For Sunday May 24, 2015
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
When I was a junior in college, a classmate of mine (I'll call her Mia) came to faith through Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical, student-led ministry on our campus. I was at chapel the night Mia made her profession of faith. I remember she cried with joy as she shared her conversion experience with the thirty or so of us who had gathered for worship. As we witnessed her first, trembling moments of faith, we cried, too.
After the service, I noticed that a friend of mine (I'll call her Katie), looked troubled, so I invited her for a walk. It was a warm, moonlit night, and we soon found ourselves by the lake at the edge of campus, gazing out at the lights reflected on the dark water.
"What is it?" I asked her. Katie and I had witnessed the twists and turns of Mia's faith journey for months. As Intervarsity leaders that year, we had participated in an "inquirer's" Bible study with Mia, answered her questions about Christianity as best as could, and prayed that she'd somehow sense God's love. I was surprised, therefore, that Katie felt less than thrilled about Mia's decision.
"I'm happy!" Katie blurted out defensively. "I'm happy for her, I promise."
"I believe you," I said. "But…?"
"But I'm afraid of what will happen now," Katie replied with an effort. "Mia's such a fascinating person. I'm afraid she'll become, well, boring."
It was true. Mia was a fascinating person. She was a deep soul, a contemplative, an artist, and a dancer. She worked with textiles, and talked about fabrics and threads the way a religious person might talk about icons. Dance was, for her, a kind of worship. Unlike many of us who'd grown up in the church, she had a way of approaching spiritual things that was refreshingly unorthodox.
"She's going to start talking Christian soon," Katie continued with a sigh. "Just wait and see. In a few months, all she'll speak is Christianese."
I remember arguing with Katie, but not convincingly. I remember worrying that she was right, that somehow, Christianity by its very nature — its vocabulary, its culture, its etiquette — would homogenize Mia. Round off her lovely edges. Make her too much "one of us."
I haven't thought about this conversation in years, but it came back to me this week as I studied the lectionary readings for Pentecost Sunday. "All she'll speak is Christianese." "Now she's going to become boring."
Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning "fiftieth," was a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai. In the New Testament Pentecost story Luke tells, the Holy Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus' resurrection. The Spirit empowered them to testify to God's great deeds, emboldened the apostle Peter to preach to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts in one day. For Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday story of the Church.
And what a fantastical birthday story it is, full of details to challenge the imagination. Tongues of fire. Rushing winds. Accusations of drunkenness. Mass baptism. One could spend years unpacking these details.
But here's the one I find most riveting: "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." "At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each."
Christians often speak of Pentecost as the reversal of Babel, the Old Testament story in which God divided and scattered human communities by multiplying our languages. But in fact, Pentecost didn't reverse Babel; it perfected and blessed it. When the Holy Spirit came, he didn't restore humanity to a common language; he declared all languages holy and equally worthy of God's stories. He didn't establish "Christianese" as the official speech of his people; he wove multilingualism into the very fabric of the Church.
Those of us who speak more than one language might be the best equipped to grasp the staggering import of this divine declaration, this miraculous weaving. Those of us who are bilingual (or better yet, well versed in many languages) understand implicitly that a language equals far more than the sum of its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax.
Languages carry the full weight of their respective cultures, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities. To speak one language as opposed to another is to orient oneself differently in the world — to see differently, hear differently, process and punctuate reality differently. There is no such thing as a perfect translation.
If this is true, then what does it mean that the Holy Spirit empowered the first Christians to speak in an unmatched diversity of languages? Was God saying, in effect, that his Church, from its very inception, needed to honor the boundless variety and creativity of human voices? That he was calling it to proclaim the great deeds of God in every tongue — not merely because multiculturalism is progressive and fashionable, or because the church is a "politically correct" institution — but because God's deeds themselves demand such diverse tellings? Could it be that there is no single language on earth that can capture the deeds of God?
What my friend Katie feared that night by the lake was that Mia would find Christianity — or, more precisely, the Christian culture we had shared with her — stifling. That she would conform, or "walk the walk and talk the talk" in ways that would blunt everything we loved about her.
Would she still dance her prayers? Would she still find God in the colors and textures of her beloved textiles? Would she still surprise us with fresh revelations of the God who had revealed himself so uniquely to her? Or would she conform to someone else's idea of what a Christian's speech and worship "must" look like?
Here's another detail I love about Pentecost: when the disciples and their friends began to speak in foreign languages, the crowds gathered outside their meeting place understood them. And this — the fact of their comprehension — was what confused them. They were not confused by the message itself; the message came through with perfect clarity in their respective languages.
What the crowds found baffling was that God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother-tongues. That he would welcome them so intimately, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved cities, countries, and cultures of origin. As if to say, "This Spirit-drenched place, this fledging church, this new Body of Christ, is yours. You don't have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too. Come in. Come in and feel at home."
Though I've lived in the United States all my life, and consider English my primary language, I still love to visit with friends and family who move easily between English and Malayalam (my parents' Indian mother-tongue). When we speak "Munglish" together (our jumbled up version of English and Malayalam combined), I feel at home in a way I never quite feel in a monolingual setting. The experience is far more than linguistic; it is full-bodied and multi-sensorial. I can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel that I'm at home. It is an experience of the deepest and most implicit kind of belonging. It is, in fact, Communion.
I wonder what it would be like if the Church allowed the Holy Spirit to transform it into a place of deep and implicit belonging — not for the few, but for everyone. I wonder how our ministries would need to change so that the crowds listening outside our doors would hear "Welcome!" in languages they comprehend. I wonder what it would take to obliterate Christianese once and for all.
Image credits: (1) OrthodoxWiki.org; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) Wikipedia.org.