Does everyone belong in God's 'All'
The Revd Verity Phillips asks the question
All along God has been ‘for all’. Noah knew it so long ago we’ve lost count; Jesus lived it 2,000 years ago; John Wesley wrote his four ‘All’s in the 1700s. For one year this gospel truth is highlighted by the Church – and after that? For some, connexional initiatives are irrelevant, as denominations are often irrelevant to non-church-attending Christians.
I have not always considered myself disabled. After my accident, I insisted I was ‘in recovery’ to stop people treating me as an invalid. I am not ‘ill’; not likely to ‘get better soon’. I had an accident and now my neurology malfunctions.
My brain has done what your mobile phone might do if it was dropped on the floor, but somewhere inside, I am still me. After the accident, I laughed for months at the bizarre changes. I also cried and felt confused, bewildered and worried.
Through physio, I can mostly manage my condition, though some ‘little’ jobs are like mountains to climb; but I can’t control the triggers in my environment. Self-respect is hard, because certain behaviours can’t be prevented.
When I saw a book on disability theology called Unworthy (with the ‘Un’ in recessive type), I thought: that’s it! The Church calls me ‘worthy’, but can’t explain what they mean, and occasionally because I’m disabled some people react as if I may not be worthy. I understand the theory of ‘God for All’, but somehow it doesn’t fit with my experience. Why not?
Accepting people as they are
Integrating disabled people fully into society is fairly recent; it’s unfamiliar for some, even though they are fair-minded. Perhaps you accept whoever, whatever comes your way.
Maybe you can accept people once you understand them. A few can never relate to people who are different... which is their own disability. Not all brains work the same, and we are influenced by our experience and education.
I can’t do all I want to do – all that my colleagues do. I feel excluded and inadequate not least when the time to be assessed as a minister comes around: how can I belong when I don’t pull my weight? And if I push myself, I’ll relapse. Either way, it’s not fair on others.
There are embarrassing trigger moments when my brain functions like a toddler or a teen, and there are times when my ‘performance’ reveals knowledge and experience. I have no choice but to let God be in charge of each day. I must accept forgiveness, and forgive myself, daily.
We are one Body
Reading disability theology has helped me to realise that disability, like race and gender, is not anybody’s fault. Our society and theology produce low self-worth through perceptions of what it means to be human.
We have become individually accountable for gifts, abilities, spiritual discipline. Yet jointly we are the Body of Christ, and when one suffers we all suffer. When one person is missing or ‘excluded’, we are all the poorer, not because abilities are missed, but because everyone is part of the Body; it’s like taking your teeth out, or wearing a sling.
I’ve learned that my disability is not my problem, any more than the twin colours of my face. I didn’t ask to be as I am. God has seen fit to let me go through what has happened, and see what I make of it.
If it’s a problem, it’s a problem of, not for, the whole Church, the whole Body of Christ, which we can productively wrestle with together. If it’s a gift, then it’s our gift, not just mine.
Can we live with people who are different, even with people who don’t behave as expected; does everyone belong in God’s ‘All’, or are there unconscious limits? Let’s not leave those who are ‘different’ feeling bad when they ask for a recovery room, or for adjustments to settings, or when they explain they can’t join in, or they take too much precious time... it’s not their need they’re addressing, but our need.
Your needs, reader, are ours, too – can you dare to let everyone share them? When we glimpse how individualism is incompatible with wholeness we may start to understand what it means to be the Body of Christ. Then we might recognise how ‘God is for All’ enough to begin to follow God’s example in Jesus – with a little help from the Holy Spirit.
The Revd Verity Phillips is a minister in the Teignbridge Methodist Circuit.