer took him, far too young.  I have no doubt that he was ready.  But I was not.  I cried for Barry as I had cried for Harold, these strong men who were neither well-known nor powerful among society, but who towered as giants in their faith.

As I think about my own journey of faith, I can see elements of all these people internalized in my very soul, present if not fully expressed at this moment in time.  I see glimmers of the resolution of my grandmother, the caring of my mother, the vision of my father, the common sense of Bettye Jenkins, the wider world view of Harold Jenkins, the gentleness of old Bro. Harris, the dedication of Harold Milligan, the peace of Barry Barber.  I may never attain full expression of any of these attributes.  But that will only be my fault for not exercising them at every opportunity. 

Each one of these wonderful men and women has deeply shaped my faith.  But if truth be told, there have been so many others.  To be surrounded by people of faith is to be influenced by them.  Like a river tumbling rough rocks into smooth round stones, or the persistent effects of wind and time smoothing the raw edges of a rocky peak into a gentle dome, our teachers and guides and fellow travelers shape us.  We are individual flames kindled from borrowed sparks.  Because of the glow of others, we can shine, and in that sharing, we have hope that we can continue that chain of faith and hope and love.