An Amish viewing is a most intimidating event for an outsider, an “English” person, to attend. Family members of the deceased sit in a row, and of course you would expect to speak to them and give your condolences. But facing the family, only a few feet away, sit many more rows of people either closely or not-so-closely related, perhaps neighbors, friends, or other guests who have come to pay their respects.
As a visitor, you greet the family and move down the narrow space between knees, turning and also shaking the hand of each person in the front facing row, greeting every one (silently or otherwise), whether you know them or not.
For anyone new to this, it can look as daunting as running the gauntlet. Or, to use a less violent metaphor, you are stepping onto stage, expected to execute complicated choreography even though you’ve never danced a step in your life. You feel every eye following you. Especially if you are not Amish, because you just don’t fit in the picture. (As, ironically, both of my metaphors are woefully incongruous with any Amish scene.)
We were so obviously out of place in the somber gathering—I had not been home to change, and still wore capris and a red shirt; earrings dangled from holes in my ears, below my short, cut hair.
We held back a moment, both of us feeling timidly reluctant and oh, so conspicuous. The sad twist was that we had come for them, but our own discomfort and fear of doing it all wrong had turned the moment into being all about us.
A kind and gracious Amish gentleman—he was indeed a gentle man—standing at the beginning of the line understood our hesitation and said to us a few words in Pennsylvania Dutch. Then, with a quick smile he gave a simple English translation.
“We are all the same.”
Spoken in both Dutch and English, those words connected us through yet another language, the language that understood discomfort and timidity in unfamiliar surroundings and spoke up to give assurance. We heard the message, saying so much more than five short words: “We are all here together, faced with the passing of a person who has been part of our lives. In that, we are all alike, no matter how we are dressed.”
Those few words were spoken in a native tongue that connected all of us. They turned everything right side up again and transformed our time at the viewing.
The lesson that evening was a simple scene, a brief encounter. But ever since Pentecost Sunday, I’ve been thinking about the languages we speak. The purpose of language is to connect us. And in the hands of the Spirit of God, the tongues in which we speak become holy languages.
On Pentecost Sunday we read Acts 2, the story of the tongues of fire that blazed evidence of the Spirit of God coming into each believer.
The immediate result? The disciples began speaking in different languages. God’s purpose was that all the many Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration would hear the story of Christ in their own native tongue and could thus understand the good news of the coming of the Kingdom.
The writer of Acts 2 notes that the crowds were amazed as the believers went out and started talking to people, but he doesn’t describe to us how the believers themselves reacted to this gift from the Spirit.
It’s intriguing to imagine those few moments, when they realized what had happened to their minds and tongues. Did they try out these new languages on each other? Could they understand each other? Did they immediately perceive God’s purpose behind this strange miracle and jump up and say, “Let’s get out there and tell them all!” and then rush out and start looking for people to talk to who understood the language they now spoke?
We know only two things: they went out and spoke, and they caused quite a commotion.
God equips His people for the mission we’ve been given. Language is one of those gifts. Like the believers at Pentecost who, at a crucial time, had opportunity to change history, we have all learned different languages. In a pew on Sunday morning with five other people, I may be sitting next to tongues that can speak at least five different languages, more likely ten or fifteen.
You will be able to communicate with people I cannot—because you know a language I cannot speak, and I may be able to speak in a tongue that is heard by a completely different circle of people.
I do not know the language of football, for example, but I do know the language of grandparents.
I cannot speak the language that surrounds cancer, but I do know the speech of divorced, single, and alone.
I know nothing about music (except whether or not it touches me), but I can chat for hours about travel in Maine.
Leisure interests, job experience, health issues, life situations, relationships—almost everything we have lived—has its own language. The purpose of language is to connect us, and so it is not only the spoken words that we communicate, but also the feelings and the experience behind what is spoken.
If you’ve gone through bankruptcy or loss of a spouse, you know the depth of nuance and feeling behind the words of that language. If you’re a caretaker or a stepparent, you understand the breadth and width of experience spoken by other caretakers or stepparents.
The tongue in which we are adept may not even be words. It may be cooking a meal, knowing when to hug or touch a shoulder, the giving of the perfect gift, painting a scene, or simply showing up as a friend. It may be the ability to put someone at ease in unfamiliar surroundings and bring down barriers between human beings.
If the purpose of language is to connect us, then in the Spirit’s hands every language we speak becomes a holy thing, a bridge built between us and other believers or to those who still need to hear about the goodness of God. Whether we have learned to speak in the tongues of celebrations, sorrows, or sufferings, we have been given a language that the Spirit can use for God’s purposes.
The bridge built with holy language can be a wide and life-changing thing for the man who is finally drawn into a circle of believers because he finds there NASCAR fans just like himself, or for the woman imprisoned by guilt of an abortion, who finally steps into freedom when she meets another who has learned of forgiveness and healing for that very act.
Or it may be a simple, fleeting moment with few words spoken — words that bring down barriers and shower grace.
Have you thought about the holy language God has given you?
The special language you know might even come out of a past wandering, far away from God. No matter. The Spirit uses our past, our suffering, our stumblings, our joys, our passions—He can use it all. He can turn it into a holy thing, to be used to bring Christ’s Kingdom.
Peter writes to all believers,
But you are not like [those who reject Christ and do not obey God’s word], for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
That echoes Acts 2:11. The believers in Jerusalem used their new language to talk “about the wonderful things God had done.”
Madeleine L’Engle writes, “And for each one of us there is a special gift, the way in which we may best serve and please the Lord, whose love is so overflowing.*”
I believe for each one of God’s children there is a special language, made holy by the Spirit to build bridges that take us places where we can show others the goodness of God.
* Walking on Water, WaterBrook Press