Advent Everyday

isla_fullxfull.24180799_5gexn24lI wrote a little about Advent a couple of days ago, through the lens of the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic song that’s touched a nerve in troubled times. It’s easy to see why; it’s a promise of a better world, a world of justice and peace and equality, concepts that feel particularly under threat at the moment.

But at the same time, Mary’s vision feels like big picture stuff, an advent protest song that looks forward into the future, into a redeemed world still to come. Yes, the baby in the manger was and is and will be the instigator of that world, but we’re not living there yet. Nine months after Mary sang her song of praise, she was giving birth in a stable while death squads stalked the land for her son. How did she cling on to her hope and vision as she and Joseph tried to sneak a newborn over the border and away from infanticide and a psychotic king?

It’s a reminder that, at advent, we have to zoom in, to view the coming of the Kingdom though the echoes and reflections and previews that are breaking through, daisies emerging through cracks in the pavement. It’s too easy to lose hope while waiting for the world to change; we have to focus on the things that birth optimism and, conversely, that which makes us angry enough to insist that things must change.

Mary sang a song of hope and prophecy that we still treasure today. But she still saw her husband die and her son crucified. Hope is messy.

That’s why we need to focus on people; people who are scared, people who are oppressed, people who are seeing vast movements of politics and economics and are feeling crushed between their gears, people who are dehumanised, people who are rejected and marginalised, the Othered and the despised and the scapegoated. That’s where we start.

And advent can break through into the most unexpected places, if we push it, if we open the doors. There’s a hashtag doing the rounds of Twitter, #LooAdvent, started by @SazBrisdion to raise awareness of the lack of appropriate public toilet facilities for people with disabilities (something we’ve talked about here before). Meanwhile, @Elf_On_Wheels is doing a Christmas tour of the UK to highlight the lack of wheelchair and other disabled access throughout the country.

Both of these campaigns are using the trappings of Christmas to draw attention to matters of justice and compassion, and they aim to enact change for people who are often pushed to the margins. And neither Twitter account aims to topple the government or send ideologies crashing to the floor, but they want to see justice and fairness break through into the world. There’s something advent-y about that. Something Christmassy.

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We Need To Talk About Toilets

I’ve said this before, but we need to talk about toilets.

For most of us, the humble toilet is something that’s taken for granted. It’s just there, certainly not something to worry about. Okay, maybe toilets are a tad embarrassing, not something to talk about in polite conversation, but they’re there when we need them, right?

Sadly, for a lot of people that’s not the case. And that’s why we need to talk about toilets, because among other things (sanitation, safety, education) they’re a matter of human dignity.

For a start, there aren’t enough decent public toilets out there for people with disabilities. That presents a stark choice – either struggle with inadequate facilities or just stay in the house all the time. Neither of these choices are fair, neither allow people their intrinsic worth and dignity, but this is the reality for too many. There are children with disabilities who have to be changed on a filthy, inadequate toilet floor just because of the lack of equipment like hoists and adjustable changing benches. This should not be the case.

This is why toilets are a theological issue, and why our churches have to give them more thought. For a start, are our disabled toilets as good as they could be? Do they need more investment? Look, I know funds are tight, but when people are marginalised from the wider community, that could be a clue as to where our churches’ spending priorities should be.

Then there’s accessibility. If local councils and town planners aren’t stepping up to the plate, maybe our churches should make our toilets more accessible to the public. And I don’t know how they might work, but that doesn’t matter because these are conversations that need to be held on a local level in response to local needs.

I know this might all seem a bit prosaic, but toilets are a theological issue. They’re about compassion and justice, they’re about loving our neighbour and the Image of God.

And that’s why we need to talk about toilets.

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.)