The Best We Can Be: Easter 4

Joseph LaVela

Easter 4 – Year A
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

[Note: All non-scriptural quotations and all biographical data about John Elder Robison in this sermon are from his book Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.]

John Elder Robison is autistic.  He did not know that until he was 40.  All his life, he knew that he was different, but for most of his life so far, he had no name or explanation for that difference.

His childhood was sad and lonely.  Mocked, insulted by the other children, he took refuge in something he was very, very good at, working with machines.  He dropped out of high school, and got work as a sound engineer for fledgling rock bands.  Before long, his exceptional skills came to be recognized, and he then became sound and effects engineer for big name bands, including eventually KISS for whom he designed and built their trademark pyrotechnic guitars.  But he was never one of the guys, and between shows on tour he found himself alone in his hotel room.  When the pain of that became too much, he found work instead in the corporate world.  Not for long, though.  Although his circuit designs were fine, his interpersonal skills were not.  At meetings, he said blunt unexpected things that co-workers found upsetting, and his supervisors decried that he was “not a team player.”  He then decided to pursue another interest at which he excelled, and opened a car repair shop where he could be his own boss.

By coincidence, or perhaps not, one of his customers was a therapist familiar with Asperger’s Syndrome, who told Robison about it, adding “you could be the poster boy for it.”   A subsequent formal evaluation confirmed that, indeed, he had Asperger’s.   The main characteristic is that Robison could not read other people’s emotions.  The cues that most of us readily see in the facial expressions and vocal intonations of others that allow us to tell their emotions were invisible to him.  Oblivious, he would say and do disturbing things without realizing what he did wrong. 

The diagnosis made a huge difference to him.  He read voraciously about autism in general and Asperger’s in particular, and then wrote a book describing life with Asperger’s called Look Me in The Eye, which became an international best-seller.   From this, Robison got speaking engagements, and at one of them, a researcher from Harvard approached him, and asked whether he would be interested in participating in a study about the potential effects of a procedure called “Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation” or “TMS” on autistic adults.  He was.

He left the first TMS session thinking that nothing had much changed, and while driving home listened to a tape of songs he had heard hundreds of times before.   But something was different. 

He writes “[A]s I listened… tears ran down my face as I felt the emotions rise up from the lyrics. …At that moment, I got it.  A song … isn’t just words and melody … [i]t was an expression of love, written and sung for a real person. … I began to cry.  Not because I was happy or sad but because it was all so intense.” 

After additional sessions, something surprising happened at his auto shop.  Again, in his own words:

“I turned my attention to one of our customers.  As she spoke, her face began to tell its own story.  … As she calmly described the symptoms of her car’s misbehavior, her eyes were saying, I’m really worried about what this will cost. …  I responded immediately, with reassurance. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told her, ‘the problem you are describing sounds like a pretty small thing to fix.’  … A few days before, … [h]er fear and anxiety would not have made any impression on me at all; …, it would not have occurred to me to reassure her.” 

Although Robison says his experience with TMS “felt miraculous, like a religious vision,” he is not a churchgoing person, and he had no religious conversion.  Still, for me his story reads like an allegory of a Christian journey.  Let me explain.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks in metaphors of sheep hearing the voice of the shepherd and, because they recognize it, following him as he leads them to find pasture, and with it, abundant life.  The starting point--on which it all depends-- is that they recognize the voice.  Now, are we, are people generally, automatically set up to hear and recognize Jesus’s voice when he calls?  I don’t think so.  

The world is a strong pull on our attention, throwing us to be absorbed in the busy-ness of life, to focus our attention on our work, our tasks, the various things we do or think we should do, so we can be as oblivious to Jesus’s call as John Elder Robison was to the signs that people were sending all his life. 

It is as if we have a sort of spiritual Asperger’s keeping us from recognizing God’s voice calling us by name.  But if we accept it, God’s grace becomes the TMS that enables us to overcome this, and respond.

Several parallels between Robison’s story and our, or at least my, experience struck me.  

First, there was the strange sequence of events that led to it, – the circuitous route resulting in him becoming an auto mechanic, the happenstance that one of his customers was an expert in his very condition, which led to a formal diagnosis leading to a book, and then fame, resulting in an encounter with a Harvard researcher that changed his life.   In my own life, I was raised Roman Catholic, left the church as a teen, went on to law school after which I took a judicial clerkship in Detroit, a place I had never been and did not expect to stay, and while there, by a strange turn of events found myself playing recorder for an operetta at local church, where I met Betsy, who played piano for the performance, and who, later as my wife, introduced me to the Episcopal church where, by God’s grace, I indeed did sense Jesus calling me back to His church.  And here I am.   I know that many of you are cradle Episcopalians who were, so to speak, always here, but I suspect as well that I’m not the only one who feels that they did not so much chose to come here as were led here as if guided by some invisible hand.

Second, there is the matter of mountaintop experiences and steady-state effects.   Recall Robison crying when he listened to music driving home after his TMS session?  That effect wore off – he soon became able to listen to music again without breaking down in tears.   Although the memories of that experience remain vivid for him, by itself it did not change him.  It took a series of TMS sessions.  Even then, it was not their immediate direct effects, which faded over time, but the way they caused his brain to, in effect, re-wire itself, the cumulative effect of which appears to be permanent.  So, too, some of us may have had intense mountaintop religious experiences, perhaps at a Cursillo weekend, or at an especially poignant worship service, or when prayers were answered in a time of crisis.   If so, we know that the intensity does not last.   Lasting spiritual effects do not come from a once-and-done.  They come as the cumulative effect of repeated pursuits of a closer relationship with God, including, but not only, regular Sunday attendance.  Spiritual growth is a process, not an event.

Third, I was struck by how the effects TMS had on Robison mirror some of the expected impacts from encounters with Jesus.   After the TMS treatments, Robison’s priorities changed.  He spent less time at the auto shop, and more time working with other study participants, parents of autistic children, and researchers, including serving on several committees evaluating autism-related grant requests and research proposals.   So, too, should our encounters with Jesus effect our priorities, making them relatively less about our own needs and wants and relatively more about how we can serve others. 

Robison found that the TMS left him with “a greater sense of comfort and feeling of connectedness.”   He gained an ability to converse with strangers.  He became more caring.  “I found myself sympathizing with our clients and asking how they felt,” he says.  Are these not the same effects that following Jesus should produce in us?

And Robison’s story is an allegory for one more parallel with the Christian journey, better seen in the context of today’s readings.  

Several connections between today’s readings are evident.   In the Gospel, as I said earlier, Jesus speaks metaphorically of sheep hearing the shepherd’s voice, and, recognizing it, following him to pasture and ultimately, abundant life.   Psalm 23 uses the same metaphor – “the Lord is my shepherd”, who leads me to “green pastures”.  Jesus surely had had this Psalm in mind when he spoke of shepherds leading a flock to pasture.  

The tie with the Collect of the Day is just as clear, naming Jesus the “good shepherd”, and praying that God grant us the ability to recognize his voice when he calls so that we can follow him. 

And, today’s first reading from Acts exemplifies the abundant life that following Jesus can give.  Reading that excerpt from Acts, one cannot help sharing in the excitement that the apostles and their followers must have had. “Awe came upon everyone” it says. “[T]hey spent much time together in the temple, they … ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” 

All good stuff.   If we recognize Jesus’s voice and follow him, he will lead us to green pastures, and give us abundant life.  All good stuff.

And then there is the reading from First Peter.   The connection to the other readings starts out fine – “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God….”   So again, the trigger is sensing God’s presence, recognizing his voice, being “aware of God” as Peter puts it.  But he goes on “… if being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”  Huh?  Pain and suffering?  What happened to them green pastures? 

They’re still there.  The impression one might get from the other readings that following Jesus is all sweetness and light is only part of the story.   The compilers of the lectionary included the First Peter passage to complete it with a reminder of the consistent Gospel message that the life of a Christian is a sacrificial one, emulating Christ.   Peter is explicit on this: “For this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow his steps.”  Following Jesus is not rest and relaxation.  It is not the absence of pain and suffering and there is a cost.

Returning to our allegory, Robison experienced this, too.   Citing just a few examples, his TMS treatments ended up changing, irretrievably, the entire dynamic of his marriage, which soon unraveled.   With his new abilities, he came to the painful realization that one of his best friends had all along been taking advantage of Robison’s disability to make jokes about him at Robison’s expense, belittling him in front of other people just for amusement, knowing that Robison wouldn’t get it.  So that friendship ended.

But the story does not end there.  Robison remarried.  His new wife was welcomed warmly into his family, and became his partner on the speakers’ circuit.   He remains engaged in helping to advance a vision of breakthroughs allowing autistic people to “be who they are meant to be; expressing the full fragrance of their personality; … and forming warm and meaningful connections with other people.” 

To be sure, what he did had its costs.  But considering it all, he sees the changes from TMS as a net positive.   It was, in his words, about “being the best I could be”. 

And so, too, with us.  When we, with God’s grace, recognize Jesus’s call and follow him, the abundant life he leads us to is not about material or physical comfort.   Jesus, as Peter says in today’s Epistle, is the “shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.”  The green pastures to which he leads us are the places where we find safety and sustenance for our inner beings, living life fully and becoming who God meant us to be.  It may not be easy and it will involve some self-sacrifice, but Jesus will be there to comfort and protect us.  In the end, we’ll know it was worth it, because it means “being the best [we can] be.” AMEN