This is the first in what I hope will be a series of book reviews of books by disabled Christians, or by our allies who amplify our voices.
Disabled people are inundated with Christian books that Other us. Books that represent us as the objects of other Christians’ outreach and ministry. Books that forget that disabled people have our own experiences of faith, and our own stories to tell. This year I’m hoping to review a few books which challenge this approach and centre our lived experience. Here’s the first.
Words for the Journey is a book that centres disabled Christians.
“The Ordinary Office is a set of simple, accessible daily prayers,” write David Lucas and Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, leaders of a liturgical community of the same name. The online space is this community’s holy home, where they have seen the Spirit move across the boundaries of time and space. They did not consciously set out to become an online community, they write, but they found that Twitter was an accessible, safe space for many “exiled” disabled Christians to gather and pray.
This book shares the community’s liturgy with the rest of the church.
So you are in your place and I in mine, but strangely through these prayers we somehow are ‘alone together.’ Strangely bound across time and space. Almost like delving into a mystery. (64)
Disabled people’s experiences of the ordinary shine out of this book’s pages. The prayers illustrate our calling to love each other in our ordinary lives – lives that might involve pain, fatigue, joy, loneliness, friendship across the miles, insomnia and nightmares, struggles and celebration. It’s hard to Other disabled people when our calling is just as ordinary – and as holy – as that of any other Christian.
So many exiled people live lives of segregation, isolation and loneliness… To embrace a rhythm of prayer is to embrace life. (65-66)
“What [God] desires from us most is honesty,” the authors tell us. Lucas and Parnaby-Rooke position themselves as disabled people, telling their authentic stories. That helped me to feel just a little safer as I read, knowing I was among friends. The book is shaped by lived experience that many disabled people will recognise – from being disenfranchised and forgotten by churches, to finding each other in the wilderness. “Your experience, your hurt, your pain and your opinions matter here,” the authors write.
Lord, as you were crucified between two thieves, one who ridiculed you and one who repented, let our feeble lives and the disabilities we carry be a witness to the scope of your love and a demonstration of true healing; not cure but healing.from ‘Good Friday’ (123)
This is a book by disabled people, for everyone. I was moved by a prayer written from the perspective of a disabled person like me, full of grace for those who have traditionally ministered to us – and sometimes harmed us (‘The Carers’). Words for the Journey is a reminder that we’re not just here to be looked after. Through the pages of this book, disabled people minister to the church. That reverses the traditional power dynamics between the church and disabled people, turning pastoral care upside-down, and reminding the church that we have gifts to offer.
Teach us a new song, Lord,from ‘The Carers’ (130)
A song for those who go unsung.
Praise the ones who do our dirty work.
The pushers of chairs, the wipers of bums,
The makers of tea, the givers of meds.
Teach us that new song, Lord,
That lets them know they are loved.
A ministry of lament particularly shines through this book. Disabled Christians sometimes point out that the church has forgotten how to lament, but we remember how, every day. Lucas tells the story of launching The Ordinary Office in 2018, initially as part of Disability and Jesus, when he felt called to write prayers for those who had been isolated from the wider church. He wanted those prayers to honour disabled people’s “hurt and anger as well as joy and hope” (62). The daily online liturgy has reached more than six thousand people in the intervening years, showing the value of this ministry. Words for the Journey is full of powerful, prayerful lament, paired with just as much celebration. Both are part of disabled people’s ordinary lives.
Wake from your sleep at the back of the boat, dear Jesus, and calm the waters.From ‘Nocturne’ (169)
Quell the storm that engulfs us and bring your calm, your peace, your rest.
These prayers are woven through with intersectional disability theology. They speak of the wounds of a Christ who was healed but not cured, an insight that other disabled people have shared with the church too (theology rooted in Nancy Eiesland’s work). The authors offer a radical view of online communion, sharing how it has been important to them throughout their experiences of exile from church buildings. Access is theological, too; Lucas, who is blind, tells the story of how the small print of prayer books kept him from praying the daily office. The Ordinary Office has set out to remove some of the barriers to liturgy, but the authors are honest about how they can never remove all those barriers. But their lived experience still shines light into darkness that not everyone notices.
Lord, it was you who saidfrom ‘loneliness’ (139)
When two or three are gathered
There I am in the midst of them.
Gather us together now,
Be it on-site or on-line,
And enter into the midst of us.
Perhaps most radically, these prayers show us that online church is real church. Reading the prayers and reflections in this book, I was brought back to the frantic debate among church members during Covid lockdowns about online church. In the words of one of the book’s prayers, “Our visitors rush back into their buildings and once again dismiss online church as not good enough, as lesser.” And yet this liturgy reminds us of the prophetic power of online church, a work of the Holy Spirit that cannot be controlled by a single parish or denomination. A place where deconstruction of bad theology, recovery from church trauma, and are all possible, with the support of the right communities. A place of healing in the wilderness.
For generations we have looked to your church but we can’t get in… We gather online not just because it is the most accessible way for us to be but also because we find this space much safer… Are we not more precious than your buildings, Lord? (p.48)
My one difficulty with this book is the use of language of brokenness, which I know is common in disability theology. Personally, I don’t believe I’m broken – I believe God created me just as I am. However, in the context of the theology of a Christ broken for us, this is an idea that holds meaning for many disabled people. The concept is balanced here with the biblical theology – now shared by many disabled people – that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And, as the writers say, not all the ideas in the book will resonate with all of us, and that’s okay.
As Lucas and Parnaby-Rooke write of their community of “spiritual nomads” who have been “made homeless” by a church that does not always care about those beyond the church walls (51), they imagine how much more could be done from within the institutional church, with its money and resources. It’s a cry I’ve heard from other disabled Christians working for change. Yet the leaders of the Ordinary Office are known for “speak[ing] truth to power” (52). There are gifts that come with exile in the wilderness, including the opportunity to be a critical friend to a church that has hurt and exiled many disabled people, along with many others. The authors ask us to imagine “the walls we could break down in the name of Jesus” together. It seems to me that communities of disabled people meeting online, like the Ordinary Office, are already beginning to tear down those walls, showing God’s Church that it has always been so much more than its buildings.
So we offer all this back to you, God, as our gift to your wider church. Out of our broken lives we say to your Sunday Church: come, see where we live, share our pilgrim journey, travel with us, share this road. We may not be able to access your place, but instead be assured of a welcome in ours.from ‘When Sunday Comes Around Again’ (135-6)
All quotations and page references from ‘Words for the Journey.’