The body of Christ is disabled? Well, obviously. If you had massive holes in your hands and feet, you’d need to make a few changes. That point when you’re brushing your teeth and you cup the water in your hands to slurp it and rinse your mouth out? Jesus couldn’t do that. Pebbly beach barefoot? Asking for trouble.
It seems facetious. But if we were chilling on a beach with the risen Jesus, and it got to that awkward “suncream on the back” moment, would we flinch from the scarring? Would we feel ashamed of his broken body, and ask him to cover up the scourge marks to look more normal? To wear socks and shoes?
Of course not. Partly because everyone would totally know who he was already and be cool with it, like when Stephen Hawking rocked up to an orchestral concert when I was a student, but mostly because those scars are so much a part of his identity, why would we want him any other way? It just wouldn’t be him.
It just wouldn’t be me
Regular readers of my blog will know it’s taken a long time for me to accept M.E. as part of my identity. But as I’ve become more comfortable around it, so have others – realising how much more time I sacrifice for a night in the pub, making adaptations on my behalf, and beginning to joke about it. A handful of friends are beginning to accept M.E. as part of my identity too.
But my identity is also rooted firmly in my faith, and in being part of the church. The church isn’t very literate or aware when it comes to disability. Some individuals are, but many aren’t, and culturally, we’re often not very good. I could moan, but that’s boring to read, so I thought I’d share my top six good things that the church has been up to:
Six top attitudes I’ve encountered
1. The phrase “if it is comfortable for you to do so”
There’s a bit in the Communion service called the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s really long. It’s good, but honestly, most people use the shortest version possible. Recently I went to a really high church who liked the long version, where the service sheet, at the start of this bit, said “Please remain standing if it is comfortable for you to do so”. A sort of “we’ll mostly be doing this thing, but if you don’t want to, that’s honestly fine, do what feels right for you”. Totally non-judgemental, and importantly, a heads-up to the able-bodied that not everyone in the room finds standing up easy, so don’t look judgementally at them.
2. The welcome team that sticks around
I’m really sensitive to loud noises. In my usual young adult congregation, they love a half-hour worship set at the start. The band is awesome. I love it. However, I’ve worked out that I can take only about two or three songs before my legs start twitching and I’m in too much pain to endure the rest of the service. So I turn up really late, about 2-3 songs before the sermon. If there’s a welcomer still on the door then, it’s really cool. Particularly if they can help pour me some juice before I go in.
Yes, I admit, I could turn up at the beginning, leave after two songs, and sit around outside while everyone else has fun singing, but that sucks. As does trying to sing with earplugs in. And not being there at the point everyone else goes in means I can do the stairs in my own time, rather than with everybody watching and earnestly trying to help.
3. The “how would you like us to do this” question
Back at the high church, they’re high church, so they love having all the steps. I love them too, it’s great for getting a sense of how majestic and above everything God is. Helps me know he’s totally in control, he knows what he’s doing. However, steps are sometimes a bit tricky on crutches. In a traditional Anglican service (to which I was late, pastry-based distraction), there’s a bit called the Peace where we all go round and shake hands/hug/kiss/high-five in a friendly and sometimes uncomfortably over-friendly way. It’s a bit of a break-out in the middle of an otherwise pew-bound service.
At this point, the churchwarden, who I’d met once before, came up to me, and quietly asked me how I wanted to go about taking communion. For able-bodied people it would involve walking 20m down an aisle in front of people, climbing 5 steps without a handrail, standing for up to a minute, kneeling on a stone step just off floor-height, eating, then drinking from a heavy cup, standing (with a rail but only in some places), then going back to your seat via steps and aisle. A non-trivial exercise. She said they could bring the bread and wine to me, or help me up the stairs, or I could stand, or kneel, or whatever – reasonable options were suggested, and I picked one. So I knew it would be non-awkward before the communion bit started.
This is totally essential in good time – the prayers leading up to taking communion aren’t a time to be worrying about if you’ll actually be able to take it, and to be able to focus on the sacrament itself during this time was a rare and thrilling privilege.
4. The wholehearted flaily dancer
I’m definitely a kinesthetic learner. When I worship, I process as much externally, through my body, as I do by thinking about stuff. I’m not alone in this – in the Bible they’re always lying face down, dancing around without inhibition, being submissive or powerful or open or repentant in their stance – it’s a whole-body experience. High churches are good at this. Low churches are good at this. Middling churches are very English and reserved and not so good at this. I prefer the ends of the spectrum, and I don’t mind how weird I look.
However, now it hurts to move, to hold my arms up, to dance (!), to stand, to kneel, to open my eyes in a well-lit room, I can’t worship in the way that feels natural. Cue the Body of Christ.
The bible says that in the church we’re all different parts of the same body, and we all work best when we work together. There’s a bloke in our church who I haven’t met yet, but who sits vaguely in front of where I do (there’s a sweet spot where the music isn’t too loud but there aren’t too many steps either, next to an aisle so I can see the words when everyone stands up), who I think must have the same learning/worshipping style. He dances (it’s not cool, but it is genuine), he waves his arms in the air when everyone else looks normal, he sits and cries, he makes himself look big, or small – physically, he responds to God with the freedom that I would exercise if my body worked.
Although I haven’t spoken to him, or any of the other more physically-expressive worshippers in the church (that would be totally awkward, how do you start that conversation?), I find it thoroughly liberating to be worshipping in the same space as them all. While I sit motionless, wearing sunglasses for the light and earplugs for the sound, occasionally twitching in pain, I know that the offering of wholehearted, whole-bodied worship that I’d love to bring to God every week has been taken care of. It’s like when someone else picks up your bill at a restaurant. Through corporate worship, the physical limitations of my disability are temporarily lifted.
5. The podcast and the twitter account
If I’m too sick to go to church, or if during the week I’ve been too sick to leave the house, I can listen to talks I’ve missed/wasn’t able to concentrate through. And because all the speakers are on twitter, I can ask them questions about it there and then, midweek, and discuss online what I didn’t have the mental capacity to talk about after the service. I can also tell them I liked it (if I did), which is good. Preachers don’t always get encouraged midweek.
6. The ardent pray-ers
I don’t go up for healing prayer. Too much angst, I’ve discussed it before. But bless them, whenever I go up about other things, they have to slip in a question about my crutches, and pray for healing anyway. Partly it’s bloody offensive. Partly it’s kindly meant. Partly it’s telling about their fear of losing their own health, and how much they fear it might shake them. But people I barely know are willing to personally ask their God for things, on my behalf.
Pam Webster, one of my favourite housebound theologians, defined healing as
“accepting all that we are, and all that we will never be, incorporating that into ‘me’ – and being able to live with it.”
I can agree with that. And it blesses me that these women love to pray for me, and with me, for healing.
Over to you…
- What is it about your church that helps you or others overcome the limitations of your disability?
- What elements of the church service you go to couldn’t you do without?
- Which people in your church encourage you by their freedom in worship? Have you told them?
- How does your particular tradition impose barriers on people, or remove them?
I’m interested to hear your story.