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A common tongue

A common tongue

By Marshall Scott

One afternoon when I was in college I took my girlfriend to a matinee at the movies. While we waited outside to buy our tickets, I found myself in conversation with a woman. She told me that she had come into town by bus, and was headed home again. She came in to shop twice a year, and once home, wouldn’t be back until perhaps the Christmas season. She had a rather thick and distinctive accent, sort of an odd combination of the Yorkshire Dales and Cockney East London – sort of. Still, I didn’t have any trouble understanding her myself.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, didn’t understand. “Who was that woman?”

“Oh, she just wanted to talk. She’s come in today from out in the country to shop, something she only does twice a year. She’s waiting on the bus to start her trip home. Mostly we talked about what a nice day it is.”

“Why did she talk like that,” she asked.

“She lives in the mountains,” I answered. “There are still some places so remote that not even radio gets in. Back that far in the mountains, accents haven’t changed much since the folks immigrated 250 years ago.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m glad to know what that was about. When she first started talking, I thought she was touched in the head! And then you answered her!”

I’ve thought about that experience as I’ve reflected on Pentecost. We all know the story: driven by the Spirit, marked with tongues of fire, the disciples poured out into the streets of Jerusalem; and in that cosmopolitan city, visitors from across the known world heard the Gospel proclaimed in the various languages that they spoke at home. It was the first, but far from the last, experience of the translation of the Gospel.

We still pursue that same effort. Bible and missionary societies continue in that effort. Every now and then we still hear of a first translation into another language. I often think that the work of the Church, and especially the tasks of Biblical interpretation and of theology, are efforts at translation: translating the truths of the Gospel into the social and philosophical languages of each succeeding generation.

At the same time, as I remember that woman on that summer day, I am conscious that in small but meaningful ways each of us speaks a “different language.” We incorporate the nuances of our lives in ways that change how we talk. In a rather broad way, we encounter that in the hospital all the time. Even without differences of national languages, we face issues of translation between professionals on the one hand, and patients and their families on the other. We professionals have to remember (and this can be as much an issue for chaplains as for others) to speak the common tongue, and not “medical.” Professional jargon can be a temptation. Used among peers, it is so concise, so precise, and so clear. On the other hand, used with non-professionals, it does more harm than good.

More broadly, each of us does have his or her own “language.” It certainly includes the various jargons of our many vocations and avocations, our jobs and our hobbies. It also includes the distinctive characteristics of our histories, our families, and our communities. Each pet name, with all its history; each private joke from the shared experiences of spouses, families, and friends, helps shape a unique, individual “language.”

And we as Christians have a vocation to preach the Gospel in each of those individual languages. Much of that work, of course, we can do in the various shared languages of our daily commerce. At the same time, to truly bring the Gospel to life calls for us to learn and use the languages of each individual we encounter.

That requires, I think, that we listen well and carefully. How shall we learn these individual “languages,” unless we spend time listening carefully to these individuals?

But I also think it requires that we make the Gospel incarnate by demonstrating it. To St. Francis we attribute the saying, “Preach always; and when you must, use words.” We have been told from childhood, “Actions speak louder than words;” and often they can transcend the different nuances of our individual languages. Living out the Gospel day by day will reach more persons, and reach them more profoundly, than the sum total of even our best preaching.

On the feast of Pentecost we remembered the day when Spirit descended on the disciples, and began the ongoing process of translating the truth of the Gospel in to the many languages and cultures that we humans have cobbled together. Now we’re living in the time after Pentecost (both in the Church’s history and in the Church year), and the vocation of Pentecost still goes on. On one great day, the disciples were called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of many peoples. And now we in our baptism are called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel by how we act toward and how we listen to the many individuals we encounter. We are called and filled with the Spirit to proclaim the love of God in Christ in each person’s individual, personal language.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.


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