Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Pentecost Reflection

This was first spoken in chapel at the Presbyterian Center on May 11, 2016.

Just because most of us speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same language.

Studies show we are, in our political landscape, increasingly polarized in our beliefs. A cursory review of social media reveals many of us are speaking different languages, listening to argue, speaking past each other.

Just because most of us speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same language.

We have regional dialects, turns of phrase that not everyone understands. “Might could” is a southern-ism that wouldn’t pass muster in the Pacific Northwest. There, it would make no grammatical sense whatsoever. In the south, it makes perfect sense.

Just because most of us speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same language.

We have a few dominant narratives in the wind of mainline Protestantism these days. One narrative claims the reign of God is inbreaking, increased diversity of worship and worshiping communities, a shift from the predominantly white European center of Christianity to one that is centered in the global south and the descendants of the global south. This narrative makes space for the new and also that which is passing away. This language is exciting, sometimes complicated, and flexible.

Another narrative claims decline, death, scarcity. This narrative equates conventional membership numbers with faithfulness, numerical dominance with gospel living. This language is thick with disappointment, grief, and judgment.

Just because most of us speak English doesn’t mean we speak the same language.

In charismatic Christian traditions, some believers speak in tongues. Pentecostal traditions are expressive and Spirit-centered. Just because they speak a different language than our own doesn’t mean their faith is a joke, a cheap punchline for mainline Christians.

Our faith is multiple in character, syntax, and spirit.

Our faith is quiet and determined. Our faith is also wind and fire and flesh.

The community of Acts, gathered in one place, hearing the gospel spoken in their mother tongues, this community included women, and a cosmopolitan smattering of Jews from all over the world, of diverse cultural contexts and countless language groups. Less Maine, more California. Here, miraculously, everyone understood without needing education or translation.

God speaks to us each in our own language.

Perhaps the issue is not the speaking, but the hearing. Maybe we think the problem is everyone hearing something differently, when in fact the problem might be refusing to hear, enforcing a false uniformity, squashing all that is beautiful and unpredictable and gospel.

Just because I hear God in my tongue doesn’t mean your tongue is a joke or a betrayal of the gospel. Maybe being a Christian of Pentecost means making space for the different. Maybe it means making space for people even when we don’t understand them. Maybe Pentecost isn’t about understanding it all fully, getting exactly what God’s Spirit means to do or say. Maybe Pentecost is about letting the wind blow, letting go of our need for control, and finding ways to listen, knowing we will never understand all of it, because we all speak different languages. And that’s okay.

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