For those who didn’t make it to the recent Enabling Church Conference, the text that my talk started from (!) is below. Thanks to lots of you for encouraging emails and conversations since the conference. I really did appreciate all the feedback i received, and not just because all of it was very nice! So without further ado, here’s the text of my talk. Thanks for reading. I hope that there will be audio for it appearing somewhere soon, at which point I will put that up here too.
Good afternoon. It’s a huge privilege to be speaking to you this afternoon, on the subject of disability, God, identity and the Church. I have 12 minutes, so we’ll have no problems getting through the whole of the subject, ok? First, just a little bit about me:
I’m Haydon, just pushing 30, recently married to the wonderful Jo, just moved house, just about to get ordained as a deacon in the Church of England.
This should indicate to you that if anyone here has trouble understanding who they are at the moment, it’s probably me.
Now, you probably know that around 10% of the UK population can be classed as “disabled” in some way. I’ve always found it interesting that this proportion is not, broadly speaking, represented in our Church congregations and leadership structures, notwithstanding the need for aptitude, the call to vocation from God and an awful lot of formation.
I find it hard to understand why our Churches are not, usually, the one part of an increasingly disparate society that are reflecting the true diversity and welcome of the kingdom of God. We have a mission opportunity and imperative not just to anticipate that people with diverse abilities and impairments will come to us in Churches, but to throw open our doors. The people that our society is increasingly in the practice of rejecting and casting aside should find a home with us. After all, this is what God does. Look at the ragtag bunch of followers Jesus co-opted. Look at the number of depressed and anxious people who are the key characters in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. As an aside I’d hazard a guess that there’s hardly a key Biblical character that would pass a modern psychiatric wellbeing assessment. How many of them would be welcome in our Churches? Would we be up for a prophet lying naked on one side for a year and then turning over on to the other side and doing the same thing? Not sure that would pass a risk assessment…
Anyway, I digress and in 12 minutes that’s a dangerous thing to do. Given that welfare reform and the tide of media-driven public opinion is turning against disabled people, what do we as Christian individuals and communities have to offer as an alternative? I think it boils down to how we know who we are
We know who we are because of who God is. There’s a danger of us building God in our own image. We want God to identify with our weakness in the disabled God, we want God to Heal, we want God to be wise, strong, powerful, victorious, we want a Father, a Mother, a friend a brother, and it changes depending on who we are and what day it is. This is natural, human nature I think, but the truth of it is so much more exciting than that. We are made by a creator God, for Him. We are his pleasure, his delight. In ways that we can never properly understand, every single person who has ever lived and who has ever lived has the spark of the divine within them. The potential and the promise that they are divinely cherished, offered joy, peace, patience and hope now, and in the age to come is there from the start
Jesus Christ is who He said He was, and did what he said he would do
Even though it is very much about the here and now, our faith is about the future too. We have a future, beyond-time hope, as well as a hope for today. It’s hard to remember often when we’re faced with pain, brokenness, injustice and so on, and when we cause those things ourselves so much, but the truth is that God is calling His Church to know who they are by knowing, as far as it can, who He is. As Hans Reinders has so ably demonstrated, it is not simply about how much we “know”, it is about how each and every person, whether they know it or not, speaks something into the world of the divine and points to a future hope in which “surely we will all be changed”.
I don’t think it’s clear cut as to whether impairments will remain in heaven. I have a sneaking suspicion that God might deal with us, in His grace, on a case by case basis, according to our needs and desires. What is clear is that social disablement, exclusion from community and relationship and the denial of ability to participate in the life, love and work of God will not be part of the new creation. Social disablement of this type has no place in the Kingdom of God. As we live out what it is to follow Jesus now, today, social disablement should have no place in our lives, our Churches.
All that said, the Church is God’s not ours. It is not ours to include and exclude people, it is ours to participate together in the privilege of seeing the kingdom come. Churches with disabled people in them are stronger, not weaker, more reflective of the body of Christ. Minister with disabled people, live with disabled people. It’s not for us to decide who gets in. God already did that by dying once for all and rising once for all that all might be offered eternal life. If you pray for healing, pray for healing in Jesus’ name by leading them to the well of living water that leads to life, don’t just fob them off with attempts to cure, unless God specifically calls you to that in that moment.
What kind of God are we introducing and living out to people? Is it the God who will fix them, normalise them, make them like us, or is it something closer to the actual God, one who calls for His creation to flourish and reflect His glory, to acknowledge Him in all our ways and to accept his gracious mercy and forgiveness when we fall short? This is a challenge for me too as I sit before you. It’d be great to have pithy answers, to be able to talk about problems with identity and disability and tell you how to minister to yourselves and one another to make those issues a thing of the past, but I can’t. I fail at knowing who I am all the time. I don’t want to be known as a disabled person, or a depressed person, I am known only in the light of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and his gift of the Spirit to be with us until his return.
How are we who we are? We are who we are through the unchanging God of creation, redemption, reconciliation, whose promise is sure and whose hope is certain. I have a hope that our Churches will lead the way in society in the coming years in showing that what the world considers weak and not needed, the economy of the kingdom considers a strength and entirely necessary. Let’s participate in the coming of the kingdom together.