Spirit’s strange words
I am fascinated by the power and possibility of Pentecost. Whether the speakers were suddenly gifted with new languages or the hearers simply understood the gibberish in some way, it’s among my favorite New Testament miracles. The symbol of the inbreaking of God to extend the Good News to new people and places through what was first assumed to be public drunkenness represents God’s work at its best.
I have been shaped by a multilingual world. I learned bits of Spanish in elementary school. My grandfather spoke Slovak and bits of other European languages. There were often polkas blaring on weekends from the radio in Polish.
I speak Spanish and Indonesian for my job, though neither with any real proficiency. I know words in Arabic, Khmer and Vietnamese from traveling. I can muddle through some Italian and read some French. I took Hebrew in seminary.
I have the deepest respect for people who can move freely between languages. U.S. culture often disrespects the immense knowledge immigrants carry with multiplicities of language and culture. Learning another language is hard and at times humiliating work.
Pentecost is about communicating Good News. Especially for those of us with the power of the world-dominating English language, even basic attempts to learn and speak feebly in another tongue can communicate something. A quick greeting in Arabic, assalamu alaykum, has often brought a smile and sometimes a more extended conversation.
Communication scholar Michael Hyde talks about this process as acknowledgment. For English speakers, it’s the acknowledgement of other languages and cultures — possibilities beyond our own tongue.
From the Pentecost story, the readily available explanation for the “babbling” was drunkenness. This is a fascinating choice. Peter’s response is to suggest that it’s far too early for drinking. Then he moves toward explanations that open the Good News to us goyim — those beyond the tribal bloodline identities of Judaism. This was essential to opening up the movement and to finding a future that would be shaped partly by ethnicity but not bound by it.
The future of Anabaptism relies on our own Pentecosts. These include:
– Acknowledging the fruit of nearly a century of global mission, which sometimes struggled and sometimes meaningfully found ways to declare the Good News in diverse cultures and languages.
– Allowing the global variations of Anabaptism to be understood as seriously and significantly as those tied to the long European streams.
– Using new technologies to communicate. Early Anabaptists rode the cultural change that came with the printing press. North American periodicals and publishing institutionalized that work in the 20th century. As technology changes, we have the opportunity again to speak in diverse ways to those waiting to hear. The challenge, different from the era of publishing, is that there are many voices, and it’s harder to hear in the midst of the babble.
Sometimes communication requires only kindness. Gestures and nonverbal signals can be a powerful language of their own, requiring more time and patience than verbal communication. These actions, done in love, can evidence the power of Good News, too.
This year, I’ll celebrate Pentecost again. I’ll keep stumbling along in my bits of language potpourri. And I’ll keep hoping that somehow in my willingness to learn, to listen and to speak, the Spirit shows up and communicates through what I say or do.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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