A Meditation For Those Who Stand At The Front

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You stand at the front of church and you see a sea of faces in front of you. Each one of them has a different story: some are facing questions about their career or their relationships or their future. Some are watching their partners grow more distant; others are watching their parents fade away through Alzheimer’s. Some are lonely, some are depressed; some are cutting themselves, some are throwing up their breakfast, some are figuring out the easiest way to stop the pain and slip out of this life. Some like booze too much, or money, or power.

Some are disabled, some are disgruntled,  some are dismissed. Some are figuring out their sexuality and their identity; some are figuring out what to do about their cancer diagnosis; some are trying to decide if they’re safe to discuss any of this stuff with the person next to them.

Some are sitting there desperate to worship; some are desperate to get out of there; some are just desperate. Some are scared, some are oppressed, some are waiting to see if your words are going to hit them with hope or hit them with condemnation.

Some need to be forgiven,  some need to forgive,  some need a safe place to be angry,  some need a safe place where they’re not going to be beaten. Some need permission to get the hell out of Dodge.

Some think they’re sinners while others think they’re saints, and the truth is they’re probably both. Some you love, some you like, some drive you crazy, and as you look at them you realise they’re also a mirror of the things inside you.

You look at that sea of faces and you’re faced with a choice.

You can be the one who throws a punch before twisting the knife.

You can be the one who keeps adding to the load, adding and adding and adding.

You can be the one with the most impressive PowerPoint and the most impressive platitudes.

Or you can be the one who reaches out and pulls back the curtain and helps them, and you,  find hope, because you look out into that sea of faces and see Jesus in the midst of them.

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.

 

Singing When You Don’t Feel Safe (Ephesians 5:19)

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Dr. Vincent Harding was a leader in the Civil Rights movement, a man who had boots on the ground during a time of great injustice, when faith involved things like not responding to physical abuse from racist police, when singing became an act of defiance against a violent world. Back in May this year, NPR broadcast an interview with Harding that stopped me in my tracks.

It was summer, 1964, and James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi as part of a voter registration drive among African Americans. One night they never returned home; this was KKK country and the bodies of the three students were found a day or so later.

The news reached Harding and a gathering of hundreds of other activists, whereupon a choice presented itself: risk falling foul of further lynch mobs or head home to safety. And as those gathered were making hundreds of life-or-death decisions, they started to sing.

Someone’s missing Lord, kum ba yah…

We all need you Lord, kum ba yah…

The way Dr. Harding tells it, the moment sounds sacred, a simple song becoming a profound intercession, an act of worship that takes place not as a corporate singalong but as a prayer, a cry to God to make himself known…. And this came through a song as simple and as often derided as ‘Kumbayah’.

Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, exhorted his friends to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” That’s easy to do when church is bursting at the seams and the music is cranked up to 11 and when struggle is far away or even imaginary. It’s a different story to sing in the eye of the storm.

But we can still sing in the darkness; sing as communities with shared experiences and fears and griefs and threats, and maybe those moments are when our faith and our worship are at their most honest. In the midst of grief and fear and with the enemy at the gate our easy words and ivory-towered theologies fall silent and all we can do is sing to each other and to the Immanuel God who stands alongside us. There’s something powerful about singing when we don’t feel safe.

I’ve said it before: our churches don’t always make enough space for lament, and we often feel pushed to pretend that ecstatic elation is our default setting, no matter what’s going on the other side of the stained glass window. Maybe the memories of Dr. Harding and the words of St. Paul remind us that worship can be found when there’s no other choice than to sing to each other; when hope and horror can be expressed through the words of a Kumbayah.

Bible Jukebox: Faith and Music

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Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.

That’s been my favourite song for years. Bruce calls it a rock and roll lullaby, and that’s a nice way of describing the song’s dreamlike, iconic landscape. It’s true and quietly mythic at the same time.

Now, religious songs, that’s something else. My favourite is Be Thou My Vision, and while it’s a great hymn in and of itself, it really became a favourite when I heard the Van Morrison version. Because sometimes, no matter how good your church choir might be, sometimes you really need to hear hymns sung in the original Irish.

It’s World Music Day, and while I’m tone deaf and have an ambivalent reaction to the Beatles, I’m fascinated by the use of music in the Bible. We’ve probably done it a disservice by turning it into prose, but that robs it of a power that only music has.

For instance, it’s in the music of the Bible that we often hear the voices of the marginalised; the Magnificat falls into a tradition of women singing about liberation, while elsewhere a Shulammite woman is unapologetic in her celebration of her beauty and sexuality.

Songs seem to give voice to emotions and frustrations and ecstasies that we don’t always associate with the Bible. We’ve lost some of these traditions – we don’t know how to lament in the church (I’m struggling to think of an overtly Christian song as raw as, say, Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’), and some of the songs already mentioned are saturated with radicalism and outspokenness. The Psalms aren’t just the ancient version of a CCM download, they cover a breadth of human experience that can leave us feeling uplifted then battered within the space of a few verses. More importantly, they give us permission, give us the words we need to express some of our deepest hopes and sorrows; the Psalms tell us that we’re not alone.

That connection isn’t just between individuals separated across centuries. Most of the Psalms should be considered corporate worship, hundreds of voices harmonising and praising and crying out. We continue with that tradition today – in some ways it’s bigger than ever – and that’s both a privilege and a danger for worship leaders. At best, leading a corporate act of praise can guide people towards a new encounter with God, or a renewed freedom in worship; at worse it can become performance idolatry. It’s a fine line to walk, a faith saturated in song but with a tendency to worship the music rather than the God it points to. And yet that shouldn’t stop us rediscovering and reinventing some of the great biblical songs.

But worship music can transcend the confines of services. Why else would Amazing Grace be sung by displaced Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears? A Salvation Army brass band in a town centre somewhere can turn a cold, miserable winter’s day into Christmas. Music has power, and so the song of God could change everything:

In his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

That’s a powerful image of grace. There’s a joy in it, an abandonment, an excitement that can only be expressed with music. The idea of God singing about us is glorious; maybe the use of music here is the only way to convey the enormity of divine grace and love.

Because there are times when only a song will do.