From the killing of Ahmaud Arbery to the release of the video of his killing, to the ramble in Central Park, to the death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis it has been a painful and tragic period in our life as a nation; all of this with the backdrop of a global pandemic. While the pandemic is a new tragedy for all of us, the violence towards people of color, in particular men of color in this country, is a nightmare that predates the founding of this nation; a nightmare that has continued to grow and evolve along with the American people.
With this backdrop many in the Church have commented that it does not feel as though we are approaching the day of Pentecost. Rather that we find ourselves walking again to the foot of the cross on Good Friday. There is a heaviness that has settled in among us during this time; I suspect for most of us who are white, myself included, this statement, while true, reflects nothing more than our privilege. Our sisters and brothers of color have known this heaviness far longer and more acutely than we ever will. Yet while I do not wish to dismiss the grief and pain many of us now find ourselves carrying, I pray that what we will begin doing is something so profound, so sacred, so holy that the day of Pentecost is perhaps no better day than any on the Church calendar to begin such a spiritual practice and celebrate it: listening.
That may sound simple and many may dismiss it outright, but is there not a plea to listen to one another in the story of Pentecost? On this day in Acts chapter 2 we are told that there are people gathered from every nation, each with their own language and dialects. Yet when the Holy Spirit comes upon them they all understand one another as if each is speaking the native language of the other. In the great diversity of the world, God creates unity; through the Spirit, through God within them, all can hear and understand the other. Through the many languages we use to speak to one another, God has given us the ability to listen and to hear God in each. Come, Holy Spirit.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are those who are skeptical, assuming as they do in Acts 2:13 that this group of people is merely drunk. They reason that each is from different worlds essentially; it would be impossible to understand so many voices and languages. These are perhaps content to believe such worldly reason, reason they’ve attained through their own limited experience; they remain skeptical, their hearts hardened perhaps. For them God speaks clearly, calmly, no noise or interpretation, just peace and clarity. Come, Holy Spirit.
Yet we put ourselves on perilous footing if we dismiss the diversity of voices and modes of communication God uses to engage us. The detriment of our selves spiritually as well as the spiritual and physical harm done to our brothers and sisters of color in this nation is a score we have not been able to grapple with; we have not heard the voice of God through their agony nor have we allowed ourselves to discover our own agony. Like those who stood by sneering supposing those gathered in Jerusalem had gotten into the “new wine” we have dismissed and ignored the voices of God’s beloved children as nothing more than “rebellion.” For instance, in contemporary American culture white America and the idol that we have allowed it to become has sought to dismiss the language of God heard in acts such as the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick during the National Anthem. The Black Lives Matter movement has been demonized and white washed through our cries of “all lives matter.” Again it is within diversity that God speaks to us; when one group is silenced we all are left straining to hear the voice of God. Moreover, this idol has fed our criticism and fueled our outrage over the destruction of property leaving us deaf to the language of unjust generational suffering, a language God knows all too well. Yet perhaps in our tradition of prayer handed down to us from our Anglo-European ancestors we can hear clearly our misplaced care and concern for property and its defense as we pray the words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is time our churches reclaim the language of sin and re-discover the hope found within it. Let us pray earnestly to God: “Forgive us our sins.” Come, Holy Spirit.
As George Floyd and Eric Garner before him pleaded “I can’t breathe” we were witness yet again to the violence and suffering caused by the inability to listen for the voice of God in each other; particularly in the suffering of one another. George pleaded for his mother and even used the language of deference by saying “sir,” a language he no doubt learned to speak in the hope of sparing his life in an encounter such as the one that ultimately killed him. Yet even the languages of common humanity – the appeal for his mother – and of subservience went un-interpreted. Come, Holy Spirit.
White Americans, white American people of faith and white American Christians in particular this Pentecost I pray we find ourselves able to listen to the language of God, as terrifying and as violent (Acts 2:2) as it may first sound to us. What we find ourselves being asked to listen to this Pentecost are the voices of God’s children living in a world of non-sense and the suffering living in such a world causes. In that listening I am certain we will discover our own suffering; some of us have already. Yet it is precisely there that we may find God closest to us seeing us through, opening our hearts and ears to those around us. I will not be surprised if it is in that language, that grammar of pain and suffering, that we are able to hear God speaking to each of us in a dialect we understand. Let us not forget as our Christian Story, as the story of God’s salvation often reminds us that it is in the grammar of suffering where we encounter God’s great deeds and power.
Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove, with all thy quickening powers; kindle a flame of sacred love in these cold hearts of ours. See how we trifle here below…our souls, how heavily they go to reach eternal joys. In vain we tune our formal songs, in vain we strive to rise: hosannas languish on our tongues, and our devotion dies. Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove, with all thy quickening powers; come shed abroad a Savior’s love, and that shall kindle ours.1
1Isaac Watts, “Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,” in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corps, 1985), H510.