Have you ever met someone who spoke your language?
I began learning French in the first grade. It was the year my school system was introducing a foreign language and they started with my grade level, and added a class as we moved up. Here, I learned basic vocabulary and conversation skills. We performed a whole program for parents in French where we wore paper berets and sang “Old McDonald,” Frere Jacques, and La Marseilles. Maybe it’s the way my brain is wired or maybe it’s because I started so young, but learning another language has always appealed to me. I continued to take French in Middle School and High School and even majored in it in college. I loved learning a second language.
When I was twenty and in college, I traveled to France for two weeks by myself, an experience that remains one of the most formative in my life. I had received a grant to conduct research for my senior project, but the grant provided only enough money to cover my own expenses–no one else’s. So, I went by myself. I knew the language; I knew how to get around in the country.
And yet. It was the first time I had ever traveled alone, much less to another continent by myself, and I was caught off-guard by a tremendous sense of loneliness. I knew no one in the city and my mind drifted to the scary fact that if I didn’t make it back to my hotel at night, no one would really know.
For the most part my work kept me busy. But during the weekends, the places I needed to visit were closed, and the loneliness was almost unbearable. I tried to fill the void by shopping and ended up having to purchase a second suitcase with which to transport my new belongings. I still have the calendar I drew to mark off the days until I came home.
One day, I made an appointment with someone who had agreed to speak to me about my project. We got about ten minutes into our conversation when he paused and said to me–in my own native language– “We can speak English, if you’d like.”
That sentence was like music to my ears and made me want to cry–not because I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, speak French, but because this man’s willingness to speak my language made me feel so much less alone.
I don’t think we always realize it, but language is closely tied to our identities. It’s an indicator of where we’re from, the place where we belong. Somehow, Oliver has, in his own language development, picked up a somewhat Bostonian accent. “Car” is “cowah.” “Yard” is “yowd.” We’re not sure how it happened, but are comforted by the fact that at least he also says that a truck goes up a “heel.” My point is: language is central to who we are and it’s incredibly comforting to hear, and speak, your language–whether that language is Bostonian or Souther, English, or French, or Spanish, or Chinese, or eve sign language.
Language it’s own story in the Bible and it starts in the book of Genesis with the tower of Babel. Originally, we’re told, the whole earth had one language. But the people used that unified language to build a tower in order to “make a great name” for themselves. This was not exactly the way God intended the people to use their language, so God confused the language and scattered the people.
Fast forward a couple thousand years and we see God up to something else with language. This time, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit. The day of Pentecost comes, and the Holy Spirit enters like the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire rest on the disciples, and they start speaking all kinds of languages. And all the people there are from all the nations and the sound they hear is like music to their ears. While they are in a foreign land,perhaps feeling lonely and isolated, they hear in their own language.
We’re told that these people are speaking in all these languages about God’s deeds of power, but I also wonder if the message of what they’re saying is not secondary to the speech itself. Because it is incredibly comforting to have someone speak your language. That, in itself, must be one of God’s deeds of power, right? They’re speaking the same language, they’re on the same page, there’s understanding between them.
Notice this is not a return to pre-Tower of Babel days. The languages do not converge into one language. There remain many languages, which tells us that the diversity created by God is both important and good. But here there is a common understanding, a unified front.
I attended a lunch this week with area clergy who are all engaged in anti-racism work, like the kind we are doing with Little Rock AME Zion. We came to the table from very different backgrounds and denominations. We use different language to talk about things that relate to church. Is it Eucharist, for example, or the Lord’s Supper? Are they sacraments or ordinances? I was the only Lutheran in the room, which is not something I’m used to being, at least when it comes to church work. But the conversation in the room was lively. There was a buzz of energy as we connected over a meal. Though we differ in lots of ways, for this one occasion, we were speaking each other’s languages. This was not a place to criticize the way other denominations did things, or to resent how successful other congregations were. This was a place of mutual respect and a place to connect over a common interest and goal. That connection is what happens when we allow the Holy Spirit to speak to and through us.
When the Holy Spirit speaks, we learn that we really do work for the same God who does great deeds of power, and for the same vision of peace and justice for God’s creation. I was talking to someone this week about this story and she asked me if I thought the people speaking were actually speaking in different languages or if the people listening were simply hearing in their own language. It’s a great question and one I had not thought of before. But I think it’s both. The Holy Spirit does it’s work both by comforting us with our own language, which represents our own identity and the dreams and visions that go along with it, but it also moves us to become slightly vulnerable as we also learn someone else’s language–their own identity and the dreams and visions that go along with it.
If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you know that you can’t get good at it if you’re not willing to make some mistakes along the way. One time in France, I ordered what I thought was a cheese sandwich. What I got was smoked salmon.
But it’s okay to mess up. Showing an interest is what’s import. Being willing to listen to the dreams and visions is what is vital and what ultimately will connect us with one another.
The French have a reputation for feeling rather particular about their language. A large part of that is because their language is tied very closely to their identity. In fact, there’s an organization whose sole purpose is to oversee the French language. Americans aren’t much better when we refuse to learn another language or expect that others will speak English. But I truly believe that my attempt at speaking to the man in his language–and no, it wasn’t perfect–led him to be willing to speak my language.
It truly is music to the ears. And it’s 100 % the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is calling us and gathering us across differences and across barriers. She is working to bring a sense of unity–some common ground that will bring life and joy to this world. In a world marked by divisions and disagreements, we need this.
So take a deep breath in. You’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. She’s speaking your language. She knows your dreams. Whose language is she calling you to speak? Whose dreams and visions does she want you to see?