‘Accessible Jesus: Modelling Inclusion’

One in five children and young people have an additional need or disability of some kind, and for many their additional needs or disabilities are lifelong and so continue into their adult life.  It is easy for children’s, youth and families workers, as well as church leaders, to be uncertain about how to appropriately support people with additional needs and disabilities, with it being common to see churches either totally ignoring this part of our community or overwhelming them.

In exploring this a little in this blog, and looking at how to support and encourage everyone in our community to belong and participate, it is helpful to see what Jesus modelled for us, what he did that we could follow… As Jesus himself said in John 13:15 “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  This in itself could fill several blog posts, but perhaps the three points below give us a useful starting point…

1. Jesus was accessible

 There are many stories of people’s encounters with Jesus throughout the Gospels, including people with a wide range of additional needs and disabilities meeting him; indeed 25 of the 34 miracles recorded in the Gospels involve Jesus interacting with people with disabilities[1]  In many cases, culturally at the time, this was extraordinary; take for example the man with leprosy in Luke 5:12-14, someone who would have been seen as unclean and to be avoided by people at the time.

Jesus met with people where they were, in the street, in the market, by the lake, wherever people gathered.  He didn’t expect people to come and find him in the temple, he went out to them.  And when he met with them, he connected with them physically…  he touched them, reached out to them, he was fully accessible to them.

And Jesus gave time to people, he respected their dignity, he didn’t rush their encounter with him.  Take for example the story in Mark 7:31-35 of the man described as deaf and mute.  He was brought to Jesus by some people, but Jesus took him to one side away from the crowd and then spent time with him, healing him.

So, Jesus was accessible, interacted with people, went to where they were, connected with them physically, gave time to people and respected them…  Some lessons already for us all…

2. Jesus listened and didn’t assume

Just because someone came to Jesus, or was brought to him, who had additional needs or disabilities, he didn’t automatically assume that what they wanted was healing.  He often would spend time asking them what they wanted from him.  In Mark 10:46-52 we see Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus, a man who was blind.  Once again Jesus is on the road, and he heard a man crying out to him “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  There was a crowd going along with Jesus, but he heard the man and stopped, and very importantly, he asked the man a question “What do you want me to do for you?”

The man was blind, the crowd must have wondered why Jesus asked this question, but Jesus didn’t assume that he knew what the man wanted.  The man himself then answered “Lord, I want to see.” and Jesus gave him sight.  It was Bartimaeus’ choice.

In Matthew 8:5-13, a Roman Centurion came up to Jesus. The Romans were the invading force in Israel, hated by most, but Jesus took the time to listen to the Centurion, to hear what the man wanted from him.  He wanted Jesus to heal his servant, who was not with him but at home.  Jesus listened first, and then responded.

So, Jesus took time, and listed to people. He didn’t assume that because they had additional needs or disabilities that they wanted healing; Jesus asked.  Maybe we should ask more too…

3. Jesus thought about a person’s faith

In the story we’ve just looked at regarding the Roman Centurion and his servant, Jesus comments about the faith of the Centurion, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10).  Jesus was often primarily interested in the faith of the person, this was most important to him, rather than their additional needs or disabilities.

A little later in Matthew’s Gospel (9:27-31) Jesus encounters two men who were blind.  Again, Jesus treats them with respect and dignity, allowing them to follow him indoors where he could spend time with them, listening to them.  Jesus asked about their faith, and only when they had answered that they did indeed believe in him did he then heal them.

In Luke 5:17-26 Jesus is speaking to a room full of people when some friends bring a man who couldn’t walk to see him.  As they couldn’t get in through the door they lowered the man through the roof in front of Jesus.  Jesus first action was to forgive the man for his sins, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven’”.  Only after the Pharisees and teachers of the law challenged him about his actions did Jesus then heal the man, to demonstrate his authority.  (See also my previous blog post, ‘Faith More Important Than Healing’ https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/faith-more-important-than-healing/)

All who believe in Jesus are full members of his kingdom.  This is true for anyone who believes in him, regardless of their additional needs or disabilities.  John 3:16 doesn’t use the word “whoever” accidentally!

So, Jesus thought first about the faith and eternal salvation of people before their physical or mental healing.  Maybe there is a lesson for us there too, in how we view people, all people, and what we see as the primary purpose of ministry; whether it is with children, young people, families or adults (or everyone together!) and whether there are additional needs or disabilities, or not…

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells us to “Go and make disciples of all nations…”  of all peoples;  the message is clear, this includes everybody, and Jesus in his ministry showed us how! The accessible Christ, modelling inclusion for all…

Blessings,

Mark
6th October 2017

Image rights: Unknown

[1] Barrier-Free Friendships by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Jensen, “Imitating Christ in Friendship”, Zondervan Publishing House, 1997. p. 41.

 

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‘Washing My Autistic Son’s Feet’

James, my 15-year old autistic son, gets cold feet…  Sometimes this is because he often prefers to go barefoot, sometimes this is because his blood circulation isn’t as good as it might be, or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

He likes to have his feet rubbed, to warm them up, but recently he has also enjoyed having his feet immersed in a bowl of warm soapy water, and washed.  The sensory feeling of having his feet in the warm water is really enjoyable, and having us washing his feet with a flannel tickles and is fun…  the floor sometimes gets a wash too, as do we!

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As I wash James feet, there is another thing going on as well;  I am serving James as I wash his feet, being like a servant to him.  I might be his Dad, he might look up to me in many ways and (sometimes!) do what I ask him to, but in that moment I am on my knees washing his feet, serving his needs.

To me, it reminds me that a vitally important part of my role as James’ Dad is to meet his needs, to do whatever needs to be done to help him.  To be willing to put down whatever I think of as ‘important’ in that moment, whether that is work, church, whatever, and to wash his feet.

Some of you will be aware that my role at Urban Saints has changed recently; I used to be Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Urban Saints, with responsibility for the day-to-day operational running of this national children’s and youth ministry.  Alongside that, for several years, God led me and enabled me to build up the additional needs ministry area within the organisation, helping children’s, youth and families workers, among others, to reach out to, include, and create places of belonging for everyone.

This is now my full-time role; I put down my COO role in August and am fully focused on the additional needs ministry role…  and I’m loving it!  I feel like God has called me to be a servant to others in this area, to meet their needs, to do whatever I can to make a difference… metaphorically, I’ve been called to serve, to wash feet.

As I wash James’ feet I see the joy on his face through the connection we have; he chuckles and laughs, he delights in what we are doing and in the trust and relationship that we have.  When I spend time with others helping them to think about how to be more inclusive in their church or group, how to create places of belonging for all the children and young people they are working with, and how to disciple them in their faith, I see joy and delight in their eyes too… we build trust and relationship together, and we have a laugh as well!

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In John 13:1-17, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet…  He serves them, he ministers to them, he guides them in their understanding.  He says to them “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet.  So you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have given you an example. You should do as I have done for you.  What I’m about to tell you is true.  A slave is not more important than his master.  And a messenger is not more important than the one who sends him.  Now you know these things.  So you will be blessed if you do them.”  (v14-17 NIrV)

As I wash James’ feet, God teaches me humility and servanthood;  as I spend time helping children’s, youth and families workers to be inclusive, that humility and servanthood is the attitude I try to adopt and encourage others to take.  We work together to see change happen… to serve, to wash feet.  Because when we’re on our knees washing feet it’s hard to feel self-important, it’s hard to feel superior, it’s hard to consider ourselves ‘better’ than the person we’re serving.  We put their needs first, they are the focus, this is the most important role for us in that moment, nothing else matters.  We meet their needs, we change, we don’t expect them to.

Whether as you read this you are a parent with a child with additional needs, or you work with children, young people or families where there are additional needs present, let us all metaphorically roll our sleeves up, get a bowl of warm soapy water, get down on our knees adopting an attitude of servanthood as Jesus himself showed us, and wash some feet together….

And as you do so, look up at the face of the child or young person you are serving, you might just catch a glimpse of Jesus smiling back at you…

Mark
27th September 2017

Image rights: Authors own and James Pruch

‘The Additional Needs Battle’

The word ‘Battle’ has been at the forefront of my mind this week;  it has been a key part of my week in several ways, through experiences and as a place.  The three reasons that this word has been key for me this week are linked, personal, ministry and place, and so come together into this week’s blog…

‘Battle’ (noun):  To struggle tenaciously to achieve or resist something

Personal:  This week has been tough, it’s been a struggle.  James (age 15, Autism Spectrum Condition and Learning Disability) has refused to return to school, and although he has made little steps in the right direction, and has made short evening trips out of the house, we are a long way (or a miracle) away from a return to school any time soon…  It feels like a constant battle at the moment to get James to cooperate with even the very basic things that he has been happy to do for years.  Sometimes we are able to celebrate the victories, seeing things moving in the right direction, but then sometimes we unexpectedly find ourselves in retreat, trying to hold hard fought ground but feeling like we’re losing.

Ministry:  This week has (finally!) seen me being able to fully focus on my new full-time role in Urban Saints as Additional Needs Ministry Director.  Having laid down my previous Chief Operating Officer role, handing it over to my newly recruited replacement, I am released to the calling I believe God has placed on my heart; to enable, equip, encourage and envision children’s, youth and families workers to reach out to, include, create belonging and faith development for all with additional needs or disabilities.  It’s taken a year to get here from the point when God spoke clearly to me that I needed to focus in this area.  It’s felt like a battle at times to work through the transition, both from a work and family perspective.  There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would ever get here…  When I doubted if I had heard correctly from God at all…  But then I continued to see God’s hand at work, and encouragement and affirmation kept coming through to support and lift me up.

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The doubts and feelings of defeat we have, either as parents or in ministry, are important to recognise and deal with.  They are one of the most effective tools of the enemy to attack us and pull us down, to turn us away from what we are called to, to convince us that it’s just all too hard and that giving up and walking away would be so much easier…  But, to do so would be to ignore a couple of very important things… 

Firstly…  the reason we are under attack is because we are dangerous to the enemy.  He wouldn’t be bothered with us unless we were a threat.  By the way we parent our child, showing unconditional love through all the struggles, we are modelling what Jesus taught us, to love each other as we love ourselves.  By the way we serve in ministry, reaching out to others in Jesus’ name, we are taking the Gospel to all peoples.  And the enemy hates us for that, and wants to bring us down, to stop us, to cause us to quit, to convince us that we can’t win this battle.  Maybe if we were alone, and he was just attacking us, he would be right, but that’s where the second important thing comes in…

We are not alone…  we are on God’s side, and he is on ours…  The victory has already been won, these battles we face are just skirmishes, but even as we struggle in these times we are not on our own…  remember the words of Elisha:

The servant of the man of God got up the next morning. He went out early. He saw that an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my master!” the servant said. “What can we do?”  “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

 Elisha prayed, “Lord, open my servant’s eyes so that he can see.” Then the Lord opened his eyes. Elisha’s servant looked up and saw the hills. He saw that Elisha was surrounded by horses and chariots made of fire.  (2 Kings 6:15-17)

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We are not alone, we do not battle alone, if we open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, our very souls, to the Lord, he will reveal to us that he is there for us, with us.  His army stands alongside us, and he gives us each other to support us too.  Which brings me to the final reason the word ‘Battle’ has been important to me this week…

Place:  The autumn tour of the Urban Saints ‘All Inclusive?’ training programme that I run, helping churches to be inclusive, create belonging and develop faith in all children and young people, particularly those with additional needs and disabilities, started this week in the town of Battle in East Sussex.  It seems apt that, with all that’s been going on, the first place for me to visit would have the name that best represents my struggles!  And it was a victorious evening, really great times sharing about inclusion, belonging and faith development with a positive and responsive group of children’s, youth and families workers.  A wonderful start to the autumn tour and a reminder that I’m doing what God has called me to do…  That feeling of being in exactly the right place is very special indeed!

So, when we feel that we are in a battle, whether personally or in ministry, let us remember that it means we’re doing something right, and that we’re not doing it on our own…  We’re doing what God has called us to, what pleases him…  Let’s keep bringing it back to God and recognising that he is with us, that his army stands alongside us, and that we stand alongside each other…

And with a mighty battle roar, let’s throw ourselves back into the fight!  Amen!

Mark
10th September 2017

Image rights: English Heritage (header), Urban Saints (banner), author (others)

‘All You Need Is Love’ – Reprise

Since John Lennon wrote this iconic Beatles song 50 years ago, there has been a fair amount of speculation about what it means, what he was trying to tell us…

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game. It’s easy.  All you need is love…”

So why am I (once again) writing about a 50-year-old Beatles song in a blog about inclusion for children and young people with additional needs and disability?  What do Lennon’s words have to say to us in this context today?

For the last few weeks, my son James, the boy in the main blog picture with me, has been finding things hard.  He is finding it very hard to go out of the house, and over the whole school summer holiday has managed it just three times; he is still really struggling…  We’ve felt helpless as we’ve tried to support him, tried to coax him to come out for a little trip out to some of his favourite places, often in vain…

“Nothing you can do that can’t be done…”  if we’ve tried everything and still have failed, then we keep trying, we keep going, we keep loving.  “Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game…”  we keep pushing the specialists and professionals for other ways to help James, other ideas, we keep learning to play the game, we keep loving.

“There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known…” we know our son better than anyone, we know that he is really finding this hard, we know that because of his Autism he may not understand why he feels like he does, or at least how to communicate it to us.  We do know he seems to find going out scary, but he knows we love him.

“Nothing you can see that isn’t shown…”  we keep looking, keep searching for why he isn’t willing to come outside, seeing into his eyes and seeing his struggling, and loving him through it.  “No one you can save that can’t be saved…” we will ‘save’ James, he will be able to come out again, we will find the key to unlock this with him…  We will love him back to feeling safe out of the house.

“Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…”  in our trials we sing the praises of our God and thank Him for helping us to help James.  For giving us the energy we need, the dedication and patience we need, but most of all, the love we need.

John Lennon wrote that “It’s easy…”.  It’s not.  But without God with us it would be a lot harder.  Without friends and family praying for us, thinking of us, asking after James, cheering us on, loving us, it would be much, much harder.

But Lennon was right when he wrote “All you need is love, love. Love is all you need…”  Love is the thread that runs through the whole song, and 50 years on it is the thread that runs through all that we are doing for James.  Love sustains us.

Maybe you are caring for a struggling child at this time… whether they have additional needs or not, it’s not easy, it’s hard.  But love does make a difference, the love of God, the love of family and friends, and the boundless, endless love that we have for our children is what we need to keep going, keep fighting, keep doing all we can…

As Paul (the Apostle, not McCartney!) wrote 2,000 years ago; “Three things will last forever — faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NLT)

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So keep loving, because sometimes, maybe more often than we think, all you need is love…

Mark
31st August 2017

Lyric excerpts and image rights Lennon/McCartney and Capitol Records.

‘Are Parents To Blame For Their Child’s Disability?’

That blog title caught your attention, didn’t it?  A controversial topic to grapple with in this blog post, but one that is so important for us all to understand and to communicate effectively…

Some 2000 years ago, Jesus was asked that very question, as recorded here from John 9:1-3 “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’, said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God may be displayed in his life…’”  Back then, it was commonly thought that the sins of the parents caused disability in their children, hence the question that Jesus was asked.

In the 2000 years since, thankfully, our understanding of disability has increased enormously; however the belief that parents are to blame for their child’s disability or additional needs still clings on in some communities and even church denominations.  Whether it is the belief that the sins of the parents are to blame for the disability itself, or their perceived lack of faith when it comes to unfulfilled prayer for healing, the finger of blame is firmly pointed at the parents, in direct contradiction to what Jesus taught.

Imagine what that must be like for these parents…  Firstly, they have gone through all of the emotional turmoil of discovering that their child has a disability or additional needs, the confusion, shock, maybe even sense of grief, that they may have experienced through the process of diagnosis (if they’ve even got that far!).  They may have already been poorly treated and unsupported by their community or church at that stage, resulting in an unwillingness to tell anyone about the needs of their child as they might be fearful of the reaction.  If they did tell their church, they may have been offered prayer for healing of their child.  Now I firmly believe that God heals, I’ve seen and heard examples of this, the Bible teaches us about healing, but I’m also very aware that often God doesn’t heal.  Translate that into a church setting where a child isn’t healed after prayer, sometimes after repeated prayer, but instead of recognising that this is up to God, blaming the parents for a lack of faith; it is unspeakably cruel to both the parents and the child, and is totally wrong.

Now in the midst of all of this, it is fair to point out that some children are disabled as a direct result of their parents’ actions; children born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder for example, or children born with disabilities caused by violence inflicted on their mother during pregnancy by an abusive partner.  Even in these situations, however, blame can be such a negative and harmful response for all involved.  Each of these cases, and others like them, are really important, and are not trivialised at all by this blog, however they are a very small minority of the total number of children born with, or developing, a disability or additional needs.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, this is nothing to do with the parents at all, unless you deem to hold them responsible for passed on hereditary conditions…  I don’t.

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But what about that final part of what Jesus said…
 We’ve almost lost sight of it in the discussion about who is or isn’t to blame… a sad indictment on our modern society that it always has to be someone’s fault, there always has to be someone to blame…
Jesus said ‘but this happened so that the work of God may be displayed in his life…’.  In this case, Jesus did choose to go on to heal the man, giving him his sight, so that the work of God was indeed displayed in his life in that way.  The work of God can, however, be displayed in and through the life of a child, young person or indeed an adult with additional needs or a disability in many ways, whether they are healed or not.

I’ve written before about how I don’t pray for healing for my 15-year-old autistic son any more, and haven’t done for many years.  His autism is a neurodiversity; it means he lives in and responds to the world differently to me, understands and communicates differently.  Sometimes that can be really hard for him, and for me, but if his autism was taken away, he wouldn’t be James any more.  I do pray that some of the things he finds hard might be easier and less stressful for him, such as that we could communicate more effectively, but not for his healing.  I firmly believe that Jesus’ words, ‘but this happened so that the work of God may be displayed in his life…’ are just as relevant for James as they were for the man he encountered 2000 years ago.  James is the inspiration for the work God has called me to, thousands of children and young people are included and belong in their church because of this work, the work of God.  I doubt I would have heeded God’s call to this work without James.

God can work though each of your children too, so that his work may be displayed in their lives.  Instead of parents being wrongly blamed, or even worse parents blaming themselves, for the disability or additional needs of their child, let our children inspire us to what God has called us to, let us celebrate how God is working through our children and let us do away with fault, blame, guilt and all of the other negatives that are the work of the enemy.  That same Jesus who spoke the words we’ve been looking at won the victory over the enemy too, and we share that victory with him!  Let’s all pray that the work of God may be displayed in all of our lives…

Amen!

Mark
23rd August 2017

Image rights: Header (Fawne Hansen), Bible text (annvoskamp.com)

‘There’s No Place Like Home’

“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”  Dorothy’s famous line from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as she clicked her heels to be magically transported back to Kansas is iconic, but it has become meaningful for a different, and for us rather challenging, reason over the past couple of weeks…

Those of you who read a previous blog of mine, ‘Additional Needs Parenting: Unpredictable, Impactful, Inspirational’ will recall the problems we were having in getting James to come out anywhere with us…
(https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.wordpress.com/2017/07/19/additional-needs-parenting-unpredictable-impactful-inspirational/)

Well, these difficulties have increased and deepened, with James now having been housebound for the last week, and having only had one trip out of the house at all in a fortnight.  Persuasion, encouragement, bribery, visual prompts, cajoling and pleading have failed to help at all…

James just prefers to stay at home, and makes this quite clear in his own way, staying firmly glued to his sofa in his den, surrounded by his things and quite happy to remain there!  When we are all ready to go out, having given James plenty of clues that this is happening, we are greeted with laughter, which if we persist becomes frowns, which if we still persist becomes vocalised sounds of anger (James can’t say many words, but he can get his point across quite well!)  We then have to either a) all stay at home, or if this is unavoidable, b) decide who is going to remain with James.

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Church, shopping, James’ school club, planned family trips out, have all been affected.  We have a family holiday coming up, and if we can’t get James out of the house by then we won’t be going!

All kinds of possibilities are going through our minds about what is going on…  James has been struggling with transitions for a while, both at school and at home, is this an extension of this pattern?  Is he feeling a bit tired at the end of a very long term and just wants to chill?  Is he feeling a little under the weather and can’t face going out?  Or is he flexing his 15-year old identity, pushing his boundaries, and showing us that he will decide how he wants to spend his day, not us?  Or is it something else that we haven’t thought of yet?  All possible, but with a non-verbal Autistic young person with very limited communication, it is very difficult to tell!

Other than the likelihood of a cancelled family holiday, there is no major problem with what is happening at this time, but what about when the school term starts again in September?  We both work, and although I can, and do, work from home a fair bit, I can’t do that every day…  and Clare’s work at school definitely needs her to be there!

But even in the uncertainty that all of this brings, God can and does speak…  James and his current challenges reminds me of Jacob and these words from Genesis 25:27 “ The boys grew up. Esau became a skillful hunter. He liked the open country. But Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents.(NIrV)  Even in our differences, our individual preferences, what makes us content, we can see God shaping and molding us, using us for his purposes.  James remains my inspiration, the reason God has called me into additional needs ministry, the source of many great stories (one day I must write that book!), and he teaches me patience, love and understanding every day.

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Whatever the answer to this current conundrum is, we trust in God for the future.  We believe that we are in his hands and that there will be a way forward for us all in his will.  It may be that this will encourage us to seek more support and help from others, to ask for more help in caring for and looking after James…  One thing that is for certain is that whatever the journey, it will be one that continues to equip and enable us to reach out to help others.  Our experiences will be used to encourage others in a similar situation, helping them to realise that they are not alone… and neither are we…

Blessings…

Mark
3rd August 2017

Image rights:  authors own

‘Prayer – Essential In Inclusive Children’s & Youth Work’

Prayer is an essential element in inclusive children’s and youth work…  seems an obvious thing to say doesn’t it?  Yet it still surprises me how many times we overlook including God in what we are doing…

Take the ‘phone call I received once as an example of this…  In the role that I have, I tend to be the person that children’s and youth leaders get put through to in our office if they have any questions or queries about working with children with additional needs.  One call got put through to me that I will never forget!

“I’ve got this lad in my group, he’s got ADHD and is a complete nightmare, what can I do to exclude him?”  Quite an opening line, but that’s what I got from the youth worker in question…  I took a deep breath, and suggested that he told me what had happened.  There was quite a story, but many opportunities had been missed to help and support the lad in question…  You can read the full story of what happened and what we did to put things back on-track in my blog on ‘Lessons From Exclusion’  https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/lessons-from-exclusion/

There is much more to this story though, as when we had successfully got things back on-track again, I asked the youth leader a question that I had a pretty good idea I already knew the answer to…  “What did you pray about at the beginning of your session?”  I asked this as a way of challenging the youth leader to think about how prepared he and his team had been spiritually for the session they were just about to run, and I got the answer I had half-expected…

Oh we didn’t have time to pray!  We’d been at work all day, rushed home for something to eat, then down to the hall to get everything set up.  Then the parents arrived with the children and we were greeting them and sorting everything out.  We simply didn’t have time for anything else…

It’s easy to see how that happened isn’t it?  Busy people, lots to do, very little time available… I’m sure many of us have been there, just about getting everything done in time, constantly glancing at our watches…  Servant hearts willing to serve, but not checking in with God to help them understand how to serve…  And then it all unravels…

Praying doesn’t guarantee a smooth running children’s or youth session…  but it might make the difference between us being able to cope or not.  It might make the difference between us feeling that this is all down to us, or recognising that God is bigger than all the difficulties we might encounter…  It is so important to pray as we prepare to do God’s work with the children and young people, whether they have additional needs or not…  Why would we not include him?

Pray, even if it means the room isn’t laid out how we would like when the children arrive, even if it means the drinks aren’t ready, even if it means we have to open the doors a couple of minutes later! Pray…

  • Pray that God would be with us all, preparing us to serve him and the children, and helping us to be Jesus to them.
  • Pray that he would have prepared the children and young people for the session, opening their hearts and minds to what we might share together.
  • Pray that he would speak through us as we share his word with them, through all we say and do.
  • Pray that if there is a special word that we need to give to a particular child, that God will use us in that way.
  • Pray that the needs of all the children will be met.
  • Pray that God’s peace and protection will cover the building and all within it.

Pray about any or all of these things, and more, but pray…  God hears our prayers, God responds to our prayers, God recognises that in praying we are saying to him “this isn’t all about me and what I can do, it’s all about you and what you can do through me”

Prayer is powerful, prayer works, and prayer connects us to God in ways we can’t even understand… but he does.  Whatever else we do as we prepare to lead children’s and youth work next time, let’s all make sure we have time to pray!

Blessings,

Mark
27th July 2017

Image rights:  Thinkstock

‘Additional Needs Parenting: Unpredictable, Impactful, Inspirational’

Those of you who regularly follow my blog will know that the past week has been a challenge…  In ‘Prayer – We Don’t Always Get The Answer We Asked For’ last week, I wrote about how that day James had refused to go in to school, with all the disruption that had caused…  Things have been quite unpredictable since but the journey, while impactful, continues to be deeply inspiring!

James did go into school the day after I wrote that blog, ending the school week well, but over the weekend he stubbornly refused to go anywhere, preferring to stay at home relaxing and enjoying the entertainment provided in his den!  His only trip out, on Sunday afternoon, was to one of his favourite places, Pamphill Dairy Farm Shop, to do some shopping including an icing covered gingerbread dinosaur…

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The unpredictability around being willing to go to school has continued into the new school week too…  So far it is, Monday – yes! 🙂, Tuesday – no! 😦, Wednesday – yes! 🙂.  Thankfully the school summer holidays start at the end of this week, so not long to go!

So where does all of this unpredictability leave us?  How is it impacting us and in what ways are we responding to this positively?  Well, here’s how!

We continue to learn, as we have learned all through James’ 15 years of life so far, that impact and inspiration are two sides of the same coin…  Nietzsche was right when he said “That which does not kill usmakes us stronger(never thought I’d be quoting Nietzsche in my blog!), but I would add that in the case of additional needs parenting it makes us better parents too…  Even at the end of a torrid day, a day where things have all fallen apart, all the plans we made for it lie in tatters, and we’ve just about done with apologising to everyone, it is still possible to count our blessings…  Nobody died and we’re all in one piece…  that might in itself be an achievement worth celebrating some days!

I’ve just read ‘One Thousand Gifts’ by Ann Voskamp, where she shares how she has found joy each day in the midst of so much that is difficult; to chronicle these gifts, simply writing two or three down a day in a book.  She uses an ancient Greek word, eucharisteo (where we get the Christian celebration of the eucharist from), meaning to be grateful, to feel thankful, to give thanks…  even in the storms of life.

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I’ve started on my own journey of chronicling one thousand gifts; I’ve got a long way to go but as I look back over some of what I have written over the past few difficult days, I can see joy in the midst of so much that has been difficult…  “Time spent doing jigsaw puzzles with James”, “Learning patience as I help James to cope with his day, and enjoying the sound of his laughter!”, “Answered prayers about transition to bed”…. and so on…

Through the impactful disruption of the last few days in particular, there have been inspirational moments that have brought joy to us all, and that have taught us much about ourselves.  James still has his struggles, but we are learning patience, deepening even further in our compassion and love, seeing into his world more clearly, and helping him to trust us even more.  Realising that if our day gets turned upside down, it’s not the end of the world and there is still much to celebrate… “…enjoying the sound of his laughter!”

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite worship songs is Cornerstone from Hillsongs, containing as it does these words which have sustained me through many storms…  “Christ alone, Cornerstone, weak made strong in the Saviours love.  Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.”  We journey through the unpredictability, impact, and yes the inspiration, never alone but always with our good Captain at the helm!

So if, like us, you are journeying through unpredictable, difficult, challenging, impactful or disruptive times as an additional needs parent, or as a children’s or youth worker getting alongside someone else’s child, seek out the inspiration, seek out the things to give thanks for… eucharisteo…  and find joy, peace, inspiration and a drawing closer both to your child and to God through them.

Blessings,

Mark
19th July 2017

Image rights:  Mark Arnold, Ann Voskamp (One Thousand Gifts)

‘Prayer – We Don’t Always Get The Answer We Asked For’

Those of you that read my previous blog, ‘School Minbus Mystery Mayhem’, will know that we’ve been having some significant issues recently supporting and helping James to get into school…  Once he’s there he has a great time, does really well, and comes home happily, but getting him there is proving harder and harder…

Yesterday, I had some important meetings in the office, which is a 250-mile round trip from home.  I needed to be there and that meant needing James to be in school.  I turned to prayer, asking God to help me to get James to school happily and well so that I could then drive to the office…  I seem to remember I might also have said something about “not minding if the rest of the week was a mess, as long as today works!”  Be careful what you pray for!!

James was happy to go into school yesterday, had a great day there, and came home on the school mini bus easily and joyfully…  A great answer to prayer…  That was yesterday…

Today is my day off…  I had lots of plans, needing to go out to the shops to get some things, go to the bank, a list of errands to run…  All that came crashing down when James point blank refused to budge from his sofa, either when the school minibus came for him (that’s not unusual), or later when I tried to take him in myself (more unusual)…  The throw away words of my prayer yesterday came back into my mind!

We don’t always get what we think we prayed for…  or at least what we want and think we need.  My main focus yesterday was to get to the office and that happened, today is a day off and so isn’t so critical.  If James was going to pick a day to refuse to go to school, today was the better one…  although I still would have preferred him to go in anyway!

Sometimes we get exactly what we prayed for…  my throwaway comment about not minding if the rest of the week was a mess was also answered!

Whatever answers to prayer we get will help us and teach us something if we are really prepared to accept that prayer isn’t a one-way communication, us talking to God…  He answers!  It’s just that sometimes we’re so caught up in our own lives that we’re not listening…

Yesterday evening I was thinking about what this week’s blog might be about…  I had no ideas, but remember saying something about how I’ll know by the time I need to write something!  I got an answer to prayer with that, but not the one I was expecting…

We might pray all sorts of things about our child with additional needs…  Praying for their day, praying about their future, bringing them into God’s presence…  Some people pray about healing…  I don’t pray that for James, his Autism is an important part of who he is and he wouldn’t be James if that changed, but I do pray for some of the things he finds hard to be a little easier, such as communication, and more recently for transitions!

Whatever we pray, knowing that God hears us and answers us, giving us what is best for us, and having confidence that even when the answer isn’t what we expected or hoped for it is the very best answer, is important.  I don’t know why God’s answer to my prayer was for James to refuse to go to school today, I don’t understand it (although I suppose I did suggest it, and it has led to this blog!), but I trust in God and I trust in his very best for me and my family.  If that means I get to share my day off with James today then so be it!  That’s not really a hardship, it’s a joy!  I’d better not make it too much fun though…  there is still school tomorrow!!

Mark
13th July 2017

Image rights:  Mark Arnold

‘Inclusion Champions – Transforming The Church’

There are many ways that those involved in children’s and youth work can make a big difference for children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, and their families.  I often get asked what one change can make the most difference, can have the greatest impact, can enable lasting transformation.  The answer I always give is this… have someone that owns this, that champions it, that challenges the rest of the church to step up and make a difference.

It’s not just about inclusion; so often churches feel that if a child or young person with additional needs or disability is able to access the group then the inclusion box can be ticked.  It is so much more than this, as to settle for inclusion could just mean settling for offering a child-minding service, and there is much, much more that the church can, and should do.  Having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ can help churches to develop three important steps for their work with all children and young people, including those with additional needs or disability:

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  • Inclusion: This is still important, and needs to be a foundation stone for everything else. Looking to ensure that everything the church offers is accessible to all, inclusive of all, accommodating the needs of all.  An ‘Inclusion Champion’ can be vital here to ensure that the programme the church provides is assessed against the needs of everyone.  What parts of the programme might be difficult for some to access?  Are there certain activities that are inaccessible to some?  What simple changes and adaptations can be made to change this so that everyone is welcome, everyone can take part, everyone’s needs are considered and acted upon.
  • Belonging: Inclusion is just the first, important, step.  If we stop there, we settle for so much less than is possible, so much less than we should.  Within children’s and youth work we risk just settling for child-minding.  But do those children and young people really feel that they belong to the church; that it is their church?  Are they missed, for all the right reasons, when they can’t come?  Is what they bring to the group valued and cherished, bringing a flavour to the group that is distinctive and vibrant?  An ‘Inclusion Champion’ can work with the leaders of the children’s and youth work, the children and young people themselves, as well as parents and carers, to create a place of belonging for all, where everyone is valued.
  • Faith development: Even belonging isn’t the end of the journey; while it’s great to reach a place where all children and young people feel fully valued within their church, there is even more that can be done.  Every child or young person, whether they have additional needs or not, can develop and grow in their faith and should be helped to do so within the work of the church.  An ‘Inclusion Champion’ can enable children’s and youth workers to consider how to help everyone to be discipled; to create an environment for all to be reached by, and to respond to, the Gospel message of grace, love and hope.

Where an ‘Inclusion Champion’ is in place, the impact across the work of the church is transforming.  Time and time again I come across stories from churches that have been involved in some of the training I run, which highlights having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ or ‘Inclusion Leader’ as the most important step, and are now seeing amazing results from having someone in this role.

An ‘Inclusion Champion’s’ story:

Claire from Hitchin Christian Centre sums up their recent experience here:

One of the ‘Top Tips’ which is shared in the Urban Saints ‘All Inclusive?’ seminar (www.urbansaints.org/allinclusive) is for every church to appoint a SENCO/Inclusion Leader.  I was challenged by this fantastic suggestion and in September 2016 took on the voluntary role of Inclusion Leader at Hitchin Christian Centre.  This is such an exciting opportunity and so far, together with the Children’s Pastor, we have made significant changes and made a great start in helping our children’s-work groups to be more inclusive and accommodating for children and young people with additional needs.  In my role as Inclusion Leader I also led a seminar at a training event for children and young people on the subject of including children with additional needs in a church setting.”

A mum’s story:

Beckie is mum to a child with additional needs who attends St. Paul’s Church in St. Albans; here she speaks about the difference having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ has made for her and her family:

“I wanted to write to say how important the SEN inclusion at St Paul’s has been for us as a family.  I understand that the inclusion that there is now at St Paul’s stemmed from a course that members/staff from the church attended; the ‘All Inclusive?’ course run by Urban Saints.  I understand that this encouraged the creation of an ‘Inclusion Officer’ role at church and a whole host of other practical measures that support inclusion of SEN families.

 Life with a child with SEN can be very isolating and there are few places in which, at times, it is possible to feel comfortable and welcomed.  Some of the things that were implemented at St Paul’s include Makaton signing in family services; a space for those with additional needs to be during the service; a one-to-one helper provided for those children that need it; Makaton training for the children’s leaders; visual time lines for the service timetable etc.

 These steps have helped us as a family to feel welcomed and included in the church.  The fact that the church has implemented these steps portrays a strong message that those with SEN are welcome, and that means they are welcomed with all the potential behavioural and emotional issues that that may bring.  It also has helped our other daughter who does not have special needs.  Her seeing the Makaton in the services has normalised the use of the signs for her and we think helps her not to feel like we are a different family.  If we had not felt so comfortable and welcomed it would have been very difficult for us, practically and emotionally, to continue attending.”

These stories lay down a challenge to churches across the country; if they want to be serious about inclusion, belonging and faith formation for all children and young people then having an ‘Inclusion Champion’ in place is vital…  Not waiting for the need to arise (the reality is that the need is already there anyway) but catching the vision, seeing the benefits this can bring, and going for it!

So come on church…  let’s see a wave of ‘Inclusion Champions’ sweep across the churches of the country, and see all the children and young people of this land included, belonging, and discipled.

Mark
9th June 2017

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