Thursday, May 23, 2024

neurodivergent Nicodemus

 

The Gospel text set for this Sunday (John 3.1-17) recounts a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus combines the word for ‘victory’ and the word for ‘the common people’ and can mean victory of the people, or victory over the people, or victor among the people. Perhaps Nicodemus had overcome the expectations of his society to get where he was, to achieve what he had achieved in life. In recent years we have seen growing awareness of neurodivergence, though there is a long way to go. Some people argue that autism and other examples of neurodivergence are new conditions or simply excuses for unacceptable behaviour. But neurodiversity has always existed, even if we have known it by different names, calling those who diverge from the average savant geniuses or village idiots. Nicodemus displays several characteristics that would resonate with neurodivergence (see Ann Memmott).

Firstly, he comes to Jesus at nighttime. Before the advent of electric light, people slept twice, a short sleep to rest from the activities of the day, followed by a rising to meet with friends, meditate on life, or—as in monasteries—to pray, before returning to bed. So, a nighttime conversation is not unusual, but it is more conducive to someone who withdraws from the sensory overstimulation of the daytime—its crowds and noise and smells. It is often suggested that he came at night because he was afraid of what other people might think of him, and of being rejected: I’m unsure—Jesus had supporters as well as detractors among the Pharisees—but in any case, such social anxiety is common among neurodivergent people. When you have had to work hard to belong, you do not lightly risk losing that.

Secondly, we are told that Nicodemus is preeminent in his authority, and an instructor acknowledged as possessing mastery in the field of interpretation and application of the Law. In other words, he had a special interest, which he pursued to the highest level.

Thirdly, Nicodemus thinks in very literal terms, struggling to understand Jesus’ use of metaphor and analogy.

Fourthly, we will meet Nicodemus again, when he accompanies Jospeh of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus comes bearing a ridiculous, over-the-top amount of myrrh and aloes—a hundred pounds (John 19.39); a hundred times as much as what Mary anointed Jesus with (John 12.3)—desperately wanting to get it right but getting it brilliantly wrong.

None of these things are exclusive to neurodivergent people but taken together they build a strong case. We can’t say categorically that Nicodemus was neurodivergent, but we can say that he demonstrates neurodivergent characteristics. It is important to me to see Nicodemus as possibly being neurodivergent because I am neurodivergent. It is important that we should be able to see ourselves reflected back in the scriptures: to be able to say, ah, here is Jesus reaching out to someone like me; and if someone like me, then perhaps me also.

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Church affirms the Oneness and Threeness of God. The trap is to think that this is something we can break down into its parts, to understand how they fit together. As if God was a radio transistor, and we were tinkering with a screwdriver. But that would be to miss the point. Our Gospel passage illustrates this brilliantly. It starts with a Pharisee: that is, a separatist, from the action of dividing and separating, of remaining pure by being separated from sin. (There are many separatists, of one tribe or another, within the Church of England today, which I find tragically sad.) It ends with Jesus stating that God did not send the Son into the world as judge—as one who separates—but as the one who will rescue us from separation into wholeness.

Twice, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. ‘Son’ means ‘having the same nature as,’ and ‘Man’ means ‘humankind.’ Not (here) son of Mary (family) or Son of David (ethnicity) (though he is both these things) but one with every human.

God sends the Son—who fully identifies with human nature—to reveal what God is like—the nature of God—and to draw us into the life of God—which is, to be Spirit-filled.

God is not to be understood, but, rather, to be encountered, and known.

Trinity is the best language we have for that, but it is, nonetheless, inadequate.

But in this Gospel passage Nicodemus encounters Jesus, in whom the God who sends us and who is with us (‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’) is revealed.

The nature of God, revealed to us, is that God prefers ‘kosmos’—an ordered system of life in all its wonderful diversity—over destruction, over reduction and conformity. That God both generates and sustains such life.

This Jesus is the one who unites heaven and earth—two distinct realms, indivisible—as divine nature come, in love, to us; and human nature, raised, in love, to God.

The nature of God, revealed to us, resists separation. It does not divide between flesh and sprit—between the life given us by our parents, with its unique combination of genes and culture, the colour of our eyes and skin, the fault in our heart—and the life given us by God, that can’t be analysed, only lived. Jesus says, these two go together; both are necessary. One does not rule out the other: and so, the family of God is as diverse as human beings are.

God sends the Son—who fully identifies with human nature—to reveal what God is like—the nature of God—and to draw us into the life of God—which is, to be Spirit-filled.

And Nicodemus is drawn to this beautiful light of life that shines in the darkness and is not overwhelmed. Does he understand everything that Jesus says? No (and thank you, Nicodemus, for your honesty, for giving us permission to be honest, too). But he came to Jesus, as Jesus came from God; and is sent by Jesus into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world by God. Sent, not to be understood, but to be a sign of the Spirit. A sign that doesn’t make sense (One hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, Nicodemus? Really!? What were you thinking?) but—like the wind—might just sweep up others (Joseph of Arimathea?) into the life of God that cannot be destroyed, that cannot perish.

I see in the Gospel—the good news—that someone like me is caught up by the life of God. And if someone like me, then, why not me too?

 

On disability and ableism

 

On disability and ableism.

The Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today is Mark 9.41-50. But in order to understand them, we need to look at the chapter as a whole. As always, much is lost in translation.

The chapter begins with Jesus going off with three of his disciples. When they return to the others, they find a father who has brought his son to be healed. His son has a spirit that causes him to be mute, and to experience seizures marked by foaming at the mouth, shaking, and rigid limbs. Mark does not record this as demonisation, but as a characteristic of the child’s own human spirit, and Jesus later confirms this to his disciples (who have assumed that it was a demonic issue and had failed to address it) saying that this condition runs in families, and cannot be addressed by any means, if not by prayer.

When Jesus asks the father for more information, he learns that the condition has often caused the boy to fall into fire or water. When Jesus speaks, with authority, to the condition, calling this part of the child’s breath out from him, the boy falls into another, severe, seizure, so much so that he appears to onlookers to have been left dead; but then he comes round. He will not fit again.

Following this episode, the disciples argue among themselves as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus slaps them down (technical term).

Then John seeks approval by informing Jesus that they had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but had told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of the Twelve. This is the immediate context of the verses set for today. Jesus again slaps them down.

Jesus states that it if anyone, by their actions, scandalises those seeking to follow him (are you listening, John?) it would be better (beautiful, honourable, praiseworthy: much lost in translation) for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea (to lose control of their limbs and fall into deep water, as had happened many times to the boy they had recently encountered).

Jesus then goes on to state three times that those who are disabled (with impairments to arms, legs, and sight) and who live lives that display their trust in the beauty and honour of God the King (so, not simply by virtue of having a disability) are beautiful and worthy of honour and praise; in marked contrast to those who are able-bodied, and who, by their scandalous way of life (so, not all able-bodied people) demonstrate that they deserve being thrown out into Jerusalem’s rubbish dump (Gehenna) where waste and dead animals and sometimes people were burned in fires that were kept alight continuously (again, note the connection to the boy with seizures).

This has little, directly, to do with a post-mortem hell, though Gehenna is also the sight of divine judgement of the unrighteous at the resurrection of the dead. It has more, directly, to say about our attitude towards disability and our internalised ableism.

There is not only room for disability within the vision of the kingdom of God, but a place of honour.

There is no room for the idea that being able-bodied is an indicator of divine approval. Indeed, those who are able-bodied (and here we might add all forms of body that are more enabled in our society than others, such as male bodies, white bodies, heterosexual bodies, young bodies) to be aware of their scandalous attitudes and behaviour, that cause others to fall away from following Jesus.

 

Thursday, May 02, 2024

pockets

 

My trousers have impractical pockets. The purpose of these pockets is that I should stick my hands in them, to stop me from waving my hands about, because neurotypicals find neurodivergent people stimming in order to self-regulate, dis-regulating. Bless. Anyway, I put inappropriate things in my pockets, such as keys, and coins, my wallet, and my mobile phone. And these things wear holes in the cotton. And every so often, I ask my wife to stitch the holes up. (This is not sexism, but an awareness of my dyspraxic limitations).

The hole is not a thing. It is the absence of a thing (in this case, cotton). It has no ontological existence. My wife and I are only able to speak about the hole, and to have a common understanding of what we speak of, because of the cotton surrounding it.

What we call evil is a hole. An accumulated absence. An absence of trust becomes an absence of faith becomes an absence of hope becomes an absence of love, until we find ourselves killing young boys in the street. A hole created by things with sharp edges, such as fear (fear, of course, is not inappropriate in and of itself, any more than keys or phones are: it can save your life; the issue is what we do with our fear, where we put it).

We don’t have to let an absence of trust develop into an absence of faith, hope, or love. We can choose a stitch in time, and to change our habits. My wife mends the holes in my pockets with coloured threads, and the pocket is enhanced (though no-one gets to see: beauty for its own sake). I still put things, inappropriately, in my pockets.

Put your hands in your pockets. Or wave them about if you prefer or need to. But, whichever you choose, be a person of substance rather than absence.

 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

park life

 


I am sitting in the park. An older couple—he will tell me that he is 75—approach me. He asks what I am doing sitting in the park, instead of the church? I respond that there are upwards of 15,000 souls living in my parish (let alone those who come here to work or study) and that I like to place myself where I might meet them. He asks which is my parish, and I respond by pointing to the church tower just visible through the trees. He tells me that he used to go there as a boy, he had a little book and was given a picture of a Bible character each week he went. But it is many years since he stopped going.

He tells me that our society is in a worse state than it was forty or fifty years ago. He puts it down to people no longer going to church—here is an irony there he doesn’t seem to notice—to the widespread rejection of Christianity—he doesn’t think you have to believe in the resurrection, or even that what(ever) you believe matters, so long as you are law-abiding; and, again, does not register the dissonance in his opinions—and to the obsession of minority groups with talking about issues, rather than quietly getting on with hidden lives.

There is both wisdom and folly in his words. He is not an idiot, or a dinosaur, a bitter old man to be dismissed by those who are younger and know better. Silence, for example, can hide a multitude of injustices; silence can also spare us from self-inflicted wounds. But he is—as we all are—a bundle of inconsistencies.

He carries pain and confusion, and needs to express these, safely; even as his wife, who presents with dementia, is becoming agitated by his stream of words. Both need the presence of a priest in the park today, even if they do not recognise the institution or the community of the Church. This is why I am sitting here.

 

Thursday, April 04, 2024

World Autism Acceptance Week

 

2-8 April 2024 is World Autism Acceptance Week.

We hear more today than we used to about Autism Awareness. But the idea of Autism Awareness is somewhat problematic. The diagnostic conditions for Autism are based on how autistic people respond to stressful situations (and diagnostic interviews are incredibly stressful). These might include situational mutism, where someone finds themselves so overwhelmed that they are unable to speak, that their voice is stolen from them.

But if we take the time to reflect on it, we will recognise that for all of us, for anyone, how we operate when we are under stress is not the same as how we operate in environments where we are relaxed, where we feel well-supported. Imagine how you would feel if I were to define neurotypical people by how you operate under extreme stress! Neurotypicals dont sleep, lack focus, have short tempers, and may be prone to violence.

And so, the unwelcome result of growing Autism Awareness is more people saying, You dont come across as autistic. Or even, We know that you arent meant to say You dont look autistic”—see how autism-aware we are!but you just dont come across as autistic.

Perhaps my autistic engagement with rest and joy doesnt match your stress-based expectations. Perhaps I am not autistic enough for you when I am running alongside someone (who I can talk to without having to look at).

Acceptance goes beyond Awareness because acceptance opens us to the lived experience of the other. It is marked by taking a genuine interest in another person, rather than prejudice based on stereotype. It does not mean (in any context) that we must fully agree or fully affirm everything about one another; but it does require of us a commitment to everyone having what they need for their wellbeing, their wholeness, which the Bible calls shalom.

Awareness is unlikely to lead to acceptance. But Acceptance might just result in a more rounded awareness.

What will you do to take part in World Autism Acceptance Week?

 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Day

 

‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ Mark 16.8

God is the author of Life, and death is an affront, a direct challenge to, the goodness and good rule of God.

The Christian faith stands or falls on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in their Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John record multiple accounts of people encountering the risen Jesus. But Mark tells a different side to the story. Mark does not present us with Jesus, come forth from the tomb. Mark presents us with a group of women, disciples of Jesus, come forth from the tomb. And these women have a problem.

If we are to understand the problem they have, we need to understand how God has ordered the world.

First, the world is divided into things that are holy and things that are common. This is not a moral distinction. Most things are common, but some things, and some people, are set apart by and to and for the Lord God. Six days are common, but the Sabbath is holy. Mount Horeb, where God instructed Moses, is holy; as is Mount Zion, and the Temple in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself. We understand this. We have an island, off our coast in the northeast of England, known as Holy Island. We consider our churches holy.

Second, the world is divided into things that are ritually clean and things that are ritually unclean. Again, this is not a moral distinction. Most things are clean, most of the time. But things that convey something of death—that affront to God—are unclean. So, those who have a skin condition that makes them look like a corpse are unclean. Anything related to reproduction and childbirth makes someone unclean, not because these natural things are bad, but because of the high mortality rate for babies and mothers (not only in the ancient world). And contact with a corpse, or a tomb, makes one unclean. Again, this is not a moral failing: indeed, there was a moral obligation to bury the dead.

Ritually clean things in either holy or common places pose no problem. Ritually unclean things in common places pose no problem in themselves, as long as the person involved follows the God-given instruction for purifying themselves from death in all its forms, usually through a combination of time and washing. But ritually unclean things coming into even unwitting contact with holy places is a problem because death is an affront to God, and the mortal who carries death into the presence of God may die as a result. When death comes into the presence of God, God kicks it out; and when God kicks out death, any mortal who gets caught in the moment is in trouble. (Alternatively, when people persist in bringing unclean things into holy space, God may choose to withdraw, which is also bad for humans.)

[Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death is really good on the holy/common clean/unclean matrix—he uses the terms holy & profane, purity & impurity—but, somewhat strangely to my mind, does not deal with the immediate implications of Jesus’ death for his disciples.]

The women have a problem. They have gone to the tomb to anoint the corpse. This is, indeed, a moral obligation, but one that will make them ritually unclean for seven days, and anyone else they come into contact with ritually unclean for a day. They go to the tomb—which is outside the city boundary because the dead cannot be within the holy perimeter—but this isn’t a problem in itself. It just means that they cannot enter holy space. Second Temple Jews held a range of interpretations: all were of the view that someone made ritually unclean by contact with a corpse or tomb could not enter the temple; some were of the opinion that such a person could not enter the city around the temple. Jesus’ mother and her relatives were devout temple-based Jews. As such, they would want to ensure maximum distance between uncleanliness and the temple. They were already ritually unclean, having assisted Joseph and Nicodemus in taking Jesus’ corpse down from the cross and preparing it for its hasty burial; and—unlike the male disciples, who kept their distance at the cross, and who were staying in an upper room in the city—they were likely already keeping outside the city, perhaps with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in nearby Bethany.

None of this poses a problem, until the angel instructs them to go and tell Peter and the other disciples with him that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee.

The women have a problem. Our English translation tells us that they are gripped by terror and amazement. The word translated ‘terror’ conveys the anxiety of having a religious duty and not knowing how one will be able to discharge it. The word translated ‘amazement’ has a universal meaning of being displaced from one’s usual place: it can refer to the displaced mind, but also conveys the sense of being displaced outside the city, as those who were ritually unclean on account of contact with a corpse were required to do.

How can they bring a message to Peter when they cannot return to Jerusalem for seven days? Remember, Jesus’ mother and her relatives are devout, temple-focused Jews; and, moreover, Jesus insisted that he had not come to abolish the law but to bring it to completion or fulfilment. So, they tell no one, in the immediate; though they will find a way to get the message to Peter. (And, having gone to the tomb himself, Peter will return to the upper room. On the matter of whether tomb contact excluded you from all Jerusalem or only the temple itself, it is likely that the Galilean disciples had a different view from Jesus’ relatives; though even Peter hesitates to enter the tomb and thus make himself ritually unclean.)

Indeed, Jesus does not abolish the law, but breaks the power of death that required the law to be put in place for our protection. And though we still experience death, this has real implications. The presence of death in our lives no longer separates us from God, even temporarily. So, whereas the Jews buried their dead outside the city wall, away from the holy, Christians came to bury their dead immediately surrounding their churches, as close as possible to—and even within—their holy places. More than this, the bereaved draw close to God. Jesus did not die instead of us, but ahead of us, so that we might follow, unafraid, held every step of the way by God.

Jesus is so infectiously holy that, through his death and resurrection, he makes even death—the thing that separates us from God, albeit temporarily—holy. So now, rather than separating us from God, death—our own, or any death that we must face—is an open door into God’s presence. Into the presence of Love, the author of Life. A door no one wants to go through, but that all can go through, if they trust that God, revealed to us in Jesus, is good.

And that, in my opinion, is good news.

 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Thursday

 

Each spring, one of the toughest endurance races in the world is held in the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Participants attempt to complete a five-lap route—or, as our American cousins pronounce it, rout—which is, in total, between 100 and 130 miles. The exact route changes each year, but roughly one third is on forest trails, the other two-thirds off-trail. The total ascent and descent are equivalent to going from sea-level to the summit of Mount Everest and back. Twice. The five loops must be completed within a strict 60-hour cut-off. And the American pronunciation rout is fitting: each year, 35-40 of the world's best endurance runners take part. To date, since 1989, a total of 20 people have finished (three more than once). If you aren’t a runner, it is possible that you heard of the Barkley Marathons for the first time this year, as British runner Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to finish.

The race is legendary, with its own mythic lore. Jo and I have watched two documentaries on it, and we are in awe. Two things stand out. The first is that it simply isn’t possible to know what it is like to take part in the Barkley Marathons unless you have taken part. Even if you are a seasoned ultramarathon runner. Which I am not. The second is that as participants drop out of the race, they become the most amazing support team for those who remain. No assistance is permitted except in camp, between loops, and there, the most experienced ultra runners in the world are willing one another on. They are on hand with advice, to wash legs shredded by briars, to pierce blisters so the other can carry on.

Both these things speak to me of the Christian life.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, the Church gathers to hear again the old, old story of the Israelites eating a hurried meal before heading out into the wilderness at night, walking pole in hand, in their escape from Egypt (this, too, is mirrored by the Barkley Marathons, where, between loops, runners take on hurried food for energy) and the less old story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

As Jesus moves from disciple to disciple—those who have been with him on the Way—Peter is aghast that his greatest hero might stoop to serve him. But Jesus responds: You don’t understand, don’t perceive what I am doing, in this precise moment; but then [somewhat ambiguously and unhelpfully translated as ‘later’ in some English translations] you will.

What is it that Jesus wants Peter and the others to understand? That they were to delight in one another and prefer one another to themselves. That is to say, when we look out for ourselves, we are alone; but when we look out for one another, we have a tribe on our side. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

And Jesus says, it isn’t possible to know, to perceive, to ‘get’ what it means to love one another through observing others—let alone by reading about it or watching a documentary. You only get to understand this by doing it. Only those who have attempted to run the Barkley Marathons know what the Barkley Marathons are about.

The only way to know what it is to follow Jesus, with others who are following Jesus, is by following Jesus together. Not as an idea or a philosophy, not as head-knowledge. You discover it in your hands and feet, in aching limbs.

I am never going to run 130 miles around the mountainous forests of Tennessee inside 60 hours. I wouldn’t even try. But I have been walking with Jesus for over fifty years, and I have no intention of dropping out now. I have yet to reach the cut-off point. Let’s go again.

 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

 

A poem written for Ash Wednesday 2024:

You have heard it said that you are too little, or too much, to be accepted;
and, taking those words to heart, you have been consumed by their flames.

You have heard it said that you are more deserving than others;
and, internalising that mantra, you have been razed by its fire.

But I say to you, rise up:
by the grace of God
arise from the ashes,
O Phoenix,
dust stirred to life by the kiss of love,
by the breath of God
that gives life to the dead.

You are the phoenix of Christ,
given new beginning in his name.
Neither too little nor too much,
nor deserving nor undeserving,
simply loved to life,
again and again.

Do not fear returning to dust.
Receive this mark upon your head,
a sign of hope, and trust.
And by the grace of God,
arise.