A God You Can Understand

Marcos tells me lots of things I want to hear.  And then sometimes, he tells me things I would rather not hear.  One day, early in our relationship, he said: “You really have to meet my niece Helga.  You would love her.  She likes to talk almost as much as you do!”  

Well, I do like to talk despite being introverted by nature. I like the give and take of conversation.  I like to get to know people by the language they use, the word choices they make, the stories they tell, and the way in which they listen – or don’t.  How like me, then, to enter a profession in which I have a captive audience week after week!  

So imagine this talker on a silent retreat in a Trappist monastery.  It was more than 25 years ago now, but I have never forgotten it.  I was a pastor in Ohio, contemplating some major life changes, and I wanted some concentrated time of prayer and reflection.  So I booked five days at the Abbey of the Genesee in western New York State. The brothers at Genesee follow the Rule of St. Benedict, meaning, among other things that they practice silence as a spiritual discipline.   Silence is their lingua franca.  And as a guest, I promised to learn their language, or at least to respect it. Silence. Deep silence.  For five whole days.  

The guesthouse and the Abbey were separated by about ½ a mile.  Every day we walked back and forth to the Abbey for the 5 service of the daily office.  I avoided walking back to the guesthouse with anyone else because I found the walking in silence with a stranger is stressful.  And so I would walk quickly and alone.  On about day number four, I was returning from a service at the Abbey when I saw a new face, seated in a rocking chair on the porch of the guesthouse. He looked up at me and smiled.  I smiled back, careful not to speak. And then, as startling as a sudden crack of thunder, he asked: “How are you?”  Nervously I looked around to see if anyone else was close by.  They weren’t.  “I’m fine,” I answered.  “How long have you been here?” he asked.  I looked around again and still being alone, we were off to the races.  I found out that he was a Protestant minister from the same part of Ohio that I was! I found out that he thought the silence was a little weird too, but valuable. We blabbed and blabbed, words tumbling over one another for 2-3 minutes until we heard the telltale crunch of gravel signaling the approach of the others.  And we were suddenly silent. But those few moments of shared conversation were enough.  It felt so good to find someone else who spoke my language.

If you have ever traveled to some place where English is not readily spoken, then you know the rush of relief you feel when you find someone with whom you can communicate freely.  And it’s not just about words.  Finding someone who really speaks your language is also about the shared memory that those words represent.

Fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus, his followers had gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Jewish day of Pentecost or Shavuot.  Shavuot was a harvest celebration that later came to be a commemoration of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses.  So, being the good Jews that they were, they gathered in community to remember and celebrate the Law of God.  Suddenly, there was an incredible sound like the rush of a violent wind: think freight train or helicopter.  Suddenly, divided tongues like flames rested on each of them.  Suddenly, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, which is to say that they were filled up with the presence of the Almighty God. It was more excitement than their mere human bodies could contain and so it spilled out with words, but not their words; other people’s words, other people’s language.  They spoke in tongues; in languages they had never learned before and declared in those languages the greatness of God revealed in Jesus the Christ.

Luke, the writer of Acts, goes to great detail to list all the languages that were spoken and specifically names thirteen of them.  Now why would he go to all that trouble?  Why would he be so specific?  Some scholars say that those thirteen languages represented all the known languages of the world at that time.  And because Jerusalem was a very cosmopolitan city, people who spoke those languages were in the streets every day, conducting business, on religious pilgrimage, or passing through.  And if that is the case, then naming the thirteen known languages of the world is powerful way to say that … “The Spirit of God is… completely democratic, unmerited, and inclusive.”   It’s a powerful way to declare that everyone is included in the Good News that Jesus came to reveal.

Now that, on its own, will preach!  What a wonderfully inclusive thing to remember on Pentecost Sunday! But dig a little deeper and there is even better news.  This week I came across an article written by a woman named Amy Allen.  And Allen adds another twist to this tale. Allen says despite the wonderful idea that the Gospel is for everyone, that interpretation ignores this simple fact: most people in the ancient world regularly spoke more than one language.  They had to to survive. Think about it: in the Roman Empire, Latin was the official language, yet Roman daily affairs were often conducted in Greek.  And if you were an observant Jew, then you also could at least understand Hebrew.  And add to that that the language of the street in ancient Palestine was Aramaic. So on the Day of Pentecost, when those drunk-with-the-Spirit disciples staggered out of the room and into the streets speaking in other tongues, the folks who heard them already spoke in more than one tongue. So why did the Spirit need to speak in all the languages of the known world if most people could understand at least one common language? 

Maybe for the same reason it feels so good to me to speak English in Brazil even when I can speak Portuguese. Being able to speak another language, even after years of practice, does not mean that you will understand all the nuances of that language because language is not just about vocabulary and sentence structure and alphabet. Language is also about ideas and feelings and culture and beauty and identity.  Language is about soul. So while it is true that most people out in the streets that day could have understood the disciples had they spoken in Roman or Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic, there was something arresting and sweet and full of longing when the people heard the proclamation of Jesus in their mother tongue. 

And that, my friends, is the real miracle of Pentecost.  That is what makes this story truly astounding.  Because that means that the God who made all that we know of reality; the One who is Holy and Wholly Other, before whom the earth shakes and mountains fall into the sea; that One loves the world so much that she will speak to each person in his own language so that nothing is lost in translation. 

And that is why I don’t concern myself too much with folks who tell me that don’t believe in God.  I don’t concern myself too much with folks whose ideas of God are so different from mine.  I don’t concern myself because I believe that God, in great love, will climb any mountain, descend into any abyss, walk into any shadow and speak any language until we come to know ourselves as what we really are: cherished and delightful children of God.