Most of my travels have been to places where I knew or was learning the language. And if I did not know the language, a few team members did, so we were able to communicate in at least a basic way. The exception to that pattern was my trip to Myanmar. There were eight of us on the team, and none of us spoke Burmese. Most of the time, that was not a problem because we had a local translator. But on our first Sunday, we were divided into groups and sent to Anglican churches. When my partner and I sat down, we were handed a prayer book and a hymnal (familiar accoutrements for Episcopalians). We even had parishioners nearby who would help us find the page we were on during the service. But the prayer books and hymnals were completely in Burmese – a very pretty language to look at, but completely indecipherable to an English-speaking American.
So we did all we could do. We smiled and nodded as others helped us. We sat and stood as others sat and stood. We closed our eyes when it was obvious we were praying. We knew when the sermon was being delivered, even if we couldn’t understand it. But my favorite part came about two-thirds of the way through the service. One of the hymns was announced. We stood up with everyone else and prepared to stand silently again. Then all of a sudden, the people were singing a tune we knew. All of the tension and anxiety in my body melted away as a broad smile crossed my face. I quietly sang the words I could remember in English. Finally, I felt like a full participant in the body as we worshiped.
This Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost. Even though we will be experimenting with using foreign languages at Hickory Neck, I am not sure we will ever grasp the fullness of that first Pentecost experience – the chaos of languages, and yet the clarity of understanding by each in their own tongue. But what I hope we get a small taste of is the experience of being united by the Holy Spirit. That Sunday in Myanmar was a bit like that first experience with the Holy Spirit. In the desire to connect, communicate, and create community, we were able to do that through the power of song. On this coming Sunday, we will do that through the written word in our native tongues. What I hope the day challenges us to do going forward is to seek ways to find common languages – to connect, communicate, and create community with people who are unlike us. Whether they speak another language, hold another faith, are of a different race or socioeconomic class, there are “languages” that can create barriers to true connection. I suspect the Holy Spirit is with us when we are willing to work through the barriers. And if my experience in Myanmar gives any clue, the Holy Spirit will work its magic to help us connect, communicate, and create community. Then our work really begins.