Conversations with my 11 year old daughter who has autism are very concrete. Mostly simple questions and answers. It gets really complicated for everyone when she asks questions that DON’T have simple answers.
For example, she recently asked, “Mommy, where is heaven? Is it up in the clouds?” I knew if I said no, (because I believe heaven is a place that exists apart from the earth as we know it), then I’d enter into a conversation that would leave her confused and me frustrated. So I told her that I thought it was past the clouds, hoping that would be good enough. It wasn’t. Her follow up was, “So it’s in space.” Um, no, not that either. Wanting to avoid the confusion and frustration I took the easy way out and I said, “Well, I’m not sure exactly because I’ve never been there.” That was ok with her. Sometimes it’s just better, and in this case more honest, to say “I don’t know.”
I had the same interesting balancing act when she asked where Jesus was. She finds it impossible to understand how Jesus can be in heaven, yet in each of our hearts at the same time. For her it’s easier to comprehend a Jesus who moves around a lot, and very quickly – jumping between heaven and the hearts of believers. Actually it’s amazing that she understands Jesus being in our hearts. The way I explained it to her is that it’s like when she remembers people she loves who died – her grandmother and grandfather specifically. When she remembers them, they’re in her heart – so when she remembers Jesus’ words or story, that’s when HE is in her heart – and she gets that (I’m pretty sure).
She’s known for a while that not everyone is Christian – we have a few Jewish friends and she has classmates who are Jewish, so she knows that some people worship at Temple (or Synagogue – a word she knows but cannot pronounce!), and some worship at Church. We have yet to discuss other faiths since they’re not in her experience, and we learned a long time ago to only answer the questions that are asked. We cross bridges when we get to them, not before.
Now, thanks to some of our ecumenical associations, she’s starting to understand that not everyone is Lutheran, although we haven’t gotten into details. More specifically her new area of fascination involves the cooperative worship we had during Holy Week with the local Presbyterian Church. It’s taken her a few weeks to process some of this because Holy Week was back in April, but she’s been asking LOTS of questions the past few days. Here’s a sample:
“Mommy, did Pastor Fran (the Presbyterian pastor) go to pastor school?” (pastor school is how we’ve explained seminary to her)
“Mommy, does Pastor Fran have Sunday school at her church?
I’ve been working REALLY hard with her on pronouncing “Presbyterian” and she’s getting better at it. When she first started saying it, it sounded more like “predaterian” (as in “predator,” not that she knows what THAT means, but I was still adamant to “fix” it). I didn’t want it staying in her head that way!
“Mommy, does Pastor Fran and Presbyterians have big meetings like Lutherans?” (meaning district-wide assemblies/conventions)
“Mommy, is everyone at the Presbyterian Church Presbyterian? (may seem like a “duh” question for some, but not for her) Then,
“Mommy, is everyone at our church Lutheran?” (another “duh” question, but not for her)
The tough part is going to come when she asks what the differences are between Lutherans and Presbyterians (and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, and Methodists, and Reformed, and Baptists etc…). The answers will all depend on how she asks the questions I suppose. We always have to start from there. It ALWAYS starts from there.
I love that she is so curious about faith and the Church. I love that she loves worship and sees our congregation as a natural part of her life. I love that on Sundays we MUST go to church, and I love that she is adamant that if we’re going to church then she MUST wear a dress. I love that she’s becoming a budding theologian! Answering her questions is a challenge for sure, but the more I go about teaching her, the more I learn myself.