Let me confess first that I spent too many years in school some years ago,, And though I loved it, in spite of a lot of time as a student, I often found it very difficult to speak up in class. Usually, when I was asked to answer a question or, more infrequently, when I raised my hand to ask one, my voice would break and I would either go over the top and talk too much or go down in flames by saying too little. Anyway it was not easy. But it was the worst when trying to learn a foreign language. I avoided it for a long time, but in my early thirties, after years of moving between working full-time in our family printing business and attending several tertiary institutions part-time, I was finally finishing my bachelors degree at the University of California. Except that I needed to pass one year of a foreign language and I couldn’t do that.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried: I’d enrolled more than once, tried Spanish, French, even Latin, and I’d attend for a while but I just couldn’t speak: so I’d drop the class or, if I waited too long, I would simply fail.
To make it worse, I had been accepted for a Masters degree in religion. So I remember, early in the summer of 1980, talking to the Seminary Dean, asking for a postponement into the program so I could have more time to finish my bachelors degree, then coming home and walking into the back yard and looking up at the sky and saying, “I am doing the best I can, and it’s not good enough, so I am giving it all to you.”
And the air and the light and time and my life seemed to change just for a second, in some very subtle, indescribable ways, and though I still didn’t know what the end would be, I felt better for it, ready for some unknown door to open. And six weeks later, I remember sitting in the back of a another Spanish classroom with some anxiety, but with a growing excitement that that I might learn to speak a new language after all.
And I did. I finally graduated that year, with encouraging friends, good teachers, a wonderful counselor, and a growing sense that God’s grace would keep me going, that God’s love, God’s breath, could keep my mind and my mouth open, give me good words, that God would keep me from going down in flames.
So today I think of those gathered followers of Jesus, that day in Jerusalem when the spirit came upon them like flames and they spoke to strangers, in languages they didn’t know they knew, of the mighty acts of God. What must that have been like for them? Were they scared? Did they wonder, “How do you speak God’s Word in a different language?” And how do you speak to people you don’t know?
Actually we do it all the time, and language is always situational. I don’t talk to a 10-year-old in the same way I’d talk with a 60 year-old or use the same vocabulary with a new acquaintance that I will with an old friend. Geography makes a difference too: my accent and idiom change depending on whether I’m talking to someone from California or Australia. Over there my father’s sister is my ant, here she has become my aunt. I move from “good for you!” to “good on you!”, from “no problem” to “no worries.” For words and language depend on where we are and who we’re with; because they are grounded on something deeper than words.
But there still must have been a moment of tension and grace for these early Christians at Pentecost: committed to walk the way of Jesus, realizing they were called to tell the world of their experience of God’s power, God’s mercy, God’s light, which they knew in the life of this Jesus and in their own lives. To take up the call to to speak this Gospel with the grace of God’s breath and in the particularities of their own voice, and in a new tongue. That must have given them pause, made then wonder where they were going and what they would say. That hasn’t changed much.
Listen: there are two sides to every message: first, what you need to say from within your own heart, and second, how it is heard by the person you’re speaking with. I bet we’ve all listened to speeches and lectures and sermons where we’ve wanted to go up and ask the speaker, “Who in Gods name are you speaking to? Because it wasn’t anybody here!” I think we’ve all had times like that (though, hopefully not too recently!).
So I finally learned to speak enough Spanish to graduate from University, and then seminary and, except for learning a little Biblical Greek, I haven’t taken a foreign language class since. But I still had to deal with the task of translation when I took a job as a Resident Minister working with students at the University of San Francisco.
For I had learned about Scripture and theology and ethics and pastoral care and all that stuff in an academic setting; and now I had to speak naturally about these concerns to young people who were just away from home, living in a dormitory in a new city, learning so many new ways and things that they didn’t need a long-winded lecture from me or anyone else.
So I prayed, I talked to friends and people who knew more, and I realized I had to learn to speak to these students in words and terms, phrases and images, that they would understand. We’re back to the Bible: “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”.
And I learned to speak to them by listening to them. By listening to their concerns and questions, to what they feared and what gave them joy, made them laugh or cry. Then I might speak something of my understanding of how God created, redeemed, played and stayed in the world, using terms and phrases and images and hopes that came on our ongoing conversations. It took time to do this, but we came to love each other in the process. Through the grace of God and Facebook, I am still in touch with many of them. They are now in their mid-thirties, sometimes married with children, making money and mistakes and living wonderful lives. The conversations continue and I give thanks for that.
One other thing happened some 15 years ago. A student-friend told me he had been diagnosed with a “language phobia” and the University said that he did not have to take a foreign language in order to graduate. So there was finally a name for it. If only I had known, I might have gotten through those language classes a bit easier. But looking back I saw that what had seemed a liability was merely the wrappings of a difficult gift of love; a gift I needed to receive, a gift I needed to learn to give.
We are now living in a time when we need to learn to speak the Lord’s word, sing the Lord’s song, in new languages. Because the world is changing, and those of us who’ve been around for awhile are all living in a foreign world: and this renewed evangelism, both in the church and in the world, might be frightening, might cause us to break into a sweat, or catch our breath, and want to hide, and it might grow us up more than we want, but it needn’t be that painful.
For St Francis said that we should “preach the Gospel at all times: if necessary, using words”. That’s part of the life in Christ we are called to today; just like those disciples and apostles starting conversations on the edge of the Roman empire. And that conversation continues here and now; with the friend, the neighbor, the stranger, our young; preaching at all times, with words if necessary, but often in silent and eloquent actions, by holding them in our hearts and listening to them in the light of love; and only then in reaching out to meet them using words and phrases, metaphors and meanings, found in our common lives and love. That’s what friends do. That’s even what God does in Christ, meeting us where we are with love. And that’s our gift and our glory, our call and commission and our part in the ongoing conversation in the spirit which we celebrate today in this feast of Pentecost.
In the name of Christ.