The Great Banquet of God Has Wheelchair Access

20121019-114225.jpgJesus was a storyteller.

He composed stories and remixed parables and turned tales on their heads, and he did all this to teach us about fundamental cosmic realities, things like salvation and redemption and atonement.That’s why we still love these parables, because we never truly get to the bottom of them, but yet the core truths contained within them dig deep into our bones.

But while the parables have a spiritual message for us, some of them can’t be left there. After all, we can take the theological insights from them and leave the parables trapped between the covers of our Bibles instead of taking them out onto our streets and into our communities. Some of the parables need to be embodied – incarnated – into the world around us and into the lives of our church. After all, the Good Samaritan teaches us to help whoever needs help; the Prodigal Son teaches us to always be prepared to offer forgiveness. And the Parable of the Banquet teaches us to create welcoming communities.

Long story short – Jesus tells the story of a king who holds a wedding feast, but when the big day arrives, the guests decide they can’t be bothered to attend. In the face of this rudeness, the king orders his servants out into the streets to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. In other words, the people who weren’t normally at the top of anyone’s guest list. Of course, this was a picture of how the Kingdom of God wasn’t limited to a privileged religious elite, but let’s not limit this to a nice metaphor of our spiritual salvation – what if this was a description of our churches?

Look, let’s be honest – churches aren’t always the most accessible places when it comes to disability awareness. But in the parable, there’s a specific invite to those who have a disability. Why? Because when Jesus was originally telling this story at a polite dinner party, the disabled were often left on the fringes of society, begging on the margins just to get enough to eat. Jesus is throwing the doors open, and two thousand years later, we should be doing the same. Because the Kingdom of God isn’t just about heaven and the afterlife, it’s about the here and now.

So we have a responsibility to ensure that God’s Great Banquet in the here and now is accessible. Think about those servants in the parable – if you’re sent out to those who can’t see, then you need to have some invites written in Braille. If you’re sent out to those with mobility issues, then you’d better be sure that the party venue isn’t at the top of three flights of stairs and a broken-down lift.

Then there’s the party itself – are the chefs able to cater for different dietary needs? Is there sign language interpretation on hand for the speeches? Is there a chill-out room for people getting sensory overload when the band gets loud? Has anyone involved those guests in the arrangements in the first place?

God expects his Great Banquet to have wheelchair access. Because otherwise people will be left on the outside, and God is very, very unimpressed when that happens.

We’re called to be a church that welcomes all but that goes beyond simply issuing an invite and expecting everyone to fit in. Instead, we should incarnate that Great Banquet and proactively find ways to make sure that everyone is truly welcome and able to participate, volunteer or lead to their fullest. What if, in other words, we treated the parable of the banquet not just as a story that’s spiritually true but also as something that’s lived out in our church communities.

If the gospel you preach isn’t good news for everyone then a piece of it is missing. If we’re not proclaiming jubilee for those who’ve been imprisoned by a lack of resources and a lack of understanding, by the ableism of the fallen world around us, then we’ve reduced the words of Jesus to a get out of jail free card. And if the love of Christ only extends as far as the edges of our comfort zones, then it’s not the love of Christ.

We carry with us invitations to the heart of the Kingdom of God. After all, he wants to be known by all his people, no barriers.

Do we work with him on this?

Are we loyal and eager servants, preparing the feast so that all can participate?

Or are we bouncers?

 

 

(There are more posts on this subject here.)

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Disability Parents and the Church: Pentecost

pentecost1In the last season of Doctor Who, it was revealed that the TARDIS, which translates all known languages, both human and alien, couldn’t handle British Sign Language. And although I understand there were production issues to consider, and while it was great to see a deaf actor playing a major role, the Doctor’s inability to sign still bugged me. It felt like a failure of imagination, almost an ‘othering’ of BSL, especially as it was previous revealed that the Doctor speaks both baby and horse. It’s like we’ve limited what language is and can be, and that’s a very real issue when it comes to Pentecost Sunday.

Today we celebrate the moment that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, and in a moment that undercuts toxic disunity and ancient curses, the assembled pilgrims suddenly start hearing the disciples speaking a hundred different languages, barriers being broken down as the church is born.

“Hear.” That’s the magic word isn’t it? Because it makes some assumptions – sorry Dr. Luke – that we might not make today. There are other languages, other forms of communication that we need to consider.

My eldest son is profoundly deaf; his first language is British Sign Language (BSL). At the moment, the house is covered in flashcards to help him learn to read English, but effectively his communication is entirely visual.

And this should be a lesson to me personally, because when I preach, it’s entirely verbal. And part of that is not always having access to a Powerpoint screen, but I’m kidding myself if I don’t think that has the potential to be exclusionary.

(I live in Derby, which has the second largest deaf population in the UK. However, statistically speaking, only 1-2% of that population will be Christian, with much of that being put down to this issue of communication and language. There’s an assumption that sign language simply substitutes hand signs for English words, but that ignores the fact that the grammar is completely different, BSL has regional dialects, and there are lower literacy levels among the deaf community because of the way in which language is taught in schools. There’s a Pentecost issue here – how much preaching and teaching material is available in sign language? Is it exclusionary that ‘worship’ has been so conflated with ‘music’?

Alongside this, both of my sons are on the autism spectrum, and that’s a whole other set of communication issues. Again, it’s not always a spoken thing. My youngest son finds it difficult to process language – he gets the input, but his brain doesn’t always process that input in a way that gives it meaning, and so that affects how we need to speak to him. There’s also the use of visual timetables, which often help kids with autism to orientate themselves in time and space. Maybe our orders of service need to be translated into pictures so that those who need this sort of communication can get a grasp on our services. That’s certainly an experiment I need to carry out next time I’m worship leading.

(There’s someone out there, right now, reading this and thinking of churchsplaining* things to me: “That prevents spontaneity! You’re putting restrictions on the rest of us for a minority! What if the Spirit moves? Do you want to quash the Holy Spirit?!” To which I say: No. Don’t be ridiculous. But a) if our services are inclusive by design, people will be better equipped to handle the unexpected when it happens, b) the Spirit doesn’t just speak English and sing, so have a wider consideration of how He may be communicating with people other than yourself, and c) stop making excuses for having a limiting view of worship, the church and the Holy Spirit in the first place.)

(Once we were on a church weekend away and our eldest son – deaf and autistic, remember – came out of the children’s activities and made a beeline for the guest speaker, who had spent two days talking about the Holy Spirit. Eldest walked straight past his mum and I and stands there in front of the speaker before we knew what was happening, and the poor bloke doesn’t know what to do, and I have no idea what was going through Eldest’s mind, and none of this is really anyone’s fault, but what if that was the Spirit at work and none of us knew how to respond? Or what if the Spirit was making a point? That was five years ago and I still have no answers, but it still feels significant somehow.)

There are other non-verbal forms of communication that our churches might need to consider – braille, Makaton, lip reading – and that’s before we consider the difficulty some autistic people have with the literal interpretation of language – imagine what it’s like trying to interpret the central metaphor of eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus when you struggle with metaphorical language. Maybe we need to develop a literal liturgy.

But in a way, this is all logistics. The first thing that needs to be considered is the theology of all this. Pentecost is the reversal of the Tower of Babel story, with the Holy Spirit overriding an ancient curse and bringing together people from many different backgrounds in order to birth the church. In this context, language is both a symbolic and a practical necessity. The church has always been good at sending people out to translate Bibles and to preach the Word in different languages, but there’s an opportunity here that we’re overlooking, one that’s not only on our doorstep, but in our families and our workplaces and even in our pews already. And overlooking it we are – it’s interesting that people accused the apostles of having had too much wine that first Pentecost, because often when you take to people about stuff like this, they look at you as though you’re drunk.

So, if there’s an opportunity here, are we going to take it? Are we going to prioritise it in our mission statements, our budgets, our worship gatherings, our hearts? Are we going to let the Holy Spirit to reverse this particular Babel?

Are our churches going to be different?

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*’Mansplaining‘ is an internet-coined word describing how a man will sometime condescendingly explain to a woman how she’s wrong about an issue she has personal experience of. I’m a bad person, because I couldn’t resist coining an ecclesiastical equivalent. I appreciate that, as an non-disabled white guy, I’m probably doing a bit of churchsplaining here myself.

 

Killer Opening Lines (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1)

q7244486This post was inspired by a flurry of tweets using the #medialit14 hashtag.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Really it’s just a sci-fi way of saying “once upon a time”, and that works; after all, Star Wars is basically a fairytale in space, a folktale with robots. Forget the rest of the scrolling preamble, that one line let’s you know what you’re in for.

And then a stonking great spaceship flies across the screen and shakes you out of your seat. Awesome.

Everyone who’s browsed a library or studied literature or tried their hand at writing knows the power of the opening line. Never mind judging a book by its cover, those first few words are what really counts. Take 1984 as an example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Fourteen words in and you know you’re somewhere else, somewhere wrong. And yet it’s still April, there’s still a spring chill in the air… Maybe this world isn’t as distant as you’d like.

It’s also a line that’s almost made for Twitter. There have been a flurry of tweets from CODEC‘s MediaLit training course (hashtag #medialit14) around the use of social media in communicating religious concepts – basically, can you nail the essentials of the Christian faith in 140 characters? Or can you use the vernacular to explain something like atonement theory?

But that raises the question of whether we’re using the right tools for the job. Twitter, for instance is all about instant impact – it’s fast-moving and transient, and that’s great but it’s probably not the best place to explain the Trinity in all its complexity. Maybe Twitter’s not a tool to explain the mysteries of the universe, but a way of drawing people into story that they can then begin to explore for themselves. The equivalent not of a theology textbook but that killer opening line that gets into your head and lives with you until you see the story resolve itself.

I don’t know if that’s how the writers of the Bible saw the world, but you’ve got to admit, they hit on some great openers, even if by mistake. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people”; no-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but that’s a great opening. And I so wish “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the Temple” opened Isaiah 1 and not Isaiah 6.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Wait, which God? How did he create everything? You mean he stands outside of the created order? That tribe next door says there are hundreds of gods and they made the world from the entrails of a sea monster, you mean they got it wrong? Dr. Sheldon Cooper keeps talking about the Big Bang, where does that leave God, huh?

You’ll never resolve all those questions in 140 characters. You can invite people into the questions though, and you can practice your humility and your listening skills, because you won’t know all the answers, but if you practice love and respect, that won’t matter. The conversation is what counts.

But that’s all a bit technical. Look at the Message’s paraphrase of John 1:1 – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”

Now, I’ll admit I’m not always the greatest fan of the Message, but I love this line. It’s like Bruce Springsteen has discovered theology. “The Word became flesh and blood” is all a bit cosmic, “moved into the neighbourhood” is contemporary and everyday. Bring the two together and you get something mysterious and poetic walking the streets around us, a glimpse of the Incarnation in the space of a tweet. Does it matter that it uses the vernacular? Does it matter that we lose some of the links to the Old Testament stories of God? Well, maybe, if we ignore them completely, but this is just the first line of the story, the opening of the conversation. There’s time for the rest later, but at the very least we’re left with a couple of questions:

Who exactly became flesh and blood?

What happened when they moved into the neighbourhood?

Of course, Christians get obsessed with answers more so than questions. We sometimes worry that the whole Kingdom of God will come crashing down if we can’t answer every theological question and mystery in words of one syllable. And sure, there’s a place for apologetics, but there’s also a place for testimony, for inviting people into a story. My timeline has lots of people tweeting random Bible verses, but when a pastor from Australia tweets that he and a bunch of his colleagues have been arrested for protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, well, that makes me sit up and take notice. Jesus is somehow present in those tweets in a real and compelling way; they explain a theology of incarnational mission in a way that mere concepts can’t.

So maybe communicating through social media isn’t so much about being a digital theologian but a digital storyteller. Again, it’s a different set of tools, and maybe we shouldn’t see Twitter or Facebook as a simple method of communication but as the campfire around which we can gather and start telling our stories. And those stories will evolve into relationships as a natural consequence of us talking to each other.

So budge up and give God a seat at that campfire.