As I have been reflecting on recent weeks, and the discussions around embracing diversity, I keep coming back to the idea of unity. How can we ever find unity if we invite so many voices to the table? I can almost begin to understand the gatekeepers who want to only make decisions with those who agree before the discussion even starts.
But how can we ever learn from eachother in those circumstances? How can we ever hear fresh perspectives, find new ideas or make effective change?
There is a tendancy for the majority to stand together and the minority to be apart. The majority then make the decisions, have the loudest voice, hold all the power. If this inherent power dynamic is denied, that is a huge problem. And it so often is.
In the topsy-turvy kin-dom of Jesus, the unity would be WITH the minority. The majority would stand WITH the minority, as one. They would raise their voices as loud as possible in SUPPORT of the minority. They would be doing whatever they could do REDUCE the power dynamic.
Yet so often we just want to cling on to where we are, what we have, the status quo. There is a fear, and a sense of threat, that comes with relinquishing it. Those who are demanding change must be unreasonable to expect such a sacrifice of us.
Yet the cost of not moving towards the minority in unity, is that the minority continues to be marginalised while the majority carries on regardless …
Yes, we have awareness weeks, inclusion initiatives and legislative developments. But until hearts change and everything is infused with true intent, it will all be lip service and performative actions.
Instead of prayers today, I thought I would share with you the text of the sermon I gave as part of The Ordinary Office Sunday service this week. I wish I could say the exclusion and abuse of disabled people within churches was a thing of the past, but sadly these issues are still commonplace across western society today. While awareness of physical and safeguarding issues grows, mental and spiritual abuse, neglect of needs and misunderstandings abound while attitudes are rarely challenged; when they are, those doing the challenging are often tone policed, patronised or ostracised. We don’t want to upset, offend or be divisive. We just want parity, reasonable treatment and fair access, as equal children of God. I invite you to read on.
I wonder at our Bible reading today (Acts 3:1-10), at the people who took the man to the outskirts of the temple gate in Jerusalem called the Beautiful Gate every day, but never within. The people who left him there begging because that was the only way a man who couldn’t walk could get money. The people who didn’t take him to a local workshop to whittle spindles with his perfectly good hands, because his legs had a weakness so that rendered the whole of him useless. The people who placed him outside of the temple but not in it so he could hear the teachings of the Rabbis, because his legs couldn’t hold his strength so his brain mustn’t be able to hold the words. I’d like to say that in 2000 years attitudes have changed. I’d like to say that.
What is it about disability that we find so threatening as a society? Is it that seeing disability in another brings us face to face with our own vulnerability? That to accept disability and embrace it would be accepting and embracing our own fragility? That we are only as strong as our weakest element? That the topsy turvy kin-dom of heaven Jesus preached to us in the Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to our very personhood?
I look around our community, at what some of us have to live with every day, at the experiences and the prejudices and the refusal to give up that our lives are testimony to, and I challenge the view that disability equals weakness. When a daily existence involves enough pills to make a person rattle, enough physical, mental or emotional pain to make it a challenge to get out of bed, and the guarantee of misunderstandings, discrimination and institutional ableism that is nowhere near as close to being recognised as its sister ‘isms’ are; when that is what life involves before a person even starts to meet the day where a person living without disabilities does, how dare anyone dub us weak…
And the emphasis on healing. We must change to be accepted. This man could access the Beautiful Gate once he could walk, of course he could! Peter and John even decided for him that would be a greater gift than money – at least in the parallel story of Jesus healing a physically disabled man in John’s Gospel, Jesus asked him first. As an aside folks, always, always, get consent from a person before you minister to them in any way, praying for healing however well intentioned if it is not consensual or fully wanted is spiritually abusive.
The Bible tells us this particular man was joyful to be healed, and walking, and entering the Beautiful Gate. Praise the Lord. But we must be careful of applying the story of one man in one scenario to all disabled people across all time and space. Would I want to be healed of my neurodiversity, of the way my brain is wired which makes me uniquely who I am? Absolutely not. Do I ever want anyone to pray for me to be healed of this? That would be grossly offensive. Another individual would feel different about their own individual circumstances. So we must always ask.
Had this man ever considered healing before? What lies after healing? So many of us find our identities and our disabilities inextricably linked, in our own eyes or the eyes of others. What happened to this man a week after his healing, when he could no longer beg but had no trade? Did society embrace him as a miracle and therefore support him? The records we have of the early church would indicate they did exactly that. But what does this story say about the community judgement of this man’s worth before God had transformed the strength in his ankles, and then after, when we know God was sat there outside the Beautiful Gate with him all along? God’s presence with him hadn’t changed, God’s value of his life hadn’t changed, so why had societies?
We here at The Ordinary Office, for many different reasons, sit outside of the Beautiful Gate. But we’re not begging for coins, and we aren’t here waiting to be healed. We may have people who have placed us here, but we’ve made something more. Because we believe in better than what society believes in for us. We believe that God is out here with us, not just in there waiting for us when we are ready, conforming, healed. We believe that we can make things with our hands even if our legs can’t carry us, we can use our brains even if our ankles are weak. We believe in celebrating what we can do, rather than what we can’t. If we heal, we heal in our own way, at our own pace and with consent, because it is what we want, not because someone comes along and decides it for us. Peter and John were led by the Spirit to enable a miracle of God for one man. Let us be led by the Spirit to enable a miracle of God for the Church. A miracle in the way Disability is viewed. A miracle where we are not left outside of the Beautiful Gate any more, but where the boundary of the Beautiful Gate for disabled people is no more.
Some of you who follow my work may have noticed I have moved in recent months towards Disability Theology, and dare I say it, Activism. While I have never considered myself to be disabled, I regularly am disabled by numerous conditions that I live with, and have recently come to understand that while I may never receive a diagnosis, I am Autistic. The validity or not of self diagnosis in a world where medical diagnosis for grown women in a cash strapped NHS is nigh on impossible, is not something I want to get into or wish to justify. Needless to say I am more than comfortable describing myself as such given the story of my life, contextual factors and how I now understand it.
Having worked in the field of SEN Education and Therapy for 15 years, I have been steeped in various theories and discussions around Disability Theory for a long time. One of the main takeaways, and a framework I strongly champion, is the Social Model of Disability. In a nutshell, this means it is not a person and their disability that disables them, but society and the infrastructure around them. A wheelchair user is not disabled because they use a wheelchair to reach a raised platform, they are disabled because there are only stairs and not a ramp to reach it. See how that works?
The more I reflect on this, the more I want to take it one step further. What makes a person disabled? Is it because they have a set of indicators the relevant diagnostic manual allocates to a diagnosable condition which society then designates a disability? There are a lot of barriers for many people to even get to that point, does that mean they must not be disabled if they don’t? What if no diagnosis can be found, or agreed upon, or if the current DSM hasn’t yet included their particular set of indicators?
I may have a day where I have no issues at all, my neurodiversity has no impact on my life, I experience no aspect of disability. I may have a day when, because of the huge traumas I have experienced in my life and the potential for triggers I live with every day, I have to walk with a stick, I can barely leave my house and I am most certainly disabled. For others, their experience of disability may be much more clear cut. For many, it is as complex as this and even more so.
We have moved in many areas to talk about spectrums, scales and journeys. This is in recognition that we need to view human experiences in a more fluid, flexible way. I suggest we need to apply this to disability also. We need to give much more thought to what disability is, how we experience it, is it a permanent state of existence or is it a spectrum of potential states? I don’t have the answers, but I do know the conversation towards a more inclusive society, even within our own disabled society, could do with starting here. While ‘What is your disability?’ is still asked of those contributing to Disability Studies and Theology, we’re going to have issues …
I can only speak to my own experience and understanding, and it will be different to many I am sure. Am I diagnosed or ‘labelled’ as disabled, no. Am I sometimes disabled, absolutely. I’ve blogged about it before, for example here. Am I disabled enough to be a Disability Theologian or Disability Activist? For some, no. For others, my lived experience and the weight of my words are credentials enough. For those, I continue to speak.
I thank you for leaders who give their all, however much or little that may be, from whatever position that may be, to one person or many. Bless us all in our service to eachother and to you.
I thank you for communities where all are listened to, all felt heard, suggestions are welcomed and acted upon where possible. Help us to become those communities wherever we can. Bless us all in our service to eachother and to you.
I thank you for your vision of Kin-dom, where the low are raised and the weak are strong. May we be active in raising those we know of needing support, and strengthening those around us who need our additional weight behind them. Bless us all in our service to eachother and to you.
For yours is the Kin-dom, which we strive to bring here on Earth, loving God.
God of Joy, who created a world infused with Joy in nature, nurture and the name of Jesus, teach us how to rejoice in Joy today.
When it is easy, dance with us in our ecstasy. Sing with us in our gleeful expression. Celebrate with us in our appreciation and revel with us in out abundance.
When it is so, so hard, encourage us to keep looking. Draw us to your light. Call us to notice the blessings around us, and never let us forget the potential for Joy again.
May we be a people of Joy Seekers, not in wealth or aspiration, but in spirit and peace, finding our Joy in the flowers in the cracks, the birdsong on damp mornings and the candle that flickers in the dark.
God who celebrates us as we are – whole, scarred, confident, nervous, joyful, angry, and everything in between – be with us this day.
Be with the bereaved, as we are given a stark reminder this week that death comes to us all. Bless all those who mourn, from the Royal family to our closest neighbours. For all are treasured by you.
Be with the uncertain, as more restrictions lift this week and we each have our own responses to navigate. Temper our enthusiasm with wisdom, and soothe our anxiety with peace. For all are treasured by you.
Be with the vulnerable, the ones watching from their windows as they feel life returning to normal for everyone else. Reassure us, Jesus, you are walking with us at our own pace, and we are never alone. In each individual journey there is meaning and purpose. For all are treasured by you.
God who celebrates us as we are, who was resurrected to us scarred in Jesus so we could know wholeness as we are, may we learn not to stick our fingers in our own wounds today, but to have faith in your presence above all. Draw our gaze to you. In Love.
TW: There are some mild references in this blog to sexual abuse and rape which you may find disturbing. Please use your discretion in reading further. Peace be with you, and blessings should you need them.
Have you ever wondered why the Romans dressed Jesus up, only to put his clothes back on him? Seems a little strange don’t you think? Have you ever considered this means Jesus was stripped naked three times over, in public circumstances, for an intensely private man from an intensely private culture. He was beaten naked. I doubt his genitals were avoided. What would we call this, if not sexual abuse? The question posed by this book, is how far did the abuse go?
In a way, that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t say that to diminish it, I found it incredibly compelling in the potential presented (importantly, nothing claimed as fact) for Jesus as a victim of rape in the Roman praetorium, and it made sense of a lot of things for me that didn’t quite sit right before. This is shocking. I fully accept for some people it is a step too far, and that is absolutely your right to feel that way. Just, stay with me a moment though, please.
The sensitivity with which this book spoke about real survivor issues was just so touching. It radiated from every page, almost visible like the warmth from a candle. When I read about Thomas needing to touch Jesus’ hands to believe, and that being related to victims of rape having to undergo rape kits in the aftermath of their traumatic experience as part of their ‘proof’, I got that completely. When the book wondered if any reference to Jesus being a victim of rape had to be erased because that would make him less believable in our collective psyche, I got that completely too. How many women take the stand in rape cases knowing the actual person on trial for the truth is them? If they get that far …
I know there are concerns that this is a can of worms we really don’t want to open. Women I massively respect and care about have shared that view, and I want to honour that. This is a hugely sensitive subject with massively personal resonances that we must engage with carefully and prayerfully – or perhaps choose not to at all. Women’s experiences are being eroded all around us, and to bring focus on Jesus as a victim of sexual violence at a time when women are crying out to be heard on the issue may well have been a little unfortunate in the timing. That isn’t anyone’s fault, just the way it happened. My view, for what it is worth, is that if anyone of any gender expression has been subject to the power violation that underpins sexual violence, then embracing their need is a more urgent response than the political agenda of Feminism. But the latter must still be championed. Nothing is ever simple, but love is greater than struggle. I hope we can find a way to better balance the two demands.
Because for some of us, this is the most healing, the most true, the most empowering, the most engaging, the most direct and the most beautiful book that has drawn us the closest to Jesus we have been in years. And I repeat, in a way, the detail of what did or didn’t happen in that Praetorium, or how we interpret the penetration of nails into Jesus’ skin, or how we define enforced public nakedness, isn’t what matters. What matters is that we can have the conversation. What matters is that the potential for Jesus’ voice to be heard as part of the #MeToo movement is being recognised. What matters is that all of the noise in my head around my own experiences, life story and the somewhat radical theology I have developed to make sense of it all has just been reflected back to me in a book and I thank God for it.
And if you disagree, that’s ok. You are loved, and I thank God for you too.
I sat up on Easter Monday and realised I hadn’t done my blog prayers on Easter Sunday! And I smiled. For there was no guilt, no shame. I wasn’t going to beat myself up for that. Alleluia! He is risen indeed.
For what an Easter journey it has been. I have felt so disconnected. Lost. Apart from it all. I have been working very closely with an online community, The Ordinary Office (find them on twitter @Ord_Off or online at https://www.anordinaryoffice.co.uk) and have been honoured to preach for their online services, in particular on Easter Sunday. God was at the heart of it, and They delivered. But at times it all felt so abstract. Unreal.
Yet, there is nothing more real than the pattern of Easter. Of complete searing loss, devastation, emptiness. Of finding a way to live again after that was seemingly impossible. We do it all the time. After a relationship breakdown. After a redundancy. After a death. Granted, not usually literally. But once Easter had passed, and the expectations were over, the traditions were fulfilled and the routines were complete, once I had the space to look at my own life, look where death was looming and declaring victory, and pray resurrection into it, then I could see Easter for what I needed it to be.
Not an observance of a story in the Bible, the Church’s response to that, and society’s commercialisation of a springtide tradition. But my heart’s reflection on the darkness in my life and the Spirit within me’s reassurance that life would win. If I let it.
This week, I have lived like I am letting it. It has only been three days. But I am happier, my home is breezier, and my soul is lighter. Easter has never lifted me before like it has this year. Not from traditional Church, but from Online Community. Not from following rites and communion but from following where the Spirit led and engaging actively in Twitter community/the community in my street, on my doorstep. Not just from the Bible, but from scholarly books actively engaging in discourse around the Easter narratives – more on that later!
Now I am no longer tied to a Church, a tradition, a denomination, I am free to live Easter in the Wilderness and just see how God wants to speak to me, 1:1, just us. As Jesus did, as John did, as Moses did. It’s amazing. The journey to the wilderness is tough. But once you get used to it out here, it’s a fine place to be. I’m gonna stay for a little while …