‘Children With Additional Needs Are NOT Second Best To Jesus’

Jesus is surely the greatest story teller the world has ever known.  His stories, also known as parables, are lively, exciting, challenging and filled with teaching.  Every time we read one of Jesus’ parables, we learn something new through them… they speak into our lives like no other storyteller has.

We all have our favourite parables… the Parable of the Sower perhaps, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Mine is the Parable of the Lost Sons, sometimes called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but there were two sons in the story!  Jesus leaves us with a cliff-hanger ending as we don’t know what happens to the second, older, son!

But there is a parable that can be troubling, a parable that can be misunderstood, used negatively, used unhelpfully.  A parable that can be, and sometimes is, wrongly applied to suggest that people with additional needs or disabilities are second class, lower in importance, of lesser priority.  It is the Parable of the Great Feast.  Jesus himself is at a dinner and there is a fuss about who should sit in the seat of most honour (read the passage in Luke 14, after this blog post).  Jesus then tells a story about a great feast, alluding to the Great Feast of heaven.

First, invitations were sent out to many guests, but when the time for the banquet came, the guests all made excuses and said they couldn’t come.  This is where the parable gets tricky, because Jesus continues by saying that the host was furious at these snubs to his invitation and so ordered his servants to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” to the feast instead.

At first glance this might look like Jesus was saying that this second group of invitees were second best, only to be invited when no-one else was available…  This parable has certainly been interpreted as such by some…  I think this, however, would be a mistaken and inappropriate view of what Jesus was saying here.

I believe that Jesus is sharing two things with us.  Firstly, that if all we do is share what we have with our friends and family (or, dare I say, our ‘clique’ within our congregation!), are we just sharing with those who might then invite us back, or be useful to us in some way?  In Jesus’ time, those he described as “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” would usually have had very little social standing, and no wealth in monetary terms, so a return invitation, or influence gained through inviting them, would be unlikely.  Jesus himself does not have to defend his record here, with the Gospels packed full of his encounters with people that society at that time looked down on, although he never did.

Secondly, Jesus is hinting that change had come through him.  Until Jesus, God was the God only of the Jews; through Jesus he would become the God of the Gentiles too, of all peoples, of all of us who believe, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.”  John 3:16 (Good News)

I think Jesus, the ‘Son of David’ had a similar attitude to those he was speaking about to that of his great ancestor, King David himself.  In 2 Samuel 9 (see full passage after this post) David enquires if there are any surviving family members of his friend Jonathan (the son of King Saul).  He is informed that there is one, Mephibosheth, “…one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive.  He is crippled in both feet.”  David seemingly ignores Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant and invites him back into the royal court, to a place of honour, in memory of his friendship with his father, Jonathan.  Mephibosheth thereafter ate at the King’s table regularly.  He was welcomed because he was wanted, not because of any influence he had.

What Jesus is teaching us through his parable is that we shouldn’t just pick our favourites for the team, choose only our friends for a meal, or reach out in ministry only to those who the world views as having influence or who can help us financially; that all are equal, all can and must be invited to the ‘Great Banquet’ which is in heaven itself.

And that includes, that must include, children and young people with additional needs or disabilities…  Children who today, as in Jesus’ time, can often be on the margins of society, can be unwittingly or worse, deliberately, left out; can be viewed as too difficult to work with, or to have too challenging behaviour, or require too many changes to “how we do things here”Jesus does not see children with additional needs or disabilities as second best, he wants them included, welcomed, to belong, to have places of honour at the table of the Great Banquet.  And Jesus doesn’t want us to treat them as second best either, inviting anyone else, everyone else, first.

David dismissed Mephibosheth’s disability as irrelevant, as no barrier to inviting him in.  We could do worse than to follow his lead, and to follow Jesus teaching, when a child with additional needs or a disability arrives at our church… or better yet when we go out into our communities and find them and invite them to join us!  To welcome them into the Great Feast, and to enjoy the banquet with everyone together!

Mark
7th December 2017

Image rights: Header – ‘Banquet’ by Hyatt Moore – © Copyright 2017, Hyatt Moore

 Jesus Teaches about Humility

When Jesus noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honor near the head of the table, he gave them this advice: “When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table!

10 “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. 11 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then he turned to his host. “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. 13 Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”

Parable of the Great Feast

15 Hearing this, a man sitting at the table with Jesus exclaimed, “What a blessing it will be to attend a banquet[c] in the Kingdom of God!”

16 Jesus replied with this story: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. 17 When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ 18 But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’20 Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ 23 So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. 24 For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.’”

Luke 14:7-24 (NLT)

David’s Kindness to Mephibosheth

One day David asked, “Is anyone in Saul’s family still alive—anyone to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” He summoned a man named Ziba, who had been one of Saul’s servants. “Are you Ziba?” the king asked. “Yes sir, I am,” Ziba replied.

The king then asked him, “Is anyone still alive from Saul’s family? If so, I want to show God’s kindness to them.” Ziba replied, “Yes, one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive. He is crippled in both feet.” “Where is he?” the king asked. “In Lo-debar,” Ziba told him, “at the home of Makir son of Ammiel.”

So David sent for him and brought him from Makir’s home. His name was Mephibosheth[a]; he was Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson. When he came to David, he bowed low to the ground in deep respect. David said, “Greetings, Mephibosheth.” Mephibosheth replied, “I am your servant.” “Don’t be afraid!” David said. “I intend to show kindness to you because of my promise to your father, Jonathan. I will give you all the property that once belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will eat here with me at the king’s table!”

Mephibosheth bowed respectfully and exclaimed, “Who is your servant, that you should show such kindness to a dead dog like me?” Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba and said, “I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. 10 You and your sons and servants are to farm the land for him to produce food for your master’s household.[b] But Mephibosheth, your master’s grandson, will eat here at my table.” (Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.)

11 Ziba replied, “Yes, my lord the king; I am your servant, and I will do all that you have commanded.” And from that time on, Mephibosheth ate regularly at David’s table,[c] like one of the king’s own sons. 12 Mephibosheth had a young son named Mica. From then on, all the members of Ziba’s household were Mephibosheth’s servants. 13 And Mephibosheth, who was crippled in both feet, lived in Jerusalem and ate regularly at the king’s table.

2 Samuel 9 (NLT)

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‘What Part Of The Body Of The Church Is A Child With Additional Needs?’

The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, teaches us about how the body of Christ, the church, is made up of many parts.  Many parts that combine to make one body, baptized by one Holy Spirit…  He goes on to describe the various parts, firstly through metaphor (foot, hand, eye, ear, head etc.) and then by role (apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of miracles, healers etc.).  We might know what our role is, where we fit, what we are gifted in, how we can serve; or we might still be searching for our place in this body, unsure of what our role might be…

But what about children and young people with additional needs or disabilities?  Where do they fit in this picture?  What is their place in the body?  What could their role be?  Well, I believe that there are two ways to answer these questions, individually and collectively, so let’s give both a crack as we tackle this together…

Individually
Everybody has a role to play in the body of Christ’s church, regardless of their age, gender, whether they have a disability or not, whatever…  There are no exceptions, as Paul himself points out “You are the body of Christ.  Each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27 NIrV)  And note, Paul doesn’t say that those who are young, or have additional needs, are any less able to be part of this body.  There is no distinction…  If God has called a 10-year-old disabled child to lead, or to teach, then their calling should be tested, recognised and encouraged just as anyone else’s should be.  To suggest that somebody who uses a wheelchair, or is blind, or deaf, or has a learning disability, is unable to be used by God in this way, is unable to respond to God’s calling to serve in this way, is to not only grossly misunderstand disability but is to put human limitations on God!

Paul himself puts it well…  The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”  The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  In fact, it is just the opposite.  The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without.  The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honour.”  (1 Corinthians 12:21-23a NIrV)  Note the parts I’ve emphasised…  The parts that seem to be weaker, the parts we think are less important…  we can make the mistake of reducing the position of those we deem to be weaker, less important, with those with disabilities often being viewed in this way.  It’s a human response, not a heavenly one.  Paul shows us that God doesn’t think like this, and neither should we…  those we might overlook we can’t do without and should treat with special honour!

Paul tells us what happens when we get this wrong, and when we get this right… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.  If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.  You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”  If we treat those with additional needs or disabilities poorly, including children and young people, we all suffer as a result through missing out on all that they bring both individually and collectively to the church.  All parts of the body of Christ, his church, should be equally honoured, and all should share in its joy.

One body many parts

Collectively
As well as the individual roles that each of us, including children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, can play in the life of the church, there is a collective inspirational and informative role that those with additional needs and disabilities, including children, can play.  Let’s use some of the metaphorical ‘parts of the body’ that Paul mentions in order to expand on this some more:

Feet:  Feet are all about moving us forward, taking us to places…  By being inclusive, and being led forward in the best ways to achieve this by people of all ages with additional needs or disabilities, including children, the church can reach out more effectively, reach everyone, and be a church for all.

Hands:  Hands are used to greet others…  By greeting everyone into the body of the church, including children, young people and adults with additional needs or disabilities, helping everyone to belong, to identify their God given role, and to serve the rest of the body of Christ, we create an environment that is honouring, impactful and joyful for everyone.

Ears:  The church could do an awful lot worse than to listen to people of all ages who have additional needs or disabilities.  So often, generally unwittingly, churches decide what people need and go ahead with implementing it without once asking those they are trying to serve if it is what they want.  Inclusion is too often ‘done unto’ disabled people rather than ‘done with’ them.  Let’s use our ears more.

Eyes:  Too often I hear people say to me “But we don’t have anyone with additional needs in our church!”  Statistically, one in five children and young people have an additional need of some kind, but many are ‘hidden’ disabilities or differences, such as Autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia.  Churches with elderly members within their congregation are likely to have those who have become less able as they have got older.  I doubt that there is any church that has nobody who has an additional need or disability!  And, even if there is an exception out there somewhere, that church will be located in a community full of people with additional needs and disabilities of all ages…  we just need to look a bit harder!

Head:  Sometimes we just need to think about what we say…  The enthusiastic worship leader who excitedly shouts out “Let’s stand and worship!” could be a lot more inclusive by changing what they say to “Let’s stand and worship, if you are able”.  Sometimes we need to think about the effects of what we say and do…  The children’s work leader who told a mum of a boy with ADHD that her son would not be able to come to club as he would be “a health and safety risk” for example…  Sometimes we need to understand just a little of what it is like to live 24/7 with a disability, and to learn how to be better at making church the best place that a disabled person, or a family with a disabled child, can spend time, can belong.

We can, as the church, get this right… we must, as the church, work together, all of us, to get this right…  As Paul shows us, In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides.  All of them will take care of one another.”  (1 Corinthians 12:25)  There are no excuses…

Blessings,

Mark
24th October 2017

Image rights: Orchard Community Church (main header), Roosevelt Church (One Body Many Parts), vxvchurch.com (Bible passage header)

1Corinthians-12-12-31

Here is the passage that we’ve been dipping into in this blog post, using the accessible edition NIrV version:

1 Corinthians 12:12-31  New International Reader’s Version (NIrV)

 One Body but Many Parts

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.

26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it. 28 First, God has placed apostles in the church. Second, he has placed prophets in the church. Third, he has placed teachers in the church. Then he has given to the church miracles and gifts of healing. He also has given the gift of helping others and the gift of guiding the church. God also has given the gift of speaking in different kinds of languages. 29 Is everyone an apostle? Is everyone a prophet? Is everyone a teacher? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in languages they had not known before? Do all explain what is said in those languages? 31 But above all, you should want the more important gifts.

‘Posh Brands, Designer Labels, and Additional Needs Parenting’

I was sat in church a few Sunday mornings ago, a brief oasis of calm in an otherwise hectic and unpredictable week of additional needs ministry and additional needs parenting.  The service was great, which was helpful, as I was tired and in serious danger of dropping off to sleep otherwise… there could have been snoring… #awkward

During a pause in proceedings, as I glanced around the room from my seat towards the back of the church, I noticed someone a few rows ahead of me who was wearing a nice embroidered floral top.  What I noticed, however, was that embroidered across the back of the top, between the shoulders, was the brand name… (I won’t mention the brand to protect the wearer!)  I didn’t recognise it, however I understand from those who know about these things that this is a ‘posh’ designer label.  That got me thinking… why would the brand name be embroidered like that on the back of a garment?  The only conclusion I could come to was that it is a status symbol, making a statement to anyone looking at it… “This is a posh brand, a designer label that I can afford to buy.”

I started looking around a bit more then, and noticed others wearing garments with ‘posh’ brand names and designer labels prominently displayed, some that I didn’t even need to ask about!  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against people making an effort when they come to church, I just got to wondering about how what we wear, what we look like, might even inadvertently categorise us in some way in the eyes of those who see us, placing us in a particular ‘clan’ in their eyes?

People have dressed to make a point as long as clothes have existed.  One of the greatest human beings ever to grace this earth, Mahatma Gandhi, dressed only in a simple homespun white cotton robe, making a strong political point about injustice as he did so.

As all of these thoughts flew through my mind, I glanced down at what I was wearing.  For the first time I noticed the smear of food that James had wiped across my trousers before I went out, and my first thought was that I was glad that it was only food!  I got thinking about what the ‘brand identity’, the ‘designer label’ of the additional needs parent might be…  possibly it’s crumpled smeared clothing, an unusual difficult to place smell, the latest look in the ‘exhausted’ range?  We must sometimes look a bit of an unusual sight!

Jesus himself, as he sent the disciples out into the world told them “Don’t take anything for the journey.  Do not take a walking stick or a bag.  Do not take any bread, money or extra clothes.”  (Luke 9:3 NIrV)  He also told us  “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the wild flowers grow.  They don’t work or make clothing.  But here is what I tell you.  Not even Solomon in all his royal robes was dressed like one of these flowers.   If that is how God dresses the wild grass, won’t he dress you even better?  Your faith is so small!  After all, the grass is here only today.  Tomorrow it is thrown into the fire.”  (Matthew 6:28-30)

Those words spoke to me, and I hope speak to you as you read this if you too are an additional needs parent…  It really doesn’t matter that much what we might look like sometimes, just being somewhere (church, work, the school gate, wherever…) might be an achievement in itself.  God stands with us in the midst of the chaos and he doesn’t mind what we look like!  The ‘brand identity’ and ‘designer labels’ of the additional needs parent do not need apologising for, they speak of our love for our child, our willingness to put them first, our never-ending God given endurance as we strive to do the very best we can for the child that is our first thought as we wake and our final thought as we (eventually!) drop off to sleep.

These are the garments that God gives us to wear, and I will happily have that embroidered across the back of my clothing, alongside the smears, any day!

Blessings,

Mark
16th October 2017

Image rights: unknown

‘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.

 

‘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!

IMG_2274

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!

jesus-washing-the-feet

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.

DI4OLIXXgAARiUe

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)

thathemaysee

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)

‘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.

John 9 1-3
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)

‘The State Of The Nation – Additional Needs & Disability In The UK’

In a few weeks time for many, a new academic year will start; in some parts of the country, it starts this week.  The start of the new academic year is often the time that church children’s and youth clubs start up again, although of course some have continued during the summer, or have run holiday clubs or camps.  Sunday mornings become busier again as families return from holidays; the buzz of activity in weekly children’s and youth work across the UK builds up again… including those working with children or young people with additional needs or disabilities.

But what does the overall landscape look like?  What is the background narrative in the UK today to working with children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities?  What do we see if we lift our heads up from the great work which many are doing individually and locally for a moment, and take a long hard look at the big picture?

Well, here are three observations, drawn from published data (sources provided) that shed some interesting light on the state of the nation in the UK regarding children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities, and how the church can and must respond:

1.  This is a bigger ministry area than we might think

3% of children/young people have a Statement of Special Educational Needs (source: UK Gov.)[1]  The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ (SEN) has a legal definition: “Children who have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn or access education than most children of the same age.”  There are roughly 13 million under 18’s in the UK, so 3% is 390,000… a big number, and of course each individual is important, but that is only part of a much bigger picture…

copy-of-eecu-kids-colour-large 

20% of the 13 million children and young people in the UK have additional needs of some kind (source: UK Gov.)[2]  That’s 2.6 million children and young people across the country, a huge number!  Do we see one in five of the children or young people that we engage with in church, or care for in other settings, having additional needs of some kind?  Maybe in some settings we do, but in many we don’t, and there could be some important reasons for that…

2.  Additional needs ministry isn’t just for Sunday mornings

Up to 90% of families with children that have additional needs are un-churched (source: Baptist Press)[3]  Many of these families are outside of our immediate church congregation, we seldom see them at church events, but they live all around us in the local community, and they are in need of support and help.  It can be hard for them to find us, we need to make the effort to reach out to them, to welcome them, and to meet their needs.  And their needs will be many and various…

Siblings and parents often feel excluded from a wide range of social activities, including church (source: Mumsnet)[4]  Why is this? Because often these activities don’t cater for children or young people with additional needs, or require parents to continue caring for their child at the activity rather than being able to enjoy it for themselves.  Talking to parents about how they and their family can be supported at church events is a vital first step to enabling them to come.  And it is important to pick up on siblings here too… often junior carers, regularly missing out on typical family activities, generally overlooked by the church.

53% of families claim that having a disabled child causes some/major relationship difficulties or breakups (source: About Families)[5]  It is hard raising a child with additional needs or disability, and it has an impact on families…  It grieves me as a father of a child with additional needs myself to see that it is often the father who can’t cope and goes, leaving the mother with the additional challenge of being a single parent too.  How can the church reach out to families to either a) support them better to help them stay together, or where this is no longer possible b) support the remaining parent to help them cope?  Perhaps working with families to see where the key stress points are during the week, and looking to support them effectively at those times, might be a good place to start.  Offering marriage support such as that offered by Care for the Family might also be helpful.

3.  There are other things that the church can do

Poor communities are twice as likely to include families with children with additional needs (source: LKMCo/Joseph Rowntree Foundation.)[6]  This will be relevant to most churches, as every church will be near to more deprived areas.  The reasons for this statistic are many and various, but include that poorer communities will commonly have less access to the best specialist support and medical advice, and that poor nutrition can play a part in exacerbating some conditions.  How can churches step up to help?  Offering food banks, debt counselling such as CAP (Christians Against Poverty) and other services targeted at the poorest families in the community would be a good start.

 60% of children with additional needs are bullied (source: Ability Path)[7]  When we think of bullying, and the places it happens, we commonly think of school, the journey to and from school, in the local streets, and increasingly online.  But do we also consider the bullying that happens in our churches?  The ‘tuts’, the harsh stares, the gossiping, the unasked for ‘child rearing advice’, all can be just as bullying to a family of a child with additional needs?  A zero tolerance of such bullying behaviour, led from the top by the church leaders, is essential in bringing about a culture change so that everyone is welcome, included and cared for.

So, in conclusion, the state of the nation for children, young people and families where there are additional needs is often challenging and difficult, and this blog deliberately hasn’t touched on recent Government policy and its impact, but the church can, and must, engage and make a difference…   As Nick Knowles always says at the end of ‘DIY SOS’; “Do you know someone you can help?”

Mark
16th August 2017

Image rights: Committee for Economic Development (Header), Hampshire Childcare and Family Information

[1] ‘House of Commons Education and Skills Committee: Special Educational Needs – Third Report’ (2006) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmeduski/478/478i.pdf [accessed 2nd August 2017]

[2] ‘Reforms for children with SEN and disabilities come into effect’ (2014) http://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-for-children-with-sen-and-disabilities-come-into-effect [accessed 17th November 2016]

[3]Church’s outreach to families with special needs children: ‘a major need’ (2003) http://www.bpnews.net/16565 [accessed 2nd August 2017]

[4] ‘Mumsnet parents: negative attitudes are holding back our disabled children’ (2014) http://www.scope.org.uk/About-Us/Media/Press-releases/February-2014/Mumsnet-parents-negative-attitudes-are-holding-bac [accessed 17th November 2016]

[5] ‘Together and apart: supporting families through change’ (2011)
http://www.capability-scotland.org.uk/media/101061/about_families_report_2_change.pdf [accessed 1st August 2017]

[6] ‘Children from poor families ‘twice as likely’ to have special needs’ (2016) www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/children-poor-families-twice-likely-have-special-needs [accessed 1st August 2017]

[7] ‘Walk A Mile In Their Shoes – Bullying and the Child with Special Needs’ (2013) http://abilitypath.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes.pdf [accessed 1st August 2017]

 

‘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

‘The Lord’s Prayer & Additional Needs Parenting’

As I was sat in church last Sunday morning, enjoying the opportunity to relax and be in the congregation for a change, we reached the part of the service that is included every week, a part that is so well known that we don’t really need the words to be provided; the Lord’s Prayer

There is always a risk that these wonderful words are so well known to us that we might say them almost without thinking about them. To trot them out parrot-fashion in a way that lessens them somehow.  As I sat there last Sunday, speaking these o-so-familiar words, I found myself thinking about them in a different way…  thinking about them in the context of parenting a child with additional needs…  I’ve thought about it a bit more since, and so here’s where I got to…  I hope you find it helpful!

 Our Father in heaven,  “Father”, it’s great that I can call you that…  My son can say “Daddy”, it’s one of the few words he can say, but when he says it, it just melts my heart.  Is that what happens when I say “Father” to you?  I think it is, because I know you love me even more than I love my son, and that’s A LOT!

hallowed be your name,  Hallowed means holy, sacred, and yet you care about me and you clear up after me when I make a mess, which is a lot of times.  Parenting a child with additional needs, I know what clearing up mess can be like, and how it sometimes feels, but you clean me up and sort me out time and time again…  Never minding, always loving.

your kingdom come,  Sometimes, through the beautiful look on my son’s face as we pray, or the light in his eyes as I gently sing “Jesus loves me, this I know…” to him, with him joining in with “Yes!” Jesus loves “Me!”, I see a tiny glimpse of heaven as your Holy Spirit ministers to him…  Thank you!

your will be done, on earth as in heaven.  Whatever your will is for us, let it be done. However you want to work in us, through us, to share your will with others, we want that too…  Use the journey we are on, the good stuff and the challenging stuff, to help, support and inspire others.  Let us always serve you…

Give us today our daily bread.  You always give us what we need… more than we need.  Our daily bread is all those things that sustain us, and that includes much more than food.  Our daily bread includes the joys, the delights, the thrills of additional needs parenting, filling us up and nourishing our minds, bodies and souls for when a harder day comes; giving us reserves to draw upon when we need them.  You sustain us in every way.

prayerhands-prayer-thinkstock

Forgive us our sins   And there are so many…  So many times when we say, think and do things that we know we shouldn’t…  Days when we walk into a poo smeared room and swear before we can stop ourselves.  Days when we are so tired that we just sink into self-pity and think once again “why me?”  Days when we wouldn’t share our darkest thoughts with anyone…

as we forgive those who sin against us.  And this can be so hard!  But we must forgive the person who is sneering at our child while s/he is having a meltdown; or the person who is offering us their uninvited opinions on our parenting ability.  Forgive the Social Worker who has just told us our respite care has had to be cancelled; forgive those who would take away much needed financial support…  If we can’t forgive, bitterness and resentment fills the void.  As we forgive, so we receive release from these negative, life-draining emotions, being filled instead with God’s grace and love.

Lead us not into temptation  Oh, and it’s so easy to be tempted as well…  Temptation to be economical with the truth when filling in applications for much needed financial support.  Temptation to find comfort and temporary satisfaction in unhealthy or inappropriate ways, just to feel better about life for a few brief moments.  Temptation to say to someone what we actually think about them and their opinions when they just don’t get it (see ‘forgive’ above!)

but deliver us from evil.  Yes Lord, save us, because all of the lack of forgiveness we might be harbouring, the falling to temptation that we might be doing, comes from the enemy.  Help us not to give the enemy any power over us; especially don’t let the enemy use our family, our child with additional needs, as a way to get to us.  Let us remember the truth in these word, “Christ alone, Cornerstone, weak made strong in the Saviour’s love. Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.”

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours  It’s all yours, all for you…  We pray that you will give us what you know we need, equipping us so that we can serve you and others, and through serving give honour and glory to you and your kingdom.  Use our life journey, our family experiences, our passion, our knowledge, which all comes from you, to the benefit of others…

now and for ever. Amen.  Eternity has started already… new life has begun!  Help us not to waste a second but to make it all count.  As James is able to say… “A-men!”

Every blessing,

Mark
29th June 2017

Image rights:  SpritualLeadership.com; Thinkstock