Included and Involved
Yesterday at this time I was on a sailing boat in the Scottish Hebrides … As the crew assembled on Saturday last week, I used a very simple liturgy from our Northumbria Community that expresses what I want to share with you this morning; I welcome you, I honour you and pray God’s blessing upon you.
Among the crew there were experienced, able sailors, others were hesitant and had never been on a yacht before. It would have been easy to have sailed and only used the skills of those who had their Royal Yacht Association qualifications but that would have been to the exclusion of others. The whole week was enriched by the experience of everybody being part of the crew, each discovery their valued place, each person bringing not just what they could do but who they were to the experience.
We live in a culture that categorises people, labels them and inevitably with any such criteria there is the created barriers and boundaries, lines drawn to include and exclude.
Just as it was in Biblical times, in the world that Jesus lived, it was a society riddled with rules and regulations, categories that ruled people in or out. e.g. food, land, people, women, Gentiles, lepers …
We to live in a culture riddled with categories, names that are used to define and sometimes, however well meaning, can actually exclude. Terms like the disabled, the blind, the deaf, people who suffer from, the victims of, the wheelchair bound, PWD’s people with disabilities…
With public cutbacks and welfare reforms, the language of scroungers and dole-wallers gets banded about and in so doing we make judgements, categorise and exclude.
In Luke Chapter 5, we read the story of Jesus who, with one action dismantled the barriers and boundaries, removed the discrimination and subverted the social and religious protocol ~ he reaches out and touches the leper. Yes the leper was healed but the significance is in Jesus reaching out and touching the leper. The incident reflects the heart of God and the good news of God’s story; the transforming power of the gospel that brings hope and inclusivity, welcome, hospitality, honour, dignity and blessing to all peoples.
He saw people as people and in welcoming, he honoured and by reaching out and touching the leper he removed all exclusion and blessed him.
Likewise, the church is called to reflect the nature and heart of God.
Rublev’s Icon ~ The Trinity is a picture of inclusivity; the three persons of the Trinity with space in between them in which we see the figure of Christ looking out with welcoming eyes, inviting inclusion and participation in the community of God.
The church is called to reflect the heart of God and to see the world through Christ’s eyes and to express the values and ways of the kingdom. Where power is expressed in love and where God’s power is made known through weakness.
The God who chose to be disabled, who took the form of disability to participate and redeem broken humanity; the wounded healer who is the Saviour of the world.
The realisation that God uses our perceived and real disabilities to be the bridges over which his love travels into the hearts, homes and areas of the world that need his healing and compassion.
In a Western society driven by image and reputation, we need to remind ourselves of the powerful gifts of reality and authenticity, transparency and integrity and that those who carry wounds and disability carry within them a redemptive capacity to bring healing and wholeness, compassion and tender mercy towards others.
So it’s a reminder to all of us, with all our disabilities. Billy, my friend from PHAB (Physically Handicapped, Able Body organisation holidays) when I was an Outward Bound instructor, who suffered from cerebral palsy, who was a great character and an unconventional witness for Christ. I was with him once in a crowded café in Dover where seeing people looking at him, he went over to them and introduced himself “Hi my name’s Billy I’m a spastic, what’s your disability?!”).
The story reminds me both of my own and everyone’s areas of disability and also the wonderful truth that at we are not only included in God’s family but we are called to be partners, involved in his loving redemptive purposes for the world.
I do give thanks for the work of organisations such as Torch Trust and other campaigning bodies who are discovering not only a pastoral ministry but a prophetic voice which is bringing awareness and justice to those who’ve been excluded because of their particular disabilities. There is also some cause for encouragement that the church and wider society are acknowledging the needs and rights of those who have previously been excluded.
I am profoundly thankful that we can at our new Mother House of the Northumbria Community, Nether Springs, offer a welcome and access and accommodation to nearly everyone regardless of any disability or mobility issue.
I have also, in my many travels, observed the growth of ramps and a few large print bibles and hymn and song books in churches, although I think we have a very long way to go.
Those of us who are seen to not have any disability issues still have a terrible tendency to think we know what disabled people need and end up with assumptions and prescriptive policies that are either irrelevant or at worst disregard the needs of those whom we seek to include. You can put in a ramp or a handrail but miss the point and there is a whole area of understanding and change of attitude and theological outlook that is required to truly welcome, honour, include and bless. It’s very easy to lapse into a charitable or patronising charitable attitude towards people with disability and whilst there were great, excuse the pun, strides taken in relation to last year’s Paralympics, one aspect of the legacy that I note with caution is the celebrity making culture that regards people with disability as great heroes.
Disabled people are essentially people, like everybody else, ordinary people, as we all are. As Nancy Elsland said in her book The Disabled God disabled people don’t live different lives, they live ordinary lives differently.
Peoples disability can’t be their defining characteristic, e.g. Glen is a friend who is a very creative thinker with a keen theological mind, very funny, enjoys a good beer, is married to Rowan, lives in Plymouth, hopes to return to the North, oh and by the way he is blind. When he is simply spoken of as Glen the blind man, we dehumanise him and fail to include him as a person in his own right.
As a church we need to see one another, regard and relate to one another as God does; where there are no exclusion zones, no categories or boundaries drawn around, which define people in a way that excludes them not only from being part of God’s family, the church, but fails to recognise their participation in God’s ministry and mission in the world.
Whenever I visit churches and communities, I am interested to see not only how those bodies welcome and include but recognise, release and affirm ministries and the gifting of such people … its when we see not only the front pews removed for wheelchair users but when the pulpit has a ramp that we might see greater signs of the kingdom of God at work in such areas….
May the church welcome, honour, bless by receiving, listen, learn, incorporate, involve, recognise, resource, equip, release and authorise and affirm participation and the exercising of gifts and ministries or all God’s people.
Let me end as I begun with words of blessing: among them another simple liturgy that I came across whilst sailing this week in the Hebrides, “Hail guest, we ask not what thou art, if friend, we greet thee, hand on heart; If stranger, such no longer be; if foe our love shall conquer”.
As a Geordie, both by birth and conviction let me reiterate the welcome to you all here in the North East: I welcome you, honour and pray God’s blessing upon you. And in the words at the end of our Community’s Morning prayer:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you
Wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
Protect you through the storm.
May He bring you home rejoicing
At the wonders He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
Once again into our doors.
© Roy Searle, Northumbria Community Trust, June 2013