Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Archive for the ‘gospel’ Category

Living hopefully in the storm

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Some of you will have read a post I put up a few days ago called “Storm before the Calm.”  I have taken this down as I was embarrassed at how raw it was.  I was having a bad weekend emotionally but thanks to a lovely friend who helped me feel much better after a good chat,  I’m rewriting it as something that can stay on the blog.  (Thanks so much to those that already replied – I have all your comments and you are much appreciated).

Like a lot of people, I have been quite upset by things way beyond my control.  The main things that have ‘stormed’ into my life are:

  1. The news – terrorist attacks, tower block fires, the stupid election (my views are my own!) and just not knowing what the government are doing. I still don’t want Brexit and the process frightens me. It’s unsettling, hard to escape.  Two girls from my town died in the Manchester attack.  Everyone I know shares the worry and grief over all the incidents and events in our country these past months.

 

  1. A death happened. A young person took their own life.  I’m grieving for them and their family.  I have been researching mental health and young people and find that we are ignoring the risks and pressures that affect our young people.  It feels like we are sleepwalking into a crisis.  Many people think that’s already happening.  I’m praying and wondering what the church should be doing.

 

  1. For some time I’ve been wondering about how I can share much more of the resources we’ve built up over 10 years of our Good News Group. Particularly our Bible teaching materials but also sharing our story and training for churches.  I want so much to give our adults in the group, opportunity to speak for themselves and for others with learning disabilities to have access to good teaching materials.

 

And this is where I asked for help in my last post.  If you read includedbygrace regularly I’d like to hear from you.  If you’ve happened to read it by random google search, I want to hear from you.  I want to know what you think of includedbygrace and the information I share.  What it means to you and how it has helped you (or not).

If you want to say a pray for this please pray that God will make this what he wants it to be.  I have been blessed by a conversation with two web developers who are interested in designing an accessible website with me.  Maybe that’s a thing that includedbygrace can become.  I have no funding, only faith at this point in time.  But I believe in a God who funds his own projects.

My second idea is to build a team of trainers from our Good News Group who can tell churches how they can be better included.  I experimented with doing this by video when I went to London and this was one way of sharing their voice.  Locally I can take people to places we speak.

Thirdly, I’d love to reach out to special schools in our area.  Maybe with assemblies or sensory Bible stories.  I’d need a team of GNG members to help me…and again the logistics are huge.  But not for God!

In my mind are a lot of other random ideas.  I only want to go in the direction God has prepared and not waste time on things that won’t work.  The aim is to spread the gospel and disciple children, teens and adults with learning disabilities, giving them accessible Bible teaching and resources.  Also, it is to equip churches to do this work too.  We are a small team…living hopefully in the storms…

Can we all be a bit more like Angela please?

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Psalm 131 (NIRV)

A song for those who go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. A psalm of David.

Lord, my heart isn’t proud.
My eyes aren’t proud either.
I don’t concern myself with important matters.
I don’t concern myself with things that are too wonderful for me.
I have made myself calm and content
like a young child in its mother’s arms.
Deep down inside me, I am as content as a young child.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forever.

I’ve just come home after attending the funeral of one of our Good News Group members.  Angela had Down’s Syndrome and lived to be 61.  She lived with her family and was part of a church that loved and accepted her as she was.  She’d been at the GNG for many years but hadn’t been attending for almost a year due to being ill….but she is and always will be part of our family.  We will miss her very much.

You see Angela didn’t have very many words but those she did have she used to great effect.  She introduced herself to everyone – literally everyone – by going up to them with a huge smile on her face and greeting them with “Hello, my name is Angela” in a beautiful sing song voice.

Angela loved handbags, football and colouring in.  She loved music and singing worship songs and got so excited when we had puppets that we used to just get them out of the box and sit one next to her, just to share in her delight.  She had a twinkle in her eye that told us when she was joking or pulling our leg and Jesus shone in her and from her every pore. And Angela could say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” because that came from one of her favourite films.

Angela was never judgemental.  She had no regard for status or rank.  She treated everyone the same whether she liked you or you had done something that annoyed her (although she was never mad for long).   Angela lived each day just for that day and didn’t seem to worry about the future.  She did love and engage with everyone around her, no matter who you were.   The Queen would have had the same greeting as a pauper.

A bit like the Jesus I know.

I’m tired of people being excluded from church families because they are different, don’t fit the mould or are the wrong kind of person.  “Are you disabled? Well, you can’t do this or that.   Are you a woman…then, you can’t do this or that.  Are you LGBT?…then, you can’t do this or that.  Are you a foreigner?…well you can’t do this or that.  Can’t you keep you disabled child quiet?…then you can’t do this or that.  Are you mentally ill?…then you can’t do this or that.  We can’t have our churches run by these kinds of people.”  

 Did Jesus make up these categories…I don’t think so…

But these are the messages I hear from all kinds of Christians and church people.  We’re all shouting at each other and no-one seems to be listening.  (Except maybe the outside world who think what are they on about?!)

So, in my grief today I was reminded that Jesus came for all of mankind.  That no-one is excluded unless they think they don’t need him.   I want to be more like Angela and accept everyone, just as they are.  I am working it out as He teaches me what that looks like in practice.  I’m willing to be shown where I’ve got it wrong –  by the Spirit working in and through the people and situations I meet.   At the moment I don’t even know if I want to part of ‘the church’ in this country that’s doing a lot of shouting – but not about the gospel, only at each other.  But I expect God will sort my thoughts out about that eventually.

So will you join me in being more like Angela?  Angela’s name means “MESSENGER OF GOD” and here’s her message. It’s simple really.  Open up your arms and greet people in the name of Jesus.   No matter who they are.

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Can we have an accessible Bible please? 



Actually, Biblica has answered this call and produced the first gospel of a new accessible Bible.  Matthew’s Gospel in the New International Readers Accessible Version was launched at the No Limits conference in November.  Excitedly I picked up a few copies to bring home with me and gave one to each of our Good News Group Leaders.  We all agreed that for those of our group who could read, it was a fantastic resource.  The sentences are short,  the text is large print and the paragraphs are spaced with clear breaks.  The language is simpler but faithful to the original.  The occasional illustration breaks up the text visually and makes the whole gospel of Matthew accessible to people who couldn’t either understand the language or read the text because it was too small.

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We bought 20 copies from 10ofThose  and planned our teaching programme with texts and stories from Matthew’s gospel.  We are teaching about prayer and found our stories and Bible verses to explore different aspects of prayer each week.   As we always plan a multi-sensory approach – we’ve made a 3D prayer reminder from a wooden spoon and done drama and puppet sketches, used sensory experiences, Makaton and songs to support each session.

There are still many of our group that cannot read so I took the text we were using and produced symbol pictures using the Communicate in Print software we use.  I’ve put these in a folder so that they are becoming like a visual Bible story book.

Here’s an example:

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When we read the Bible passage now, we give out the Matthew Gospel books and the folders with the symbol sheets to each table that sits about 6-8 people.  Each group then reads the Bible together.  Taking it at the slowest reader’s pace, the members of the group who can read, read out loud together and those who can’t read follow the story on the pictures.  They can say the key names, places and words along with the Bible reading, whilst pointing to each picture to see the story unfold.

Here’s a photo of us all reading the Bible together!


From the first time it has been so wonderful.  Instead of one person reading the Bible from the front, we are reading it together and our members are learning that the Bible is accessible to them.   We’d love a audio version for our blind and non-reading members but we feel that the Matthew’s Gospel version has got off to a great start and we are really excited about more to come.

The accessible Bible has huge implications.  There are so many people with learning disabilities who can read but who find the complex sentences, complex language and small text in a regular Bible impossible to access.    I hope anyone wh reads this will buy some copies for their church and make them available to people in their congregation and community.  It has the potential to be life changing, faith changing and community changing.

2017 – A consistent God in an unpredictable world.

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It’s that funny week we have every year when we’re not sure what day it is and there’s nothing much going on.  The TV is full of films and the odd ‘Christmas Special’, and we might be asking each other “What are you doing for New Year?”.

As we think about what happened in 2016 and what 2017 might be like it can seem very frightening.  2016 was full of wars, political upheavals and celebrity deaths (Even over Christmas we lost Rick Parfitt, George Michael and Carrie Fisher).  We got Brexit and Donald Trump, we have millions of refugees and no-one knows when there might be an end to the wars in the Middle East or the terrorism in Europe, Africa and Pakistan.  It’s no surprise that people are anxious about the future and don’t feel like celebrating on New Year’s Eve.

However, as Christians we have a hope that goes beyond the things we can see and hear on the news.  We have a God who doesn’t change and who promises to be with us.  The news does report the spreading of the gospel in the Middle East or the millions of daily interactions God has with his people through the Holy Spirit active on the earth.  They don’t report how Jesus is interceding for us at the right hand of the Father’s throne.  But despite all we hear in the news or don’t – God is a God that keeps his promises.  In these times of uncertainty, we have to hold on to His words and not let ourselves get caught up in the panic of the world’s view.

Isaiah 41:10  Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)

Don’t worry—I am with you.

Don’t be afraid—I am your God.

I will make you strong and help you.

I will support you with my right hand that brings victory.

I hope these verses will encourage you this New Year.  2017 might bring worse news or better news. We cannot know.  But our Father in heaven, our saviour Jesus and the Holy Spirit are who we worship and who we have put our faith in.  If you haven’t and you are reading this, then please investigate more.  Read one of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and see who this Jesus is.  He is God made flesh.  He came to show us what the Father is like.  If we know Jesus and put our faith in Him, then we know the Father.  We couldn’t have anything better in our lives.  I hope you find that truth in your life.  Here is one of his promises that always gives me hope, no matter what the future looks like in this world.

Micah 7:18-20The Message (MSG)

Where is the god who can compare with you—

wiping the slate clean of guilt,

Turning a blind eye, a deaf ear,

to the past sins of your purged and precious people?

You don’t nurse your anger and don’t stay angry long,

for mercy is your specialty. That’s what you love most.

And compassion is on its way to us.

You’ll stamp out our wrongdoing.

You’ll sink our sins

to the bottom of the ocean.

You’ll stay true to your word to Father Jacob

and continue the compassion you showed Grandfather Abraham—

Everything you promised our ancestors

from a long time ago.

pray

I

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So I get to speak at a couple of conferences!

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This is unashamedly a plug for the Enabling Church “No Limits” conference happening in less than 2 weeks from today – in London – so if you can come PLEASE do.

The Churches for All organisation has been set up to bring together those Christian organisations that promote inclusion and speak out as people with disability under one umbrella organisation.  To pool resources and work together is the aim, and the conference is born out of this.   But it needs supporting, people need to come so I’m asking you to please try.  And if it is successful, I and others are going to see if we can get some support and a venue to put a similar conference on up in the north of England.

I’m doing 3 workshops at the No Limits conference this time.  I’m busy planning them this week!  (Only left it this late because the Puppet Festival was first – see below!).  But I am happy that I am doing one workshop about helping teens with disabilities grow and flourish in church as they develop into adults.  The second workshop will be showing people how to tell a sensory Bible story and it WILL be interactive!  Thirdly I will be looking at behaviour management in a children and young people’s group.  Some children with challenging behaviours have additional needs, some undiagnosed but I do have a few tips and approaches that just might help.  There are lots of other workshops too as well as the Key note speeches – so do take a look (and book).  Looking forward to seeing some of you there!

The European Puppet and Creative Arts Festival

This was run by One Way UK was last weekend and along with my daughter, we presented 4 workshops over the two days.  The first was simply an introduction to autism, with some tips about how to support children, families and adults with autism.

 

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The second was a practical session looking at different creative ways of communicating the Bible.  We split into two groups and used puppets and sensory stories to tell about Moses and the burning bush and about Jonah.

The third session was an introduction to Makaton and using signing to communicate faith words, in songs and in prayers and was enhanced by the arrival of a newly qualified Makaton tutor…thanks Linda so much for your help!!!

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Finally, I led a discussion session about how inclusive are our churches.  But this being a puppet festival, we used the puppets to show how diverse our congregations are and to act out different ways we exclude people.  It was lovely to finish this session with a prayer time – using our prayer tree and symbols to show how we try to include everyone in our group of adults with learning disabilities.

 

Thanks One Way Uk!  We appreciate the new puppet skills we also learned and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can develop some puppet activities in the Good News Group ministry.

A very special talk, challenging how we ‘do’ church.

As promised, here is the full talk from Alma – her words are better than mine and so I am delighted that she has written this down for us. 

Last Weekend I was invited to share my thoughts about Mental Health and Church at a meeting of the Lancashire Roofbreakers.  Lynn has kindly allowed me to share the substance of that talk here.

How Safe is my Church?

It is interesting to consider how quickly our minds move towards physical and accommodation issues when considering this question. Or am I a minority of one?  I find it interesting when listening to others whose concern focuses on other disabilities. The need for ‘inclusion’ seems to equate to making sure people can all join together in one big crowd and how we manage to make it physically possible for that happen. This includes the size of our buildings, accessible doorways, seating etc.

As someone who has grown up in churches of all shades and opinions and who lives with a complex mental health condition the focus on the physical surrounding is irrelevant to me in helping me to feel included within the Church Family.

My biggest problem with Church is the people.  Not the attitude I encounter (although stigma remains a massive issue) but the fact that Church by its nature forces me to spend time with large numbers of people.  Let me explain why this would be a problem to me.  I have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. It is sometimes now referred to as either Emotionally Unstable PD or Emotionally Sensitive PD.

Marsha Linehan, an American Clinical Psychologist who has created an effective therapy for BPD called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and who finally admitted she herself shared the diagnosis, has summed up the experience of living with BPD as follows:

 ‘Borderline individuals are the psychological equivalent of third-degree-burn patients.  They simply have, so to speak, no emotional skin.  Even the slightest touch or movement can create immense suffering.’

Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine that the presence of other human beings, of any number can feel excruciating, then let me ask some questions about ‘how safe’ the way we do church, especially on Sundays, feels to me.

How Do We ‘Do’ Church?

  • Medieval

If you spend any time visiting the large spectacular buildings of our historic churches and cathedral, we can observe how the medieval church gathered.  It was often the largest building towns and villages and therefore was used for mass gatherings, there was no seating.  As a modern church we have inherited buildings from earlier generations.  From a purely appreciative perspective, it is fantastic to know that there is such a ‘Cloud of Witnesses’ who have gone before us.  Have they always worshipped solely in large spacious buildings, in large crowds, or has there been a different way of gathering together?

  • Victorian

If we have a legacy of physical spaces which force us to look at numbers over quality of relationship…What then of the timetable of fellowship in each week? The Victorians put pews into the large medieval structures, or mimicked them by building huge structures in the medieval image.  That means that it would feel like a waste if our main meeting together didn’t make use of this accommodation.  What about two large gatherings every Sunday?  Evening services effectively developed when Sunday Schools were at their height and churches needed to feed their Sunday School teacher spiritually. Is the way we plan services on a Sunday effective for today’s needs?

  • Big Crowds

When I am invited to join in with my church family I am caught in a conundrum. I know that the Bible exhorts us to ‘not give up meeting together’, but why do our gatherings focus primarily on large groups of people?  We like numbers, in a society where Christianity faces many challenges, sometimes our need to gather in large numbers can feel like a form of defence.  It’s okay if our large Victorian building is full, especially every Sunday.  We feel safe in large groups.  They’re anonymous.  If the presence of people inspires anxiety and panic in me, is it safe for everyone? What would happen if our focus moved from joining together as the whole church body (particularly in large and growing churches) and looked at how well supported our small groups are?  It’s easy to escape the challenges of living in fellowship if you only attend the large, well-attended meetings particularly on Sundays.  It also allows us to absolve our responsibility to be an inclusive church to the Welcome or Leadership Teams.

  • Family Focused

For many with Mental Health issues families are not safe places.  I need you to teach me and model for me what a loving family can be.  Is the emphasis on children, and the importance of family in the way you do Church, or hurting people who have internal wounds which need to be healed?  I found it interesting at our meeting of Roofbreakers how much time was spent discussing the needs of children in church with Learning Difficulties and the practical solutions offered to help them stay in Church.  Many of the solutions were on drawing people into the larger group.  The prospect of only being able to access Church if I am prepared to manage my emotionally responses enough to ‘cope’ with being in groups of 100+, terrifies me so much, most Sundays I either have to put in all my energy to staying there, or I opt out.

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How Can We Do Church?

  • Redefine

Can we redefine church from being the gathering of EVERYONE in our circles on a Sunday to a broader definition?  How often do enjoy being able to share in the Spirit with the struggles of the church worldwide, while we neglect the regular remembrance of those who are housebound, or unable to join with us due to disability of any kind.  For me, the ability of friends in ones, twos and small groups to meet together and support me spiritually is vital to me feeling a part of the church.

Do we need to look again at where the church started?  3000 were suddenly added to the church at Pentecost, where did they all end up meeting?  They didn’t have large buildings, nor did they have the ‘evangelical timetable’.  You know the one: Sunday is Church, Monday is Ladies’ Prayer, Wednesday is Small Groups, Thursday/Friday is Youth.  Where is the idea that Church is ‘where one or two are gathered in my name’, or ‘Whenever they met together’…. If Church is only Sundays (I know and have heard many times, ‘Church is not the buildings but the people’) then is the way we define Church out of sync with what we believe about what Church should be?

  • Break Down the Numbers

What would happen if our focus was more on organising ourselves as mainly meeting as church in smaller groups?  What if our gathering of the ‘whole’ congregation became less regular, on a monthly basis, and the main point of teaching was within smaller groups? What if we sold our buildings off, or changed them to be an essential resource for the community, thereby having a daily presence of the Church in witness to the world?

  • Challenge Stigma

The best way to challenge any prejudice is to introduce the bigot to a real living person with whom they have to interact.  If you want to know how my experience of life and faith differs from yours, ask me.  In smaller groups it is easier to break down barriers.  Again if Church only means the big Sunday Services, it becomes very easy to pat me on the head and distance yourself from what I’ve been banging on about at the front.  Especially, if you misunderstand what Mental Illness is and how it affects people.

  • Relationship

My understanding of the gospel is that relationship is central to it.  In the beginning, God established that ‘it was not good for man to be alone’.

Before we are in relationship with God there is a vacuum.  Emptiness and isolation are common symptoms of a number of complex and more common mental illnesses.  It follows then, that the Church has hope to offer to people with Mental Health issues.  God understands that we were made for relationship.

Is the way we do Church at the minute designed to help us develop effective and satisfying relationships with one another?  I often have conversations with people about how dissatisfied they are with the lack of depth in their Church friendships.  That’s because we fail to apply God’s principles to our Church relationships.  We emphasise our relationship with God, rightly and stress the importance of time spent learning more and more about Him through prayer and Bible Study.

The Church is Christ’s Bride, that means that everyone of us form a part of one body, we are all united to one another in Christ.  Somehow, I think we have decided to accept that this mysterious, spiritual union, somehow negates the necessity to learn more about one another, in fellowship.

How do we do that? By spending time with one another, for me the most effective and safest way to get to know my Church Family is in ones and twos.  When I spend more time with you during the week, then there is a shared understanding when we come together for worship and fellowship as part of the wider family.  If I can see that I am accepted, that there are reliable relationships and true friendships, then it makes the struggle to get to the bigger meetings worth it.  How important, really is relationship and enabling the building of in-depth relationship, in the way we currently do church?

I am not offering any answers. I recognise the inherent challenge in much of what I have said.  However, I hope it helps us to engage with the thorny issues around probably the most isolated disability group in our churches.  Solutions and hope for relationships are welcome.

 

Ability over Disability. Leading the Church one Sunday. 

  
I’ve had a crazy and yet wonderful few weeks planning and getting ready to lead two services at our church, which happened last Sunday.  We really wanted to join Prospects (www.prospects.org.uk) for their Ability Sunday celebrations and thought it was a great way to show the rest of our church just how much the Good News Group loved Jesus and being part of his body. 

You know from my previous posts that we believe in ABILITY over disability.  We purposely organise the service part of our meeting with a similar structure (however wonderfully different, too) to the Sunday services.  This is so that the adults with learning disabilities that come on a Wednesday would feel comfortable, familiar and could contribute to any Sunday service they can get to.  

Well, on this Sunday they did just that.  Our vicar suggested that we led the Harvest services and made them Ability Sunday too (harvest in our church is a low key affair, just a family service with offerings and prayers for the food bank).  So we did. Two morning services,  one repeated schedule and as many of the Good News Group as possible being given chance to show what they are ABLE to do. 

Here’s some observations and highlights…

1) The logistics of actually getting the GNG members to church on a Sunday were greater than getting them to our service on a Wednesday evening.  The time was different/too early (even though we have 2 services one much later than the other), Carers weren’t on the right shift. They didn’t have transport. 

2) But those who did come were excited and willing to serve. One couple stayed for both services, doing a different role in each.  We were only able to get 6 out of 30+ members (and a parent and a carer) there in the end. We showed photos and had a display of the rest of the group to make up for this. 

3) GNG members joined the welcome team,  read the Bible (Easy English version) and said the prayers.  I lead the service and Bob and other team members did the puppet sketch. Lorraine signed all the songs, along with  GNG members and children from the congregation . What was nice about this?- the GNG members are quite proficient at signing and they were the ones sharing their expertise with the church. 

4) Using the Easy English Bible and the ‘sermon’ written in clear, short sentences, with explanations about the gospel that we would use in GNG worked very, very well for a family service.  It was interesting that Nick, who was preaching said that it wasn’t as easy as anyone might at first think.  It took a lot of thought about words, sentence structure and the message, as well as choosing pictures to go with the talk. For the record…you did a fantastic job. The sermon and gospel message was clear and so well communicated. (We’re going to invite him to preach at GNG now he’s made the grade! 😉

5) The feedback from the two congregations has been overwhelming. People did get our message and loved seeing what people with learning disabilities have to offer the church.  Our vicar was full of praise and asked us when we could lead a service again. (I said, when we’ve recovered from this one!) 

6) The resources from Prospects were really helpful in putting the service together.  We used them as a guide rather than a plan, but playing the videos – 1 Corinthains 12 and Psalm 139 read by people with learning disabilities was so powerful. Even now, they send shivers of delight down my spine. Please do look at them if you get the chance.  http://www.prospects.org.uk/abilitysunday/resources/inspirational-videos 

So there you have it.  I have heard some great testimonies from other churches who celebrated Ability Sunday too. We really should do this more often so it doesn’t have to be done. If every Sunday could just be perfect, for everyone, then we wouldn’t need Ability Sunday….

….But actually,  we’re not going to worry about that. Sundays are only one day of ‘church’ in our community.  There is ‘church’ going on every day, whether it’s in the main building, church hall,  local schools,  nursing homes,  house groups,  on the streets,  people’s workplaces and wherever the congregation meets together to study, pray, fellowship and serve together.  We love our Wednesday meetings and we know the rest of the congregations love us and see us as part of the whole church.  

But it will be fun to plan the next service we lead….

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