With all the languages people were speaking when the Holy Spirit came to the church on the day of Pentecost – Luke lists fifteen (Acts 2:1-11), and there were probably more – I wonder what language God spoke. Was it one of those Luke mentions? Was it all of them? Was it none of them? It’s not an idle question.
Think of all the languages spoken around us today. Some are speaking Republican, some Democrat, some Libertarian. People speak liberal or progressive or conservative. Some use the language of racism and white supremacy, others that of racial harmony and social justice. There are languages of hatred and division and of love and reconciliation. Is God heard in one of them? In all of them? In none of them?
Does God shout or whisper? On Pentecost, God’s Spirit shouted publicly like a mighty windstorm, or maybe it sounded like the babel of many human languages. In John’s gospel, the Spirit spoke privately, in the dark behind barricaded doors (John 20:19-23). To Moses, God spoke in the language of a bush that appeared to burn but wasn’t burned up (Exod. 3:1-4ff). Elijah heard God speak in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
The ancient story tells us the first language of God was creation, the language of origins, the language of the natural world (Gen. 1:3), and nature’s language is silence. The shouting of God in that mighty windstorm at Pentecost caused a crowd to gather, and the sound of God’s sheer silence can draw us away from the crowd into the perfect intimacy of solitude.
Where is God’s voice, where is the Spirit of God moving, I wonder, following the death of George Floyd and of those who died before him: Trayvon, Michael, Eric, Sandra, Philando, Ahmaud, and the rest. Is it in the shouting of a mighty wind that rises in the call for justice, or are we missing the divine whisper that would heal us all?
I don’t have answers to the questions that rise without end. I have only a growing hunger for silence, not the silence of acquiescence to the evil in our world but a silence in which to listen for something deeper than we’ve so far been able to hear. It’s the hunger William Alexander Percy expressed in his poem “Home.”
I have a need of silence and of stars;
Too much is said too loudly; I am dazed.
The silken sound of whirled infinity
Is lost in voices shouting to be heard.
I once knew men as earnest and less shrill.
An undermeaning that I caught I miss
Among these ears that hear all sounds save silence,
These eyes that see so much but not the sky,
These minds that gain all knowledge but no calm.
“Be still, and know that I am God!” the psalmist wrote (Ps. 46:10). Before you speak, God says, be still, be silent. Listen for “the silken sound of whirled infinity” that is almost always “lost in voices shouting to be heard.” Be still and listen. Be still, and listen.