Erik in my church is 23 and has a bent of mind that puts him just outside the spectrum we call "normal." Whatever it is in reality (the angels know), here on the ground the label is autism. Erik has mastered the vital statistics of most everyone in our 1,000-member congregation-the number of kids, their names and ages and where they go to school, their former church affiliations.
The young man also puts in 40 hours a week at a supermarket where I shop, retrieving renegade carts from the lot and corralling them into their pens, in rain or shine or sleet, around the year. He is the first face of Genuardi's for the harried patron seeking milk and eggs and a general good-will feeling.
I commended him on this recently: "People must like you, Erik; you're so friendly to everyone."
"Yes they do, Mrs. Seu," he said (with characteristic absence of false humility).
But then, as I tarried, the stories tumbled out matter-of-factly, anecdotes of minute-long encounters, a biblical resonance to each. Listening, I learn a lesson about winnowing, the teasing out of grain and chaff, on the humble instrument of the cart-man's greetings.
For part of the inflexibility of Erik's condition is a lack of "sophistication" in toning up or down the gospel message, which he lavishes on one and all with admirable democracy. If God shows no partiality, neither does His servant Erik. "How are you, Erik?" "Having a blessed day, Mr. Jones, how about you? Glad to be saved by the grace of Jesus." One group will respond in kind, happy to swap blessings with a fellow pilgrim. One group will walk a bit more briskly by. And then there has been more than one woman, he told me, who will look him straight in the face and shout, F-you!
Jesus of Nazareth had a condition that put Him outside the spectrum of normal in the ancient Near East-of questionable parentage (as the local scuttlebutt went); as likely to welcome a prostitute as chide her; as likely to heal the son of a centurion as that of a Jewish scribe. A challenge to credulity if you've been reading your Torah selectively and self-servingly.
All eyes are fixed on the specimen, scarcely a man at all, staggering into the moonlight, swaying, spittle-covered, bloodied, the object of recoil and disgust. "His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind." (Isaiah 52:14). And Pilate, saying far more than he knows, announces, "Behold the man!" (John 19:5). "Ecce Homo!"
"What is man?" Psalm 8 asks. What is the essence of true humanity? "Adam" means "the man," and for a moment of time in Eden, in this First Man was contained the totality of what man was-the federal headship of a category of one. Like Michelangelo's David I picture him-free of blemish, excellent in beauty that we should desire him, and, briefly, unacquainted with suffering of any kind.
There was another garden (and this is no accident). And here our Second Man sweat drops of blood-every inch a king, more master of this garden than ever was His predecessor. Question to ponder: Can it be that Adam the First, Adam the David of Florence, Adam the man-at-ease, is actually the incomplete and embryonic form of personhood? Can it be that Man only reaches his apogee (paradoxically) as a species in man-as-suffering-servant?
In today's world it is demanded that a man "amount to something." And we have a pretty way of defining that. And a pretty way of punishing the falling short of it. Birth is the privilege of those who promise to make our lives "nice" and add to the GNP.
Erik, like Jesus, does not do "nice." But a day is coming when I will meet Erik, and not in the lot at Genuardi's. And I should not be surprised if he walks up to me and says, "Well, Andrée, I am glad God gave me the opportunity to glorify Him with my autism back then-and I am glad it's over now!" And then he shall probably say, before I have a chance, "I was a good and faithful servant." Because Erik never did have false humility.