In my blog a couple weeks ago, I told the story about a deaf ministry in a congregation. This visit reminded me of another experience several years ago when I was studying Spanish in Costa Rica. One Friday afternoon I took a taxi to downtown San Jose. I visited a museum, walked through an ancient church, and bought an inexpensive balcony ticket to a Spanish-language (of course!) theatrical production at the National Theater. Time was short before the play began and I had not yet eaten. Usually while traveling in Costa Rica, I search for inexpensive family-owned restaurants and food stands in order to learn the native culture and try the national cuisine. But in my haste to catch the performance, I stepped into a nearby McDonald’s to grab a quick hamburger.
The restaurant was packed with people, maybe eighty or ninety. I stepped into line to order, with people jostling here and there all around me. And then I noticed that something was different. There was an unexpected silence to the crowd. Even with all the people present, there was hardly a sound. Except for the sound of cash registers, a little laughter here and there, some remote background music, and the work chatter of the employees, the place was completely quiet.
As I looked around I saw that everyone was speaking in sign language! They were hugging and welcoming one another, sitting together in groups of friends, and eagerly interacting through the constant motion of fingers and hands. Some were visiting one-on-one while others circled in groups as they listened (watched?) one person after another tell stories until everyone laughed together at the end. For a hearing person, the experience was eerie and delightful and captivating and awe-inspiring all at once. I received my hamburger, found a corner table and watched – the smiles, the welcomes, the embraces, the light encouraging touches to shoulders, the introductions of new people, the humorous stories I could not comprehend, the sympathy extended and concern expressed. Clearly, this community delighted in one another’s presence. They wanted to be here together, and they found grace and sustenance in their time together. I could tell by watching how much they cared for one another and how eagerly they joined together. I found myself so lost in thought and so absorbed by the experience that I almost lost track of time and nearly missed my performance!
The next Monday, I described the experience (in Spanish, of course) to one of my tutors. She told me that each Friday a community of deaf people gathers at that McDonalds, that they have been doing so for years, and that the restaurant had become a traditional place of connection. A few years later, I returned to San Jose and I intentionally checked out the downtown McDonalds on Friday night. Once again the place was full of people speaking in sign.
Imagine for a moment that without the benefit of hearing, we could watch the people at our church as they gather for worship. Imagine that the only impressions we had were visual, without music or talking or the sound of outside traffic or the noise of children or the crying of babies. What would we see? And what would we learn about our community based on what we see?
Would we see delight and joy and eagerness as people greeted one another? Or avoidance, self-preoccupation, reluctance, a hurriedness and harriedness that neglects engagement? Could we tell just by looking that these people really love each other, that they love being together, that they love gathering to worship God? Would the faces and gestures and motions reflect the caring words we speak in the formal greetings of worship? Or would they belie a deeper reticence? Would we see smiles, embraces, gentle and tender signs of encouragement and welcome? Would we see the radical hospitality of Christ in the eyes, in the posture, hands and faces of our people? What would we see on people’s faces as they sang the hymns, received the sacrament, placed gifts in the offering plate, responded to the distractions of children? What would others see in us? What would we see of the grace of God if we could not hear the talk of God’s grace?
I’m not suggesting that every moment of our time together is marked by radiant and demonstrative joy. But I hope we would see more than funereal moods, critical glances, distancing behaviors.
The Psalmist writes, “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God…” (Psalm 84) Usually when we think of singing for joy, we think almost exclusively of voices and sounds. But when our heart and flesh sing for joy, the whole body communicates our openness to God and others; our receptivity and gratitude for life and for community become evident even without sound. We speak how we feel about God, worship, one another, and strangers in a thousand ways beyond words. Even the silence shouts of God’s gracious love.
Yours in Christ,