Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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Writing helps me work things through but since starting my sabbatical I am plagued with questions about the etiquette of sabbaticals! Am I supposed to come off social media? am I supposed to go and hide in a cave? Am I supposed to wear sackcloth?

I have quickly realised there is no etiquette.  It’s time for me and God to do some chatting and for me to take some time out of my too busy life to listen to him.  Jesus has been my best friend for nearly 28 years and I like spending time with him, so actually taking a sabbatical is a joy rather than a trial.

I began with a social media fast, I lasted 1 week and discovered that I did spend a lot of time checking my Facebook and twitter accounts!  It did feel terrible the first couple of days, but it helped that I’d gone away with my lovely hubby and left all my devices at home! It’s teaching me that I need to have more wisdom in who I listen to and where I seek wisdom from.  It’s easy to turn on Facebook and ask a question that I should really be asking God. Coming back, I’ve taken the apps off my phone so it isn’t constantly available and am going to plan regular breaks from social media. And by that, I mean, actually put them in my diary so that it happens!

I have quickly been reminded in my prayer times of two important truths:

  1. Those who seek God will find him – It has been wonderful to feel his presence with me again.  I know he is there all the time but being so busy and distracted meant that I had lost that feeling. I’ve begun to hear his voice in the Bible and in my prayers once again and it is like a wonderful reunion.  I’m glad God has patience with me.  I’ve also met some new people that are so on my wavelength with the disability ministry work and am very excited that they might join a growing team of people in our area.  It sounded like they are seeking God for the same things and that God brought us together.  That makes my heart sing.
  2. Those who seek God will be attacked by the devil – Already this week three things happened that threatened to open up past wounds and put me in danger of being the object of someones anger.  We should not be surprised and I was quickly reminded in my Bible reading that we have the armour of God in Ephesians 6.  When my kids were young, we actually made the armour pieces with them in Sunday School and it was the best visual activity for learning the Bible we’ve ever done.  I still mentally see all those pieces as I cover myself with his protection. I was also reminded that Jesus is interceding for the world (as the picture above tries to depict).  The battle belongs to the Lord.  It’s going to be important that I get into my Bible and study the word of God, the sword of the Spirit, as I go through these next few months.

So, I am going to blog occasionally, about my sabbatical, and hope that you might join me in putting time aside to just ‘be’ with our Lord Jesus.  I’m sure there’s going to be lots I will not share but plenty that I will.   My prayer is that we come together in unity, as Paul prayed.

 Ephesians 4:4-6
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;  one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

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A moment in time

I have been involved in women’s ministry for many years.  Sometimes organising women’s retreats, or getting groups of women together to support one another.  Often it has been 1:1 ministry, just talking and sharing some of the deepest and hardest times in our lives.  I have seen God do some amazing healing.  So many women have struggled with the pressures and expectations of being a woman in this world; having to work, family, motherhood, singleness, relationships, faith, church, illness, past abuse and difficult relationships, and all seeking God in the midst of their turmoil.  Some of these women have spoken to me about their guilt of particular sins…and some have shared what they called ‘secret sins’ that they dare not share widely because of the fear of judgement from other Christians. One of these issues has been abortion, including taking the decision not to continue with a pregnancy when they were told that the child would have a disability.

Recently there has been some debate on social media about a new test to detect Down’s Syndrome in a foetus.  Currently all pregnant women are offered a test to detect if their baby is at risk of having an extra chromosome and if the risk is high (usually between 1 in 2 and 1 in 150) then the mother is offered a second test which can tell more accurately if the child has Down’s, Edward’s or Patau’s Syndrome. (see references for more information).  The new test is less invasive, less of a risk to the child and is done through a maternal blood test.  (However, is yet to be available on the NHS). Ultrasound scans can also detect other disabilities, abnormalities and serious medical complications with a baby in the womb.

Whilst this seems good news in terms of medical safety, it highlights the moral dilemma of what to do if the baby has a serious condition. We rarely talk about these issues in church and it is very easy to preach that abortion is wrong and all life is sacred (yes these things are true) without realising that statistically there will be someone in our congregation who will have been through a termination and will feel condemned and unaccepted in the church because they have done such a thing.

I found the website ‘Antenatal Results and Choices’ very informative and very balanced.  It isn’t a Christian or religious advice service but one that allows parents to gather information, talk to one of their counsellors and gives balanced information that doesn’t try to influence someone’s choice. Ministers, pastors, youth leaders, all Christians…be informed please! Read up what parents have to go through in these circumstances and have compassion on those who have to choose.

And that is what parents are faced with.  A moment in time choice.

A typical pregnancy can be hard work, emotional, exciting, amazing and have problems such as sickness to contend with along with all the planning and expectations that the new parents build up over the months to the birth.  Once a parent is given the news that their child may or will have a disabling condition the whole tone of the pregnancy changes.

Emotionally, a mother is carrying around more hormone induced emotion than she will ever experience in her life and a shock such as this can make rational thought extremely difficult.  We mustn’t ignore a father’s emotions too. If he is present and involved, it hurts him just as much.  The wider family will be affected and may have strong influence on what the parents decide.

It is at this point that what the doctors or midwives say next becomes crucial.

‘The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) have produced a report on ‘Termination of Pregnancy for Fetal Abnormality in England, Scotland and Wales’ (May 2010). Within it are a number of recommendations. The following is a quote from their report’

“All staff involved in the care of a woman or couple facing a possible termination of pregnancy must adopt a nondirective, non-judgemental and supportive approach. After the diagnosis, the woman will need help to understand and explore the issues and options that are open to her and be given the time she needs to decide how to proceed. She must not feel pressurised to make a quick decision but, once a decision has been, made the procedure should be organised with minimal delay.”

http://www.healthtalk.org/peoples-experiences/pregnancy-children/antenatal-screening/making-decision-end-pregnancy

Unfortunately, sometimes doctors and midwives seem to assume that a parent will NOT want to continue with the pregnancy.  Some have been asked immediately not what they want to do, but how soon would they like the termination? There have been staff who have given a negative and poor picture of what life with Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy, Hydrocephalus, physical disability or other disability will be like which puts unequalled pressure on the parents and is often the advice that influences the decision the most.

I thank God for all the doctors and midwives that do share positives and possibilities with parents. There are many who are just amazing at supporting parents through this most difficult of times.  We know there have been many testimonies of parents whose children have achieved much and more than ever was thought possible by doctors.  The support the family and child will need and receive, and realistic but positive outcomes for their lives is paramount.  Parents need to see that there are services, support groups, benefits and advice that can help them care for and bring up their child, whatever their difficulties.

However, we do have to be realistic.  Some children are diagnosed with conditions so severe that they are unlikely to live long after birth, and the trauma of the birth can be a dangerous event.  Some children may have such severe needs that knowing whether having them will only bring them pain and suffering, is a question that parents will be faced with. And the truth is that looking after and bringing up a child with disabilities is more than any parent thought that having children was going to be.  And at the heart of that, is our thoughts about our ability to cope with that life.  I know for so many people, they wouldn’t even question that.  They have the determination and faith to go ahead with whatever needs the child will have.

 

Reaching out to those who need to know Jesus forgives them

But this post is about those who do go ahead with a termination.  In this context I am considering those who terminate because of a disability, but the principle has to include all, for whatever reason.  In that life moment, whatever their decision, God is aware of it and present in that moment.  Whether the parents who make the decision are week or strong in our eyes, God knows they are fallible human beings. Just as the rest of us.

The truth is that termination of a pregnancy, breaks the 6th Commandment – Thou shall not murder.  As human beings we have been murdering innocent and helpless people since Cain murdered Abel.  And it is no surprise to God. Yes, it is sin.  But the Bible is very clear about where we all stand on the issue of sin. He is not going to punish us…because he punished Jesus in our place. What love!

Romans 3:23-25

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.”

In the post I am asking that we all remember that whilst aborting a baby for whatever reason is against God’s commandments and however wrong you feel it is, that we have compassion on those who have been through something and made a decision that we may not begin to be able to understand.

At the heart of the gospel is forgiveness and this is for all.  In fact, it was often those who felt that they were not worthy of coming to God that Jesus was especially kind to. It is those who have been forgiven much who understand the enormity of his GRACE.

Luke 7:40-43

Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two people owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[c] and the other fifty.  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’

‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.

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And Jesus’s command to us was to forgive as he forgave us.  We know lots of things are wrong, and hurt others.  Forgiveness is the power we have as Christians to share God’s Grace.  None of us deserve his favour. None of us can stand before him and say we are better than anyone else.  We may hate what others have done. We may think we have done better than them, but in the end Jesus tells us to forgive and have compassion on one another, just as he has done for us.  When you are tempted to judge and post comments about how awful some people are because of what they have done, let’s remember that may be someone sat next to you at church, or one of your Facebook friends.  It has been an honour for me to have someone tell me that they made a decision not to go ahead with a pregnancy because their child was disabled, when they fully know that I work to include and promote people with disabilities in our society.  I hope that is because I remember how much Jesus has forgiven me, and that the only thing I can offer is his Grace for them too.

If you are a person who has gone through this and feel guilty, lost and have maybe never dealt with the pain, when I have ministered to those in a similar position, we have taken the time to talk to God and he has given the women or couple the gift of naming their child.  Being assured that their child is with him can bring hope and I recommend the book “Tilly” by Frank Peretti if you’d like to explore God’s grace and forgiveness more. Please do search out someone to counsel you and guide you as God’s forgiveness is for everyone. Truth.

As always we should pray for God’s wisdom to understand and for his grace to do his will.  Christian women and men carrying the burden of such a secret can struggle to believe forgiveness is for them if they feel that other christians will judge and condemn them.  And there will be non-christian women and men who may be saved by our showing forgiveness and grace to them, no matter what they may have been through or done. Jesus would have us do this. So let’s pray…

Prayers

Prayer for those who are suffering.

Heavenly Father, we pray for those who have made that decision not to go ahead with a pregnancy because a child had a disability.  We pray that you will heal their pain and help them know that you will never punish them, that you have forgiven them and that you can take away their pain and guilty feelings.  Help me be sensitive to those that I may meet and be open and gracious to forgive them as you have forgiven me.

Romans 4:6-8

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:  ‘Blessed are those  whose transgressions are forgiven,  whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.’

In Jesus Name. Amen

Prayer for children and families with disabilities

Heavenly Father we pray for children who have been born with a disability and for their parents.  We pray that you will help them and guide them and give them all the strength that they need to navigate this life that is made harder for them because our society does not value them well. We pray for the support, help and resources they need to be available and for them to flourish and thrive in our churches and in society.

1 Corinthians 1:26-30

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

In Jesus Name. Amen

Prayer for midwives and doctors

Heavenly Father we pray for all midwives and doctors who support women who are told that their baby may have physical, learning or other disabilities. Give them compassion and wisdom and may they never assume that the child’s disabilities will follow a certain pattern that is negative and hopeless.  May they get the training and have the compassion and wisdom they need to help and guide parents through this difficult time.

Mark 11:24-26

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’

In Jesus Name. Amen

Prayer for the church

Heavenly Father, we pray for the people in your church to be bigger and better at forgiveness.  Let us preach it far and wide and shine the light of your forgiveness and Grace into the darkness of people’s lives. Let us be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit to listen and to learn about people’s deepest lives and give kindness and compassion instead of judgement.  Let us not be as the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18.

Matthew 6:14-16

 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Acts 10:42-44

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Ephesians 1:6-8

...to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding,

 Collossians 3:12-14

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

In Jesus Name. Amen

All Bible verses are from the New International Version. www.bilegateway.com

About the pregnancy screening tests:  http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/screening-amniocentesis-downs-syndrome.aspx

Antenatal Results and Choices website:  http://www.arc-uk.org

About forgiveness for those who have had an abortion:  https://carm.org/are-you-christian-woman-who-has-had-abortion

This is it folks – church family in action. And it started with an ask…

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One email.

That was all it took.

A lot of courage but just one email.

Last summer was so hard and I knew I could not face it again so I swallowed my pride and dropped my Church office a note.

‘Could anyone help me out?…’

They responded quickly. They responded lovingly. They reached out and changed my entire summer.

A few weeks before the schools broke up I was asked to meet with them. They had ideas and I had ideas and we discussed simple ways people, many we hardly knew, could help us through the challenges of seven weeks holiday with two complex needs children.

I suggested perhaps one meal a week that I didn’t have to cook or prepare. They went above and beyond and hand delivered up to three meals a week, some of them arriving still hot and ready to be served. Roast chicken…

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This past month has been really difficult for me.  It was building up since before the Brexit vote, but that tipped the scales.  I’ve been worrying about even watching the news, wondering what horrible event will happen next.  I’ve been upset with the political situations in Britain, Turkey, America, and the middle east.  Upset about the violence, murder and persecution of people all around the world.  I’ve been trying to pray for those killed and hurt in attacks, not just in Europe, not just those splashed across the newspapers in our country, but the forgotten and ignored tragedies in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and other countries.

But I’m overwhelmed.  On top of the exhaustion that comes to every teacher at the end of the school year, I want to yell at God…”STOP THE WORLD…AND LET ME GET OFF!”  I’ve not been sure how to cope at all.

And it was in this state that I set up the ‘Day of Prayer for our Nation’ on Facebook. (Join me here if you still want to pray).  That did help a lot.  In searching the Bible for guidance and when a wonderful friend offered to help, we remembered our response to this world is to pray and to share God’s love.  Praying through those prayers as the day went on, really helped calm my troubled soul…and continue to do so.

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It is so important to include people with learning disabilities in our engagement with what is going on in the world. They worry too. They hear and are affected by what is going on, sometimes more directly than we are.  (Take the Government’s welfare reforms as an example). We can pray with them and give them access to praying with us if we help their communication.  The accessible prayers are just one example. Signing or pictures may help  some. I know L’Arche communities are wonderfully experienced in building the prayer lives of everyone in their communities.

On the Wednesday, at our usual Good News Group meeting we set aside some time to pray for our nation, using the accessible prayers that I had made for the Friday.  Each table had a set and the members and carers each chose a prayer to offer, in our usual ways of either reading it out themselves, a team member reading it for them or just by placing it in the centre of the table, showing that they are offering their prayers to God.

Everyone there took a prayer and offered it to the Lord. What really struck me was their real concerns and worries about Brexit and all that was happening.  People with learning disabilities hear things on the news and worry the same as the rest of us, we shouldn’t be surprised.  They too want to make sense of it all.  The comments I want to share with you show how much they care about this.

D, who isn’t a Christian but comes to the group every week, was really fascinated by the prayers we had set out on the table.  He said “I’m really glad you’ve put these out.  I don’t believe but I want you to pray about this…” and he passed a card to one of the team to pray. 

V said “I’ve been hearing about all this on the news. It’s terrible.  What’s going to happen, I don’t know.” and she chose a prayer for all the politicians. 

E said, “I’m worried about what will happen to my carer.  She’s not from this country.  I’m scared they are going to take her away, then who’s going to help me then? She’s lovely is my carer. I don’t want another one.” 

And all around the room, people with learning disabilities were joining in as prayer warriors for this nation.  Lord hear our prayers.  Lord have mercy.  Lord hear our prayers.

I’m hoping that others have joined us too.  I sent out the accessible prayers to a few people who asked for them, so if you were one of those, I’d love to hear how your prayer times went.

I feel that God has been sending me encouragement this week in two blogs I have read.  I am sharing them here and hope that if you feel overwhelmed and discouraged they will help you too.  Firstly Anthony Delany reminded me of the parable Jesus told us about how we should know that there is evil in this world. God is allowing the weeds and the wheat to grow in the ground together but he will protect his wheat and burn the weeds at the harvest.  It helped me.  And then Helen Murray encouraged me by reminding me of how Gideon felt when God asked him to fight the Midionites – and to go in the strength that we have because God is with us.  Thank you both.

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This has been brewing in my mind for over a year now.  But in June I went on a writers retreat weekend and whilst there had time to listen to God as I prayed about the ministry with people with learning difficulties that I am involved in.

“It’s time to move on.”

Not the message I was releasing hearing but I knew in my heart that I needed to obey God.  I know already what he is filling my Spirit with.  But my plan is to take a sabbatical for a few months and really work through with Him what next steps I should take.  I’m desperate for it to be His plan and not mine because I know one of my faults is to run ahead of Him.  So many times He has had to pull me back and rescue me from my own foolishness and over-eagerness without letting Him prepare the way first.   Hey….perhaps I’m growing up a bit…ha ha!

So this Wednesday will be my last meeting at the Good News Group as we break up for the summer.  I’m attending the summer BBQ in August and taking my break from September. Our vicar, David, always said we should be training others up to take our place, and I am very grateful to Lorraine who is going to take over my role.  Believe it or not, it is mainly admin and some teaching, because the rest of the team is so good and so able to keep everything going just fine without me.  I am most proud of the way that everyone serves in the group. Whether you have learning difficulties or not, there is something that each person can contribute. I’ve written a letter to share the news with the group and a social story for my special friend S, who I usually give a lift to, assuring her that her carers will take her to GNG and she has other friends there that will look after her.  I intend to take her out for coffee regularly as we have been friends for over 8 years and I’m not letting that go.  She’s fun and lovely, and my friend.

I’m feeling very emotional because the GNG is the most wonderful experience of church that I’ve ever known.  It doesn’t fulfil the ‘wholly inclusive’ brief, but has made Christ’s church more inclusive to everyone who is part of it.  It has also changed our wider church.  When we’ve taken services people have been challenged to see ABILITY not disability.  Our wider congregation talk to people with disabilities in our community much more and invite them to our group.  It’s been and will continue to be an important part of our church.

And I, being the ‘gobby’ one have been able to teach and challenge others to see ABILITY not disability.  I’ve been able to pass on what we have learned about ways of communicating the whole Bible and how our members have responded. For example, we’ve been learning about missionaries this term.  We’ve covered so much of the Bible in the 10 years I’ve been there and my plans do include sharing some of the material we have written. The engagement and involvement of the GNG members has been a joy. And their carers are receiving God’s Word and his love too.  I have become passionate about including them and giving them a voice in all I do.  There’s a lot more I want to do on that, but I’m hoping to develop that out of the next steps.

Looking ahead to my sabbatical, It will be good to rest a little (hopefully) and I am going to ponder on some things I have been reading and that have come to mind as I read my Bible.  I can kind of put them under four headings…4 P’s – (which appeals to my love of alliteration!)

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Preach

Preaching the gospel to those who haven’t yet heard it is paramount to the Great Commission that Jesus left his disciples.  We preach the gospel every week at the GNG but I am well aware that there are many more people with learning disabilities that have not yet heard the gospel.  This may mean coming out of the safety of the church building and going to where they are.  I am going to have to do some research and find out where I should go and where God might want me to preach his message.  I am going to pray about others who might join me and some of them must be people with learning disabilities too.

Pray

Obviously prayer is foundational to everything.  I am well aware that there is a spiritual battle that wars against us and prayer is our battleground.  We have the armour of God and the Sword of the Spirit – the Word of God.  We need to be battle prepared and ready.  Prayer is the way.  I have been greatly encouraged by the prayers of the GNG members.  They are so used to praying now and the use of our symbols and accessible prayers such as those we used on the Day of Prayer for Our Nation  have given them confidence in approaching God for theirs and other’s needs.  I will be asking them to pray for anything I might be doing and will always continue to pray for them.

Prepare

I was reading somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) that when we preach the gospel to people with disabilities, we’d better prepare the church for receiving them.  I think this is really important as I have found that there are more churches than I’d thought that were just not prepared for supporting people with disabilities.  Sometimes it’s because they haven’t thought about it, sometimes its the ‘we’ve always done things this way’ inflexibility, and sometimes it’s just not having the knowledge and practical understanding of how to go about it. This is where I really want to help.  I want to build a team of others in this area that can train and support churches to be more inclusive. I want that team to include people with learning and other disabilities.  But that’s my dream.  I have to make sure it is what God intends and do it in his time.

Provide

When we realise that many churches would benefit from training and support, we realise that equipping them with good Biblical and practical resources can help too.  I would love to find an accessible way of sharing our Bible teaching materials and I will explore that in the next few months.  Also have some kind of directory where people can find links to other resources that are out there.  I am proud to be part of the Churches for All organisation that is seeking to do much of the same and will be strengthening my links with them and with Prospects, Through the Roof, Urban Saints,  Children Worldwide and Disability and Jesus.  I believe that working together, raising our voices as one, we will make a big noise.  We can support and help one another  (theres so many “one another’s” in the Bible for a reason) and I really don’t want to do any of this on my own.  I like being part of a team.  Team Jesus Rocks!

And if you’d like to pray for our national churches to become more inclusive and for people with additional needs, autism and learning disabilities to be saved – then please do.   I shall be blogging my sabbatical and more about inclusion these next few months. Do get in touch if you have anything to share too. Thank you.

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Hoping all the pieces will fit together! 

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Last Thursday wasn’t only my birthday but the day we as a nation voted to leave the EU.  It’s not what I wanted and I was not prepared for how I would feel about that.  I wasn’t prepared for how people I loved and knew from both sides of the argument would feel too.

Its a big deal.  And not knowing what happens next, the political upheaval and the racist remarks out on the street…just leaves us all with a lot to be anxious about.

So I thought what can I do…

Well, pray of course.  And so that my friends could join me I set up a Facebook Event page with the date of Friday 8th July and invited my friends to join me wherever they were going to be that day…and just pray for our nation.

I wasn’t prepared for the way that my friends shared this and told others about it.  I wasn’t prepared for how strangers would respond and want to join us.  I wasn’t prepared for a Bishop finding out about it and sending the date around his churches inviting people to join in.

It’s like the whole thing is in bigger hands than mine.

Thank you Lord!

So, if any of you want to join us – here is the link  https://www.facebook.com/DayofPrayer8.7.16/?fref=ts      and do share amongst your praying friends.  On the day I plan to post an hourly topic, Bible verse and prayer so that we can spend the day covering a variety of topics.  People will be able to pray where they are, for however long they have and share their prayers on the FB page.

I’m going to fast, just because it feels right for me to do it.  People can join in with that too if they feel that they want to – but it isn’t a requirement.

It’s just that simple.  Let’s pray and ask God for mercy and help for our nation.  Its a small response, a beginning, that’s all…

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I was invited to do a talk for a local church’s Flower Festival and I said, “I talk about inclusion and church, is that ok?” and they said “Yes! You’ve got 10 minutes”.  

So here is a copy of my talk (with names taken out).  If you’d like to use it when you have 10 minutes to talk about inclusion and the Gospel, please do (and I’d love to know what you think or how it goes.)   I also used a large and a small cardboard box as my visual aid.  I’ve put pictures in and hope you can see how they might have illustrated the point about putting people in boxes. 

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You have all come together this week to display your community spirit through these wonderful flower arrangements.  I’m sure you have enjoyed coming together and contributing.  I hope there hasn’t been any near disasters or arguments about what should go where!  But how do you keep that going?  How do you continue to make your community work, to be inclusive and to reflect the gospel here in this town?  How do you find those that are unable to join you because of disability and ensure that they are enabled to be part of it?

The Bible says We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14-27 ERV)

 “And a person’s body has more than one part. It has many parts. The foot might say, “I am not a hand, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not stop the foot from being a part of the body.  The ear might say, “I am not an eye, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not make the ear stop being a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, it would not be able to hear. If the whole body were an ear, it would not be able to smell anything.  If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body. But as it is, God put the parts in the body as he wanted them. He made a place for each one.  So there are many parts, but only one body.

 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!”  No, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually very important.  And the parts that we think are not worth very much are the parts we give the most care to. And we give special care to the parts of the body that we don’t want to show. The more beautiful parts don’t need this special care. But God put the body together and gave more honor to the parts that need it.  God did this so that our body would not be divided. God wanted the different parts to care the same for each other.  If one part of the body suffers, then all the other parts suffer with it. Or if one part is honored, then all the other parts share its honor.

 All of you together are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of that body.”

I love these verse because it speaks powerfully about who is included in Christ’s community.

Our society has its own way of including people or not.  It judges people and in doing so declares that they are worthy or not.  So it says if you are ‘normal’ you are accepted, if you are disabled or autistic, well, that’s not normal so you’re not acceptable.  If you are able to contribute to society, then you are worthy, but if you are disabled or autistic, then you can’t (which isn’t true) but then you’re classed as unworthy.  Just look at how the government are using the DWP assessments.  People have died, lost the ability to survive and have to endure incredibly complex and undignified interrogations – just to decide if they are worthy of enough money to live on.

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So our society puts people into boxes, and then says these here are worthy, acceptable, included….these over here are not.  They are unworthy, unacceptable, excluded.   And most of us fear that one day we will be judged and thrown into this box, and the truth is – we are all vulnerable.  We all grow old, we are all limited and any one of us could be ill, disabled, cast out at any time.

There is a real danger that the church we echo what society is doing.  We can’t pretend that there aren’t many people who have been hurt and excluded by church.  I know families who have been asked to leave a church because their disabled child has made too much noise, or they cannot access the children’s work because it is upstairs and their child is a wheelchair user. Adults with autism have been told that they have no place in a church…by a vicar.  These things have really happened and are just a small list of the many ways that people with disabilities are being told that they are not as normal, worthy or included in God’s kingdom.

But what does the Bible say?  This book that we believe carries the words and authority of God? Let me share with you the essential facts of the gospel that are plain and simple.

Romans 3:23 says; “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”

That means every human being that ever lived is not worthy or acceptable to God. We have all sinned, we have all ignored and shut him out.  None of us are good enough.  We cannot save ourselves.  We all belong in this box –

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We need a Saviour…

But it goes on….  “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”

So God gave us a Saviour in Jesus Christ.  John 3:16 tells us that “He loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son – that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Wow…whoever…

So all of us that realise we are really in this box, can now be worthy and accepted by God because of Jesus’s death on the cross.  We do need to ask..is there anyone who isn’t a sinner?  No. we are all in the same boat…or box when it comes to that.

But we also need to ask…. Is there anyone who is excluded from being part of God’s family? What if you murdered someone, what if you worshiped another God, what if you were a proud bully, what if you were ‘religious’ and thought to yourself that God would surely accept you?  What if you are disabled, what if you are mentally ill…. what if you are just… different?

And what about those who cannot speak? What about those who are intellectually disabled?  Can they declare their faith in Jesus Christ?  I can tell you for certain, those who are the least, are often the quickest and most faithful believers.

We have a church service every Wednesday evening that is open to all, and 25-35 people with learning disabilities and their carers come along.  We have had to find different ways of communicating; we use signing, pictures, drama and puppets. We’ve learned from scratch, asking the Lord to teach us. And we see people who were previously excluded from church because it was too complex, or because they couldn’t read, or they couldn’t get there or they were too noisy….they are the ones who teach us about the reality of faith.  My friend S who has Down’s Syndrome is a faithful prayer for anyone who is sick and troubled. G who cannot speak very much, prays and worships with loud delighted vocalisations.  K who cannot leave his wheelchair without being hoisted up in a huge harness, who relies on other adults to take him to the toilet, knows the Bible inside out and writes hymns and songs to express his love of the Lord. J who has cerebral palsy and walks with difficulty is a computer whizz and could write sermons that would blow us away.  But he has slow speech…would we listen to him I wonder? Or would we dismiss him as not being able to say anything important?

Repent and believe is the message of the gospel for all. Anyone can do that.

And the challenge for us then is to be the community that Christ designed. An inclusive and accepting community where everyone is worthy.  Where we make a special effort to honour the less honourable parts of the body and enable them to share their gifts amongst us.

One thing I have learnt and become very passionate about is ENABLING children and adults with disabilities to flourish in their faith and gifting. To see them as co-workers and fellow believers rather than people we do charity to.  I long to see a church where we are all enabled to develop and flourish in our gifts so that we can share the gospel in so many more creative ways and when people do come to join us, they join an inclusive and loving community like no other.

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It’s a bit like this, we try to put everyone in the ‘church’ box…but I believe that God never intended any of us to be in a box.  (The big box is opened out flat to reveal the inside as above).

God planted a garden.  We are the flowers, and there’s no boundaries except to love our God, love others and preach the good news of the gospel to everyone.  Not knowing how to go about it is not an excuse…we all know how to pray, and I know from experience that God will guide and enable us to do his work.  I’ve learned much more about faith from those who would normally be seen as having nothing to contribute.  This has been the joy of my life!  It can be yours too, let’s not forget those who are the least in our society, let’s raise them up and honour our Lord Jesus as we do.

My prayer is that we can be God’s garden, allow him nurture those seeds, those buds and see them grow and blossom.  Let’s shine his glorious light through our communities in the name of Jesus. Just as these flowers are shining for your community this weekend.

Amen

 

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