‘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

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[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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‘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)

‘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

‘Faith More Important Than Healing?’

I sometimes get asked what my views are on divine healing; whether I believe that God heals people, why he might heal one person and not another, even whether I’ve ever prayed for healing for James.  At a recent conference that I was speaking at I was asked this again, in the context of whether it is right to pray for the healing of someone else, someone who may not have even given their consent to be prayed for, in this case a child.

A lot of questions here; big questions, big implications for them… So, here we go…

Can God heal?  Yes, there are many examples in the Bible, particularly but not restricted to the Gospels, where people are healed of a wide range of conditions. The blind see, the deaf hear, those that cannot walk are able to walk again and many more, often witnessed by crowds of people. Some of us will also have contemporary accounts of healing that we have witnessed. Not the fake healing of the TV evangelist, but genuine divine healing of someone brought about through earnest prayer.  God can and does heal.

So why some and not others? Isn’t that unfair?  Of course none of us can know the mind of God… that’s not a cheap cop-out, it’s reality.  Perhaps God heals some and not others because in eternal terms this is the wisest, best outcome.  Perhaps by healing someone, the opportunity for others to be reached with the good news of Jesus might be lessened.

Let me give you an example of this, while at the same time answering the question about whether I’ve ever prayed for James to be healed of his Autism…

James, now 14, was 2½ when he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) and associated Learning Disability.  It came as an enormous shock, and at that time of course we asked many questions; “Why our son?”, “Why our family?”, and yes, I did at that time ask God that James be ‘healed’ of his Autism.  Looking back, I think that prayer was as much a selfish act as being a plea on behalf of James… Life with a son with significant additional needs was going to be hard; at that time I could only see all of the challenges and difficulties that lay ahead.

I soon learned, however, not only to accept James for who he is, but to love his differences, to celebrate the changes that he brought to our family, to our worldview, to our faith journey, and to how God started to use us.  I stopped praying for James to be ‘healed’; if James didn’t have ASC, he wouldn’t be James, he wouldn’t be the same boy, he wouldn’t be the same inspiration to me that gets me up every morning excited at the opportunities ahead.  If James had been ‘healed’ of ASC, I doubt I would have the same motivation and drive to lead an additional needs ministry at Urban Saints, to have co-founded the Additional Needs Alliance, to work hard to make life better for the one-in-five children in the UK who journey with additional needs or disability. There could have been significant negative impact if James had been ‘healed’ of ASC.

When I pray for James now, I pray also for myself; I pray that I might understand his world better, to be able to support and help him more effectively, to be able to understand and help him to develop his limited communication.  I don’t pray for James to be ‘healed’ so that he can fit neatly into my world, I pray that I might be able to join him in his world and appreciate it, and him, better. And in praying in this way, perhaps it is me that receives the healing…

In Luke 5:17-26, a man who couldn’t walk was brought to Jesus by his friends. There was quite a crowd and they couldn’t get near to Jesus, so they went up to the roof, made a hole in it and lowered their friend through.  What happened next is significant… Jesus saw the man, recognised his faith and that of his friends, and… forgave him for the wrong things he had done.  The man’s faith, his eternal salvation, these were the things that were important to Jesus.  He subsequently did heal the man’s legs, but only to prove his authority on earth…

So what does all of this say to us about what our attitude to healing should be?  Well, perhaps there are three things for us to think about from what we’ve explored together:

  1. God is more interested in our eternal future than our current physical or mental situation. Perhaps we should focus more on how we reach everyone, including those with additional needs or disability, with the good news of Jesus Christ, than whether God is going to heal us, or our loved ones, in this life.
  2. Maybe we should think about our own motivation for praying for healing for others; is there a risk that we are praying for healing for a loved one because that might make our life a little easier? Would healing actually be the best thing for our loved one? What should we really be praying for?
  3. We should celebrate all that is different for us because of our journey with someone with additional needs or disability. Think about all the positive ways that our lives, our worldviews, have changed. How can we use these changes to help others, to be God’s blessing to others on a similar journey, to see God turn what we might have seen as a negative into a positive? And in doing this, perhaps it is us that receives the healing…

We’ve grappled with some big questions here, and pondered on some big answers… You may not agree with all I’ve said, and that’s fine, we’re all different; but keep asking, keep praying, keep searching for your answers, and let’s keep walking on the journey together…

 Mark
17th February 2017

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