Untwisting Tongues

Many, many, many moons ago, when I was in college, I worked at a bi-lingual day care center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. I went to classes in the morning at Catholic University and in the afternoon I was a teacher’s aide in a classroom full of three year olds — all of whom did not speak a word of English.

My very first day on the job, I had to supervise nap time: twelve little kids squirming on their cots in the heat of summer, pretending to be asleep. One little fellow was particularly hyper that afternoon. So, I sat down on his cot, stroked his forehead, and adjusted his blanket. And in my rudimentary Spanish, I attempted to calm him down.

 “Me llamo, Joani.” (My name is Joani).

 “¿Como te llamas?” (What is your name?)

“Pepe,” he said repeatedly. “Pepe, Pepe, Pepe.”

“Mucho gusto, Pepe. ¿Como estas?” (Good to meet you, Pepe, how are you?)  

¡Pepe, Pepe, Pepe!” he repeated.

“Yo entiendo, te llamas Pepe.”  (I understand, your name is Pepe.)

This was not really going anywhere until the teacher returned to the classroom and overheard our exchange.

¿Guillermo. Baño? ¿Necicitas el baño?”  (Guillermo, do you need to go to the bathroom?)  

¡Si, si!” a delighted Guillermo exclaimed and off he went running down the hall to the nearest bathroom.

The gift of tongues. Some of us have it. Some of us don’t.

Now when most of us biblically think of the gift of tongues, we probably most often think of the gift of ecstatic unintelligible speech. The kind of speech where the speaker, slain in the Spirit, gets so carried away that they themselves don’t even know what they are saying.

But the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts paints quite a different picture. Here in Jerusalem, toppled by the rush of a mighty wind, the tower of Babel gets turned upside down. Fire scorches the souls of every every soul gathered there: Jews and Galileans, Parthians, Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs. Filled with the Spirit, the ears of each and every soul heard the other speaking as if in their mother tongue. The Spirit blew through Jerusalem Whitsunday and left behind the gift of understanding.

And Oh MY GOD!! Isn’t that a gift we could use right now?

Have you ever been in the midst of an argument, a meeting, a discussion where supposedly everyone is speaking the same language but nobody seems to understand. Just like the old song goes: Everybody’s talking at me… can’t hear a word they’re saying. Or remember that book: Some are from Venus and Some are from Mars? Words are lobbed across a table and you see the lips moving but you do not have a clue what people are really trying to say. Nor do they understand anything you have said. It’s as if everyone has metaphorical cotton in their ears.

There is a whole lot of stuff that keeps us from hearing: old hurts and resentments, ancient family feuds and arguments, long buried history and deep seated secrets. And not to forget the not so subtle prejudices: the shade of a another’s skin, the inflection in another’s voice, the cut of another’s clothes.

“Vamos a empezar.  Sienten se, por favor.” (We are about to begin, please be seated,” a master of ceremonies says.

An article in The Washington Post sets the scene:

“The lights in the theater are dimmed.  The stage is black but the voices are in color. The people on the stage are not actors and the scripts they are reading from are not really scripts. Their words are their own stories told with stage directions, their own lives translated onto paper. This is a theater piece called Foreign No More staged by the New York playwright and director Ping Chong. Chong has dedicated himself to bringing real life to the stage. He travels the world interviewing people and turning their lives into plays that help to explain what it feels like to be the Other and what it means to hope and dream to be understood and to understand.”

The people performing their lives onstage don’t leave until you really get to know them, to hear them, as if they were speaking your language, in your mother tongue.

“What do you think of when you hear the words – Costa Rica?  Grass huts, tropical birds?  “No,” Arnoldo says, ‘I think of a haven, my parents, forgiveness, and the essence of my being.’”

“What do you think of when you hear the word – Guatemala?  Poor peasants picking coffee beans, drunk and idle day workers in the market place?  ‘No,’ says Alida, ‘I think of my mother, my father, my brother, a beautiful place, a culture I want to save. I think of the scent of orange blossoms.’”

“What do you think when you hear the word – Vietnam?  Most people can think of nothing but war, protests and draft dodgers.  But Sandy says, ‘I think of my childhood, a guava tree, playing house under the shade of bamboo trees, and eating a breakfast of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.’”

“What do you think when you hear the word – Mexico?  Cheap labor, migrants at the border, Taco Bell?  Instead Eugenio thinks of his flag, the scent of taquitos, papaya, churros and the smell of hard work.  He hears his mother’s voice singing his brothers to sleep.”

Stereotypes are shattered. Differences understood. And by the time the audience leaves the theater, The Day of Pentecost has come. When the curtain comes down, these people are “foreign no more.” From wherever they have come, from wherever they hail, each is woven into the tapestry of our shared humanity.

Now imagine who else might climb up on that stage. Muslims or Mormons. Gay or straight. Asian or African. Democrat or Republican. Wall Streeters or Main Streeters. North Pole or South Pole. Friend or Foe. Just imagine who and then sit back and get ready to listen.

And though it may be incredibly hard, with God’s help, we can do this. We can lean in and listen to and stay present with one another — long enough to learn about understand one another. We can do this. We can stay put and stay still long enough to grasp how deeply related we are to one another. Take a look around at your brothers and sisters in the pews, at home, at work, wherever. And, yes, just like all brothers and sisters, we may not get along so well. Sometimes we get on one another’s nerves. That’s ok. Just remember, regardless, we are all siblings stamped with the same Spirit — the image of God.

Close your eyes and imagine that everyone you meet looks a little bit like Jesus. Yes, really. You may need to squint a little to see it. Believe it or not. It’s true.

So, let me wrap up these thoughts with a prayer I wrote for today (based on a much more traditional one), a prayer of gratitude for the gifts of the Holy Spirit we acknowledge today.

Brother Jesus,

You send the Holy Spirit to make a home in our hearts where God may perfect in us the work of your grace and your love.

Grant to us the Spirit of Wisdom, so that we may not cling to fleeting things but aspire to all things holy;

Grant to us the Spirit of Understanding, to enlighten our minds with the light of your truth;

Grant to us the Spirit of Counsel, that we may listen deeply to your voice and to the voices different from our own;

Grant to us a courageous Spirit, that we may with patience follow your lead wherever the Spirit might blow;

Grant to us the Spirit of Knowledge, that we may come to know you more deeply and more genuinely love our neighbors as ourselves:

Grant to us the Spirit of Peace, that in all things, we may embrace the healing and reconciling way of God;

Grant to us the Spirit of Delight, that with awe and wonder, we may rejoice in all creation.

Holy Spirit blow. Holy Spirit burn. Holy Spirit come.


Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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