My academic roots are in communication. I’ve spent years trying to clarify and illustrate and explain and mediate. At my best, I’m only partially successful. Of course, most of us aren’t much better.
The biblical account traces this confusion back to a place known as Babel. Humans were ignoring God’s direction to spread out. They were staying together, building what seems to be a monument to their own significance.
It wouldn’t have worked, most likely. The tension present in relationships from long before would have boiled over eventually. But God’s response was to make collaboration complicated. To take the struggle with understanding that is inside us and to illustrate it with a multiplicity of languages.
And we use language as a force for domination and superiority. Official language and inside stories are two examples.
But then there is Pentecost. After the tongues of flame appear over the heads of the followers of Jesus, they begin to speak. And the people from all around the Mediterranean who are in Jerusalem understand what is said. For a moment, Babel is transcended.
But only for a moment.
Most of the time since, we still must work hard to understand.
Even when it comes to hearing God’s words from person to person. The Holy Spirit sometimes allows for those moments again, when one person speaks and another hears in their own language. Most often though, it happens through translation. People work hard to speak God’s word, to understand God’s words, in heart languages, the languages people learn from their mothers, not their bosses.
But as Babel reminds us that left alone we are confused, Pentecost gives us hope. And the Holy Spirit.
That’s why, at my best, I ask for clarity when I write and teach and counsel. Both for my fingers and your ears.
First published in 2016. Sunday, May 20, 2018, is Pentecost Sunday.