2012-05-15

The Holy Wholly Other

I thank Meg Jobes (see her May 14 guest post) for her sharing about her son, Eli, and for urging me to address the way that congregations are not always welcoming, are not always understanding, are not always accepting of those who are neurologically atypical.

Can you hear it? Can you hear the call to a wonderful and transformative opportunity for opening our hearts? We have an opportunity here to learn a fuller love.

I’m not going to devote much time today to an interesting and informative talk on the biology, psychology, phsiology of autism and autism-spectrum-disorder. I will just note that autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood. Autism itself, Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified are the three recognized forms of ASD, Autism spectrum disorder.

That’s the very basics. Even more basic is the message of this acronym for "AUTISM":
Always
Unique
Totally
Interesting
Sometimes
Mysterious.

Meg's post told us a little bit more, and I encourage us to learn more. Google "Autism". The Wikipedia entry is a start (click here).

Rather than a learned discourse on the nature of autism, my focus is on this question: What are we here for? Whatever the details of how autism works may be, what is asked of us as people of faith, people on a spiritual path, people who have come to worship and find some of our expectations not met? Maybe we didn't expect to find anyone neurologically atypical in our midst at worship. How do we handle the upsetting of that expectation? We didn't expect, right in the middle of Sunday worship, to have a chance to be welcoming, accepting, and understanding of a sudden outburst or unusually active moving around.

LoraKim once said we ought to pass out hard hats for Sunday worship. Watch your head. There's liable to be debris from crumbling expectations.

It was from Meg that I first encountered the word “neurodiversity.” And as she pointed out, diversity is important to us Unitarian Universalists. Diversity is a central part of the self-conception of the thousand-congregation denomination called the Unitarian Universalist Association, and it is central to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville. -Every week we at UUFG, we repeat out loud an affirmation that declares our commitment to be a diverse religious community.

Theologians have characterized God as the holy wholly other – that is, holy, and also completely different. They’re on to something. When we make contact with that which is so different that it pulls us out of our usual patterns and habits, pulls us out of our usual ego defenses, then it does feel transcendent. That experience that some of us call God, then, depends on experience of The Other, which we encounter right here on Earth in the form of other living beings. The holy other is encountered in plants and trees and other animals – living beings outside our species. The holy other is encountered in human beings outside our gender, outside our sexual orientation, outside our race, outside our ethnicity, outside our class, outside our generation, outside our condition of physical ability, outside our casual assumptions, outside the neurological brain patterns we are used to encountering.

That’s where we encounter the divine: outside of our expectations, outside our comfort zone. Sometimes, maybe, it might be an autistic kid who pushes you out of your comfort zone and into a place where the magic happens.

Connecting in compassion is the holy encounter. If I may call upon wisdom from the Jewish and Christian traditions – traditions from which we have diverged but with which we share deep roots – then, friends, I let me ask us again to remember Genesis, chapter 18:
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.”
Now Abraham doesn’t recognize who these visitors are. Abraham's use of “my lord,” is a general term of respect. Abraham thinks he’s greeting human strangers. He says:
"Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant. . . . Abraham ran to the heard, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”
In ancient times, a stranger often represented a threat. Yet Abraham rushes out to show kindness. He sets out his best offering. What he finds out, is that he is serving God. Abraham's act of practical compassion leads to a holy encounter.

As I read that story, it’s not that reaching out to needs greater than our own causes a magical being to reward us for it – though I understand why a group might describe it that way. It certainly feels magical.

Reaching out and connecting to The Other IS the holy encounter. And the more OTHER, the more it stretches what we’re used to, violates our norms and expectations, the greater the possibility for encountering the holy. We touch the divine when we contact in compassion the other, the stranger. Whoever it is, that’s God. Whoever it is! And it might be a child whose brain is wired to upset your expectations.

* * * * *
Part 3 of "Neurodiversity"
Next: Part 4: "The Second Smooth Stone of Liberalism"
Previous: Part 2: "Meg's Story: Elijah Has Autism"
Beginning: Part 1: "Gator Wrestling"