I’m writing this on a freezing cold afternoon towards the end of April. As I write, I’m taking an inventory of the parts or elements of me that hurt. Uppermost in today’s league table is the muscle which runs down the left side of my head, all the way down my neck, to my shoulder and on downwards. It is very keen for me to realise that it is very unhappy. I have no idea why. I am very aware of this now. I wish it would stop. Concentration is impossible. I am distracted. Thinking further, both hips, my right calf, and my left ankle are all quite uncomfortable, and my eyes really, really sting. And I’m tired, really tired. I’ve been working hard, finding it hard to sleep consistently, and the way my body and my mind are behaving is troubling.
This might be more discomfort than you’re used to experiencing yourself. It might be a lot less. It’s not a competition, although if it were, I fully expect I would not win (or lose, depending on how you look at it) but still, days like today are a right royal challenge.
And yet, my heart is soaring. This morning, I took an assembly at a local primary school. The school is learning about disability currently and I was invited to give an ‘expert’ view to the children. Wanting to know what I was dealing with, I begun by asking them what they knew:
‘Disabled people are human’, was the first answer. Quickly followed by ‘disability doesn’t steal your life’, and lastly ‘disability doesn’t steal your joy’. This is why my heart is soaring as I write today, because the young person who gave this answer was, actually, in some small way, speaking prophetically to me, even as I was there to serve them. Disability, impairment. These things in and of themselves do not steal our lives or our joy. It is how we respond to them ourselves and how the communities which we may or may not be invited to be part of respond that can enable the life in all its fullness to all, now, that Jesus promised to be a reality rather than just a trite phrase. The school I visited this morning has made a commitment to be a community of love that does not ‘disable’ people or cause them to suffer. This gives me hope for the future.
It also challenged me again, as a Church leader, as well as one who lives with pain and the lingering stigma of difference, to ensure that the community that I am a part of better reflects the reality of the Christian life. Jesus, the Crucified God, the Disabled God, gave himself for us, and in so doing suffered for us, and then invited us to enter in to the fellowship of his sufferings too. I don’t like suffering. In fact, I hate it. If you’ll let me, I’ll moan about it endlessly (don’t let me). The fact is, though that Jesus, the pattern for human life, included in that pattern modelling what it is to suffer, to struggle. What he calls us to is to love one another, to actually love another, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, but to actually mean it when we do. It would be an incomplete sort of a life if suffering played no part, but there’s no need to go looking for it. If my vision of God does not allow for him to suffer, I’ve misunderstood the good news of Jesus Christ. If, on the other hand, I let my disability, or any other kind of pain or suffering, steal my life or my joy, then I think I’ve missed an even greater and more important element of what it means to follow Jesus. Life, in all its fullness has, at some level, to include the experience of pain and suffering. The challenge we all face as Christians is how we walk together, and with God when suffering comes. We benefit greatly when the Church makes choices to consciously walk humbly with God, to love and serve the poor and those in greatest need, wherever they may be. For me to hanker after an ending to my pain is to seek to eradicate an essential part of what it means to be me. For me to seek an end to disablement, wherever it stems from, inside or outside the Church, that’s an issue of justice, of the outworking of the gospel.
Haydon Spenceley is an Assistant Curate in the Church of England. He is married to Jo. They don’t have any pets. You can follow him on Twitter @haydonspenceley or if you’re really keen, find out more about him at www.haydonspenceley.com