At church on Sunday, the preacher talked about how the cross frees us from shame. “I’ve heard this all before”, I thought, issues surrounding unconfessed sin, residual guilt, etc etc are long gone, I’m used to keeping short accounts with God. Then he pulled up a long list of thing which people are ashamed of – family circumstances, debt, addiction, work status, body image – and on the list was physical illness. Which made a little lightbulb go on in my head. (It’s fine, I was wearing my sunglasses.)
I go to the sort of churches where if you sneeze they lay on hands. To walk in with crutches is to risk being divebombed by prophecies that I’m going to be cured, and in-depth scrutiny about why I’m ill and when I’m going to be better. Yes, I have, occasionally, seen miraculous healing happen, and believe that God hears and answers prayer. And yet I haven’t been up to ask people to pray that I would be healed.
“Shame; awkward, senseless shame, does as much towards preventing good acts & straightforward happiness as many of our vices do” C.S. Lewis
At that point during the sermon, I thought about the field where I’d always felt my calling lay – ministry to people on the margins, particularly those who are isolated with health problems. I’ve known since I was 20, but it’s never quite taken off yet.
I’d dearly love to not be ill, but I think at the moment I’m meant to be. It’s giving me resilience, making me rely on God, making me rely on others. It’s nasty. But through it I’m meeting so many disabled people who I wouldn’t otherwise have met. I’m understanding at a much deeper level how it feels to be marginalised and fearful. I can see that God is using this situation for good, to form me into the sort of person who can fulfil the calling he’s placed on my life.
Previously, I’ve sometimes acted as if I’m sorry to others that I’m ill, for the inconvenience it’s causing them. It’s easy, and very British, to be apologetic when taking someone’s seat on the bus. I’m grateful, of course, when they offer. If it’s a priority seat, I’m also thankful that they get up when I ask them. But I’ve decided not to be ashamed any more.
As with most of the thoughts that occur to me, which at first I think profound, I’ve realised it’s a simple truth. God loves me.
While people I meet will happily shake their heads at me and say “that’s a shame, and you so young, you should try to get better”, I’ve realised that God loves me. He has the authority to heal me, and if he’s choosing not to, then he’ll be doing something clever behind the scenes in that way he always does. God is happy to spend time with me, even if others can’t. God welcomes me into the church, even if church members don’t. God isn’t ashamed of me.
In today’s Chrism Mass, a lot was said, as it always is, about us being a body united, that we are each a part of. Yah boo sucks to the ableds, as they have to now be part of a body which in part has disabilities. But even if it sucks to be ill now, I’m confident that the parts of the body that have no honour now will receive special honour later. None of the formative, humiliating, dependent moments are lost by God. I’m proud (? I might not mean that word ?) that I can share in Christ’s sufferings if only for a short time. I’m assured that I’m fully accepted by God, and a full member of the church, and that I’m accepted. And I’m accepted as I am now, not just as I will be if and when I get well again.
Practically speaking, I am becoming confident that my presence in the room is more valuable than the slight inconvenience of getting me into the room, and the minor inconveniences caused by making an environment bearable for me can also be borne easily by other people. While thankful to them for making those adaptations, I’m not apologetic that they need to be made, because I’m not ashamed of my disabled self.
I’m having a go at living this out, and I’m not sure how this looks yet. But give me a few weeks and I’ll let you know.