A Language They Understand

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together  in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Acts 2:1-12
Yesterday we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, the day that marks the gift of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2.  As I’ve been thinking this week about this story, I’ve found myself most struck by this one simple line in the scripture:

“We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

To me one of the most striking miracles of Pentecost is that God never fails to communicate with his people!  He’s not bound to the language of the religious customs of the day (Hebrew for all the faithful Jewish), nor is he tied down to the language of the powers of the day (Greek for the Roman politically mighty).
No, like a raging wildfire, he is uncontained and unbound in his love for his people.  He shows himself willing to speak our heart languages… deeply personal and intimate; tongues of fire uniquely translated to get the heart of his message straight to our hearts.

The Good News of Jesus never changes.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  But as cultures shift and languages change, sometimes we need a new tongue to communicate the eternal hope and joy that is found in the Good News of Jesus.  And that’s just what this miracle offers. And maybe today no one speaks the language of the Parthians or the Medes, but there is a whole generation of children who speak a different language from most of us adults.  And I think we need this miracle as desperately today as they did at the time of Pentecost.

A young woman mourns after a May 18, 2018 school shooting at Santa Fe High School left multiple fatalities. // Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
With another school shooting fresh in the headlines, it seems as though more and more of us are throwing our hands up in defeat.  We don’t know how to stop the violence, so we give up… and it’s far too easy to point fingers of blame away from ourselves.  We shake our heads and bristle inside to think of how far the youth of today have fallen away from where we think they ought to be.  We blame gun laws, society, parents, video games, mental health, the kids themselves, and the discord grows louder and louder… We don’t understand each other and shouting louder won’t solve anything.

Maybe it’s time we learned a new language.

The message of Jesus never changes.  But rather than growing angry with “kids today” in all their darkness and despair, maybe we need to reflect on their lives and better understand what informs their decisions and shapes their character.  Maybe we need to repent for the ways our complicity has shaped current culture.  Or perhaps — more bluntly — maybe we need to repent for how culture has been shaped without us as we’ve checked out and boycotted and tucked ourselves safely behind closed doors and under tall steeples so as to avoid sullying our pretty Sunday dresses with the muck and grime of this fallen world.

But it’s not too late for tongues of fire.  It’s not too late for us to have blazing tongues of love in a hurting world.   This last weekend, in a welcome distraction from an endless cycle of bad news, the world watched while Prince Harry married Meghan Markle in England. And in the midst of the pomp and the circumstance, Bishop Michael Curry of the American Episcopal church delivered a rousing address on the powers of love.  The sermon, worth watching or reading in its entirety, began with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote:

“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

Bishop Curry cautioned us against underestimating or over-sentimentalizing love, because doing so denies its power to remake the world. And on that day of Pentacost, the full force of God’s powerful love was on full display in tongues of fire hovering over each person’s head. It is the love of God that compels him to reveal his heart for his people in ways they can understand. It is the love of God that compels him to speak the truth of his love and mercy in the languages of our hearts. Even today, may we receive this gift of tongues – this love gift from the Father’s heart straight to ours – and live into the power it conveys to us.

And may it compel us to ask how we can reveal God’s heart to others in ways they can understand. Maybe we need to ask Jesus how we can better communicate his truth to a generation of students who have been raised to believe there’s no such thing as truth.  Maybe we need to ask Jesus how we can better communicate his desire to accept us “just as we are” to a generation of young adults who are always failing to make the cut, meet the standard, or find belonging in even the most basic ways.  There are thousands of kids today who do not believe they are precious to anyone and who do not believe they have any value at all.  It should come as no surprise when this belief leads to destructive tendencies.

For a generation desensitized to violence and awash in isolation and despair and loneliness, we need a new vocabulary to speak life and love and hope.  The message of Jesus never changes.  But our language must.  And with the Holy Spirit’s help, he will gives us tongues of fire so those around us will hear the wonders of God in a fresh way and in a language they understand.


For me, writing this reflection leads me to a place of knowing I need to personally repent for my distraction and apathy and indifference. I’m struck by Mother Teresa’s words:


Maybe you are having some of the same thoughts. If so, as we pray for the community, school, and families impacted by this latest school shooting, I’d like to invite you to join me to prayerfully repent for the ways we have individually and corporately turned away from hurting children in our own communities. Let’s repent for the ways we have kept silent when we ought to have communicated mercy and forgiveness and hope and the redemptive power of God’s love.  And as we repent, let’s trust God will give us opportunities and the strength to turn back towards these hurting children.  He will put “one person” in our path if we ask him to.  Let’s ask for his love to burn bright in our hearts and spill out into the darkness around us; for tongues of fire to rest over our heads and empower us to bring the Good News to a new generation in a language they understand.  

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