Fifty days after Easter, the spirit gave the apostles the power to speak in the languages of all the peoples.

It is a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, we tried to become like Gods by building a tower to the heavens. We were cursed to misunderstand and mistranslate. We would be caught in perpetual confusion, a consequence of our audacity. The source of violence in human culture was named: pride and misunderstanding – competition with the Gods for power.

Yet in this week’s reading, the spirit brings people together. Language to understand and comprehend rather than divide. The most holy work, in this case, is one of translation. And translation requires charity, because no translation is ever perfect.

Our age, however, has so compressed time and space that comprehension becomes very challenging: in part because there is too much to comprehend; and our words move exceptionally fast. Add that the same youtube video seen by people of two completely different cultures may be translated completely differently.

What characteristics do we need to handle our contemporary problems of “translation?”

First: we should remember that church – or any institution – should be an adventure. Charting new territories is fun and rewarding. Safety, quick solutions, and fads just postpone the inevitable.

Second – Tenacity: keeping attentive to the different ways we can improve. It means, also, plotting out small steps. A big vision is very useful, but it is also to map our small successes along the way. tenacity is how one learns a language – we are willing to keep speaking, even if we make a mistake. We listen carefully so that we can be sure we understand.

Last: listening. It is perhaps most true that the apostles were not just speaking in the language of the people, they were listening to the world.

There are immense difficulties here at St. Barts. And yet, there are also great opportunities. Let it be an adventure; and may we be both steadfast and resilient in the days ahead.


Keeping the Word

Yesterday Jesus said in the Gospel (John 14:23) that “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  It’s one of those conditional statements that bugs me.  If you don’t love Jesus you won’t, but if you do you will.

When I think of promises, I also think of contracts and laws.  Contracts as in written agreements with the power of force; laws as in cosmic natural laws such as gravity.  Law makes the world ordered; as do promises.  They allow us to plan, to have expectations.  We have subconscious promises, ones we don’t articulate, but are present in our assumptions and habits.

We can see all sorts of ways people break promises.  People leave their marriages.  Governments lie about war.  Police are on the take, extorting criminals rather than turning them in (I just saw the movie Serpico).  Churches can’t extricate the criminals within their orders.

Often people’s words do not fit their actions.  Perhaps that’s the truly religious person:  one who’s words always match their actions.  And maybe that’s why truly religious people are silent.

Some philosophers have argued that hypocrisy is wherever you look for it.  It’s the nature of public life that our public proclamations don’t match our private lives.  A male politician might be great about supporting women’s issues, but be vile to their spouses.  Johnson was a racist, but the president who did the most to change institutionalized racism.

And the brokenness we experience in the natural world happen when different cosmic laws engage.  When someone falls to their death, we wish, perhaps, that gravity might not take hold.  But then, what would happen if we could not rely on such certainty.

Perhaps the point here is that we make promises not denying that they get broken, but in spite of them.  We are given, because we have faith in God’s deep promise – that we know through his cross and resurrection – the power to continue building trust, to continuing uttering words, to continue acting, even though our everyday confidence is a little less arrogant, a little more modest, and little more humble.  We might find ourselves in positions where we do break our promises.  But if we love one another, if we maintain our honesty, if we do not flee from the consequences, and if we accept our flaws with generosity, and trust that we can each do better, we may still taste how God continues to have confidence in us.

In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan makes a promise to the Witch.  But the altar is broken due to the deeper promise, one based on sacrifice, which is known in the world.  By raising it, God reveals his trump card.  We can trust in Jesus.

But what does this obscure code mean?  I suspect it means something like this:  we don’t give up.  We don’t give up on one another.  We don’t give up on our families; we don’t give up on our communities; we don’t give up on our governments or our churches.  In spite of our diminished expectations we find ways to move, to act, with the confidence we have.   Whatever promises are broken shall always be trumped by the promise we believe God has made in us.  And when our words match our actions, it may not merely be silence, but also the expression of our vitality; the simple witness that He Is.

Ernesto Cortes, Jr.

I was recently reminded about this fellow.

When one woman asks him to explain how he “motivates” people to support a cause with actions as well as words, the storm rolls in. Cortés can scarcely conceal his impatience. “Perhaps I prejudge you unfairly,” he begins, “but when I hear your question, what I think you’re really saying is, ‘How can I convince people to do what’s good? How do I get them to do what’s right? How do I get them to follow my agenda?’ ” He pauses, frowning. “That’s not organizing. What I mean by organizing is getting you to recognize what’s in your best interest. Getting you to recognize that you have a child, that you have a career and a life to lead, and that there are some things that are obstacles to the quality of your life. I need to get you to see how you can affect those things through relationships with other people. And it’s only going to happen if you engage in some kind of struggle.”

He pauses to let it all sink in. “We organize people not just around issues, but around their values,” he says. “The issues fade, and people lose interest in them. But what they really care about remains: family, dignity, justice, and hope. We need power to protect what we value.”

In churches, we call this asset based congregational development.  Begin where people are, not where you think they should be.