It should have been easy.
We’ve done it so many times that I’ve lost count.
It’s been something our missionary family has been undertaking since 2002. That’s a long, long, long time. So, let’s just say we have experience.
But, honestly, missionary family photo shoots are anything, but easy for us.
Just look at one of the telling photographs from our first missionary family photo in January 2002:
Our family had just been accepted as missionaries with our organization. That day, John and I spent a full day together in new-missionary training. Nearly three-year-old Micah and fourteen-month-old Jake spent the same amount of time in a day-care type experience provided by our mission organization. Tired, hungry, and ready for a break, our family wasn’t exactly looking forward to a family photo experience. But, troopers that we were (and still are for that matter), we made a quick food run for the boys and then returned for the first photo op of our family’s missionary career.
Jake was not happy about it.
For a fourteen-month-old child, and one on the autism spectrum (although we didn’t know that yet), Jake had absolutely no ability to regulate his emotions about his displeasure.
Truth be told, here we are nearly 18 years later, and family photo shoots are still one of Jake’s least favorite things to do – especially when we color-coordinate ourselves.
Now, if our family dons blue or black shirts, Jake would be okay with that. For anyone who possesses one of our missionary magnets or bookmarks from 2015, you’ll see us all decked out in blue and black. Or if you receive our email prayer letters, you’ll also notice our family wearing blue and black in an altogether different setting. We often honor Jake by wearing his colors of choice.
However, this year, I decided to have us do something different for our missionary magnet and bookmark photo opportunity. I chose red, black and gray for our family color scheme. I gave the boys and John a choice in terms of which shirts and which colors they wanted to wear. For autistic kids like Jake and Caleb, offering choice gives them ownership and also prepares their minds for what will be happening soon – the not-always-so-fun photo time.
What makes these kind of photo opportunities a challenge?
First, everyone needs to be looking at the camera – for the most part.
Second, everyone needs to be smiling – for the most part.
Third, everyone needs to be standing or sitting in an upright position – for the most part.
Fourth, if we are outside (and we usually are), we must be careful that the light is uniform on each of us and that no one has shadows or spots of sunlight in unwanted areas.
Fifth, if we our outside (and we usually are), we need to find a background that works well with the five of us.
Since we are in the winter season in South Africa, we decided to head to a park to help us with our photo setting. However, when we arrived there, we realized we had three additional challenges. First, it was Women’s Day – a national holiday. The park was holding special Women’s Day events and as a result, the park had a lot more people than we anticipated. We needed to locate secluded garden spots – away from the distraction of people. Second, it was winter. South Africans make it a practice to burn their land – and even their park lands – in winter to rid the space of snakes. It is a tall, dry grass eliminating measure as well – for fire prevention. So, instead of viewing beautiful garden spaces, much of the bush area was black, charred, and dead. Lovely. Third, the August winds were picking up and sending a chilly breeze through the air.
But, like I said.
We are troopers.
We pressed on in search of different spots for our family photos.
Meanwhile, Jake grumbled.
Jake made it clear to us in no uncertain terms that he wanted to be home. He didn’t want to wear the gray shirt. He didn’t want to be cold. And he really didn’t want to be taking any family pictures.
Although we listened and acknowledged Jake’s discontent, we also said that the sooner we found a spot… or two… or three for our family photos and the sooner the photos worked – with everyone smiling, looking at the camera, standing up tall, and with the sunlight cooperating, too – we could be done.
Gratefully, we found our spots.
Gratefully, everyone cooperated.
Gratefully, with a little patience, the sunlight worked in our favor as well.
But, when we finished, it was then that our successful photo-shoot day, turned sour and ugly.
Now, I’ll be honest. It is sometimes difficult for John and me to flesh out the sin of our son’s behavior verses his autistic nature. We realize that Jake was uncomfortable in the gray shirt (that he picked out). We acknowledge that the August wind made the air a bit chillier. We know that taking one picture after the next wasn’t the most enjoyable way to spend one’s morning – especially with the bonus being a holiday morning. However, there are times when we must do things we don’t necessarily like to do in service to others. And this was one of those times.
The unfortunate thing is that as our family finished up the photo time it was then that Jake chose to be unkind, disrespectful and let his emotions loose. He crossed the line of honor and respect that we uphold in our family.
For our family, nothing justifies an ugly, thoughtless word.
King Solomon thought so, too. He wrote:
There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword,
But the tongue of the wise brings healing.
New American Standard, Proverbs 12:18
Unadvised, thoughtless and angry words are grievous. Not only do they wound hearts, but rash words also severe relationships and often times, lay them to waste.
As I shared, Jake crossed a line as he angrily berated us for making him wear a gray shirt. His words leaped over socially-accepted behavior as he groused about going to a place that he didn’t want to go. Granted, the autism was talking as he focused upon the gray shirt and his displeasure with the park. However, it was his anger and disrespect that exacerbated the situation. And just as in 2002, when Jake couldn’t regulate his emotions, he completely forgot that he had this critical, life-affirming tool. He locked into his indignation and wouldn’t release. Jake lost control.
Jake stomped back to the car in annoyance and anger. Honestly, Jake’s behavior was embarrassing.
The rest of us walked back to the car in grief.
Now, why do I share this story?
Why am I so transparent?
It would be easy just to post a family picture on Facebook and let everyone think we are such a wonderfully loving family. We could just send out the magnet photos and bookmarks without a word. It’s true. We do love each other, of course. But family life isn’t always conveyed in a family picture or displayed on a magnet.
What do I want you to know?
I want you to understand that as a family with teenage boys/young adult men, two of which who are autistic, life isn’t always easy for us. Second, a picture doesn’t always tell the whole, unabridged story of our family and mission life. The photos we managed to secure for our next set of missionary magnets and bookmarks were hard won. Third, John and I have more work to do with our sons – all three of them – to help them grow in wisdom, maturity, grace, and love.
We see this truth in Solomon’s words.
A wise tongue brings – healing.
Wise words help set difficult matters right.
Discerning, caring words protect.
Wise words defend.
A wise tongue speaks honor.
Words of grace show love.
A gentle, wise word offers both peace and pardon.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Jake could have turned his attention to the good of the day and what our family accomplished – despite the challenges – instead of focusing upon his indignation over a gray shirt?
Alas, that didn’t occur.
So, what happened when our family returned home?
John and I offered Jake an opportunity to ask for forgiveness for his unkind, rude behavior.
I’d like to tell you that Jake responded immediately with a contrite heart.
It took most of the day before Jake reached this point of humility, sorrow and remorse. We created an environment for Jake to assess and evaluate his behavior. It wasn’t fun – not for any of us. However, Jake finally reached a point of understanding of how his behavior affected our family. John and I offered Jake a second opportunity to apologize. This time, Jake was ready. He went to his knees before each member of our family to name what he had done and then ask for forgiveness. He cried and hugged each of us. We cried, too. Jake’s words set matters right. His gentle, contrite words paved the way for us all to try again.
Friends, like I said, I didn’t have to share this story with you. However, it’s an important story to tell because raising young men is a serious deal – whether there are disability challenges or not. Our sons need us to show them how powerful their words are – and how their words represent the core of their being and reflect their character.
Jesus said it this way:
But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
New International Version, Matthew 15: 18-19
We need to direct our sons towards wisdom, grace, love, and self-control – with hearts that are ready to serve and offer care and respect to others.
This is the direction of the wise that we are seeking to take with our three sons, Micah, Jake and Caleb. Growing wisdom and discernment in our sons takes work. Lots of it. And it isn’t always fun, nor is it always a pleasant walk in the park. It certainly wasn’t for our family yesterday. However, we will keep walking with our sons and praying for them with each step forward. Why? Because we love our kids – and I am confident that you love your kids too.
Let’s keep walking – with wisdom in our sight.