Genesis 11:1-9; 1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-13
It was the world after the end. How many generations had it been, and yet it was fresh in the lives and culture of the people. There had been a disastrous flood and everything was destroyed. Only a few seeds of life survived. Now these were the people who had grown from those seeds. Rainbow and covenant notwithstanding, they lived in the shadow of a great fear: if it could happen once, it could happen again.
Out of this fear grew a culture of self-protection. If the Creator could destroy so extravagantly, then humans needed to protect themselves. The city on the plains of Shinar and the tower at its center was their answer. What the tower was for is not completely clear. It was to be their identity – it would make a name for themselves. It would keep them together.
The Rabbis have proposed lots of possibilities. Perhaps it was a high place to climb in high water. Some thought it was a way to burst a hole in the firmament so God couldn’t store up so much water. Or a way support column to prop up the universe so it couldn’t leak again like last time. Some thought it was a tower topped with the figure of a human with a sword, able to fight God. Others thought it was the platform for a new God. And there are more.
But what seems clear is that the tower was to be their great human response to the way they felt out of control. It was a way to exercise their power. Stand up to God, even.
But God seemed to have something else in mind. God didn’t seem to want them to gather, settle, build and become strong. God wanted them always moving out, finding ways to improve the world, to bless.
And so God’s solution was to confuse their languages.
I have played a party game where you make the sound of an animal in a packed room. When you find another who makes the same sound, you link arms, until all the animals of a kind are gathered in a group. In a room of a hundred people this is really chaotic. Trying to discern your tribe’s sound in the cacophony is a challenge. And there is a moment of security when all are gathered making the same sound.
I find this Babel story so disconcerting. Today we seem to have the opposite problem! We need to learn how to talk to each other, to become one human race, if we are not going to destroy ourselves.
I don’t understand why God would separate us into languages and tribes and races. All that sending us apart seems to be at the heart of what is making being human so painful in the world at this point in time. We are learning now that the rainbow – all the colors together – is the place of joy and light.
Maybe part of the lesson is that we don’t have to be the same to be together. Valuing our differences is our calling. We need all the differences, all the pieces of the puzzle in order to make a whole world.
And so, Paul tells us to be good Jews. There is one God and God is One. By Jesus’ human being God showed us that the same is true of humanity. There is one humanity, one image of God, and we are all it. Humans are one as God is one…. As I say that, I find myself wondering if it could possibly be true?
How can we all be one when we are so different!? This was the question Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians. Different and one. We all have different functions, and we need each other to be whole. That is what it means to be a body.
The great miracle of Pentecost was that each hearer could understand the message. It wasn’t so much that the disciples could speak other languages, as that other could hear and understand. Babel, confusion, had gone to clarity. Babel was being undone!
Confusion had ended life as one people. And communication is sent to restore it. At Pentecost, it was evidence of the Spirit’s presence – communication happened. George Bernard Shaw quipped: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I have to keep reminding myself of that – I did announce that, even printed it; I said it in my sermon last week, even printed it; and more to the point – I love you. Or I am so grateful for you! I have said it in my love language, but have you heard it? Was I communicating, just because I said it?
When Taborspace was first strong enough to add more than one staff person, we knew we needed to learn to communicate with each other in healthy ways because we were ideologically and generationally diverse. We studied together the book, Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg. My daughter, who worked for us briefly as a building host, remembers doing this. We learned to value each other by good listening first and thoughtful speech next.
Rosenberg’s communication principles help us to bring good news to our world in a way it can be heard. It is an empathy practice, putting ourselves in the other’s shoes, without losing ourselves in the process. It is based on some learn-able principles. One is to separate observation from judgment. This is the critical first practice. It may just be the key to completing the communication cycle. In other words, listen, find out if what you heard is correct and add no judgment or opinion. Once it is agreed that one has been heard, identify together the feelings associated with it. Honor the emotions. Emotions are not good or bad. They are just being human. Let them be respected. Then ask questions to find out what needs these emotions reflect. Listening in this way is an exercise in curiosity about the person speaking and their inner life. Only after the hearing is complete, the emotions and needs identified, do we enter the final phase of making requests that bring life.
Four steps: 1) Reflective listening without judgement or interruption
2) Identify the emotions in what is being said.
3) What needs can we identify in this story
4) Develop requests which give life.
It is crucial in communication to take time first to understand the thinking and emotional world of the person with whom we are communicating. Once we have gone through the first steps of listening, honoring, respecting emotions and needs, then the final action steps are so much easier to devise.
Evangelism has always been a frightening word. I grew up in the era of the “4 Spiritual Laws” and going door to door to tell people about Jesus and ask them to pray the prayer at the end of our 15-minute conversation. It was a quick sales transaction. I am sure there are people for whom this was the perfect way for them to open the door to following Jesus. But following Jesus is so much more than a sales transaction or a successful debate.
We were trained to go out and try to convince people to agree with us. But I learned the most from one encounter during our practice door-knocking. An older man came to the door, who said he was Jewish opened on the door. He was so kind to us in our Junior High false assuredness. He invited us inside, offered us lemonade and chatted with us. He treated us with hospitality, and so evangelized us.
Evangelism scared me because I am not gifted as a sales person. Customer service, helping with a purchase, providing a product – all good. But cold-call sales are terrifying!
I was eventually relieved of my fear of evangelism. When I studied Greek, I found out that evangelism does not mean going door to door trying to get people to agree with me. Evangelism doesn’t translate very well into English. It is the verbal form of “good news.” It means “to good-news people.” Evangelism was more like what the Jewish man did for us. He gently shared with us his joy and confidence and simple hospitality. Good news indeed to three scared pre-adolescents on a hot central California summer afternoon! He good newsed us. Set us at peace. Blessed us.
So the question in any encounter is not, Will you join my group? Or, Do you agree with our dogmas? The question is always: How can I good-news this person? What might this person hear as good news? If I can be part of making that happen, what a blessing and a joy!
I talked with a friend yesterday, who has decided to shut down her Facebook account. There was too much bad news there. She could not survive it! As a person who loves to be in the know about what is going on, this is a stretch for her. But it is good for her health and well-being. It is good-newsing her – just not having to encounter so much bad news.
Evangelism is a passe word. Let’s get rid of it. And instead, let’s learn to good news people. Good news makes connections. Communicate. Be one body. Value the people who have different roles that we do. Find the gifts we need in the people God has included in our body.
We have the most amazing good news to share with the world. God loves you. You are beloved. I am beloved. Really, that is all we need.