Church – what did Jesus have in mind?

My church, having just sold its building in response to a call from God to “walk out to walk on” is in the middle of a conversation about how to be Church in a radically new way.  We want to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the society in which we find ourselves, but to do it in a way that, while retaining the things God has built into us over the years, does not seek to hold on to any of the external trappings of what we have created, of the church we have built perhaps in our own image rather than looking like the Body of Christ.  That conversation is ongoing, and we are still at the place of having buried the seed of the past without knowing exactly what the harvest will look like which springs up in its place.

Jesus had a few specifics in mind when He dreamed of what His church would be.  The details, He left to us to fill in, with cultural variations and allowances for differences of temperament.  But there were a few non-negotiables.

One was that it would be a body of people with the power to bind or to loose certain things in heaven and on earth.  (Matthew 18. 18)  This can be interpreted in different ways, and certainly it refers to our authority in a spiritual realm.  But I think it also has much to do with our interactions with each other, coming, as it does, in the middle of a passage where Jesus sets out how we are to forgive and reconcile our differences.

In particular, I wonder do we loose, or release, the disabled members of our churches?  Do we set them free to be everything God has called them to be?  Do we give them permission to be our teachers, our pastors, our soul-deep friends?  Or do we bind and restrict them?  Do we hold them back, keep them in their place and expect too little of them?  Could it be that in placing restrictions on people here on earth in our churches we are binding them in some heavenly sense, hindering them from developing spiritually into all that God intended when He created them?

Secondly, Jesus made it clear that reaching out to disabled people and drawing them in to be part of the church was an essential element of the Great Commission which He left as a mandate for the church to fulfil.  In Luke 14. 16-24 He gave an analogy of the Church as a banquet to which all are invited, but not all are willing to come. The invitation is rejected by the landed gentry, the respected businessmen, the young and attractive, but accepted by those who cannot see or walk, in order, said Jesus “that my house may be full”.  The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization estimates that between 90% and 95% of disabled people die without ever getting to hear the Gospel; and yet Jesus says that without them His house is not full.  Surely, whatever church looks like, it has to be intentional about inviting disabled people to play their full part.

But perhaps the most radical thing we could do in shaping the church is to take note of Jesus’ words in Luke 9.48.  I travel to quite a few churches these days, speaking about disability.  The churches who invite us are great churches, keen to be more pro-active in fully integrating disabled people into all aspects of church life.  But there’s something I’ve noticed about most of the churches I encounter (actually most of the churches I’ve ever had anything to do with, including the one I’m a part of and the ones I grew up in).

There’s a kind of unspoken understanding that the people who matter in church are the bishop/priest/minister/pastor or whatever the person exercising oversight is called in any given denomination.  Then come the lay members who are really committed, the eldership or diaconate, those who volunteer to run the church’s activities or take on lay pastoral roles such as visiting ill or elderly members.  Next in importance are the busy people, those with families, who don’t contribute so much because of other commitments, but nevertheless are loyal and turn up most weeks on Sunday.  And the ones who are given least weight are the ones who are seen as contributing nothing – maybe homeless people who wander in looking for warmth on a wintry Sunday morning, addicts or those whose lives are chaotic, refugees who haven’t yet learned the language, and people with profound learning disabilities.

But in Luke 9.48 Jesus says these words: “It is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”  I wonder how church would look if we really took that seriously?  If the ones who are relegated to having the least say in church life were put at the centre, with their needs, gifts, vision and ideas seen as the crucial focus around which we design how we do church?

We see Jesus do this again and again – He abandons a busy schedule to touch a leper whom no one else will touch.  He breaks off in mid-stride to come over and speak to a blind beggar whom everyone else is shushing.  He sees his disciples squabbling and selects a small child as the example of the kind of spirit they should display (in a culture where no one pays any attention at all to the opinions or actions of children).  He strikes up a conversation with a woman who is alone because no one else will associate with her, and confides in her the information that He is the Messiah, before He has made this revelation to anyone else.  He interrupts a ministry trip with his disciples to extend compassion to a widowed mother whose only son has died, at a time when widows are the lowest in the social pecking order.

The pattern is so striking and so often repeated that it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Jesus really meant what he said in a very literal sense – that those who are considered to be the least among us are, for Him, the greatest ones in the Kingdom, the ones who become central to all that God wants to bring about in the world.  I wonder how our churches would look if we used that as our model?

Open letter to the new Work and Pensions Secretary

On 20th March I wrote to the new Work and Pensions Secretary. I was particularly concerned by the appointment of a man who laboured under the misapprehension that in voting to cut £30 a week from people too sick and disabled to work, he had in fact voted for a cut to the benefits of people who are capable of work.  I was not writing as a political militant but as a concerned mother whose daughter is being adversely affected by the casual, uncaring policies of a government which would rather not have its attention drawn to the pain it is inflicting.  Since he has not yet deigned to reply to my email (and nor has my own MP, Sir Gerald Howarth, to whom I also copied it) I have decided to publish it here as an open letter.

Dear Mr Crabb,

Congratulations on your appointment as the new Work and Pensions Secretary.

I would like to draw your attention to an anomaly and an injustice in both the working of your department and the way it is presented to the public.  Mr Osborne has been able to claim to have increased spending on disability benefits by £1bn.  This is not really true.  If, as in this claim by Mr Osborne, only DLA/PIP is included in this figure, it is possible to claim a cash increase, although in real terms this represents a decrease when inflation is taken into account.  But if all those who were moved from Incapacity Benefit to ESA are included there has been a very real fall in the amount of benefits paid to disabled people.  Cutting a further £30 a week from ESA for new claimants is only going to make this worse, and is based on the illogical assumption that if someone is too disabled to work, adding starvation to their disability will make them suddenly recover enough to get a job.

But much of the spending allocated to disability is being wasted in a manner which is both profligate and discriminatory.  People who have congenital, incurable, degenerative conditions and who were awarded DLA indefinitely, are having to go through the stress and humiliation of a reassessment.  For the second time in a year I am being asked to prove to your department that my daughter has not suddenly miraculously recovered from her congenital quadriplegic cerebral palsy, autism, learning disability and partial sight.  Apart from the immense waste of the time I have to devote to this and the distress caused to my daughter who has no understanding at all of the system, I cannot imagine how much your department is wasting on this ridiculous and futile exercise – money which might, with a little creativity and forethought, have been spent on improving the already very dificult lives of disabled people.

Along with the rhetoric in the media which portrays disabled people as skivers and benefit scroungers there has been a 213% increase in reported disability hate crime, with the unreported figure believed to be far higher, according to the Crown Prosecution Service.  The government has always pretended to distance itself from the language used in the media, but who can forget Mr Osborne’s disgraceful remark about the shift worker “leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”?  As a result of unthinking, prejudiced remarks of this kind, people severely disabled by reason of conditions such as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, Fibromyalgia or terminal cancer who cannot bear the glare of broad daylight have found themselves stigmatised and abused.

It is time to end this dreadful persecution of disabled people, and to ask what are their real needs, and how can these be met?  And it is long past time, as Mr Duncan Smith so belatedly recognised, to stop raiding the pockets of disabled people to line the pockets of the well-off.

I hope that as you begin your new job you will take these points into consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Rosamund Bayes