“Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked “Do you understand what you are reading?”
This exchange occurs in Acts 9 (v30). At first reading i presumed that Philip could see that the Man was reading something, but now, the Man, an Ethiopian, was clearly reading out loud. Maybe thats what they did in their chariots in the desert, or maybe he was reading it to his servants in the chariot itself.
Two disciples were walking down the road, as they walked along they were talking about the miraculous things that had happened, as they spoke Jesus suddenly appeared to them, and asked “what are you discussing so intently as you walk along?” This is the first exchange in the conversation between the disciples on the Emmaus road, as recollected by the disciples in Luke 24.
Previously i wrote about taking our cues from the Context , and this was more of a discussion of the political, structural settings of detached work, in theatrical terms, what could be called the conditions of the stage on which to perform. Yet once on that stage we have an obligation to perform – but how?
In taking seriously a call to improvise beyond the fourth wall, where do we start? well – yet again, we start by taking a cue from those already involved in the action. If someone is reading, ask them about it, thats what Philip did, if people are talking already – ask them to describe it, or reflect on it- thats what Jesus did with the two disciples. A starting point is to hear the conditions and concerns of those already in that environment. Its not about gaining trust, more about finding young peoples concerns interesting, and validating them, and their perspective of them.
When we want to be liked, and sometimes entertaining we, as detached workers, can forget this, but at least we put ourselves out there to hear the real beating of the heart of the young people, their real questions, their real struggles, each one different, each perspective a version of truth.
In going back to Philip in Acts 9 – the response of the Ethiopian to Philips question is “How can i unless some instructs me?” and he urged Philip to go and sit in the carriage.
It was only at that point that the Ethiopian was ready to be taught and guided about what he was reading, it was at that point where he invited Philip into his personal space, but Philip was out of his comfort zone, in the carriage of Ethiopian, being ready to try and guide. This was only brought about because of Philips original concern, the shaping and tone of the original question – the question that gave meaning to the activity of the ethiopian, and desire to meet him in thought in that same space, to see what he was thinking not just reading.
If we are to be authentic performers on the stage of the world, our first question with people might need to reflect Philip (and Jesus on the Emmaus road) – in the context of the street, the world – we take our cues from the streets, and we then need to improvise with what it is that young people are thinking or doing.
Philip becomes the instructor, or the guide – but still it is the Ethiopian that shapes the subject, in the question he asks. from ‘How can I understand?- to Tell me who was the prophet talking about himself’ (v34)
Over the last few weeks, a group of young people have asked us repeatedly – “Do we believe in Gays and Lesbians?” – which is a question that could be taken a number of ways – but behind it isnt the issue of belief in their existence, or whether we think that being gay or lesbian is acceptable – but more obviously the young persons thinking about personal concerns and sexual identity. By being there we get to hear that young persons thinking in their own space, in a space where our duty is to enable them to be able to express their thoughts, opinion and judgements.
Coincidently the Ethiopian in the story was also struggling with his own religious identity and belonging because of his publically known sexual condition- he was a Eunuch. Yet though he hadnt found acceptance in the space of the religious festival which he had gone to and was returning from – not because of race, but more likely because of sexuality – the authentic words and the inclusive acts of Jesus as described by Philip enabled the Ethiopian to find community and acceptance.
Improvising in the stage of the street might be a place where people find acceptance and love – despite of their own experiences of religious or educational structures previously. To improvise is to hear, to be asked to guide, to be invited, to realise that this one person, in this one place needs me to be listening to them and validate them as they are there, in that space on that day.
Improvising for Philip wasnt just to ask the right question, appropriate to the immediate context, but also, as he would have known about Jesus’ appearance on the Emmaus road from the other disciples, he didnt copy Jesus ver batum, the two opening questions are different, but they carry the same essence ; I am here, I am interested in what you’re thinking, can i ease your confusion by being available to listen, trust me to try and be able to. Philip re-enacted appropriately the same opening moments, it wasnt a scripted copy, but an authentic performance in a new context, learning from the essence of his master.