Thursday, 24 March 2016

What about those who can't read?

Peter and John …were ordinary men of no education. Acts 4:13

The new season had recently started at the club, and our cheerful, smiling treasurer had been badgering us for our annual subscriptions: “I want you all here next week with your cheque books!” was the message.

So a mass cheque-signing session was under way. I noticed another member of the club rather awkwardly trying to catch my eye… “Would you mind just reminding me how to do this?” he said. I was puzzled, but of course happy to help. He later explained what his problem was…

This was the first time in my life that I had (knowingly) met a fellow-adult who could neither read nor write. It was a moment that caused me to stop short and do some hard thinking.

To me, as of course to most people in the developed world, literacy is as natural as breathing. So what must it be like to be one of that tiny minority who have simply never managed to master the skill? Imagine walking down the high street with virtually no idea what the shop-signs say or what those newspapers are telling us. You are shut out from the world most of your friends and neighbours inhabit.

Yes, we take literacy pretty much for granted. And this of course is reflected in our church life. Our services and meetings are dominated by the printed word, whether in books, on PowerPoint, or whatever. We urge people to read the Bible day by day. And this of course is perfectly right: God has given us a book, so presumably he means us to read it. But do we think enough of those for whom this is just not possible?

I read recently that, according to the experts, perhaps just one in ten people in Jesus’ world could read and write. If that figure is even roughly correct – and some people think it’s too high – it means that just one or perhaps two of Jesus’ original twelve could do so.

Is it significant that when Jesus challenges his disciples regarding their knowledge of the scriptures he says “You have heard…” (Mathew 5:21, 27, 31, 38, 43), but when he challenges the scribes and Pharisees he says “Have you not read…? (Matthew 12:5, 19:4)? The disciples are later described as “ordinary men of no education” (Acts 4:13); the scribes and Pharisees, of course, would be highly literate.

Where do these thoughts lead us? I suggest a few things worth pondering.

First, be aware of those who can’t read. You might meet one tomorrow. Sensitive and tactful support from somebody like you could change that person’s life.

Second, be aware of those who can read, but to whom reading doesn’t come easily or naturally. There was a famous footballer who told the papers that he had only ever read one book in his life; I suspect he isn’t as rare as we might imagine.

Third, very obviously, don’t look down on those who are limited in this way. They may be highly intelligent – and, anyway, they are as precious to God as you are.

Fourth, remember that the reading, and therefore the hearing, of scripture in our meetings is vitally important. It needs to be done regularly and systematically and, as far as possible, it needs to be done well. Just as not every Christian, however sincere, is capable of leading a congregation in prayer, neither is every Christian necessarily gifted for the public reading of scripture, however keen we might be to encourage participation.

I mentioned earlier the first time I met an adult who couldn’t read or write. Well, some years later I met a second.

Joseph was gravely ill, facing death in fact, and he felt the need to make his peace with God. His sister asked me if I would visit him. Which, of course, I did. We talked and prayed and I tried to explain the gospel to him. After a few visits I felt it was appropriate to take him one or two pieces of Christian literature and suggest one or two Bible passages he might like to read. What could be more obvious?

It was at this point that his sister took me aside one day and said “Colin, I need to tell you something. Joseph can’t read…” Ah..!

Joseph died not long after. But I like to think he had indeed found peace with God – in spite of never having read a word of the Bible.

When we think of “the Word of God” we tend to think of the written word, the Bible. But that in fact is a very limited view. The most important form of the word is the living word, Christ himself – the Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

But don’t forget also the spoken word – which, after all, is all that most of the first Christians had.

Yes: the written word, the Bible, that you carry in your head is very important. But not as important as the living word, Jesus, that you carry in your heart.

Thank you, O God, that knowing you doesn’t depend on an educated mind, but on a humble heart. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment