Babel to Pentecost

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 150, Deuteronomy 16:9-12, Acts 4:18-21, 23-33, John 4:19-26

Pentecost readings:
Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, , Acts2:1-21


Genesis tells us the first people of the earth built a city named Babel, and in that city built a tower which aspired to reach the heavens. God was displeased with this development, for he said mortals would soon be unstoppable, so he struck down the tower and confused the tongues of the people so they spoke different languages. Humanity was scattered across the earth. This story of Babel is often told as an introduction to the story of Pentecost.

On the day of Pentecost, which scripture tells us was ten days after the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of flame descended upon the gathered disciples. The surrounding crowd came from many lands, and each person heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language. Some people assumed the excited crowd must have been drunk, even though it was only nine in the morning. Peter assured them no one was drunk, and this event was a sign of fulfillment of prophecy. The Holy Spirit (also called the Advocate or Paraclete) promised by Christ had begun to work among the people.

How telling that the Holy Spirit’s first gift to us was the ability to understand each other. In our largely monolingual culture we take that for granted, but in much of the world traveling from your home for a distance less than the breadth of Ohio can result in a language barrier. Yet even within our common language, we lack common understanding. Never take for granted that your frame of reference or your assumptions and inferences are the same as anyone else’s. The unspoken meaning of words like “love” and “family” and “God” can vary widely from person to person. We may share a common vocabulary, but communication – like jazz and poetry – is all about context.

We should continue to rely on the Spirit to help us understand each other, to teach us to listen before we speak. God’s kingdom does not require forced uniformity of speech and thought; it is a place where those once scattered by pride reunite in understanding.

Comfort: The Holy Spirit works among us to further the kingdom.

Challenge: Pray and work to free yourself from the biases and assumptions of your own language, experience, and culture. Understand how this is not a rejection of your heritage.

Prayer: Creator God, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit guide and teach me to live and teach with the compassionate heart of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think when you hear someone speaking a language you can’t understand?

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Speaking of Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Deuteronomy 31:30-32:14, Romans 14:13-23, Luke 8:40-56


In linguistics “code switching” refers to the practice of moving among different languages in the same conversation. In a sociological sense, it is also a popular term – particularly among African Americans – for trading one’s comfortable, informal manner of speech for a more formal, homogenized one to facilitate communication and acceptance within the dominant group. Some people view code switching as hypocritical, but most of us unconsciously engage in some form of it. For example, children speak differently to their parents than their peers, employers speak differently to their bosses than their co-workers, and those of us who curse like sailors probably curb that @#$% when addressing our pastors.

According to Paul, code switching (while not his term) could even be a sign of respect. He advised Christians who had no issues with eating meat or drinking wine not to become a stumbling block to their brothers and sisters who considered such things sinful. It wasn’t that Paul found these things sinful, rather that he believed “those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” He asked people to adjust their faith language accordingly.

A person’s vernacular does not define their native intelligence or ability any more than our perception of their piety defines their faith. But here’s the big difference: in the case of code switching for corporate America, the less privileged person is expected to change; Paul was asking the group with more freedom to accommodate the less free. In the world, the first impose on the last. In the Kingdom, the first serve the last.

A faith language has its own grammar. As with any grammar, it is a tool to be used, not a weapon to be wielded. We want to be fluent in it for our own benefit, but we should refrain from correcting (or worse demeaning) other people for failing to meet its exact standards. Let us listen to understand more than to correct, to invite more than to demand. Our God is not about technicalities, but about grace.

Comfort: Even when your “faith grammar” isn’t perfect, God understands.

Challenge: Listen to familiar hymns sung in a language you do not now. Do they say anything new to you?

Prayer: Loving God, may I seek more to understand than to be understood. Amen.

Discussion: People can have complicated relationships with grammar, anything from self-declared grammar police to being intimidated by it entirely. What’s yours?

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Invitation: yinzgimmegum

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The ride from New Castle, Pennsylvania to South Bend, Indiana is just shy of six hours – depending on the driver. In August of 1985 I made this trip with my parents so they could drop me off at school for my freshman year. About mid-trip, my mouth started to feel a little dry. My mother always had some mints or gum, so I leaned into the front seat to ask for some. Now I grew up in a Western Pennsylvania area with a very specific dialect popularly known as “Pittsburghese,” so while other people might have asked “May I have some of your gum?” I rapidly blurted: “Hey yinz gimme gum?” Continue reading