‘How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’.
We hear and see and taste and smell each in our own unique way, emerging from our own life experiences and personal make up. Babies learn how to make sense of what they encounter by looking and touching and tasting – and as we journey through our lives, we continue to gather information that helps us to process what our brains encounter. We learn that things that look a particular way have a certain texture; that things that don’t look inviting probably don’t taste so good; that people from different cultures use their mouths differently and are able to make different sounds as they speak and sing. Our native language is more than just the use of a particular alphabet or phraseology; our native language connects with who we are physically and physiologically. Some languages are expressive, romantic; some languages are functional and sound harsh to other ears; some have sounds that people from other cultures are simply incapable of imitating. Some people communicate by signs and gestures – there may be no sound. Those differences in how we use our ears and mouths are true of our other senses as well. That may be less about cultural differences and perhaps a little more about lived experience. Our native language is about more than words.
Think for a moment about looking with other people at a work of art. As an example, here’s a Turner painting from the National Gallery. I wonder what catches your attention. Do you scan the landscape for familiar buildings or is your eye drawn to the people in the foreground? Knowing it’s a Turner, do you check out the sky, wondering what the Edinburgh weather was like that day? And if you were to come back to it tomorrow, would you focus on the same things or would your eye be drawn towards something different? What happens when someone points out something that they have just noticed? The gallery notes tell me that the building to the east of Regent Bridge is a Masons’ shed – does that little bit of information help you to see the painting differently? Art speaks to us in its own voice – and we respond with our own voice.
Of course, it’s not just our visual sense that takes in information in ways that are particular to us. Our sense of smell is a good example of personal response to the same stimulus. One person’s beautiful aroma is another person’s nightmare scent. A good example of that is the smell of a wet dog – you either love it or hate it. And the answer is probably rooted in experiences you’ve had in your life. Look again at the painting – what smells might it evoke for you? Can you imagine how that scene might sound? What would it feel like to be there, to be one of those people that Turner painted?
So here we are at Pentecost, celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit – each hearing in their own native language. Each engaging and responding from a place of lived experience. For the disciples, a lived experience of the presence of God in the human form of Jesus Christ; and then they found themselves gifted with a new way to engage with God in the form of the Holy Spirit. Imagine yourself now into that scene from Acts. What might you see and hear and smell and feel?
And now imagine hearing one of the disciples speaking in a language that is familiar to you, speaking in English, communicating in a way that you can pick out and understand. Allow yourself to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift for God’s people.
We can be quick to think that the Holy Spirit is only about holy moments; that we pray for the Holy Spirit to bless us at particular moments in our liturgy, but that it’s not prominent in our day to day lives. What it we reframe that thinking and see the Spirit as multi-faceted, see the Spirit as a pathway to and from God that resonates for us in different ways at different times. What if our experience of the Holy Spirit can be shaped by our lived experience; what if an encounter with that Holy Spirit is available to us a lot more of the time if we only shift our awareness?
We already think and speak about our encounters with God the Creator as being multi-faceted. We might recognise the hand of God in the landscape of the Highlands; we might feel close to God when we’re walking in the Pentlands; we might hear God with us when we’re praying alone; we might feel that God is present when we gather to worship. This morning, I’d like to consider that our encounters with the Holy Spirit are similarly multi-faceted and are rooted within our lived experience of engaging within our cultural context.
We hear, each of us, in our own native language. We hear more and more clearly when we listen. We hear more and more clearly when we dig a bit deeper to broaden our understanding of what our native language might be. As soon as we remember that language is about much more than words, our perspective changes. In a place like this, that’s perhaps especially apparent as we listen to the language of music and liturgy and are surrounded by visual stimuli. Within our church community, we perhaps hear even more when we begin to share with other people.
In the same way that sharing what we saw within the painting broadened our experience, so sharing what we hear and see and feel when we encounter God deepens our own experience and has the potential to impact on those who listen to us. We’re not always good at discussing our experiences of God; they can feel private, personal, so fleeting that we don’t know whether to mention them. But if we create opportunities to take that risk, to offer a word or an image or a feeling, maybe, just maybe, someone who is listening will hear in their native language.
As we make plans to gather together again, I wonder whether there may be people within this worshipping community who would be willing to take that kind of risk. People who would like to gather as a small group – or groups – that would offer the space to access and share something of each person’s native language, each person’s unique response, each person’s lived experience. This would be a different way to pray together, an opportunity to focus on our own journeying and deepening. An opportunity to actively walk alongside, to share what might be an emerging language for all of us.
Whether we intentionally go forward with others, or commit to being a little more aware day by day, the gift of the Spirit journeys with us and for us. I pray that with our ears and our eyes, with our voices and our senses we will each recognise and honour that Spirit.