Powers and Principalities (Ephesians 6:12)

swordIt’s quiet tonight; the kids are in bed, my wife’s out with friends. The lights are dim, the TV is silent, so in the quiet, let me whisper this confession: I believe we’re in a spiritual battle.

This isn’t something I talk about often. The idea is there, but it’s not something I readily admit in public. It sounds strange to contemporary ears, the whole notion of a spiritual conflict feels at odds with a modern world of electricity and atoms and seismic geopolitics. And yet these are strange times in which we live, and the Church faces threats from all corners, and people are suffering and dying, making all this literally a matter of life and death.

I don’t altogether know what to do with this. But we’re heading into dark waters where the very nature of truth is is being eroded, where the humanity of others is constantly being challenged, where Swastikas are enjoying a comeback. And that means combating the spiritual darkness behind all that. Used to be that spiritual warfare remained the territory of Pentecostals and Prayer Warriors; now we all need to get into the fight.

That’s where I get nervous. Because all of this is rooted in prayer and my prayer life can be lacking to say the least. But this has to change, because the first person who needs to be delivered from the Powers and Principalities is me.

Because I don’t love my enemies. I give in to despair and anger more than I should. I demonise people even though I know that people are not demons. I want others to changer,  desperatEly,  but I’m less willing to change myself.

That’s why this whole thing is so insidious, the classic distraction trick of looking over there so you don’t realise what’should going on  right here. That’s where the praying needs to start – with my own heart. Get inoculated before even pretending to help someone else.

But our battles still have to be bigger than that. There are forces out there, forces of greed, forces of hatred, forces of idolatry, a lust for power. They must be fought, but on the right battlefield, prayer alongside protest and always starting with the war in my own heart. 

I confess this now, in the dark and the quiet; may I remember it in the daytime and the noise. And may I stand and fight, and in the process be transformed. 

Creation and Baptism, Floods and Doves (Genesis 1, Matthew 3)

In the beginning there was a timeless darkness, a primordial night shrouding an ocean of chaos. Apart from this chaos, there is a presence; holy, divine, a Spirit hovering over the waters. Ancient sages compared this Spirit to a dove hovering over her young, and as the Spirit hovered over the waters, suddenly Creation was called into life.

 This is how the Hebrew Scriptures begin, with the story of God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in them. It’s a familiar story, but it immediately establishes a tension with other stories from neighbouring lands. Many creation stories begin with the same primordial chaos and a divine culture hero warring monsters to bring the world into being. Genesis does away with this conflict; there is the chaos, and there is God, and he doesn’t need to go to war in order to create, he just speaks the words and the world appears. He is supreme over the chaos.

Reconcile that with science however you want, that’s not the point of this post. Instead, think about the chaos of the world, the darkness through which we stumble; prejudice, hatred, war, Aleppo, Charleston, slaughters at nightclubs. We’re surrounded by chaos, and often it seems like the chaos is winning. Heck, I feel like that right now. But those are the times we need to stop, to take a step back, to look for the Spirit hovering over the chaos and to see where the dove may lead us.

Because even when things are overwhelming, the hope of new life and new creation is still there, the promise of a restart, a rest a reboot. A few chapters after the creation story and the world is flooded, Noah and his family stuck on the Ark and praying for dry land. They release a dove, which flies over the water until it finds an olive branch, a sign that the world can start again, a sign that new life still emerges from the mud and the waves, a rainbow asserting that the tempest doesn’t get the last word.

Because amid the deluge and the whirlpools, the darkness and the rolling thunder, God is still there. Even when the monsters rise up from the sea and threaten to carry us away, God remains. He doesn’t fight the monsters, he commands them, like a pet. He goes fishing for Leviathans, and when Jonah is consumed by the waves, he’s swallowed a God-sanctioned behemoth who carries him to safety. The monsters may be terrifying, but they’re not God and eventually they come to heel.

(The name Jonah, incidentally, means ‘dove’.)

And when Jesus is baptised by John, the Son of God plunges beneath the waters, and as he emerges the Spirit descends, a dove once again. Because this isn’t just a ritual, it’s a rebirth of hope, the offer of resurrection, the chaos put on notice before Jesus walks the land, driving out demons and stilling the storms. He’ll go to the Cross, yes, the monsters of Empire and Dogma dragging him to a lynching, but even then the darkness does not win; it breaks out of the tomb three days later, creation begun anew.

Sometimes we need to just cling on to that hope, even it’s by our fingertips, even if the lifeboat’s taking on water.

Much of this post was inspired by the work of Pastor Jonathan Martin, but also a sense that the darkness and chaos are creeping ever closer, leaking through the edges of the world, threads beginning to unravel. That’s how it feels, at least, and I guess that it’s easy for those emotions to take hold. Maybe there’s always chaos before a recreation, maybe we plummet into the abyss before we’re reborn. Maybe the monsters need to scratch at our door before we learn to be brave. I don’t know.

But while the sun sets and the waters roar, hope still hovers; the light shines in the darkness because the darkness cannot overcome it, and the Spirit flies over the deep in the form of a dove.

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.

 

Disability Parents and the Church: Gifts

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“Calling” isn’t something I’m good at; I turn 40 in November and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I work on the assumption that I’m called to preach, but that just raises other questions about how that gets worked out over the months and years to come. And, as autism parents, my wife and I have to help our kids navigate those same questions.

Here’s the thing: we’re all made in the image of God. And so, wherever possible, our children deserve the dignity of being able to figure out their place in the world and in the church. And that means focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t do.

That’s important, because churches and other institutions can often focus on the ‘duty’ of dealing with disability rather than embracing the gifts and talents and insights of disabled people as part of the wider Body of Christ; there’s a danger of seeing projects, not people.

Okay. So. My eldest loves tidying up after services (Ironically, he also hates tidying his bedroom. Either that or he’s trying to catch me in his Lego death trap, but I digress.). He likes putting away mics and chairs and Bibles. He also likes doing the collection. And it’s possible to look at that and say ‘aww’, but behind all that is a gift of service.

Now some of that is rooted in him wanting to organise his environment, and he can get stressed out when something is ‘wrong’, but he’s the thing – he’s autistic, it’s part of who he is, his gifts and calling and everything else are tied up with that. We’re not able to separate it, nor should we try. And one day, fairly soon, he’s not going to be a little boy we ‘aww’ at, he’s going to be an ten-foot man who needs to be respected and honoured as someone who has gifts to offer the church, even if he can’t articulate and ‘spiritualise’ that without our help.

(That’s really just a case of catching up with where God is already.)

The same process is true for my youngest, who loves art (but melts down if his art project goes wrong) and who loves reading. And those are gifts that need maturing and developing, because God can use them to build up the church; God sees beyond the meltdowns.

There are other gifts the church needs to think about nurturing (and I’m talking to church leaders here – this is a pastoral thing and shouldn’t just be the concern of disability parents). I’ve met people who seem to have an innate ability to engage with disabled children. I’ve met people who make sure Santa is up to date with BSL every Christmas (because of course Santa and his helpers should know sign language).

Heck, if your church has a few autistic kids in it, maybe one of the elders needs to be speaking nicely to the adults who like making train sets. Autism parents know what I mean!

Think outside of the box; there are gifts and talents and interests that aren’t listed in the Bible but which God can use. One of the Holy Spirit’s roles is to build up the church through the gifts he gives; that includes gifts of (and for) disabled people. And those gifts may not always look the way we’d expect, but they’re there, and the church is impoverished without them. And we discover the existence of these gifts by having genuine, caring relationships with people; we discover these gifts by talking to them.

Let’s look for the gifts the Spirit has given us. That may be where we start to see an exciting – and inclusive – future for our congregations.

Disruptive Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)

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There was a time, once in my life, when I was scared I would see Jesus.

I can’t remember how old I was, but when I was in the house alone, or the only one still awake, I would sometimes be seized by the idea that if I walked through the living room door I would see Jesus standing on the other side. Sometimes, just to keep things interesting, I’d be scared of seeing an angel instead, all the same, on the times I needed to take the handle and walk through the door, it was with a sense of terrified anticipation.

I don’t know why I should have been so scared, or why this memory has suddenly resurfaced. It’s not like I ever saw anything. But if I had, I know, by definition, it would have been a disruptive experience.

I guess that’s true of much of the Spirit’s work. On that first Pentecost the disciples have their worlds turned upside down by fire and gales and languages they knew they couldn’t speak. How can they not have been shaken by this? It was disruptive enough for a note of scandal to enter proceedings – a bunch of working class pilgrims from the sticks tumbling into the streets shouting about God in a hundred different tongues? They must have been drunk, right?

But the Holy Spirit is a healer, and maybe that disruption is fundamentally restorative. From this point the story begins to expand its borders – geographically, culturally, ethnically. That’s going to lead to headaches for those early Christians, but ultimately the church is stronger as a result.

When revival hit Azusa Street, critics were scathing of how it resulted in a “shameful mingling of the races.” Near where I grew up, a cairn stone commemorates how John Wesley was dragged away for prosecution by a mob instigated by local clergy. Even in my lifetime, the local Pentecostals were viewed with wary suspicion. Thankfully that’s changed, but the Holy Spirit freaks people out, and often the people freaked out the most are the church. That’s a tradition that goes back as far as Moses and Joshua.

But we can’t complain if God doesn’t play by our rule book; he’s the one who writes the rules in the first place. Sometimes we need shaking up, we need to be disrupted, we need our horizons to be expanded. The Holy Spirit does that; has the right to do that, in fact, because he is God.

(Yes, I know that’s a fairly orthodox statement to make, but how many times do we refer to the Spirit as ‘it’? I know it’s sometimes a battle for me to remember to use personal pronouns when referring to the Spirit. Slightly embarrassing confession, yes, but I bet I’m not alone.)

So maybe today’s a good day to open ourselves to some disruption. We can’t be the church without the Spirit, be that through his fruit or his gifts; Pentecost needs to be an ever present reality, not just a commemoration. Let the wind blow, let the fire burn, let our language be transformed. And let the Spirit fall.