Listening in Tongues

by | Feb 17, 2020 | Christine Hall's Blog, Seeds eNewsletter

By Christine Hall

IF WE CARE ABOUT vibrant, transformative faith communities, how do we help it happen? That’s the ideal we foster in Way of the Spirit—an 18 month program for learning and spiritual growth from Quaker spirituality. Over the years, we’ve taken up the phrase, “listening in tongues” to remind us of both practical behaviors and an inner orientation to each other across our range of experiences and vocabularies about the Holy, God, or the Spirit.

I wonder how your faith community practices “listening in tongues.”

In Way of the Spirit, we begin by recognizing that despite our differences, we’re all sincere, faithful people. We may not have expected to encounter different ways of talking about life with God, but we are here at the table together. If we are willing to grow beyond what we know and think today, we can bear some discomfort in getting there. This is no small thing! We step forward in gratitude.

We also trust that we each have gifts and strengths to share in how we talk about the Holy. Our intention is not to minimize differences in theologies, but encourage us to walk in them authentically, listening and learning from each other. We all belong, yet we are not in this circle to fix or change each other. We honor that of God working within and through each person, and look forward to walking alongside each other as the Spirit leads.

Whenever we share in Way of the Spirit, we are invited to speak about God using words and concepts that have meaning for us. As we hear from others, we are invited to listen for the Spirit in/through their differing terms. Unfamiliar words may “snag” something in us that the speaker did not intend. Then we fall back on our community guidelines: We pause, ponder, seek to know and take responsibility for our own feelings, while we tolerate the ambiguity of our differences. Here’s one example of how it works:

My story with “words”

Way of the Spirit is a collaborative effort across a historic division among Quakers in the Pacific Northwest: liberal and Evangelical. It’s been called a “convergent” program, with presenters from diverse worshipping communities. These branches of Quakers have been separated by decades of diverse theology, differing approaches to the Bible, the role of pastors, and much more.

I’m an ecumenical soul. My background includes forty years among liberal Friends, yet I honor Roman Catholic roots, and thrive on cross-denominational dialogue as faculty in Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry. In Way of the Spirit, I have co-taught with Evangelical Quakers for eight years.

An early experience with a guest presenter illustrated that we experience different God-language “hot buttons.” In open conversation I owned that I cringe inwardly when someone uses male pronouns for God (“He, Him, His”). Yet, I’ve come to honor that for others, God as “He” is endearing and authentic. I no longer need to explain or hear reasons for or against using masculine pronouns. I claim my inner woundedness and recognize the distance it has put between me and God and other faithful people. More recently, I have felt led to let participants be deeply true to their own God-adventure while I listen for the Spirit from which their words emerge.

Well, after my God-as-He confession, the Evangelical guest presenter casually admitted that one of his “hot buttons” was the use of the phrase “the Divine.” He said, “When I hear that expression, I usually want to say a few things about it.” Turns out he’s a serious scholarly theologian. In academia, he uses the phrase “the Divine” when attempting to be dispassionate and objective. It’s a way to not get involved personally or emotionally with “God”. I had to chuckle. I often use “the Divine” because to me it feels inviting, more approachable than a “God” label that scares some people away. You can imagine my surprise. Then we both laughed, because of course “God” is a synonym for “the Divine.”

John Woolman: “Where the Words Come From”

Many Quaker authors tell the story of John Woolman’s 1763 visit to the First Peoples in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania. He was a traveling minister from the colony of New Jersey, trekking ten days into the deep woods during a time of war and hostility between British colonials and the regional “Indians.” His goal was to learn from them and pray with them. He wrote of his sense of call that, “Love was the first motion.”

In the Native American village of Wyalusing, at the end of his visit, Woolman said he wanted to pray aloud for the people there. No one could translate well, so Woolman had the interpreters sit down. He trusted that if he prayed rightly, God would convey his prayer to the hearts of the listeners without interpretation. Afterward, one of the leaders of Wyalusing, a man named Papunehang, commented to a translator, “I love to feel where the words come from.”

Sensing where the words come from is a holy attention to the movement of the Spirit in the voice of others, even as the words themselves might sound foreign to us. This story is odd, unconventional, and beautiful from both sides. Notice Woolman’s humility and trust that no interpreter is needed as he speaks. Notice Papunehang’s openness to hearing something he loved through unfamiliar words. It was an authentic faith encounter.

Listening in Tongues

Now what happens if we take a familiar Bible story and turn it on its ear…? The early followers of Jesus’ Way told of a historic turning point for their movement. It’s described in Acts 2: 5-11. As background, recall that Jesus had died by torture, yet his followers were reporting visits and visions. They were gathered in Jerusalem for days of constant prayer to honor the Hebrew feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Law to Moses. The Spirit came over them like a great wind, or flames that separated and rested on every head. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.

I’d always heard this story interpreted as about the speakers—the miracle of “speaking in tongues.” What happens instead when I turn my attention to the people nearby? How does this unexpected outpouring play with the crowd? Some thought the disciples sounded drunk (verse 13)! But others “heard them preaching, each in their own language, about the marvels of God.” What made the difference, I wondered?

The story could also be called a “miracle of hearing” or “miracle of the ear.” The power and Life of the Spirit changed the disciples speaking, and the power and Life of God can change how we listen and are opened to hear “the marvels of God.” We could call it “listening in tongues.” I pray that we each recognize the Holy through unfamiliar words “in our own language.”

Linguistic Humility, Misplaced Courtesy, and Circles of Trust

One way to talk about listening in tongues is “linguistic humility”. This newer phrase comes from multi-lingual church congregations building relationships between English and Spanish speakers. Linguistic humility might be an invitation to consider our sense of privilege with language, even terms about the Divine. It asks, “Who’s vocabulary matters and why?” and “What is our relationship to people who have been hurt by misuse of the Bible, who suffer because of particular word choices about God?”

Another challenge is in holding back out of courtesy. Marge Abbott wrote a Pendle Hill pamphlet titled, An Experiment in Faith (1995), to describe sharing in a small mixed group of liberal and Evangelical Quakers. They didn’t wish to offend, not knowing how their words would be interpreted.

She wrote that real breakthroughs happened when they went beyond “niceness” and learned to trust each other. Marge described how they explored big questions. At the time, issues included a universalist Christianity, and feminine aspects of God:

[We] go back and forth unsuccessfully on these questions, but with respect for God’s work in each of us. Similarly, the growing trust among women of our two yearly meetings allows us all to speak honestly and be challenged to explore the unquestioned assumptions underlying our own faith and our practices. (Abbott 22-23).

Parker Palmer offers another helpful guideline for “listening in tongues” in the book, Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. Palmer has a rule that listeners must follow if they are to be free for the open space in a Circle of Trust: “no fixing, no saving, no advising, no correcting.” As we create space for people to speak authentically and listen in tongues, Way of the Spirit groups take these practices very seriously.

The 18 months of Way of the Spirit are a gift for growing in trust of each other, and trust of God working within and between us in differing terminologies. We learn to share from the bottom of our hearts, with integrity, with authenticity, with honesty about our own spiritual experience. And when we listen we seek to hear where the words come from—beyond diction, beyond the baggage we might carry. Our sharing and listening are an ongoing act of contemplation, where we are each connected Spirit to Spirit beyond the words and deep down into the living Source.

The queries below may help you reflect:

1. What comes up from your experience as you read these stories?
2. What makes it easier for you to share authentically and listen in tongues?