God Speaks People Fluently

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

A Reflection by Trevor Bechtel on May 19 2024

Good morning,

I’d like to begin today with a prayer for our brother John Powell, who fell ill yesterday. “God, at Pentecost you sent your spirit to unify your church. Today we ask you send your spirit to bring healing to our brother John. Watch over him and strengthen him in these next days. Amen”

Prayer is always an interesting use of language isn’t it. When we keep to words like Spirit and Pentecost and God, and perhaps even unify, we need not experience any dissonance between between our everyday language and our prayer language, because those words function more less the same way in both dialects. Words like healing, strengthen, and perhaps brother, might create a bit more disjunction for us. When I invoke God’s healing in a prayer I am probably using the word differently than when I go to the doctor, or exercise, or take medicine. When I call John my brother it means something different than when my sibling Gini says that to me.

You can imagine both hard and soft versions of these differences. In the soft version the biological relationship between Gini and I is swept up in the spiritual kinship that we also share and the focus is more on the similarity between the claims that both Gini and John make on me and me on them, than the differences. The sleep and clearer breathing that Benadryl has given me this week as I’ve fought a bad cold is one of the ways that God works; the meditative calm that prayer offers is recognized as helpful to my healing by medical doctors.

The hard versions of these differences are just as available to us though. Someone who chooses to avoid medical treatment because they trust instead in God’s healing is an example. Someone whose Christianity is not inclusive of new potential siblings is another. We all have our own versions. This is a sermon about language and unity, about what we can expect and what it real. It’s not about prayer, although since learning yesterday that I’d be preaching today I have been thinking and praying about John a lot. It’s also my sermon. I met with John a week ago for a lovely coffee and we talked about this service, and many other things, and he set the text and title, but these ideas and words are my own, although they are shaped again by Willie Jennings the author of the Acts commentary a group of us read a few years ago. Jennings has some interesting comments about language when he reflects on Acts 2.

He suggests that the process of learning a language is one of intimacy and love, if sometimes also frustration. Anyone learning a language other than their native tongue knows how frustrating it can be. I’ve tried, I’ve never succeeded. An adult doing so can be reduced to a child and a child at home in that language can become an adult’s teacher,

“Some people learn a language out of gut-wrenching determination born of necessity. Most, however, do so because at some point they learn to love it. They fall in love with the sounds. The language sounds beautiful to them. And if that love is complete, they fall in love with its original signifiers. They come to love the people–the food, the faces, the palms, the practices, the songs, the poetry, the happiness, the sadness, the ambiguity, the truth–and they love the place, that is, the circled earth those people call their land, their landscapes, their home. Speak a language, speak a people. God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently, too. This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs.”

This is a beautiful vision of what can happen when we learn another language. I haven’t learned another language to be able to talk in it, but Susan has, twice. And so I have been able to visit Haiti and Mexico with a partner who could translate the words for me. When I visited Mexico I had already fallen in love with Mexican food from eating it in Chicago for several years. I had not learned the language, but I found I had very little difficulty reading the menus when we would go out to eat. I have not learned a language but Jennings comment really resonated for me when I think back to that trip. It also makes sense to me of the reality of language learning that is often put forward, that it is much easier to learn a language when you live in place where it is spoken. It’s not just easier because you are hearing the language all the time, but also because it is easier for you to fall in love when you are actually dating than reading a book about dating.

But this vision also lays bare the ancient challenge we are faced with at Pentecost, the challenge that God is way ahead of us and calling us to catch up. Because a look at history show us that even though there was a miracle of language at Pentecost when people found themselves able to speak each other’s languages, that is, able to love each other, they did not. Christianity is special failure here in how it has been implicated in colonialism. Christianity was used by colonial empires to say to the peoples they met, your language is not holy. English is holy. Christianity was able to do this because, “it had learned to value, cherish, and even love the language of Jewish people found in Scripture–but hate Jewish people.”

There are a host of stories that rush in at this point. Stories about settlers denying conquered natives the use of their language, stories about others using a new language and becoming at home in a new environment, stories about people attending worship services in languages that no one speaks anymore, stories about people finding a way to worship God in new ways. Two stories are perhaps particularly germane to us at this point now that we have decided to move our worship to Packard road. One is a story about the Lutherans. Martin Luther brought a number of reforms to the Christianity of his day. He was not the first to champion a bible or worship in the language of the people, rather than Latin and Greek, but he did so when the printing press was coming into being which meant that translations could actually be read by more than a few people. This made a big difference in both access to faith as well as understanding. The other story is one about Mennonites who retained use of the German language as a question of faith late into the 20th century. I went to high school in the 1980’s with people who were still capable speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, the low German dialect my ancestors spoke. It’s interesting to me to think about whether these stories are more about unity or separation.

One of the reasons that the church retained Latin as a the language of worship was so that everyone, regardless of their language, would worship God in unity. Latin worship was thought to be a way that language unified people. In opposing this Luther was against unity. That almost no one understood Latin by Luther’s time is a big point for him though and it’s probably the case that the unity guaranteed by the use of Latin was not a meaningful unity. The Roman Catholic church has since mostly abandoned it.

Using German still separates the Amish from the society around them. Language isn’t the only thing enforcing that separation but it is a part of it. However, the community that uses language as a cultural distinctive may create tighter bonds inside itself. In that way retaining German may increase unity. This is not a unity that many of us here are interested in, as it tends to be the case that those kinds of cultural separations often go with increased conservatism and patriarchy.

 We regularly think that language and culture are the things that allow us humans to share ideas and goals with each other. Language lets us understand each other. And we have probably practiced establishing common ground with language more than without it. When we do pass the peace we accompany a primarily bodily way of establishing common ground with a statement. When we take communion together we typically say something to each other as we eat and drink. The offering is one of the few moments in a typical service here at Shalom where language doesn’t mediate or accompany the work. I’m not trying to drive a wedge between language and our bodies. We talk with our mouths. We write with our hands. We listen with our ears and read with our eyes. We use language with our bodies, but we tend to trust language almost exclusively to carry much of the work of bringing us together. And this language is a language that has original signifiers that we have come to love. This is particularly poignant for us this morning, because Barbara and Joseph, Atticus, Calder and Jen and Micah, while not being original parts of our congregation have come to become people who we love and who have entered into and shaped our common language. You are a part of us now and you will take us with you when you go. Our common language will be a part of how you speak from now on. You will remain a a part of the unity that is Shalom long after you leave her.

I think about this connection of language to unity, a lot, probably a little too much. And I confess most of this is doom scrolling at the state of our world and how language is used to divide. The Slovakian Prime Minister was critically shot this week and everyone blames language. We have more of this in our country than we know what to do with. We would like our words to firmly anchor into reality and stand as signifiers of what was originally meant. My pants are red. No-one is going to say my pants are green. This is something that people of any political spectrum could agree on. But we don’t. We see again and again that language is a purely human creation, a complete fabrication that works when we agree, but which can not prevent disagreement.

Rules, Laws, Agreements, Contracts are all artifacts of language. I even expect that language is helpful in increasing understanding with my cat Neko. I talk to her all the time. Dogs and horses are very good learners of human language in training relationships with humans. Language is not the only way we can establish common ground but humans and others trust language to connect us.

I want to conclude by saying a few things about how I think this can happen.

One is to recognize that there are many different types of unity. This was the lesson of the children’s story. So types of unity will be explosive, some will be more or less stable. Unity need not be an all or nothing concept or reality. Humans come together in all kinds of incomplete and temporary ways. I think about this especially in relationship to King of Kings. Mennonites and Lutherans have recently done some important work at the global level to understand our theological differences. That is exciting and it could form some of how we connect to that church. But we can also build our relationship to that church as both an institution and as a group of people on our own without depending on larger narratives.

Unity shouldn’t be forced. This was one of the lessons that the book group which read Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians learned as we read about stories of attempted racial reconciliation. It’s also a lesson about the possibility of dialogue with people who hold incompatible ideas. I have been involved in discussions about LGBT inclusion since 1990, and in many of those discussions, when I’ve been talking to people arguing against inclusion I’ve allowed them make comments about LGBT people that diminish their humanity. I don’t think that I’m going to do that again. I would rather leave a conversation than abide a comment that reduces someone’s humanity. Unity is is not meaningful if it is not the result of having fallen in love.

Unity is something to look for. At Shalom we value difference, simply, peacefully together and we celebrate that about ourselves. And in doing that we have also found a type of unity. It’s not necessarily a unity of ideas, but if it is a unity of people in love, it is probably more important.