By Our Love

love-not-right

 Picture Credit

There is running through my head, a commentary that looks at the one hand, at how church can respond to people with disabilities (and their families) who are already Christian and another which mulls over how church can respond so that people with disabilities who are not Christian, will be welcomed in and come to know The Lord Jesus. In both cases I am certain that Christians/church have already been given the model and the power to respond in a way which will see Christians living with disability fully engaged and uplifted, as well as non-Christians with disabilities turning to the Lord. The model is the early church and the power is the Holy Spirit.

The early church as depicted in the second chapter of Acts is one of a group of people meeting daily (yes daily) for devotion to the work of the apostles, prayer, breaking of bread and fellowship. We know from the record that they lived in community which may not be how we live now but that does not matter. What matters is coming together very often; it is the building of relationships one with another in common faith and as Paul writes in Ephesians 3:17-19

“And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The early church was wrapped in the recent vision of Christ on the cross, that level of love is what they understood. They had received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and they were fully alive to the love and power of God, we can say that they were “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”

In the context of disability how might this work out? Geeta and Raaj Mondal, a Christian couple known to many in Delhi, have two sons, the eldest is Samarpan and a few years younger is Saday. Like all children they have been involved in general acts of mischief but it was complaints from other parents, together with a suggestion from a school teacher that they might consider sending Samarpan to a special school that eventually led to a diagnosis of autism. Raaj mentions in his recollections of that parent-teacher’s meeting that he found himself crying as he drove his scooter home. Geeta says Raaj was shattered so that when they received the diagnosis they went straight to the home of dear friends,

“People who had always provided a place for us to share our thoughts”

Geeta recalls her husband just sat silently with his friend whilst she talked with the hostess about what to do next, at the same time feeling thankful for such friends.

Friendship like that is what we as church need to be offering one another. It is pure love without judgment or conditions, being available to listen, share and grieve together as Paul says in Romans 12:15

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

We can do that best when we have built relationships by meeting often, praying together, studying scripture together and spending time relaxing and eating together in a reflection of God’s love for us. It is easy to start that process with people like you (maybe young doctors, a bunch of young parents or professional men and women) it might require more loving thought to include families living with disabilities. I am reminded of a Telugu lady knocking on the door of a family living a couple of blocks away from her in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. She did not go to their church, indeed could not really have known they were Christian but she had seen little Shreya their daughter with Down syndrome out playing and came to visit to offer friendship and prayer. They became faithful friends who have prayed together weekly for Shreya for more than ten years.

Such is a Christian life, one that cannot fail but to provide the necessary support and encouragement, a shoulder to cry on and friends to rejoice with on what can seem like a long, lonely journey for families living with disability. The driving force will be Christian love, the power to remain faithful and to know what everyone in the fellowship needs most and when, is the Holy Spirit and the motive will be to nurture each other towards salvation and an eternity in Christ.

Geeta and Raaj say that the first thing any church can do is find out those families and individuals with disabilities in the church and undergird them. Then as relationships build, identify practical ways to help, perhaps by providing opportunities for tired caregivers to get away for a rest. A third step might be to invite other children, those in the family without disabilities, to have a treat without having to share it with the brother or sister with disability. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it is not easy being the sibling of someone with disabilities and always having to “understand” “be patient and kind because…”

In allowing the Holy Spirit to work to bring us alongside and to listen to and support families living with disabilities in our congregations we shall be transformed, more welcoming and better able to reach out to people with disabilities who are not yet Christians. For they will know we are Christians by our love.

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Acknowledging Shared Vulnerability

Larger Hills

Recently I met a young woman in a small tribal village in Manipur about an hour’s drive from Imphal. Her name is Nengnei Kim or Kikim and she is about 34 years old. I saw her first through a side window of the lovely wooden house in the hills. As she watched us walk up the drive her high cheek bones and very thick, short, black hair, cut with a full fringe, reminded me of a picture I once saw of a dignified South American tribal women. Kikim joined us in the wood panelled sitting room crawling to and fro on her hands and knees. I was privileged to have the opportunity to ask her father about their lives with Kikim. He explained that they had thought perhaps she had received the wrong medicine for a fever as a baby but subsequently tests showed that half of her brain was nor properly formed affecting her development.

Kikim’s father told me that he thought his other children had found their sister an encouragement as she was always around them and seemed happy as they were growing up. She seems to show no other feeling but happiness was how my friend interpreted what he said to me.  When I asked him about the struggles he and his wife had faced he said that it had been hard trying to cope with the many seizures she suffered but that about ten years previously a friend had brought an evangelist home and together they had prayed and fasted and since that time Kikim had not suffered any seizures. As he spoke Kikim crawled towards him and rested her head on his knee as he gently ran a hand through her hair. It was just for a moment and then she crawled off again and sat against the wall looking around and occasionally drumming her fingers on a small side table.

As we were served tea I noticed on the mantelpiece above the magnificent fireplace a framed notice of recognition from the Baptist Church for Kikim’s father’s work organising the feast at one of the major church events that constitute a significant part of the communal life in the village. Kikim’s father said the church had helped with money for medicines and the women of the church come and pray but he seemed a little surprised at my question about the response of the church, only mentioning the evangelist much later in the conversation.

That same evening one of his sons came calling at the house where I was staying. He is a fine young man who has spent years away studying for his PhD but his heart remains in his beloved village in the hills. When I mentioned how grateful I was to his father for taking time to share something of his life with Kikim he said I think we should use reason about these things; my father thinks the prayers of an evangelist cured the seizures, I think it was just her age and medicines; she still takes medicines.” The sensible logic seemed perfectly reasonable, especially coming from such an accomplished young scientist, and I started on a few quick (and rather trite) Christian responses. Then he told me with a tinge of bitterness, that as a child he had prayed and prayed for Kikim. In that moment I glimpsed a vulnerable little boy struggling to understand why his prayers were not answered and I became aware of a deep sadness.

Thomas E. Reynolds is a Canadian theologian with a son who has autism and various other neurodevelopmental disorders. In his book Vulnerable Communion; a Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Reynolds writes that we live in a time where the value of each person is based on whether he or she is capable of being productive in the sense of able to work and be part of modern capitalism. The modern world expects and respects independence and productivity (the language we use is an indication: what was earlier called Personnel Management is now called Human Resource Management, as if each of us is so much human capital!). This way of defining normal, naturally excludes people with disabilities who therefore need healing/hiding/pitying/caring for as they somehow represent something that is out of control. It is as a result of this so called prevailing view of “normalcy” that family members of people with disabilities find themselves running a full gambit of feelings including anger, disappointment, frustration, shame, pity, fear, loneliness, revulsion, bitterness and doubt.

Reynolds shows that this ‘normal’ is nonsense because none of us are actually independent. We are born to be in community, we have been “loved into being by God” and “objectively, many people spend a great part of their lives physically dependent upon others” (…in childhood and old age, during sickness etc.)  “On a subjective level we are all dependent upon others for well-being.”   “Human beings crave worth and fear the lack of worth, so we seek recognition and welcome by those around us.”  We need other people and that neediness means we are vulnerable by being “open to being wounded.” There are many strings to this vulnerability but acknowledging that we are all vulnerable and all are interdependent will allow us to consider an alternative where communities are based “upon a vision of the common good that empowers the well-being of all, and in terms of the creative love of God who is revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ”

It is in that new view of society represented by God’s love and endless grace, that we share in a common vulnerability as Jesus did; and the relatives of people with disabilities can hope to find how to live without experiencing the negative emotions resulting from having to deal with a world that thinks interdependence and vulnerability are weak and abnormal.

We who are church are often as deeply immersed in the worldly notions of ‘the normal’ as everyone else and so we try to ‘help’, believing our role is to pray for healing and give to charities when what is actually called for is holiness. We are called to be something different in the way that Jesus was different. We are to be people who love as Christ loved. This can be done by being available, giving and receiving love in mutual vulnerability interwoven with compassion and sympathy. Our love is to respect others just as they are, as Christ did. Christ came alongside us as a vulnerable human (God made man) and then did not judge others in the way of the world, he wished only that everyone may live and live to the fullest. The Lord’s desire for us to experience joy is boundless…he offers us eternity. Our love, therefore, shall seek to nourish the beloved’s ability to experience joy. And, just as God remains faithful in Christ and the Holy Spirit so we must remain faithful; that is not ‘doing for’ someone but ‘being there’.

This kind of holy love stands in contrast to the mistaken world view that declares Kikim is a problem needing a solution. When we condemn Kikim by the worldly notion of ‘not normal’ we deny our shared vulnerability and dependency and in so doing bring into doubt the truth of Christ’s love.