Ability Sunday

Once upon a time, we looked into the sky and the depths of the stars; we saw the storm clouds and the lightning and we put our faith in seedtime and harvest. We did all these things and behind them all we felt something, someone, at work. We heard the whisper of someone speaking, someone present within us but also beyond us.

We carried this knowledge with us as wandering turned into farms turned into cities. Temples appeared in deserts and high streets, then churches and seminaries. Stories turned into texts, the texts escaped into the wild and we listened and read and responded with countless efforts to fathom the majesty and mystery of God.

All of this hides a secret: all the theology and all the sermons put together can’t fully unlock that mystery, a thousand textbooks barely a syllable. And although this quest is noble and important, if the ultimate aim is understanding then it’s nothing more than tilting at windmills.

My eldest son is autistic with associated learning difficulties. He’ll never be a theologian, he’ll never attend a Bible college. That’s not his calling, but he takes the bread and wine alongside everyone else, understanding on a gut level the love and grace of God. If there’s a priesthood of all believers then he’s a priest.

He’s a priest when he puts the chairs away. He’s a priest when he mows the church’s lawns. He’s a priest when he puts together flatpack furniture for anyone who’ll let him. He’s a priest when people witness his servant heart.

God is huge, ineffable, and all our learning is a drop in a divine ocean. But that’s its own kind of grace, because it means that God makes himself known to anyone who’ll listen. The Spirit moves where the Spirit wants, and maybe he’s particularly interested in moving towards those who, in our arrogance, are written off, undervalued, patronised, infantilised. The Spirit is there, and if we don’t recognise that, well, who’s at fault?

On this Ability Sunday, my wife signed to my son “Jesus loves you”. On this Ability Sunday, my son responded with a thumbs up. And in that thumbs up there’s a wave of understanding, there’s ability and grace.

The Spirit moves where the Spirit wants.

Never dare to be shocked at who’s listening.

An Accessible Pentecost?

(One of a three posts I’ve written to celebrate Pentecost this year – the others arePentecost – A Time for Telling Stories‘ and ‘An Environmental Pentecost‘.)

The fire fell from heaven, the wind blew through a locked room, and the Church was born in a babble of languages that sounded more like drunks singing than the preaching of saints.

I think sometimes we miss the miracle of Pentecost. We see it as a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a hugely successful evangelistic rally. And it’s both of those things, but underlying it all is a concept we often overlook: accessibility.

The pilgrim crowd heard the disciples speaking in the own languages, no matter where they came from. The Holy Spirit wasn’t picking and choosing, this was God reaching out to anyone who’d listen and dropping a pretty massive hint as to what the Church should look like.

And yet when we talk about Pentecost, our language can be limited. Does it include sign language? Makaton? Braille? The edges of our Pentecost may be telling us how far we’re really willing to go to communicate the Good News. And sometimes the languages we speak also have to factor in where we put the lectern, the colours we use in our Powerpoints, the font size in which we type our hymn sheets and the number of times we make sure the hearing aid loop is actually working.

Heck, architecture has its own language too. How easy is it to get a wheelchair into our churches?

Communication is wider than we think. Behaviour is communication – I have two sons with autism, and an awful lot of what they can’t put into words is expressed through how they act at any given moment. Meltdowns and social misunderstandings and sensory needs can be a kind of language, one that requires grace and understanding because too often out there it elicits tutting and judgement.

And so maybe this has to be part of our prayers this Pentecost: to ask the Spirit to give us a greater vision for the language we use, to ask for the gifts we need to make that vision a reality. Because the Spirit that spoke Hebrew and Latin and Greek and Aramaic two thousand years ago can use sign language and read Braille in 2019. We need to offer up our hands and hearts to receive the gift of an accessible Pentecost.

Some resources:

Heads Up: New Show on Cbeebies

pabloRepresentation is important. This is something that’s easy to forget if you’re used to seeing yourself on TV, or in books, or emblazoned across billboards, but not everyone gets to see heroes or icons who look like them. The media’s mirror doesn’t reflect everyone.

That’s why it was great to hear about a new show being produced by CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for pre-school children. Pablo is an animated series based around a five year old boy with autism whose imaginary friends come to life to help him navigate life when things get confusing. Each of his friends represents both a skill and a difficulty that Pablo has, allowing the show to portray different facets of life with autism, hopefully helping its audience at the same time.

Now, Pablo doesn’t launch until October, so it’s too early to talk about the content of the show. However, CBeebies has a good track record with inclusion (Something Special, Magic Hands, Tree Fu Tom’s roots in dyspraxia research…), a track record that’s better than its parent channels to be honest. And I’ve written before in praise of the channel, because frankly, it’s quality programming in a media environment where that’s sorely lacking. I’m also confident that Pablo will be something good, mostly because it’s going to be the first TV programme that has an all autistic main cast, a cast who are also writing the episodes.

This is huge – it would be easy for producers to go along with the stereotypes we often see in TV drama, but by being representative behind the camera as well as in front means that Pablo can present authentic experiences and feelings in an accessible way. And that’s important, because when it comes to representation, the most important thing many of us can do is just get out of the way and amplify marginalised voices. It sounds like Pablo is trying to do this.

So why post this on a faith blog?

Because a lot of churches struggle with inclusion – I’ve written about this here before, and so I won’t get into it again. But here’s a request to Sunday School teachers and pastors and youth groups and moms and tots workers and everyone else involved with family work in churches: when it comes out, give Pablo a go. Listen to the voices, encourage your kids to watch it, embrace the fact that it’s out there. Because we need to get better at welcoming and supporting children with disabilities, and this sounds like a good way to start doing that.

PS. Mr. Tumble for Prime Minister!

(More posts on disability and the Church can be found here.)

Autistic Pride Day: Yield Your Church’s Mic

My kids are both autistic. Youngest in particular struggles with confidence and self-esteem. After all, we don’t live in a world that’s overly tolerant of ‘difference’. But my kids have a right to be secure in who they are, proud of their individuality and their abilities. Their lives are about them, right?

I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately, particularly on Twitter, that points out that much of the conversation about autism privileges carers and parents more thanews those with autism themselves. I’ve written a lot here about autism and the Church but I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing. I jump in feet first and don’t often pass the mic – or the keyboard in this case. And yet as my kids get older, they’re more definite in their opinions, more clear about their individuality. We’ll always have to advocate for them, offer our support, but they need their own voices to be heard, to be proud in what they have to say, in what they have to offer.

And yet this week, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire, politicians were described as ‘austic’ as a lazy shorthand for a lack of empathy. That’s not a conducive environment to embracing neurodiversity, and it’s one that’s formed by language. And the use of language is often determined by those who have a platform.

There’s a phrase used a lot by the organisation Disability and Jesus, “nothing for us without us”. That’s why many of us need to yield the mic – advocate for autism appreciation in our churches, yes, but surrender our platforms so that things aren’t done to people or for people but with them. We throw around the phrase ‘be a voice for the voiceless’, but that assumes some people don’t have a voice – likes, dislikes, needs, desires – and that can deny someone’s personhood, their humanity.

The Church is a body, made up of many parts, and that body will benefit from embracing neurodiversity. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all picture of what that looks like, because every congregation is different and is formed by the Spirit working in and through each individual. We’re already meant to be a diverse body; sometimes the best way we support that is by shutting up, yielding the floor, passing the mic and listening.

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.)