Working with deaf children, the author discovers that we lost something important in worship when the focus became words, spoken and written.
In 1980, I had the opportunity to do a teaching internship at the PreSchool for the Deaf in Edmonton. I went in not knowing any sign language, though I did sign up for American Sign Language (ASL) classes concurrent with the internship. Of course, the preschoolers were learning ASL themselves, and so I had an opportunity to experience the world through their senses and learnings.
Anyone who regularly engages with preschoolers knows that they move fast and are driven by curiosity and energy. I quickly learned that supervising preschoolers with little to no access to sound was a very different experience than dealing with preschoolers who lived in a world of sound. If one of these little ones started running off to a place they should not be going, or were trying something that might prove dangerous, shouting urgently made no difference. I had to run, and run quickly, to get to them, and then move into their range of sight so I could sign No and Come.
I’ll never forget the sign for airplane. One day out on the playground, a plane that was about to land at the nearby municipal airport flew over. The sound vibration was just right for the children to feel, and suddenly, they were signing airplane to each other, over and over again, as they looked up in delight.
What I learned with these preschoolers and from ASL, I value to this day. It was made clear to me that ASL is not a “second best” way of communicating, but rather a language that beautifully expresses concepts and ideas that we cannot express in spoken language. I discovered that ASL is not just putting signs to words in English (or another language), but rather, it has its own patterns, grammar, and unique forms.
What I value the most of my learnings is the expression of language: putting the whole body and spirit into what is being expressed. With the preschoolers, I couldn’t just say the world happy. I needed a happy face and a happy body. My whole spirit need to sing and sign the happiness.
The Protestant tradition has too often been focused on the spoken word. It has been neck-up worship, except perhaps for some pounding of the pulpit. While I understand the reasons, we lost something important in worship when the focus became words, spoken and written.
The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the body (Proverbs 15:30). While as preachers and worship leaders, we may often rely on words, the wisdom of Proverbs tells us that the light in our eyes, the joy in our hearts, the warmth of our touch, and the compassion of our spirits will express the good news in a far more expansive way, bringing refreshment to the body, not just the mind; to the whole being; not just the intellect.
The learnings that came within the deaf community during those years in university have shaped my preaching. I am aware of what I am communicating with my face, my hands, my eyes, and my spirit. I am aware of my body in the time and space of worship. I know that a simple gesture can “speak louder” than words, and that when my words are inadequate, my whole being can communicate what needs to be expressed.
I’ll never forget the pure delight on the faces of the preschoolers when they felt the airplane go overhead. They opened to me a whole new way of experiencing, feeling, and being in the world. In worship, we have the opportunity to express our prayers and praise in so many ways. We should never be limited to words. As we all know, sometimes there are just no words for the depth of the experience and emotions. As the apostle Paul so eloquently expresses in Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
—Susan Lukey is editor of Gathering magazine. This article was originally published in the Pentecost 1, 2019 issue.