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.

 

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.

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.

Pentecost: The story just got bigger (Acts 2)

20120515-074516.jpgWell, the Easter season is pretty much done and dusted. In terms of major festivals it all goes quiet until December, right?

That’s the problem with Easter – it can be seen as the end of the story, the be-all and end-all of Christianity, and after it’s celebrated in spring, we reboot and wait for Christmas, not giving an awful lot of thought to what happened after Easter. Sure, the resurrection of Christ is fundamental and central to the faith, but it’s the start of a new journey, rather than a chance to fall onto the sofa and put your feet up.

So with that, Acts chapter 2.

The first thing to note is that events among the fledgling Christian community seem to mirror the two Jewish festivals that were happening at the same time. The crucifixion and resurrection took place during Passover, the great remembrance of God liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. It’s the foundational Jewish story of rescue and freedom from oppression, death being averted by sacrifice. In that sense the crucifixion takes on huge symbolic weight – Christ as the ultimate Passover sacrifice.

But then a lesser known ritual takes place, the Counting of the Omer. Instituted in Leviticus 23:15-16. This starts after Passover and counts down towards the next major festival, Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Law to Israel on Mount Sinai. This is the moment that a liberated people received the mission for which they were liberated in the first place. There on Mount Sinai, Israel receives its orders. In this context, I guess, the Counting of the Omer serves as a reminder that salvation isn’t something that happens, with us being briefly grateful before forgetting about it. As soon as salvation was remembered, the countdown towards the next chapter in the story begins.

So the resurrection isn’t just marked by the Ascension acting as a full stop. Jesus tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem where they wil receive the Holy Spirit – they’re also counting down to the next part of the story, and I guess it’s easy to have sympathy for them, their confusion mixed with anticipation, the knowledge that God has a plan butting heads with the frustration that we rarely know what that plan actually is.

And so the disciples are gathered together, and they’re expecting something to happen. They’re not sure when, although I guess it’s possible they’re thinking that it’s possible things kick off during the big festivals. It’s Pentecost and the city is full of pilgrims from throughout the known world, after all, what better time for God to do something dramatic?

And then it happens – the sound of a rushing wind, flame… When the Holy Spirit arrives, everything goes crazy. The Spirit isn’t tame, no respecter of convention. Suddenly the disciples are speaking in other languages, languages they never learned, and all those pilgrims can understand what they’re saying – communication is powerfully, divinely possible. This isn’t an everyday event, so the question on everyone’s lips was “What the heck’s going on?!”

(Apart from those who figured the disciples were drunk. We’ll ignore them.)

This is a big deal. After all, look who originally fractured human language as punishment for the hubris on display at the Tower of Babel – God himself. Babel represents humanity’s arrogance, its desire to make itself like God, a comprehensive shattering of the relationship between human and the divine that started in the Garden of Eden.

And then suddenly that curse is reversed and the punishment of Babel is undone. Because the relationship between God and Man has been healed by the work of Jesus and grace triumphs over judgement. The brokenness depicted in Genesis is being fixed.

But it’s also the end of the countdown. Because now the Spirit’s here, bringing power and restoration, the church beginning in earnest. And it’s got a mission. Seven weeks ago, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus; now he’s getting up and delivering a sermon. This is something I hadn’t appreciated before – all this seems to happen in public.

See, I always had the impression that they were in a house, the Spirit comes and they go out into the streets, when actually the word used for ‘house’ could also refer to the Temple. That puts a whole different slant on this episode if that’s the case – the Temple was the earthly home of God, and yet when the Spirit comes, he doesn’t go into a specific room, he goes into people.

And so that ties into Peter’s sermon, of which one of the key elements is a quotation from the book of Joel:

“ ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

This is huge, and the book of Acts in a nutshell. Because yes, Israel has a key role in the salvation of humanity, but that role has to spread out from Israel – it can’t stay there. And so Acts tells the story of how the message of Jesus spreads from Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire, with a whole bunch of stories illustrating how the scope of that plan just keeps getting bigger and bigger, with more and more ‘outsiders’ being brought into the fold. In that sense, Peter quoting Joel is a manifesto for the early church, even if they haven’t quite figured out what that means yet.

That’s the great message of this passage – God reaches out to everyone, not just a select group. The Holy Spirit turns up and everyone’s categories have to be rewritten, and the rest of Acts is pretty much people running to keep up with that glorious transformation. We can’t forget this, because it’s key to what the church should be – an agent of God ‘s love and salvation to all, even to – especially to – those on the margins, those who are ignored, those who are despised.

God’s love is for all.

And our maps need to be re-drawn.

What Mobile Libraries Have To Do With Pentecost and Grace (2 Corinthians 4:6-10)

20120524-141931.jpgPart of the beauty of blogging is that disorganised people like myself can get, well, organised – my post for Pentecost has been primed to go live for a couple of weeks now, and so I don’t have to worry about oversleeping on Sunday and not uploading it. Technology is wonderful.

But this is a Bible blog, and Bible blogs are never that simple. Anyone would think someone out there has a vested interest in them.

Anyway, I’ve just joined a new library, and the first book I ‘ve borrowed is The Library Book, edited by the Reading Agency. This is an anthology of writing on libraries by a number of well-known authors, but the piece that got me thinking was the forward, in which a librarian tell of her mobile library’s encounters with the homeless.

It’s moving to read of how lending a book to someone on the streets is more than just a nice public service – it’s an act of trust. After all, when your clientele is itinerant, you’re not going to get all of your books back.

And yet books were returned – kept dry when their reader himself was soaking wet, and acting as a catalyst for conversations other than homeless shelters. One man, having got back on his feet, became a librarian himself. Lending books became a humanising event, an act of grace almost. It changed people’s lives.

On Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, another act of grace, another moment when fragile, broken humans are entrusted with something that broadens their horizons, brightens their world. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given, and while there would have been times that those first disciples would have dropped the ball, God still achieved amazing things through a bunch of people written off as corrupt, or terrorists, or yokels. They became more than their stereotypes, they became what God wanted them to be, through his grace.

Paul summed it up best, I guess, with his history of persecuting the church before being confronted with his mistake. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 6, “to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Broken as we may be, God still works with us, a treasure in jars of clay, a library book in an Asda bag. And this act of grace can lead to transformation, if we accept it. It’s given freely, a thing of beauty.

Even to people like us.

PS. It’s a ‘coincidence’, but not an unwelcome one, that today, over at my other blog, I also talk about grace. But in a totally different context…