Many Languages – June 4, 2017
Let us pray.
Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing. Amen.
In the fall of my senior year of college, I took a class that required me to study a religious community within New York City by immersing myself in it. I chose to complete the project at Times Square Church, a large, multicultural, interdemoniational church which met in an old Broadway theater, with red cushy seats, a grand stage, boldly evangelical theology and—horror of horrors—a praise band. Every Sunday morning, I had passed Times Square Church on my way to a very different church at 46th street—an unmistakably Anglo-Catholic parish housed in a stone, Gothic temple, complete with clouds of incense and soaring Latin chanting—and I was curious about how the two places, so physically close together yet arising from such radically contrasting faith traditions, would compare with one another. So I decided to investigate this question and made plans to attend the Friday night young adult worship service at Times Square Church for the rest of the semester.
I had been in a megachurch or two before, so I wasn’t completely surprised by what I found when I arrived. I knew about the altar calls and the homophobia and the high production values and the hands waving in the air. But as I stood in the back rows of that theater-turned-sanctuary, taking in the scene, I began to notice something that really caught me off guard. It was typical in this church for folks to pray to themselves as the minister on stage was praying or as a worship song touched them in a particularly poignant way—and often these prayers consisted of a number of standard phrases repeated over and over again, such as “Yes, Lord!” or “Thank you, Jesus!” But occasionally, I thought I heard some syllables that didn’t sound to me like words. At first, I supposed that the prayers I picked up on were being muttered so indistinctly that I wasn’t able to hear them correctly, but eventually I began to realize that the syllables I was hearing probably weren’t words in any language I knew. My initial suspicions were finally confirmed when at a special prayer vigil the entire congregation erupted in loud utterances that sounded to me like complete nonsense. I was surrounded by a theater full of people almost screaming phrases that made no sense to me whatsoever.
I knew then that these worshippers were engaging in a practice called glossolalia, or as it is more commonly known, speaking in tongues. I learned later that Times Square Church was not only evangelical, but also charismatic—meaning that it was part of a branch of Christianity in which speaking in tongues is a normal and expected practice. However, for this student of religion finding himself in a charismatic context for a first time, it was a little too much to handle. I had read about this practice and talked about in the classroom, but I was nonetheless completely unprepared to see it in person. People speaking in tongues was surprising and spontaneous and confusing. It felt like chaos.
Many believe that’s exactly how the Holy Spirit always operates—through chaos, Explorations of the Pentecost story tend to focus on details that suggest the Holy Spirit’s arrival was shocking and unsettling. We hear about how the Spirit came “suddenly” with a “sound like the rush of a violent wind”; we talk about “divided tongues, as of fire”; we note how the crowd was “bewildered,” “amazed,” “astonished,” and “perplexed,” and how they assumed that the disciples were drunk on wine—even though it was only nine o’clock in the morning; we point to the passages Peter quotes about visions and dreams. On Pentecost, we like to tell ourselves that the Spirit is meant to disturb us, to make us uncomfortable, to change things around, to do something extraordinary in our midst. It’s a time of the year when many churches like to add unusual elements—however subtle—to their worship services in order to symbolize the Spirit’s interrupting presence. You may have noticed the red spirit kite in our procession this morning.
But I fear that the Spirit too often gets pigeonholed into this troublemaker role. Consider for a moment the fundamental purpose of the Spirit’s actions on Pentecost. The Spirit may have startled the disciples and disoriented the crowd that gathered around them, but ultimately the Spirit functioned to help the disciples do the job that Jesus had given them to do—to communicate the Good News to the ends of the earth. Hearing so many languages being spoken may have been overwhelming for passersby, yet the disciples spoke in a multitude of languages not to confuse but to make clear. The multilingual cacophony in Jerusalem that morning provided an opportunity for everyone—regardless of national background or linguistic ability—to comprehend what was going on. The goal was not chaos but understanding.
Just like the ancient feast day of Pentecost, the modern day practice of speaking in tongues can easily be mischaracterized and misperceived. Those who observe speaking in tongues for the first time, like I did several years ago, are often taken aback by its strangeness and can form unfairly reactionary judgments about the practice before learning sufficiently about its underlying intentions. Many who actually speak in tongues believe that they are giving voice to legitimate languages that could, at least in theory, be interpreted and understood by others. In speaking tongues, they seek not to babble meaninglessly but to faithfully express the God they experience and know.
Christians who are not Pentecostal or charismatic may not realize that the practice of speaking in tongues has clear precedent in Scripture, not just in the story of Pentecost we heard today but also in a long section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that includes the passage on gifts that was our Epistle reading this morning. In fact, the famous “love chapter” from 1 Corinthians 13—a passage read at many weddings—initially referred not to romantic or marital love but to love within a community in which there were many different ideas about whether to speak in tongues and how. Paul’s point in exhorting that community to love each other, respect their different gifts and recognize themselves as all members of one body is that the different ways in which we experience God—including, for some, speaking in tongues—need not divide us.
I mention all of this not because I personally participate in the practice of speaking of tongues or because I particularly agree with much of what the Pentecostals and charismatics of today believe. I think it goes without saying that I’m a pretty typical liberal mainline Protestant and am about as far from Pentecostal or charismatic as you could imagine. Instead, I offer my reflections on the Spirit and Pentecost to push back against the idea that the Spirit is merely some mischievous shapeshifting elf who would never dare to show up in a place where people sang nineteenth century hymns and read words off a page. The Spirit, I’m convinced, may occasionally confuse us or change our direction, but for the most part the Spirit speaks to us in our own languages—languages we ourselves can understand, and languages that are unique for each one of us—just as the Spirit all those years ago spoke through the disciples to people of many different nationalities in their own languages. As far as I can tell, whether we meet the Spirit in Latin chant or a praise band or speaking in tongues or walks on the beach matters far less than our willingness to hear what the Spirit has to say and our commitment to seeing the Spirit at work in those with different gifts, those who hail from different backgrounds, and those who pray or speak differently—even if we disagree. We’re all one body, after all.