The story of the Day of Pentecost has prompted much division over one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and whether it is for today: tongues. But the account in Acts mentions another God-given ability that we can probably all agree is very much needed in the church today: the gift of ears.
Maybe it’s because we like the sound of our own voices (even when we don’t know what we’re talking about—and that isn’t limited to glossolalia, of course), but we have kind of fixated on the speaking part. We love the flames on the disciples’ heads, and how they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
Divine inspiration is a plus, naturally, but when it comes to communication most of us have got the talking bit down to some degree—even those of few words. (It took me years to realize that you could be silent and say an awful lot; most of it unhelpful).
Ironically, if we’re the teeniest bit self-aware, we know that it’s possible for people to misunderstand what we are trying to get across, so we work quite hard at expressing ourselves as clearly as possible. But when it comes to hearing, we can all too easily decide we know exactly what someone else said—quoting it verbatim—and then make the simple mistake of assuming that’s the same as knowing what they actually meant.
It’s an occasional problem in the Butcher household, where my wife and I share six languages: English, American, Martian, Venusian, verbal, non-verbal. (I’ll let you divide those up between me and Marcia.) Not surprisingly, there are times when what leaves Point A is not the same when it arrives at Point B.
Take the simple words “next week.” They may mean the one after this, if uttered prior to a weekend, or the current one, if referenced during a weekend. Confusing stuff, and that’s just two people with goodwill towards one another trying to coordinate their calendars. No wonder things get heated when you have communities with some level of ambivalence—if not outright animosity—towards each other trying to communicate on issues of deep importance to them.
But Acts 2 tells us that, with God’s help, when the crowd drawn by the outburst of tongues “each… heard their own language being spoken,” they expressed amazement that “each of us hears… in our native language…”
Some may argue that this gift of ears was for those who were not followers of Jesus, but the Acts account does describe those in the crowd as God-fearing, so that should include the church. The passage makes me think of Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer, which asks that he may want not so much “to be understood, as to understand.”
Maybe if we really heard what people outside the church were asking, we might have better answers. But let’s think about that… next week.