The Scared and the Scarred.

•April 22, 2022 • Leave a Comment

I’m sharing this sermon that I have written for our Circuit’s Written Sermon Ministry for this coming Sunday 24th April 2022, the Sunday after Easter.

It is mainly based on John 20:19-31, with passing nods to Psalm 150 and Revelation 1:4-8.

Locked in the room.  From fear.  For our safety.  Hiding from who knows what.  But knowing that we could be in deep trouble.  Jesus is not in his tomb.  A dead body disappeared.  And yet, Mary had met him, she had seen the Lord.  Not so dead after all.

So now we wait.  What to do next?  What did this mean?

And into our fear and our questions, Jesus comes and stands with us.  “Peace be with you”.  The peace of God, that is beyond all our understandings, he brings to where we are.

This is very much Jesus, the one they had known, the one who they had watched die so cruelly.  For here he stood with his scars fully visible.  The scars prove that he is who he says he is just in case there was any doubt.  This is very much the same person.  But for me, as a disabled person, those scars mean so much more.

Jesus could have come back with no signs of his crucifixion.  His wounds could have gone, but they haven’t.  They are still very there and very raw.  The marks of his suffering had not disappeared overnight.  They are a part of who and what he now is – even in resurrection.  Scars are ok.  Here is a person who has suffered and still has those marks.  It is OK to have suffered and still carry the scars – for them to be there, real, and visible.  There will be marks of what has been and what is.  Things don’t have to be “perfect” in airbrushed beauty, to be useful and Godly.  This is a God who knows what it is to be broken. And that brings hope to me.

Lamar Hardwick in his book Disability and the Church, says “When Jesus returns from the dead, he returns with the marks of disability, marks that he displays as an identifier and as an invitation to a new expression of faith.” (chapter 7)  It is a wounded Christ who comes to the Upper Room.  Not someone for whom hardship and suffering have been swept away, but a real person who has been through stuff – and it shows.  That is the God we have.  Triumphant in resurrection yes, but still crucified along the way.

This is the God of life over death that Psalm 150 encourages us to joyfully celebrate, but very much a God of real life – and death.  Christ’s death has freed us (Revelation 1:4-8), but his risen life frees us too.  It is OK to be scarred, to carry the marks of the battles of life.  That does not make us a failure or imply that God has at some point abandoned us, that is life.  What matters is what we do with those scars and whether we pick at them and never let them heal.

Jesus is comfortable with his scars (in my definition that is true healing rather than scars being wiped away).  So comfortable that he is happy to show them, and indeed to let Thomas touch them when he needs to.  They are now a part of him, his life, his pain, and his journey with God.  Our scars can be an encouragement to others in their suffering and pain – if we are able to show them.

But the still scarred Jesus has come to do more.  He might be dead, even somehow back to life, but that is not the end.  It isn’t “all’s well that ends well” even though he is back in the room.  There is a job still to be done.  People need to know.  To hear the message that Jesus was bringing, God’s life he was trying to model.

And so, as the disciples sit there, no doubt open mouthed at this development, certainly glad to have him back, Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.  It is not over; it is now getting real.  The mission goes on and now it is over to them – over to us.

Interestingly, at this point, the commission is to forgive.  That is what we are called to do.  And if that forgiveness is not offered, there will be none.  We can get tied up in all kinds of ideas about what mission is all about, but right here in this room it is about forgiveness.  Perhaps that is what the world needs more of – and the disciples are to model it God’s way.  At that point there, perhaps they needed to forgive those who had brought about Jesus’ death.  After all, Jesus himself forgave them, even in the midst of his agony (Luke 23:34), whilst enduring the biggest insult and assault that one can inflict on another.  Perhaps the disciples needed to find that forgiveness before they could move on – to make peace with what had happened, even the scars it had created, and live in the peace of what that now meant.

Perhaps our task today is to spread a little more forgiveness and hold a few less grudges.  To model God’s forgiveness in the places we are.  Because forgiveness is a good way to stop picking at scars and let them begin to heal.  And in the giving and receiving of forgiveness the world may find peace: the peace of heart, mind, and soul that it longs for.

And then there is Thomas.  God bless Thomas.  He needed to see, to touch.  He needed proof, to experience for himself, not rely on the news of others.  That doesn’t bother Jesus.  Jesus doesn’t insist he believes anyway or suggest that he’d missed knowing because he wasn’t there when he first came.  Jesus comes back, potentially just for Thomas.  It is OK for Thomas to do what he needed to do to know, to be sure.  And there was peace. Today, this week, in our times of excitement, rejoicing, confusion, despair, pain – however we are feeling, may we know the peace of God, the presence of Jesus, and the forgiveness God offers that we can pass on.                                                                         

From Now On

•December 17, 2021 • Leave a Comment

This is my written sermon for our Circuit resources for those unable to worship in the building or online for this Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Advent. Where Mary travels to be with Elizabeth.

The readings are: Micah 5: 2-5a, Hebrews 10: 5-10, Luke 1: 39-45 (46-55)

We join the journey towards the birth of Christ just after two miraculous announcements. Neither of these women in the normal course of events could possibly be pregnant, but the angels tell each that they are about to have babies.  Awesome, shocking, fearful, fantastic news. 

Mary’s next step in her journey is to go and see Elizabeth.  Perhaps she thought Elizabeth might be the one person who would understand.  After all God was working in her life as well.  God had given her a special child to carry too. 

But Mary never even got chance to tell her.  Before the words were out of Mary’s mouth Elizabeth knew.  The one within her, recognised the one within Mary.  His work of showing others the Christ had begun already, as he let his mother now that something special was happening in Mary, something important was happening in the world.

Both Elizabeth and Mary seem to accept their part in God’s work. God was working – and God was doing it there and then – with them and in them. The work that the passage from Hebrews tells us Christ was willing to be a part of, coming into the body God had prepared, to do God’s will, to show humans the way God wanted and needed them to live. Jesus was willing to offer his life and all he had to come and be, humanly in the world.

I wonder how you would have reacted if God had appeared to you in the same way God did to Mary?  How would I?  How shocked we would be!  Yet, each day we are asked to be a part of God’s work in the world, showing God’s way, living God’s life.  God  continues breaking in to our lives and the world around us.

What precious thing is God wanting to do in your life?  Maybe it might not seem as radical as having God’s child, but something just as important for you to carry on God’s behalf?  Something for you to do as God in this world?  It may seem inconvenient, God asking the impossible, or beyond our wildest dreams – but it is a privilege.

Elizabeth knew that it was God who was working in Mary, bringing life and hope to the world – and she shouted about it!  Can we see that in others and encourage and nurture them, support them when it seems hard or even a ridiculous ask of God? 

Mary, in the supportive presence of Elizabeth, gets caught up in what God is doing, not just in her, but for everyone.  A  song from the depths of Mary’s heart.  God’s plan for what will happen from now.  That God has seen her, lowly and humble as she is.  She is not a person of traditional high status, wealth, or prestige.  She is who she is, but she represents the vast majority of people just getting on with their life and faith.  Doing what she can, where she is.  But God knows her and wants to work in her.  And so Mary sings:

What is happening in Mary is what happens when people honour God in their life.  God takes them and uses them in all God is doing in the world.  Human beings make all kinds of plans, but God steps in and throws our plans up in the air.  God has something so much better in store.

God will turn the world back the right way up.  The mighty will discover humility and those who know the depths of life will be raised up.  The hungry will be fed with the excesses accumulated by those who have the resources.

The God of mercy will do this.  God keeps promises.  They begin in Mary, will be seen in the lived life of Jesus and will come to fruition in his descendants forever.

How does this song work for us?  The words we know as the Magnificat, my paraphrasing (with apologies for the inevitable Hugh Jackman earworm!)

From now on, things will never be the same.

From now on, my life is full of God.

From now on, God is using me as his servant.

From now on, people will see that God has blessed me.  That God has done so much for me.

From now on, may every person know that God has blessed them too.

From now on, God within me, God around me, God in you.

From now on, may those who think they are mighty discover humility, and those treated as lowly raised up.

From now on may the hungry be fed.

From now on, may love and mercy guide us all.

From now on Lord, let it be so. From now on God, fill me with you.  Use me as you need to.  Bless others through me, and may I be blessed by your life in them.  May I play my part, your part.  From now on Lord, in me and through me.

Disability, Accessibility and the Church

•October 26, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Earlier in the year (during lockdown when the hairdressers were shut, hence the state of my hair!!) I was invited to contribute to an event called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made facilitated by the Yorkshire Plus Learning Network. My part was pre-recorded in several small chunks.

This was an excellent informative and thought provoking event. It is worth listening to the whole event

If you particularly want to listen to just my part, this is it:

If we are looking for an inclusive church, we have to take these questions on board – and have to be ready to ask and respond to many more – because everyone is different and each and every one of us has different needs. Each of us is Fearfully and Wonderfully made and precious to God. The church physical is called to embody that love and joy that God had for each one.

If you find it easier, this is the text to what I said, though the final version was edited:

Until 2005 I led an active life.  Busy working as a Circuit Minister and for leisure always going somewhere and doing something, cycling, climbing hills, walking for miles and mostly talking for England.

Then my life changed.  There were already some hints that not all was right with my body, but then I caught proper full blown flu.  What followed that were breathing problems, the inability to speak for very long, which is why I am coming to you pre-recorded and edited, chronic exhaustion and a growing collection of symptoms that have escalated and worsened over the years.  Eventually I received a diagnosis of a rare chronic inflammatory condition called Sjogren’s Syndrome.  It effects my eyes, my skin, my joints, my swallowing and digestion, my balance and my lungs meaning I get recurrent chest infections – basically anywhere that should have lubrication in your body doesn’t – and that effects far more than you would think.  It has come more and more debilitating as time has gone on.  I am frustratingly limited in what I can do.

But in the thorny discussion of healing, I would say I am healed, because I find my healing in being able to cope with and still have a life and purpose within all those limitations.

I would say I am both disabled and have a disability.  My illness holds me back considerably, I can’t do even a small percentage of what I would want to.  But I am also disabled by places I can’t go because of how things happen there or difficulty getting to or using buildings when I’m there.

I had to retire on medical ground because I could no longer do the job – but I have found a new ministry in where I am now.

To be honest, in lockdown, I have been living my best life.

Zoom has made life so much easier and more accessible.  I’ve been able to go to meetings that I haven’t been able to for years, because with travelling time added on and the added exhaustion of sitting on chairs that aren’t comfortable etc.  Also re-enable me to ‘do ministry’ because the ability to pre-record, pause and edit has given me back a voice.

But as lockdown begins to ease and activities move back towards physical places rather than online, I share some of the obstacles I find in church life, in the hope they might start some conversations, or give you some pointers of the kind of questions you might want to ask someone to see if you can help make their physical experience of church better for them.

We have to make changes in our church buildings now – we have the opportunity to make things right – or at least better!

It is important to say that my problems are not unique or and they are not all the problems that are possible, I’m using my example to give an idea of some of the problems that people can face. The problem with a lot of the disability’s is that the disabilities are not necessarily visible, and you wouldn’t know that someone was dealing with them or you had to help them with them.  

In Mark 2, we hear the story of the men who brought their friend who couldn’t walk to Jesus. There was such a big crowd that they couldn’t get him to the door, so they carried him up the steps to the roof and made a hole in the roof so that they could lower him down to meet Jesus. Everyone focuses on the miracle of the man walking and the big question about Jesus authority, but we overlook the man’s friends and what they were willing to do so the man could get to meet Jesus.

None of what I’m going to say are criticisms, they are questions, pointers to make us think about our church buildings.  I’m also acutely aware that my accessibility may mean someone else’s inaccessibility – something that is there to help me may be making someone else’s needs impossible to meet – and for that reason the conversation needs to go on.

The first question I asked when we moved to our new Circuit was, “which church has the comfiest seats?”! That might seem trivial, but to me it is vital, and without which physical church in a building would not be possible.  But actually, when you have a disability, churchmanship, style of worship and a lot of other things go out of the door, compared with issues of accessibility in its widest sense.

But let’s go back to getting in the building.  I am incredibly grateful to have a Blue Badge, but that is no help to me if there is nowhere near enough the building to park, or someone without a Blue Badge is parked in it.

Next there is getting up the path, hoping that there are no steps.  Is there a drop kerb where necessary – and nothing obstructing it?

What about the entrance into the building?  Is it level?  You would be amazed how big an obstacle a raised door frame (there must be a technical term for that!) is when you are wobbly, in a wheelchair, with a pushchair, or just have your hands full. Is the door too heavy?  Can someone open it by themselves?  Is there someone there to open it for anyone who needs it (remembering it might not be obvious who needs that help)

Can I find an appropriate seat?  I really need to sit with my right leg in the aisle, preferably with a large space between rows.  Pews are quite simply an impossibility.  Would someone let me have the seat I need, or would I be “taking my seat”? Can I sit at the back, or the front, if that is necessary for my disability?  Is the seat comfortable?  Can I shuffle and change my position in it to move the pressure points?  Is there a way I can raise my legs if I need to?  How long I personally can sit comfortably is very limited (and yes, it’s less than an hour!)

A lot of people with disabilities are very energy limited and cannot arrive at church half an hour early to get the seat that they need, or it takes a very long time to get going in a morning and be up and out of the door, they may need to arrive at the last minute and need to be able to have the right space.

What is the lighting like?  Is it too bright – or not bright enough…!  Everybody’s needs are different.  Is there perhaps the possibility for some individually controlled lights?

That also applies to screens.  Are they in the right place?  Are they legible?  Are they too bright, too dark or using the correct colour contrast?  (Different colour contrasts work better or worse for different people, so it can be tricky) I actually have my own individual screen at our church, so I can set it to the setting I need.  Is that a possibility in your church?

Likewise, if you use videos in worship, can they been seen and heard by all?  Is there some way their point can be explained?  I love a video in worship but can rarely process them in that space.  Perhaps my one biggest plea is to make sure your fancy graphics are actually readable.  I’ve seen so many slides and social media posts, from churches and The Connexion, in beautiful attractive colours that I cannot read the information on.  Just because it looks fancy and cool does not mean people can read it.

Are there paper copies of words?  In large and appropriately line spaced text?

Can someone manage to carry, or hold during the service, anything that you are asking them to. Normal hymn books are really hard to hold and turn pages if your fingers or wrists are not good.

In break-out groups, can everyone understand what you want them to do?  Is everyone able to participate?  Can everyone hear, process and respond in that environment?  Can there be an alternative option?

How do we use language?  Do we invite everyone to “stand to sing” for example?  When not everyone can stand – or sing. Do we use phrases like “everyone can do this” – can they?

Is our service very singing focused?  My illness means that I can’t sing.  I appreciate what a great tool in worship singing is and one I always used a lot, but if someone can’t sing are they excluded from worship in a big way? I guess post-lockdown we are all going to have to think about that!

Do we speak at a speed that people can hear and process?  It takes me a long time to hear what you have said, process in my mind what you have said, and then respond.  That applies even to things like the Lord’s Prayer, which I have to dredge from my mind and process through my brain before I can say it – which is much slower than most.  I am usually a couple of lines behind and give up.  I stand no chance of remembering a response to a phrase in a prayer that you might ask me to share in, or what the lead in is that I am meant to respond to.  I’m fine with that, but please don’t be offended – and be aware!

How does celebrating communion together work?  Is there a way to be a part of the body if you can’t kneel at the rail with everyone else, or even stand? Have we found a practical way around that?

And after the service?  I love to share fellowship, to hear how people are and what is happening in their life, but it is incredibly hard to have that conversation in a noisy room where everyone else is eagerly doing the same.  Is there a quieter space where anyone who needs that can go and talk without the aural distraction?

As I said, that’s my experience, others will each have their own story.

No church can meet all these needs, but it is good Christian living to be aware of other’s needs and do what we can to make church buildings and services as accessible as possible. Have we at least thought that there may be needs, and ways we could work around them? Please don’t assume.  What is most important is to ask people what works best for them – and be willing to do all you can towards that.  But also, don’t forget those who won’t say anything, who don’t want to make a fuss.  Try and think what might be excluding somebody and ask what would help best.  Try not to assume what someone needs…

And it is important to remember, that as some joyfully go back to meeting in the church buildings, there will still be those who can’t access physical church at all.  How can we continue to meet their need and not re-exclude those who have found during lockdown that they have had access to so much?  But maybe that’s the subject of another webinar…

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