No Blame, No Shame

I walk this road quite simply because there is no alternative. I think, even now, if there was somewhere else to go I would take another route. But all other options have been exhausted. I try not to think of the distance because, weary and hungry as I am, I just can’t contemplate the physical effort required to walk so far. And so I shield my eyes from the noonday glare and put what little energy I have into taking each next dusty step.

What a sight I must look, my hair matted with whatever dirt and undergrowth I’ve slept on for the past few weeks. I know I stink, and not just because I haven’t been able to wash or bathe. The muck is clinging to my clothes and skin; some is even stuck in my hair. “How are the mighty fallen,” I exclaim aloud. My voice startles the birds twittering in the long grass at the edge of the road, and they fall momentarily silent before resuming their chirping, unconcerned by my troubles.

Disgust and anger struggle within me – a tussle between shame and blame. I’m a disgrace. Everything that has happened to me, I have brought on myself. Or have I? What was my father thinking, when he agreed to my request? What kind of father fails to exercise proper control over his son? If he had said a simple no at the time, I would have had a tantrum and a sulk and then got over it. This is all his fault.

Or is it? Would I really have got over it so easily? Not with that self-satisfied prig of a brother breathing down my neck like a goody two-shoes. That was the real reason I had to leave. My brother was making my life intolerable. This is all his fault.

I’m sure all the neighbours have their own opinions about all this. I daresay I’m the black sheep of the family, not worthy to be part of their community any more. But what do they know? They have no idea what drove me to leave. They never saw the digs or heard the snide remarks muttered as we passed each other in the gate. It’s all their fault, my father and my brother, this is all their fault.

Except it isn’t. Whoever heard of a son demanding his share of the inheritance while his father’s still alive? What was I thinking when I made the ultimatum? I might as well have told him I wish he was dead. And what do I have to show for it now? My father worked all his life for that money and I haven’t invested it in one worthwhile thing. It’s all gone and I haven’t got so much as a pair of shoes on my feet. This is all my fault.

And so it goes on, step after shuffling step, blame and shame, blame and shame. More to the point, what on earth can I say that will prevent them from just driving me away? I bet they’ve gone round bad-mouthing me to all the neighbours.

No, that’s not fair. I bet my brother has. But I’ve never heard my father say a bad word about anybody, not even people who cheated him or failed to repay what he lent them. Whatever he thinks of me, he will have kept it to himself. But I’m sure my brother will have spread enough ill will for both of them.

I have to think of a narrative that I can be saying to my father as I approach, before I get close enough for him to answer me back. Half of me wants to shout, “This is all your fault – you and that stuck up brother of mine!” But he’s hardly likely to give me a hearing if I do.

Better switch from the blame narrative to the shame narrative. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” I’ll only be echoing what he’s thinking anyway, so I guess he won’t argue with that.

What if he turns his back on me anyway? Better think of a follow-up remark so he doesn’t just slam the door in my face. “Make me one of your hired servants.” At least that way I’ll have bread enough and to spare. And I can retreat into the servant’s quarters every time the urge to slap my brother’s smug face becomes irresistible.

And so it goes on, step after step, the thoughts swirling round and round in my head like the maelstrom at the foot of a waterfall. Somehow, step by step, step by step, blame and shame, blame and shame, the miles get swallowed up.

The fields along the side of the road just here belong to my father – I’m nearing home. I look up, in time to see one of our neighbours, a wealthy landowner, directing some hired workers in the field. He sees me, makes an exclamation of disgust, and turns his back. I’m confused. What is he doing in my father’s field?

Gradually, the appalling reality dawns on me, and for once the shame reverberates in my head, completely drowning out all thoughts of blaming someone else. Evidently, my father has had to sell some of his land. Because of the share of the money that I took, some of our family’s fields, the land that has been ours for generations, has had to be sold.

I slow my pace as I slouch up the road, not yet daring to look at the house I used to call home. Is there even any point going on? But where else can I go? There is nowhere.

Confused, uncertain, I hesitate, not daring to go on, not caring to go back. And then, suddenly, there he is in front of me. He throws himself at me and wraps his arms around me, pulling me close to his heart and holding on tightly. “My boy, my boy,” he cries in a voice choking with emotion as he buries his face in my hair and the twigs and pig muck scrape against his cheek.

Without lessening his grip on me at all, he turns his head and calls over his shoulder, “Quick! Bring a robe and a ring! Get some shoes! Kill the fatted calf and prepare a feast! This son of mine” (and he squeezes me so hard I can barely breathe) “this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

I start to blurt out the words I’ve been rehearsing: “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before I can go any further he places a hand on the back of my head and squashes my face into his shoulder, making further speech impossible. And hugged in that relentless grip, both the blame and the shame quietly pack their bags and slink away. Whose fault is it? Who cares? There’s a love right here that erases it all and wipes the slate clean.

Thinning out seedlings

parsnip seedlingsParsnip Seedlings

I hate thinning out seedlings, choosing which ones to sacrifice so that the others will thrive; but that was how I spent the afternoon yesterday. I transplanted as many as I could, in the hope that some would survive, but still, a large number had to end up on the compost heap. Even these ones, however, are not going to waste – they will help to fertilise next year’s growth.

What surprised me (I was thinning out carrots and parsnips) was how much develops below ground before anything is even visible on the surface. Even some which had barely more than the tip of a green shoot showing through the soil had roots of more than an inch long; ones which were sporting two or three leaves had roots of two to three inches in length. I tried to select not the leafiest ones, but the ones with the most intact roots to transplant elsewhere in the vegetable plot, as I thought they would have the most chance of successfully establishing themselves.

It got me thinking. How often we look at the bits we can see in the soil of a life – our own or someone else’s – and draw conclusions and judgements from that. I hear someone (myself or somebody else) say something unkind; I see them act in a way that is unwise; and I draw a conclusion about their spiritual state – they must be in a bad place spiritually or they would not appear so unChristlike.

Yet all I can see is some immature shoots poking through the soil, looking as though there is plenty of room for improvement. What I can’t see is that in a secret place, away from view below the soil, an ever-deepening root is pushing down into the life source; and no matter how feeble the appearance above ground, maturity and fruitfulness are guaranteed, however long it takes, because something deep and strong is forming and becoming established.

That’s why it’s unwise to pass judgement on myself or anyone else; I can’t see what God can see, I don’t know what He knows. And it’s also why God reminded Samuel that people look at the outward appearance but God sees the heart.

I’m not going to chide or nag my plants for not looking big enough or strong enough. I’m going to water them regularly, weed around them, and generally tend and nurture them. I guess that’s what we should do when we see a fellow-Christian whose behaviour falls short of a standard we think they should attain. Not judge; not jump to conclusions about the parts of their spiritual and emotional development that we can’t possibly know about; but encourage, nurture, remove the obstacles that might hinder their growth, and water with the encouragement of God’s word – and then sit back and enjoy the beauty and nourishment that God brings from their life.

Words

Words. How I love them. Words of truth that speak
with clarity that blows the mist away.
Words can empower, find strength in what is weak;
they can ennoble, making jewels from clay.

Words. How we drop them carelessly to ground,
fearing the silence that we rush to fill.
If they were gold, we should not cast them down;
if swords, we would be careful not to kill.

Words. Speak to me, not hollow words, but Christ,
the Word of God: what God most longed to say.
The Word that speaks – must speak, at any price –
has washed my bleakest silences away.
Where I had blocked my ears and wished Him dumb,
He turned. He smiled. He spoke. The word was, “Come”.

Open letter to George Osborne

Dear Mr Osborne,

You have spoken a lot of rhetoric about “people who want to work hard and get on”. It sounds fine. Few people would argue with supporting those who want to work hard and get on. But this language automatically excludes as at best insignificant or at worst worthless one particular category of people.

There are some people who, by reason of severe, usually multiple, disabilities, will never be able to be gainfully employed. My daughter is one example. She is in her early thirties and lives in a residential care home. She has quadriparetic cerebral palsy, a learning disability, autism and partial sight. Please don’t feel sorry for her. She has a very good quality of life.

I read a policy document which your government has published on the subject of disabled people. It was called “Fulfilling Potential”. In many ways it was a laudable document. It had much to say about enabling disabled people to take their rightful place in society, work in fulfilling jobs, pursue excellence in sport and so on. But there was a glaring omission in this document.

There was no mention at all of those people whose contribution to our society will never be an economic one. How are they to fulfil their potential? My daughter is incapable of carrying on any form of employment. She has to be washed and dressed, supervised while eating and drinking, carefully watched to ensure that she does not do anything injurious as she has no sense of danger, and accompanied everywhere she goes. She cannot stand up or even sit unsupported. These are the things she cannot do.

But the things she can do are wonderful. She can tell you the name of any piece of music she hears, with its composer or artist and also what key it’s being played in. She can play on the piano with her right hand any tune she has ever heard even once. She can remember and recall almost anything you might care to ask her about any event in her life. She can express deep affection that is more uplifting to the recipient than you could ever imagine. She can be hilariously funny, with or without words, and she brings immense joy to everyone who has any dealings with her. We recently took her away for a weekend and when we returned her to the care home, the staff said her absence had made them realise how much she influences the atmosphere in the home, that it had been much less fun without her and they had really missed her.

But in your brave new world she is almost a non-person. Her contribution to society is not an economic one. It cannot be measured or quantified. It is, in both senses of the word, an immeasurable one. And for you, that means it does not count. I can assure you she works hard. Every single thing she does requires an exhausting effort. And she wants to get on. She absorbs new information and ideas like a little sponge. She never saw the end of formal education as a reason to stop learning.

When she was a child, everyone thought she was very cute. She sat smiling in her wheelchair with her little pigtails and stole everybody’s heart. So how is it that in Tory Britain she has suddenly gone from cute and adorable disabled child to skiving benefit scrounger in one bound?

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are two verifiable facts: Firstly, she has been fined for fraud for trying to claim free prescriptions. This was extremely surprising to me, as she is entitled to free prescriptions. I was asked to provide proof of her benefit, so I contacted the DWP to obtain this proof. I was told that she is not entitled to free prescriptions, as she is on contributions-related ESA instead of income-related ESA, and only the income-related version of the benefit would entitle her to free prescriptions. I pointed out that she has never paid any National Insurance contributions, and should be on the income-related benefit. I innocently suggested that there had been a clerical error. I was assured that this was no clerical error. It was DWP policy to transfer people onto contributions-related ESA even if they were entitled to the income-related version, as the income-related version would normally give them more money. It was for the disabled person to find this out and challenge it if they wanted to be put on the income-related benefit. The lady offered to send me the forms so that I could apply for the income-related benefit for my daughter. She apologised that the form is “about twenty pages long”. It turned out to be forty-two pages long. She then checked my daughter’s records and told me that I had in fact completed and submitted this form eighteen months ago but it had not been actioned. I asked if they couldn’t simply action it now and was told no, after deciding not to action it they had not kept it and I would have to fill it in again. So now who is committing benefit fraud? Not my daughter. It seems the DWP is fraudulently withholding from her a benefit she is entitled to.

Secondly, every time my daughter has an annual review, or applies to go on an assisted, accessible holiday, I am asked if I want to write “Do not resuscitate” on her medical notes. Three social workers and a nurse have told me that this is an NHS requirement. I have two other daughters who are neurotypical – they are physically able and their intellectual function and social understanding are unimpaired. All three of my daughters are in good health, and all three have a normal life expectancy. So why is one of them being singled out for the suggestion that we should write “do not resuscitate” on her medical notes? She is a cheerful young woman with, as I have already indicated, a great sense of humour and wonderful musical ability, and everyone who works with her falls in love with her. She is a much loved and very valued member of our family. No one would ask my other two daughters to consider refusing resuscitation. I find it offensive that society assumes that disabled young people have such poor quality of life that they should not be given proper care if they become ill. It is the ultimate disability discrimination, giving the message that if someone’s life is different and more limited than average, he or she is disposable.

Mr Osborne, bad things happen when people are valued only for their economic contribution. People are of intrinsic value in and of themselves. When we lose sight of this we lose something fundamental of what it is to be human. There are some people who will always cost the country money and will never repay it in taxes, national insurance contributions or in any other way. This is why it is so important that we celebrate the other kinds of contribution they make to society. My daughter provides employment for a small army of carers, and makes their work pleasurable and fulfilling for them. She brings real joy into the lives of everyone who comes into contact with her. She is capable of deep love and fierce loyalty. She makes our great country a better place. And your policy towards disabled people considers her at best a burden and at worst a scrounger. Unless we reverse this terrible way of looking at people, Britain will become a very unpleasant place to live. Please find a way of recognising that, as Jean Vanier recently told an audience in the House of Lords, the strong need the weak, and that people like my daughter make Britain a place worth living and show us that money cannot buy the things that really matter in life.

Yours sincerely,

Rosamund Bayes

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“Accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2. 15)

I was recently berated (I won’t say by whom) for “giving disability permission to exist” in my daughter, and told that I don’t have to wait for God’s timing to heal her – His timing was at the cross. Also, because I had made reference in something I said to God’s sovereignty in healing, I was directed to an article (again, I’m not going to name the author) about Paul’s thorn in the flesh and how, allegedly, people misuse this passage to suggest that Paul had something wrong with his eyes from which he was not healed, which, the author maintains, is far from being the truth.

Let me start out by saying that I do believe God’s timing was at the cross in the sense that Christ’s atonement included healing as well as forgiveness; and that as far as my daughter is concerned, God has given me a very specific promise in a way that was quite unmistakable about her healing (although I’m not going to tell that story here, either). I don’t believe the passage of time negates the promise of God, and am still expecting to see the things God promised me.

I also believe that healing is much more the norm than we realise or expect, and one reason we don’t see more of it is something to do with our corporate lack of faith as the body of Christ (note I am not saying a lack of faith on the part of any individual). However, I have seen far too many people who have been blamed for their own disability – something which Christ never did, unless we include the case where He said, “Go and sin no more”, indicating that He clearly had knowledge not shared by the onlookers. I have also (sadly rather often) seen people so desperate to get a disabled person healed that they have given that person a clear message of “You’re not acceptable the way you are” – and I’m convinced that Jesus never made anybody feel like that.

So having briefly set out my own position, I would like to analyse the article I was sent. The author asserts that Satan has used the story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh to convince people that since Paul wasn’t healed, neither can they expect to be healed. He goes on to assert that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not a physical disability and so this application is unwarranted. I believe this is going beyond what is said in the text. I recently took issue with a publication which stated that “Paul the apostle prayed repeatedly for some unknown disability to be removed but had learnt to delight in his weakness” on the grounds that this goes beyond what is in the text – we are not told that this was a disability, and though it may have been, to assert this as truth goes beyond what the Bible says. In the same way, to assert that this was definitely not a disability (although it may not have been) also goes beyond what the text contains. We must make sure not to impose our own biases or preconceptions on our reading of Scripture.

The author next points out that Paul’s thorn came about because of the abundance of his revelations, and that unless we have received similar revelations we will not have a thorn in the flesh. This seems to me just silly. There is not an absolute level of revelation above which we qualify for opposition. I’m sure we have all experienced a degree of opposition in accordance with our degree of revelation.

The author disputes the interpretation that the thorn was given in order to keep Paul humble, because it is when we humble ourselves that we are exalted; but rather it was given by Satan to try and stop God from exalting Paul in the eyes of the people so that his message would not be received by so many. But again the text does not support this.  Paul’s assertion is that the difficulty came to prevent him from being exalted “above measure” (or more accurately, to translate from the original Greek, from being ‘ϒπεραιρωμαι (huperairomai) “overly lifted”. This word indicates being exalted or lifted to an inappropriate height. It seems much more likely that Paul is referring to something which Satan originated but God allowed to prevent him from being so overly prominent that attention focused on him rather than on the Christ whom he was preaching.

He next claims that this messenger of Satan, sent to buffet Paul, must have been not a physical ailment but a demon. However, in the book of Job we have clear evidence that a Satanic messenger can take the form of destruction of property, bereavement and physical affliction, so there is no Scriptural reason why this could not also have been so in the case of Paul.

Next, the author makes reference to the words “weakness” and infirmity” in verses 9 and 10, and states that although these words can mean a physical condition, they do not have this meaning exclusively. I find it both interesting, and understandable, that he quotes entirely from the 1611 King James Version of this passage. Understandable, because he needs that particular translation to support certain aspects of his exegesis, aspects which are not supported when we examine the Greek text. In fact the Greek word used is ασθενεια (astheneia) – a word which literally means absence of strength. This is the word used in the Greek record of Jesus’ description of a woman with a physical disability in Luke 13.11 – where the physical disability is attributed to the activity of a spirit.  In other places the word is translated as sickness and as disease.  The root of this word is also used in Romans 15.1 to refer to weakness of faith. So it seems that it was normally used to refer to a physical state of weakness but could, by analogy, be applied in other ways.

But in my view the worst piece of exegesis in this article occurs in reference to the verse which says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” He bases his interpretation of this passage on the meaning of the English word “glory” which, he says, means to have dominion over or command. I don’t know if he is being disingenuous in order to support his pre-determined interpretation of the passage, or if he is simply unaware of the Greek behind this translation. A literal translation of this verse from the Greek would go like this: “Rather, then, I shall be boasting in my lack of strength, that the power of Christ should be erecting a booth (or “tabernacle”) above me.” The picture here is not at all one of Paul having dominion over or commanding whatever is causing him to lose strength; rather he is painting a very clear picture of how, at times when he has no strength of his own, the power of Christ is like a booth or tabernacle over him, offering him shelter and protection – a very different picture from the one which this author gives. To Jewish readers, the mention of the tabernacle would have symbolised the place where the presence of God dwells, so this was also a promise of God’s presence in the absence of one’s own strength.

Finally, he disputes that Paul had an eye problem. It may or may not be that Paul’s eye problem was his “thorn in the flesh” but that he had one is indisputable – the evidence for it is so abundant. The author refers to Paul’s words in Galatians 6.11, again using the KJV to support his interpretation: “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.” He asserts that this is not a reference to large handwriting, but to a long letter. Since the epistle to the Galatians is one of his shorter letters, this interpretation seems highly improbable.

Again, we are more likely to see the true meaning if we read the Greek rather than the KJV. The Greek word for a letter in the sense of an epistle is επιστόλη (epistole). The word used in this passage is γραμμασιν (grammasin). This is a plural word and means letters in the sense of letters of the alphabet. “You see with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand.” It can only mean that Paul is drawing attention to the fact that this is his own handwriting, and is abnormally large. No other interpretation is admissible from the text. This makes sense in the light of the fact that Paul used an amanuensis to take down the dictation of all his letters, and did not normally append anything in his own handwriting; on this occasion it was necessary to do so to authenticate the letter, as counterfeit epistles purporting to come from Paul were by this time beginning to circulate.

There is further evidence that Paul had a sight problem; he failed to recognise the high priest, and spoke against him in a way in which he would not have done had he realised whom he was addressing (Acts 23.5). There is also Paul’s passage in Galatians 4. 13-15 (I am quoting from the NASB which is both clear and accurate): “You know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.”

The author of this article acknowledges that this refers to a physical eye condition (it would be impossible not to, since the text is so clear) but claims that it was a temporary state of runny or puffy eyes resulting from a beating. But taken together with all the other signs – the failure to recognise the high priest, the use of an amanuensis to write for him, and his own abnormally large handwriting, all the evidence points to Paul having a longstanding sight condition, and to avoid this conclusion one really has to impose a predetermined interpretation on the text.

None of this, of course, proves that Paul’s eye condition was his “thorn in the flesh”. It may or may not have been. To assert either that this thorn was or wasn’t a physical ailment is to go beyond what the Bible tells us.

I agree with the author of this article that God has given us authority, including authority over sickness, and that we do not always understand or use this authority. But please let us not use this to justify a form of victim blaming where disabled Christians are concerned.

We can learn much from Jesus’ attitude when he healed Jairus’ daughter. He threw out all those who thought they knew what the situation was but had no emotional engagement with it (the professional mourners) and allowed only five people to be present – the three who believed in His power (Peter, James and John) and the two who loved her (her parents). Yes, faith is involved in healing, including miraculous healings of disability which do indeed take place, but let us not forget what Paul tells us in Galatians 5.6, that faith works by love. Scolding disabled people for permitting disability to exist in their bodies is not only something Jesus is never recorded as doing, but also does not display the kind of love that releases faith for healing.

Let me finish by quoting Brian Gault who, as a result of the drug Thalidomide, was born without arms, and has learned to do almost everything adeptly with his feet: “God knit me together in my mother’s womb, and He doesn’t drop any stitches.”