Mission, disability and creativity

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Mission, disability and creativity

by Emma Major


Mission?

Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

Mark 16:15 (ESV)

This is the crux of mission for me: it is to GO into the world and join in with what God is already doing in ALL of creation. “Go”; mission is going into the world, whether that’s the local community, a far-flung country or an online community. “All” of creation; mission is not just being with those who look like you or act like you, not just those in church or known to church, but every single person, especially those you don’t see in church.

What might God be doing that we are called to join in with? Jesus tells us to care for the poor, feed the hungry, stand up for the downtrodden, protect the weak and guide the lost. That seems like a good list to start with; or, to put it more succinctly, share the love of God with everyone.

I know that in the past I have put God in a box called “church” contained safely in church because that’s where it’s easy to find God, talk about God and share God. Even when I spoke about church being the people not the building, I was still limiting God to those who were part of that wider definition of church. I knew that God is everywhere in life, in every place, every activity, every silence, every question. God is at home, work, leisure, health, politics, justice, illness, recovery, life and death. I couldn’t contain God safely; God was waiting for me wherever I went to join in with God’s work of loving everyone.

Then I lost my sight overnight and my mobility within months. I became disabled. Going into the world was literally almost impossible, but before I get into that, let’s define disability.

Disabled?

You’re disabled “if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”.1

I’m disabled; I’m a blind wheelchair user with long Covid. However, my impairments aren’t the greatest disabling factor in my life, society is; and my disability doesn’t define me, my gifts and talents do.

We all have gifts and talents, experiences and knowledge to be valued; we must celebrate everyone for their gifts as well as knowing each person’s needs. However, if we can’t get into a room, no one will ever even know about our gifts, skills and talents. That’s the most disabling part of being disabled.

An example. A church meeting is arranged in London to start at 9 a.m. in an old building. Most people can jump on a train early in the morning, get the Underground a few stops and bounce up the stairs into the building. I know that’s true – I used to do it all the time.

As a wheelchair user, I have to pre-book my place on a train and the assistance (ramp) to get on and off it. Most of the Underground network involves steps, which makes it inaccessible. I need to catch a taxi but most of those aren’t truly accessible. The taxi drops me near the building but not quite close enough to avoid the blocked drop curb. Those steps into the building are interesting; how do I get someone to tell me where the accessible entrance is without going up them? (I’ve spent hours sorting this out and know who to ring.) Eventually in the building, I realise I can’t get around the room and no one knows where a disabled toilet is. I could go on.

What happens now I’m disabled? I stop going to meetings; there are no disabled voices in the room, because it’s too exhausting and depressing, especially with fatigue in the mix.

The Bible is full of Jesus healing people – much has been written around how those accounts are more about healing spiritually than healing physical or mental disabilities.

Instead, I want to briefly share two passages:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

Jer. 1:5 (ESV)

God knew us and knows us and knows what will be in our futures. Everything we are throughout our life is loved and blessed by God, no matter what disability we might have.

“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Luke 24:39 (NRSV)

Jesus was disabled when he was resurrected; he still had the physical damage from the crucifixion. As Nancy Eiesland writes:

… the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected saviour, calls for his frightened companions to recognise in the marks of impairment their own connection with God.2

The biggest barrier I had to overcome when I became disabled was the one in my mind that said I could no longer live fully, I could no longer do… just about everything. And it’s true; life became extremely challenging, as you’ve read in the example above, because the inaccessibility of the world is placed on disabled people rather than on the barriers to full inclusivity.

But just because I couldn’t “go” or “do” as I did before didn’t mean that I could no longer “go” or “do” – it would just be different. In fact, it would be better, more out of the God box, more available, more creative.

Creative?

Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.3

Everyone is creative; yes, even you. We overcome obstacles by being creative: we speak and that’s creative, we draw and paint and garden and sew and photograph and tell jokes: we are all creative. Creativity is an integral part of human life and a central part of being a Christian.

Creativity is right there at the very beginning of the Bible:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Gen. 1:1 (ESV)

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Gen. 1:27 (NIV)

Then let’s hear from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Eph. 2:10 (NIV)

If God is creative, which we know to be true, then so are we. Creativity is literally a God-given gift.

Can creativity be missional?

These two verses from Colossians speak to me about the mission of creativity:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Col. 3:17 (ESV)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

Col. 3:23 (NIV)

Mission is about finding where God is working and helping out. God is the initiator and we respond. Jesus told us: “Without me [Jesus], you can do nothing.”4

God created me. God created me with gifts of creativity that have come to the fore artistically through my disability. God has grieved with me and healed me through all the challenges I have faced, and God has guided me to new ways of living and new ways of being a minister.

Hardly anyone would think someone almost entirely blind could paint as I do, but thanks to technology and the whisper of God to keep going, I do. Then, when I share my creations, I am sharing my faith and the blessing of God in my life; that is mission.

I don’t mean sharing just the church and faith-related creativity, but all of it – because my life is inspired and energised by God and therefore so is everything I create.

Here are three examples.

  • Pentecost painting5: I painted this for Pentecost and shared it online; it was picked up by church leaders and Christians who asked if they could use it for prayer or in services. This is clearly mission.
  • Caring for creation6: These abstract paintings and associated poems were created in prayer about the climate emergency. They talk to people, no matter what their faith, about the importance of caring for God’s creation. They might point to God or they might not, but they are inspired by God – and this is mission.
  • Landscape paintings7: I miss going into the woods and the hills; I miss the wild places of the world. But I have learned to paint digitally and I have learned to travel to wild places through my painting, and that gives me freedom. These paintings aren’t explicitly about faith, they are just paintings that I have enjoyed creating; when I share them they speak to people, they spark conversations, they form connections and they inspire other people to see what is possible in their lives. This is mission.

Can sharing the day-to-day realities of my life and faith through my creativity be missional?

Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!

1 Chron. 16:11 (ESV)

I share my weakness and strength, my pain and joys, the reality of my life as a woman, as a disabled woman, as a disabled disciple, as a disabled minister seeking and following God every day.

I live differently, I am called differently. I bring a different view of humanity and this is an important reflection in the world. By sharing my life creatively online I have a ministry of presence, recognisable as a person of God bringing people together.

I creatively share who I am, honestly, openly about how God is at work in my life. I write, paint and share knowing that God is in every moment of my life, in every word I write, in every colour I paint. But even more than that, I know that God will be with whoever engages with my poetry and art: a constant presence waiting to be found, a still small voice waiting to be heard. God inspires me and leads me and then leads others to receive what I give. If that isn’t mission, then I don’t know what is.

This is a poem I wrote in June 2016, which is just as relevant today as it was then; this is my ministry, my mission, to share creatively.

Such a week of awful news
TV full of doom and gloom
Fifty dead
Shot in a club
MP shot
Doing her job
Added to the wars non-stop
And inequality that drops
The weakest in the darkest place
Without water
Without a home
All across the world they roam
And no one wants to take them in
They are blamed for everything

Why?

What has our world become
I do not know what can be done
But surely
One thing we should see
Is that it’s real for you and me
All this grief
All this loss
My heavy heart
Removes life’s gloss
Today I want to shut it off
To close the door
Switch off the phone
Makes me want to be alone
And cry
And rant
And shout so loud
God of mine
Why do you allow?

And yet I know
That my dear God
Is crying too
Through all this loss
Seeing our world
Feeling our pain
Seeing the evil
Repeat again
God must despair
At our lack of care

It’s overwhelming
What can I do?
I’m just one person
As are you
But together
Joined with many more
Surely we can do
What’s been done before
To make a change
Improve our world
To heal the sick
And warm the cold
To feed the hungry
Save the damned
We can’t give up
Let’s make a stand
To shout out loud
Put down the hate
Love each other
Gay or straight
Enemy, neighbour
Near or far
Evil cannot win this war
Love must open every door
So together stand
Together say
We’ll help each other
Come what may
Through prayer and action
Donation
Petition
THIS is our God-given mission
With hopeful heart
I impart this vision
Can you make the same decision?

About the author

Emma Major is a pioneer lay minister, blind wheelchair user, artist and poet. Her poems have been included in numerous books and she has written her own collections of poetry on miscarriage, mental health and climate change. In 2020 her first book combining both poetry and art, Little Guy: Journey of Hope, was published by Wild Goose Publications. In 2021 Emma’s first exhibition of paintings and poems, “Caring for Creation”, was exhibited around Berkshire; it was hosted at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. She currently has paintings in two other exhibitions and has five books of poetry and paintings in various stages of publication. You can find Emma online at LLMCalling.com or on social media @emmuk74, where she shares her artwork and poetry to encourage, bless and affirm people.

More from this issue

Book review: Do Small Groups Work?

James Butler finds Anna Creedon’s book to be an important text for those teaching and training small group leaders.

Mission, and dispelling the disability/ tragedy narrative

Kay Morgan-Gurr explores the impact of the “tragedy narrative” on disabled people and on the church’s mission.

Mission and disabled people

Tim Rourke shares research on how attitudes, access and agency are often missing when the church talks about mission and the disabled community.

Notes

1 “Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010,” GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/definition-of-disability-under-equality-act-2010.
2 Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 100.
3 “Meaning of creative in English,” Lexico, https://www.lexico.com/definition/creative.
4 John 15:5 (RGT).
5 https://www.llmcalling.com/post/pentecost-1?fbclid=IwAR3prmd5Msnpl4c7hPQKOHG8C3vP4cuor71lsprzcQLoUf7YgT9iX2lpy2o
6 https://www.llmcalling.com/caringforcreation
7 https://www.llmcalling.com/contact