The Diversity of a Thousand Languages

Pentecost-True-Spiritual-Unit-and-Fellowship-in-the-Holy-SpiritToday is Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the early Church with tongues of fire and with the tongues of a thousand different languages. In those tongues we hear the echoes of Babel, the primeval war on heaven that saw languages scattered  in a single day. We often read this as a curse that Pentecost heals, something that needs to be overturned. Here on this blog I’ve referred to the destruction of Babel’s curse, but here we run into problems. There’s a danger of seeing Pentecost as being anti-diversity, as being a moment in which we’re all made the same by the Holy Spirit, and all those messy, annoying differences are overcome.

But late last night, terrorists attacked London again. It hasn’t been long since a suicide bomber murdered kids at a pop concert in Manchester; the concert in their memory is being held tonight. Nooses are being found in Washington DC, dark icons of lynching and slavery and a refusal to accept that black lives matter. Toddlers are drowning in the Mediterranean as they flee from ISIS. Look around and you can see the hatred of diversity poisoning our societies, toxins injected into the wellspring of our communities.

So this year I can’t see Pentecost as something that treats diversity as something to be cured. And maybe there’s hope in that everyone heard the disciples speaking in their own languages, rather than the pilgrims assembled in Jerusalem suddenly understanding a single tongue. The Spirit aided communication, but didn’t erase difference, and from this point forward the story of Acts is one in which the family of God is expanded and stretched grows beyond a few working class Galileans to encompass Roman soldiers, Ethiopian eunuchs, Europeans and North Africans. The family of God grows by becoming more diverse, it draws in different languages, new perspectives, new people.

Language shapes how we perceive the world, how we see the people and the plants and the fauna and the colours around us. On that Pentecost two thousand years ago, the Spirit chose words and phrases to communicate a message of hope, words and phrases from different languages, each of them reflecting new facets of meaning, each one extending how those present thought of God, thought of the divine, thought of each other. Those words and phrases would go on to become stories, become art, become inspiration, become resistance, because if that day made the early church one, it didn’t make them the same.

There are those who want to curse diversity, who want it to end so that there can be peace. Send away those who are unlike us, lock them up or kill them, then the world will be as we want it to be. The path to utopia, if you believe corners of the internet, is paved with deportations and internment camps and mass graves; the only difference between those who’d exterminate the unknown is geography and flags.

But the Holy Spirit brings people together; even when we disagree with the ‘other’, there’s still the potential to communicate, to be family. There are times when this is healing, there are times that this is disruptive, but a myriad tongues heard two thousand years ago points to the Spirit being a translator, an interpreter, the speaker of every language. And we’re not just divided by language or borders, but these differences too can be celebrated and honoured and learned from.

We can’t go on hating. We can’t go on killing. We can’t go on nurturing the seeds and the toxins that will reduce our communities to blasted wastelands peppered with walls and barbed wire and furious ranting.

Today is Pentecost. We celebrate a Spirit who speaks a thousand different languages. Let the flames of hope fall, and extinguish the hate and rage.

Penteconnectivity

Tongues of fire and a rushing wind and the buzz of an anti-Babel. Pentecost is a burst of supernatural energy in the aftermath of Easter, the moment the Holy Spirit takes centre stage by evaporating the rulebook. It’s possible we get too comfortable with that; when three thousand pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in a hundred different languages, a tiny GalIilean movement became a global church. Our problem is that we domesticate that, take the diversity of Pentecost and trap it within homogenised silos.

An example: In the West we have plenty of noticeboards covered in newsletters from mission organisations, and supporting them is great, it’s important to show solidarity. But how often do we make this a one-sided thing? We write a few cheques, deploy a few workers, but do we, as fellowships, learn from our brothers and sisters? Do we grow as a result of this missionary work, or do we do we just enjoy the warm, paternal glow we get from helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

When the Spirit swept through the disciples two thousand years ago, a global church was created, each different language representing a different perspective, a different environment, a different context. Three thousand new believers had to go home and figure out what it meant to be followers of Jesus among their own particular circumstances. All those initial learning curves, all the lessons of the two millenia that followed represent the familial memory of the Church. But it’s scattered and disjointed because we don’t spend the time to sit and listen to each other, to share stories around the campfire; in the Information Age that’s tantamount to a sin. We don’t do the Church any favours by pretending that the Spirit’s monolingual.

The Church is universal, a network of believers spread throughout the world, brothers and sisters despite the differences we place between us. Pentecost burns through the barriers, blows them down, gives us the words and the language we need to become a family. We need to embrace that, humbly using our Missions budgets to not only support other Christians but also to learn from them, forging genuine, mutual, globe-spanning relationships. And may our Pentecostal celebrations echo with a thousand different voices, with a thousand equal tongues.

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.