Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Speaking Sense to a Listening World

This post is an adapted form of the message I preached on the Friday following Pentecost at the final worship gathering of the STEAM (Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) grantees. It summarizes so much about why I believe this engagement of faith and science is critical for the church and for the world.
We closed the worship in a circle singing "Amazing Grace."
The year was 1710, the year (I’m told) that Queen Anne approached the architect Christopher Wren and offered her assessment of his newly finished St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She declared three simple words: “awful, artificial, amusing.” 
      
To us, who don’t understand the vernacular of 18thcentury British English, this might sound incredibly offensive. But instead of offense, Wren felt flattered. Her words? “awful” (inspiring awe), “artificial” (full of artistry), and “amusing” (amazing).
      
Which brings me to my central point: It is important to know words at a particular time and contest in order to understand their meaning.

My wife Laura and I lived in Germany between my Master of Divinity and my doctorate. It was a glorious year in some many ways, and one of the glories consisted in learning the German language. But the subtleties of the complex German language can be tricky. I studied theological texts with my Duden dictionary by my side, sometimes looking up 20 to 30 words a page and written meanings in the margin. I also had to pick up household German and mastered words, which proved advantageous for everyday life, like Steckdose(electric outlet or socket). One other trick consisted in listening to the radio, and in the process I learned news and how to speak about heavy traffic, or ein Stau,on the A4 autobahn. 
      
One day in fall, Laura got a head cold and didn’t quite know the right word to tell the doctors. I was so excited, and blurted out, “I know—I’ve got the perfect phrase!” And so I taught her. We headed into downtown Tuebingen. She walked up the pharmacist (which in Germany is where some of our medical consults happen) and exclaimed with utter confidence, “Ich hab einen Stau in der Nase!” which essentially means “I have a traffic jam in my nose.” 

Learning the intricacies of any language presents significant challenges. Today, in our scientifically and technologically saturated world, one of the languages in which we are to speak is the language of science. We’ve got to get it right. Let’s look at the text of Pentecost and discover some electrifying truths about the Spirit’s gift of languages that help us speak sense to a listening world.

Acts 2 (NRSV)
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. 
         5 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 languageParthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

The pouring of the Spirit
From this text, we learn three major truths: the first two I will only outline, but the third I will develop at greater length.
      
The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost is the birth of the church. Put simply without the Spirit, the church has no life. And sometimes it’s better to know the Spirit through what the Spirit does. And what does the Spirit do? Create in the Christian community two fluencies.

The Jewish celebration of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, celebrated the giving of the law. Notice in verse 2 that the Spirit comes in the style of God’s appearances from the Hebrew Scriptures. Just like when God came “a whirlwind” to speak to God (see, for example, Job 38:1). Here too the Spirit comes “with a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” 
      
The second aspect to notice is a contrast with the Hebrew Bible. There, the Spirit was given to specific people at specific times for specific tasks (such as with Othniel in Judges 3:1). In this case, verse 4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Not just some, but all. This is very important: the Spirit is given to the young and the old, to women and men, to slaves and to free.

A fluency in the Gospel
The first fluency is a fluency in the fundamentals of the Good News about God’s work in Jesus Christ. This is a critical task for any church.
      
If you want to experience this fluency, read ahead. See what story Peter tells in verses 14-36: the fulfillment of prophecy in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and especially the call to respond to this message. That’s fluency in the Good News of Jesus the Christ.

A fluency in dialects
But I'm focusing on the the second fluency: learning the native language of those who have not yet heard the Gospel. This theme I would like to develop most of all.
      
It has been said that we all tell jokes, experience pain, swear, and dream in our native language. The Spirit leads the church to speak languages that outsiders can understand. This is the “fluency in the culture.” But in this passage, the abiding meaning is that God wants us to speak the vernacular, the “native language” (verse 8) that people can understand. (Notice as well the related word, translated as “tongues,” appears four times in the passage.) 
            
The impressive biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall, in his commentary on the book of Acts, sets out an answer to the question, How could Galileans speak in all the people’s languages?
“It has been objected that probably most of the crowd would speak Aramaic or Greek, the two languages which the disciples would also speak, and that therefore the miracle of tongues was unnecessary. But this difficulty must surely have been obvious to Luke also. What was significant was the various vernacularlanguages of these peoples were being spoken.”
Most of people coming to Jerusalem would have known Greek or Aramaic, but here God leads the church to speak in the common language of each person. Philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists and others tell us that language is the root component of who we are. God is communicating here that we aren’t simply known by the God as “a person,” but as Siri, or as Michelle, or as Ron, or as Melissa, or John.
      
This means we have to work hard to get the words just right. As Mark Twain once quipped, the difference between the right word and almost right word is the contrast between “lightening” and “lightening bug.”
      
I believe one of the main areas today is the language of science. Let’s make sure we find the right words.

The language we dream in
The first time I preached this message was at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City on Sunday School recognition Sunday. Why did the topic concern me and what did it have to do with the day? I thought of my then-5 ½ year old daughter Melanie. You see, she often mentioned to Laura and me, “I want to be a scientist.” (In fact, just last year she graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University with a degree in anthropology.) Here’s the problem: as a scientist in our congregation once said about much of natural science today: “They’re atheists, and they have the best science.” I never wanted my daughter, or any other church kid for that matter, to be forced to decide to between good science and her faith. I don’t want any of the Sunday school children to have to split their Christian faith from their thinking.

The angular effect of ethical engagement
Speaking the language of technology and science means that sometimes we in the church have to speak challenging, ethical words because science does not have within it the ability to boundary itself. 
      
During those WWII years, the Nazi regime had very few resisters. One of the few was the small Confessing Church in Germany led by the theologian Karl Barth. They said a distinct No to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews because—as they put it—Jesus Christ is the “One Word we have to hear and to obey in life and in death.”
      
One young physicist expelled from German was Albert Einstein who later said of the Barmen declaration. (I’d like to think it’s possible he reflected on as he walked past my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary on Mercer Street on his way home.) He made this observation:
“Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration for it because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual and moral freedom. I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Work out all y'all's salvation
I conclude by turning to a final text, Philippians 2:12-13 (NRSV):
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Just so we understand this passage, this is about not working for our salvation, but about working out our salvation. It’s not a faith versus works text. The verb katergazomai means to “work out the implications.” Work out what God has worked in. Even more interesting, in this passage, the Greek word for “you” in verse 13 is plural, and “salvation” is singular. In others—and here I’ll lean what I’ve learned from the Southern dialect: “All y’all, work out your singular salvation.”
      
What does that look like? 
  • What does speaking the language of science and technology mean when you’re sharing the Gospel in light of evolutionary science in Canada, or witnessing to the integration of mainstream science and mere Christianity on Facebook?
  • What does it look like when you’re ministering to students at Cal Tech, NYU, and the University of Madison?
  • What does engage faith and science sound like in the dialects of Oklahoma City, Nashville, and New York City?
I don’t entirely know. I’m not in your contexts. I don’t know your specific dialects. So you tell me.... Or better, you tell them--those to whom you’ll go back to after this conference.
      
And so I close with this prayer: May you STEAM grantees know the Power of the Spirit to speak languages that a listening world wants to hear. May it be so. Amen.


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