Launchpad: Autism, Disability and the Church

do-not-be-afraid.jpgI have two sons with autism, and our experiences of church life have not always been straight-forward or even supportive. Inclusion for people with disabilities within the church is an issue that isn’t talked about as often as it should, and that silence leaves many families and individuals feeling like they’re on the outskirts of the faith, outsiders in the Kingdom of God. This should not be the case.

Because of this, I’ve written a number of posts on disability and the church, mainly from the perspective of a parent, and I’ve made an attempt to catalogue them all here.

Some posts outline what it’s like to go to church when your children have autism, the positives and the challenges; often, at it’s worst, it can feel like we’re in exile. That’s why it’s so important for carers to try and observe a Sabbath rest, and to try not to be afraid; that last one applies equally to the wider congregation, who need to recognise and celebrate the gifts of those with disabilities in our churches, and who need to look at ways in which we need to rediscover Pentecost when looking at inclusion. Hopefully then we can move from awareness, to acceptance, and finally through to appreciation. Always remember that the great banquet of God has wheelchair access, and that there are times when the church needs to be a prophetic voice, and that sometimes we’ve got to meet with people on the roof.

Meanwhile, other posts aimed to put things into a wider context, both positive – like this post for Ability Sunday 2016 – or in trying to raise awareness of an increased level of violence aimed at people with disabilities, as shown through the horrific events in Sagamihara, and the way in which mockery seems to be becoming more ‘acceptable’, sadly.

Other posts touch on how these sort of issues are tackled within the Bible itself: in how Jesus makes sure blind Bartimaeus is given the dignity of using his own voice, for instance, or how Jesus clearing the Temple had a direct impact on people with disabilities. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s an Old Testament law that states we should never put stumbling blocks in the way of those with disabilities; that’s a lesson our churches need to rediscover before they can truly be called inclusive. We also need to get better at looking after our church toilets.

The blog also includes a few posts on mental illness: about how Elijah finds himself in what sounds like a depressive state at the top of Mount Horeb, about how art can be healing, about how the church needs to get better at talking about mental health, and about how, sometimes, the greatest ministry we have is simply the sacred ministry of giving a damn.

Disability and the Church: Prophesy in a Dangerous Time

The United Nations has recently released a report stating that welfare reforms in the UK have led to “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. Along with the implementation of the reforms, one of the areas the report criticises is the portrayal of people with disabilities as lazy, scroungers, burdens on society. And that portrayal is the most insidious, because it allows all the other violations of rights to be rubber-stamped by those who buy into the negative depiction of, say, someone with ‘invisible’ disabilities, or who doesn’t need to use a wheelchair 24/7 (and who therefore gets criticised for walking when they can).

All of this is horrifying, and while some may quibble with the wording or the findings, research has found that attacks on disabled people are increasing, and while some of that may be down to increased reporting, it’s sobering to note that in the same period, violent crime in general has actually reduced.

All of which makes me worry about the future for my kids.

Now, I’ve posted here before about the need for the church to better engage those with disabilities. Inclusion is something that every church thinks it does well, but in reality there are a lot of things we can do better, a lot of things that need to change – buildings, yes, but also language, structures, attitudes… So many people feel exiled from the wider church community, so many people struggle to find acceptance within a congregation, so many have to fight every step of the way to be treated as an equal, for their kids to be respected like everyone else.

I’ve argued here before how the church needs to get past this, to recognise the Image of God in everyone and to make our sacred spaces more accessible and inclusive. All of this remains true.

But at the same time churches are meant to be outposts of the Kingdom of God. And they’re supposed to reflect the heart of Christ for those around them. And in a society where some of the most vulnerable are being treated terribly, where people are being scapegoated by the media and opportunistic politicians, the church has to decide whose side it’s on. In a sense it faces similar temptations to Jesus in the wilderness – keep quiet and bow the knee for earthly power, or take a stand. And that might be costly. We might offend some people who give generously when the collection plate comes round. We might have to divert some of our church budgets away from cosmetic enhancements in order to make sure we’re accessible to all. But people are becoming the victim of hate crimes, they’re being crushed in the gears of our political systems, and we can’t ignore that without fatally compromising who we’re meant to be.

The church needs to reclaim its prophetic voice. We need to speak the words of the God who has a heart for the poor and the marginalised. And some of that will mean challenging the entrenched views of some members of our congregations, and putting our own house in order first, but at the same time we need to show some leadership here. Because the world has the potential to go into some dark places here – we’re already on the way – and if we’re going to be the light of the world then we need to flick the lightswitch. Salt’s no good if it’s lost its saltiness, just something else to be walked all over.

We live in interesting times. We live in dangerous times. And those are the times at which the rubber needs to meet the road; those are the times we need to unleash the prophets and fling open the gates and declare that we’re not going to look like the world around us, instead we’re going to look, however imperfectly, like Jesus.

He’s waiting for us to join him.

Ability Sunday 2016

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It’s Ability Sunday 2016, a time to recognise gifts and abilities within our church, specifically gifts and abilities that may otherwise be ignored. It’s also a great opportunity to reconsider how we unleash those gifts into our communities.

This isn’t a post that aims to convince anyone that people with disabilities have gifts and talents that can find expression the Church – that’s a given, and if you need to be convinced, well, ask yourself why. No, this is a post that asks our churches to embrace this reality and stop leaving people on the margins. Because this happens far more than it should, and it needs to stop.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the church as a body, and just as a body is made up of many parts, a church is made up of many individuals, all of whom have their own gifts, talents and abilities. Those gifts all work together to build up the church, and with it the Kingdom of God – we call them gifts for a reason. And if people are prevented from using these gifts, if the doors are closed and the barriers are down, then the Church misses out.

The Church is, well, disabled.

This isn’t just about putting out pleas for volunteers and shrugging when no-one comes forward. This is about community – the sort of community that gets to know people as individuals, the sort of community that talks to people with disabilities, discovers their passions and ambitions and hobbies and interests and finds a way to bring these into the life of the congregation, not out of pity or the sense that we’re doing someone a favour, but because that person is a beloved child of God and our community will be enriched and empowered and strengthened as a result.

That may mean changing how things are done. It may mean that chairs need to be laid out differently, it may mean that someone needs to go on a course, it may mean that our church budgets need to be reprioritized, but those are just opportunities to embrace. And yeah, it’ll be messy, and we’ll make mistakes, but that doesn’t matter because it’s better to screw up than perpetuate a culture of exclusion.

But we need to be intentional about it. It’s no good thinking everything’s sorted because the church had a wheelchair ramp installed eight years ago, because that just means we’ll fail to see the barriers that are invisible to most of the congregation but that are painfully evident to those on the outside, the barriers that push people away from church. That’s why this is all about community – get over your fear of sign language or wheelchairs or someone not looking you in the eye, just make contact, make a connection, start a relationship. People with disabilities aren’t extensions of their families or carers; dignity and identity and self-determination are important. Relationships are important.

So on this Ability Sunday maybe it’s time to pray and think about who’s not represented in our church communities, about how we let ‘disability’ override ‘ability’ and shut people out in the process. Because everyone’s unique, everyone’s loved and everyone’s got something to offer. And when we discover that truth as a lived reality, our churches will start to be healed.

(There are more posts on this subject here.)

 

The Paralympics, Disability and the Church

The Paralympics start today!

I have two children with disabilities, becoming their dad in 2012. That was around the time of the London Olympics, with its mythic opening ceremony, and the first time I remember the Paralympics really entering the public consciousness. Or maybe it was just my perspective that had been broadened; maybe I was seeing the world with new eyes and a different perspective and a glimmer of awareness of my own privilege. A lot of that has been worked out on this blog.

Four years later and the Paralympics have come round again. There have been concerns about their viability due to poor ticket sales, and that might be telling, but ultimately the Paralympics allow us to celebrate sporting excellence, and that’s great. I hope Team GB win lots of medals, and I’ll be cheering on Team Refugees too. I’m not a sporty person – you want me to get competitive, you better break out the Trivial Pursuit – but I can appreciate the dedication and passion and determination within those who get to represent their country. And yes, people with disabilities face more challenges than most in navigating the world. Often that’s because other people are busy throwing up barriers.

See, at the same time that I’m watching the TV coverage from Rio, I want my own kids to be recognised for their gifts and their character and their potential, be that in art or design or taking things apart and putting them back together – even though they’re not Olympians. I want their struggles to be acknowledged, and I want services, be they community or statutory to treat them with dignity and compassion and as individuals. I don’t want them to be treated as icons of inspiration, I don’t want them to be infantilised all their lives, I don’t want them to be seen as a nuisance. I want them to be allowed to have a life. And I want that life to include spirituality, and so I want them to have access to churches and congregations and communities of faith.

Sometimes that’s a challenge. Sometimes that’s just not possible. Sometimes people don’t realise how difficult they make things. Sometimes people don’t care. And that discrepancy, the tension between the joy and the celebrations of Rio and the lived experience of people with disabilities within the Church can be a source of great difficulty and disappointment.

So here’s a request to pastors and elders and worship leaders and anyone else who stands at the front – please don’t use the Paralympics as a sermon illustration if your church isn’t engaging with people with disabilities on a day-to-day basis. Please don’t use the Paralympics as a sermon illustration if, when drawing attention to the ‘superhumans’ you also ignore the humanity – the dignity, the individuality, the gifts and the struggles – of those with disabilities in our churches. Because our societies have a bad habit of letting our heroes fall by the wayside, and the church is no exception to this. We can deny the fundamental Image of God in people, even when we’re being inspired by them.

Because while we’re celebrating the Games in Rio, there are people in our pews who are suffering under political austerity, who are falling into poverty, who are having their independence removed along with their cars. Some people are dying. Some people are being killed.

While we’re jumping up and down when our team wins a gold, there are people who can’t join in with our worship songs because the words are printed too small, there are people who can’t see the speaker because the only wheelchair access is stuck at the back, there are people who can’t come to church because their additional-needs children are rejected by their congregation.

Let’s celebrate our Paralympians. But let’s also welcome those with disabilities into our congregations, not as mascots, not as inspirations, but as individuals. We worship a Saviour who does that already, not just once every four years, but every second of every day. We can’t claim to be disciples if we’re not willing to do the same.

Open the Gates: How Jesus clearing the Temple speaks to how the Church should view disability (Matthew 21:12-17)

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple. It might have reached the hundreds by now, because it’s a cool, dramatic story. But there’s one element of the story I never noticed before, am almost throwaway line that nevertheless helps transform how we read the rest of the story.
It’s well known that, in the week leading up to the Crucifixion, Jesus marches into the Temple and throws around the tables of the money-changers and stampedes the cattle. So far, so familiar, but in all this chaos, something happens: “The blind and the lame came to him at the Temple.”

Why is this a big deal?

Because the blind and lame weren’t normally allowed into the Temple.

The reason is rooted in Leviticus 21:17-20 and 2 Samuel 5:8, and is interesting context for Peter’s interaction with a disabled beggar in Acts 3. But it points to something important that remains an issue for the church today.

Because the church isn’t always open to people with disabilities; the gates are shut and those with disabilities often find themselves stuck outside (again, Acts 3). And yet, pretty much the first thing that happens once Jesus causes chaos and disrupts the commerce and corruption and toxic respectability that had infected the Temple is that “the lame and the blind” come flocking in. It’s like people were just waiting for a moment like this.

I’ve blogged previously about families with disabilities at church and the hidden issues that affect their experience of Sunday mornings. TL;DR – it’s not often easy. And this isn’t about the need for ‘pity’, because that’s patronising, it’s about everyone being able to take an active role in the Family of God.

So it was interesting to see how Jesus’s radical act opened up the gates and gave more people the opportunity to encounter God. Maybe that’s a message to our churches – maybe we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would turn over some tables so that we would become a more welcoming and inclusive space.

Of course, we’ve got to actually want this, and here’s the thing – often the biggest threat to our individual congregations is comfort, and often churches don’t really want the disruption. It doesn’t fit in with the demographic or the ministry profile or whatever neatly mown lawn we consider to be our harvest field. And when that’s the case, watch out, because it wasn’t just the Temple that Jesus needed to turn upside down.

We need to be open to some disruption so that we can truly be the church. And that may mean days of noise and chaos as we find our way into what God wants from us. But one thing is clear, we can’t lock the doors. We can’t pity from a distance. Following Jesus means turning over our own tables; following Jesus means opening the gates.