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 proclaims a lesson in Spanish nearly everywhere in California. I went to school by Sacramento, the town of the sacrament. My grandparents owned a farm near the Merced River, the river of mercy. 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 was lousy at Spanish, even after escaping the 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. 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.
Imagining myself a future attorney at the start of college, I took Latin. I planned to become immersed in that still useful, but dead language. Wouldnâ€™t I need to understand habeas corpus, in camera, and etc.? And yes, etc. is Latin! I barely passed, but only because the professor liked me (and likely pitied me). Though unable to count in Latin, I can still interpret the Super Bowlâ€™s Roman numerals!
In seminary, my Presbyterian colleagues were required to include Hebrew and Greek in their course work. 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 flipped a denarius and went with 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 may have known. But now?
Languages befuddle me.
Spanish, German, Latin and Greek were part of my past, but never became a lively part of my ongoing present. Iâ€™m envious of those who are bilingual, and am humbled by those who speak three or more languages.
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In the first Pentecost, those backwater Galileans suddenly spoke many languages. A rag-tag collection of ne’er-do-wells and misfits, Jesusâ€™ disciples became fluent 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 once fearful, now spirit-filled disciples speak words they understood.
They werenâ€™t babbling unintelligibly, but able to converse 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 acquire a Rosetta Stone or Babbel app.
I love the celebration of Pentecost. Itâ€™s viewed as the birth of the Christian community. At this moment of history, within the mighty empire, Jesusâ€™ 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 first flash of faith. Pentecost became hope ablaze, Godâ€™s spirit compelling Jesusâ€™ heartbroken followers to emerge as heartfelt leaders.
They prayed and preached, equally compelling in different languages.
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 our â€œconversations.â€ She adored her red Mustang, the first new car she had purchased. As a flight attendant, sheâ€™d visited scores of places across the world, with favorite cities she missed and others sheâ€™d never want to see again. She planned her memorial service and was adamant her ashes would be tucked into a columbarium above the ocean near her California hometown.
Often, we only held hands. Silence was our frequent companion.
And yet I believe Godâ€™s spiritâ€”the mighty deeds of Godâ€”joined us and guided us.
Always, that was just enough.