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Autism Awareness Day: How I Learned to Enter into Their World

Written By Lydia Lee, Singapore

He was having a very bad day. Something in his routine had changed. He was screaming, crying, and dashing around, hitting out at tables, the walls, and even his forehead. As his distress level escalated, he started grabbing my shirt and pulling at my hair. When he scratched me amid the tugging, I held him at his wrists and said with a steady voice, “Ouch, it’s painful.”

That made him pause. Then he looked down at the ugly red scratch-mark on my hand and his consciousness returned to him. He looked at me and started to cry again—but this time for a different reason. Through his sobs he said, “Oh no! Teacher Lydia is sad, oh no!”

What he meant was that I was hurt. And because he knew he was the one who hurt me, he started crying.

In that moment, I did not register the pain from the scratch. Instead, I registered an ache in my heart for this child.

As a teacher for students with autism, I knew that this child’s condition had prevented him from being able to wrap his mind around a seemingly small change in his routine in order to respond in a rational way. As he became aware of the pain he had inflicted on me, his remorse rose, and I felt an ache for a child who fights a constant battle to align his actions with the empathy and care he has for those around him.

In October of 2017, after 13 years of striving to understand and connect with youths in Singapore to reach them for Jesus, God provided an opportunity for me to become a full-time special-education teacher at a local school for students with autism.

As I considered the opportunity, I thought of the Great Commission, where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a). I was used to thinking of “all nations” as referring to people from different countries, people groups, ethnicities or cultures. But I don’t have to travel far. I realized that the children with autism who live among us, who seem so different and foreign, fall under the category of “all nations” too.

Unlike many of the distinctions above, autism bears no physical trait. You can’t tell from their physical features that a person is on the autism spectrum—but their inner world is vastly different to ours. Their world has a unique culture where routines and repetition rule, where visuals speak a million times louder than words, where literal language is king compared to metaphors and body expressions, and where a perfect environment would be when factors such as light, sound, and temperature are kept at a constant.

As I prayed through the decision, I felt challenged to apply the same effort I had with youth in my previous job, to a potentially less-understood and even less-valued group in our society. If I could understand their comfort zone and be willing to step into it even though it may be foreign to me, if I could speak their lingo with visuals they understand . . . perhaps then I could have the opportunity to introduce them to their Maker, to plant a seed about their Savior, and continue doing all of that until one day they come to know Him.

Accepting the position as a full-time special education teacher was my first step into a curious world—the beginning of a great adventure.

 

Making Sense of Autism

Autism is a curious condition. There are many different expert definitions. Some call it a disability, and others, a developmental disorder.

Characteristic to autism are traits such as over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sensations such as sound, light, or touch. People with autism often have difficulty understanding social cues and reading expressions. Thus, their responses at times may seem inappropriate or offensive. They rely on routines and repetitive behaviors, and as a result, it is unbelievably difficult for them to cope with an ever-changing environment and constantly shifting relationships.

I think of people with autism as people who are just living under a different norm—be it intellectual, emotional, or social. Our world is not superior to theirs, merely different. It is akin to us visiting a foreign country with a vastly different culture. But because we do not understand their world, we could find their reactions or behaviors “disruptive” or “scary”. Interestingly, while we find their behaviors “scary”, what we may not realize is that they find us just as unpredictable and difficult to understand, and thus, also equally “scary” and “disruptive”.

Yet, if we embark on a goal to connect with them, the exploration can be fascinating and the discovery, wonderful! After all, God dwells in their world just the same as ours . . . we are just new to stepping in and discovering what God is doing in their space.

 

Learning From My Students with Autism

“Wow, to do this, you must need a lot of patience . . .”

This is the most common response I get whenever I share about my current work. From a smile to a nod, God reminded me to also clarify, “Teaching any child, or ministering to any person requires much patience from us, whether they are neurotypical or special.” And most recently, God has taught me to say, “Patience is a virtue.” That helps me to remember that in some ways, my students are teaching me more and even greater things than I can teach them.

For example, I knew that people with autism were generally described as being socially unaware or aloof in forming relationships. However, I had a student who proved this description wrong. Once, when he saw another student screaming, crying, and kicking around on the floor and thus had to be restrained by some teachers, he became very sad and cried. He grabbed my hand tightly, while sobbing and pointing at the student, he used all his strength to pull me over and urged me to help the child. In this case, he felt deep empathy for the upset child and desperately wanted to offer relief. He just did not know how.

My student displays such a high level of empathy and compassion that many neurotypicals may not have. In a way, his responses to people around him has caused me to slow down to consider the plight of others. His urge to have the situation resolved for the other student, and to go over and pat him on the head upon resolution, made me think that while it is often alright to walk away from a matter because it is being handled, it’s even better if we can stop and offer support . . . even if it’s just a word or an act of consolation. While I am able to teach this child hard skills like how to read and write, he in turn brought me to a place where I realized how much I fall short in having compassion for those around me.

Though the work with my students is greatly rewarding, there are naturally days when their behaviors and responses frustrate or baffle me. There are days where their child-like and unreserved comments make me laugh out loud. There are days where regardless of how much I try to be patient, understanding, and befriend them, they just cannot be pacified—apart from not receiving any reciprocation, I become the brunt of their anger instead. And for a lot of occupations, a “tough day at work” probably doesn’t include the heightened alertness you need to carry around to respond quickly and appropriately to any distressful situations.

The work is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But when you are able to witness their first steps in learning a word, performing a daily living skill task independently, or even when they give you an eye contact and a smile, your heart is full and you won’t be recounting how hard it was but how joyful you are.

My hope is not in my strategies or strength, but in God who created these children in His image, and in the Holy Spirit who can access their minds and hearts the way I cannot. My hope is in Christ who gave me the Commission to “go”, to “make” disciples, to “teach” His commandments. So, when I feel the weight of the hard work I have before me, I pray. I plead with Christ to fill my heart with His love so I can love them more. I plead with the Spirit to help me know what is in their minds and hearts. I plead with God to grant me wisdom that I may know what the best thing for them is.

 

We’re not all called to invest in full-time occupations serving the special needs community. But we are all called to “love your neighbor as yourself”—the second commandment (Mark 10:31). So perhaps we could begin right there, to pray that our love for God would overflow to the people around us—so that we will not judge them by how they behave on the outside, which school they come from, how well they can speak, or how much they can contribute to society. Let us seek to love people with autism as Christ loves us.

The Girl I’ll Never Forget

I had barely turned 17 that fall in 2015. Newly arrived in Hungary for Bible college, I accompanied a group of pastors and students that were going to one of the many refugee camps at the Serbian border to help with relief and supplies.* 34 hours working non-stop. Those hours are mostly a blur now, but the devastation I witnessed will forever be etched in my mind. 

The smell of human waste, the windy cold air, and my shoes caked in mud. My brain is trying to catch up with all the things I’ve seen tonight, but I can’t seem to fully comprehend the extent of this pain.

After midnight, my friend and I took a break from the camp area where there were thousands of people, and started walking through one of the corn fields. Soon, we came upon a family and a young girl, very clearly pregnant, laying on the ground, her mother propping her up from behind. I stayed with the family while my friend went to get a doctor. I can’t explain the fear and alertness I saw in the young girl’s eyes. I couldn’t even begin to understand what she must be feeling: fatigue, exhaustion, panic.

Oh dear one, the things you must have been through.

This girl, very likely my own age, had left her country and fled for her life, and for the one she carried within her. She must have yearned for hope in a new land, a better life for her and her little one.

If only I could hold you close and protect you from all this evil.

She had trekked across mountains, forests, cities, borders, perhaps even waters to reach a safe haven. She could have very likely been killed in her country, along with her family, and that’s why they were here, that’s why they’d left everything behind, simply to save their lives.

God forgive me for complaining over inconveniences in my own life.

I wanted to offer some form of comfort to this poor girl lying on the ground in front of me, a pool of blood slowly forming around her. I knew what was going on, but I didn’t want to cause more panic. She wouldn’t remove her gaze from me, and I physically ached to be able to communicate in her own language. But as I looked back into her eyes, I found the words “Jesus loves you” coming out of my mouth. They were in English, but nevertheless they were a truth I wanted her to know so badly.

Every part of me is in agony for her pain. Why oh why can’t I do more?

My friend came back with a doctor who did a quick examination of the girl and radioed for a stretcher to be brought over. Soon the girl was whisked off to the nearest hospital. Even though her whole family wanted to go with her, they were not allowed to do so for the sake of space in the vehicle. So I helped get them a large camping tent, food, and blankets as they waited through the night to receive their beloved daughter back.

I hope they understand my love for them. I hope they understand there is still hope.

The hours that followed are still a haze to me. I vaguely remember running back and forth between our ministry’s supply tent and the endless line of refugees waiting on the highway to board buses that would take them to the Austrian border, handing out food and water. I remember helping families acquire camping tents and necessities to make it through the cold night as they waited out in the fields for transportation to the rest of Europe. I remember accompanying little children into the Red Cross tent with their parents to receive check-ups and medicine for those that were sick. I remember pleading with God in my head to help all these families find comfort in Him, and peace as they escaped the horrifying upheaval in the Middle East and came to countries and languages unknown to them in hopes of starting new, safer lives.

I’m so tired, but I can’t stop. There is so much to be done.

And then, news came back from the hospital.

Oh God, please give them peace.

The girl had been eight months pregnant. Due to the strain of all the traveling she’d done and the trauma she endured along the way, she suffered a miscarriage and lost the child.

I remember feeling so numb at the time, so completely unable to process the news.

I’d been there in the field with her when she started to bleed, and I couldn’t help her when she needed it most.

This can’t be real. This isn’t actually happening.

I nearly went mad. In all my life, before and after that night, I’d never felt such a piercing pain in my heart. It brought me to my knees in grief.

There was so much to be done though, so I didn’t have time to cry at the time. I went about working again and tried to suppress my feelings.

Numbness of mind. Numbness of feeling.

The sun rose and the refugees were still pouring in from the border, though not as heavily as the night before. I spent the rest of my time at the camp picking up trash and tidying up tents for the next influx of refugees coming in. The events of the night started to seep into my mind and I replayed the girl losing her baby in the corn field over and over.

I could’ve done more. I should’ve done more!

To my knowledge, the family was transported to a location where the girl was also taken to. I never saw or heard of them again.

As I was walking back to the main tent, a young man who was volunteering with another organization came up to me very shyly and said, “I think you look very beautiful right now.” He took off running and left me shocked and gaping.

What?

I suddenly became very aware of how I must have looked at this point; hair scraggly and oily, clothes smelly and even torn in a few parts, glasses smudged with dirt, and arms covered here and there by mud. All this mess, and he calls me beautiful?

I slowly began to understand. I looked around me. I could feel the pain and reality of what was going on that day, in that camp. And it was bittersweet.

For such a time as this. . .

Many lives have been lost throughout the heartbreaking ordeal that is the refugee crisis throughout Europe and the world. But that night, one life was saved. The young girl made it through. The extreme agony of losing the precious baby will forever be a great sorrow to bear. But even so, the hope of Christ is greater still, and I trust that child rests safely in the arms of the Father.

It took a very long time for me to come to terms with it, but just having been there with her, even without speaking her language, and telling her that she was loved by Jesus was part of what God could have been using on her journey to a new life, and hopefully a life where she would meet with Him eventually.

God uses all our circumstances, situations, and occurrences to bring about the bigger picture He is painting (Philippians 1:6) . I will always count it a deep honor to have played a small part in the events of history at that time.

The Middle East crisis has by no means stopped. Refugees are still fleeing their countries and flooding into parts all around the world, and not just from the Middle East.

This, Church, this is our time. This is why we are here. So let us rise.

 

* In 2015 and 2016, the EU experienced an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants. More than 1 million people arrived in the European Union, most of them fleeing from war and terror in Syria and other countries. (European Commission)

** You can do a quick Google search or visit the World Vision website to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, how it affects the world, and how you can take action. As you read, ask the Lord how you might be able to help with this crisis in any way.

3 Ways To Respond to A World With Changing Values

Written By Julian Panga, India

Julian grew up in India and then lived in Australia for 12 years. While working in the banking and finance Industry in Melbourne, he also served as a church elder, missions trainer, and Bible teacher. In 2014, he returned to India in response to God’s calling and is currently involved in pastoral ministry and theological training. He is passionate about teaching and training as well as engaging the youth and those in the marketplace with the Gospel.

On 6 September 2018, India’s Supreme Court overturned a 157-year-old law which had previously criminalized consensual gay sex.

This may come as a surprise to many, since India has long been known for its family values and traditional views on marriage. But all over the world, same-sex relationships have become more and more accepted, so this move by India’s Supreme Court was inevitable.

The LGBT community in India—which used to be a hidden minority—are now coming out in the open and reveling in their victory. This landmark decision was a huge relief to the LGBT community, as well as activists and supporters who stood by them. Celebrities and politicians across the country have expressed support and congratulations over social media, reflecting the increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships.

This news has highlighted a growing trend towards changing values that are at odds with the Bible. Going forward, we will more and more frequently encounter people with ideas, mannerisms, and desires different from ours. How then should the Church respond?

Should we respond in protest and anger, or should we continue to spread the message of love, acceptance, and inclusion? Should we seek to hold on to our core beliefs revealed in the Bible, or compromise our message in favor of being progressive and accepting? What is clear is that we need to make these choices with sensitivity, wisdom, and with the help of God’s grace and love.

Here are three ways I believe we can respond to a world of changing values with love and gentleness:

 

1. See each person as made in the image of God

Regardless of what someone’s views on sexual relationships or any other divisive issue may be, it’s important that we remember that we are all broken, sinful, and in need of Christ. All of us need the good news of the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We all need to learn that our identity does not come from our sexual orientation, social status, or even personality—but in the privilege of being called Sons and Daughters of the Living God.

This begins with being committed to seeing each person we meet as made in the image of God and valued by Him. As long as we focus on showing people the love, grace, and mercy of God, the Holy Spirit will bring about transformation in our lives and the lives of those around us. Take time to build relationships and trust with genuine love.

 

2. Demonstrate the love of Christ through practical ways

As Christians, we are called to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40)—and our neighbor is anyone around us who is in need and hurting. This call remains the same regardless of the legal changes or societal views that prevail. There is no list of requirements our neighbors need to meet before we shower them with our love. No one is out of bounds.

Instead of retreating in fear or shame, or inciting anger or hate, we must seek to be the hands and feet of God in practical ways. As Christians, we recognize that only Jesus Christ, the Son of God, can offer real hope to this lost, broken, and damaged world. And His love is demonstrated when we serve others in practical ways.

This could take the form of taking the time to listen to the stories of those who struggle with same-sex attraction with sensitivity or empathy, helping those who are hurting find counseling avenues, and keeping our hearts and doors open to anyone seeking refuge.

 

3. Get to know those who are different from you

Many churches have already begun doing this by breaking down age-old stereotypes, educating themselves, and reaching out to those unlike them. This often comes about through church services that are welcoming, intentional acts of compassion and mercy, friendship evangelism, and providing counseling and pastoral care.

There are also focused ministries that are committed to reaching out sensitively to LGBT communities as well as many others, presenting the message of the Gospel. Much fruit can already be seen as a result of the persistent efforts of these ministries.

My church, for example, has organized a seminar for youth and young adults to hear from experts and ask questions relating to our sexuality. These young people are also encouraged to invite friends who are either curious or troubled about these changes and are seeking frank answers to difficult questions.

As a church, we have also taken steps to proactively approach the transgender community in parts of our city, and invited them to a special service at our church. Many attended, and were received with warmth and genuine love. We desire to continue building relationships with the leaders of this community, so that we may have more opportunities to engage with them and share the transforming love of Christ.

 

In a world where ethical and moral values are shifting endlessly, it’s even more pivotal that we understand our role as Christians—to be the salt and light that will draw others to the Light of Christ and His offer of eternal life. Let’s hasten to do this and ask God to lead us in our interactions with the world around us.

4 Tips For Reaching Out To The Homeless

“Excuse me, miss, do you have any spare change?”

The other day, I was asked for some money by a man sitting outside the local supermarket. He was wrapped up in a blanket, with his hoodie over his head and a torn paper cup in his hand.

“Really sorry, I don’t have any on me,” I replied. “But can I buy something for you? What do you need?”

I squatted down beside him and looked him in the eyes, and I could tell it made him a bit nervous.

He appeared timid but I could tell was also eager to have a chat.

“My name is Rachel,” I said reaching out my hand. “What’s yours?”

***

As someone who works for a homelessness charity, I frequently get asked what one should do if approached by a homeless person on the streets.

What do I do if a homeless person asks me for money? Do I give them money? Should I just avoid them?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, homelessness is a crisis. The reasons are many and complex—family breakdown, community upheaval, poor mental health, or individual struggles with addiction. But whatever the reasons, no one should have to sleep rough on the streets—especially in the dead of winter—or be in search of a place to stay because they were kicked out of their home by a family member.

Because local governments are often unable to help the hundreds of people in need, I strongly believe that this is where we, the Church, come in.

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus urges us to care for those living in poverty as an act of obedience to God: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

While I do not have all the answers to this complex problem, I do have a few thoughts that I hope you find helpful the next time you encounter someone on the streets.

 

1. Be compassionate

Embody compassion. Freely give to people you come across, especially those who find themselves on the margins of society. While we should not lightly cross personal boundaries or put ourselves at risk, we certainly don’t need to be a social worker to show compassion. Showing compassion can be anything from saying hello to someone on the street, to offering to buy them a hot drink on a cold night.

As Christians, kindness should come naturally to us. And when it does not, we need to ask God to show us how He sees and loves the people around us. Pray for our hearts to be broken by the things that break His heart.

 

2. Help out when you can and where you can

After all, you and I are mere individuals. We cannot possibly help everyone we come across who begs for money on the street.

However, if we want to help people living in poverty and experiencing episodes of homelessness, we can always start small and see where it takes us. After all, no act of kindness, no matter how small, is insignificant.

Instead of giving money to someone on the streets, I will often buy them a sandwich or a hot coffee. And sometimes, it is enough just to have a conversation with that person.

If you’re just starting out on this journey, something as simple as smiling and saying “Hello” is a positive step. Ultimately, we want to show dignity and respect to people who have been robbed of such.

Jesus Himself treated social outcasts and sinners with dignity and compassion. He even shared a meal with prostitutes! Maybe there’s something we could learn from His interactions with the poor and downtrodden.

 

3. Use common sense

On the one hand, we need to think about how to better serve our local communities and reach out to people who are homeless. But on the other hand, we also need to exercise common sense.

While some of us have no qualms about speaking to a homeless person outside of a supermarket, that is a personal choice and not necessarily right for everyone. There have been times where I have seen people on the streets act aggressive. If that happens, we need to decide on a safe course of action. Definitely not all homeless people are dangerous or addicts, but we need to exercise common sense when interacting with people on the street.

 

4. Get on board

There are many charities that support homeless people in local communities. These charities offer a variety of services and projects, such as overnight shelters, addiction recovery programs, or community development.

Supporting a charity is a great way of partnering with others to tackle the issue of homelessness. We can do so by giving to charities, donating food and clothing at local food banks, or participating in an outreach program through church.

 

It’s easy to think “I’m just one person. How can I possibly make a difference?”

While we may not be able to perform the miracles Jesus did—raising the dead, restoring sight, casting out demons—we can extend the same life-changing dignity that He offered during His time on earth. Jesus treated each and every person He came across with dignity, knowing that they are made in God’s own image. We can do so as well.

Brothers and sisters, if there is one thing to remember when encountering the homeless, it’s this: treat everyone you meet as Jesus did—men and women, homeless and homeowners, rich and poor.

Let’s go back to the story I started this article with. After I introduced myself, the man told me that his name was David. I sat down beside him on the busy city street, watching people make their way home in the post-work commute.

“People can be really kind,” he said. As he munched on his sandwich, David told me all about how several local people had taken an interest in him and would buy him meals on occasion. A couple of women even told him about Jesus and His love for him.

“They told me that even though I’m homeless that God loves me and I’m still valuable to Him.”

As I listened to David share his story, it struck me that one simple thing we can do to love people well and to treat them with dignity is to listen. Let us learn how to listen purely so that others have the privilege to share their story.

Next time you pass by someone on the streets, give them just a few minutes of your time. Even the simplest of acts like having a conversation with someone who is homeless isn’t just saying “I hear you”; it’s demonstrating “I see you because He loves you.”

Be a representative of His incomprehensible peace, undeserving grace and overwhelming love.