I’d like to thank…

I’ve just been on holiday. I had an amazing time. And I couldn’t have done it alone.

In a testament to just how much our Church loves each other, and how far I’ve come in relinquishing my stubborn independence in order to actually achieve anything, I’d like to say some thank yous.

Before I went:

Eight weeks of gradual planning and packing meant that I wasn’t too drained to travel. I’d like to thank my sister, for lending me a tent, and Ruth for coming over to help put it up. Dave and Amy for congratulating me on wrestling it back into the bag by myself. My Dad for lending me his tin box of useful camping things, with which I fed people, lent guy ropes, pegs, and generally kept other people warm and dry. My Mum for cooking for me in the week I was packing, and taking me shopping for food. Also for her heaps of encouragement. But then you’d expect that from family.

I’d like to thank my landlord and landlady for lending me a stove, ice box and gas, and for calling their friend Charles who had a kettle and brought it round specially. Thanks go to my physio for talking me through the energy I’d need for different things, helping push through the wheelchair assessment, and checking up that I wasn’t exhausting myself. And to the lady whose wheelchair I eventually bought, who completed the sale while attached to an oxygen machine, and whose parents drove her home in order to do so. Thanks go to Lee, the EPC manager who couriered parts to me in time for me to attach them, and the bike shop guys on my road for having a look at my spokes.

I’d like to thank the staff at Momentum, especially Sam who handled my booking, and all who answered my trivial questions carefully.

And for moral support, particular thanks go to Sally and Clare (also baker of flapjack, pray-er and wheelie skills helper) on twitter, and numerous other encouragers. At church, our student worker reacted just right, by getting to know me first and my care needs second. Then came naturally to the conclusion that if our church couldn’t look after each other, there was something wrong with the way we were doing church. I was emboldened.

When I got there:

Pete’s Dad Dave, who picked me up on the morning we left, and dodged traffic to get us to the meeting point on time. Pete for driving, Anna and Joe for letting me have the front seat when they were so squashed they couldn’t get into their own pockets. Anna W for coordinating it all. Ellie and Matt for making my packed lunch (with which we fed three people), and Samuel (4) for jumping up and down when I arrived at their house. Also thanks to the family for their spare key, and the backup plan of a bed and shower if I needed it.

Then I was safely in the care of my church group, a selection of 30 students and young (or not so young) adults, of whom I’d met five before. Thanks go to the tent putter-uppers, Nick, Martin and Ian; the chefs and food preparers, Imogen, Ben, and Naomi; those who brought me just what I needed and exactly how I’d asked for it. Thanks to those who did my washing up without questioning why, who bought food and planned for meals to just be there for me, and the girl who made me hot tea at 7am in the rain. Thanks to the people who pushed my wheelchair; Andy, Danny, Martin, Jenni and others, and to Ed for holding an umbrella over me while they did so.

When I collapsed, particular thanks go to Anna T for noticing what was wrong, following instructions, and holding my head up while I drank Andy’s squash. To Naomi for fetching Ian’s jumper and making me comfortable. To Andy for not freaking out and timing my collapse (33 minutes 45 seconds).

The isolation can be particularly tough, so thanks to Ian for asking good questions and listening, to Cameron for being up early enough that I wasn’t doing physio exercises alone, to Andy for speaking the truth when I was doubting, and to Becs, who gave me a hug when everyone went dancing and I couldn’t join in.

In worship, I love to hold my hands in the air, jump and dance. Thanks to Basil, Toby, and the effortlessly cool East London guys for dancing so that I didn’t have to, to Christian, Pippa and Hannah for singing so beautifully I felt heard when I was too tired to sing. Between us, the worship I wanted to bring was offered up from our church. And thanks to everyone in front of me who refrained from putting their hands up so that I could see the words. Thanks to those who prayed for me – the prophetic words and pictures seem to form part of a bigger picture, and it’s a beautiful and exciting one.

And to my friends from home, a big thank you to Rich and Dave for a very normal chat over hot chocolate like the good old days, a cheeky thanks to Rich for letting me steal his coffee to warm my hands on while I was in the shower queue, and amazing gratitude to Dave for going out from his parent’s house to buy me new wellies. If you don’t use walking boots for two years, they disintegrate entirely, soles first. Who knew?!

And afterwards?

I still had to endure a few lonely days’ bedrest with laughable amounts of pain. But the overall effect of the holiday was transformative. With this support team of around fifty people to share the load, it’s easy to move from feeling 100% disabled to only 2% disabled, which is hardly disabled at all. An amazing relief, and a window of respite from a tough few months of missing out. The sermon at church today was based on Philippians 4:10-23 – the bit where Paul talks about being content in all situations. It might be easy to imagine that I’d be more content with my life if I wasn’t ill all the time, but to my delight, as I closed my eyes to imagine the place I felt content, and found it was exactly where I was sitting. The preacher spoke of pain being measurably easier to bear when one isn’t alone, and of the encouragement of doing life alongside other people, just as Paul encouraged his church in Philippi and was supported by them. Of weak people being made strong through the embodiment of Christ’s love, the Church.

With the extended Church to support me in this way, physically, emotionally and spiritually, and with the certain hope of a time to come when there will, finally, at last, be no more pain, I have found I am able to be content with what I have.

That’s a shame

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.