Sunday, June 26, 2011

An Altogether Different Language

remains of Murbach Abbey,
near Le Rimlishof, Buhl 
There was a church in Umbria, Little Portion,
Already old eight hundred years ago.
It was abandoned and in disrepair
But it was called St. Mary of the Angels
For it was known to be the haunt of angels,
Often at night the country people
Could hear them singing there
What was it like, to listen to the angels,
To hear those mountain-fresh, those simple voices
Poured out on the bare stones of Little Portion
In hymns of joy?
No one has told us.
Perhaps it needs another language
That we have still to learn,
An altogether different language.
      (Anne Porter, An Altogether Different Language, 2006) 
On Pentecost morning, I found myself at breakfast at Le Rimlishof, a retreat and meeting center owned by the French Scripture Union counterpart, Ligue pour la Lecture de la Bible.

There were five of us around the table – from five different countries: Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Argentina, Germany, and the US. The conversation turned easily to Pentecost, to language, and to the challenges of Bible translation when the history and use of a word can alter its meaning, when many in the world speak a language that has no written history, when putting a word into writing can be a political act with layers of meaning no one can foresee.

Le Rimlishof main lodge
Listening to my international friends talking, it occurred to me that Christians from the United States are at a sharp disadvantage in our understanding of language and of scripture, even as we enjoy a luxury few in the world have: we are surrounded by people who speak our language, and we are taught a written tradition centuries deep, with no need to wrestle with translation of complex ideas. As a result, we are not confronted, as so many others are, by the difficulties of nuance, the intricacies of connotation and denotation. We have no need to live across linguistic divides, as do the German Swiss working alongside the French Swiss, the Tamil Sri Lankans living beside the Sinhalese. In our simple understanding of language, we’ve come to believe that translation is a straightforward transaction: each word has a meaning that can be exchanged for an equal word with identical meaning, with no loss of understanding, no muddying of intent.

For those who speak multiple languages, that belief is amusing, child-like, even dangerous.

View of Buhl from Le Rimlishof
We spent four days at Le Rimlishof. While the Scripture Union staffers spent their days in meetings, looking for ways to work across cultural and language divides in engaging people around the world in reading the Bible, I wandered the beautiful village of Buhl, taking photos of the neat kitchen gardens, enjoying unfamiliar birdsong, sampling pain de chocolate from the two small bakeries in the village center.

Rejoining the group for meals, I’d ask for clarification and correction from the German and French Swiss representatives. What is “swartzwurzel”? Black root, poor man’s asparagus, winter asparagus. A perennial root-crop. Peel it, boil it, and use it as you would asparagus.

What is “col”? I saw numerous arrows pointing toward “Col de Shrangen,” “Col de Bannstein,” “Col de Peternit.”  

That one was not so easy. It’s the same root as collar: something to do with the neck. But as a place? It’s the low part between two mountains. My translators struggled to find the right word.

“A pass?” I asked. “A mountain pass?” Ah, yes. A pass.

But then, there was a moment of consideration by my translators, as they considered other meanings of the word, turned slightly red, and said “well, it also is used in other ways.”

Inappropriate, somewhat rude ways, apparently. They were warning me to be careful in the use of the simple word “col,” but hoped to leave it at that.

“So the signs are pointing toward passes between mountains, but better not to use the word.”

They nodded and smiled. Disaster averted.

Later that morning I found myself sharing my binoculars and camera with a small troupe of children. Le Rimlishof hosts school children for environmental exploration during the week, then church groups for retreats on weekends. While we were there, a large group of French school children spent time running up and down the side of the mountain, then an energetic German church arrived for campfires, cookouts, and lots of intergenerational play.

A smaller group of children and adults stay on through all the program changes: a handful of refugee families, some from Kosovo, the others, I think, from Somalia. Maki, Makfirete and Jojo were interested in my binoculars, so I showed them how to use them then took their picture and shared it with them on my digital camera. That led to more photos, some energetic jumping from rocks, and numerous attempts to communicate. When I tried to speak French to them, Makfirete, a sturdy girl of seven or eight, said “No English!” When I tried to say I was speaking French, she shrugged and said again “No English!”

We did manage to count to ten together – badly, since Jojo and Maki are still at the age when seven can easily follow five, and my pronunciation of “quatre” and “cinque” left Makfirete shaking her head. While we were counting, laughing, and documenting their amazing jumps, a German couple came up the drive in search of a nearby address. They didn’t speak English, the children couldn’t understand their question in German, and their mothers, when coaxed from the nearby kitchen, made clear that they spoke neither French, English, or German.

What a wonder it must have been, on that Pentecost day two thousand years ago, for the disciples to speak and find that those around them understood. And to know that the meaning was intact – to know that the Spirit, in guiding the language, was speaking straight to the hearts of the listeners.

An Adventures in Mission team a young friend took part in had a similar experience in Peru. A team of young adults was trained to do street ministry – drama, worship, and an offer to pray for anyone in need of prayer. One of the young men of the group found himself praying in tongues in a way that seemed unfamiliar. When he finished, a man in the crowd told him he’d been speaking in that man’s language – a tribal language, one of over three-hundred languages in a country divided by mountains, deep valleys, and vast areas of jungle. The good news of Jesus took on new life, not just for the man who heard it in his language, but for all the listeners: God is near. He knows our language.

God knows our language, but do we know his?    

After lunch on Pentecost Sunday, my husband and I traveled on from Le Rimlishof to Colmar, a historic town that has been the anchor of the Alsace region for centuries. According to Wikipedia, Colmar “was the location where Charles the Fat held a diet in 884.” It was an imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire, participant in the Protestant Reformation, occupied by Sweden during the Thirty Years' War, conquered by France under Louis XIV in 1673, annexed by the German Empire in 1871 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. After World War I Colmar was returned to France, was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945, and has been French since 1945.

Wandering the narrow historic district of Colmar, we came to the Place de la Cathédrale, and headed toward the entrance of St. Martin’s, the Gothic church built in the thirteenth century over the remains of two earlier churches. We were stopped at the door by a man asking for something: “petite pence”? Our attempts to understand him, or to have him understand us, went nowhere, until we said “Etats Unis.”

“Ah!” He motioned us toward another man, sitting on the ground, who looked up at us and then spat on the ground. Meaning broke through – they were beggars, asking for change. We shook our heads and pushed through the door to find a service in progress inside the grand gothic space.

L'église Saint-Martin de Colmar
Solennité de la Pentecôte - Solemnity of Pentecost. A service of music, prayer, and eucharist totally familiar, with a reading from Acts 2, another from 1 Corinthians 12, and the repetition, together, of “Notre Père, qui êtes aux cieux, Que votre nom soit sanctifié.”

Toward the end of the service, we sang a familiar song, a song written in Latin about the time the church was built by Francis of Assisi, and set to music in Germany in the seventeenth century:
    All creatures of our God and King
    Lift up your voice and with us sing,
    Alleluia! Alleluia!
    Thou burning sun with golden beam,
   Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
   O praise Him! O praise Him!
   Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!“
“Alleluia,” in French, is the same as in English. In fact, it seems one of the few words that holds true across almost every language, with slight changes in spelling and pronunciation, but no change in meaning.

Amazing to think there will be a day when all languages join in song, when all creation celebrates together, when the differences of speech and culture become part of the beauty, rather than points of frustration, or dangerous division:

   It's the song of the redeemed rising from the African plain.
   It's the song of the forgiven drowning out the Amazon rain,
   the song of Asian believers filled with God's holy fire.
   It's every tribe, every tongue, every nation, a love song born of a grateful choir.
   It's all God's children singing, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns. He reigns."

   Let it rise above the four winds, caught up in the heavenly sound.
   Let praises echo from the towers of cathedrals to the faithful gathered underground.
   Of all the songs sung from the dawn of creation, some were meant to persist.
   Of all the bells rung from a thousand steeples, none rings truer than this.
   All God's children singing, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns. He reigns, He reigns."
   All God's children singing, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns. He reigns, He reigns."
               (He Reigns,  Peter Furler and Steve Taylor, c 2003 Ariose Music)
 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Waiting for Pentecost

Flame, Babbitt, Minnesota Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2003, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore.
     The dove descending breaks the air
     With flame of incandescent terror
     Of which the tongues declare
     The one discharge from sin and error.
     The only hope, or else despair
          Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
          To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday – the day we remember the events of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. In our church, Acts 2:1-21 will be read in a mix of languages, we’ll pause to think about the Holy Spirit coming as wind and fire, we may even wait a minute or two in silence, in honor of the early followers, waiting as instructed for the coming of the Spirit, and then we’ll move on.

We don’t spend much time waiting, really waiting, for the Holy Spirit. Let me rephrase that: most of the people I know, most of the churches I know, don’t spend much time waiting for the Holy Spirit. We’re busy people. We have schedules, agendas, things to do. Silence is way too boring and let’s be honest, there’s something a little unnerving about waiting for something, someone, we can’t see.

And yet, there have been times when the Holy Spirit has intervened without my waiting. It’s happened enough for me to know the difference between my own often-random thoughts and the very clear, firm voice that sometimes interrupts me.

Do this. Go there. Say this. Stop that person and introduce yourself. That’s about the tone of it. It happened when I was walking across the quad at a college I’d never considered, and wasn’t impressed by: This is where I want you to go. Really?

It happened again when I was walking, as a first semester freshman, into the campus center at that same college. I’d been praying about the character of the characters I’d been dating and that calm quiet voice said: “There. That’s the man you should marry.” I wasn’t praying about marrying – I was praying about dating. But we eventually became friends, and on our first date, the topic he brought up was the Holy Spirit. What did I know about the Holy Spirit? He had been thinking about that a lot, and really wanted to know.

We’ve been married now for thirty-four years – today! – and we’re still talking, and praying, about the Holy Spirit.

Reading through Acts, I’m struck by the way the followers of Christ learned to follow the Holy Spirit. Peter, on the way to the temple to pray, accosted by a man who couldn’t walk: where did Peter get the courage to speak to the man the way he did? It’s so familiar we forget how terrifying that would be – to stand there on a public street, look at a man lame from birth, and say, so anyone listening can hear: “I don’t have any money to spare,  but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.”

St. Stephen, Luis de Morales, Spain, late 1500s
Stephen, a few chapters later, confronted by the high priest, could have taken an easy path, said a few nice words, gone his way. How did he have the boldness to say the things the Spirit gave him to say? Read it: Acts 7. You can see the Spirit moving through it, with Stephen’s voice building in strenght and boldness until by verse 51 he’s speaking with the same authority and fearless power Jesus had when speaking to the Pharisees. And then they killed him.

Ananias, not long after, hears a voice telling him to go pray for Saul, notorious zealot on a mission to capture any follower of Christ. He raises objections, but the voice says “Go!” And off he goes. Courageously obedient, setting both risk and doubt aside.

And on it goes. Agendas revised, plans rearranged. As the Holy Spirit reveals gifts of healing, prophecy, teaching, wisdom, the followers of Christ use the gifts boldly, obey tirelessly, head off in frightening new directions with no guarantees of safety or success.

I’ve been going once a month with my friends Joan and Mimoza to pray for a girl struck by lighting three years ago this week. June 10. Pentecost Sunday 2008. I’ve described some of her story on one of my blog pages. It didn’t occur to me until just today that the lightning struck on Pentecost Sunday: fire and wind. I don’t know what to make of that.

I do find that in praying for Emily, I find myself praying as well for the body of Christ.

Emily seems to understand most of what’s said to her, but words seem to be missing, and messages don’t always travel well from brain to hand, from brain to leg. She can walk with help and lots of coaching. She can hold a fork, but it doesn’t always make it to her mouth. She can form words, but the part of her throat that governs sounds seems to be missing. The air comes out, but the consonants don’t.

My friends and I go to pray because we believe the Holy Spirit told us to, and because we believe in the gifts of the Spirit: prophecy, words of wisdom and knowledge, faith, mercy, healing. We go because I believe God told me to pray for complete restoration, and my friends, with greater faith than mine, believe God spoke to me, and wants to stir up gifts of healing. Mimoza has seen several family members healed of cancer, in ways that have doctors wondering. What does the gift of healing look like? We keep asking.

But our arms are often weak, and our voices uncertain. Praying yesterday with my hand on Emily’s arm, I was struck at how very thin her muscles are. She was a strong, sturdy girl, third in an active family of seven. As her mom told us yesterday, she worked on a dairy farm during high school and loved it. But three years of disuse has left her arms as thin as a small child’s. She tries to reach for something inches away, and pulls her arm back again. The simplest motion is still too hard. I feel like that in my attempts to pray. The air comes out, but there’s still something missing.

I have a letter sitting next to my computer from a friend I haven’t seen in years. We led some children’s outreach mission trips together on Jekyll Island, Georgia. My first two mission trips. The teams were Betty, me, and another mom, our combined kids, and some teenagers from Jekyll Island we’d never met. Betty taught me much of what I know about leading mission trips and about ministry to very small children, and together we explored what it might mean to hear the Holy Spirit leading.

The Pentecost Alexander Sadoyan Armenia 2003
She’s just decided to leave a very safe, familiar, comfortable home in Connecticut to join the staff of Adventures in Mission, a mission group committed to teaching youth and young adults how to do missions in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Betty and her kids have had some powerful adventures with AIM, and she’s decided to join them, even though it means moving to Georgia and raising her own financial support. Here’s part of what her letter says:

“Adventure, change and risk – at least for me – are bound together. Fear has largely sidelined them in my life. I feel the restlessness but find it hard to change unless it is forced on me. And yet, while I could find plenty of compassion in scripture for people who experience fear, I could find no permission to stay there. There’s a constant call to ‘Fear not,’ to follow Jesus no matter what or where. 

“The outward look of what I do does not determine this. It’s an internal shift that says I will not let fear put constraints on whether I say ‘yes’ to the Holy Spirit’s nudge, and I will not let complacency set my life’s path.”

I’m excited for my friend. And I’m thankful. Because obedience is a corporate act. We say “yes” as individuals, one by one. But the courage of our brothers and sisters feeds our own courage. And the gifts of our brothers and sisters call forth our own.

I’m longing to see gifts of healing revealed more powerfully in God’s people. My friend Emily is waiting. But the gifts of healing depend on other gifts: obedience in speaking, and doing, the difficult things God gives us to do, the grace to set our own agendas aside, faith to trust, and pray, and wait, when it feels like it’s all an illusion. Our muscles are weak but as we reach out our arms together, we will grow stronger, and God will use us.

I am thankful, beyond thankful, for those faithful friends God has set in my path who have challenged me to press on in obedience to the Spirit’s leading. I am thankful for a husband who prays and waits with me, and who joins me in choosing the sometimes strange and difficult paths the Spirit leads us in. I’m thankful for my prayer partners Joan and Mimoza and Emily’s mother Janet, for Betty’s example in mission, for the many faithful young and not-so-young men and women who have worked with me in ministry, waiting, praying, listening, and choosing the hard road of obedience.

I pray with the prophet Habakkuk:

              Lord, I have heard of your fame;
              I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
         Repeat them in our day,
              in our time make them known; 
                                (Habakkuk 3)

I will be having my own "other tongues" experience next Sunday. I'm heading off to France later this week with my husband for some international Scripture Union meetings near Strasbourg, then four days in Paris to celebrate our anniversary. As a result, I won’t be posting for the next two weeks, but will look forward to resuming the conversation on June 19. Your thoughts and experiences, as always, are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.