The King is in the house…. or not?

It’s been quite a while since my last post.  I haven’t given up on writing, nor have I abandoned my Wesley journey.  But all my available time has gone on writing my next book, which I hope to finish (at least the first draft) by the end of next month.  In the meantime, here is something I wrote for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) which is reproduced here by kind permission.

It was 1986.  My daughter was two and a half, but she looked more like a baby of 10-12 months – very tiny and not yet moving around or even sitting up.  She had started life at 2lbs 4 ½ ozs and had gone down to 1 lb 10 ozs before slowly clawing her way back to her birth weight over the next two months, and she was still chronically underweight.  At fifteen months old she had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and an unknown degree of learning disability.  During the thirty months since her arrival I don’t think I’d ever had more than two consecutive hours’ sleep, and I was exhausted, scared and vulnerable.

And at that moment, a doctor pointed at my daughter and said to me, “You don’t have to be doing this, you know.  There are places these people can go.”  Even in my fragile state I was shocked and appalled.  The doctor had come to assess my daughter for disability benefits (Attendance and Mobility Allowance in those days) but after that remark I couldn’t get him out of the front door fast enough.

And here’s the problem we still have.  If you don’t know and love someone with a learning disability, or with profound and multiple disabilities, the message the world gives could be hard to resist. They are “these people”, a category, rather than unique individuals.  This is why we have a system that still sends young people with learning disabilities to Assessment and Treatment Units, sometimes hundreds of miles away from everyone they know and love.  Because “these people” are not like us, are they?  “They” don’t feel things the way we would feel them.  “These people” are not conscious of ill-treatment the way we would be, and they don’t miss happiness and love as we would.

This is how we have arrived at a situation where intellectually disabled people, most of whom don’t have life-shortening conditions, die on average 16 years younger than the rest of the population, because their healthcare needs are not taken seriously.  This is something of which, as a mother, I’m very aware, having batted my head against a brick wall for a long time in the effort to get appropriate medical treatment for my daughter, which I know very well that her non-disabled sisters would receive as a matter of course if they had her symptoms.

But if you know and love someone with a learning disability, you know they can’t be consigned to some homogenous category any more than, say, the freckled or the brown-eyed.  My daughter, now 33 years old, is a cheeky, humorous individual with a deep sense of justice, a fierce loyalty towards those she loves and an astonishing musical ability. She cannot be dismissed as one of “these people”.  As a MENCAP poster from the 1970s proclaimed, “We may not think as quickly, but we feel as deeply”.

Jesus never treated disabled people as a faceless, emotionless category.  Each one to Him was an exceptional individual commanding His full attention.  Study his interactions with the many disabled people to whom He ministered.  You will find He didn’t treat them all alike.  He tailored His approach to the unique needs of the unique individual before him.  He even told a story to demonstrate that without the presence of disabled people seated alongside everyone else at the table, His house is not full.  (Find it in Luke 14. 16-23)

Why did He say that?  I think the answer is found in Matthew 25. 31-46 and in Luke 9.48.  In the first of these passages Jesus lists all kinds of disadvantaged people – hungry, thirsty, estranged, unclothed, imprisoned.  And he says that how we treat them is how we are treating Him.  In Luke 9 He takes it a stage further – whoever welcomes even one little child in His name is welcoming not only Him but the One who sent Him, for the one who appears least among us is actually the one who is great.

So here is why, when people with physical and learning disabilities are absent from among us, the house is not full: because in excluding them, we are excluding Christ Himself.  He is the Head, the reigning King as described in Matthew 25, and yet He is not in the house.  When we hear scandalous stories of the appalling treatment of people with complex disabilities in Assessment and Treatment Units, the world has conditioned us to think, even subconsciously, that “these people” don’t feel or understand what is happening to them to the same degree that we would.  And yet Jesus affirms that what is being done to them is being done to Him.  It is felt as keenly as if He were the victim.

When we see churches that are oblivious to the number of people in their communities who have these complex or multiple disabilities, and who are making no attempt to reach out to them or include them, the King is not present in the house.  But how can we evangelise “these people”?  “They” wouldn’t understand the Gospel, would they?  Some of them are too restricted in their understanding to know what sin is, let alone to see their need of a Saviour.  And so we exclude “these people” and in so doing the house is not full, and the King is not in the house.

But the Gospel is still the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.  The word translated “everyone who believes” is the Greek word pisteuonti.  It does not carry the sense we have come to ascribe to the word believe, of an intellectual assent to a set of propositions.  Rather it means to have confidence in and entrust oneself to something or someone.  And this is a matter not of the head but of the heart, and therefore it is as possible for someone who is severely intellectually challenged as it is for any of us.  I think of the lady who shares the same care home as my daughter.  She has no speech and communicates everything by a mixture of happy squeals, anguished screams and facial expression.  It is hard to tell how much she understands of anything beyond her daily routines.  And yet the peace and happiness she displays when she goes to church speaks volumes about both the welcome she receives there and the reality of her encounter with Christ.

So why are our churches not reaching out to the individual families and the care homes in our communities where precious individuals with severe intellectual disabilities live?  Why are we not training ourselves in ways of communicating with this audience?  Why are we not hammering on the doors of these dreadful Assessment and Treatment Units and offering chaplaincy services, off-site activities and a regular welcome in church to their residents?  Why are we not building up trustful relationships in which these individuals can tell us, or we can begin to discern, if they are suffering ill-treatment?  Is the King languishing outside His house, unnoticed by those within?

 

What constitutes dignity?

human-dignity
Photo:Trounce/Wikimedia Commons

When I was teaching the topic euphemistically referred to as “end of life issues” with my RE classes in school, I sometimes used to show them the Channel 4 documentary about the fight of Diane Pretty, a woman in the advanced stages of motor neurone disease, to be allowed to have her life ended by her husband without him having to fear prosecution.  The case went all the way up through the British legal system and finally to the European Court of Human Rights.  At every stage the judges upheld the status quo, refusing to legitimise euthanasia, and affirming that the right to self-determination does not extend to the right to choose when and how to end one’s life.

The problem with the documentary was that it made no attempt to be unbiased, but was unashamed propaganda for Diane Pretty’s point of view.  It was quite obvious that this distressed, depressed and vulnerable woman’s situation had been hijacked by a pro-euthanasia organisation which found her a handy promotional tool for its own agenda, and I tried to make that point to the students and get them to consider other points of view also.  When someone so despairs that she wants her life to end, she is not suffering from disability, she is suffering from depression, and the solution is not to confirm her despair but to treat her depression.

In particular, the documentary showed a scene of Mrs Pretty’s soiled incontinence pad being changed by a carer who came to the house especially for the purpose, and it cited this as evidence of a total loss of dignity.  I used to point out to students that I care for a disabled person who has to have carers come in every day to help with exactly this personal care task, and whose cheerful good spirits and sense of humour enable her to retain her dignity and humanity even while such intimate help is being given.  Loss of dignity is an attitude of mind, not an objective fact.

Now I am watching elderly relatives of mine also reaching a point where they are unable to carry out intimate personal care tasks for themselves, and having to rely on paid carers to assist them.  I think this takes far more mental adjustment for them than for someone who has been disabled all her life and has never known what it is not to be reliant on others for this kind of care.  Along with this goes a need to depend on others to provide meals, and the restriction of no longer being able to go out and socialise in the way that they used to.  One of them in particular was always ready, well into her eighties, to serve others by giving lifts in her car and I know that she feels it very keenly that she can not only no longer give other people lifts to meetings, but cannot get to those meetings herself.  And I believe that when our older generation reach this stage of life, it is absolutely vital that we do not present this to them as a loss of their dignity.

I think this is an error which even the church unwittingly falls into.  Ministry has traditionally been seen as a function of the physically able and intellectually gifted.  I recently came across an online forum where a young man was asking for help regarding a vocation to the Catholic priesthood.  It was clear from what he wrote that his spiritual journey had been leading him to this point for some time and he was longing to seek ordination, but was worried as to how his calling would be seen by the Church, since he was blind.  I was very saddened to read the responses – telling him, firstly on a practical level that he would be unable to celebrate and administer the Eucharist, and so would not be able to carry out the duties of a priest, and secondly, and more disturbingly, on a theological level that the priest represents Christ vicariously to the people, and so an imperfection such as blindness would incorrectly caricature Christ as imperfect and for this reason he could not consider a priestly vocation.  (I should point out that these were the opinions of the forum respondents, not an official position from the Church).

It is hard to enumerate the many levels on which this is both heresy and nonsense. Firstly, where is the priest who is devoid of imperfections and therefore represents Christ adequately?  I dearly loved my philosophy tutor when I was a student, an elderly Jesuit priest who was bent nearly double and in constant pain from ankylosing spondylitis and who had a penchant for risqué jokes.  Coming as I did from an ultra-conservative evangelical background, he did more than anyone else for my spiritual formation in my late teens and early twenties, opening my eyes to profound ways of relating to God in contemplation and silence and to the wideness and encompassing nature of the love and mercy of God.  The idea that any minister of God has no physical, psychological or spiritual imperfections and can therefore adequately reflect the perfect nature of Christ is nonsense.

Secondly, there are no duties that a blind priest could not be enabled to carry out with the right reasonable adjustments – the Bible and prayer book in Braille, a fellow-priest or altar server to show him where to stand, even a guide dog to lead him along the altar rail, why not?

Thirdly, a priest who has himself overcome more difficulties in life than many of his congregation, who has learned to depend on God in the hard times, and who has faced head-on the hard questions about human suffering and the sovereignty of God and has emerged with his faith strengthened, has a wealth of spiritual riches to offer his congregation.

Fourthly, who says that Christ was devoid of imperfections, or at least of vulnerabilities?  During His years in the carpenters’ shop, do you think He never slipped and gashed His arm with a chisel, or hit His thumb with a hammer?  We are told that He was tested in all points as we are, yet was without sin.  So in all likelihood he did hit His thumb, but didn’t let rip with a volley of expletives!

But more than that, vulnerability, weakness and what today’s society considers indignity was His intention and plan for His human existence.  When God first put in an appearance on the earth, He was not wearing a stitch of clothing, and had no control of His bladder and bowel, dependent on His parents to keep Him clean.  I once read that evangelicals, while affirming their belief in the dual (human and divine) nature of Jesus, are nonetheless guilty of a sort of unconscious Docetism that tries to gloss over the reality of His humanity, as if it were somehow irreverent to think of Him as really sharing all that human frailty entails.  But in the baby of Bethlehem we are confronted by God in a dirty nappy, crying for a feed.  And He ended His life in vulnerability, hanging exposed and naked before a mocking crowd, unable even to wipe away the blood and sweat that ran down His face.

If we as the Church are to be truly the Body of Christ then everything that His body did when He was on earth, we are to do, too.  Of course that means developing a disciplined prayer life, feeding the hungry, ministering and loving.  But it also means unashamedly accepting frailty, vulnerability and the need to receive the assistance of others to do things we would rather do ourselves.  We must not, at all costs, allow the elderly and disabled members of the Body to believe that their loss of ability and their growing dependence entails a loss of dignity, lessens their contribution or their value in the life of the Church or makes them less Christ-like.  The very reverse is true.  As we will be singing in a couple of weeks’ time, “He was little, weak helpless; tears and smiles like us He knew.”

Let’s affirm to our elderly members, our disabled members, our weaker and more vulnerable members, “In your patient acceptance of the frailty of your body, we see a reflection of Jesus.  In your need to turn to others for assistance, we see the humility of God.  In learning from you, we feel like those early disciples, sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn from Him.  And in serving you, we feel the privilege as deeply as if Christ Himself were in front of us, accepting our service.”

 

A Master-class in disability inclusion

This was originally written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission.

“We had a problem at church on Sunday,” someone told me as we chatted at the Big Church Day Out. “A disabled lady in our church was disgruntled because she felt people were ignoring her.  But the thing is, we don’t always want to be swamping her with offers of help.  It’s difficult to get it right.”

I tried to make some suggestions as to how to strike the right balance, but I couldn’t help reflecting on her words after the event was over. On an earlier occasion, a lady had told me, “At church everyone just assumes that any time I ask for help or for prayer it must be something to do with my disability.  But one time I just wanted prayer because my mum had died, and no one gave me the opportunity to say so.”

So how do churches “get it right” for their disabled members? How do they give them enough assistance to participate fully, but not so much assistance that they feel singled out as Exhibit A?  How do they give them an opportunity to say what is really on their mind, and not just assume that it must be disability-related?  How do they enable disabled people to exercise their gifts fully for the blessing of the church?

In this, as in any area of church life, Jesus is the supreme role-model. In Mark 10. 46 – 52 we read,

As he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

There are several things I notice in this story. Firstly, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside must have been quite noticeable, especially to Jesus whose mandate, according to Luke 4, was “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind.”  Yet Jesus didn’t make a beeline for him, or draw attention to him in any way.

However, as soon as Bartimaeus learned that it was Jesus passing by, he immediately wanted to attract His attention, and began calling out to Him. And without hesitation, Jesus responded to his call.  We could learn much from this in churches – to treat disabled people just as we treat every other member, without drawing attention to any difference, yet ready at any moment to respond to a request from them.

Jesus did not respond by going to him, helping him to his feet and drawing very public attention to his disability. Instead, He allowed him the dignity of making his own way over, just as any other person would have done.  It would not have been necessary to give him that level of assistance since, as the story makes clear, he was capable of leaping to his feet, throwing off his cloak and making his own way to where he heard Jesus speaking.  We would do well to follow Jesus’ example of respecting people’s independence.

Once he was within speaking distance, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus’ mission was to heal, and yet He made no assumptions about what Bartimaeus wanted from Him.  Perhaps Bartimaeus might have perceived his own greatest need as loneliness, or financial hardship.  Jesus gave him the opportunity to articulate what he himself saw as his most pressing need.  Only when Bartimaeus replied, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight” did He heal him of his blindness.

And finally, Jesus continued to respect his autonomy after the healing. He didn’t direct him where to go, or tell him, “Now you have an amazing testimony, and it’s your duty to go around witnessing to what God has done.”  Instead, he left Bartimaeus to decide where to go and what to do.  Understandably, Bartimaeus’ decision was to follow Jesus.  Why wouldn’t he stay as close as possible to the one who had respected his dignity and given him the gift of healing?

In our churches, we can learn so much from this. We should be ready and available to help our disabled members, and we should create an atmosphere in which they feel able to reach out to us for whatever they need.  It’s not wrong to ask if help is needed, but it’s good first to give people the chance to decide whether to reach out for assistance.  We should give help where needed and respect independence where help is unnecessary.  We should not assume we know what the person needs, but give them the opportunity to express what it is they are looking for, and we should not assume what gifts they have and how they want to exercise them, but should give them the space and freedom to become all God wants them to be and to follow Jesus wherever He leads.

What would Jesus Tweet?

social media
I’ve started to notice something about social media – especially Facebook.  People who are surrounded by large and happy extended families, or have full social calendars, or are not battling bereavement or long-term ill health, use it far less often, unless they are using it to promote a business.  Presumably they have less time to spend online, or don’t feel the need to express themselves in that way.  They mostly post the happy stuff, maybe because they have more of it in their lives.  Most tend to avoid the political; some even express disapproval of those who draw political issues to their attention.  Happy family photos and occasional funnies are a must, but anything negative is to be avoided at all costs.  Absolutely nothing wrong with any of that; it’s a very good use of social media and gives a much needed air of positivity to our newsfeeds.

But conversely, there’s another phenomenon which I started to notice a few years ago.  Some people use social media a good deal more often.  In some cases, it almost appears to be their main way of communicating with the world.  Of course like everyone else they share the happy stuff they want to celebrate, but they also don’t shy away from sharing some of the harder things they’re going through, possibly because they have few people if any with whom they can share in real life.  They also tend to be more political – or perhaps it’s not politics so much as humanitarianism; maybe their own share of difficulties gives them a heightened understanding of others’ needs, with a desire to draw them to the attention of the world.

And here’s a thought: maybe the people whose posts turn up most often in our newsfeeds are the lonely people; maybe they’re the ones in unhappy marriages; maybe they’re the unpopular ones who don’t have full social diaries; maybe they’re secretly struggling with their mental health.  It’s all too easy to feel impatient with the tone of some of their posts, and maybe to post a tetchy reply.  But of course, we can choose whose posts fill our newsfeed on Facebook; it’s easy to “unfollow” someone’s posts without “unfriending” them – I confess I’ve done it myself occasionally.  And we need not follow someone on Twitter unless their output interests us.

But how about, before we take issue with something someone has posted, asking ourselves, who is looking out for that person?  Who contacts them every now and again to check if they’re ok?  Who sends them encouraging messages?  Who takes them out for coffee and gives them time to unburden themselves?  Who invites them round for meals and doesn’t look for any return invitation?

And if we can’t think of any obvious answers to those questions, maybe it’s better not to criticise what they write.  Maybe a private message to say, “How are you doing?  How can I support you?  Is there anything I can pray about for you?” might make all the difference to how that person feels.  We might even start to notice a diminished frequency and/or negativity of their posts in our newsfeeds if we made that our practice.  Suppose we make 2016 the year when we use social media to look out for one another, take care of one another and ensure that no one feels left out or overlooked.  I think that might be how Jesus would have used His Facebook or Twitter account if He’d had one.

Mark 2. 14

Everybody hated me.  That’s not a whine of self-pity, it’s just a dispassionate statement of facts.  The Jews hated me because I was working for the Romans, the loathed occupying force.  And the Romans hated me even as they used me, because I was a despised traitor working for them against my own people.

I tried not to let it bother me.  After all, I carried some clout – people had to stay on the right side of me; if I reported them to the Romans it could have very serious consequences for them.  And I had a comfortable lifestyle.  When I was getting a bit short I just extorted more than the Romans asked for and pocketed the surplus.  But deep down there was a gnawing hollow in my soul.  It’s one thing to be despised by others, but when you secretly despise yourself you can never find peace.

I sat at my table every day watching the world go by, and I was intrigued by the laughing rabbi who often passed by with his growing band of followers and hangers-on.  He was young for a rabbi, no more than thirty, I should think.  Nothing escaped his gaze. I watched him, and I saw it all.  The child with a scraped knee, the mother with a heavy load to carry – I saw him notice everyone and everything.  He never hesitated to break his journey or stop his teaching to lend a hand to someone in need.  I could see why they all loved him, why he attracted such crowds wherever he went.

And then came the day he paused by my money table, waved his hand over the piles of money and shrugged, as if to say, “Do you really think this is what matters?”  And then, leaning over the the table towards me, he spoke very distinctly:  “Follow me.”

I looked down at the piles of money. I felt the void it had all made in my soul, and at once I knew I wanted to be part of what he was doing.  I abandoned my table with its piles of money spread out for everyone to help themselves to and I stepped up to this young man with the laughing eyes, his arm extended in invitation.  I took my place at his side and he clapped a welcoming arm around my shoulders.

And in that moment I discovered the money I had so carefully hoarded had been a wearisome burden from which I was suddenly free, liberated, and facing who knew what adventure!

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.

Everyone Complete in Christ

ellen4I recently applied (successfully, praise God!) for the job of Training Resources Developer with Through the Roof, a charity whose mission is to change lives through disabled people; a mission it accomplishes by providing life-changing opportunities for disabled people, and equipping churches to do the same. As part of the interview process I had to prepare a presentation which included a Biblical theology of disability.

I have been teaching disability awareness in schools and colleges for many years, but I had never before sat down and thought through the Biblical basis for what I was so passionate about. Here are some of my thoughts – not all of which could be included in my presentation because of time, but all of which I wrote down and thought through as part of my preparation.

When we look at the Biblical basis for anything, our first starting point has to be Jesus. He was the most inclusive person ever to walk this earth. He embraced the other gender (women, obviously!), people of other ethnicities (such as the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter he healed), other faiths (such as the centurion who undoubtedly worshipped Roman gods) and those of other social classes (such as tax collectors and prostitutes). Some have even argued that, in Roman culture, it’s highly likely that the servant healed by Jesus was also the centurion’s gay partner. Certainly Jesus had no hesitation in welcoming unreservedly people whose behaviour he could not and did not sanction, such as the woman taken in adultery, or the young ruler whose greed held him captive to his money.

In particular, Jesus always saw beyond the disability to the whole person. That’s why he did not allow the woman who touched the hem of his garment to slink away anonymously but called her forward publicly, honoured her faith, and ensured that she was not simply physically healed, but made whole. Whereas the church has at times seen disabled people as a collection of body parts – blind eyes in need of sight, perhaps, or cerebral palsied legs in need of healing and strength. I am personally convinced that healing is a part of what Jesus’ atonement won for us, and I am committed to praying for people to be healed, and expecting to see God’s power at work in them. I am also convinced of God’s sovereignty and that He doesn’t have to deal with everyone I encounter in the way that I tell Him to!

The trouble is that often, in our eagerness to see disabled people healed we, the non-disabled members of Christ’s church, have overlooked their current worth and potential, and have given them the message “you’re not acceptable the way you are” – and I’m certain that Jesus never made anybody feel that way. On the contrary, in one of His parables, Jesus mentioned disabled people as those who should be given pride of place at the feast table in His kingdom. As we read the Gospel accounts of his encounters with disabled people, it’s easy to picture the delight on His face as He set them free not just from their physical limitations, but from the limiting self-image their disability had imposed on them, and showed them the glory of their true self as God had first created them to be.

There are some Old Testament stories, too, that should inform our attitudes towards disabled members of our communities. When David became king of Israel, he looked for someone of the house of Saul to whom he could show kindness for his friend Jonathan’s sake. The only surviving member of Saul’s family was Mephibosheth. At the time of the overthrow of Saul’s house, his nurse had picked him up to run to safety but had fallen with him in her arms, leaving him with a permanent disability. David welcomed him as part of his household, and for the rest of his life he ate at the king’s own table. It struck me as I read this passage in 2 Samuel 9 firstly, that David did not pity Mephibosheth because of his disability. It was who he was – Jonathan’s son – that dictated David’s response to him. His disability was irrelevant. Secondly, when David discovered that Saul’s only living relative was a disabled man, that didn’t alter his intent towards him. He honoured him exactly as he would have done if he had been a strong warrior. And finally, the whole story provides a wonderful metaphor for the church, with disabled and non-disabled people seated side by side, with equal honour, at the table in God’s kingdom.

I also looked at the story in 2 Kings 7 of four men with a contagious skin disease who were living as outcasts from the community of Israel. At a time when their own people were reduced to such a level of starvation that they had actually resorted, in their desperation, to cannibalism, these four men discovered the enemy camp deserted and full of food and other spoils and provisions. Rather than keep this good fortune to themselves, they said, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.” So they went and shared their good news with the rest of their community. This strikes me as a very powerful metaphor for the church, with disabled people not seen as outcasts or victims to be pitied, but as active contributors to the life and health of God’s people.

I also thought about St Paul’s vision for the church. In Colossians 1.28 he sets out his mission statement, “To present everyone complete in Christ.” Every time someone new comes through the doors of our church or expresses a desire to add themselves to us, we should be asking, “What does this person need, to become complete in Christ?” It would be silly to ask what do disabled people need to become complete in Christ – a bit like asking what do the blue-eyed, or the left-handed, need to become complete in Christ? The answer is that we are all individuals, each with our own relationship with God. As with anyone else in the church, a disabled church member needs people to get to know them, to learn what their gifting is, where they can serve and build up the church, and what their weaker areas are, where they could use support and encouragement from the rest of the body of Christ.

Legend has it that in Mediaeval France the Catholic Church taught that people with learning disabilities were placed by God in communities in order that people should be able to reverence and honour them as they would reverence and honour Christ Himself. These people became known as “Chréstiens”, Little Christs. This word – at first with no derogatory connotation – came into the English language as the word cretin, which sadly, like so many other terms surrounding disability, became devalued, and degenerated into an offensive insult.

It is very important that as we seek to allow disabled people to play their full part in the life of the church, we make sure to use inclusive language. When I was the Disability Advisor at a College of Further Education, I attempted to ban the use of the term “special needs” because it seemed to me to be just another way of isolating disabled students and making them feel different from everybody else, and because I had heard children in the playground at my daughter’s school hurling it as a term of abuse at one another. The origin of the term “handicapped” is in dispute, but one possibility is that it dates back to the days when it was thought that disabled people were fit only to beg for a living, and would sit patiently hoping that you would place your hand in their cap with a donation for them. For this reason, handicapped is felt quite keenly by many disabled people as a demeaning term, and I would like to see it eliminated from our vocabulary as Christians. If this seems like “political correctness gone mad” it’s worth considering the words of Jesus, that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks”. It’s the language we use casually and unthinkingly that reveals the attitudes we really harbour in our hearts towards one another.

In preparing my presentation, I reflected on a book I read many years ago, the autobiography of Rev Alyn Haskey who I was privileged to meet a few times before his sad death last year. In his book he described an incident when he was training for ordination. All the students were in the dining hall when the fire alarm sounded. They all jumped up and evacuated the building leaving Alyn, who could not propel his own wheelchair, sitting at the table. A few minutes later one of his fellow students came running back in very upset and said, “I’m so sorry Alyn, I forgot you were in a wheelchair!” Alyn observed that it was one of the best moments of his life, because people had stopped seeing his wheelchair and were seeing him for the person that he really was.

So for me it’s going to be a real privilege to serve the body of Christ in my new role by helping churches to see the wealth of gift and beauty that God has placed among them in the form of many disabled people.