Pentecost 2010 - Understanding Babble

Understanding Babble

Recently, Daniel Carlson was in my office for a meeting and at exactly 3 o'clock he suddenly looked up and asked, "Is something about to explode?"  Now ministers rarely take each other at face value, so I was wondering what he might mean by this, when he pointed to my desk.  "Over there," he said, "something is beeping."  I thought he was kidding.  So I go over to my desk to show him that there is nothing there.  After I get to my desk I hear the faintest of noises.  Like an alarm coming from a world on a baseball.  I find a electronic pocket watch that is on my desk and hold it directly to my ear.  There is the tiniest of alarms going off.  It had apparently been going off every day at 3 pm, set months ago for some event that I must have missed, since I couldn't hear the darn thing.  I had heard that there were frequencies that you lost touch with as you got older, but here it was.  Daniel could hear things plainly that I couldn't.  My own alarm, no less.

Our lives are full of babble, of misunderstanding.

Each of us lives in slightly different perceptual world.  Because of our physiologies, we hear different things.  Before sense data even gets to our frontal lobes, our experiences are filtered and often categorized by our sensory processing.  We look at ink blots and actually see different things.  A few people in the world can listen to hard rock music and understand the lyrics.

It is no wonder we understand things differently.  In the human family we use different languages and words to describe different experiences.  It is to be expected that I couldn't understand someone speaking Mongolian, but most of the misunderstandings in the world are with the people closest to us.  Husbands and wives who have lived together for decades will still completely miss some meaning or message.  Parents and children will see each other as people from other planets even though they have shared life for years.

It's a wonder civilization exists at all.  The simplest of orders is mixed up.  If people understood each other, I could always get my eggs the way I want them at a breakfast place, when in fact, my not-so-picky egg preference only makes it to my table correct about a third of the time.

We mishear, misstate, misunderstand, misrepresent, misconstrue, misuse, misinform, and misspell.  It is no wonder we miss each other's meaning.  The writers of Genesis told the story of Babel to understand the basic fact that we just can’t get each other most of the time.

Men complain about not being able to understand women.  And women complain about . . . being able to understand men all too well.

The church has a problem being understood.  The Bible is not completely transparent; it can be confusing.  We have rituals and customs that may not communicate what we want.  Elders process down to the first pew, strange flags fly in the sanctuary, we say unfamiliar words.

One of the basic battles fought by our denomination was over how to be understood.  This church was founded by people who spoke Dutch.  When they came to worship, therefore, they spoke Dutch.  At some point, they had to decide if they were just talking to themselves, or whether God needed them to have other people understand.

The Miracle of Pentecost is that people understood.

In the face of all the potential ways that we can misunderstand each other, it is a miracle if it ever happens, especially if it is about something very important.  When we take away the hubbub and the flash, when the wind and the fire are taken out of the story, the miracle is even more clear.  Strangers understood each other about something important.  A miracle.

When the stakes are higher, when the issue is filled with emotion, the odds go down that the message will get through, unless God is involved.

This is not to say that at Pentecost everyone got it.  In every age, some will not be ready to hear God's tune and so will think it nonsense.

But our new hope is that the power that changes our lives can be shared with others.  Our faith is not such a personal thing that it is all bottled up inside us.  We risk talking to each other about important things with the new hope that someone else will 'get it.'  When we were young, we stayed up to all hours talking about what was important.  We can either get lazy or jaded and forget the spirit that brings new life.

Today we have brought in hope for our future in the form of a twelve new disciples who now share the Spirit with us.  We will all speak.  We will all listen.  And with God’s Spirit, we will sometimes hear something like the rush of a mighty wind and understand each other.

Just like the first Pentecost, when we understand, we wonder how it will work out: "What does this mean?"

I'm not exactly sure what Pentecost means for our futures.  On the interpersonal level, it may mean the reinvigoration of our efforts to understand and be understood.  Apparently it IS possible for men to understand women and for parents to understand teenagers.  It just may take more listening than we have been accustomed to.  Babble is understood when we gather in the Spirit.

On the level of our faith, it may require us to trust folks who hear alarms very dim to us.  Remember, other people can literally hear things we can’t.  We need to listen to voices of hope in people who sound very different.  Different languages, different music, different expressions.  Babble becomes holy when we gather in the Spirit.

As a congregation, this means we pay attention to our role in the spreading of the Spirit.  The disciples were gathered together in one place when the Spirit fell.   Being understood seems to require us to be connected with each other, constantly checking the status of the people around us.  Maybe Facebook and twitter have something.  The business of understanding and working with the Spirit is a rejection of the self-centered and self-satisfied life.

This community centered life is tough for a big church.  It’s easy and comfortable to be a spectator here.  It would be easy for us minister types to simply put on a good show on Sunday morning and leave it at that.  But there is more to be understood here.  There is more Spirit on the wind.  Bagabagabaga?  Bagabagabaga!