Not a Problem: A post for Autism Awareness Week

My kids are not problems.

They both fall on the autistic spectrum, they both have their own difficulties. Life isn’t always easy for them, but they are not problems.

I think it’s important to keep stating this, because sometimes it feels like autism is seen as a threat to the status quo, that someone on the spectrum is going to cause disruption somehow. And when those attitudes prevail, you can see the portcullis fall; people rush to protect the “norm”, and that’s when the exclusion kicks in.

I mean, often everything’s okay until adjustments need to be made. But suggest that things might need to be done differently, that a different level of support might be needed to help people participate on an equal footing… That’s when truths are sometimes revealed. That’s when a call for equality and inclusion are portrayed as being unfair to everyone else. That’s when we find out just how welcome our kids are. That’s when we find out the on-the-ground truth behind claims towards inclusively.

And when this is true of the Church, well… I’d be willing to bet that many people with disabilities and their families have some horror stories. And sometimes, heartbreakingly, it feels that autistic kids are made to feel more welcome by Big Bird and the Cookie Monster than by God’s people on Earth.

And still my children are not problems.

My children are made in the Image of God, they are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are loved by their Creator and they are welcomed by their Saviour and the Holy Spirit dances through their lives. This I believe, even when institutions try to shackle them and dismiss them, even when we’re trying to extinguish flaming arrows while pulling knives from our backs. Faith under these circumstances requires an element of badassery.

My 12 year old loves going to church. He keeps asking to go. And that’s fantastic and I hope it’s an indication that God is whispering to him, meeting him where he is because that’s what God does. But it means we have to protect him from our cynicism, our history, our experience; he’s unaware of the stories that weave around his joy at being able to put chairs away. I kinda hope it stays that way. He doesn’t need to bear our scars.

Because he isn’t a problem.

There are families out there who are nursing wounds, and sadly those are often inflicted by friendly fire, eccesiastical collateral damage. And that can’t help but affect how we feel towards God, and so we have to hold on to the One who welcomed the weak and the humble, who stood alongside them, who blessed children when his disciples wanted to send them away.

And the Church needs to pray for healing, not for disabilities but for the way in which we’ve pushed people away, for the gossip and the ableism and the looks. We need to repent in the most literal sense – we need to change our minds and live differently. Because that’s what God call us to do.

And my children are not problems.

(There are a lot more posts on this subject here.)

Stations: Dismas

dismas-crossBut while Jesus sets out towards Calvary’s hill, another man is beginning a similar journey. We remember this man as a thief, a bandit, but it’s possible that’s a quirk of translation and that he was just as much a political prisoner as Jesus himself. What you call this man depends on how you view his cause: if you think the Jews had a point and were right to violently rebel against Rome, then he’s a freedom fighter; if you think, say, stabbing tax collectors and collaborators to death in a dark alley somewhere is indefensible then maybe he’s a terrorist.

Either way, he’s facing death, heading towards a cross and nails just like Jesus. We don’t really know his name, although tradition knows him as Dismas; we don’t know what brought him to this point, what got him into criminality, how he got radicalised. His life, like thousands of others, was lived in parallel with those who’d go on to become more famous, never intersecting ’til the last possible moment.

His anonymity is the power of his story. Two thieves hang either side of Jesus, one spitting curses, the other seeking mercy, two responses to Jesus in the face of infinity. Dismas, either through second-hand knowledge or the insight of a dying man, recognises the King beside him. Maybe, for a criminal fighting for every gasp of breath, the Crown of Thorns was a prophecy.

“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus, lungs screaming, turns to Dismas and promises that they’ll walk side by side into a different world, whispering hope through the pain.

Dismas is immortalised in that moment of grace, his image part of so many Easter scenes, his name even running through cult films. His hanging body comes to be an embodiment of mercy, forgiveness overriding everything so that while we don’t know the nature of his crimes, we do know where he found himself after taking that final walk.

And as we watch, grace threads its way around the nails and the wounds and the grain of the wood as Jesus looks at the man next to him and remembers.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Mothering Sunday

It’s Mothers Day and the kids have sorted out breakfast in bed. They’ve given their mom their presents and she’s had her choice of DVD so we’re sat here watching Frozen (the story of which I blame completely on bad parenting).

But Mother’s Day isn’t always straight-forward. Many people struggle with their relationship with their mother, others never had that relationship in the first place. Others were abandoned, others were abused. Some women were never able to have children, others know the pain of losing a son or daughter. This isn’t the easiest of days for many.

But there’s a phrase ‘Mother Church’. It’s a bit of archaic term, we don’t hear it much nowadays, but maybe there can be truth in it. We talk about good game about how church is a family, a community, and that’s a reality we need to embrace, especially on days like this.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how her church, which had initially been made up of younger, ‘alternative’ people, suddenly started being attended by middle-class baby boomers. This sparked a bit of an identity crisis until one girl stood up and hit the nail on the head: “I’m glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad,” she said, “Because they love me and my own parents can’t.”

There’s a word there about God’s heart for each one of us, a heart that the Bible describes in terms of motherhood, and the Church should be a reflection of that. Often it fails – I’ve written here about the way in which families with disabilities are often pushed to the ecclesiastical margins, and we can all think of other examples of how religious communities can shun, condemn and ostracised. All that does is push people away from God, but when Church gets it right, it shows the heart of Christ to the world.

So that’s why intergenerational church communities are so important, that’s why taking an interest in the lives of those sitting next to us in the pews is a ministry in itself. That’s why Sunday Schools can be a lifeline, that’s why Saying Goodbye services can mean so much to so many.

It’s Mothering Sunday, to use the old fashioned name. While that’s a day to honour and remember and treat our moms, maybe it’s also a day to commit ourselves to being a Mothering Church as well.

Stations: Terror

It may be a plane crashing into a tower block or a car driving through pedestrians. It may be a fanatic with a gun or a suicide vest, it may be waterboarding in a rendition centre, it may be a burning cross erected on someone’s lawn. Whatever form it takes, we’re never free of violence in the name of politics and religion and ideology.

Jesus is in the hands of the authorities, and he needs to be shown his place – or rather, everyone else needs to be shown their place. That’s what this is all about – crucifixion is the Empire’s ultimate deterrant, a public spectacle to quash rebellion. The vicious, inhumane torture received by Jesus was all part of the branding, all part of the theatre. This is tantamount to a lynching, a state-sanctioned act of terror.

There’s an issue of identity here. The violence is to demonstrate Jesus’s weakness, his impotence in the face of power. It’s intended to subvert the values of the people watching, to take control of the narrative. Jesus isn’t tortured to get a confession or to extract information, he’s tortured to stop his ideas taking hold and to demonstrate the superiority of one worldview over another.

The violence isn’t just physical – Jesus is mocked mercilessly, in an attempt to break him before death. That’s why he’s given a purple robe, a symbol of royalty. That’s why a crown of thorns is forced onto his brow, piercing in both pain and mockery. They think they’re undermining his whole message.

And yet that message endures, because the mockery points to the truth, and in doing so reveals a king who stands alongside the abused, the broken, the wounded and the terrorised. He stands not with the executioners but with the crucified, and through the mystery of the Trinity, God lies beaten, mocked, bruised and scarred and yet not beaten, healing in the heart of the agony.

As I write this, a terrorist attack has taken place in London and people have died. And there’ll be many voices shouting how to respond and about how to exercise power. And while these questions need to be asked, pause a moment: pause and remember those killed, and in the midst of those thoughts and those prayers, see Jesus alongside the bleeding, the wounded and the dying. See him there and remember how the Kingdom is shaped by its wounded King, our God-with-Scars, not by terror, not by fear, not by hatred, not by rage.

And now Jesus picks up his cross and in agony sets out upon his final walk.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.