With so many speaking English around the world it is rare to be in a public place, an airport, for example, and not find someone who speaks our language. In contrast, my heart went out to the elderly Haitian couple I saw in the customs line in Miami, who spoke only Creole, looking very lost and confused. And, I vividly remember different refugee families – all different but similar in the exhaustion, excitement and apprehension of being in a new place with sounds and a language that is a garble of consonants and vowels.
It is disorienting to be in a swirl of speech that you cannot understand and, in contrast, it is remarkably gratifying to then encounter one’s own language or to see someone who looks like yourself on the street, or television or the media. A Korean Presbyterian told me how much it meant to him that he entered Princeton Seminary at a time after the first Korean professor had joined the faculty – a guy who looked like him – for he felt like he really belonged. But few on the local faculty or on television look or sound like our Guatemalan neighbors and white kids who grow up in Appalachia do not hear voices like their own coming out of the television sets. In his memoir of growing up poor white, J.D. Vance writes in Hillbilly Elegy of language, class and conflict. On the day when he was first in a court room when his mom was on trial he recalls that:
it was the first time I noticed ‘TV accents’ – the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not. (p. 79)
The miracle of Pentecost is that all the foreign folk heard the good news of the love, mercy and justice of the kingdom of God in their own language. In their own language - hearing voices, voices that they could recognize and their own.
Yes, we are within the story of Pentecost, the birth of the church, the promised day of the infusion of the Holy Spirit within the lives of the waiting apostles. The church began in an outpouring of chatter and we haven’t stopped talking since. We are the people of the Word, the Word made flesh, the Word expressed in words. In her fine short history of the Puritans in North America, entitled The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell writes that:
The United States is often called a Puritan nation. Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary. Their single-minded obsession with one book, the Bible, made words the center of their lives – not land, not money, not power, not fun. I swear on Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg that the country that became the U.S. bears a closer resemblance to the devil-may-care merchants of New Amsterdam than it does to Boston’s communitarian English majors. (p. 13)
Yes, we are a wordy, chatty people - the church began with the gift of languages.
According to the Wycliffe Bible folk, the full Bible appears today in over 600 different languages and the New Testament with portions of the Hebrew scripture (typically the psalms) in 1,400 additional tongues. And, at the moment, they are working on about 2,000 additional translations. The Sunday school movement in England in the 19th Century began as a literacy program. Working class folk went to school on Sunday to learn to read in order to be able to read the Bible – that is what Protestants do, we people of the Bible.
Yes, we are the people of the Word and we are a chatty lot. The spirit of God provides the gift of languages. I celebrate the gift of the languages in our midst:
- The women and men who can articulate a Christian ethic in their work place, of truth telling and service of justice and peace;
- Those who speak the language of the common good and work for common values such as fine public schools;
- The compassion of all who can speak the language of sorrow, lament and care;
- The joyful youth who share the language of “energizers” that they bring back from Montreat and the Youth Triennium;
- All who struggle to speak the truth, particularly the truth before power. As together we confront political goals that assault on the poor, harm the earth and insult Christian ethics, I am grateful for those who can speak truth to power.
There are many fine voices in our midst, speaking of the love of God in different languages.
Yet, sometimes we strain to hear as the good news is simply lost in the noise of the world. I am particularly concerned about alternative voices, voices of faith in the midst of our society so grounded in consumerism. Yes, this means “stuff” and the accumulation of “stuff” but it is more than that. From a consumerist orientation we own things, we own each other, we own life. We have a spouse or have children. But, as Eric Fromm so clearly articulated in his seminal book To Have or To Be, having leads to abuse while being leads to life. “In the having mode of existence,” Fromm writes, “my relationship to the world is one of possessing and owning, one in which I want to make everybody and everything, including myself, my property.” (p. 24) In the being mode we are alive to the “authentic relatedness to the world.”
A second sorely needed voice is similar but focused on creation. We do not own the earth; we are visitors, travelers, stewards. Our care for creation needs to move beyond re-cycling plastic bottles, as important as that is, to a deep theology of a fundamental orientation of interdependence. We are stewards not owners of creation. This week’s action to step away from the Paris climate accord is remarkably shortsighted and a destructive decision grounded in ignorance of fact and arrogance of spirit. While the church needs to support good science, we also need to do our job of articulating a clear and faithful theology. That begins in the fundamental understanding that we are stewards not owners of the earth. We may have the power to destroy this creation but we do not have the authority. It is a spiritual issue. We are faithful stewards not arbitrary owners.
Words are important. Words form reality and move hands and hearts. As Christians our lives within the world begin with a basic affirmation: Jesus in Lord – not Pilate, not even self, but Jesus is Lord. And behind that is the fundamental assumption that the earth is the Lord’s. The earth is the Lord’s. These are voices that we need to hear.