Acts 2:1-21Â – Pentecost Sunday â€“ for Sunday, May 19, 2013
â€œAnd how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?â€ (Acts 2:8)
I was born and raised in California where Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco are prominent cities. Rivers flowing within the stateâ€™s borders include the San Joaquin and Merced. The Golden State is famous for the El Camino Real, the wandering trail linking the twenty-one Roman Catholic missions founded by Father JunÃpero Serra between 1769-1823.
History shouts out a lesson in Spanish nearly everywhere you turn in California.
In elementary school, learning Spanish was required. Though not as extensive as the proverbial 3 Rs of reading, â€˜riting and â€˜rithmetic, we studied the language of Father Serra and those famous missions.
I went to school by Sacramento, the town of the sacrament. My grandparents owned a farm near the Merced River, the river of mercy.
I was lousy at Spanish, even after dabbling in it for those elementary years. At most, I can count to ten:Â uno, dos, trace, cuatro, cinco . . .
In middle school, German became an option. I jumped the Spanish ship and boarded the German train. I started well and continued German in high school. My grades plummeted and by my sophomore year, the early As and Bs had devolved into dismal Cs with a glimpse of the basement called D.
Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf . . . and donâ€™t forget Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Sonnabend and Sonntag. (But please donâ€™t ask me the days of the week in Spanish.)
At the start of college, imagining myself a future attorney, well-educated and well-versed in Latin, I took a class for an immersion in that wonderful, essential dead language. I think my final grade was C+, but only because the professor liked me (and likely pitied me). Donâ€™t ask me to count in Latin, though I can still interpret all of the years of the Super Bowls!
In seminary, my Presbyterian brothers and sisters were required to learn both Hebrew and Greek. Not we weak-willed, my-heart-is-strangely-warmed United Methodists! Back in the day, we only had to survive a solitary semester of one ancient language.
I chose Greek.
Today, I canâ€™t count to one in Greek. Iâ€™m writing the first draft of this essay on a Friday, which in German is Freitag, but in Biblical Greek, today would be . . . well, I have no idea. Maybe once, near the end of my anguished semester of Greek, I couldâ€™ve faked some knowledgeâ€”because I passed the course!â€”but now?
Languages befuddle me. Spanish, German, Latin and Greek were part of my past, but never became a lively part of my present. Iâ€™m envious of those who are bilingual, and canâ€™t imagine how anyone understands three or more languages.
In the time of Pentecost, the backwater, canâ€™t-count-to-ten-unless-both-hands-are-available Galileans suddenly spoke many languages. Jesusâ€™ disciples, a rag-tag bunch of ne’erâ€“doâ€“wells and misfits, chatted and chortled in the language of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and so forth. Acts 2:8-11 listed at least sixteen different locales, with likely different languages, whose citizens all heard the bumbling, spirit-filled disciples speak words they understood.
They werenâ€™t babbling unintelligibly, but conversing in plain English!
Okay, English didnâ€™t make the list, since it didnâ€™t exist then, but by gosh those Phrygians and Mesopotamians sure got an earful. They heard about Godâ€™s deeds of power and didnâ€™t need a translator or to pay for an online Rosetta Stone class.
I love the celebration of Pentecost. Itâ€™s viewed as the birth of the Christian community. Within the Roman Empire, this band of believers was no more than a single stalk in a thousand acres (or iugeras) of Roman wheat. Pentecost served as the symbolic beginning, the flash of faith; it became hope ablaze, Godâ€™s spirit compelling Jesusâ€™ heartbroken followers to emerge as heartfelt leaders.
They prayed and preached . . . and all understood.
Hey, I can barely manage English!
And yet, a voice whispers within . . . donâ€™t take Pentecost so literally. If I canâ€™t speak two or ten languages, if I canâ€™t remember childhood Spanish or ever risk a conversation in Pamphylian, I can still respond to Godâ€™s spirit.
Which sometimes, in the spirit of Pentecost, will have nothing to do with furious flame, the wild rush of wind or ancient linguistics.
When I was a hospice chaplain, I visited a woman in her fifties dying of cancer. Among the many assaults on her body, she had a tracheotomy and could not speak. But somehow, we communicated. Iâ€™d ask a question or make a comment. Sheâ€™d nod or shake her head, blink her eyes or raise her eyebrows. Sheâ€™d frown. And oh how she smiled! I prayed with my eyes open. She prayed with her whole body.
Though itâ€™s been years since our visits, I recall how much she adored her red Mustang, the first new car she bought. As a flight attendant, sheâ€™d visited scores of places across the world and had favorite cities and towns sheâ€™d never want to see again. She planned her memorial service and was adamant her ashes would nestle in a columbarium above the ocean near her California hometown.
Often we only held hands, silence our companion.
I believe Godâ€™s spiritâ€”the mighty deeds of Godâ€”joined us and guided us. Always, that was just enough.