The approach to Christmas in our family is, as in so many other families, a time of growing excitement. Each day that the Advent book is opened, each chocolate from the Advent calendar, marks off another step nearer to the big day.
Ellen loves everything about Christmas – the lights, the shopping, the carols (especially the carols), the presents. That’s to say, she loves the still-wrapped presents. She loves to take hold of them, clutch them in a moment of anticipation and then with her faltering fingers, slowly pull off the wrapping paper, by herself if she can, but sometimes defeated by the task and appealing for our help.
What happens next depends entirely on the contents of the parcel. If it contains something safe (i.e. familiar) all is well. If it contains something scary (i.e. unfamiliar) it is usually hurled across the room with a fearful cry of, “Take it back to the shop!” I’m sure it’s a scene repeated in many homes where there is a family member with autism.
Over the years we have learned how to make Ellen’s presents “safe”. It’s safe to give her CDs or DVDs as long as it’s music and films she’s already familiar with (asked what she wants for Christmas she will usually name a CD she already owns). It’s safe, and indeed very welcome, if the parcel contains chocolate, bubble bath, money, colouring books and pens, a personal stereo or dictating machine or a roll of bubble wrap that she can cut into strips and take to church on Sundays to sit and pop during the long sermon.
Stray outside these boundaries and the gift will cause stress, fear and antipathy – very embarrassing if the dear old aunt who chose it is present at the opening. The reaction can be quite extreme – given the extent of Ellen’s quadriplegic cerebral palsy, it always amazes me how she manages a bouncer that would be the envy of many an England bowler. This gesture can be accompanied not only by demands for the offending object to be taken back to the shop, but by mounting cries, screams and self-harm unless a swift promise is made to return the gift at the earliest opportunity.
Once again, as I make my preparations for Christmas, I can see a parable in Ellen’s behaviour. How often do we ask God for something, anticipating joyfully the answer to our prayer because we know how faithfully He has answered us before; but then if the answer comes in a guise we were not expecting, we reject it and refuse to allow Him to lead us into a new experience?
I am lonely and want a friend – but I’m not willing to befriend the particular person God brings across my path. I want a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in my church – but if it manifests in a way that is quieter, or noisier, or in some way more unusual than my previous experience, I’m quick to join those who denounce it as not being genuinely from God. I need financial provision – but God’s response is to tell me to sow what I have in order to reap the harvest He has for me, and my fist tightens around the little I have, unwilling to make the faith experiment.
May God give us the grace to receive all His gifts, even the unexpected ones, and to allow Him to lead us in unfamiliar paths, in undreamt-of ways, into greater blessings than we could ever have imagined if left to our own devices.