Autistic Pride Day: Yield Your Church’s Mic

My kids are both autistic. Youngest in particular struggles with confidence and self-esteem. After all, we don’t live in a world that’s overly tolerant of ‘difference’. But my kids have a right to be secure in who they are, proud of their individuality and their abilities. Their lives are about them, right?

I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately, particularly on Twitter, that points out that much of the conversation about autism privileges carers and parents more thanews those with autism themselves. I’ve written a lot here about autism and the Church but I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing. I jump in feet first and don’t often pass the mic – or the keyboard in this case. And yet as my kids get older, they’re more definite in their opinions, more clear about their individuality. We’ll always have to advocate for them, offer our support, but they need their own voices to be heard, to be proud in what they have to say, in what they have to offer.

And yet this week, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire, politicians were described as ‘austic’ as a lazy shorthand for a lack of empathy. That’s not a conducive environment to embracing neurodiversity, and it’s one that’s formed by language. And the use of language is often determined by those who have a platform.

There’s a phrase used a lot by the organisation Disability and Jesus, “nothing for us without us”. That’s why many of us need to yield the mic – advocate for autism appreciation in our churches, yes, but surrender our platforms so that things aren’t done to people or for people but with them. We throw around the phrase ‘be a voice for the voiceless’, but that assumes some people don’t have a voice – likes, dislikes, needs, desires – and that can deny someone’s personhood, their humanity.

The Church is a body, made up of many parts, and that body will benefit from embracing neurodiversity. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all picture of what that looks like, because every congregation is different and is formed by the Spirit working in and through each individual. We’re already meant to be a diverse body; sometimes the best way we support that is by shutting up, yielding the floor, passing the mic and listening.

Spreadsheets are Spiritual: A Post for Grenfell Tower (Deuteronomy 22:8)

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is still raw, a cacophony of anger and grief and heroism and apathy played out in the shadow of a highrise, a beacon for a country struggling with inequality and terrorist outrages and an inconclusive election, drawing the focus to the very real testimonies of those who have lost everything: first their safety, then their voice, then homes, possessions, loved ones.

Stories of those loved ones are emerging: a Syrian man, Mohammed, who fled the civil war and who was studying civil engineering; an artist, Khalifa, whose work is currently on display in Venice; Isaac, a five year old boy. Firefighters wrote their names on their helmets as they walked into the fire; communities pulled together to provide shelter, supplies, support. All this took place in the face of a murderous injustice; while full details haven’t yet emerged, it seems that Grenfell Tower wasn’t safe, built with unsafe materials and no sprinklers and no answers. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” St. Paul once wrote, and profit margins and unit costs often show us where our hearts lie. The cost of a sprinkler system, or £2 extra per metre of cladding becomes a stake, a gamble that a fire won’t break out, with odds that apparently made it worth playing. I doubt anyone wanted these deaths to happen, but there’s a risk register somewhere that’s now exposed as a moral, even a spiritual document.

Millenia ago, and ancient law was handed down on top of a mountain. And among the commandments and liturgies and rituals, there’s a simple piece of construction advice – if you build a house, make sure the roof’s safe so that no-one falls, no-one dies. Elsewhere, there’s provision for priests to get involved in an environmental health situation. And yes, that’s a Bronze Age culture and I don’t think health and safety should be ecclesiastical, but justice persists, and the safety of the places we live and work is a justice issue. Lives are at stake, lives have been lost, and spreadsheets sometimes triumph over humanity.

But spreadsheets are spiritual. Building regulations are spiritual. Our homes should be safe and Grenfell shouldn’t have burned. We pray and mourn with the survivors, we honour the heroes. But let’s always remember that how we build and what we spend are moral decisions; humanity triumphs over portfolios.

Climate Refugees in the Bible

One day the rains didn’t come, and the next day, and the next. Then the herds began to thirst and die, crops crumbled into the dry ground, skies still parched and empty and bearing down on a family nearing starvation.

Salvation was at hand; one brother had found their way into Egypt, and through a series of misadventures he had the ear of Pharaoh. Joseph, blessed with insight as to how to distribute the Nile’s bounty during a time of famine, saved his family from the worst a changing climate had to offer.

But in times of crisis, opportunists will arise, and so Joseph became powerful and exploited the vulnerable, in the way that you can when you’ve got something everyone else needs. A couple of hundred years later his descendants found themselves slaves of the Egyptians. When the climate turns against you it can cast a long shadow.

Centuries later, another famine swept through Israel, forcing a particular family to flee to Moab, an ancient land now in modern Jordan. Soil turning to dust underfoot, Elimelek and his family took a look back at the Promised Land and made their way towards a new life. Only one of them would return, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law, and yet in the face of starvation and natural disaster, those poverty-scarred survivors would go on to become the line of King David, the ancestors of the Messiah. And throughout the narrative, names conjure images of emptiness and fulfillment, famine and harvest. The dust of a vicious climate coats the whole story.

There are other examples; a famine striking the Romans Empire in Acts 11, prompting the infant Church to pool together resources and distribute aid; the climatic conditions that drive Abraham into conflict with PharaohJoel’s locust swarm that forms the backdrop to his great prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The environment is Scripture’s silent backdrop that nevertheless shapes events and people and the work of God. We can’t ignore it.

Nor can we ignore the 20 million climate refugees thought to be on the move today. We can’t ignore those whose water supplies are polluted, or whose food sources are dying, whose homes have tides lapping at their door, whose churches are facing a Noah’s Ark scenario of their own. We argue about how and why these things happen, but we forget the people. When it comes to theology we seem to spend more time debating the eschatology of the Anthropocene, its mechanisms and its imagined idolatries, than we do in serving those most affected by a changing climate. Faith and history will both judge us for that.

In his latest book, Rob Bell highlights the danger of reading the Bible as if it’s about the past or the future but not the present. We can’t ignore how the stories we read throughout the Bible intersect with what’s going on in the world around us. That’said why we need public theology. That’said why we need to speak with grace and mercy and love rather than treating vulnerable people as problems to be confronted by our dogmatism

And that’s why your church needs an environmental policy, and see the footprints in the dust and in the mud, and to know they could be our own.

Thoughts and Prayers

Another day, another disaster, another act of public violence and Twitter confusion, another outpouring of sympathy and compassion. Throughout all this, one phrase gets repeated, echoing around social media to the point of cliché.

I understand why. I’ve heard terrible news and felt the need to say something, anything, aware of my powerlessness but needing to speak. Somehow silence seems inhuman, erasing, and so I offer up my thoughts and prayers, along with thousands of others. And all too often it ends at that, at least until the next disaster, the next outburst of senseless violence.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers – I probably don’t give enough time to either. Sometimes all you can do is hand things over to God, because our power only stretches so far. Having the humility to accept that is a good thing.

But prayer is meant to change us, isn’t it? Let’so not be so arrogant as to suggest that communicating with the Divine will allow us to walk away without being transformed. We pray about situations, and we think about situations, and God will break through our platitudes and prejudices, until He transforms how we speak, how we spend, how we act, how we vote, how we serve, how we Tweet, how we love.

People get cynical when they see so many of us talking about thoughts and prayers. Part of that is scepticism, but part of it is, I think, the fact that we say these things every time but nothing changes; there’should always another disaster that could have been mitigated; always another act of violence that could have been avoided.

We want God to materialise and personally fix things, but sometimes he expects us to be the answer to some of those prayers. We speak with him, we follow Jesus, we embrace the Spirit and that’ll have an impact. And bad things will still happen, but at least we won’t paint God as an impotent deity on a cloud through our refusal to let him change us.

We see what happens through our prayers: people open up their places of worship to serve as shelter and support, they cook meals and collect toys and go out and fill shopping trollies full of toiletries and clothes. They weep when the words have run out and mourn with those who mourn, because the cumulative effect of all those prayers is Jesus shining through.

Thoughts and prayers are important only insofar as they are real. If we’re passionate about them, if we use them to let God get into our bones, then maybe our Tweets will mean more. Maybe, one day, we’ll be changed.

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.