Nineteen. That’s the number of languages spoken among the four dozen people who sat together in one of the study halls at the monastic community of Taize in France. I was spending a week there with a small group from my seminary, enjoying the daily Bible studies with some of the monks. Over a thousand young people and adults had come that week alone, gathering in the Church of the Transfiguration to sing the chants together, to light candles, to focus our attention on worship and praise rather than our own ego-driven agendas.
On this particular day, we divided ourselves up, gathered in the room, and found ourselves in an interesting dilemma: We couldn’t understand one another. Even though many Europeans have a much more gracious appreciation of the ability to speak multiple languages than we pesky Americans do, we still found ourselves gathered in a room unable to communicate.
God says, Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
The monk who was leading our session asked a series of questions, wondering who spoke which language. I remember a room filled with Germans, Romanians, French, Dutch, Russian, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Americans, English, and several folks from Asian countries. I looked at the people sitting near me, one girl I had already met from Germany who—thank God—spoke English. The others, I recognized languages but remained unable to communicate beyond a smile and a wave. It was very much my Babel moment.
The monk was so gracious with us. As he walked through the group, he asked—in a combination of English, French, and German—who spoke which languages. A few others helped add in various Asian languages for him. With a bit of calculation, he managed to figure out that, in a group of four dozen people speaking nineteen languages, we all spoke and understood either English or French.
So, he proceeded to give his reflection on the “spirituality of color” by the early 20th century French poet Charles Peguy in both French and English—translating each paragraph and train of thought from French to English as he went through the hour. It was an unbelievable experience.
Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
It was a bewildering experience for those who were gathered in the room that day—and for those who looked in the door and heard their own native languages being spoken by people who didn’t have the ability.
What does this mean? The crowd asks. The cynics, as usual, try to dismiss the extraordinary phenomenon: They are filled with new wine, they said with a sneer.
But Peter stands and calls them all to attention, reminding them of the ancient texts from the Prophet Joel from the Hebrew Scriptures. I can imagine Peter standing there wondering and asking, “Are you really so surprised that something like this might happen? Have you forgotten what the very texts say about God’s power and the potential for newness, for an in-breaking of vision in the community? Remember Joel:
In the last days, it will be, God declares,
That I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men dream dreams…
Don’t be surprised, I imagine Peter saying, when God actually does show up in your midst and stir up something new. And when God’s Spirit swirls into the picture, boundaries get shattered. Community is formed in a deeper way, people are invited to participate, and enthusiasm—literally the state of being en-thused, or possessed by the Divine—swells up from within the people gathered in worship and prayer.
Community can be a difficult thing at times. People don’t always get along (I know that’s shocking). Some folks have strict standards on behavior while others seem never to have been introduced to proper behavior. The opinion of some that dignity must be maintained will inevitably clash with the urge of others to throw open the doors and let new life in. Everyone has their own “take” on what the community should look like, and it’s easy to slide into niche markets—a boutique mentality where we have little groups all doing their own thing—while we forget that we are a people of common prayer.
You might see how my vocation is interesting, as your rector. With the clergy and staff, we hear all of this. And, never a day passes when someone doesn’t call or write or come in to tell me that someone is upset about something—as if there would ever be a time when someone wasn’t!
But what potential and grace and excitement within a spiritual community! To think that we all have come together in this place to worship and pray together, to share ministry, to support each other and learn from each other. Ask yourself what else—apart from the crazy imagination of the Holy Spirit—could have possibly brought us all together in this parish?
The challenge of a spiritual community is not to eliminate all conflict. That’s impossible—(and it would be boring anyway, wouldn’t it?) No, the challenge of a spiritual community is the practice of deep listening. How are we listening to another’s spiritual language? How is our own native language being heard? How is our neighbor being received? How is the experience we hold of God being received by our neighbor?
We live day to day in a Babel world. And, many people would prefer it to stay that way: keep the confused speech separated, and make everyone think it’s impossible to bridge this gulf. Then, let fear sink in, and anxiety, then anger over not being understood, then hate toward “the other”…then, we’re right there, right where they want us, those people in the world who swoop in with promises to relieve our anxiety and protect our interests.
Curious what happens though when we are heard—when we hear someone else. Curious what happens when we realize we belong, when we are wanted, appreciated. Our particular interest may not be fulfilled, but we learn that our life in the community is not about getting what we want. Our life in the community is about living in the community—together…
The Spirit poured into the Upper Room, a sound “like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” They were there, of course, because Jesus had ascended and they felt they had been left alone. They were afraid, huddled together, wondering what comes next. Where do we go from here?
And then…the Spirit pours into them and they are filled with the ability to speak in another language. Think about that: they were filled with the ability to bridge the gulf of separation. No longer would they be able to only smile and wave, as it were, but now they would be able to communicate, to encounter, to meet, to reach out. At this moment of Pentecost, they realized that their idea of community had been so small…They never knew this was possible…
What’s possible for us? What’s possible for this community? How do we understand God’s dream for this community, for this particular piece of the Body of Christ? What new languages are we being invited to learn? What insights are we being gifted with? How is the Spirit being poured into our hearts?
And, if we’re honest, what concerns us about this new space—as we step into this discernment time, this dreaming time, this listening time, looking toward our Bicentennial? How do we feel that impulse of resistance? What scares us? What makes us furrow our eyebrows, and wonder, “well, yes…that might be all well and good, but we’ve always done it…..[this way].”
We are being given an opportunity that not every parish gets. So many parishes don’t live 200 years. So many don’t have the chance to imagine what their common prayer will look like in a third century of shared ministry…
But, this is our opportunity…our opportunity not just to maintain but to thrive.
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men dream dreams…
I want to take just a couple minutes and lead us in an exercise, a way to use our imaginations as we step into this Bicentennial Vision Campaign.
I invite you to all close your eyes…I want you to breathe deeply…not all at the same time, but take breaths in your noses and then breathe out—out loud—out of your mouths. All of us. Breathe in and out, so we can hear it. Listen to the rush of the breath as you blow out…
Breaths….. in and out….keep breathing…keep breathing….
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…..
A rush of a violent wind…and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…
And the people heard an invitation…they dreamed dreams and they had visions….
And someone asked a question: “When you look ten years into the future, what is God’s dream for Grace Church?”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Pentecost, Year C
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21
May 15, 2016