Text: Romans 8: 22-27
I often find myself surrounded by people who speak a language I do not understand. I become dependent on my translator, who filters out what she deems unnecessary. Those left-out bits aggravate me. I DO want to know if people are talking about how yummy the beans were at lunch or about how funny my dress looks or about how much they’re learning in the HIV training at hand. I get especially itchy when I hear my own name used in conversation—they’re talking about me, and I want to know what they’re saying!
Many in Mozambique, especially women and older people, do not speak Portuguese, the language of school instruction and the language of all official government activity. They depend on translators, and are excluded from direct access to decision makers.
Many of us in Africa interact in multilingual contexts on a daily basis, and get by fine. In this Pentecost celebration, basic communication probably wouldn’t have been a problem. Though the people gathered would have spoken different home languages, most would have had at least a basic shared knowledge of Aramaic or Greek. Why, then might the Spirit-filled native languages have been so important?
Much comes to mind. Recognition of individual identity. Inclusion. The resulting freedom. The chance to dream. Unity.
Language is a profound part of us. Though communication on this Pentecost day might have been adequate for conveying information (even before the Spirit outpouring), speaking and hearing in one’s own tongue touches a deeper place—not just one’s brain, but also one’s heart. My own heart jumps if, during the eucharistic communion meal, a priests uses English when offering me the body and blood of Jesus. Ritual and rote pattern that may have crept in fall away, and the words come alive. I also bear a sense of being in human community, of being seen, of being known.
After this Spirit outpouring, the one who is fluent in Greek no longer has any power or leverage over the one who speaks only the language of Libya. Everyone has access to the language of the heart. In our mother tongues, we are fluent. We are free. We can be more true. We can be included. And inclusion facilitates unity.
When Peter defends these people who appear to be drunk, he justifies them as “dreaming.” Mother tongues open up expressions from the heart, and it is from the heart, not the head, that we dream. It’s hard to dream in a foreign language. And it’s hard to dream through translation.
The story of Pentecost is, in part, a story in which each person is valued. Each person is included. And from that comes freedom.
Many of today’s traditional lectionary passages touch on this theme of new life, of promise, of fulfilled hopes. The Spirit of the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to dry bones, saying: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Isaiah shares with us the promise: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” In Romans we learn that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In John’s gospel (chapter 20) Jesus preaches peace to the disciples, who were so afraid they had locked themselves away in a room. In John 14 and 15, we hear Jesus’s promises of a “Helper, to be with you forever.” The following chapter promises that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth.” With the life-giving Spirit, we are not alone. These passages do not describe life in translation. They describe life in its fullness.
Where can we let the Holy Spirit transform our language from something that is mechanically adequate to something that expresses the heart? What “languages” do we use that may unintentional exclude people, or at least mask their uniqueness? How can we celebrate and value the diverse stories that each individual brings to the whole, as opposed to seeking only the common ground? In the context of HIV, how we can we recognize each person as an individual instead of applying collective labels?