Come Light Our Fire

Pentecost 2007
By Tom Ehrich  Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2.5-8)

I knew last night’s clinic for summer swim league officials would be long, so I brought a book to keep me calm.

The Duke faculty member to my left hadn’t brought a book. His only diversion was to rag me for reading. He kept it up for an hour. Apparently it troubled him that my approach to this meeting was different from his. He wanted me to speak his “language,” not my own.

So it goes in a land that promises unprecedented freedoms and yet shows a relentless drive toward conformity. From middle-school cafeteria to retirement center dining room, we try to impose narrow norms and styles.

Religion, unfortunately, leads the way with its demands that belief must meet certain standards, eternity belongs to a favored few, and God agrees 100% with our definitions of whose behavior, thought and personality are acceptable.

It’s as if we took the Day of Pentecost and turned it upside down. Instead of apostles learning to speak in the many languages of the world, legalistic religion tries to force the world’s many languages into its one narrow gate.

Instead of listening to the world, we expect the world to listen to us. Instead of walking into foreign lands and discovering who is there, as Jesus did, we declare the foreign off-limits for “believers” and make “diversity” an object of derision.

Yesterday, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury pointedly excluded the gay Bishop of New Hampshire from the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. It seems the other kids don’t like him. The archbishop had less problem with an African prelate allied with the dictator of Zimbabwe. Sex trumps murder and corruption.

Wouldn’t it be astonishing if the world’s many tribes, races, nations, lifestyles and belief systems heard the Christian movement learning to speak their languages? Imagine a gay African being listened to by his bishop, not being denounced as a criminal. Imagine warring peoples sitting down together, not to be compelled into the one language of First World charity or military might or ideological supremacy, but allowed to discover their common humanity and to develop mutual respect.

Imagine a Christian leader brokering such discovery by listening, not orating, and by accepting, not by hurling scriptures as weapons.

I don’t expect the Archbishop of Canterbury to discover Pentecost grace as he tries to manage Anglicanism’s warring tribes. It starts with us and how we approach the fact of diversity in our smaller worlds.


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