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October 16, 2019

Pasta Jesus

Some time ago I started wondering how I would teach my autistic son, now seven, about God.
5 min read

Some time ago I started wondering how I would teach my autistic son, now seven, about God. Since he did not begin speaking until 5 ½ years old, and still has significant language deficits, the way forward was not obvious to me. The many years I have spent living as a Christian­—being active in church, cultivating practices of prayer and Bible study—resisted being reduced to a flow chart that I could follow. Neither did my advanced degrees in religion aid me, that cache of knowledge seeming too esoteric for the task. To make matters worse, I felt an intense pressure to do something about the situation, because my relationship with God, however deficient in itself, forms the foundation upon which I stand as a human being. First and foremost I walk through the world as a believer in something—someone—higher than myself, and that belief infuses everything I see and do. I could no more subtract God from the equation of raising my son than I might remove water from a fish-filled aquarium and expect things to be okay. Because apart from God I’m a gasping, floundering mess. (Even with him I still am, but at least my struggles alongside my maker yield some good, given enough time, help, and persistence).

In short, I needed something simple and practical to try in terms of my son’s spiritual formation. A tiny first step. And that’s when Pasta Jesus came into the picture.

Pasta Jesus was purchased at the dollar store, mainly because I was impressed with how reassuringly normal he looked. Someone you’d sit next to at the movies or share a park bench with on your lunch hour without any worry. (Jesuses who fix their eyes on some otherworldly object, or look like they’re about to recite a phone book from memory, disturb me. Ditto if their hair falls too perfectly in oiled ringlets or their hands hang midair as if to direct angelic traffic). Better yet, this Jesus could fit easily in the palm of one’s hand, which is where he fulfills his present purpose in our home. Before meals, we place him in my son’s grip, and sing a simple song of thanks for the food. And because my son eats so much pasta with tomato-based sauce, Jesus’s white garment has acquired some red stains. It adds to his appeal, I think. Pasta Jesus is definitely the people’s Jesus. Authentic. Approachable. Not afraid to mix with the masses and all their messes.

Thus far my son has acquiesced without complaint to this quasi-religious practice. He clutches the plastic man and says “AMEM!” [sic] at the end of our singing. Because he isn’t able to process very much narrative (e.g., Goodnight Moon is a current bedtime favorite), we have not read lengthy Bible stories to him that would describe in any depth the deity he clasps before consuming carbs. As far as I know, Pasta Jesus is nothing more to my son than an ordinary object he encounters every day, like a toothbrush or a cup. How will I ever close the gap? I find myself asking. Help my son understand that Pasta Jesus not only represents an actual person, but a Super-Person, the one to whom we bring our thanks as well as our requests and ravings. Because ultimately we believe that he can, and will, do something redemptive about them that we could not do for ourselves.

As I was considering this conundrum, I noticed that I was walking around with a knot of anxiety in my stomach. This is not an unusual condition for me, but more often than not I can pinpoint my source of upset and have some clue as to what will bring relief. Oddly enough, this tight little ball of turmoil stayed vague and impenetrable, as if it were specifically designed to shroud the secret at its core. I just felt unwell and generally angry inside. The way I imagine many adolescents feel when they wake up to the fact that so much of how the world works is supremely and irreparably unfair. Innocents suffer and truly monstrous people prosper and there’s no going back to the place where you simply don’t see it. Too bad.

As I tried to pray through this internal state of affairs, I noticed a definite resistance building, as if part of me genuinely objected to bringing the matter to God at all. If I had to guess, the part of me—submerged but insistent— that blames God for my son’s autism sees no point in seeking his help with it. Why stand in line with the other suckers, waiting for a handout from one who just as easily rains down curses as blessings upon his hapless children’s heads?

Yes, I call myself a Christian and can say such things. Without flinching.

Because in certain corners of my soul, I am the one clutching Plastic Jesus as others around me sing. In those uncharted regions, walled off by barbed wire and replete with mine fields, Pain remains king, ruling alongside his queen, Bitterness. If anything good, trusting, or kind ever grew in these blighted acres, it has long since died off. The rulers of this realm sit on their self-appointed thrones, waiting for something bad to happen that they can add to their stack of grievances. They feel it is their job to keep me from being fooled into trusting a God who claims to be good but really isn’t. They want to spare me the suffering of having hopes dashed and wounds worsened. Better to feel dead inside than disappointed.

As I stare at Pasta Jesus’s soiled robe and outstretched hand, I wonder: how many of us have inner places that don’t know the real God or have stopped believing that anything really good will ever happen to us again? Maybe something dreadful was done to us by someone claiming to fulfill God’s wishes. Or maybe we were poisoned by the slow drip of hypocrisy, where the outward actions and inward attitudes around us never truly aligned, leaving us confused at best, cynical at worst. And always, always alone.

Whatever the reason for our unbelief, one question remains: what will we do when it surfaces? When the least aware and articulate parts of our souls clamor to be heard?

Might I suggest we avoid blaming and berating the little atheist within? There’s probably a really good reason why he or she is there, if we’re patient enough to listen. My son’s autism is no joke, and neither is the deficiency within you. He didn’t ask for his faulty wiring, and neither did you. But it is up to you to do something about it, to start somewhere. Put something tangible in your hand that will help you understand and nurture yourself, even the smallest bit. My guess is that it will involve at least one other person, someone to lift their voice in support of yours, to keep hoping for good things on your behalf, when you find that you’re not able.

Remember, however pained and embittered you might be, you are not just those things. You are also loving, wise, brave, and compassionate. Brilliant, even, if given the chance. Let the better parts of you come alongside the broken, and see what happens.

And may God reveal himself to you, to us all, as he truly is, in the process. AMEM!