Pandemic Pentecost

mark wiggin pentecost

Art by Mark Wiggin

Happy birthday, Church! It’s been a bumpy couple of millennia (could have done without that whole Constantine business, frankly), but here we are. It’s not the sort of Pentecost we’re used to – lockdowns and social distancing and Zoom galore – but maybe, like Easter, this gives Pentecost 2020 its own special authenticity. After all, two thousand years ago the disciples were hiding away, trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for God to make clear the way forward. And then the Spirit blows up their circumstances, wind and fire and a explosion of expression as suddenly the disciples are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before.

That last one is important. The Holy Spirit is a communicator, after all, and this feels like one of those moments in which the Church is learning to communicate all over again. It’s easy to get all Zoomed out, but look at the way congregations have been embracing the challenge of going online. And for many people who have needed to be part of an online fellowship due to the inaccessibility of many church buildings, this is an affirmation and a chance to show what the Spirit has already been doing.

Because behind all these Youtube videos and Instalives is code – language, if you will. And while Peter and the others couldn’t have even imagined Skype and Facebook as they spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem all those years ago, the Holy Spirit could. Maybe this is its own little heresy, and if so forgive me, but I can easily imagine the Spirit biding his time to speak in a language of ones and zeroes, to send his fire through the wires and the broadband signals, to become the (Holy) Ghost in the Machine. This isn’t just theological musing – look at how many people have, in the midst of a lockdown, been able to explore issues of faith for the first time because so many churches have embraced technology? How many creative people – not just musicians and speakers, but coders and video editors – have been able to get involved in church services for the first time? All these new technologies, new expressions of art, suddenly they’re playing their part in the Church because the Spirit can bring together new languages and new creatives and make them shine.

Every year we hear the reading from Acts 2, and some poor soul has to pronounce the list of ancient nations correctly. But I think there’s a bigger idea within all this than we sometimes appreciate. Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, language being used for unity rather than division, and in a world where so much much divides and isolates us, we need a big-brush approach to language. And so that’s a prayer for us – which languages do we need the Spirit to help us use? Sign language? Makaton? Braille? Many communities have been isolated from the Church because we don’t use their language, we can’t communicate with them effectively. May God forgive us for this; may God give us the wisdom and humility to learn from those communities that have already been led by the Spirit to embrace technology because it was the only way for them to form congregations.

The Spirit is a healer as well, and so may we use these strange and scary times to seek that healing – in terms of COVID-19, yes, but also in terms of attitudes and prejudices. I turn on my TV and America is in flames; I open my email and find that our local Chinese church is facing increased xenophobia as a result of the pandemic. Too many people thrive on Babel’s curse, and that’s something we have to confront. And then there’s the silence – of mental health, of domestic violence, of suicide, of injustice. Communication can help defeat those as well, as long as there’s power behind it and not just words.

The Spirit is big, really big. We can list his attributes – Healer, Communicator, Artist – but the whole is bigger than the sum of his parts. He can heal through art, heal through communication. He can make his people change and grow and signpost Jesus. He can make old things new again, and he can bring hope to the silence, even in lockdown.

Happy birthday, Church.

An Accessible Pentecost?

(One of a three posts I’ve written to celebrate Pentecost this year – the others arePentecost – A Time for Telling Stories‘ and ‘An Environmental Pentecost‘.)

The fire fell from heaven, the wind blew through a locked room, and the Church was born in a babble of languages that sounded more like drunks singing than the preaching of saints.

I think sometimes we miss the miracle of Pentecost. We see it as a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a hugely successful evangelistic rally. And it’s both of those things, but underlying it all is a concept we often overlook: accessibility.

The pilgrim crowd heard the disciples speaking in the own languages, no matter where they came from. The Holy Spirit wasn’t picking and choosing, this was God reaching out to anyone who’d listen and dropping a pretty massive hint as to what the Church should look like.

And yet when we talk about Pentecost, our language can be limited. Does it include sign language? Makaton? Braille? The edges of our Pentecost may be telling us how far we’re really willing to go to communicate the Good News. And sometimes the languages we speak also have to factor in where we put the lectern, the colours we use in our Powerpoints, the font size in which we type our hymn sheets and the number of times we make sure the hearing aid loop is actually working.

Heck, architecture has its own language too. How easy is it to get a wheelchair into our churches?

Communication is wider than we think. Behaviour is communication – I have two sons with autism, and an awful lot of what they can’t put into words is expressed through how they act at any given moment. Meltdowns and social misunderstandings and sensory needs can be a kind of language, one that requires grace and understanding because too often out there it elicits tutting and judgement.

And so maybe this has to be part of our prayers this Pentecost: to ask the Spirit to give us a greater vision for the language we use, to ask for the gifts we need to make that vision a reality. Because the Spirit that spoke Hebrew and Latin and Greek and Aramaic two thousand years ago can use sign language and read Braille in 2019. We need to offer up our hands and hearts to receive the gift of an accessible Pentecost.

Some resources:

The Diversity of a Thousand Languages (Acts 2:1-13)

Pentecost-True-Spiritual-Unit-and-Fellowship-in-the-Holy-Spirit

Today 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 (Acts 2:1-13)

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 hereĀ – 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.