The summer after I graduated from college I spent a week working at a camp for deaf kids. I didn’t know sign language but what difference could that possibly make?
I spent most of the week looking like a tourist from another country that tries to compensate for not speaking the language by using impromptu hand signals and talking louder. This never works.
There was this one camper named Chance that was always getting in trouble. He had a lot of energy and it usually got the best of him. And us. He was also very adventurous. It seemed like there was no limit to the things this kid would try. One day at the swimming pool, I found out that there was a limit.
We were swimming in a community pool that had a high dive. A bunch of the counselors I was working with were daredevils so they were challenging each other to do dives with crazy names. I wasn’t about to jump but I wanted to fit in so I just made up my own names.
“Dude, you should try a 980 McTwist. That would be sweet!”
“What did you just say?”
Anyway, Chance couldn’t resist the challenge of the high dive and even though kids his age weren’t allowed to climb it, he found his way up there. By the time we noticed him he was already near the edge of the diving board, several feet above the water. But he wasn’t interested in jumping. Once he got to the top he gained a new perspective of the high dive that he didn’t like.
Chance was frozen.
This didn’t make the people in line behind him very happy. The lifeguard was furious. They were all yelling at him to get down. When the lifeguard noticed that Chance wasn’t even paying him any attention, he started cursing. Loud, angry cursing. The guys from Rage Against the Machine would have been embarrassed.
Finally, someone told the lifeguard that Chance was deaf. In no time the yelling and cursing stopped. The entire pool became eerily quiet. And then one of my fellow counselors, one that actually took the time to learn sign language, had an idea.
In sign language, cheering is done by raising both hands in the air and moving your hands around. That’s what everyone, even the people that weren’t with our group, started to do. The yelling and cursing didn’t register with Chance but the raised hands did. When the sound of Chance’s small body splashing through the air broke the silence that had overtaken the pool everyone cheered with relief.
When Chance came up out of the water, my first thought was that I should turn this into a made for TV movie. I could call it A Chance to Dive or The Boy That Wouldn’t Dive. Lifetime would pick that up in no time. Instant hit! Maybe one day.
I learned a lot that day. I learned that no matter how passionate you are about your message, you’re really not communicating to your target audience until you speak their language. The lifeguard was trying to say the exact same thing that we were trying to say. And it’s not that those of us with our hands in the air softened the message. It’s just that all the lifeguard cared about was getting some kid off the diving board so other people could go. To him, Chance was an obstacle to his goal of a free flowing diving board line. The girl that had the idea to raise our hands wanted Chance off too but she also saw Chance, not just some kid, stuck and in need of help. For her, Chance was the goal.
This was exactly Paul’s approach in Acts 17. “His spirit was provoked” (16) by the lostness around him but instead of yelling he took the time to speak the unchanging message of the gospel in the language of his target audience (22, 28).
The Church will do well to remember, especially in this political season, the lesson that I learned that day. Maybe then we can begin to see the people we disagree with and the people we are trying to reach as opportunities instead of obstacles. Or we could always just yell, scream and post the daily angry Facebook status like everyone else is doing.
But what’s the good of yelling when nobody is listening?