Attending a Christian College is a great place to learn irreverence. On orientation day my newly made friend joked that he could teach me to speak in tongues. I was intrigued. My Sunday School teacher had assured me that this was a gift of the Spirit, reserved for the MOST holy. So I took the bait. ”How?”, I inquired. He told me to say “tie my bow tie, untie my bow tie” as fast as I could. We all laughed. Later, in the privacy of my dorm room, I tried. What a silly exercise! (You are doing right now, aren’t you?)
Speaking in tongues is always a topic that rises up during Pentecost. Whether the preacher addresses it directly from the pulpit or not, the occurrence is in the back of everyone’s mind. This can be frustrating because the tongue portion of the text is just the vessel for the bigger and more important picture. The main point of the miracle is that the curse of Babel (Genesis lectionary text) is reversed and now all ethnic groups understand “in their own language” the “deeds of God’s power”. Could this happen today? I argue so. The foundation of my argument lies in widening one’s assumption of language. In this article below I speak of how language healed me (and continues to do so) in the office of a Christian counselor. Perhaps Pentecost could be a time of widening our understanding of the miracle of language (Babel and Pentecost) and, in doing so, remind congregants of resources that could bring healing through language.
When Tongues Can Express What the Heart Feels
Just the other day I watched a one sided interaction between an autistic boy and a soda machine. Outside a Food City, fists wailed and tears cried could be heard from the farthest depths of the parking lot. At first it appeared the soda machine had taken his money. Onlookers wanted to help, but the nature of the dual gave us all pause. Fortunately, a good mother always knows the cry of distress in her child. From inside the store she emerged, speaking with such gentleness and calm that her language soothed my soul, an observer from far off. The words she used I did not clearly understand but that did not matter. The boy’s confusion had lifted. Language had brought clarity.
The interaction reminded me of a time in my life when darkness hovered over my soul. It manifested in chronic, mild anxiety attacks, periods of listlessness and sleepless nights. Sitting in a counselor’s office I learned to put words to my experience: anxiety, shame, grief. I had heard these words but never had I given them serious thought. They helped me assign meaning to my experience. Only when I named my fears could I understand and recognize God’s healing touch. As language empowered, healing began and hope returned.
Last week the Christian calendar celebrated Pentecost. This season highlights the coming of God’s Holy Spirit to reside in the hearts of humans. What the Old Testament foretold as the longing of God becomes reality at this point in history and is promised to continue till the end of time. The chosen scripture passages are the same every year and bookend around the theme of language. The first narrative is the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis. Plainly put the people of the world attempt to build a tower to God. This sound harmless enough until the writer reveals their purpose. They want to subdue to God. In return God confuses the languages thus explaining the origin of different ethnic groups. The second scripture passage read on Pentecost chronicles a miracle of language. As if reversing the Babel curse, God sends God’s Holy Spirit to descend upon the followers of Jesus. They begin to speak and every nationality can understand the words they speak about “the deeds of God’s power”. Pentecost is about language; how language can confuse and how language can bring clarity.
Some say that the miracle of Pentecost was a one-time thing or that God does not work among us in that fashion anymore. Long lost is the gift of speaking in tongues. I tend to disagree. There is healing power in language. It is faulty thinking to narrow the Pentecost experience to New Testament times or barricade it within the walls of the church. God brings healing and peace when language expands what our hearts can express.