The Church should be like a library

My husband always give me books as presents. He’s good that way. Although I talk with him frequently about my reading interests and maintain an up-to-date GoodReads list, he still might present me with something under the Christmas tree that is completely off my radar. He is good that way, too. This year he surprised me with a book I had never even heard of previously.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean not only details the circumstances surrounding the April 1986 fire which devastated the Los Angeles Central Library, but also chronicles the history of the California library. Orlean has completed painstaking research following Harry Peak, the accused, his life and the years after the fire, while providing juicy tidbits on the early head librarians from the late 1800s onwards, most of whom were women. Her book jumps from a detective whodunnit, to a work of archival history, to an homage on the nobility and malleable nature of the library’s role in society and its identity. The last section gives credit to library and library-inspired innovations like OverDrive, book mobiles, the Biblioburro in Columbia, Little Free Libraries across the world, and more.

However, toward the end of the book something caught my attention. A description of the library as a safe, public place, welcoming to all reminded me of something even more beautiful than a library. When speaking to the issue of homelessness most city libraries face, Orlean writes,

“The library’s commitment to being open to all is an overwhelming challenge. For many people, the library may be the only place they have to be in close quarters with disturbed or profoundly dirty people, and that can be uncomfortable. But a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone.”

p. 245

As much as I love libraries and all they do for communities, what if this section were instead speaking of the church? Certainly, church buildings can be important places to meet, organize charitable events and gathering places for community outreach. Church buildings have hosted AA meetings. They have held marriage seminars, opened their doors with food pantries, and threw neighborhood block parties. But I am thinking of something more than the building. I read the above quote with a specific eye on the church as the PEOPLE.

What would our communities be like if we, as a church, were open, welcoming? What if we accepted all unconditionally? The public library may be nearly viewed as a sacred space for the very reason that it enfolds the prosaic and unwanted, the lonely, the unemployed, the retired and the graduate student. Even though we all deal with problems in our lives, the church cannot be the people Christ expects for us to be unless we are loving and open to everyone.

Of course, I need to begin with myself.

Looking at bark

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Are you able to discern this variety of tree simply by its bark?  Could it be a sweet gum?  There are certainly a number of sweet gum pods, or the fruit, about the ground nearby.  Why are you uncertain?  Are you not familiar with trees?  Can you more readily recognize them by their blooms or leaves?  is the photo simply too close?  The closer we study something the more difficult it may be genuinely to see it.

Is it a beautiful tree?  Perhaps.  It is hard to tell now.  I am merely examining one small part of it. It is nearly impossible to see your hand half an inch from your face.  As I cannot even remember if this really is a sweet gum, I cannot be sure.  I know it is not a beech, which has a smoother bark.  What I do know is that if I were to take a few paces back I would see a thing of fractal beauty, an example of a social yet stationary giant.

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This is how my son appears to me, day after day.  Rough.  Bumpy.  Craggy.  Too close. There are too many petty fights, too much time spent on incidental worries, and certainly not as many moments appreciating where he is now.  When I look exclusively at the details, become hyper-focused on the minutiae in the necessities of the day to day, it becomes increasingly difficult to see him as he truly is now, in all of his beauty.  I need to step back a few paces every once in a while, smile at him and take in all of him at this stage –  bark, leaves, limbs, branches, shaggy hair…..

 

…Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;

they will sing before the LORD…

Psalm 96:12b-13a

Why Atticus Finch could have raised a child on the autism spectrum

DSC_0002Lately I have been spending time within the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s not my first time to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  This might be my fourth or fifth.  Between reading the novel for a book club and reading it in preparation to make use of it as a read aloud with A and S early next school year, I am reading for curriculum – for historical setting, thematic elements, symbolism and life lessons- just as much as for narrative enjoyment.  From spending time in quiet reflection adjacent to Atticus and the Mobile Register to racing past the Radley place behind Scout with my jeans rolled up, I have been reflecting on the significance of Harper Lee’s story for myself.

Jem.  Calpurnia.  Mr. Heck Tate.  Maudie Atkins.  Tom Robinson.  Reverend Sykes.  Mrs. Dubose.  Lively characters with much to say to us even today.  While it is widely recognized that Atticus Finch was a good father doing his reticent best in solitary and difficult times, I have also come to a more personal conclusion: Atticus Finch could have successfully raised a child with Asperger’s.

Aunt Alexandra’s vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-a-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life.  I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well, but Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam, that I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year.  She hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge, but when I asked Atticus about it, he said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go on about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was.

To Kill a Mockingbird, chapter 9, p. 89

The beauty of Atticus’ statement to Scout is in his acceptance of her.  No only does this make me smile for its understating qualities but also for Aunt Alexandra’s usage of the word “sunbeam.”  Atticus’ connotation of the word seems substantively different.  Not only did Atticus “not mind” her differences, but he did the hard work as a parent to help her stand out against her society insomuch as she was standing on her own two feet.  He didn’t mind her wearing overalls.  He didn’t mind her being addressed as Scout, instead of her given name Jean Louise.  He didn’t mind her running around half wild with an awkward neighbor boy and no girls for friends.  He didn’t mind her swearing, not really, because he understood it was for attention and want of expression (and incidentally a last-ditch ploy to avoid school).  These were unequivocal traits which made Scout stand out as an oddity in polite, accepted Maycomb society.

How is all this important to me?  Because he wears the baseball cap 24/7.  Giggles uncontrollably at things no one else finds even slightly amusing.  Uses archaic phrases.  Recites stories from memory that at times have little to do with the flow of conversation.  Interjects tidbits of trivia on baseball, presidents, car models, world countries, etc. apropos to goodness knows what.  Why should I find this difficult or offensive?  Like Atticus I am learning to accept.  Whereas he fought the battle of Aunt Alexandra and Maycomb County, I fight my own internal battle.  Hard pressed between how I feel others may perceive him and how I should just let him be.  My own quirky sunbeam.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.  You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – ”

“Sir?”

“-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

chapter 3, p. 36

Atticus teaches Scout and Jem to take stock of another’s perspective multiple times in the novel.  He offers this advice concerning those he genuinely cares for like Miss Caroline or Mr. Cunningham, and for those he does not, such as Bob Ewell.  We need more empathy, more walking around in each other’s skin, more children who can say, “I don’t agree with you, but I understand why you think that way.”  More people who are strong enough to wield grace and patience.  Not condoning immoral behavior but a loving spirit and empathy for someone else’s struggle.

Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.

chapter 15, p. 164

Empathy and theory of mind can be difficult for people on the spectrum.  Difficult, but not impossible.

Atticus pushed my head under his chin.  “It’s not time to worry yet,” he said.  “I never thought Jem’d be the one to lose his head over this – thought I’d have more trouble with you.”

chapter 11, p. 113

As a member of our bookclub noted, Atticus never blatantly tells the children when it is time to worry.  He teaches by example through a forbearance that supersedes worry and despair.  Through these words he gives credence to the seriousness of the situation, but allows them to know that someone is sharing their concern.  He is listening.

Isn’t this what we all desire, for someone to say, “Yes, I hear you are scared.  Yes, those are legitimate worries.  Let’s deal with this together.”?  Unfortunately, fear and anxiety can be the primary emotion for people on the spectrum.  Atticus might have been able to successfully parent his way through these daily struggles with an Aspie son or daughter.

Certainly I am not proposing that Jem or Scout were intended to have Asperger’s.  They were precocious, yet neuro-typical.  Nor am I proposing that acceptanceempathy and anxiety are things exclusively children with Asperger’s need to learn, but as I have often heard expressed: People with Asperger’s struggle with the same issues everyone else does, only more so.

Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break.  Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.

Atticus was right.  One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.  Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.

chapter 31, p. 294