1 And when it was completely filled, the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. 2 And it happened: it snuck up on them, out of the sky a wailing roar just as of a violent blast of wind a wind that carries things away, and it filled the whole of the house where they were living 3 and they appeared to them, distributed, tongues like fire and they sat upon each one of them 4 and they were filled, all, of holy breath and they began to speak intimately in utterly different tongues, exactly as the breath gave speech to them. 5 Now there were, in Jerusalem settled, Jews, men well-taken-in-hand men from all the Gentile nations, all those under the sky. 6 But when it happened, this sound, they came together, the whole group of them and the group was all stirred together in confusion, because they were hearing, each one, in their own idiomatic dialect, they heard them speaking intimately. 7 But they were ecstatic and amazed, they said: Don’t look, but all those are, those speaking intimately, Galileans, right? 8 So how do we hear, each in our own idiomatic dialect, the dialect in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and people settling in Mesopotamia: Judean, yes, and Cappadocian, Pontan and Asian, 10 Phrygian, yes, and Pamphilian, Egyptian and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and resident aliens in Rome, 11 Jews, yes, and converts, Cretans and Arabs: we are hearing them speaking intimately in our particular tongue the great things of God. 12 But they were ecstatic, all, and they were trying to puzzle it out, this stranger to that one. They said: What does this want to be?
I have written on the miracle of understanding that happened at Pentecost, and I have reflected on the storyteller’s choice to present this understanding as taking place with our existing differences fully intact and on display. See my Provocation from 2017: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/a-provocation-the-day-of-pentecost-june-4-2017-acts-21-21/
I have been listening to us as we talk to each other. Now would be a good time for another miracle of understanding. Some years ago I was talking with a friend who was active (and prominent) in local politics. We were talking about the purpose of political engagement. I come from a family that is passionate about politics. We follow issues, and we vote in every election, just as we have done for generations. I told my friend that I had been raised to believe that the point of politics is to bring people together.
My friend laughed at me. Probably rightly. My friend, after all, also came from a family that was politically engaged and, unlike me, they had been active in elective politics, seeking and gaining political office on a local level.
The point of politics, they said, was to separate people. “No one goes into politics unless they know a wedge issue when they see one, and no one gets elected unless they learn how to use wedge issues,” they said.
My friend is probably right. But I still pray and work for miracles of understanding. We surely do disagree with each other, and I was raised to expect that those disagreements make us smarter than we would be otherwise. I was raised to value friends who were willing to argue with me stubbornly. Sometimes those friends even change my mind. Other times they help me understand that there are some durable disagreements that we will have to plan around, the way people building a road plan around hills and swamps, if we are ever to work together on the biggest problems we face.
My father-in-law and I probably disagreed on just about everything political. I come from a long line of social democrats, with various agrarian radicals hanging around in the group. My father-in-law spent much of his career working for oil companies. One of the best gifts he gave me was his willingness to argue, stubbornly, with me. We probably never changed each other’s mind, and we did not always manage to argue well and wisely. But when we did, I learned to understand another side of the problems we agreed were important, a side that my own family of origin did not equip me to understand very well at all. When I read the Pentecost story, I think of my father-in-law and of the miracles of understanding that sometimes happened when we talked in his living room.
I have been listening, however, to the way we are talking to each other these days. Irritation and seething anger are becoming normal. Wedge issues are everywhere, to the point that even naming the novel corona virus as a threat is attacked as “fear tactics” and “partisan politics.” Concern about the mounting death toll (100,000 people in three months) is labelled as evidence of “our sniveling, 21st-century commitment to safety.” People who disagree are told “go back to kindergarten where the little kids play.” (If you want to find similar cheap shots, do what I did: read the comment section on any COVID-19 article.)
We appear to love to scold each other, sometimes about serious issues, and sometimes not. I was reading a recipe on a cooking blog, and the writer prefaced their comments as follows:
I was just reading through over 100 comments I needed to approve and I was blown away at how rude some people can be. There were a few comments with people actually cussing me out over a failed recipe and telling me the way I wrote the recipe couldn’t possibly be right.
This Pentecost I am thinking about how difficult it is to understand each other. The problems we have to solve extend well beyond the need for a coherent response to COVID-19. That is only the beginning.
- Attempts to deal with the tangled issues of structural racism draw calls to “take our country back.”
- Attempts to protect our environment result in people telling stories of every pointlessly rigid inspector they have ever heard of, and pretending that those anecdotes of officious over-reach are the only kind of environmental regulation we have ever had.
- Small businesses all over this country are in real peril and the public political presentation of the issue pretends that we are faced with a simple either/or choice: kill businesses or kill people.
Nothing is that simple. Nothing has ever been that simple. Or that cruel. But if you are listening like I am, you hear the discussion being forced into that rigid mold. And now even our desire to meet together as congregations is being weaponized to drive wedges between people. Pastors who argue that we need to be wise and careful are attacked by parishioners who have been told that caution is a sign of left-wing politics. Socialism, dontcha know?
The real world is really complicated.
The Pentecost story leaves the complications in place. The people from all over the known world came to Jerusalem with languages and cultures that were incomprehensible to the other people who came to Jerusalem. Even when they understood the same telling of the great things God can do, they understood it in languages that were still mutually incomprehensible.
I’m a good enough student of American political history to know that there never was a golden age when everyone agreed on all the essentials. Our languages have always been incompatible and we have been held together as much by our conflicts as by our moments of consensus. Our life together is fragile and tenuous. Cynics understand politics only as the practice of wedging people apart. If the cynics prevail, we all lose.
If we are going to challenge the racism that deforms our life together, we need to learn to hear voices we have never heard before. If we are going to address our history of environmental cannibalism, we have to learn to listen beyond our pretty little idealistic schemes and we need to abandon the notion that the solution to living together in God’s Creation is laissez-faire anything. When I was young, Westminster Abbey was soot-black from the smoke of laissez-faire industrialism, the air of Los Angeles was brown and thick, and the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the thirteenth recorded time. (We were told at the time that this was to be expected because the Cuyahoga was a “working river.”)
If we are going to address the problems in front of us, we are going to need all of us working on them. We are going to need to ignore the cynics. We are going to need to hear the idealists without imagining that the way to fix things is to burn them down. We are going to need to stop shaming as “wimps” the people seek safety in this dangerous time. We might even need to learn to imagine that listening to and protecting each other is a way “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….”
We are going to need something like Pentecost.