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.

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?

————————–

*’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.

 

Disruptive Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)

20140608-084630-31590789.jpg

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.

Pentecost (Acts 2)

pentecost2Tongues of fire and a mighty rushing wind and a babble of languages that the speakers never learned… The story of Pentecost is intrinsically supernatural. But it’s supernatural for a reason, a key moment in the building of God’s Kingdom.

The story is well-known, a Sunday School staple. The disciples are gathered together when the Holy Spirit arrives, manifesting as wind and fire and leading to 3,000 people becoming Christians. This is seen as the birth of the early church; it’s a seriously important moment.

All this was happening during Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, a pilgrim festival serving two purposes – a celebration of the harvest and a commemoration of God giving the Law on Mount Sinai. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims – Jews from (in modern terms) Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Italy, Greece and Jordan. They came loaded down with their harvest, taking it to the Temple to be blessed by the priests. And yet, while they were doing this, they encountered…

Well, they encountered God, each of them in their own language. They were fulfilling their religious observations at the Temple, but the real explosion of God’s power and presence happened outside of those structures. Look how people react to the disciples – they’re immediately identified as Gallileans, yokels, and while they’re standing there miraculously speaking a whole bunch of languages, they’re still easily characterised as drunks. Why? Because these aren’t part of the elite, they’re not the priesthood or respected authorities. They’re on the margins, tax collectors and fishermen, not the sort of people to whom 3,000 pilgrims should be looking for spiritual guidance.

And yet the priests are oblivious as a fisherman explains what’s going on, while the curse of Babel is reversed.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine this sort of world. Christendom has been in existance for something like 1,700 years and we’re terrified about losing that influence. We really don’t like being on the margins; we’re so used to the cathedrals and the tax breaks and the politicians sucking up to us that we forget that, when God launched His church in earnest, he did so with a bunch of people who were written off as drunks. The whole point of the Book of Acts is about how the disciples find themselves increasingly working in those margins to share the good news of Jesus with people outside the power structures that dominated society. This is where that begins.

Peter quoting the prophet Joel points to that – “I will pour out my spirit on all people… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” If Pentecost celebrated the original giving of the Law, this is the inaugeration of a new church, one empowered by the Holy Spirit. That empowerment is vital – it’s not about the miracle of spontaneous translation in and of itself, it’s about what that means for God’s Kingdom – “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. Well this is where all that begins, with the Spirit enabling a motley group of ex-fishermen to build a new kind of Kingdom after their King ascends his throne.

And the truly scandalous thing about this? That it extends to us. Because that Kingdom is still being built. Pentecost was the spectacular fulfillment of a promise of which we’re a part, and the same Holy Spirit empowers us to be the church Christ wants us to be, a church that isn’t afraid and dismissive of the margins, of the disenfranchised, of the outsider. That’s scary – it may be because that mission is fundamentally outside of most of our comfort zones; it may be because the Holy Spirit Himself takes those comfort zones, puts them into a blender, then sets fire to them. But look at Peter – that’s what God can do through us. Scary, yes, but also a privilege.

We’re called to build the Kingdom. And Pentecost is ours.