As a child, I lived in Germany. I was never fluent in German and so I had the luxury of tuning out conversations almost everywhere I went. Whether I was at the beauty parlor, or a restaurant or walking along the street, I almost never knew if people were discussing politics, religion, or what they were having for dinner. I never thought much about this language barrier until we would come back to the States for summer vacation. Suddenly, I understood everything people were saying! Sometimes it was loud and obnoxious, sometimes it was dull, and sometimes it was fascinating. I remember one family dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles, when my grandfather had to reprimand both my mother and me because we were both leaning back in our chairs, completely absorbed in the conversation happening at the table next to us.
Humans have been divided by language for as far as memory can reach. Whether we were divided after the Tower of Babel or whether we just each developed our own set of words independently, the difference in understanding has had far reaching consequences. Our lack of understanding each other’s language causes mistrust, suspicion, and even violence.
Our language is what we use to form images, then sentences, then ideas, then treatises, then Constitutions and Bibles and Korans. . .Language expresses the core of our identity as individuals and as people. Misunderstandings between two languages can be humorous or serious. We’ve all heard stories of American travelers abroad introducing their family member as “My noodle” rather than “my aunt” while speaking an unfamiliar language. However, we as Americans have also seen the consequences of not speaking the language or understanding the culture as we get mired deeper and deeper in Iraq and Afghanistan, with very few Americans being trained in Farsi or Arabic. Not being able to communicate can have deadly consequences. Just take a look at the current regime in Myanmar. Their unwillingness to be open, to invite those of other languages and backgrounds to enter their country has extended even to refusing many aid agencies from coming and distributing needed resources to the tens of thousands of Burmese suffering from the recent cyclone.
How wonderful then, that the first act of the Holy Spirit after it descended upon the disciples was to give them the gift of languages. We think of the gift of speaking in tongues as incomprehensible babbling, but in this instance, when the flames of the Holy Spirit descend upon them, the disciples are given the gift of being able to communicate using all the languages of the many people living in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit’s first act is to bypass differences of nationalities and language and to ensure that everyone within earshot hears about what God has done.
Rather than descending on the Disciples and telling them how special they are and how this new religion is just for the few, for the chosen, for God’s favorites, the Holy Spirit invites everyone to the party.
And how do the people who receive the invitation to the party respond?
They assume the disciples are drunk! Yes, once again, characters in the Bible respond exactly the way normal people would respond. They don’t have epiphanies, at least not yet. Nope, they look up from whatever they are doing and say, “What’s going on with THOSE guys? They’ve got to be wasted, right?” They have no idea that they are observing the beginning of an entire new religion. They have no idea that these excited, goofy, babbling people will go on to be great leaders in a church that will reach nearly every country in the world. They have no idea that people of all languages, of all backgrounds, of all cultures will encounter the risen Christ, that people of all backgrounds will experience the Holy Spirit.
With Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, our allegiances have changed. Suddenly our identity rests not in language or nation, but in Christ. Our loyalty is to the One who created all of us, and small differences in the way we speak become meaningless.
I spent the summer between my junior year and senior year of college in India. Once, in the middle of a long conversation with a Christian single woman from Bho Pal, she stated, “I don’t think I’ll get married. Indian Men are such MCPs.” “MCPs?” I asked, excited to learn some native term, to go deeper into her experience of India. “Yes, she replied, MCPs, Male Chauvinist Pigs.” It is in small moments like these, when we interact with those of another culture that we realize we have far more in common than we might think. All people long for security and love and meaning, whatever their background.
Our bishop co-adjustor, Shannon Johnston, has just returned from a very sobering visit to the Sudan. He traveled to the Sudan in order to attend the consecration of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan’s new Arch-Bishop Daniel Deng Bul. The clergy in this region met with Bishop Johnston just a few days after his return to Virginia, and he told us stories that made every hair on our bodies stand at attention. As you no doubt have heard, the Sudan has undergone years of extreme violence. There is conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south and there is a separate set of tribal wars going on in the Darfur region. The population and infrastructure of the Sudan has been decimated. Children are starving, people live under whatever surface they can find, and militias prowl the streets, torturing and murdering at will.
Bishop Johnston explained to us that in the middle of this utter chaos and violence, The Episcopal Church of the Sudan, the second largest NGO in the country, has been a place of sanity as the church lives out principles of the Kingdom of God. In the church, Sudanese can find love and friendship, and sometimes even safety.
Bishop Johnston told the story of meeting one Sudanese Bishop with scars all over his face and body. He was told that this bishop had heard that seven people were being held prisoner in a home and tortured for absolutely no reason. He went to the house and offered to buy the seven prisoners in exchange for himself. He substituted his own body and was terribly tortured, all for the love of seven people he did not even know.
The Episcopal Church of the Sudan is the Sudan’s one real hope. In the midst of awful conditions, the church has kept its humanity, kept its connection to God. Unfortunately, the church is very low on resources, as is everyone in the Sudan. They have no way to communicate with each other or to travel. Bishop Johnston came back from his trip absolutely convicted that his first role as our Bishop was to create a relationship between our Diocese and the Archdiocese of the Sudan. He sent them a check for computers and cell phones immediately upon his return and is now brainstorming other ways we can partner with the Sudan to help this ravaged country heal from its wounds.
We cannot fully understand what the Sudanese are going through. They cannot understand the way we live our lives. If we were put in a room together, we might not be able to pick out a single common word. But, none of that matters. We are bound together by the same Jesus that sent the Holy Spirit to the waiting disciples. We are bound by the same Holy Spirit that gave the Disciples the gift of languages-the gift of communication and connection. We are bound to the Sudanese Church as tightly as we are bound to each other.
We are not the only Diocese helping the Sudan. In fact, some of the Dioceses helping the Sudan are led by Bishops that want to break ties with the United States altogether, like the Bishops of Kenya and Uganda. Bishop Johnston hopes that as we all respond to the Holy Spirit, and help the Church of the Sudan, that the Holy Spirit might also heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion and knit us all back together.
We are thousands of years removed from the day the Holy Spirit first fell on the disciples in Jerusalem, but we are part of the same journey. We continue the ministry of Peter and James and John as we become entwined with the Church in all of its multi-lingual glory. For our mission is the same: to love our God as best we can and to invite others through the wide gates to do the same.