Tag: disability theology

1 Year Review and Looking Forward…

1 Year Review and Looking Forward…

I cannot believe that after creating a Twitter account one year ago, YouBelong would be what it is now and heading in the direction it seems to be!

At the time, my Mum was working in a cafe and as I had a hospital appointment later that day, I decided to go into work with her to wait for my appointment. I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head other than that I had just completed my theology degree and was wondering what the purpose of it was as I was too unwell to use it. Then I was reminded of something my course director had told me about – online church. I didn’t really know what that would look like but knew there must be others like me who were too unwell to attend church some weeks, or maybe even every week, and others who could physically attend church but felt isolated by the complex theology and ‘Chistianese’ used in many churches. I can attend church most weeks, with the help of my parents, but have avoided some churches not because I cannot physically access them or because I can’t understand them, but because their theological teaching around pain, suffering and disability is damaging and hurtful. By giving others a safe place to share their thoughts and concerns around balancing life as a Christian with a life as a disabled or chronically ill person, and discover that God isn’t as harsh and judgmental, or formula abiding, as some places make Him out to be.

I quickly knew this project was going to be bigger than I ever intended or imagined when the number of followers grew. This was confirmed to me whilst at Spring Harvest just before Easter when a number of church leaders told me about people they knew of, within their congregation and in the community, that do not attend their churches due to disabilities or chronic illnesses. It wasn’t that they weren’t wanting to change that, but they didn’t know how.

Meeting leaders led to me being invited to a conference where lots of other church leaders gathered to discuss and help one another run their churches in the best way possible. Although a lot of the teaching was for physical churches, it gave me some ideas but more importantly, it grew my network and has helped raise awareness of people with chronic illness and disability in the Church – or not.

Around March, I started a blog (youbelong2019.wordpress.com) as a place to share my thoughts and experiences in greater detail as social media only allows for limited characters. I was shocked and surprised to find out just a few months after starting the blog that I was a finalist in the Premier Digital Awards! As the Premier Digital Conference preceded the awards show, I decided to attend that first and came away with lots of notes and more connections and I hope to work with these people over the coming year. The day flew past and suddenly YouBelong was being announced as winner of the up and coming blog! It still amazes me now and I am so thankful for all of you who guest blogged and who read the posts each week – thank you!

Before long, December was here and with that, advent. I knew I wanted to arrange something for us to do together as a community and after seeing the idea to study the 24 chapters of Luke in 24 days, that the 24 days before Christmas would be perfectly suited to that. I wanted to ensure that people from all platforms (YouBelong is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram now) were able to participate so I posted every day on every platform. It was a bigger commitment than I initially realised but I was thankful for having done it as I not only learnt more about the stories in Luke’s gospel but also got to interact with more of you and have since heard stories of couples reading the chapter together each day and some people sharing them with others they know to encourage them which I love to hear!

And know we are into 2020, YouBelong is 1 year old and we have LOADS of exciting plans in place to move things forward in new ways this year. One of the biggest things that we hope and plan to do is register as a charity so that we have access to funding to enable the team to grow, to reach isolated people where they are, provide resources and training for churches and start a more official online church for those who cannot attend church, either at all or occasionally. This will also include a connect group which will begin on Facebook and be a closed group of people who study the same passages/ topic together so if you are interested in getting involved, I highly recommend following us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/youbelong2019 now as this will be launching in the next few weeks!

I am excited for what the year ahead has to bring and hope you are too! If you have any ideas of things you would like to see included then please get in touch either via email at info@youbelong.org.uk or on our social media.

No Shame in Lament

No Shame in Lament

If you follow YouBelong on social media, you will possibly be aware that our founder has been experiencing more crashes, which have left her unable to get out of bed or do anything more than sleep and rest. Each time, these have occurred at the weekend, at the end of a busy week meaning any plans out of office hours had to be cancelled.

If you experience good and bad days with your health, you will likely be aware how frustrating this is. I am not good at expressing how I am feeling (I take myself away from people when I am in pain and when I go to A&E, I am the one making the doctors laugh because my happy instincts kick in despite having not eaten or drunk anything for 48 hours or more, thrown up multiple times over that period and been in horrible pain from spasms). I guess that’s just how I am. Sometimes it’s a positive, as it acts as a distraction at times and ensures that those around me don’t get too worried about me but it also means I struggle to express just how bad I am feeling when I am asked by a doctor, and therefore, am not always taken seriously.

I feel that sometimes, I approach God in the same way. I don’t want to show Him how I am really feeling. ‘There are people worse off than me’, ‘God’s got more important things to deal with’, and sometimes even, ‘He can’t be listening/ care, otherwise He would have done something by now’. We know that is not true. God listens to everything, He even sees our tears and counts them as prayers (Psalm 56:8). Even Jesus wept. That was it. When Lazarus died, Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t have words. He cried. Lament is not far from this. Slightly more than crying, it is about sharing our anguish outwardly with God – ‘expressing grief, pain, suffering or frustration.’

‘And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God.’ – Mark Vroegop
https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/dare-to-hope-in-god

There are texts of lament in Lamentations and in the Psalms. It is not solely an act intended only for the Old Testament era though as Jesus Himself uses one of the Psalms to cry out to God (i.e. lament) when He is on the cross – ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ This Psalm in the original context of Psalm 22, goes on to turn into praise for God, but Jesus stopped there. No praise, just a simple expression of sadness and pain.

I couldn’t imagine lament as a type of prayer. When I read these parts of the bible, I would view them as humans revealing their imperfectness and Jesus, His human-ness. I certainly never viewed these moments in people’s lives as times of prayer and seeking God. My idea of prayer was, Thanks, Sorry and Please (otherwise known as TSP prayer), where was the lament part in that?! But I was wrong. Crying out to God isn’t wrong. It isn’t attention seeking or unnecessary complaining. When we are suffering, upset, frustrated or grieving, God wants us to go to Him. As our Father, He cares about us and wants to be there to comfort us. He understands. At the same time as dying on the cross, He lost His Son at the hands of those He created and understands our emotions better than we do!

So if you are having a bad day or week due to a flare up of symptoms, the loss of a job, friends, a loved one or frustration at not being able to attend church, visit family or friends or just get out of bed, lament! God is listening. Some of the Psalms end with praise when the Psalmist finds God is with them and they recognise His goodness, but Jesus just did the crying out part. If all we can manage is the crying out, and you are aiming it at God and not just grumbling, know He hears you, and it is as valuable to Him as a carefully planned out, 15 minute, TSP prayer. There is no need to hide our feelings from God. He knows what we are thinking and feeling, He knows every hair on our head. Let us allow ourselves, and our generation of ‘stiff upper lippers’, to grieve and share our pain and suffering with God. It is what He wants us to do and you can bet He will be right there with us, even if you don’t feel Him there at the time.

Looking ‘normal’ doesn’t mean we are.

Looking ‘normal’ doesn’t mean we are.

A large quantity of the people connected with YouBelong have a disability or chronic illness. For some of us, our conditions have little to no impact on our day to day activities and lives in general. For others, our lives are greatly impacted by our conditions as the world we live in is not well suited to our situations. Then there is another group who sit somewhere in the middle. Some days we can cope just fine and look and act like anyone else but on other days we are home or even bed bound, unable to to do anything for ourselves and truggle constantly to control our symptoms with medications and therapies. I fit into this circle in the venn diagram of chronic illnesses – the one that overlaps the ‘no effect on daily life’ and the one that says ‘unable to participate in daily life’.

As I was born without health issues, I have had to adapt to the changes that have taken place in my life as a result of chronic illness…. but so have those around me. Although I work, I can only do so part time and even then, I can only do that because my parents drive me to and from work and allow me to live in their house as I cannot work enough hours to afford to live in my own place. Even if I could, some days I am unable to get up until muchh later in the day which means I do not drink anything or eat anything without my parents bringing me things and helping me out with the cleaning and general household jobs.

As I said, I am in the middle circle of the venn diagram so sometimes I am doing okay and my symptoms are under control and other days I am really unwell. A lot of the people in the chronic illness community describe these as good days and bad days and we all know what that means. A good day does NOT mean symptoms free. If we suffer from pain, we probably still have pain in our bodies, even on bad days. If we struggle with fatigue, a good day might mean we can do more than usual, or not need to nap or rest as often, but we will still be tired and if we do too much, we can suddenly find ourself going from a good day to a bad day in a matter of hours. A GOOD day does not mean we are better, healed, cured. It means we are doing better than our average and may want to do more, to make the most of our good day but please take note, a good day to us, is not same as a good or even regular health day for the average person. If we decide to use our good days to do more than you would normally see us do or do things we would not normally do, don’t give us judgemental looks or doubt our conditions. If we do something we don’t normally do, it is probably because we want to do it, even though we know that tomorrow will likely be a bad pain day or a day with high levels of fatigue and are unable to get out of bed at all.

A good day may also mean we look ‘normal’ because we are up and dressed and may have our hair, make up and nails done or have our facial hair trimmed and neat. If that is how we choose to use our time and energy on our better days, why shouldn’t we be allowed to do that? Even on our worst days, many people don’t see how sick we are or feel because the illnesses are not visible. Pain is invisible, fatigue cannot be viewed apart from the bags under our eyes and the constant yawns that stretch across our faces but other people get ‘tired’ too and although this is nothing like that, it is indistingushable from the outside.

We as humans, are naturally judgemental and its often for a good reason. If we weren’t good at judging, less people would have survived the cave man days man days as they wouldn’t have known whether another person was going be friendly, or try to steal from them, attack other tribe members or even had fallen in love and wanted to start a family with them! But today, judgement leads to lots of problems, particularly with the introduction of the internet and social media where people can, and do, say what they think about someone they have never met simply because they don’t like the way they dressed or their accent or perhaps they are actually jealous of them so attack them for that reason.

Chronically ill people are constantly judged for how many medications we take, being absent from work or school so often without ever looking ill, being turned away from hosptials because our pain cannot be seen so is not accepted as real and being questioned about using a disabled parking space because we walked ‘just fine’ when we left the car and went into the shops!

When we receive all this hate and judgement from the world, the last thing we want or need from our friends and family is the same speel all over again. In James 4 we read these verses:

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

THERE IS ONLY ONE JUDGE…. BUT YOU – WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE YOUR NEIGHBOUR? God is the judge, not us. If your reasoning for judging someone is because you don’t believe their pain or fatigue etc. can be as bad as they make out (I can guarantee it probably is – we have just gotten really good at hiding it!), it is not your right to judge. God will do that. You are told to love them no matter what. In Luke 6 we are told to love even our neighbours. It is hard but if we can work to do that, we can also work to really love our friends and family who have good days for love cannot be true with judgement incorporated into it.

A good day is just that – a good day. Tomorrow may not be a good day, or maybe it will be. Perhaps there will even be a good week but no matter what, unless we say that we are recoverd, cured, fully better, please don’t judge us for not acting or behaving in the way you want or expect us to.

The importance of faith deconstruction in chronic illness

The importance of faith deconstruction in chronic illness

You may recently have been aware of Marty Sampson, Hillsong song writer and worship leader, who recently posted on his Instagram account that he was struggling with his faith and had even come to the point where it was easier not to have a faith at all than to battle with the ongoing questions and doubts that arose in his mind. The majority of the responses were sadness and disappointment and others simply shared their prayers of hope for a new found faith for Marty and wished him the best on his journey.

I have to be honest that my first thoughts were ones of shock and sadness as I found out that the person who wrote one of my favourite and most impacting worship songs, ‘O Praise the Name’, was no longer identifying as a Christian. I couldn’t work out how someone who once wrote such powerful words, seemingly from a place of strong faith, could end up disowning the God he once sung lovingly about.

Then I remembered my journey. When I started my degree, my faith felt foundational – despite what has happened so far in my life, my faith has never left me. I have overcome some very big challenges so was sure I would never lose my faith now! Then my illness progressed to the point I couldn’t work or fulfil the full criteria of my degree or even do the thing I thought God wanted me to do – be a Youth Pastor. My faith wobbled.

“Why would the God who made me and loves me cause me to be unable to do the thing I not only love to do but also that would help spread the good news and bring others to know and love Him?” This was just the beginning. From here, I found myself questioning everything I ever knew, even those things that I once would have argued were unarguable and parts of my faith that simply couldn’t be wrong such as, God made me and God loves me and even, that God exists! I was terrified. Despite feeling like I was losing my faith, I was desperate not to do so!

Around this time, we covered faith development at uni (what amazing timing!), and I realised that these periods of seemingly, losing faith, were actually periods of rediscovering and affirming it. A faith established in childhood (such as mine) which isn’t challenged or questioned, cannot and will not grow. I don’t know Marty’s life situation but I would not be surprised if something has recently occured that has caused him some distress or grief and has kicked off this period of faith deconstruction. My questioning started because I was chronically ill and had taken the time to reflect on my situation more deeply than I would usually because the issue was affecting my entire life in one way or another so I had no choice to wonder why and attempt to make sense of the situation.

As you might have guessed by now, I am very much FOR faith deconstruction. Although its a hard time, its also a time where I have learnt not only more about God but also more about me and what I really want in life. The trick, I have found, for getting beyond the ‘lost’ phase, is to find those key things that ground your faith and to recall the faith moments – the ones which have anchored your faith, and gradually work through the questions you have one by one with no pressure to get the ‘right answer’ or arrive at one by a particular deadline.

From here comes the reconciliation stage. Now you have unlearned everything you believed about God and Christianity, you can relearn it in relation to your situation and experiences. It is going to be hard but in the end it is worth it.

There is so much more I could say but the key point is that without being willing to embrace the deconstruction phase of my life with chronic illness, I could never have got to where I am now and have a strong established faith once again (yet always ready to be broken down and question everything over again!). If I had not have allowed myself to question and be challenged, I would not be in this same place. The greatest piece of advice I would give to anyone watching someone else going through this is to give them space and time. Be open to conversation but don’t push it or hurry them. Pray and let them rediscover God through your simple acts of love and patience.

When a miracle doesn’t feel like a miracle

When a miracle doesn’t feel like a miracle

Just over 2 weeks ago I lay inside an MRI machine for almost an hour whilst the technicians moved the table back and forth with me on it to get images of my spine and surrounding tissue. 20 minutes in the pain hit me hard but I couldn’t move or I would risk damaging the quality of the images that were taken which might mean I had to lie still even longer whilst they re-took them. My eyes filled with tears but I got through it.

Today is day 3 of lying in bed trying to find that comfortable position that doesn’t seem to exist whilst at the same time, battling with nausea, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, the side effects of the tablets I have been taking in the hope that they will at least reduce the pain a little bit. I have already had my pain relief changed to a different tablet which can be taken alongside other pain relief I was taking for my regular daily pain, but the doctors won’t give me more until the MRI results are in and we know what is causing the pain.

I know that Googling symptoms is never a good idea but in my desperation to find answers and relief, I typed in ‘back pain’. A lot of the results that came up were not relatable as they talked about back pain caused by injury or short term pain. Mine has been progressively getting worse for 18 months after waking up one day in pain without seemingly any cause. As I kept scrolling I found an article from a hospital which stated that the use of MRI scans in diagnosing back pain is generally not recommended as very often it will show some ‘issues’ which many people have but that they are not aware of therefore, it is unlikely that these issues are the cause of the pain.

I was diagnosed with mild/moderate degenerative disk disease and schuermann’s disease a few years ago but the medical professionals didn’t feel that these issues were capable of the causing the pain I was experiencing then and I was told to simply ‘get on with it’. Now, the pain is 10x worse, I am terrified that when I get the letter with the results on through the post it will say ‘nothing to comment on’, i.e. no issues that would give a reason for the pain I have been having for the last year and a half.

I know of some people who would be giving God the glory for that because no issues on a scan means that there is nothing serious that needs to be addressed, no operations needed or drastic treatment methods. It would be the miracle everyone had been praying for. I don’t know if you have every experienced back pain (statistics would say that it is more likely that you have than haven’t), but when you have back pain that goes on for many, many months without much relief, it changes the way you move, live and feel emotionally and can even affect you spiritually. I most definitely have struggled with the mental and spiritual battles that come with long term pain and other symptoms associated with chronic illness and it is no easy feat. If the MRI comes back showing nothing that can/ needs to be addressed, I know I will struggle with the mental and spiritual aspects at an even greater level as just because the medical world can’t see my pain, it doesn’t mean it goes away. The pain stays there but I have to continue to fight for medication and care and support and even fight with God for some kind of answers in order for me to make peace with the situation and with Him.

In his book, ‘God on Mute’, Pete Greig told the story of a university peer who despite his young age, showed a great amount of faith. One day, he hurt his back and was obviously struggling with the pain but one day, he came over to Pete and told him that he had been healed, “it’s just the symptoms I can’t get rid of’, he said. I think we can all agree this is rather silly. If my MRI results come back showing nothing, it doesn’t mean I have been healed of whatever was the problem if my back is still keeping me awake at night.

When I spoke to my physio shortly after the MRI she was concerned by some of the symptoms I have been experiencing and said that she would keep an eye out for my results. That was the first time that anyone had believed my pain and had been concerned by what could be going on. Now, if I get a clear scan back, of course I will be happy that the possibilities that my physio had considered to be the cause of my pain are not the cause as non of them are very pleasant diagnosis, but at the same time, how can I move forward when I am so much pain all the time and no one believes me or is willing to treat it or dig deeper into what the cause might be?!

I don’t often go forward for prayer at church simply because I have done so so many times before and yet I am still ill and therefore I figured that there must be a reason for it but in the depths of intense pain, I took myself forward for prayer on Sunday morning last week. As I stood up, I was hoping that they wouldn’t try to tell me I had been healed or tell me it was my fault if I wasn’t, or even worse still, if it made them feel bad when they weren’t able to make me better (I know that sounds ridiculous but that’s just the way I think). I was thankful that none of the above took place but that they instead told me to come back for prayer persistently. They didn’t even follow this up with “until you are healed” so maybe I will go back again and see if God has something to share with or do for me – a miracle like other Christians thought, but not necessarily a medical miracle.

To sum up this rather longer than intended blog post, yes, God can and does still do miracles but a blank scan or blood test doesn’t necessarily mean a miracle, particularly if the person is still in pain or symptomatic. Perhaps the issue is just not visible in that method of testing or the illness is too early on in its progression for it be picked up by scans etc. If you know someone who is going through testing for a diagnosis due to debilitating symptoms, please remember that not all ‘miracles’ are actually miracles at all, but rather the result of imperfect medical testing, and sometimes these ‘miracles’ can actually cause the person involved to struggle with their faith more. Miracles don’t do that. Real miracles are God’s way of caring for His children and helping us see Him in the world we live in. If the ‘miracle’ of a blank scan doesn’t do this, it isn’t a miracle and shouldn’t be treated like one. This person will need lots of care and support and prayers so if you can, offer to help them, whether that be attending appointments with them or simply sitting with them at home whilst they process the news. They might cry, they might get angry, they might want you there or they might not. Try to be for them whatever they need at that time. Friendship is the great act of God that can be done for them at that time.

(Note: I apologise for the length of this post and the babbling in it. I am struggling to think straight through the pain and medication blurriness.)

The Painphone

The Painphone

Over the last week when my pain has been too bad to do anything else, I have watched films. One such film is ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, originally a book written by John Green, which I have seen before but for the first time, a certain line really spoke to me – “Pain demands to be felt”. As I heard those words, I was squirming around my bed trying to get comfortable and it suddenly resonated with me on a new level. The more I mulled the words over in my head, I realised I had read something similar elsewhere. C.S Lewis once said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

We are taught that pain is our body’s way of notifying us that something is not quite right and that a continuous or worsening pain is something worth getting checked out. I learnt this lesson the hard way by trusting an expert opinion for over 10 years which said ‘it’s just acid reflux’ only to finally be told years later after falling into the arms of a receptionist in tears due to the severity of pain I was experiencing that I actually had a rare condition which causes severe pain and dysphagia. Pain demands to be felt. We can sometimes ignore it for a while, but if its important, our bodies will keep alerting us to it until steps are taken to fix the problem.

I am guilty of being a desperate pray-er. I am not good at praying thank you and praise prayers to God, but I sure do pray desperation, ‘I can’t do this anymore, take this pain away now’ sort of prayers. Pain causes me to take notice of God again and turn to Him when sometimes, I have not done so for some time. In an article about C.S.Lewis, Jana Harmon wrote, ‘Pain takes away our false sense of happiness, draws our attention to God and our need for Him. Even in “good, decent people,” the illusion of self-sufficiency must be shattered. And, like a good and loving Father, God is willing to accept whatever surrender and sacrifice we have to offer.’

We can so easily be distracted by the earthly things, and by our desire for control, that we lose track of God, particularly on days when life is good and we don’t have issues with our health, the trains run on time, we don’t get into arguments with our loved ones, money isn’t a problem and the sun is shining. But God isn’t just a HELP button. He is there all the time and wants to be part of our lives and recognised for who He is. If quiet whispers in the night don’t work, nor conversation in the coffee shop, God won’t put off using the megaphone.

I have read stories about people who have great lives, great friends, great health, great jobs, lots of money and they die happy and healthy, but never know Jesus because they don’t feel the need for Him in their perfect lives. Then there are those who struggle through life and find that they NEED Jesus to get through it. but when they die, they spend eternity in Heaven with Him. Some people accuse Christians of using God as a crutch, as if pain causes someone to conjure up an imaginary friend who if you believe is there, will create a placebo effect, making you think you are better when really, you just believe you are, therefore, the symptoms lessen or go away completely.

My calling out in desperation to God could look like using God as a crutch but I know He’s there in my pain so when it ‘demands to be felt’, I know God might be calling out to me butt He is there for me to lean on when I need Him. Sometimes its just a sense of peace, sometimes He sends someone else to keep me company or to bring pain relief in tablet form, and sometimes He makes the pain miraculously go away. Whatever people call it, a crutch, a miracle, I believe God uses our pain to help us keep focused on Him and if that is what it takes to bring me back to Him, I am okay with that because I know He will respond. Now I just need to work on listening to Him without the use of the megaphone…. I don’t want to wear it out too soon!

Healing or Wholeness – what’s the difference?

Healing or Wholeness – what’s the difference?

Definition of ‘Wholeness’According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary – ‘The condition of being sound in body. The quality or state of being without restriction, exception, or qualification.’

I believe this definition is exactly what causes the confusion and arguments around healing because it makes healing and wholeness one in the same by stating that only when the body is ‘perfect’ can wholeness be achieved and I just don’t think this is right.

If we are going to be looking at wholeness from a Christian perspective then no, people with disabilities are not ‘whole’, but nor are those without disabilities. Even those people who spent most of their life with brilliant health and fitness. no mental health problems, relationship issues, financial issues, spiritual battles, etc. aren’t whole until they reach heaven.

Philippians 3:12-13 reads, ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead’.

The original word used in this verse to mean ‘perfect’ is the Greek word ‘Teleios’ which is also translated in some versions/verses to mean ‘whole’. The fact that we are taught in this passage to strain or strive for wholeness tells us 2 things:

  1. we are in control of it – we are not in control of how we are born or what happens to cause us to become ill or disabled therefore, removing a disability is not part of becoming ‘whole’.
  2. we will never get there in this world – we are told to strive for it which suggests it is an ongoing challenge. Only in Heaven will we be fully whole and the reason for that is because once we are in Heaven, we will be clean and without sin just like Adam and Eve were before they disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. God punished Eve with pain in child birth but it the suffering that might her less than perfect. It was her sin.

The same goes for us. We are not less ‘whole’ than others because we can’t see, hear, walk, struggle with pain or fatigue, don’t have 2 arms and 2 legs or can’t function in the world in the same way as the rest of society. The only reason we are not whole or perfect is the same reason as the marathon runner next door, the lady across the road who spends all her waking hours doing the gardening, the postman, or the shopkeeper. We are born into a world of sin and in order to be free of it, we need to know and love God and those around us and in our eternal life, there we will find wholeness.

Gathering

Gathering

by Liz Carter

‘As we are gathered, Jesus is here…’ So goes a (slightly dated) worship song. It’s all about the people joining together, the congregation united in worship, the sense of harmony. The gathering.

But what if we can’t gather? What if the very word ‘gathering’ sends us into a great sadness, because the physical act of gathering with others is impossible for us?

I’ve lived with a long-term lung condition all of my life. Over the years, it’s progressed, caging me in further and further, robbing me of my career and those dreams of youth; dreams of travel and far-flung skies and running on lonely beaches, the wind in my hair. Some days now, I’d be lucky to manage a few steps before I collapse on the sand, spent and breathless. I live within four walls for weeks at a time – sometimes, even, for months, when infections have hit me particularly hard. On days like these I can barely gather myself, let alone with others. I cannot gather up my clothing or my home or my thoughts, and when visitors come my desperate thoughts remain unsaid in my pain-soaked exhaustion.

In the last year I’ve been very ill. I’ve been better over the past couple of months, but there were weeks and months on end when I didn’t make it to church at all. I didn’t gather together with others for worship. Does that mean Jesus wasn’t there? Does Jesus only show up with the gathered ones, the ones who can make it, the ones who are healthy?

Over the years, I’ve learned something about what gathering means, and what it means to come together to share life and to pray and praise. I’ve discovered that gathering goes far deeper than the physical presence of a few folk in someone’s front room.

The book of Revelation talks about a great multitude from every nation, every tribe, every tongue, every people, gathered together around the throne. They worship together all day and all night, clad in white and digging into the depths of who God is. I recently attended a seminar about worship, and the speaker introduced the idea that when we worship we join in with this song around the throne, this endless song which never ends. As well as that, we join together across cultures and nations, class and race divides, one voice around the world as we join together in the song which is always sung. This great harmony which climbs walls of hatred and oppression and shatters the bondage of poverty and injustice. Walls crumble as we join hands across our boundaries and barriers, and give glory to the God we love. 

Here is a real gathering. A gathering of millions upon millions, myriads upon myriads, of those gone before, those living in the groaning pain of the now, those waiting in agony and in hope. We can all join in the gathering, the weak and the strong, the lesser and the greater, those who have nothing at all. Because God cannot be defined by boxes of words or concepts, and because God longs to pour fullness of life on all of us, whoever and wherever we are – so certainly cannot be restricted to church meetings and festivals.

I’m so grateful that God is bigger than I know.

I’ve discovered something else about gathering, too, and it’s something I am so thankful for. I remember a time when I was in hospital with very painful and serious double pneumonia, and it was in a city far from where I lived. It was a lonely time as well as agonising; hours were struggled through and wrestled with without let-up and with few visitors. I felt un-gathered, with nothing to ground me or bring me into company with others. I wasn’t even allowed to leave my room, for fear of cross-infection, so I remained in my pen, walled in by my own body.

It was a time social media was taking off. I’d recently joined Facebook, and hadn’t realised the effect it would have on my life, in those early days of poking people and playing silly games with farms and fishes. In this time, I began to understand the power of online gathering, as people from across the world joined with me in my suffering, stood with me and prayed with me, joined hands with me and worshipped with me. Since then, I’ve gathered hundreds of times online with hundreds of people in hundreds of situations, and Jesus has been there with us, despite our presence being only of the cyber type. That’s why I’m so grateful for the work of YouBelong and other organisations that seek to gather people online, to build up and to encourage and equip people who perhaps wouldn’t be able to gather elsewhere.

So I gathered with the world and joined in the song, and I gathered with the online people and joined in with care and justice and peace and mercy and holiness. Somehow, in my un-gathered cage, I learned to gather more profoundly, and found God at the very root of it all, present by the Spirit in gatherings un-gathered and gathered, present with one and two and a million, gathering up my own pain in tender arms of love and rivers of joy.

Liz Carter is an author and blogger who likes to write about life in all its messy, painful, joyous reality. She’s never known life without pain and sickness. She likes Cadbury’s and turquoise and lives in Shropshire, UK with her husband, a church leader, and two crazy teens.

Liz is the author of Catching Contentment: How to be Holy Satisfied, which was published by IVP in November 2018. This book digs into the lived experience of a life in pain, and what contentment could possibly mean in difficult circumstances.

The dance of love

The dance of love

With Trinity Sunday just past, I came across a word which I first saw and learnt about in my second year of university – Perichoresis. It’s a rather long word but I like it and if you don’t know what it means at the moment, I hope that by the end of this blog post, you will not only understand the definition but also grow to like the word and what it stands for.

My favourite definition of the word comes from Jonathan Marlowe. It’s long but well worth reading:

‘The theologians in the early church tried to describe this wonderful reality that we call Trinity. If any of you have ever been to a Greek wedding, you may have seen their distinctive way of dancing . . . It’s called perichoresis. There are not two dancers, but at least three. They start to go in circles, weaving in and out in this very beautiful pattern of motion. They start to go faster and faster and faster, all the while staying in perfect rhythm and in sync with each other. Eventually, they are dancing so quickly (yet so effortlessly) that as you look at them, it just becomes a blur. Their individual identities are part of a larger dance. The early church fathers and mothers looked at that dance (perichoresis) and said, “That’s what the Trinity is like.” It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.’

The dance of love. How beautiful a vision that creates inside my mind. The Bishop of Huntingdon, Dr. Thomson, spent a lot of his life working with people with disabilities and he was quoted in the ChurchTimes in August 2018 ( https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/17-august/features/features/once-we-connect-on-to-something-that-s-it ) saying of the connection between the Church and perichoresis, “It’s the dance of the Trinity, in which each person of the Trinity is going round the other one, so that the actual DNA of God is always to be in community. It’s a lovely model of the Church. I know we have a history of viewing people with differences in a very negative way, and feeling threatened by them. It’s good for us to be paving the way for building a God-shaped community here.”

The shape of the Trinity, the group dancing together, in time and to the same beat, yet with different styles, shapes and appearances, is so relevant and applicable to the Church. We also should be dancing together, completely in unity, but different, yet not being held back by those differences but instead enabling one another to use those differences to improve the dance and not judging others because their dance style is different to our own.

So as we reflect on Trinity Sunday, and the power of each element, unique yet also working as one Triune God, let us not forget how this metaphor is applicable to our own lives and that of the Church as a whole. May we work with one another, including those who are different to ourselves in mind, body or spirit, to move as one in the dance of love.

Praying when it is physically and spiritually challenging

Praying when it is physically and spiritually challenging

As Christians, we are taught to pray. When we are young, we might be taught a simple rhyming prayer to say before eating or before going to bed and as we get older, the style of our prayers changes as we do. First the Lord’s prayer then something deeper, longer and more frequent but nevertheless, we pray. We do it not just because the bible tells us to, but because it is how we communicate with God.

When I was in primary school, I used to pray all the time – a constant, ongoing conversation with God, thanking Him for my food, asking for protection from bullies or help with homework or asking for forgiveness when I hurt someone. Then I grew up into adulthood and became too busy to pray and lost my connection with God. Everything was going good, why did I need to? Then things started going very much downhill within my family, church, work and health but I had lost my relationship with God and forgotten how to pray. In the same way that friends have drifted away whilst I have spent my days alone inside the house due to chronic illness, when I drift away from God and don’t talk to Him, I lose that closeness we once had when I was praying to Him everyday.

So prayer is important but how do we keep praying when barriers appear? Even before I became unwell, I would struggle sometimes to pray in the evenings or mornings because I was too tired, I would struggle to pray at work because my mind was too distracted by other things to think about listening or talking to God and I even struggled when I was by myself on a day off as I would find other things I thought I should or needed to get done.

I would have to say that at this point in my life, prayer is difficult. I am always tired, busy or asleep so never feel that I am able to focus solely on God so instead of trying and failing, I often don’t start in the first place. This is the first big error. Don’t let your mind slipping away to other things put you off. We are human, it happens and God knows – He made us this way, just how He wanted us, and knows how our minds work. When we become distracted, all we need to do is write that thing down to remove it from our minds if it is important to remember. If not, allow your mind to wander there, and then come back to God. He is loving and patient and will wait for us. Although we are not of the world, we are still in and therefore, affected by it so we cannot expect to be perfect before God.

I know some of you might be thinking, ‘That’s great for people who can pray but struggle sometimes, but what about me? I can’t even bring myself to pray in the first place!’. Don’t worry, you are not alone. I have experienced this and still do so at times, and I am sure many others can also relate. There are many reasons for feeling this way and each has a different method of starting to change:

  1. Distance
  2. Fear
  3. Pressure

Firstly, distance. Like I have already said, when we get distracted long term, we move away from God. God never moves away from us, but we can, and do, move away from God. Sometimes that is intentional but I have found that it is more common for me to suddenly find myself away from God without realising it has happened. This can happen when we get upset or angry at God or when we start to lose faith which brings us on to point 2 – fear.

This is an experience I can relate to in a big way. I struggle to pray due to being fearful. Not fearful of God or of others but that God won’t answer my prayer and then I will lose my faith which is something I fear. I love God. I was raised in a Christian family and have always been open about my faith, no matter the outcome, but I have never needed God to respond to my prayer as much as when I am crying out in pain or starvation, or extreme fatigue or frustration at my situation. I have prayed many times for healing, as have my family and friends from church, yet I have not been healed in the way I wanted and that has caused me to lose faith in God’s being, His abilities or even whether He really loves me.

Finally, pressure. As someone raised in a Christian family, there is pressure to pray about everything. Not because my parents stand beside me with a whip, but because it is a discipline, in exactly the same way as tidying your room or brushing your teeth. This is great and I am really happy my parents have raised me this way, but it can lose it’s ‘magic’ so to speak. Praying because you are told to rather than because you want to can crate a forced conversation and build a fake relationship with God. It’s like talking to a brick wall – pointless.

So how can we overcome each of these problems in our prayer life?

  1. if it is a physical barrier (i.e. you are tired, in pain or distracted), remember we are weak and God knows that. But also remember a prayer does not need to be complicated or long. If you are about to go to bed but feel too tired to pray simply thank God for the day and ask for protection for tomorrow. Easy. God does not see these prayers as lesser, in fact, we are even told that God prefers the prayers of His people who pray to Him from a human point of view than the prayers of someone who stands out on street corners so everyone can see and hear them saying their clever, ‘proper’ language prayers that go on and on. God wants to hear from you, however, whenever, wherever you can but He doesn’t want to pressurise you into feeling bad for not being able to do so.
  2. When it comes to spiritual barriers, it is always us rather than God that needs to change. That doesn’t mean we have to do it alone because He wants to walk alongside us in everything, but it is in our control if, or how, we talk to Him. If you haven’t spoken to a friend in a long time, and they haven’t tried to communicate with you, you can either reach out to them again or ignore them forever and risk never speaking to your best friend ever again. It’s the same with God. We can either ignore Him completely or get ‘back in touch’ and pray. It might feel strange initially but if you keep praying, even if it doesn’t feel right, it won’t be long before it feels natural again and you can hear from God too.
  3. Similarly, when it comes to feeling pressured to pray, forget the pressures you have had in the past. Move away from routine and towards relationship by praying to God when you want to talk to someone. Maybe you want to ask Him for something, maybe you want to thank Him, or maybe you just want to tell Him about your plans for the day, some music you are loving or food you are enjoying eating. Make prayer relational again and it won’t feel so forced anymore.
  4. As fear is something I experience personally, I wanted to do some research so had a look at various resources and I have been able to find literature on praying about being fearful, not about fear related to prayer so I am going to have to talk from my own experiences. In some ways, I think this is very similar to feeling distant – you just have to pray. I was at Spring Harvest a few weeks back and had the pleasure of hearing Pete Grieg (founder of the 24/7 prayer movement) talking about prayer and one thing he said stood out to me over everything else (paraphrased as I cannot remember the exact wording) – ‘Don’t pray to God because He answered your prayer the way you wanted, but pray to God because He is faithful so we know that even when we don’t hear His answer or see Him act in the way we wanted, He is responding/ acting just in His time and way. Our faithful God.’ Just because God doesn’t seem to answering you once doesn’t mean He isn’t or won’t next time. He is listening and will respond in His time and in His way – the best way for you as His child. He knows the situation and He knows you and what is best for you. So we must keep praying, knowing our God is listening and is faithful and will respond and act and therefore, we should not fear His silence for He won’t always be that way and perhaps, He is already doing something. It’s just too big or incomprehensible for the human mind to imagine. God is good ALL the time!