When praying for those with disabilities.
“Archbishop: I don't pray for my daughter's disability.” This is the headline for an excellent piece on this morning’s BBC’s news site in which Archbishop of Canterbury – just call me “Justin” – along with two of his daughters, Katharine and Ellie, share their experiences of living with mental health issues and disabilities. I found their openness very moving, not least in their experiences of prayer, praying for others as well as being prayed for. So where does such prayer fit in with all this? Not as simply as you might expect. Christians mean well, of course, when they offer to pray for someone in need. But sadly this offer can be less of a commitment and more as a cop-out. It is so easy to say to someone with insuperable problems “I’ll pray for you” rather than just simply listen and even stay with them in their pain, even their helplessness. Katherine talks about people offering to pray for her, but she feels this masks important conversations and opportunities to help. "If your first response is, 'Can I pray for your healing?', then you're not listening." Of course, we pray for people, all kinds of people. We hold them before God and entrust them to his care. But as Corrie ten Boom teaches as someone who knew suffering: “We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that he will get us involved in his plan for the answer. If we are true intercessors, we must be ready to take part in God’s work on behalf of the people for whom we pray.” Justin prays for his daughters but in different ways. Here he makes a hugely important distinction. As the BBC reports: "So for Katharine her mental illness is something she's not always had, but Ellie has always had her disability and it's part of her. So he prays for Katharine and her mental health on a daily basis, but for Ellie it is more nuanced." “Turning to Ellie, he says: "Your younger sister said, 'If God changed Ellie she wouldn't be Ellie, and we love Ellie'. So there's that thing that Ellie's Ellie, she's precious."” So clearly we are summoned to pray for people who are ill, physically or mentally (not that there is such a distinction), we pray that God will heal them, make them better, restore them. But when it comes to people with disabilities, what happens then? How do we pray for people who are born deaf or with Down’s Syndrome? Is it simply a case of not having enough faith for God to heal them? Just one miracle too far? Are there more considerations at work here?
God respects us as unique individuals and what makes us the people we are. When in Christ I become a new creation, I am still me. I think I have blogged before about a conversation I had some 20 years ago while visiting Jerusalem of all places. We had met up with a sparkie family on pilgrimage from Manchester who were, in their own words, “little people.” The mum explained to me that her height was a result of her genetic inheritance and her particular form of dwarfism (there are 200 different types incidentally) has a high infant mortality. My response was to hope for a breakthrough in genetic medicine. To be fair, I was thinking of how many died at birth. Her response surprised me. “Not at all – we need little people.” In fact, I learnt that there is an active dwarfism community, along with their friends and families. They enjoy and value each other. Being little is who they are, part and parcel of their personality. It makes them special. You can't simply wish them away. In fact, I have just googled the website for “the big charity for little people” founded by actor Warwick Davis, his wife Samantha (www.littlepeopleuk.org) in which the strapline is “positively unique.” As Christians we pray in Jesus’ name for all kinds of people including those with disabilities. But like Justin, we pray with nuance, with discernment, as we wait for God’s new Jerusalem.. It goes without saying that we aim to support those folk with disabilities. Whatever it takes, and that includes our church buildings. To refer to the BBC article: "Many of the Church of England's 9,000 buildings are ill-equipped and inaccessible, but heritage protection currently trumps accessibility law. Justin’s response: I find it absolutely extraordinary that disability access comes second to heritage. I really find that bizarre. Well, that's one way of saying we don't care about you, isn't it?" But Jesus calls us to care, especially for the weak and vulnerable for the simple reason that we are each loved and valued by God. We are all positively unique.