I was born and raised in California where Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco are prominent cities. Rivers flowing within the state’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 Junípero 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, ‘riting and ‘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: 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 don’t forget Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag, Freitag, Sonnabend and Sonntag. But please don’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. Wouldn’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 Bowl’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 can’t count to one in Greek. I’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. I’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, Jesus’ 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 weren’t babbling unintelligibly, but able to converse in plain English!
Okay, English didn’t make the list, since it didn’t exist then, but by gosh those Phrygians and Mesopotamians sure got an earful. They heard about God’s deeds of power and didn’t need a translator or to acquire a Rosetta Stone or Babbel app.
I love the celebration of Pentecost. It’s viewed as the birth of the Christian community. At this moment of history, within the mighty empire, Jesus’ 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, God’s spirit compelling Jesus’ 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 . . . don’t take Pentecost so literally. If I can’t speak two or ten languages, if I can’t remember childhood Spanish or ever risk a conversation in Pamphylian, I can still respond to God’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. I’d ask a question or make a comment. She’d nod or shake her head, blink her eyes or raise her eyebrows. She’d frown. And oh, how she smiled! I prayed with my eyes open. She prayed with her whole body.
Though it’s been years since our visits, I recall our “conversations.” She adored her red Mustang, the first new car she had purchased. As a flight attendant, she’d visited scores of places across the world, with favorite cities she missed and others she’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 God’s spirit—the mighty deeds of God—joined us and guided us.
Always, that was just enough.