There’s a story in the Gospels, recounted by both Mark and Luke, about a paralysed man who can’t get to Jesus without some assistance.
So four of his friends pick up the mat on which he lies and carry him through the streets to the house where Jesus is teaching and preaching. But on arrival, they find such a crowd of people thronging into and around the house doorway that there’s no possibility at all of carrying their friend in, and it seems he’s going to miss out on his chance of an encounter with Jesus.
At this point, mere acquaintances would have given up and gone away. But these people are no mere acquaintances. They’re friends, who love the man on the mat, and they’re not going to give up without getting him to Jesus, no matter what it takes.
I imagine his feeling of insecurity and nervousness as, unable because of his paralysis to cling on to the sides of the mat, he finds himself being bumped and swayed precariously up the stairs onto the roof of the house.
His mat is lowered to rest on its surface as, to his astonishment, three of his friends begin to rip up the roofing material of the house, while the fourth runs off to find some rope.
The friend with the rope returns and ties a piece to each of the four corners of the mat. By the time he’s finished, there’s a large hole in the roof and a disconcerted crowd of people staring up through it.
If the journey up the stairs was hazardous, being lowered unsteadily through a hole in the roof, to where a crowd is hastily shuffling aside to clear a little room, must feel perilous.
The story is well known. Jesus pronounces the man’s sins forgiven and then, to demonstrate he has authority to make that pronouncement, heals his body from the paralysis that has kept him, for perhaps many years, confined to his mat indoors.
The next thing is the man leaps to his feet and begins to conduct ‘a praise and worship event’ such as the people have never seen, and, as he makes his way home, leaves them behind him continuing the praise and glorifying God.
Through the Roof is a Christian disability charity that takes its name from this incident, as there are elements of the story which reflect both the charity’s ethos and the just published findings of a survey, undertaken last year, about disabled Christians’ experience of church in the UK.
Through the Roof is all about enabling disabled people to meet Jesus, and making Christ known among the disabled community in this country and abroad. That’s why, whenever we give a refurbished wheelchair to someone in a developing country, we give them a Bible in their own language as well.
We are also all about enabling disabled people to play a full part in the Body of Christ, alongside all of us.
Through the Roof’s survey revealed that, while there are some problems with access to such things as buildings, written materials for blind people, and, for deaf people, access to all that is going on during a service, they were not the main issues that people wanted to talk about.
By and large, the survey’s respondents were more concerned about people’s attitudes than practical access issues.
It seems that a church which has state-of-the-art disability facilities, but a condescending or aloof feel to it, can be far less attractive to disabled people than a church without all the ideal disability adaptations, but an open heart of welcome to everyone, regardless of their limitations.
Through the Roof asked dis-abled people four questions about their experience of church. In the four questions, a variety of issues were raised, but a few things stood out in particular across the whole survey.
The first finding was a longing to find genuine, deep friendships with other church members. Professor John Swinton draws a helpful distinction between inclusion and belonging. Inclusion is a way of welcoming people, making access easier and being generally friendly when they come along on a Sunday, and it’s a great place to start. But belonging goes far deeper than this.
When you belong to a community of people, they long for you to be with them; they miss you and go looking for you when you are absent.
The second finding was a great depth of spiritual wisdom, maturity, creativity and intimacy with God, born out of walking with Christ through times of significant hardship. This is a treasure trove that needs to be shared with the whole church; disabled people are seldom given the opportunity to serve us all in that way, yet many long to do so.
In Luke’s version of the ‘through the roof’ story (Luke 5:17-26), two things strike me. This man clearly found the kind of friendship disabled people tell us they are looking for. At a time and in a culture where disabled people were often regarded as cursed or exceptional sinners, this man was loved by people who saw him for who he was and would not be stopped by any obstacle from getting him to Jesus.
They are role models for the depth of sacrificial love and heart-felt appreciation that should mark friendship between those with and without disabilities within the communion of the church.
Thirdly, the first thing this man does following his encounter with Jesus is to become the ‘worship leader’ (Mark 2:12; Luke 5:25). He begins to praise and glorify God and the onlookers join in.
Out of his own profound and life-changing encounter with Jesus, he now has a real spiritual experience to share with others and can’t wait to start.
Again, this reminds me of so many of the stories dis-abled people shared with us of how they had met God in their difficulties and trials, and how his presence had lifted and strengthened them, so that they now long to share with others what they have received from him.
If you would like to read the full results of the survey, All of us complete in Christ, you can download it from www.throughtheroof.org/allofus. As well as telling you what disabled people shared about their experience of church, it contains a comprehensive index of resources, divided into the same categories as the survey results.
If you come across an issue your church hasn’t thought about — or one you have addressed, but aren’t sure the provision is quite adequate — you can turn to that section of the index and find resources from a variety of Christian disability organisations.
And if you are an individual in a church, wondering what you can do to make a difference, you could consider becoming a ‘Roofbreaker’ in your church.
Through the Roof is looking for people who are willing to keep the needs of the disabled community in the spotlight within their church. We will link you with a network of other Roofbreakers, give you a starter pack full of good ideas of how you might approach the role, and keep in touch via a monthly email. (More information from www.throughtheroof.org/sign-up-to-become-a-roofbreaker.)
Ros Bayes is training resources developer at Through the Roof