The first place I lived in Chicago while I was in seminary was a block from a pretty good grocery store. I still remember the first time I shopped there because I heard at least eight different languages. Spanish and English, of course. Also German, Chinese, Russian, Polish, Japanese and Arabic. The tones, melodies and rhythms of so many languages all in one place was new to me. And beautiful. Each language carrying with it particular cultures, histories, ways of understanding and describing the world. Each language carrying meanings and nuances different from my own language. The diversity of human language in that grocery moved me to wonder and amazement.
This experience, and others like it, help me grasp a little bit about the array of people gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. The streets were ringing with the language and laughter of many peoples, many cultures and histories and ways of knowing the world. And then in one neighborhood a new sound struck peoples’ ears. A strong gale of wind rushed through, strong enough to clear minds and hearts of all kinds of cobwebs. And then suddenly a bunch of Jesus’s disciples tumbled onto the street from a house, flames seeming to hover over each of them. The outpouring of energy and inspiration among them must have felt palpable.
From the midst of this, people of many experiences, many cultures, many languages heard small-town Galileans speaking their language. People listening were astonished. And for an amazing moment no translation was required as the disciples proclaimed the ways of God. The ways of peace and love, justice and forgiveness.
We know from this that the Holy One speaks in multiple languages. Embraces multiple peoples and cultures. Moves within diverse histories and ways of understanding reality. All found themselves included within the word of Holy Presence and life among us. Jesus’s disciples spoke in new ways, to people who were alien to them. They were no longer limited by their mother tongue.
Probably a hurricane force wind isn’t going to blow through this room today. Probably no “tongues of flame” will flit around. Probably none of us going to suddenly burst into Mandarin or Swahili or Creole. Still…Spirit moves among us. And still…we may find ourselves speaking, or called to speak, a language of Spirit.
Most of the time we think of language as words, grammar, and syntax that come together in order for us to communicate information and ideas. In this sense of ‘language’ it is inextricably wed to thinking. Using language and being able to think come hand in glove. Our identities, our understandings, our world and how we comprehend it are all wrapped up in the spoken language we use.
It’s also possible to think of language more broadly as any way of expression that carries meaning. So we speak about the language of music, art, wardrobe, dance, architecture, design. Body language. Like spoken language, these all carry cultural understandings that don’t necessarily translate well across boundaries. The story of Pentecost as we have it doesn’t address that sort of language at all.
Whether it’s spoken language or some other kind of language, we all tend to stick to our mother tongue. We move our bodies in ways that feel at home, for example. The color palettes we decorate with are influenced by our cultural upbringing. Our assessments of beauty are inextricably shaped by the visual language we were raised within. We are shaped in ways we hardly ever consider by the languages that we live within. We are even confined in many ways by those languages. They limit our imaginations and understandings. They impede efforts and desires to relate freely and fully to other people.
And then Spirit begins to do its work. The disciples had been waiting for the spirit promised by Jesus. They had been praying, staying together, desiring God and remaining in Jerusalem until the promised gift came.
Spirit already moves through the world in amazing ways, infusing us with energy and light. Shaping our spirits and actions. Like the first disciples we can nurture open attitudes to the work of the Divine among us. We can risk the willingness to be surprised, to be swept around by winds a bit, to see God working among us both individually and together. And like the first disciples we need to be open to speaking languages (broadly speaking) that are new to us, unfamiliar to us. That is how a word of Life grows within us and spreads among the astounding world blessed by a multilingual God.
I’d like to suggest that each of us already has a hint of the language of Spirit within, the language that stretches us beyond what we know best and extends a word of love to others.
Some among us have challenged our own economic and racial privilege in order to begin learning the language of the oppressed and marginalized. Others have labored to stretch their language and understandings into the lives of queer people, whose lives and self-understandings can seem alien or disruptive. Others have sought to learn the language of peace in personal relationships and in the world.
Languages such as these can seem explicitly political and cultural.
Others are not, so much. Such as the languages of play…beauty…kindness…body love and acceptance…gentle humor…creation care.
Learning, and allowing ourselves to be shaped and changed by others’ languages, others’ cultures, others’ self-understandings is a journey that never ends. And your language of Spirit…our language of Spirit…will emerge, if we allow it. The God of many languages gifts her people with more than one…
If we will begin with prayer, listening, desire. As Jan Richardson writes:
..in the place
where you have gathered
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.
See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones,
in your heart
that tells you
this is the reason
we were made:
We were made to learn and speak the languages of God. Let it be so.