The church speaks in tongues

Guest commentary by Andrew Taylor-Troutman

The church speaks in tongues.

I know you immediately think of what’s known as glossolalia, the strange utterance of an unknown language made famous by Pentecostals. But all churches speak many languages.

There is the Hello!-How-do-you-do? chit-chat in parking lots, whether paved or gravel, which are rhythmic exchanges between friends and strangers. This tongue spreads into the pews. (Hopefully, not during the prelude!) Perhaps topics such as sports are batted around. Surely the finer points of whether it has rained too much or too little are discussed. And– if we are honest – there is also gossip.Originally, the word was godsibb, which meant God and kin (like a sibling). But gossip has come to mean slander and the Bible warns against this speech for reasons painfully clear to anyone who has ever been shamed by a Christian brother or sister.

Two of the holiest words from our tongues are: I’m sorry. Also: Help me.

Yes, all churches speak in many tongues. There is the monotone of corporate prayer, its measured, somber (sometimes sleepy) cadence. Sometimes the speech uttered is the King James, which, verily, verily, is but a tongue unto itself thus saith I.

And you never know what will come out of the mouths of children! Some of it is glossolalia, needing the interpretation of a loved one. Other times, children are so honest that, like a tongue of fire, their words burn away our pretentions and anxieties. A child of our church named River asked why I do not invite everyone to sit on the floor during the children’s time.

“River” reminds me of the church’s language of water — how we are invited to lose ourselves through submergence into the Whole, only to emerge and breathe anew.

But why do I not invite everyone to sit on the floor during children’s time? River’s question also reminds me of another tongue: the body’s aches and pains, its creaky joints and groaning backs. The New Testament was written in Greek, the same tongue spoken by your pulmonary cardiologist’s diagnostics for pathologies like mesothelioma. Arthritis and neuropathy are of the Greek tongue, along with agape and koinonia.

Mass used to be sung in Latin. At Christmas, many English-speaking churches carol Stille Nacht. The bold attempt Swahili; more often, we try and fit the spirituals in our mouths. Music is a tongue capable of more meaning than you can almost bear.

Amazement and awe, bewilderment and bafflement — a breathless Wow is a tongue of the church. Anne Lamott shares this very word is a contraction of “I vow!” And a gentleman from Germany I knew in my childhood church used to say, “Vow, look at zis” when something excited him in the Bible, like the idea that people from all corners of the world could not only understand one another, but do so peacefully. Peace that is not merely the absence of violence but a wholeness, a completeness, a harmony of hearts. Shalomin Hebrew, Salaamin Arabic, “Jerusalem” sounds like peace.

Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, was found in the mouth of Jesus, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her. We find the city that guns down unarmed protesters with Uzis. If the truth is not spoken in love, then the church is silent before the injustices of this world.

So, grief is another tongue of the church. Lament is the mother tongue of Israel:

O my son, Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!

How deserted lies the city, that was once so full of people!

My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?

Jesus wept. And the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, the tongues of creation groaning. Long ago, a wild-eyed prophet exclaimed: You shall see visions, you shall dream dreams! The sun shall turn to darkness and the moon to blood! Then, another was caught up in the Spirit and commanded to speak to dem dry bones, so those who had been slain would be resurrected to new life. Mary Oliver prophesies for the church when she says “the sun was the best preacher ever” for morning by morning new mercies I see.

The church speaks in many, many tongues!

Whoever speaks in church this Sunday, whether from pew or pulpit, is likely to be wearing red. Red ties and red dresses; red hats and red stoles. When my wife was ordained, she wore shiny red heels. She was eight-months-fully-pregnant and laughed with her head thrown way back in joy. The joke was that our son was ordained in utero.

We absorb into our very blood and being the many, many tongues of the church — including what is not said. Yes, the church is complicit in its silence before injustices all around the world and those right outside our doors. But, here in church, there is the unspoken verb of broken bread. And, here, there is the dip and drip into the common cup. Right here, there are words of institution and the invitation to every person! For the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.

Even if the church doesn’t speak for you, may something here speak to you. And the only thing left to be said is Amen.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, a congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has a certificate in narrative healthcare. His recent essays have been published online at Mockingbird and his poetry at Bearings. He and his wife, Ginny, have three children.