Autism and Serving at Church

This is the second installment in my Autism Awareness Month, 2015, series.

He sat on the cooler behind the table full of snacks, a smile on his face. But he wasn’t fully focused on what was in front of him. His darting gaze and imagesslight rocking movements told me his mind was far away. “You ready to do this, Ryan?” I asked. “Oh. Yes…ma’am,” he replied with a smile and a serious nod, coming back to the present. Part of me paused for a second, wondering if this was such a good idea.

It was Easter Sunday and our church was doing our annual Easter at the Civic Center. The goal was to be a welcoming place for people who might not set foot in a church comfortably. It was my family’s first year serving at this event. Finding a place for Kati, Jarod, and I to plug in was simple. Lucy was heartbroken that at age six she was too young to serve during a service. Bless her heart.

But what to do with Ryan?

Autism complicates things. One of the characteristics of autism is difficulty with social skills. Ryan is pretty high-functioning but I knew holding a door as a greeter was not the way to go. He’d need a helper to stand by to help filter whatever might flit into his mind and out his mouth. Oh the possibilities!

I approached Michael and Carrie, our children’s pastors, with my dilemma. Children’s ministry was where the rest of us were serving and they know Ryan. Hmmm. They agreed this would be a challenge but they wanted to help find a spot for him. God bless good children’s pastors willing to shepherd all kinds of kids.

Carrie finally came up with the perfect fit: Ryan could man the Snack Table, passing out cold water and restocking the goodies as they were devoured by grateful volunteers. It was in the small Volunteer Check-in Room, away from loud crowds of too many people. Ryan liked that idea. He had a place to serve.

He was cute when we signed in, heading straight to the table and offering suggestions on good snack choices for Carrie that made her smile. He sounded like a waiter. “Do you want protein? This breakfast bar looks great for that!” “Can I get you some water?”

Finding a place for an autistic teen to fit in at church can be daunting. As a mom, I can tell you it can make you self-conscious and nervous they are going to run into trouble. It can raise anxiety levels that they are going to say something wrong and offend someone who doesn’t understand they have special needs. Ryan has found his place in youth group and youth small groups thanks to great volunteers. But this was the first time I’d found a place for him to serve—especially without me at his side to keep an eye on things.

Ryan did great. He ate a lot which made Kristi, the volunteer coordinator, laugh. But he was polite and he chatted with people in a pretty normal way. And when the morning was over, Ryan got to say he was part of something amazing. There were 442 people who gave their lives to Jesus that weekend. And Ryan fed some of the 928 volunteers who made that possible.

God calls us each to serve as the Body of Christ. Not everyone is suitable for every job. Part of a good leadership team is plugging volunteers into the right spot. Finding areas where they can shine what talents God has given them and thrive with a sense of contributing to the work of the ministry. I’m thankful my leaders didn’t shy away from finding a spot to plug in my special son. He later told me it was fun and he’d love to do it again.

Everyone has something to offer the kingdom of God. He has given each of us something to contribute. Even with Ryan’s limitations, he has been created by a God who knows him and has a plan for his life. I’m honored to have good leaders who got creative in helping him find a small way to contribute. For an autistic teenager, that’s no small feat.ryan loves his church

If your church is looking for ways to include special needs kids and adults, feel free to contact me. I love training church volunteers on how to include special families like mine.

True Religion in Action

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

This verse has never been as alive to me as it has been since my husband died. To be honest, I’d forgotten it was even in there until my sweet cousin, Sarah, reminded me of it the week he died. She wanted to offer assurances that I was going to be ok. My kids where going to be provided for because God had instructed his people to take care of me.

I wept and then watched in amazement as the people of God did just that. People across denominational lines moved to help us in ways that still bring me to tears. I received blessing like the widow’s oil in 2 Kings 4:1-7 that just kept flowing. God performed a miracle to provide for that widowed mom and he keeps moving to provide for me, again and again.

One of my coworkers summed it up when he said, “I love to see it when God’s people get it right.”

Today I am reminded of this verse as I can’t seem to stop crying tears of gratitude. My kitchen sink broke last night. A seal at the base of the faucet snapped in half and popped out. Water sprays sideways when you turn it on. No leak is threatening to flood my house so I was thankful for that. But you need water in a kitchen.

I texted a pic to a handyman friend and he said the whole thing needed to be replaced. Sigh. There goes the money I had set aside for the kids’ clothes this week, I thought.

In the morning I posted on Facebook a call to see if any handy friends had time to install a new one for me. I’d looked up how to do it myself on YouTube. Nope. That’s not going to happen. I was hit again with how handy Kraig had been and grief made doing it myself seem impossible. No one replied and I thought of how busy my friend’s husbands are with their own home repair lists. I decided after my morning meetings I’d start calling handymen to get a quote.

Halfway through my meeting with the high school guidance counselor, my sweet friend and pastor’s wife, Katy, texted me. “Would it work for two guys to come fix the faucet at 4 p.m. today? They’ll bring a faucet.” Tears clouded my vision and I had to fight to return my focus to the meeting. I shared with the counselor why I was distracted and she teared up too. She said, “That’s amazing!” Jesus was glorified in her office today.

I love my church. Fountain Springs Community Church in Rapid City, South Dakota is growing by leaps and bounds, I believe, because they have determined in their core to show people who Jesus is—with words AND deeds. When Pastor David mentioned in a sermon last fall that this verse from James had convicted his heart, I sat up straighter. When he said he was adding a line item to the budget to help widows in need so this ministry would be part of who we are as a church, I cried.

To those who are Fountain Springers who regularly give to support the work of this amazing ministry, thank you! You helped our church be Jesus today to this widow and her four kids. You provided for this by your faithful tithes and offerings. You may not be one of the great guys coming to do the work, but you are partners in the ministry being done in my little house here in town.

I hadn’t even thought to call the church and ask. But God knew to make sure my post on Facebook caught Katy’s attention.

So today at 4:00 I will have everything ready for two great guys to come be the hands and feet of Jesus to this widow. Today I will again thank God for his provision when I didn’t even think to ask. And today I will encourage others to reach out to the widow and the orphan in practical, tangible ways because you often have no idea what a huge blessing you can be.

Handle with Care

As I sat down to type today’s blog, I was feeling at a loss for content. Writing daily for 31 days is hard. Today’s schedule was overall uncomplicated. No school. Only one appointment for all the kids followed by a brunch treat. But after that there wasn’t much on our to-do lists.

But what to write about in my blog on moving in? And then I remembered this is also a blog on coping after loss, starting anew after grief.

Today I realized I had a “moving” reminder that those suffering need to be handled with care. And sometimes God’s people forget that.

This afternoon a nice lady stopped by to purchase a bathroom ceiling fan I discovered amongst the boxes after moving in. My late-husband had purchased it. I didn’t need it and couldn’t return it to the store. I posted it on Facebook and after we negotiated a price, she stopped by to pick it up.

She expressed her sympathy at my loss. She told me, as a mom of more kids than me with a husband suffering from severe medical problems, she fears ending up like me all the time. She said maybe God had placed me in her path. I asked if she had a good church to offer support. Her answer made my heart sad. “My church is great. But I don’t have much support. People don’t know how to respond.”

She’s right. All too often we don’t know how to respond to death or chronic illness. We are the People of Hope who know the God of all Comfort and yet when we encounter death or disease, we freeze or we say the wrong things. I often make friends laugh at the things I’ve heard from well-meaning people. She told me one lady at church had responded to her worries her husband wouldn’t recover, “Well, I’m recently divorced and I can tell you being single isn’t all that bad.”

Oh Jesus, save us from ourselves. Save us from equating the dissolution of a marriage with the possible death of a spouse you’d give anything to keep! Save us from dismissing pain we don’t understand or walking away because we don’t know what to say! This woman feels the pain of people in her church asking how things are going and then turning to leave because it’s not going well and they don’t want to hear why or don’t have time.

The best support I have received has often been from people who have never felt what I’m feeling but sit with me anyway. They are the people that have encouraged me to keep going while promising to walk beside me so that I can. They are the people who are willing to listen through my tears and not have anything to say but, “I’m sorry. What do you need?” They are the people that follow through with practical help.

Oh that the Church would remember we are called to carry one another’s burdens. We are called to weep with those who weep. We aren’t called to know all the answers but to know the One who does and ask Him how He needs us to respond! Oh that we would offer our meager lunches of fish and loaves to the Master and watch how He can multiply it! What do you have in your hand that God could use to help someone who is hurting in the chair across the aisle?

Oh how I wept when my pastor announced our church would be adding a Widow’s Fund to our annual budget so that we are ready to meet widow’s needs as they arise. There will be no need to fundraise but the church will have systems in place to help. Oh how I wept when my pastor’s wife thanked me for being brave enough to ask for help building shelves in my garage. It’s sometimes hard to ask. She knew that. The kind men who built them this weekend knew that.

Death is an inevitable part of life. We are going to encounter those who are grieving. It’s time followers of Jesus had a plan for how to respond—emotionally, financially, practically. Oh that God would save us from letting the busyness of life or the foreignness of death prevent us from responding to those in need.

I can say I have been surrounded by God’s people responding in the best ways possible. But that is not the case for everyone. May God help us keep doing better. May He teach us how to handle with care those who are hurting.

Thankful for my Church

James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

I’ve been a widow for 13 months now and that title is still rough on my ears. During this time I’ve managed to keep moving forward in ways that have made those closest to me cheer encouragingly. But I’ve also needed the support of those around me often. I haven’t been able to do this alone.

Today my church stepped up to fulfill the definition of pure and faultless religion as outlined in James and once again help me move forward.

I love my church. Fountain Springs Community Church in Rapid City, South Dakota has recently been named the 14th fastest growing church in America across all denominations. I can tell you why I think that is. Their basic mission is to show people who Jesus is. They do this by being genuine and by encouraging each person involved to reach out to the world around us in tangible ways. One of their ministries is to help with projects for those in our community in need. This Saturday it was me.

I contacted my pastor’s wife, my sweet friend Katy. I asked if the small project of putting up shelves in my garage was something anyone could help me with. It was hard to ask. This long after his death, asking for help is hard. I probably could have done this project, to be honest. I told her that. But it would have taken me days or even a few weeks to get the supplies, figure out the tools, and pray I installed them right.

She thanked me for asking, for letting them help me. She thanked me for being brave enough to reach out for help. It made me cry. The servant’s heart displayed by Katy is contagious. I can see why she is able to get so many to give of their time and talents. Her enthusiasm is infectious!

Today four great guys from church came over and in a matter of hours helped clear a space, cut materials, put up shelves, and help me rearrange the chaos of my garage into manageable piles. I still can’t park in there. But things I know I won’t need soon are off the floor. My late-husband’s motorcycle is safely off to one side and covered with a furniture pad. What remains in the center of the room are boxes I can now sort, unpack, or donate their contents.

In short—it isn’t an overwhelming, chaotic mess that makes me want to cry every time I walk out there. While it may not look much improved to the casual observer, this is moving mess I can work with. What is too emotional to handle can be shelved—literally—until the kids are ready to part with it or I’m ready to deal with it.

Today four guys from my church were the love of Jesus to me. And it helped me as I continue to make this new place a home the kids and I can enjoy. Today my heart is thankful for my church.

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Before

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After (honest — it’s better!)