It’s hard to believe that in a relatively short span of time, I have had so much to say on such a variety of scriptural texts, social and cultural happenings as well as the vagaries of my own life. This blog has been a gateway for many to the wild and admittedly wacky world of independent Catholicism. As the Roman Church continues to lumber backwards and become less and less inclusive and open, my prayer for the next 100 posts is that they inspire, challenge and encourage all my readers to grow in their understanding of what it means to follow this Jesus. He did not, you will recall, promise us an easy time of it, and those of us used to living the life of white privilege are especially challenged to live and, yes, vote Gospel values over our own comfort. May the Holy Spirit fill each of you with power and courage in the coming months. And now, without further ado, my 100th post, to be published in the June issue of Phoenix Magazine in a modified form.
Language is an interesting thing and sometimes words you think are so obvious in meaning are actually difficult to translate in another language. Slang is difficult to communicate and cannot be rendered literally. For example, if I were to translate literally the English, “What’s up?” into French, it would come out as, “What is up on high?” When Pepsi Cola tried to use their slogan, “Come alive. You’re in the Pepsi Generation,” a few years back, in China, it came out as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.” That’s because language is, at its most elemental, the very soul of a people. Language unites us and gives us identity. Those who are inside the community understand the rules of the language, and if we encounter another community of which we are not a part, we don’t get the language and we feel left out.
As a teacher in an urban school, I encounter a lot of hip-hop and texting slang and because I am surrounded by students who communicate this way, I have learned the language. I occasionally post comments on Facebook written in this idiom, which students find hilarious….but some of my parishioners have emailed me privately, after reading my posts, asking me what in the heck I am trying to say. Apparently they don’t be kickin’ it wid dare posse and they don’t know any cuz who be fried. I’m certain they are unfamiliar with LMAO, IDK and WTH–all of which have been responses on my exams.
There are two stories about language and the communities who use them in the readings for Pentecost. The first is from the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of the Tower of Babel, and then, of course, the Pentecost story in the Gospel of Luke. The first is a myth that attempts to explain why we don’t understand each other, and true to the Hebrew tradition, it’s all our own fault. It’s always our own fault! “Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can get control of our destiny, make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth!”
With language we communicate well among ourselves, and we can construct insular, fear-based ideas that may or may not be to our advantage. At Babel our plan was to build a tower that would reach up to God, so that even in the heavenly realm, we would establish our dominance. God, of course, was not amused in the least: language had been a gift to help us resolve differences, and grow together in peace. So God changes things up and we wake up one morning with the realization that no one understands what anyone else is saying. The tower project is unable to continue and everyone leaves the worksite disgusted and confused.
Then there’s Luke’s Pentecost story: dozens of people are crammed into an upstairs room, fearful and unsure of what is coming next. Unlike the people in the first story, these disciples are not arrogant or overreaching–they’re praying for wisdom and guidance. Then it happens. God erupts with the force of a wind tunnel and the people are on fire with inspiration. Within moments, everyone is speaking different languages. In light of the Tower of Babel story, we know how this story ought to end: the project should collapse and everyone should scatter, each one speaking his own peculiar language. But, not this time!
Those who have come to Jerusalem for Pentecost are bemused and annoyed, wondering how it is that these people are so intoxicated at this time of day. “No, we’re not drunk,” Peter rebuts, “it’s too early for that! No, what you’re hearing is what God has promised us–that ‘in the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh-sons, daughters, young people, and older adults-they’ll all receive some of my Spirit.’” The end result is that these empowered people will then be able to proclaim in a powerful way the good news that God is good and abundantly loving.
This is a new spin on a story we think we know. In this scenario we have people waiting in fear and expectation for God to act and even though they cannot see God, they are confident that they will know when God is present to them by His doing something new and unexpected. God is Himself messing with the system because now He comes to them in unfamiliar languages—ones that sound like undifferentiated babble, but in the ears of outsiders, those tongues speak to them about God’s power. The words that tumble out of their Jewish mouths are Arabic and Palestinian, Puerto Rican, Zulu, Albanian, rap, rock, and texting slang–theologically speaking. People are filled with the Spirit, and begin to speak about God in fresh, new ways. The story ends with a small group that suddenly mushrooms from a handful to a neighborhood full of Christians because God has shown them new ways to communicate.
When you put the two stories together, as Luke want us to do, these tales are a fork in the road. One of the roads we can choose to travel down is the Babel Road, where we will have lots of company. We only need to speak one language and once we’ve got it down, we’re in. For Catholics it used to be Latin, the praying, the reading, the singing and even the preaching was done that way. Even now there are forces in the Church that want to restore Latin and the archaic, rigid theologies that attended its usage. Nevermind that the rest of the world has moved on to a host of new languages!
The problem is, the further we travel down this road, the more insulated and out of sync we are with everyone around us. We get so used to only one way of communicating faith and conducting worship that eventually we won’t ever want to change our language. If you think about it, it’s this clinging to our own private languages that is the root cause of the large numbers of people leaving every Christian denomination.
The other option, traveling down the Spirit Highway, may cause us to meet fewer pilgrims on the way, but it helps us stay alert. This road requires that we learn new languages, that we seek always to be in contact with those who don’t speak our language. Moving always forward, we aren’t afraid to incorporate elements from all over the world into our worship and our singing and our acceptance of all God’s children. We break out of our predictable patterns.
When and if that happens, I am sure that word will get out that Christianity isn’t dead or irrelevant after all, that indeed, something strange and amazing is happening! New languages, fresh air, transformation of lives, transformation of society—all of these are possible if we stay open to the possible while maintaining our true mother tongue, the language of love and acceptance.
An online minister acquaintance of mine tells the story of a young troubled teenaged boy who had dropped out of high school after becoming a father at age 16. He was unable to find work and had come to the church where he’d been raised for help. This pastor was, thankfully, a gracious person and told the young man that his parish supported him, that they were going to celebrate the life of his young child and that they would do what they could to help him. At the end of the conversation, the pastor asked the young man if he was interested in being a communion distributor the following weekend, and the young man agreed.
Sunday came, and at communion time, there stood the young man with his body piercings and tatoos, his tie-dyed teeshirt and jeans, and a Mohawk pony tail hanging down his back. The pastor knew that someone would complain about the young man’s attire and appearance, and sure enough, they did. One man and his wife expressed their anger and disgust. “What were you thinking, letting that punk stand up there and give out communion? You made a mockery of the sacrament!”
The pastor tried to explain that the young man—of all people in the parish—needed his parish family and needed to experience grace. What better place to find it than at the Table of the Lord? The pastor left that encounter feeling discouraged, until he received another letter the same week from an older member of the parish. This letter said simply, “This is an unpredictable church, we never know what’s going to happen next it seems. I just want you to know that I was so taken with that kid up there serving us communion. It reminded me of why I come here. Unlike other churches, this is the one where messy grace seems to happen every week.”
It all comes down to our openness to God’s grace, and our choices about what language we are hearing and speaking. I come to my vocation as a priest, at least in part, as a language teacher. As a follower of Jesus, I am also a student of languages. I’m learning to speak new languages even as I teach them. I struggle with some of the syllables, because I’m not used to speaking in these ways. But as I learn and you learn and we learn together to speak new languages in our worship and spirituality, in our work and in our family life, word is getting out that there are Christians in this city who are known for speaking multiple languages. People who visit Holy Redeemer find that we speak “their” language, in exactly the same way the people in Jerusalem felt on that first Pentecost. Someday, this openness will triumph over the religions of narrow interest and self-preservation, but in the meantime, while we await the full coming of the Christ among us, we have work to do. The time has come for people to know that they are valued and understood. The time has come to take this Pentecost story seriously, to learn all the languages of God’s people and to bring the world to a higher level of conscious participation in re-creating our world.