Redefine Normal // Rediscover Hope

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Do YOU Believe in Back-Handed Grace?

Have you ever found yourself grateful to God that things aren’t worse? I used to think of that as back handed grace, and almost offensive to the goodness of God. It just never seemed like I was operating from a place of strength when I said something like, “Well, it could always be worse. Thanks God, for not letting it be THAT bad?” I have lots of opportunities to practice this type of praise, as we have some pretty tough weeks with my daughter’s epilepsy and autism, not to mention our three boys. My wife has been telling me for years that I am missing an opportunity to exercise my gratitude muscles by not recognizing the goodness of our present circumstances in this way, but I have never believed her…until this week.

I was a chaperone for my son’s overnight Outdoor Education field trip, in which all 6th grade students in the school experienced nature first-hand.

(For the record, all parents who voluntarily spend 24 hours with 100+ 6th graders without pay deserve to share Parent of the Year honors. Perhaps on another post I can share with you the cacophony that exists in such events, the patience that is needed to survive such events, the power of earbuds in such events, and the…but I digress.)

I was responsible for six boys: my son, four of his closest friends, and a high functioning autistic boy I will call Bob. His name isn’t Bob, but I don’t feel comfortable giving names of folks outside my family; you will soon learn that Bob is my default name for males, while Susie is my default female name. Bob reminded me so much of my daughter Cynthia, from the emotional immaturity to the extreme discomfort with loud noises to the misunderstanding of social cues resulting in embarrassment and confusion. I was really drawn to him, to try and give him some sense of hope, of joy, and of acceptance.

This was harder than I thought, for a few reasons. To start with, Bob wandered off on his own a lot, despite clear instructions from teachers and others to stay as a group. His natural curiosity got the best of him, so I had to go find him regularly. This resulted in some frustration for me and him. Bob just wanted to explore, and I just wanted to manage my kids from a single location.

Beyond that, his lack of social skills resulted in some very interesting moments. At one point, he was running up and down the dorms in only his underwear, undulating his belly and growling at anyone who would come near. I had to redirect him as kindly as I could while stifling laughter. Then it got real for me.

As Bob was in the bathroom, a few kids were talking about him. One said that he just didn’t understand Bob, and thought he must be gay since he’s so weird. I let the boys talk a few more moments along this line, hoping one would recognize their ignorance and callousness, but no such luck. Actually, the language got ruder and ruder. I stepped in, explaining that Bob was autistic not homosexual. I tried to explain high functioning autism as best I could to a 6th grade boy, describing that Bob’s brain is just wired a little differently, and that he struggles to understand how to interact socially. The kids responded to me with such hatred and anger in his eyes as he said, “Kids like Bob should be put somewhere, so that normal people like me don’t have to deal with them. He sucks!”

In that moment, my heart broke – for this boy, for his parents who have obviously not taught him to love, for his peers who all accepted this statement as right and good, for the teachers who try to step in and coach kids to care when the parents don’t do it, for our society where fear of those who are different is still the norm…but mostly my heart broke for Bob.

I recalled watching him through most of the day, and the consistent loneliness and rejection he received. An entire table of kids moved when he sat down for lunch. When we were in wet lab, he had 7 kids tell him no before he could find a lab partner. On the bus ride there, he ended up in the front of the bus with the teacher because things were just too loud and crazy for him. He asked to sleep above me because he was afraid someone would hurt him while he slept, unless he was on my bunk. I found myself in that moment wishing I had tried harder to be his friend, that I had allowed kindness to ooze out of my heart toward him every moment I was his chaperone, that I could teach his peers that he is a wonderful kid. Bob talked to me at lunch for 15 minutes about an idea he had to make hydrogen energy plants affordable, and how this plan would solve the energy crisis our country faces by minimizing our dependence upon foreign oil. He is brilliant…but none of his peers know that, because all they see is different, and difficult. They miss the uniqueness that God placed in this young man. I fear that this special gift, this treasure that only Bob has, will be lost underneath the weight of sorrow and despair.

As I considered this things and sorrow filled my heart, slowly a new-found back-handed hope also sprung in my spirit when I thought of my own daughter. Like I said, Bob and Cynthia are very alike, and she is only one year younger than him. Yet her school experience is very different. There are two or three girls who genuinely enjoy Cynthia. Her class does not judge her for her autism, or her epilepsy. Last year, it was her classmates who took the lead when Cynthia had a seizure in the cafeteria, because the lunch staff was unprepared. They care for her, they watch out for her – dare I say, some even love her.

Now, I wish I had answers for why Bob doesn’t get the same kindness my daughter does. I will be regularly praying for Bob, looking for opportunities to talk with him, and likely talking with a teacher about the cold-heartedness I saw in his peers. What I appreciative of is that God’s goodness for my own daughter was highlighted for me in the midst of my sadness for Bob. I am often confused by God’s ways, but I know I am not alone in this. It was the prophet Isaiah who said, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

It only took a decade, but I finally understand what my wife has been trying to tell me. In the past, I could only hear her say it is good to thank God that things aren’t worse, but that wasn’t her heart at all. Instead, she was saying that I should look for the evidence of God’s presence in my life, even when it doesn’t look the way I want it to look. It is in the discovery of these divine kindnesses that I will learn to have the heart of God, and be more like Jesus to the next Bob that comes into my life.

How skilled are you at parsing out the good gifts God places in your life? Any tricks of the trade you want to share with a recovering cynic?