Understanding Many Voices as One

May 15, 2016
by the Rev. Louise Browner Blanchard

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I’ve belonged to churches in Ohio, Georgia, New York, and three in Richmond. I’ve regularly attended other Episcopal churches in Charlottesville, Kilmarnock, Tazewell, and West Point and in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Belgium. There have been differences among them, to be sure—certainly different accents and different architecture, even different practices—but there’ve been far more similarities. They’ve all been American Episcopal churches—even the one in Belgium—using the American Book of Common Prayer and speaking, of course, in English. They’ve been the scaffolding of my life, and the familiarity of the words of the prayers, creeds, liturgy, and music has given me comfort and strength through all its blessings and travails.

But to be honest, it has been the services that weren’t so familiar that have opened my eyes and heart to the power of the Holy Spirit. The first time it happened was in the Dominican Republic. I was leading a mission trip as a newly ordained and admittedly overconfident priest. I was incredibly conscious of my role as a “capital L” leader. But as I quickly realized how much Spanish I didn’t understand, I became increasingly flustered. I fumbled through the Eucharistic Prayer in the Spanish language Book of Common Prayer with a French accent…because French is the only foreign language I know. I was mortified. Of course, the Dominicans and my fellow Americans found whatever I was saying unintelligible in any language. But somehow the power of prayer and sacrament was nevertheless making itself known in a way that we all might have missed if we’d all been speaking the same language. In fact, it was all the more powerful because we received it so fully despite the language barrier. And it forever changed the way that I experience communion—although I say and hear the words, what I listen for is the Holy Spirit, and that’s what empowers me to go forth in the world.

Just a few months after that first visit to the Dominican Republic, I went to Tanzania with my husband Buck, who, in his role as Director of Mission and Outreach for the Diocese of Virginia, works closely with the Anglican Church of Tanzania in partnering churches there with Virginia churches. If I was lost in Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, imagine how I did in Swahili and a culture unlike any I had ever experienced! But we had similarly powerful experiences wherever we went. In addition to Book of Common Prayer services in Swahili, the Tanzanians greeted us with dances the likes of which I’d never seen and songs the likes of which I’d never heard. When I preached, I can guarantee you they didn’t understand a word. But the joy in the bond that we shared in a common faith and liturgy overcame the vast differences in our languages and daily life in a way that reminds me of the power of shared faith to this day.

In the eight years since those trips to the Dominican Republic and Tanzania, I’ve been fortunate enough to be moved by the Holy Spirit many more times in languages that I don’t comprehend. I’ve returned often to the Dominican Republic. I’ve been to South Africa on several occasions. Services there took place in the tribal language of Xhosa in villages still forsaken by the ravages of apartheid and further decimated by the AIDS epidemic. I’ve visited remote settlements in the Amazon basin of western Brazil, where native dialects mingle with Portuguese, and people walk miles to have their babies baptized and themselves confirmed in the liturgies that we know on a deeper level than most of realize, no matter what language they are spoken in. The power of the words, as enlivened by the Holy Spirit, unites us across barriers of culture, language, and experience.

Today, we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit by fire, wind, and, notably, word. Pentecost, which means fiftieth, was originally a harvest festival that took place 50 days after Passover. For Christians, it marks the end of the 50-day season of Easter and celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised as he ascended to heaven. As today’s lesson from Acts tells us, it was quite an arrival: rushing winds, tongues like fire, and the sound of many languages proclaiming God’s power—all understood as one. Eventually, 3,000 people were baptized that day, which is why Pentecost is also considered the birthday of the church. No wonder the Book of Common Prayer commends it as one of the five recommended days for Holy Baptism!

Arguably, the biggest miracle in today’s lesson is that somehow everyone can understand the many voices as one. It reminds us that God speaks to all people equally, and that all people can hear God’s voice—in spite of many languages. It can be disorienting and discombobulating, to say the least, but sometimes – often? – we hear God’s word most clearly amidst the disorientation and discombobulation. And as Peter preaches to the crowd in today’s lesson, that’s what leads us to see visions and dream dreams.

Although I’ve learned that lesson from hearing God’s word in different languages, different voices don’t have to be in different languages to be transformed by the unifying power of God’s word. Throughout the last 50 days, we have listened to the different voices of each other as we discern together where God is calling St. Mary’s. It has been an eye-opening experience, disorienting and discombobulating at times, as we realize that we don’t all necessarily see things the same way or necessarily want the same things. But the power of the Holy Spirit has guided us in listening to one another and learning—sometimes to our surprise—that we are united by our commitment to and love for this wonderful church, even when we do not seem to be speaking the same language. God willing, what we have discovered is that the Holy Spirit often moves us most strongly when we have to work together to hear its unifying voice.

And together, that is how we will see visions and dream dreams for St. Mary’s.