Chaplaincy and Neurology – Ministering to those affected by Life-Changing Conditions
One aspect of our modern life is the recognition that generally people are living longer and/or recovering from illness faster thanks to advances in medical care, together with better living conditions and a reduction in poor working environments. While such improvements are something to be celebrated, and for Christians in particular, symptomatic of God’s power at work among humans, it has also brought with it the challenges of what some people still refer to as “old people’s illnesses”. These are generally neurological in nature – affecting the brain and spinal cord areas – and include conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Vascular Dementia, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease and Motor Neurone Disease, illnesses commonly diagnosed in older people which often lead to severe mobility and cognitive issues including premature death. The Black Country Neurological Alliance (BCNA) of which I was a founder member, was set up to provide support and advice for people directly affected by a neurological condition living within the four black country boroughs (http://bcna.org.uk). But there are other neurological conditions which a) are not always necessarily age-related, b) are sometimes inherited from parents, c) can be acquired as a result of accident or other trauma, and d) are present at birth and usually lifelong in nature (congenital). Some examples include Cerebal Palsy, Strokes and Acquired Brain Injury.
As Workplace Chaplains we may find ourselves coming into contact with these and other similar conditions if not personally, then through those to whom we minister. To understand what is meant by the term disability it is important to clear up the often confusing interpretations used when talking about those whom society would not regard as able-bodied or no longer being able to function either physically or cognitively. Terms such as impairment, disability and handicap are frequently used yet with little thought as to their appropriate use or meaning.
Nancy Eiesland (1964-2009) in The Disabled God attempts to clarify the semantics as follows-:
- Impairment - an abnormality or loss of function.
- Disability - is the consequence of impairment, an inability to perform a necessary task.
- Handicap is the social disadvantages resulting from either impairment or disability.
Impairment need not necessarily lead to a disability e.g. a broken leg may impair mobility for a while, but it won’t become a disability if allowed to heal properly. Here perhaps is where we need to take a more critical look at ourselves and ask; how should we regard those who find themselves in this unenviable situation whether through birth defect, ageing or accident? How do we interpret the inevitable suffering caused both physically and psychologically by those living with their condition – and their families – and what do we need to do differently in the light of advances in disability rights and better awareness of neurological conditions generally?
While not everyone is necessarily possessed of a Christian or religious faith, it is recognised that we all have spiritual needs and it is these whether rooted in Christianity or another religious faith or no faith, which gives us meaning and purpose as well as hope in dealing with life’s challenges. Many people are often puzzled and disturbed when dealing with questions of faith and illness particularly when caused by neurological conditions. A frequent question asked at times such as these is, how someone could hold a belief in a God who is meant to be good yet who allows these things to happen to them or their families?
Many of us have doubtless had to wrestle with this question either in our churches or those places we visit as Chaplains. Discussing such issues with people who profess a faith, Christian or otherwise, is usually easier when compared with those who don’t. Max Sinclair in his book, Halfway to Heaven, which detailed his recovery from a car accident that left him paralysed from a broken neck, wrote that God doesn’t guarantee a problem-free life; there is no reference to such a thing in the Bible. It’s how you deal with those problems that count. We do still need to be able to say with confidence to those who still question the concept of a Good God when so many people live with disabling conditions, is that people do not suffer because God hates us. People’s suffering will come to an end like all bad things come to an end, and if you are a Christian your belief in Christ will ensure resurrection into a new life.
But what about people who profess little if any religious belief who we also meet but who may still seek some form of reassurance? Neurologists can provide the diagnosis and given the nature of neurological illness, can outline the potential long term prognosis in a way that is understood by the patient and their family and prepare them for the changes that will occur. But the desire for a spiritual peace will exist for much longer. Here perhaps we should reflect on the wise words of Nancy Eiesland whose short life was marked by often unbearable pain, yet who consistently refused to blame God for her predicament and wrote the following-;
The bodies we inhabit and the lives those bodies carry on need not be perfect to have value. Bad things do happen we know to bad people and good people alike - but so also do good things. Life’s curses like life’s blessings are always mixed.
 N.Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, 1994
 Specifically the passing into law of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Human Rights Act 2000
 M.Sinclair, Halfway to Heaven, 1982
 N.Eiesland, Disabled God, 1994