“The way of aching joy is a lifestyle where we embrace both the pain and the joy.” Jason Hague, author of Aching Joy: Following God through the Land of Unanswered Prayer
Ron Sandison interviews Jason Hague
As a dad what was your greatest challenge raising a son with autism?
My son is functionally non-verbal, so for me, the hardest part is not knowing what’s going on inside him. I can see how he wants to share his world with me, but doesn’t know how. I want to be in on his jokes, and understand the things that frustrate him, but he can’t tell me. That’s the hardest part, because I know it’s hard for him, too.
How can you keep faith during seasons of unanswered prayers and beat the cynical spirit?
This isn’t easy, but what I try to do is to get out of the way of my own faith. It’s not all about me. My experience isn’t big enough to make conclusions about the whole of reality, or about the goodness of an omnipresent, eternal God. Just because I am going through some difficult times doesn’t mean God isn’t answering prayers. He might, in fact, be answering my neighbor’s prayer. He might be blessing my co-workers or family members in some beautiful ways. It is essential that I open my eyes to these blessings, even if I am not the one who benefits, because they prove that God is still active, and still working toward the benefit of his people.
When we take time to acknowledge His work in others, it can still tempt us toward jealousy, but we don’t have to go there. Rather, we can celebrate such victories as if they were our own. We can import celebration.
Please share the penguin story; what made this event so meaningful for you and your family?
When Jack was eight, my prayer was simple. I wanted him to know how much we loved him. I wanted him to be aware of our relationship. But he only had a handful of words, so we never knew what was happening in his mind.
One day, though, he brought home a book from the school library. It was a book for very small children called “I like it when.” On every page, it showed the same two penguins—a big one and a little one—sharing various daily life activities. The words corresponded with the pictures: “I like it when you tickle me,” “I like it when you hold my hand,” etc.
Jack was enthralled by the book, and my wife called me at work telling me I had to see what he was doing. When I came home, he was lying on his bed, laughing hysterically.
“What is it, bud?” I asked.
He turned to the first page where the penguins were holding hands. He pointed at the little penguin, then the big one, and said in a crystal clear voice, “Jack and Daddy.”
He turned the page and said it again: “Jack and Daddy.” On every page, he saw a familiar scenario: a boy and his dad sharing life. I was weeping by page three.
That moment was so big for me, because he had NEVER used language in that way before. Ever. And when he did, he showed me that my prayer was answered. Jack really did understand our relationship after all.
How can you experience the grace of God through mini miracles?
I think God is always doing things around us, but we often don’t even notice them. Sometimes we are so blinded by the big unresolved issues in our lives that we miss the smaller, daily victories that God is blessing us with. What we need to do—and this is a hard thing, I know—is to open our eyes and look for those things. Man cannot live by big miracle alone. Those are rare. But His mercies are not rare. They are new every morning. If we start looking for those graces, we will start to see them.
How did you get into your son’s world?
The most effective way was through his movies. Jack loves Pixar and Dreamworks films, and he can quote them. We all became experts in his movies. We know the lines, we know the songs. My sons will act out entire scene for him from movies like Up or Ratatouille. My daughters will paint pictures or make clay characters from Kung Fu Panda or Monsters Inc. And I will talk to him in the voices of Gru, Mike Wazowski, or Lightning McQueen. I especially love to use the voices of the father characters from those movies, because that really resonates with him. When we’ve become more intentional about stuff like this, he has opened up more and more.
What was your son’s world like?
This is hard for me to say, because we only catch glimpses. Some of it is sad. He relates so much, for example, with characters like Mater from the Cars movies, because Mater is awkward. “I awkward,” he told my wife one day when she was talking about school. And he also relates to Arlo from the Good Dinosaur, because Arlo is anxious about everything. He went through a long season of panic attacks this year, in which he would yell a line that Arlo said: “I ain’t coward!”
But then, some of it is colorful and fun and hilarious. One day, he was sitting on the back of our car and fell off in the driveway. His big sister ran to him and said, “Jack, are you okay?” And the situation must have reminded him of a scene in Kung Fu Panda when Po, the Panda, rushes in to see if his Master Shift is still alive. Jack looked at his sister and stole Shifu’s line: “I’m not dead, you idiot!” She about fell down laughing.
I love seeing those glimpses into his world, and I love it when he shows us something new.
What was the breakthrough with Jack’s autism?
There hasn’t been one giant breakthrough that stands out, but there have been many hurdles he’s overcome to make his life (and ours) much easier. We weren’t sure, early on, if he would ever conquer potty training. At five, he finally did. That was big. And the penguin book incident was big, too, because he used conceptual language. Last year, he had a big breakthrough when he rode the bus by himself. Those are three that stand out. We are always hoping and praying for more.
What is the way of the aching joy?
When we go through hard times in life, many people either decide to be miserable, diving into despair and addictions, etc. Other people go the other way, forcing themselves that everything is fine and wonderful. The way of aching joy is a lifestyle where we embrace both the pain and the joy.
his is especially pertinent for us in the special needs community, I think. Parents often feel pressured into two camps. In one camp, everyone is angry, heartbroken, and on the verge of burnout. That camp rails against the diagnosis, and wants to vent. The other camp celebrates the diagnosis, and revels in the distinctive joys of the diagnosis. In this camp, there is very little negativity allowed.
But I don’t think it needs to be this way. I think this type of tribal division is extremely unhealthy. Life is nuanced. An autism diagnosis can be very hard, and we need to acknowledge that and let people work through that. But it’s not all sadness. There is life and beauty and laughter and life. We need to open our eyes to those blessings.
In my book, I talk a lot about how those two perspectives are linked. We cannot separate them. Not really. If we want to numb our sadness, we will invariably numb our happiness, too. So rather than convincing ourself that life is either all darkness or all rainbows, it’s better to work through all the range of emotions we experience. When we do that, we can become better parents, and better people.
What are some lessons God has taught you through autism?
He’s taught me so many things, but one of them is my own need for community. I never realized the extent to which I needed others. I’m not strong enough to carry myself through life’s messes. I need help. I need God. I need friends.
How has your church family supported you during the autism journey?
My church family is amazing. I don’t know where we’d be without them. When they hired my wife and I to the pastoral staff, we all realized we needed someone to help with Jack on Sunday mornings. So we hired a professional teacher at an early intervention program, and opened up a room for Jack and any other kids with developmental issues who were not able to hang with the Sunday morning service or the kids classes. That allowed us to really enter into worship with the church community, and to bless other families with the same challenges. That ministry has grown considerably, and many special needs families have found a home with us as a result.
Beyond that, our church really did become our family, and it happened quickly. They counseled with us, let us cry, sent us out on date nights, brought us meals during rough patches, and prayed for us from the beginning. In 2017, they even joined us on a 5K Run for Autism, which was put on by a local school for autistic children. We made t-shirts, and had over 60 people come out and run with us to show support. It was one of the most moving days I’ve ever experienced.
What advice would you give to parents whose child with autism experiences seasons of regression?
Don’t try to go through it alone. Don’t try to put on a brave face all the time. Find people who will embrace you in your weakness; who will let you vent, but not keep on venting; people who can pray with you and remind you that this season you’re in will not last forever. There will be pain in the night, but joy in the morning.
Please share a humorous story
About two years ago, my wife had to take Jack to the doctor for a procedure where they had to put him to sleep. Sara talked him through it, and he seemed to understand, but was not happy about it. When the time came, they put a mask on him to administer the gas, and he struggled a little. Of course, the nurses couldn’t understand anything he said in his protest.
Finally, he let them put it on, and he could feel himself getting woozy. He looked up at his mom, and quoted a line from one of the Lion King sequels. It was from Pumpa, the husky warthog. Jack made his voice husky, too, as he said, “I told you this wasn’t a good idea,” then promptly fell asleep.
The nurses all gasped, looking at my wife. She smiled and said, “it’s okay. You can laugh.” And they all did. He had used the line in perfect context. That our boy.
Jason Hague’s Bio
Jason Hague is an associate pastor at Christ’s Center Church in western Oregon. He chronicles his personal journey online at JasonHague.com, where he uses prose, poetry, and video to share his experiences as a father to a severely autistic boy. Jason has been married to Sara for nineteen years, and they have five children.
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org