“Discipline, Improvisation, and the Art of Tongue-Talking”
Text: Acts 2:1-11
The church I attended from the time I was nine to the time I was fifteen, the first church my father pastored, was the United Methodist Church in South Corinth NY. It’s in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, down a little back road that Google Maps has not yet penetrated. We lived about forty-five minutes away from it but in the winter, the trip was longer and more treacherous—sometimes so much so that my sister and I could get off the hook on Sunday, if our parents decided the roads were bad enough that my dad should brave the driving alone in his small pickup. On those days often just my dad and Bev, the organist, showed up (though she wasn’t really an organist in colder weather because the old pump organ was too temperamental—in the winter she was a portable keyboard player). In the worst storms, only Bev showed up. She would stay the whole hour, playing and singing alone to glorify God. This level of devotion was common in our church. We had about twenty people on a good Sunday and simply showing up—despite the roads, despite the cost of gas, despite the physical fatigue from the work week or the spiritual fatigue from chronic long-term unemployment, in the one set of clothes you own that has no holes—required a high degree of personal sacrifice and commitment. They gave it. They gave it abundantly and ungrudgingly.
This is the church where I first learned of and witnessed the religious practice of speaking in tongues. The five-dollar word used by scientists and academics to refer to this is glossolalia though growing up I only knew it as “speaking in tongues,” or “catching the spirit.” It’s not a spiritual gift that was ever bestowed upon me—I think I kept a part of my heart and mind sealed off from it, out of teenage preacher kid rebellion. Still, I was unpleasantly surprised when I entered my mainline progressive in New York City at the sneering and revulsion many of my classmates expressed for the practice of speaking in tongues. Like it was something embarrassing or undignified to do in church. Like it was further evidence of the silliness of poor people’s religious habits—be they poor Puerto Ricans at a storefront church in the Bronx, poor black folks worshipping at the midtown Metropolitan Community Church above their shelter for LGBT runaways, or poor mountain whites like the ones I grew up around.
What is it about this particular religious expression that the liberal mainline finds so uncomfortable it must resort to mockery? It’s Pentecost now, so let’s think about that.
Tonight we’re richly blessed with music—specifically from a restless, improvisational, unpredictable genre. We know that while this genre includes spontaneity and surprises, it relies upon a foundation of rigorous, disciplined training. You don’t actually make it up as you go along. Rather you are so thoroughly studied and practiced that you are able to slip inside of it: ascending and descending, anticipating, teasing, making it look simple, making it look easy, all the while drawing from hours—years—of labor you’ve already put in. Drawing from your teachers. Drawing from the greats. Drawing from your own secret stores of grief, blue notes, and ecstasy. You can’t fake your way through it. People can tell if you’re phoning it in.
In all these ways, it is not so different from speaking in tongues. As with jazz, as with blues, there are countless regional variations. There are styles involving shrieks, weeping, and full-body possession by the Holy Ghost, otherwise known as being “slain in the spirit.” Or those that sound more like autumn leaves falling into a cold stream as it tumbles over a rocky creek bed through the woods—barely whispered, sweetly sad and fading. To me, “beautiful” is an inadequate descriptor for either form.
We need to know God with our bodies. With our ears, with our lips, with our hands just as much as with our brains. The Anglican tradition understands this—otherwise we would never bother with all this kneeling, standing, eating and drinking. And it is important, it is so important, our liturgy, because it prepares us to meet God in the world around us. We need to do this preparation. We need to have disciplined habits in making room for God in our lives. But: we do love to be in charge of the show, don’t we? To have a predictable order of service executed smoothly, flawlessly. Never mind that God’s arrival in our lives is, by and large, disruptive and unsettling. I wonder if this isn’t the source of our bias against tongue-talkers. That we fear our sisters and brothers in Christ who, perhaps because they often come out of communities already facing daily disruption and unsettling due to poverty or racism, have made a habit of seeking and finding God in the sounds of unpredictability. The shrieking like police sirens. The soft weeping like rain seeping in through a cracked roof.
Episcopalians strut so piously that we are a church for “thinking people.” What good is thinking if it does not result in movement? The movement of our bodies and souls toward God’s mighty work—the movement toward our collective liberation from poverty, from social abuse? This Pentecost, as the gale force and the wildfire of the Holy Ghost sweeps through your life, keep thinking and keep preparing. But do not live in fear of the unpredictable moments. We also need those. We need God’s promises but we also need God’s surprises so badly, as this present world continues to unravel before our eyes. Start learning to meet God in the crisis and opportunity of change. Get snatched up in the spirit and get familiar with the holy art of improvisation. You will need it. Amen.