There are so many images in this week’s Pentecost account that I find my imagination running in a couple of different directions. One is to dwell in the power and wonder of the Holy Spirit as portrayed for us in wind and flame. The other is to ponder the miracle of differences overcome through the coming of the Holy Spirit: particularly as we hear of it in those who were able to understand one another in spite of differences in language. And so I offer two images now.
I heard about Aseel Albanna in a story on NPR some time ago. Ms. Albanna came to the United States for a four week visit from Iraq twenty years ago. When war broke out and it was unsafe for her to return, through family she found a way to stay on as a student. So it was that she was ‘away from home’ during those tragic years when her country was destroyed by war. She had reason to return not long ago though, and as she was driven through the streets of Baghdad she was heard to exclaim over and over again at how much it had all changed. When she finally got out of the car and stood in front of the house which had once been her home, she said,
“It’s like there’s no more life left in it. What I have left is only memories, because right now
I barely recognize it, to be honest. The only thing that’s still here is the breeze,
that Baghdad breeze.”
Only the wind remains… I thought of Pentecost when first I heard this story. Of the power of the wind. About how, like with the Spirit, we can destroy all this world holds, but we cannot take away the wondrous power of God. The breeze remains, perhaps sometimes in spite of us.
And a second image: this one the story of a time when difference in language could have divided, but did not:
My sister and mother and I took a trip to Norway several years ago now. The landscape was breathtaking. If you’ve been there you surely know of what I speak. It was impossible to take a bad photograph and we took many. The highlight of the trip, though, was the day spent with relatives in the town of Sand, south of Bergen. My grandfather’s people emigrated from there in the late 1800’s and made their home in Wisconsin as did so many others in that time of needing fresh starts and opportunities.
We drove a fair distance to get there where one of our cousins met us at the ferry and led us on a tour of the community. We saw the church they call their own and the tiny house our ancestors would have called home. And then we drove to cousin Jenny’s (pronounced by one and all ‘Yenny’) house where the clan was waiting to greet us.
The older generation knew little English and our Norwegian is limited to a few phrases tied to holiday celebrations so we were especially grateful that the younger cousins joined us as we ate together for they managed to help us understand one another across all that would divide us. Indeed, the only English words 80-plus year old ‘Yenny’ seemed to know were “You must eat.” Which she said over and over again and which we proceeded to do in abundance.
After the meal, though, the young folks went home and we were left with the older cousins and the language difference between us.
We sat in the front room, me, my sister and my mother — all in a row on the sofa, uncertain about what would happen next when ‘Yenny’ and her sister entered the room. We noticed them whispering to one another, just out of our hearing. Moments later it became evident that they were trying to decide on a correct translation for ‘Yenny’ pronounced to us, “You look homely.” Yes, you read that right. My sister and I dared not even sneak a glance at one another else we would have succumbed to gales of laughter. And then she said it again, “You look homely.” Only this time she quickly followed up with “You must eat.” It was clear to us then that she meant to say ‘hungry’ and not ‘homely.’ And so we ate again. Clearly food offered a common language we could share.
Indeed, if we had not already experienced ‘Yenny’s’ wonderful hospitality and overwhelming generosity, we might have been tempted to take offense for it is not often one gets called ‘homely’ directly to one’s face. Instead, a history whose threads were intertwined and a shared meal had already served to bind us to one another so that in spite of the language barrier we were able to begin to understand. And before that, to at least patiently wait to see if perhaps we had misunderstood.
While this world seems to constantly grow smaller, even so we experience more and more those ways and times and places when language and so much more would still divide us. This is, of course, part of the wonder of the story before us now. We can’t quite get over the fact that people across time and space and tradition and language and culture and custom are, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, able to understand one another. And yet, that is not the miracle of the story… it is only the evidence of it. The miracle in this story is that God’s power is greater than anything and everything that would divide or destroy us.
And to be sure we get glimmers of the amazing gift of that in the realization that we may destroy everything that is good but God’s power (e.g. that Baghdad breeze) remains and waits to heal and build and bridge once more all that breaks us apart. And yes, we do get glimmers of the wonder of that when in spite of all that would divide us, we still find ways to understand one another by the power of the Holy Spirit who enables us somehow to understand and find common ground in spite of all that would keep us apart. Amen.
In what ways do ‘wind and flame’ speak to you of the attributes of the Holy Spirit?
Can you think of times and places when the power of God remained in spite of evidence to the contrary?
How do you see the Holy Spirit bringing together what was once divided? What would understanding’ look like in your context?
Often we think of the work of the Holy Spirit as mysterious — as difficult to explain. Have you found this to be so? Where and how have you experienced the Holy Spirit at work?