Autism Parents and the Church: Sabbath


‘Lost Sheep’ by Douglas Ramsey

Sometimes, things get too much.

You’ve run out of tolerance for being yelled at or hit. Or you’re fed up of arguing with doctors, with schools, with random passers-by. Or you’re sick of the staring and the tutting and the whispered comments. Or you’re tired of the guilt and the stress and the routine, you’re tired of being tired.

There are so many autism parents who, for a thousand and one reasons, don’t get to go to church. And that can mean that each day becomes just like the last; seven days you labour with no end in sight. You don’t get to stop, to reflect, to press pause and breathe. You don’t get to rest your soul, to feed your spirit, to lie down in those symbolic green pastures, to drink from those metaphorical still waters.

You don’t get to Sabbath.

(Sometimes you don’t get to Sabbath even when you do get to church, because the two things aren’t identical.)

Parenting in general is already 24-7; autism parenting can be like trying to bend the space-time continuum to squeeze a few extra minutes out of the ether so you can recover from that meltdown, finish those jobs, hide under that duvet. There’s not a lot of room for a Sabbath. And that’s a problem, not because we need to be legalistic but because we need to survive. We need to rest and recharge, recover and reboot. Life happens, and without the opportunity to deal with it, to put it to rest, to achieve some form of closure on the latest blow-up, things can get toxic. You and your kids need that release valve.

So forget the idea of mandatory church attendance and how your granny didn’t let the budgie sing on Sunday, Sabbath is about resting, finding spaces – however big or small – in which you can spend time with God before the world comes rushing in again.

(Cam a commute become a mini Sabbath?)

Carers face a whole range of risks to their mental health. Sabbath isn’t an empty ritual, it’s a physical, emotional and spiritual survival tactic. And the beauty of it is that you can tailor it to your situation, because all of our lives are different and God’s more interested in a relationship than the specifics of how you express that relationship.

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday today. I didn’t know that was a thing until I saw someone reference it on Twitter, but throughout the world, people will be reading and thinking about Psalm 23. And perhaps there’s an opportunity here, to make that Psalm a prayer, to ask God to show us the reality of that poem, to be with us in the face of our difficulties and our exhaustion, to restore our souls as we give out to others.

And if you don’t get to go to church, you’re still part of God’s family. In John’s gospel, when Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd, he mentions the “sheep” who aren’t with him physically there and then, like the twelve disciples,  but who are still part of his flock – his family. If attending a local church is too difficult, you’re still part of the Body of Christ. You don’t have to walk through church doors, but if you can find other Christians who know what you’re going through, Jesus is there in the middle of that, even if that’s in a coffee shop, even if that’s on Facebook.

We work damn hard. Sabbath’s how we’ll keep on doing that.

Take a Break: Why a Sabbath matters (Exodus 20:8-11)

20121007-132047.jpgI don’t normally post on Sundays – you don’t get the page views – but as it’s the (Christian) Sabbath it felt appropriate. Then again, if it is the Sabbath, does blogging count as working?

I can only speak from a British perspective, but Sunday as a day of rest was engrained into my childhood, yet it always raised questions – if we don’t go shopping on a Sunday, then why are we having newspapers delivered and watching TV which necessitates other people working?

That’s the thing though, it’s easy to get legalistic about this stuff; so easy, in fact, that the whole point of having a Sabbath in the first place gets lost among all the rules.

So in Exodus 20, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, number four is “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”. In other words, go out and do your job for the rest of the week, but on the seventh day you stop – you, your family, your servants, even your animals. It ties in with the creation story and God ‘resting’ after six days – observing a Sabbath is a fundamental part of the rhythm of creation. Forget that at your peril.


It’s a tricky one, because let’s face it, we’re all busy and living in a culture where, implicitly or explicitly, we’re on call 24/7. It’s part of the modern corporate and technological world. Sabbath is for wimps. And yeah, stress related illnesses are on the rise, but hey, that’s just the price you have to pay, right?

The tragic thing is that the church has bought into this. Yes, we may sign petitions against changes to Sunday trading laws, but there’s something more insidious going on. You think there isn’t? Find the person in your church responsible for the audio-visual equipment and ask them what time they show up at church on Sunday. Or the worship group. Or the person responsible for the car park. Do they get a lie-in on the Sabbath? And the people serving the coffee, how long after the service does it take to wash up the cups?

Yeah, but that’s different, right? That’s all part of the church service, that’s worship. Okay, sure, but worship can turn into work very quickly, and in our attempts to create ever more relevant services, we run the risk of breaking at least one commandment by mistake. We buy into the corporate mantra that busy-ness is good and productive, and while hard work is a virtue, God flat out tells us to have a rest. I know you might have twenty different jobs at church, I know you’re trying to juggle them with family life and work and everything else, but God ‘s telling you to take a break, and if you can’t take a break, you need to prayerfully quit something.

There, I’ve said it. Start writing the resignation letter now if you have to. Your health, your relationships and your spiritual life are more important. Simple as.

(I know that sometimes we have to go to work on Sunday or lose our jobs. That can’t be helped, but even so, there still needs to be a period of rest. Your Sabbath could be a Tuesday if that works best for you, God and your family…)

(I also know that I’ve recently blogged about servant leadership – we have to serve, yes, but we also need to balance that against having a rest sometimes.)

And maybe churches need to embrace the concept of rest. Maybe our prayer spaces need to include sofa beds. Maybe we need to release people from multiple jobs. Maybe it needs to be a condition of formal membership that, if you’re physically able, you need to put your own chair away, or wash up your own mug, so that everyone gets to go home at the same time. Okay, those ideas might be over the top, but you get the point – if churches won’t observe the God-given rhythm of life, then no-one else will. The point of God’s people keeping the Sabbath is partly so that they can model a better way, not adopt the culture of the world around them.

Take Jesus for example. In Mark 6 he performs two of his most famous miracles, feeding the five thousand and walking on water. Yet right in the middle of these, he goes off to a mountain to pray. It’s not given a huge amount of coverage, but it’s there – Jesus didn’t bounce from miracle to miracle, he made time for God. He had a break. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that’s one of the reasons he was able to help others. After all, his temptations in the wilderness were all about doing the cool stuff but ignoring God. A Sabbath can help us avoid that.

This is important for two reasons. Look where the command about the Sabbath falls – it ends the first section of laws about how we’re supposed to relate to God, but maybe it also acts as an introduction to the section on how we relate to our community – after all, the commandment implies we’re supposed to enable others to observe the Sabbath too, to make sure they get a break. In other words, don’t exploit people, be in relationship, community with them. I don’t care if the jobs need doing, we don’t have the right to push someone to the edge of a breakdown. Your family has the right to see you.

So whatever you’re doing now, stop.

Sit down. Have a rest.

Remember the Sabbath.