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.

Disability Parents and the Church: Pentecost

pentecost1In the last season of Doctor Who, it was revealed that the TARDIS, which translates all known languages, both human and alien, couldn’t handle British Sign Language. And although I understand there were production issues to consider, and while it was great to see a deaf actor playing a major role, the Doctor’s inability to sign still bugged me. It felt like a failure of imagination, almost an ‘othering’ of BSL, especially as it was previous revealed that the Doctor speaks both baby and horse. It’s like we’ve limited what language is and can be, and that’s a very real issue when it comes to Pentecost Sunday.

Today we celebrate the moment that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, and in a moment that undercuts toxic disunity and ancient curses, the assembled pilgrims suddenly start hearing the disciples speaking a hundred different languages, barriers being broken down as the church is born.

“Hear.” That’s the magic word isn’t it? Because it makes some assumptions – sorry Dr. Luke – that we might not make today. There are other languages, other forms of communication that we need to consider.

My eldest son is profoundly deaf; his first language is British Sign Language (BSL). At the moment, the house is covered in flashcards to help him learn to read English, but effectively his communication is entirely visual.

And this should be a lesson to me personally, because when I preach, it’s entirely verbal. And part of that is not always having access to a Powerpoint screen, but I’m kidding myself if I don’t think that has the potential to be exclusionary.

(I live in Derby, which has the second largest deaf population in the UK. However, statistically speaking, only 1-2% of that population will be Christian, with much of that being put down to this issue of communication and language. There’s an assumption that sign language simply substitutes hand signs for English words, but that ignores the fact that the grammar is completely different, BSL has regional dialects, and there are lower literacy levels among the deaf community because of the way in which language is taught in schools. There’s a Pentecost issue here – how much preaching and teaching material is available in sign language? Is it exclusionary that ‘worship’ has been so conflated with ‘music’?

Alongside this, both of my sons are on the autism spectrum, and that’s a whole other set of communication issues. Again, it’s not always a spoken thing. My youngest son finds it difficult to process language – he gets the input, but his brain doesn’t always process that input in a way that gives it meaning, and so that affects how we need to speak to him. There’s also the use of visual timetables, which often help kids with autism to orientate themselves in time and space. Maybe our orders of service need to be translated into pictures so that those who need this sort of communication can get a grasp on our services. That’s certainly an experiment I need to carry out next time I’m worship leading.

(There’s someone out there, right now, reading this and thinking of churchsplaining* things to me: “That prevents spontaneity! You’re putting restrictions on the rest of us for a minority! What if the Spirit moves? Do you want to quash the Holy Spirit?!” To which I say: No. Don’t be ridiculous. But a) if our services are inclusive by design, people will be better equipped to handle the unexpected when it happens, b) the Spirit doesn’t just speak English and sing, so have a wider consideration of how He may be communicating with people other than yourself, and c) stop making excuses for having a limiting view of worship, the church and the Holy Spirit in the first place.)

(Once we were on a church weekend away and our eldest son – deaf and autistic, remember – came out of the children’s activities and made a beeline for the guest speaker, who had spent two days talking about the Holy Spirit. Eldest walked straight past his mum and I and stands there in front of the speaker before we knew what was happening, and the poor bloke doesn’t know what to do, and I have no idea what was going through Eldest’s mind, and none of this is really anyone’s fault, but what if that was the Spirit at work and none of us knew how to respond? Or what if the Spirit was making a point? That was five years ago and I still have no answers, but it still feels significant somehow.)

There are other non-verbal forms of communication that our churches might need to consider – braille, Makaton, lip reading – and that’s before we consider the difficulty some autistic people have with the literal interpretation of language – imagine what it’s like trying to interpret the central metaphor of eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus when you struggle with metaphorical language. Maybe we need to develop a literal liturgy.

But in a way, this is all logistics. The first thing that needs to be considered is the theology of all this. Pentecost is the reversal of the Tower of Babel story, with the Holy Spirit overriding an ancient curse and bringing together people from many different backgrounds in order to birth the church. In this context, language is both a symbolic and a practical necessity. The church has always been good at sending people out to translate Bibles and to preach the Word in different languages, but there’s an opportunity here that we’re overlooking, one that’s not only on our doorstep, but in our families and our workplaces and even in our pews already. And overlooking it we are – it’s interesting that people accused the apostles of having had too much wine that first Pentecost, because often when you take to people about stuff like this, they look at you as though you’re drunk.

So, if there’s an opportunity here, are we going to take it? Are we going to prioritise it in our mission statements, our budgets, our worship gatherings, our hearts? Are we going to let the Holy Spirit to reverse this particular Babel?

Are our churches going to be different?

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*’Mansplaining‘ is an internet-coined word describing how a man will sometime condescendingly explain to a woman how she’s wrong about an issue she has personal experience of. I’m a bad person, because I couldn’t resist coining an ecclesiastical equivalent. I appreciate that, as an non-disabled white guy, I’m probably doing a bit of churchsplaining here myself.

 

Disability Parents and the Church: Gifts

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“Calling” isn’t something I’m good at; I turn 40 in November and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I work on the assumption that I’m called to preach, but that just raises other questions about how that gets worked out over the months and years to come. And, as autism parents, my wife and I have to help our kids navigate those same questions.

Here’s the thing: we’re all made in the image of God. And so, wherever possible, our children deserve the dignity of being able to figure out their place in the world and in the church. And that means focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t do.

That’s important, because churches and other institutions can often focus on the ‘duty’ of dealing with disability rather than embracing the gifts and talents and insights of disabled people as part of the wider Body of Christ; there’s a danger of seeing projects, not people.

Okay. So. My eldest loves tidying up after services (Ironically, he also hates tidying his bedroom. Either that or he’s trying to catch me in his Lego death trap, but I digress.). He likes putting away mics and chairs and Bibles. He also likes doing the collection. And it’s possible to look at that and say ‘aww’, but behind all that is a gift of service.

Now some of that is rooted in him wanting to organise his environment, and he can get stressed out when something is ‘wrong’, but he’s the thing – he’s autistic, it’s part of who he is, his gifts and calling and everything else are tied up with that. We’re not able to separate it, nor should we try. And one day, fairly soon, he’s not going to be a little boy we ‘aww’ at, he’s going to be an ten-foot man who needs to be respected and honoured as someone who has gifts to offer the church, even if he can’t articulate and ‘spiritualise’ that without our help.

(That’s really just a case of catching up with where God is already.)

The same process is true for my youngest, who loves art (but melts down if his art project goes wrong) and who loves reading. And those are gifts that need maturing and developing, because God can use them to build up the church; God sees beyond the meltdowns.

There are other gifts the church needs to think about nurturing (and I’m talking to church leaders here – this is a pastoral thing and shouldn’t just be the concern of disability parents). I’ve met people who seem to have an innate ability to engage with disabled children. I’ve met people who make sure Santa is up to date with BSL every Christmas (because of course Santa and his helpers should know sign language).

Heck, if your church has a few autistic kids in it, maybe one of the elders needs to be speaking nicely to the adults who like making train sets. Autism parents know what I mean!

Think outside of the box; there are gifts and talents and interests that aren’t listed in the Bible but which God can use. One of the Holy Spirit’s roles is to build up the church through the gifts he gives; that includes gifts of (and for) disabled people. And those gifts may not always look the way we’d expect, but they’re there, and the church is impoverished without them. And we discover the existence of these gifts by having genuine, caring relationships with people; we discover these gifts by talking to them.

Let’s look for the gifts the Spirit has given us. That may be where we start to see an exciting – and inclusive – future for our congregations.

Autism Parents and the Church: Exile

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There are times when raising children with disabilities is like walking through a wilderness, like an exile from the communities around us, to use a biblical image.

That’s not because of the children themselves, nor is it the disability. Don’t get me wrong – things get tiring and frustrating and nerve-shredding – but it is what it is, and acceptance is the first step you have to make in getting your family through this. No, the Wilderness is something else.

The Wilderness is all those people who think you’re exaggerating your experiences, or even that your child’s difficulties are all in your head.

The Wilderness is filling in brutal government forms that ask you to justify every scrap of support you get while writing down, in black and white, every single negative aspect of your child’s life, balanced by none of the positives, the successes, the joys.

The Wilderness is reading of the desert experiences of people with disabilities who lost their support and saw no other option than to take their own lives.

The Wilderness is when people think you must not be praying hard enough for your kid to be healed.

I’m a step-dad, and coming into this late, these things have shocked me. I was naive enough to believe that support was there for those with disabilities, that people were treated with, if not respect, then with a sort of well-meaning bumbling empathy, the sort of clumsy sympathy I’ve found myself doing over the years.  I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a darker side to all this: when you’re stuck in the Wilderness, there aren’t that many people who’ll help you find your way out. Sadly the church isn’t always great at this either; some of you reading this feel like exiles from your local congregations, through no fault of your own, through no fault of your kids.

I’ve written about this a lot over the last couple of months, and I’m probably sounding repeating now. I think all these pessimistic posts, and the more positive ones sitting there in my notebook, are a way of dealing with the experience of exile.

See, there are different responses to being stuck in the Wilderness. Wandering around lost is one, and an understandable one. But it’s not sustainable; sooner or later you’re going to starve. So maybe the first thing you do is buddy up with others stuck in that same Wilderness to see if you can find a way out together.

Or you can figure you’re going to be there for a while, so you start to adapt to the terrain; the image of The Autistic Gardener team making a weird oasis in a desert wasteland is stuck in my head; creating something new is sometimes the only way to survive.

(One of the first things we learn about God is that he’s a creator.)

Or, by ingenuity and good navigation skills and sheer bloody mindedness, you figure out how to escape the Wilderness, how to find your way back to civilisation and convince those you find there to provide signs and fences and provisions and shelter to prevent others from getting lost in the desert in future.

But here’s the thing – whatever path you end up on, God’s always been in the Wilderness, wandering with his people. He may light the way out in a pillar of fire, or he may just pitch his tent next to us – either works. But he’ll be there. That’s one of the things that need to be accepted, even though it’s damn hard at times.

Still, the church isn’t just a monolithic organisation, nor is it just a bunch of local congregations singing and holding coffee mornings. It’s the Body of Christ and we’re all part of that Body – whether we’re disabled, whether we’re feeling lost, we are the church through our relationship with Christ.

And so I have to believe there’s a way out. Because we’re part of the Body not brcause someone gives us a membership ticket but because Jesus says we are. Because while I’ve had many doubts in my life, and been eaten up by resentment, I’m sure that God loves my kids, and I have to trust he loves me too. And while his church may sometimes, either by mistake or through willful ignorance, be silent, the God who camps in the desert won’t be.