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Ringstacker
April 5, 2023

Ringstacker

My 10-year-old autistic son, a fan of all things spinnable, has a ringstacker in his huge collection of them that is special.
6 min read

My 10-year-old autistic son, a fan of all things spinnable, has a ringstacker in his huge collection of them that is special. For one thing, it’s much larger than its counterparts, and is made of plastic instead of wood. This one does not produce a satisfying “clack” as the others do each time a ring slides down and hits another. Instead, this ringstacker’s pancake-sized rings spin rather than slide, along their corkscrew spindle, providing cool visual input as its pieces descend.

 Funny thing is, I’m not sure my son was ever quite enamored with the “spinny” rings—which are brightly colored and have petal-shaped edges—on this toy. Rather, what draws him (for reasons I don’t quite understand) is the base of the spindle. It comes off entirely and can be stacked with other objects as part of a cairn-like tower. The base can also be spun like a top on its own. (Give my son anything, and with a flick of the wrist he’ll have it spinning on a flat surface, like magic).

 I keep finding this detachable base in different places around the house. And I keep returning it to its place on the bottom of the spindle. It’s probably the most expensive ringstacker we own. In my mind, the base belongs there. Apparently, my son’s mind does not agree, because he continues to put asunder what Mom has joined together just as soon as she turns around.

 This ongoing dance my son and are doing reminds me of how “detachable” I have felt lately. Over the course of my life, I have gone through bouts of sleeplessness, sometimes for weeks on end. It’s a “chicken and egg” situation, as some long-term mental health issues make it hard for me to rest, which acutely affects my mood. As I pace the hallways of my house in the wee hours, or slog through the day in an enveloping haze, my sense of well-being takes a serious hit. It’s like my base drops off and all I’m left with are the “spinny” parts—thoughts and emotions that reel around and around in my head.

 This detachment especially affects my spiritual life. For me, it is really hard to detect God’s presence when my base comes off. Forget about taking comfort in memories of God swooping in on my behalf in the past. Forget about absorbing Scripture easily, like a sponge, into my heart. And especially forget about trusting in His unwavering goodness. Suddenly, everything is up for grabs, and I am doubting if God even loves me at all. How could He, when my thoughts towards Him are so uncharitable, suspicious, even enraged? Because in my universe, any and all bad things that happen eventually end up on God’s doorstep as I blame Him for allowing, if not causing, whatever Badness has transpired.

 Like any 4-year-old operating according to a playground sense of justice (yes, that’s how I would describe my mindset during these episodes), if I am mad at a righteous God when I have no right to be, then I think surely He must be mad at me. And if He is angry at me, then I am treading on eggshells. Nowhere is safe from this God who is purportedly everywhere, always watching, and in my case, waiting for the slightest slip-up to Punish. At these times I believe myself to be inherently displeasing to Him among His children—one whom He holds to a different—impossible—standard.

 (By this point I hope you see that my problem is not that I lack faith while in dark places. I just have faith in all the wrong things, in insanities I devotedly follow).

When my “baselessness” gets really bad, I can’t hold myself up emotionally anymore. There’s nothing within to brace me. That is when loved ones make all the difference, people not caught up in the maelstrom that currently consumes me. They remind me patiently, gently, straightforwardly, that perhaps the worst won’t happen. Perhaps God has me on a path leading to green pastures and still waters rather than Gethsemane. And, most importantly, perhaps—gasp—He isn’t even mad at me at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe He is not a tit-for-tat God, but one who is infinitely understanding of my troubles. Maybe His empathy is their empathy, times a jillion.

 The gospel writer Matthew records an incident when Jesus’ disciples were asking him who might enter the kingdom of God. He answers by calling a child to himself, and saying:

“Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt 18:3–5)

 I confess, I’ve always drawn a blank when it comes to this passage, only vaguely guessing at what Jesus might mean. The best I could come up with is that we are supposed to approach God in a simple, purehearted way. Now that I have been a mom for more than a decade, and have also done a little reading on the subject,*I think it’s more a matter of being in a state of utter dependence when we come to our Creator. As adults, none of us can return to that “blank state” of being in which we existed as purehearted infants. Even kids my son’s age garner quite a few habits and perspectives that they would have to un-learn if they were to start from scratch. My son’s autism really drives this point home. There are certain things he counts on, like lights coming on at the flip of a switch, specific foods appearing at the table, favorite toys remaining on hand.

 He flips out when these puzzle pieces get dislodged, and I suppose I’m no different.

 Could it be that God wants—even expects—me to drop the tatters of “normal life” I am clutching onto and come running the second things fall apart? Because my son does not hesitate to bring his distresses to me, no matter how small they may appear. And when he does, I try not to grow angry or exasperated with him for it. I try to let his requests become important to me because they are so important to him. My love for him strives to take the “size” of his problems totally out of the equation. In fact, if autism has taught me anything, it is that it takes an infinite supply of patience and empathy to remain sensitive and strong for the sake of one who cannot hope to deal with the world’s complications.

 If Jesus meant what he says in the last part of his statement (“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”), then we have been provided a model of how we are supposed to treat ourselves once we shed any pretense of independence and race in abject dependence toward Him. We are to rest in the knowledge that we have worshipped our God as He has asked, and give ourselves a freakin’ break. No more guilt-tripping. No more doubting our current value to the Creator in our current state. And most of all, no more self-hating for being fractured and faithless. Before our Maker, we are all developmentally disordered in one form or another, and all He sees when He looks at us is how uniquely and exquisitely we can reflect His image—with just a flick of our wrist. By me being me and you being you.

It’s a lot to take in, I know. I’m still trying to wrap my poor head (and battered heart) around it. Some days I wonder if I’ll ever be rid of the recurring conviction that God is mad at me. A long time ago, a wise friend observed, “Rebecca, if God were mad at you, you’d be incinerated.” Thus far, I am still walking about burn-free. That realization is a good beginning. Now I must move from believing that He is barely tolerating me to actually loving me, period. Then we may even jump to Him being crazy about me (I’ve heard people say this about the God of Israel and the people He claims as His own).

But that’s a whole other leg of my journey. For now, I’d be satisfied with just a little bit of bone-deep rest. A few moments of coming to God without having to do anything but let out a deep breath and sink into a soft presence. No clacks or spinning, just sweet drift down to a safe place.

How does that sound to you? You may not worry about divine anger so much, but I bet there are other false persuasions that eat away at you as well.

Have mercy on Your little ones, O Lord. Because before You, we are all so very young in our understanding of how Your love really works, how much it’s got us covered. Help us change so that we see our utter dependence on You clearly. May it drive us toward, rather than away, from You, because we always, always need Your help.

Thanks for listening. With a compassion that never wavers.

Amen.

 *(see, for example, “Entering the Kingdom as Children,” by Kent Hughes, Westminster Theological Seminary, available online.)

** PS: A few days after writing this blog, I sat in a church service where my pastor said that he felt very strongly that someone needed to hear: “God is not mad at you.” He repeated it throughout the sermon, which was about something else. The tears running down my face were the good kind. Some light and love got in.