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Disability

Enabling Church: First Reflections

This past Tuesday (June 3rd) I had the immense privilege of speaking at the Enabling Church Conference at The Bethel Centre, West Bromwich. Later, I will post the text of my talk from the conference, as well as audio links to the two deliveries of the talk from the day. I’ll also be blogging in the next few days exploring a couple of key questions and themes which arose for me during and as a result of the day In the first of my reflections, I want to offer a few general thoughts on the day as I experienced it.

Firstly, it was an incredibly exciting and privileged thing to be a part of. To arrive at the venue first thing on Tuesday and find queues into the car park to get in is quite nice as an ego massage for a speaker at a conference (I was by no means at all the main draw, but still, it’s a nice feeling!) It was also indicative that the subject of disability, God and the Church is being taken increasingly seriously in this country. Throughout the day I met people and heard stories of situations where Churches are engaging in the work of moving towards being more welcoming, inclusive and participatory for those with impairments and disabilities of all types. There was so much wisdom and experience, so much passion and enthusiasm in the conference centre. It really felt like a moment in Christian history, as Cristina Gangemi suggested. As she often says, the time is now for disability issues to play a key theological role in the life of the Church. Gone are the days when a ramp, a hearing loop and a toilet are sufficient. A Church which does not refer to weakness or impairment, which seeks to live only in victory and strength, cannot stand. On Tuesday we had the inspiration of 400 people gathered to commit themselves and the Churches they represented, to continue the onward motion and the coming of this aspect of the kingdom.

It was a great pleasure to hear the Bishop of Lichfield speak with such verve and determination to see his diocese lead the way in this work. Roy McCloughry spoke with his customary vigour and insight in inspiring the delegates to seek for greater participation for all at all levels of Church life, including leadership. John Swinton gave a fantastic presentation on personhood and discipleship, particularly in relation to those with dementia or who lack self awareness, showing that knowledge and the ability to articulate oneself is not required for salvation.

Following from this, I took part in the Disability stream, along with some people who were much more eminent, articulate and knowledgable than myself (!). I enjoyed speaking, or rabble-rousing, twice during the afternoon, on identity and disability in Christianity. As I’ve said I will add links to the content of what I said, and explore the themes in more detail, later.

Following my talk, Ann Memmott gave a clear and insightful presentation on Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Church life. Ann is a good communicator and speaks with real candour. I have always enjoyed seeing her open the eyes of audiences to the joys and the concerns of ASD and Church. She has a huge gift at making a complex subject intelligible. Jonathan Edwards was next. He currently works for Prospects, having previously been a senior figure in the Baptist Union. I would love to go to wherever he preaches every week! He spoke with real fire about a Christian response to welfare reform in the UK, in a highly practical fashion exhorting the Church to take its role as the social leader of Britain seriously. The sessions were concluded by an audience feedback slot, led by Cristina Gangemi, Disability Advisor to the Vatican for the Catholic Church (perhaps now you can see why I felt a bit overawed!) where once again it became clear, both times, how much wisdom and experience there was in the room. Roy McCloughry chaired the gathering, and Tim Wood facilitated us all expertly.

As we were running our stream throughout the afternoon, I didn’t get to hear any other speakers, but the theme of the day was clear: The Church is God’s. It is for all, not some. Every Church, every Christian, can do something so that the ultimately enabling faith of Jesus Christ can be accessed by all who seek Him. What an inspiring hope. It was enthralling to see a little way in to the future as the day drew to a close and to imagine how far, with the help of God, we might have journeyed along the road in a few years time.

I am hugely grateful to Gordon Temple, Tim Wood, Churches for All and Through the Roof for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful event and to participate in it. It’s truly humbling for me, as a relatively inexperienced speaker, to work and minister alongside so many people whom I look up to.

So, an Enabling Church? What might one of those be? I believe it is a Church which understands the call to abundant life that is offered to all by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe it is a Church which lives in such a way that that life is made available to all, from participation in which none are excluded except by their own choice. An Enabling Church is one from which the love and grace of Jesus Christ pour out in acts of abundant kindness and generosity.It is one which is fully reflective of the glorious panoply of the creation and soon-to-be-redeemed kingdom of God. It is one which gives high esteem and honour to its “weakest” members, does not avoid pain and suffering, but journeys together with individuals and communities as they do suffer. It teaches and exists to glorify Christ and Him crucified above all else It is a small, as yet imperfect picture of the final, technicolour coming kingdom. It is something that we are invited to be a part of today.

In my next blog I hope to look at the issue of disability and leadership, both from the point of view of disabled people leading in Churches, and those who are abled seeking best to lead disabled people in Churches, and in family life.

 

Categories
Disability

I Am Not….

Over the last couple of days, I’ve sat in Gosport and Southampton, listening via Skype while a dude named Eric, who I’ve never met, played in a studio in Rochester, New York, recording drums on a bunch of my songs. This strikes me as somewhat crazy. While I’d rather be in New York – who wouldn’t rather be in New York than Gosport? – this is a pretty good deal. It’s meant that the EP I’m working on has had the drummer who fitted it just right play on it. It’s also enabled us to welcome Eric, and Brian, who engineered the session and entertained us royally, into the community that is building around the songs and the vision behind them.

Writing and recording songs has been one my favourite things to do since I started in bands around the age of 18. There are loads of reasons, but one of them is that the moment when you realise that you have a good song on your hands is unlike almost anything else. A good song is a good song, whether it’s written by the latest production line pop strumpet, or a grizzled veteran. When it comes to music, the fact that I’m a wheelchair user is of no consequence at all. If my songs are good, they’re good. If they’re not so good…

My cerebral palsy is a big part of my life, but it does not define me. I’m not Haydon, the disabled ordinand (trainee vicar), or Haydon the wheelchair singing guy (although I’ve been called that before). I’m Haydon, the son of God. That’s the whole of it. Not a mention of disability anywhere in that identity is there? We’re identified first, foremost and only by the loving action of God, through Christ, in our lives. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s funny in a piece on inclusion to say something like this, which you, the reader, may perceive to be exclusive. Sorry about that. For my part I’ve found that every label other than son of God that either I’ve used, or has been used about me to identify me gives me, or others, the opportunity to either think of myself as better or worse than other people. All are equal in the eyes of God. All. No one is better. No one is worse. That is inclusion. That is an enabled society. Anything else is a pale reflection of God’s intention for society.

I strongly think that we, in this country at this time, have a key role to play in the development of a new kind of society. Not only can we be primary movers in social change, so that the loving kindness and justice of God can prevail in our broken society, but we need to learn to live, love and act in such a way as to make our communities real and whole. Just as no one is excluded from the offer of life in Christ, so no one should be excluded from our church families, from the communities we build together. Whether that means you change physical elements of church life, open up to the possibility of people around you being depressed (there will be some depressed people that you know, whether you are aware of their depression or not) or you consider what an inclusive, enabled community that features people from all the parts of God’s glorious creation might actually look like, this is something that we need to get stuck in to, in this place, in this time.

Let me not be known as Haydon the wheelchair singing guy (please, not that). Let me be known as Haydon, the son of God who abounds in loving kindness and partners with God in bringing about His kingdom. Let us be remembered in history as the generation marked out by our abandoned love for Christ and all of His beloved sons and daughters, including those who our society and, God forbid, our Church, currently disables.

Read the original post here: http://www.threadsuk.com/i-am-not/

Categories
Disability

Please stop Pretending I’m Not Human

 Please Stop Pretending I’m Not Human

“Good morning sir. May the Lord God grant you the healing that you need. Amen”
I had an interaction this morning, of which this was the sum total. As I was pushing along towards Abington Street in Northampton, a man walked towards me, said those words, hit me on the shoulder and carried on walking. He did not look back. I know. I checked.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me in my life (I figure I must need an awful lot of healing, but then don’t we all), but today, in the light of a lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years, the camel’s back has been broken by the straw. And so, unusually for me, I’m posting a blog on Facebook, to make a plea:
Please, stop pretending I’m not human.
There, I said it. I have Cerebral Palsy, it is a neurological condition, through which I have decreased mobility, increased spasticity (I have a great deal of spasticity, I’m sure you’ll all agree) and use a manual wheelchair to get around. As any of you who know my story will be aware, I am, in fact, very fortunate to have the level of ability, lifestyle, prospects, loving friends and family and everything else that I do have. I could easily, very easily indeed, be dead by now.
So what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that, in spite of the fact that the government and welfare system are pressing in on disabled people to a greater extent than ever in recent times, this isn’t the problem. It also turns out that, in spite of the fact that it is still demonstrably harder for disabled people to get jobs, build relationships and find, be accepted in to and maintain and develop community than it is for virtually any people group in our society, this isn’t really the problem either. It also turns out that, in spite of this being the easy answer to any question or desire to apportion blame, God isn’t the problem either and, wonder of great wonders, neither am I.
No, in actual fact, to my increasing disappointment, it turns out that Christians are the problem.
Now, I am a Christian. I should be, I’m training to be a minister (I know, ridiculous, let’s talk about that another time shall we). I also, those evangelicals amongst you will surely be pleased to know, believe that God is living, present, active, intimately interested, in love and involved in the lives of His people, and that He is engaged in the healing, reconciliation and redemption of the world, and the people, He made for Himself, as He delights in us, so that we might delight in Him. God heals. Now, today. I’m living proof of it. I know many of you are too.
But I’ve reached a point where I’m not sure I can put up with the dehumanising theology that many of us have foisted upon us by weak, possibly even false teaching. We all have a need. That need is Jesus. No less, but no more either. Jesus, I believe, fulfills every need that any of us has, or will ever have. More than that, He is who we were made for. We don’t really have any other purpose other than to love Him, accept love from Him, love ourselves and love others. Nowhere, not anywhere, in all of Scripture, the experience of humanity, or just common sense, does it say, anywhere, that we will not have troubles in this life. In fact, when the Spirit is sent to be our friend, guide and counselor at Pentecost, isn’t it actually because we WILL have problems in this life, whether they be being persecuted, sickness, relational difficulties, or even just living in a Conservative-led country. I’ve been thinking, and saying for quite a while now, that actually, it is a misunderstanding of God and His purposes for us as people, to think that difficulty shouldn’t be part of our daily life. It should. It’s crucial. It leads me to lean on Jesus in humility. It causes me to realise I can’t do life on my own, and even if I could give it a go for a while, I don’t want to, because it’s a pointless waste of energy and time. The healing that I need, I am more and more convinced, is a healing of the heart, of my mind, of my perspective. I long to have a right sense of my own identity and importance, and to respect and honour God, as I seek to respect and honour others.
So, yes, I do need healing. As someone said to me recently, Jesus willingly allowed himself to be demeaned, slandered, hurt, criticised, insulted, even killed and, even as He (humanly)must have been frustrated and crushed in His disappointment, prayed “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” The gentlemen with whom I had my brief encounter has no idea what he has done or continues to do to me. He probably thinks he’s doing a good thing, following a teaching, being obedient to God. He has no idea of the hurt and distress, questioning, and anger his actions caused me. I too, have no idea what led him to say what he said. I do know that, whether he meant for my physical body to be healed or not (I strongly suspect he did, but want to give him the benefit of any doubt) there’s much in me that would benefit from being different or changed: character, temperament, behaviour, language, sense of humour (!) and so on. I need to be humble and keep coming back to God with those things and parts of my life.
At the same time, I need you, friends, brothers and sisters, to help me out. We’re all people. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and as I said above, I personally believe we all have a need. We all have the same need, whether our bodies are good, bad or indifferent. It remains the same whether you are a PhD toting MENSA member, or whatever the opposite of that is. It remains the same whether you have a Masters (or even an MTh!!!) in Theology, or the extent of your theological education and knowledge is thinking “this life is a bit crap, there must be more than this.” Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing with your life, we’re called to life, to love, to hope, and to freedom, because of the God-man Jesus Christ. We need to come to him and ask, and receive, the life that he offers to us, afresh everyday. I honestly, truly believe, and not just because of pigheadedness or unwillingness to change, that to limit the view we have of what God wants to do with us to some kind of higher state of humanity where all the guys end up like George Clooney in his mid ER period, and all the ladies can strut their stuff like Angelina Jolie, but that in both cases we’re also much more pious and Biblically literate, is just hogwash. But so many of our Churches look like they are aiming for this. Why is that?
Jesus, when he was resurrected, was recognisable by his wounds. They weren’t shameful, they were signs of victory, of a war won once and for all. I’m proud of my weaknesses, the physical ones, and the ones you can’t see. I rejoice in them, because they show me that I am real, I am alive, that I have experienced life, the way God intends me to experience it, warts and all.
So yes, I do need healing. So do you. But I don’t need healing in the way you think I do. Nor do you, my friend, necessarily need healing in the obvious ways that I can see. We need to relate to ourselves, to God, to one another, and come in humility to the grateful place of receiving whatever God has for us because, and I am certain of this, it’ll be much better than any plan I can come up with for how I’m going to make my life better.
Please stop pretending I’m not human. To be human is an enormous, wonderful privilege and blessing, as well as a responsibility. It is to identify with God. God loved humans so much, He became one and came and lived among us, just so we could have a common experience and share in the wonder of it together. The fact that I am alive and breathing today is fantastic in itself. Jesus breathed in the same way that you and I do. He struggled in the same way that you and I do. He felt pain, loss, joy, elation, sorrow, excitement, the whole nine yards. He was also probably quite short, and not much to look at (check the gospels) and virtually everyone he ever spoke to misunderstood what he was doing, what he was about, and what the outcome of it all would be. He could have done anything he wanted to, but he loved humans so much, he let them make mistake after mistake after mistake in how they dealt with him, just so that they, and we, might have our own opportunity to see him as he really is, and respond to him. I don’t need to walk to be human. You don’t need to be a brainbox, or musical, or have people validate you by buying your CD, your book or anything else. We could all do with understanding the stupendous blessing and opportunity we have and pray that the whole world, not just those that look “broken” or “sick” might be healed, so that we can all enjoy it together.
Even as I finish this, I’m a bit nervous to post it. Some of you are Christians. A lot of you aren’t, and may think this is all a bit silly, or ill-advised, or downright dangerous. I’m also a bit nervous because my theology isn’t all neat and smooth-edged. I’m probably not exegeting correctly in parts. My hermeneutics are very suspicious, and I’m being entirely postmodern in a) thinking that anyone should give a monkeys (I nearly wrote something else there) about this, or b) that my opinion matters. But even so, this is honestly how I feel today, and I’m fed up of feeling like this.
As I’ve been writing and thinking about this, I’ve been really struck by a song from the new album from The Ember Days, Face in the Dark. The chorus says,
You healed the lepers when they called your name
You healed the broken
Will you heal me?
Now, Janell and Jason are acquaintances of mine. Their band is awesome, and I have a pretty good idea about the circumstances which led to this song, which give a huge amount of added poignancy to these words, which would otherwise seem pretty simple. Later, Janell sings
Take what’s broken
Heal the pain
Take my heart
Have your way
What’s broken in me? Is it my lack of ability to walk? I don’t think so (you might have guessed that by now).
So let’s do a deal ok? Next time you walk past me in the street, if you feel led to pray for me to be healed, think again. If you still feel the need to pray for me to be healed, be ready for me to do the same to you, and be aware that I’m asking for a lot more than just to be able to walk when I pray for my own healing, and for yours. New life, transformation of character, personality, behaviour, situation. Let’s go for that instead shall we. I think God’s a lot more bothered about that. He’s already raised the dead, so re-instating my dead brain cells probably isn’t that big a deal anyway. What He really wants is for both you and I to understand more of who he is, who we are, and the wonder of what life together, and with him looks like. You can’t do that while you’re walking away from me in the opposite direction.
Walking’s for losers anyway.