May 29, 2012

Speaking in Tongues

I used to think I couldn’t speak in tongues.

Several years ago, I reported on a story about Jews and Pentecostals coming together to learn about the Passover meal of seder.

When the photographer and I arrived, we met the Jewish couple in the parking lot of the church. As we entered, we were warmly embraced by members of the congregation. It was easy to tell the interlopers: the four of us were white, the rest of the congregation was African-American.

The pastor asked us all to join hands and stand for the opening prayer. About 20 minutes into the prayer, one of the Pentecostal women began speaking a language I didn’t understand. I recognized the cadence and emotion – she was beseeching the Lord. But I didn’t have any clue what she was saying. 

With my head still bowed, I opened my eyes slightly and looked to the three other guests. Through a Morse-code-ish mix of blinks and stares, we all conveyed the same question: “What is going on?” 

After the prayer ended (another 20 minutes!), we took our seats. I turned to a woman next to me, a member of the congregation, and asked what had happened. I thought they were speaking in tongues, but I wanted to make sure so that I could report it accurately. 

The woman grasped my hands. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry you couldn’t understand. I will pray for the Spirit to bring you the gift.” 

I have rolled this over in my heart many times. She didn’t apologize for speaking a language I couldn’t understand, but rather she prayed that I might be visited too by the Holy Spirit, that I might one day have the gift of comprehending outside of my comfort zone, outside of all that is familiar. 

As we celebrated Pentecost on Sunday, I noticed a parishioner following the prayers on his iPad. Another scrolled through a smart phone to find the day’s reading. When the children’s choir sang for the last time this program year, a dad videotaped it from his tablet. 

I suspect that some in the congregation were dismayed – or at the least, befuddled – by the use of these technology tools during worship. But I offer that technology could be just another language to promote the Gospel. 

When I talk to congregations about communications in the 21st century, I am mindful that for some listeners, I’m speaking in tongue. Foursquare and Yelp, Google and Facebook, search engine optimization and html. It might as well be the native languages of “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia …” 

And yet the Holy Spirit offers the power and grace to enable us to understand God’s love in any language. 

I will keep praying for the Spirit to bring us these gifts.