I was introduced to Jason Hague early in 2018. Jason is a pastor and author who lives in Oregon with his wife Sara and five children. We were both speaking at the Key Ministry Inclusion Fusion Live! conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Even prior to meeting in person, I appreciated Jason’s humility and openness. I knew he was taking on an important and seldom spoken-to topic: The Depressed Special Needs Dad: How to Support and Understand Him (video link here). As we met and connected briefly at the conference, his theological depth and good-natured sense of humour were apparent.
When I heard Jason was writing a book, I was intrigued and delighted to read through an advance reader copy. In Aching Joy: Following God Through the Land of Unanswered Prayer, Jason chronicles a heartfelt journey through the surprise, pain, joy, and challenges of raising his oldest son, Jackson, who has autism.
The book builds the theme of Jason’s poem, A Reflection of Aching Joy (An Autism Dad’s Poem to his Son) from several years ago. I mention this because Jason’s video featuring this poem went viral on Facebook, with over three million views. You may wish to check it out. (YouTube version embedded below).
Jason has obviously struck a nerve with parents and advocates of kids with disabilities, autism in particular. It’s difficult to know how exactly to describe Jackson’s experience of autism. “Severe” or “significant” are terms often thrown around, but everyone’s experience is different and varied. As you will read in the book, Jackson has his ups-and-downs just as Jason has his own. Their two journeys are intertwined and interconnected in profound and sometimes surprising ways.
I think one of the things that people will relate to in Jason’s story is the sensitive and compelling way he speaks to his experience of parenting. Parents of children with intellectual and learning disabilities know that it is no easy task to share their stories. Honesty is important, but it’s easier to be honest about positive developments than challenges. There are enough misconceptions and stereotypes about disability – parents don’t want to feed these perceptions.
And then there’s the issue of sharing one’s own story without speaking on behalf of one’s child. Brian Brock delivered probably the best articulation of these nuances I have heard at the 2017 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. His session was called “How can we talk about disability?” It’s a tightrope walk, and advocates, professionals, or especially parents who speak to this journey must balance bravery and humility in equal measure.
I won’t say that Jason navigates these issues perfectly. Jason wouldn’t say this either. On his website, he gives the disclaimer, “I’m no expert. Rather, I’m just a guy who is still trying to figure things out.” In “A Note to the Autism Community” at the end of his book, he admits that his early attitude towards disability was in no way refined, politically correct, or well thought-out. But in his honesty and transparency regarding these aspects, Jason is clear that these are his issues, not Jackson’s. Throughout the book, we are brought into Jason’s journey of aching joy.
Aching Joy is accessible in an inverse way; people who have no prior experience with disabilities will also find profound truths and psychological edification in its pages. Parents, especially, will resonate with Jason’s journey of faith through the roller-coaster of guiding children through the crises and triumphs of life. Simple yet significant truths are scattered throughout, such as the importance of not waiting for milestone moments to celebrate:
“If we want to taste joy and keep on tasting it, we would do well to sharpen our observational skills and begin practicing the art of small-scale celebration.”
We are reminded of the need for moments of joy to spill into the lives of others:
“The joy we find in our wilderness is far too valuable to carry by ourselves.”
Jason challenges trite religious phrases such as “God never gives you anything you can’t handle” while calling parents back to our risky, significant vocation:
“Our deepest, truest work as parents is not to provide safety but to assist in redemption.”
In his honest wrestling with God along a journey of surprise, despair, faith, and aching joy, Jason leads his readers through key Biblical truths, important psychological reflections, and deeply personal insights. We learn that our “projections,” the movie running in our head of how life is going to look, might come crashing down around us. Yet it is in these times of loss and re-alignment that we may be opened to the joy of the Lord, a joy paradoxically bound up in bittersweet suffering and hope.