I Corinthians 12:27-13:7
If I speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
While travelling in England I read a remarkable book by Robert Macfarlane titled Landmarks. It is about the language spoken by nature, a language not usually recognised by most of us even though we speak about the whistling of the wind, the roar of the ocean, the honk of a pig, the humming of a bee, or the raucous cry of the hadida. Anyone who has read The Elephant Whisperer in which Lawrence Anthony tells the story of his learning to communicate with elephants, will know what I am talking about. This is the language of nature. The problem is that most of us have lost the ability to understand this language just as many of us find it difficult to learn the languages of other people on our own door step.
Symptomatic of this loss, so Macfarlane tells us, is that the new Oxford Junior Dictionary has excluded a large number of words that have to do nature in favour of technological terms and computer language. There is no longer any mention of heather or kingfishers, but lots about blog, broadband and voice-mail. It is not a question of whether technological terms should be excluded says Macfarlane, but it is a sad day when the compilers of a children’s dictionary don’t think they should know about acorns, berries or trees. Soon we will have a generation that is incapable of relating to the natural world, and therefore unable to care for it. If we don’t and understand the language. we cannot relate to nature any more than we can relate to people who speak a different language to us. If only we could all communicate to each other in each other’s mother tongue.
But at Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday, God speaks to us through the Wind which is a metaphor for the Spirit, we are reminded of Bob Dylan’s folk song
… how many times must the cannon balls fly, Before they’re forever banned? … how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? …how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? … how many deaths will it take till he knows, That too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
At Pentecost language of nature, of the Wind, and the language of grace, the Holy Spirit, become one language, that enables each of us not only to understand the good news about Jesus in our own language, but also about how to relate to others. If the story of the Tower of Babel is about the failure of human beings to understand each other, the story of Pentecost is about a new language, the language of grace, which enables us to understand one another in the Spirit. This is what so amazed those who witnessed that first Pentecost. They not only heard the mighty sound of the Wind but they could all speak the language of God’s grace.
To celebrate Africa Day last week, a young Congolese poet. Philomène Luyindula Lasoen,who lives in Cape Town, wrote a poem on Facebook which speaks directly to this Pentecostal miracle:
Grace is sometimes found in tongues
When our words fail but we sing the same songs
My Swahili meets your Bemba
The Luba echoes the Shona
IsiXhosa beautifies Chichewa
And Igbo is the Chorus
It is call and answer
Ancient tradition of matching lines
Working synchronicity of past and present
Clapping our spirits rising
We pause the tribes and hues
Arrest external markers
We lose ourselves in spoken word
In the sounds that end all strife.
Ever since that first day of Pentecost there has been much debate about the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” something that St. Paul wrote about in his first letter to the Corinthians. He did not disparage the gift of tongues , but he was scathing in his criticism of its abuse when it created division instead of building community and overcoming strife and enmity . He put this in memorable words: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Pentecost is about God’s language of grace that enables us to sing from the same song sheet irrespective of our language, and so, as Philomène puts it, discover each other “in the sounds that end all strife.”
We speak many languages, and our mother-tongue is important for each of us. But given the fact that we simply cannot learn every language we encounter, we have to find ways to relate to and communicate with others that are universal. That is why the Pentecostal solution to the problem is so important. For even if we can speak in different tongues, Zulu or German, Chinese or Afrikaans, but do not love each other, it is, says Paul, no more than the sound of clanging gongs. After all, not all people who speak the same language really understand each other even if they understand the words. For there is more to relating to other people, more to communicating with others, than the words we utter. Communication is as much about body language as it is about words spoken; it is as much about our actions as it is about our speech. We can speak the truth in clear tones, but if we do not speak the truth in love, then it can be destructive and unhelpful. For the language of love is not a matter of words; it is a matter of deeds, of attitude, of embrace, of respect, of compassion and caring. Love, says Paul, has to do with patience and kindness, with fairness and justice. Everybody understands this language, for it is the language of the Spirit, the language of grace.
Everybody understands this language irrespective of the tongue we speak, for it communicates love not hatred, respect not disrespect, inclusion not exclusion. It is the language that transcends boundaries, overcomes enmity and builds community, it is the language that heals memories, it is the language that brings down injustice and gives hope to those who are downtrodden or in despair. No matter where you travel in this world, this language is universal because it is Pentecostal, the language of the Spirit. It is also the language of nature, the God-given sounds that surround us on Volmoed, which help us to understand and care for the world God has given us to enjoy. Listen to the wind, for God’s love is blowing in the wind, my friend, it’s blowing in the wind..
John de Gruchy,
4 June 2017