Prayer: My experience so far

This is part one of a series on prayer. See Part Two Part Three


I grew up thinking spontaneous verbal prayer was the only one way to pray because of the Christian tradition my family comes from. I struggle with spontaneous verbal prayer because of my communication difficulties so I’ve always found prayer challenging.

When I was in my 20s I went on a retreat prior to baptism. It was run by two semi-retired Anglican ministers in a beautiful village in North Wales. They introduced me to different ways to pray including methods that involve the senses and allow silence. I immediately liked them, but didn’t learn them well enough to be able to use by myself. Later I began to see different ways to pray at the Baptist church I joined in Wales. Evening services often had prayer activities that utilised various creative methods. I enjoyed these, but again I didn’t learn them well enough to use on my own. I find it hard to generalise new information to different situations. So, doing something in the context of a service is completely different from using the same method at home on my own. I didn’t know how to choose a method, when they were appropriate to use, or how to fit them into my day. I found it very confusing so stuck with what was familiar.

Thankfully this has all changed. The first significant thing was being diagnosed with austism spectrum disorder. I learned that there was a reason why communication so often goes horribly wrong. And I realised that other people don’t find talking and communication so hard. The second significant thing is that when I returned to belief in God, I didn’t just jump back in where I was before. Once I was sure Christianity is true, I started over from the beginning learning about different traditions. This helped me see the wide variety of ways people pray and worship, and that no one way is necessarily better than the others. I also realised that prayer is the foundation of relationship with God; it is communication but it doesn’t require words. I had a chance meeting with someone on a train who told me about Christian meditative prayer. He explained enough for it to make more sense, and to be clearer how to use it than I’d previously been able to understand. I decided to just do it and stop worrying about doing it “right”. From that day, I’ve been allowing more and more silence in prayer. I no longer think I need to use words all the time because I realise prayer is communication that doesn’t rely on my ability. The form or method of prayer is more for our benefit than God’s, because He understands perfectly and knows all our intentions. This realisation gave me permission to start evaluating how and why I do things and looking for ways that work better for me.

I often find using words is like praying in a foreign language. It creates a barrier between me and God because translating thoughts into words and trying to tell if I’m expressing myself clearly forces me to focus on myself instead of Him. I’ve begun using pre-written prayers that express what I feel or mean, this helps because someone else has done the hard work. I sometimes use physical or gestural methods, I like ways that engage the senses such as sight and touch. Most of all I like silence. This new approach has led to a deepening relationship with God that is unimpaired by autism.

It isn’t as easy as that of course. I often slip back into habitual old verbal methods that don’t work for me, and I get tied up in an anxious knot trying to express something important and knowing I’m not managing to say what matters. When that happens it’s easy to feel cut off from God. In reality I’ve got caught up in myself and have stopped looking to Him. I’m trying to rely on myself instead of trusting Him and remembering that He is a loving Father who delights in His children. Learning to trust God is probably the biggest lesson I’m learning through changing the way I pray; slowly learning to rely on Him instead of myself even in communication.

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I am going to spend some time looking at prayer in a series of posts. I want to explore more of what it is and why it’s essential, ways to do it, why it can be so hard, what listening in prayer means, and look at ways my autism impacts the way I pray. Please leave a comment if there is an aspect of prayer you’d be interested in reading about.

Unbelievable? The Conference 2017

 

The event

I went to the unbelievable conference on Saturday 13th May at The Brewery in London. It was a fantastic day of inspiring and thought provoking talks from Christian apologists and evangelists. It was hosted by Justin Brierly of the Unbelievable? podcast, and I heard talks by Andy Bannister, John Lennox, and Jeremiah J. Johnston. All the speakers were excellent. Andy Bannister spoke honestly but sensitively about suffering and why God allows it to happen. John Lennox spoke about why Christian faith makes sense of science rather than competes with it. He was refreshingly sensible but also entertaining. Jeremiah Johnston spoke about times when God is silent. I hadn’t heard him before and found his style very engaging and honest. I won’t go into detail of the talks because recordings will be available of them from Premier and I recommend listening to them.

Accessibility

I find going to big events, or any new event to be honest, rather challenging. It’s a normal part of being autistic. The conference was big, crowded, noisy, and hundreds of miles away from home. But it was very well set up and the organisers did a lot to make it accessible. I will describe my experience of the day, and hopefully it will help anyone who might consider going next year:

Before going I (well, actually my mum) arranged for someone to be available to show me around and explain what I needed to do on the day. I arrived at the venue and there was a man in a bowler hat directing people to the door. Inside was a crowded foyer with lots of people and tables. But I ignored all the people and just followed the instructions I had been given, and found the wonderfully kind and attentive lady who was going to help me out. I didn’t ask permission to name her here, so I’ll call her Volunteer Lady.

Having a helper felt a bit weird at first because I’ve never done that before, actually acknowledged how hard it is going to events and asked for help upfront. I normally think “I should be able to do this”, and either struggle through getting exhausted and not able to enjoy myself, or most often just don’t go. I wouldn’t have gone to something that big and that far away without support. It was helpful even before going because I didn’t have to try and figure out schedules or come up with contingency plans for if anything went wrong. It took the stress out of it.

Volunteer Lady was brilliant during the morning. The first part of the day was a blur. I just followed her around and did what I was told. She took me to the hall where all the stalls and refreshments were. She tried to show me around a bit, but it was packed and noisy and overwhelming. Eventually we went to the biggest lecture room for the introductory talks. It was a very big room on two levels, sitting in the back section was comfortable and there was enough space. Then we went to a smaller room for the first session with Andy Bannister. It was a very interesting talk and the speaker was easy to follow. He took email addresses to send out the slides so we didn’t have to take notes and could just listen (I had decided not to try taking notes anyway because I can’t write and listen simultaneously, but still appreciated this).

Then there was a break and I followed Volunteer Lady to the hall again. It seemed even more crowded, there were people everywhere talking loudly. It was quite unpleasant so having a helper was amazing, I just did what she said. Something funny happened while I queued for a cup of tea. Someone appeared with a clipboard and said something I didn’t catch, then Volunteer Lady disappeared with her, came back briefly and said something else I didn’t catch, then disappeared again. By the time I had my tea she was back and was sticking a book in my bag. I figured out later that my mum had pre-payed for a copy of the unbelievable book, and Volunteer Lady had got it signed. I had no idea what was going on, but fortunately she did!

After that we went to the next talk. It was painfully loud and I was getting really stressed so decided to leave. Again Volunteer Lady to the rescue, because walking out with her was far less awkward than walking out on my own (I always worry that it’s rude).

After a couple of minutes in the deserted hall I was beginning to feel better so decided to go to a different talk for the rest of the session. On the way through the foyer we met Justin Brierly, the host. Surprisingly he knew who I was from an article I wrote for the Premier blog. He was friendly and we had a good chat for a few minutes. Then Volunteer Lady and I continued to the biggest lecture hall to hear John Lennox.

After that it was lunchtime and I had figured out where to go and what was happening by then, so I went off by myself for an hour. I had a very pleasant time wandering round the stalls in the hall while it was quiet, it seems everyone had gone out or to an extra seminar. There were a lot of interesting things to look at, and some very interesting people. I had a good look round, spoke to a few people, and bought a couple of things too. I asked the man at the museum of the bible stall about the project, and it sounds really good. It’s not at all displays of dinosaurs and people together, but rather a serious look at what the bible is and what impact it has had throughout history and today. It sounds like it will be worth visiting once the UK site is open.

After lunch I was in the same lecture room for the rest of the day. That combined with knowing where everything was made the rest of the day easy. Volunteer Lady was still around though, and turned up for all the transitions. She made the day easy and pleasant, instead of effortful and stressful as it would have been without her.

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My haul from the conference (plus the sock leg I knit during the lectures).

The event was very well run; everything was on schedule, lots of staff in bright t-shirts directing people, free tea and coffee provided, jugs of water in every room. The volume of the talks was mostly ok; I went to three of the four lecture rooms and only one was too loud to stay. The video clips were too loud but they were all quite short so were tolerable. I don’t think the staff knew anything specific about communication aspects of autism, but they were kind and friendly and very helpful. The venue was a really cool building with lots of interesting architecture and sculptures. There were a lot of stairs but there were lifts, and there were a couple of wheelchair users attending so I think it was quite accessible. It’s in the same place again next year. If anyone is considering going next year, I highly recommend it.

Communication: with people and with God.

There is a fundamental difference between communication in relationships with people and with God. But I’ve noticed that I tend to approach God expecting the same difficulties as in human relationships.

Human relationships

It is common that the less able person is expected to make up the “communication gap”. For example, in a situation that frequently leads to miscommunication, people will ask what happened to cause the problem and why. But then say “can’t you just do X? Then I’ll know what’s going on and there won’t be a problem.” Generally I can’t just do X (maybe its explain something during a moment of overwhelm, or notice what someone else is doing if I’m absorbed in a task etc.) If I could there wouldn’t be a problem.

This isn’t usually done out of nastiness or ill will. People don’t know they are asking the impossible. They want to make things work and simply don’t know how else to proceed. The fact that they are interested and want to improve communication is fantastic. But, unfortunately, it can come across as “I can’t cope with your abnormality, please try to be normal and then we can get along fine.” This may be a false interpretation but it still makes me feel bad. Pre-diagnosis it made me feel solely responsible for the problem, and so led to unhealthy habits of trying too hard to manage or appear “normal”.

[If you are a neurotypical (“normal”) person, and you are ever in the situation of trying to understand someone with communication difficulties, keep asking questions and being interested, but please also explain how you experience the same things to help the person understand you better as well. Try working out together if there is something you can do to make up the communication gap, e.g. if they appear to ignore you try getting their attention a different way, or if they can’t talk just wait a little while, or if they seem rude check if that’s what they really meant. I’m sure none of that is easy to do, especially if you have an emotional reaction to the miscommunication, but it could go a long way to improve things.]

I know a few people who either through talent and intuition, or through hard work and asking lots of questions, do what they can to make up the communication gap. These people are a blessing. But in every human relationship (including between neurotypicals) even with the best efforts and intentions of everyone, communication will be imperfect and mistakes will happen.

Relationship with God

Between God and people there is an infinite communication gap, whether or not we have any specific difficulties. But He always makes up the gap.

God reaches out in love to every human being. He understands us perfectly, exactly as we are. He reveals Himself in ways we can understand. He gives everyone what they need to relate to Him through whatever means they can use.  He incorporates us into His constant Trinitarian communication; He lives within us and intercedes for us. He listens to us, understands us, speaks alongside us, and for us. But he doesn’t overwhelm or reduce us, in fact He makes us more complete, more fully who we are. Despite knowing this, I very often approach God expecting the same communication difficulties as in a human relationship. I expect difficulty and a degree of separation and so waste effort and anxiety on trying to find the right words. This focus on “getting it right” means I am more focused on myself than on God, and so creates an unnecessary barrier. It can be scary and difficult to believe God understands us perfectly, especially if one hasn’t much experience of being understood or taken seriously. It is challenging to just let Him love me, and to respond with love, trust, and obedience, asking Him everyday to help because I can’t do it on my own.

When I try to explain myself to a person I’m in control. It might be difficult and frustrating, but I am giving the information, and their feedback and behaviour indicate whether it is working. With God I’m not in control, and allowing that requires trust and humility. He knows me utterly, better than I know myself. I don’t need to “get it right” with God. I need to learn to trust instead. Trust that He knows, understands, accepts, and loves me more than I can imagine.

To me, used to difficult communication, the fact of God making up the communication gap feels like a big deal. But I wonder if it is to God? He is infinite, omniscient and perfect. We are not. Even the best human communicator must be extremely limited and clumsy before God. It makes me wonder if real communication with God relies on our verbal or language abilities at all. Certainly we can use them in prayer, but maybe they are just tools to facilitate something deeper or purer. I will explore this in a future series about prayer.

With God, miscommunication can only be one sided. I can fail to listen or refuse to listen, but He always perfectly understands me. By His grace, I can learn to listen more clearly. And one day, God willing, “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Blog objectives

I keep reading and hearing that autistic people are unlikely to believe in God and, far worse, that they can’t relate to God. This has made me at various times sad, angry, and even doubt myself. It’s worst when it is respected Christians saying this.

I have decided to write this blog as a way to offer an alternative perspective. I don’t have answers or solutions to all the problems, but I can demonstrate that autistic Christians not only believe in God, but have genuine relationship with Him. Fortunately for all of us, including people without autism, the relationship is a gift from God and not dependant on our own strength and ability.

I will use this blog to explore ideas about aspects of Christianity, autism, the intersection between the two, and to share my experiences as an autistic Christian.

I may do series of related posts, and I may write on random topics that have captured my interest. Some will be purely about Christianity, and some purely about autism. But since I’m the author, they will all demonstrate the possibility of being autistic and having faith in God.