Green Wellies and Harvest Feasts

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6685965833_dc8cf987bb_bA few weeks ago I was invited to help lead a YMCA learning hub on the subject of “Disability and Special Needs” -also in attendance was Rev Katie Tupling who offered a timely reminder that in any civil rights cause “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” and she of course is right.

I’m not a person with a disability, and can’t therefore with any legitimacy start to speak of that experience, but I am a Dad (in this case technically ex-foster parent) of a young man who has a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Moderate to Severe Learning Disabilities (M/SLD). When I speak it’s from this perspective, and with this passion behind it – but my experiences are NOT the same as my sons. I’m not the one who has been kicked, and spat at, not the one who has been called vile and hurtful names, and I’m not the one who has to live it out day after day.

In his case, as with many others, we’ve had to fight and argue (and we still do) for so many of the support services he needs. Even as I write this we have no idea what staff will be around (if any) over Christmas to provide him the support he needs, and whilst that’s irritating to the extreme for us, not knowing the extent of support we’re going to have to provide, because those being paid and contracted to do it won’t or can’t – it’s nothing of the uncertainty and insecurity it causes him. There are some things that we (as parents) have had to deal with that, certainly as a child, he didn’t directly: like when someone had stuck the prayer book pages together to hide the “badly” almost illegible prayer he had written, or the “tuts” we got from some in the early days when he would climb over the pews in his bright green wellies.

But I don’t want this blog piece to just be another set of moans and groans (though believe me it could be) about the negative aspects of dealing with attitudes towards disability, or the difficulties around accessing benefits and support services; instead I wanted to share some good memories from living and working alongside young people with physical and learning disabilities.

One of my Pioneer Ministry roles takes me into local schools, doing assemblies, prayer days, Godly Play sessions and Chaplaincy. One of the local schools I work with is Woolley Wood School, a specialist school for children with special needs. I always say at Woolley Wood that the children there “know how to celebrate” – I can honestly say that I’ve witnessed some of the best Harvest and Christmas celebrations ever there. There is something about how staff, parents and children grasp and live every moment of those times to the fullest. Last years Harvest Festival  in particular, will forever live in my memory. A group of us from the food bank had been invited to the school, we spent time in the classroom, learning new songs and the sign language to go with them, then all of us went into the long wide corridor laid out for lunch like some great feast in the nave of a cathedral. Each class had cooked and brought something to the feast to share with everyone, we sat and we ate and we drank. Then we went outside to dance and play and enjoy each others company, before returning inside for the final act.Once again, we (as guests) were seated at the top end of the corridor and the children seated down the sides, some in wheelchairs, some independently – singing and signing “Love grows stronger when you give it away”. Gradually from the far end of the corridor a small group of children, and adults pulled along a decorated wagon – as it passed each class in turn their harvest offerings were heaped into the wagon, and then each class followed on behind it. For the full length of the corridor it came, piled higher and higher with food for the food bank, and the singing grew, and the laughter and the tears. My few words of prayerful thanks added nothing – all had been said, sung and given already.

 

 

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Vulnerability & Grace

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wp_20160902_09_19_32_proLast week I attended a special evening at St Marks Broomhill to hear the internationally renowned Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Webber. It was an inspiring evening, made even better by the presence of many friends and ministry colleagues, come on I even got the latest book signed!

Nadia spoke in a witty, challenging and grace filled way – echoing much of that which she covers in her books. The central message she left me with after over an hour of having my heart “strangely warmed” (I am a Methodist after all) was the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message, that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it other than accept it or deny it. That central message of grace is one we sometimes seem to lose, amongst our own internal church arguments and debates that seem to encompass everything from Gay marriage, to the colours of paint and tiles most appropriate in the new toilet block! Somehow we lose the beautiful simplicity of Gods outrageous love and grace.

Bolz-Webber teaches me to try and understand, and accept, my own flaws (oh yes I have them too) in the same way that she most markedly does, and shares openly. So, for the record: I know at times I lurch into “grumpy old man” mode, I can at times be “tetchy”, in fact I can be outright shouting mad. I sometimes allow my shows of confidence to take on an air of certainty and even boarderline judgementalism and defensiveness, I don’t always listen enough, and am sometimes too keen to offer advice. No doubt my friends and family can pick out other flaws too – but you know what, despite all this I’m still beloved by God. These flaws and frailties are what Nadia Bolz-Webber calls our “jagged edges”. and its in “…the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God…” says Pastor Nadia.

In the other part of my life, I’m a foster carer. If anyone ever tells you that being a foster carer is a great job don’t believe them (at least not entirely) – sure it’s got it rewards, feeling that you can provide some stability and love into the life of a young person that needs that is a more than worthwhile thing to do, but its also tough. By the time you’ve had your fifth conversation with the school, social worker, or police in a week, believe me it gets a little wearing …. and its then that your jagged edges can show, not to the young person necessarily but to others around you, and even to yourself as you begin to doubt what it is you actually might have to offer, and why your best offer just keeps getting rejected and is nowhere near enough. But as we own and even embrace those flaws  the grace gets chance and can shine through, as the rough jagged edges meet we find Gods path of love. So when my autistic ex-foster son (who has significant learning disabilities as well as his autism) went missing again for hours on Monday night – as we and the other professionals searched arrest sheets, hospital admittance lists, RTA casualties descriptions – and and his phone remained un-contactable, the jagged edges grew again. I was scared, I was angry, I was helpless (one state I absolutely hate to be in). Finally at nearly 3am we make contact – he is safe – and the jagged edges retreat, I am overwhelmed with relief and love and grace. “Glad you’re safe – sleep well son” the only words I can muster.

Each of us is vulnerable in our own ways, Pastor Nadia reminded me that sharing that vulnerability as a minister far from being a weakness can be a wonderful means of grace. As she joked last week about the Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection “…how’s that all working out for you?” (NBW) it’s a long, long road to travel, and pretending we’ve arrived when we haven’t helps no one really. The truth is God loves us, imperfect, jagged edges and all.