Don’t we all spend a lot of time looking back? I’m thinking back over the second half of my life so far, considering how ‘church’ has responded to me. If I wished to, it would be possible for me to construct a narrative that would make you feel more than a little sorry for me. Likewise, should I wish, I could make myself look unfairly good. I could do down the Church, or elevate it to heights that would be unrealistic and based solely in the realm of hyperbole. The thing is, I don’t really want to look back. I’ve spent a lot of my conscious life wondering why things are as they are, seeing through a series of lenses which, it turns out with another kind of sight, the hind kind, not to have been anything like clear and true. This has damaged me. It’s made me view myself equally with too much suspicion and as being more important than I truly am. It’s infected how I’ve viewed and related to other people, and groups and institutions I’ve either been a part of, or felt myself excluded from. Being in at least constant discomfort, if not pain, or further along the scale, imagining myself to be seen as ‘less-than’, ‘different’ or as an ‘other’ to be feared, these things can do a lot to morph the perspective. It’s sometimes not healthy, therefore, to look back, so, instead, I want to look forward, hopefully with the benefit of some things I’ve learned.
First, pain, suffering, impairment…these things do not come to me because of my sin. Happily not many Christian groups I’ve had anything to do with have said that they do, but it’s easy, when day bleeds into night and back into day of pain to think that it must in some way be down to me, and not just physically. I must deserve it. This might be controversial, but I’m going to repeat for emphasis, I am not impaired because of my sin, or I would say, anybody’s sin. The functional limitations I have are just a fact of life. It is what it is. If I never sinned again, impossible as that is, I would remain impaired. My condition would, in actual fact, remain a gift from God. It always will be.
Conversely, I fall short of the best way of living with and for God every single day (many times an hour, most days) and will continue to do so. I notice sometimes that people who don’t know me have lower expectations of me in terms of discipleship, or the ability to minister, to lead, to speak in public and so forth. It’s a microcosm of how it is probable many people with impairments and disabilities are treated in wider society. Just as impairment is not the result of sin, neither does it give me a free pass. I need the grace and mercy of God just as much as the next person. It is crucial that people of all abilities are not just welcomed into fellowship in Church (a big enough step for some) but into living relationships with God. Many Churches I have been a part of have seen past my condition and loved (and often even liked) me. This might seem a basic point, but I think it’s a crucial one. All of us are loved, however much we are able to express knowledge of that love. I hope and pray that I, and we, remember that.
This leads me to a final point. There’s the potential for all of us, whatever presenting issue we perceive in new people we meet as they come through the doors of our Churches, to ‘pin’ people as single-issue people. It’d be easy for a well-meaning minister to meet me for the first time and think that my using a wheelchair is my biggest problem. This has happened many times. Some awkward, usually healing based conversations have ensued. It is in the building of relationship and community, simply giving the gift of getting to know someone, of giving them time, that we truly find our way to walking alongside, showing the kind of value and love to one another that are the hallmarks of Jesus’s ministry in the gospels. This is the ministry, the life, that he invites us into. We’ve all hurt people, we’ve all been hurt. Renewal and reconciliation are possible. They are the hallmarks of the Church of Jesus operating in the way we were always meant to.
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