God Tastes of Fire
I have a story for you. A true story of Pentecost in the twenty-first century.
This story is by Naomi Shihab Nye
"After learning my flight was detained for 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately. Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this. I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, Sho bit se-wee? The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—she stopped crying. She thought our flight had been canceled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.This can still happen anywhere.Not everything is lost."
There is great power in hearing your own language. In understanding. Especially when you are somewhere foreign, unfamiliar…where you aren’t absolutely sure what you are doing.
I think that this is what all those people, gathered with Peter from all different parts of the country, experienced with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Men, women, children, both male and female slaves had traveled from both near and far to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost.
Penta meaning five. Pentacost, or the Festival of Weeks, is a day-long celebration of harvest, 50 days after Passover. “It is one of three feasts for which Jews from all nations come to Jerusalem to give thanks for God’s goodness to their people.” The men would bring five (?) loaves of bread, the first fruits offering of the wheat harvest and present it at the temple.
Before this story in Acts, “the apostles add Matthias to their number, restoring themselves to a complete Twelve” The “…end of this chapter concludes with familiar words, ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.’”
So unity bookends the pouring out of the Sirit. It both creates the environment for the Spirit and also sustains it. Peoples from different cultures, who spoke different languages, gathered to worship and then the remarkable burst upon them.
With a sound like a mighty wind, tongues like fire rested upon all who were there. The Spirit was poured out, they were filled, and they began to understand one another.
Some commentators say that this is the great reversal of the Tower of Babel. Where once people were scattered and spoke different languages, now they all spoke the same language and understood one another once again. But that’s not what happened in this story.
In this story, they all spoke different languages, they spoke in their mother tongues, but they could understand one another. This is not a miracle of speech, but a miracle of hearing, of understanding.
Peter realizes that he must explain what is happening here. This occurrence is not out of nowhere. To explain the deep roots of the Spirit’s outpouring he recites a quote from Joel 2:28-32a, with his own twist. He adapted old words for new use in new circumstances.
What God is doing in the present in intricately connected to what God has been doing all along. “Before this time the only one to receive the pouring out of the spirit was the prophet, selected and ordained by God.” Now the Spirit was poured out on all. God is doing a new thing and now everyone is empowered to prophesy, to witness to the resurrected Jesus.
Like so many other times, God comes like Wind and Fire and people are never the same.
This begs the question, why does God choose the elements of Wind and Fire to come to God’s people?
Wind, in both Greek and Hebrew, is the same word for Spirit. It is what hovered over the primordial waters, what began creation and what sustains creation. Fire is what guided God’s people in the desert.
Fire is how God came to Moses, in a bush that burned but was not consumed.
Because of the frequency that God shows up in fire, author and pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler says that fire is,
“Unwieldy and uncontrollable, common and extraordinary, bringing life and death, at the same time a gift of life and a source of fear, making light and revealing hidden places, burning up and burning away. The Old Testament smells of smoke.”
I think that the entire Bible smells of smoke. The Bible burns but does not consume. “Reading scripture is an invitation to being undone.”
No matter who you are, male, female, free or bound, the Spirit has been poured upon you, you are filled, you are undone, you are on fire, and you will never be the same.
Why? Because death could not hold Jesus, he was killed and buried, but the tomb was rolled away and Jesus was resurrected. Jesus was resurrected and we are never the same.
God comes and lights our tongues on fire. We can understand one another if we trust that we are filled with the same Spirit that was poured out all those years ago.
That is why we celebrate Pentecost, because so much divides us. Even if we speak the same language, we do not understand one another. Do we even try to understand one another?
I was talking with a friend recently about the differences between understanding, empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Because of a podcast she had heard exploring the intricacies of empathy, she was explaining that the human brain has a limited capacity for feeling empathy.
We physically, emotionally, and spiritually cannot feel empathy for everyone. Therefore, without even trying to, we end up taking sides, empathizing with one person or one party over another.
I wanted to argue with this. Doesn’t our faith teach us to empathize with everyone? We are all God’s children after all. Our job is to hear other’s stories and come together in unity.
But then we realized that we were confusing empathy with understanding. Empathy is hearing the story of someone and feeling what they feel in your own body. It is an alignment of emotion and experience.
Understanding is hearing the story of another, and even if you have never experienced what they are going though, even if you can’t relate to their feelings and needs, you try and put together the fragments of their experience to see why they make the decisions they do and why they are the way they are. This is what coming together in unity can look like.
Sometimes this understanding doesn’t happen through careful listening and learning another person. Sometimes it happens when you least expect it.
Most of my time spent traveling in Peru and Guatemala was spent afraid, or at least anxious. My Spanish is…well…I’ll let a native speaker explain it.
I lived with a woman who knew maybe 3 or 4 words in English, and so I spent a lot of our time together trying to muster up my best Spanish to communicate with her. After a while I was feeling pretty good about myself. I could basically communicate what I needed to with her, after a bit of trial and error, I could understand about 75% of what she said… when she said it twice.
So hey I was almost conversational.
Feeling proud of myself I asked this woman if she thought my Spanish was, “Good, a little good, or a little bad.” Without missing a beat she said, “A little bad.” I laughed and she quickly added, “But you get better and better the more we talk!”
“Poco a Poco,”I said, “Little by little.” This was our motto, poco a poco, little by little we would get better at communicating and understanding each other. But it was work, and exhausting! I can’t imagine what it is like for her to spend most of her life here in the U.S. struggling to be understood and to understand. So yeah, my Spanish is a little bad. Hence my great apprehension when I spent time in Guatemala and Peru.
Because of the language barrier, it was terribly difficult to order food, ask for directions, explain what you are doing and why you are there. Yet, I got better as I went, little by little.
There was one church service in Peru that I will never forget. We had just endured the long bus ride after our six-week study time in Lima, the capital of Peru. As we were driving toward the looming Andes mountains, I could feel my body start to relax. Tension I didn’t know I was holding released as I moved towards mountains, something familiar, something I knew in a place so different from my home.
Before we got to Cusco, where Machu Piccu, one of the seven wonders of the world is, we stayed in these tiny mountain towns.
Some people in these towns spoke Spanish, but a lot of them spoke the native Incan language, Quechua. So there was no chance of us understanding one another on a verbal level. As you can imagine there was a lot of gesturing and context clues.
One night we went to this tiny church for a church service. I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but I knew what was happening, on a deeper level, I know worship in my bones.
It was when we started singing that I started crying. It’s hard to describe what native Quechuan singing sounds like, but there is a lot of crooning, and minor, harmonic melodies. It was so strange and beautiful, to speak the language of worship together. Then they started singing a song I knew in English, not in Spanish, but in Quechua.
I just lost it.
It was an uncanny mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, what I knew and what I had yet to learn. Noticing my tears, a woman ran out of the service and ran back in with about three rolls of toilet paper bundled up in her arms. I chuckled while crying, grateful for the gesture of hospitality and for the chance to blow my runny nose.
This experience of worship taught me that some things in life transcend language. Understanding can be a bodily, emotional, spiritual experience.
Yet before we try and understand, we have to ask ourselves, are we prepared? Are we ready to be filled with the Spirit, burned with flames that will reduce us to ashes, to the core of who we are. Flames that will clarify and purify. Flames that burn but don’t consume.
God will come, like wind and fire. We will be literally blown away, our breath caught up by what we both don’t understand and yet also do understand on a level that hardly can be explained by words.
I recently burnt my tongue on unreasonably hot hospital coffee, and I complained about it for the rest of the day. The sensation of a burnt tongue lingers and affects the way you taste and even sometimes how you talk.
This is what the fire of God does to us. It lingers, changing us in unexpected, and sometimes frustrating ways. It changes how we act, love, and pray.
Kathleen Norris said, “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.”
This is where I will leave you today, with burning hearts, and wind-whipped faces.
Know that if you continue down this path, looking for a God that lights the way at night with a burning torch, a God that talks with fire which burns but doesn’t consume, a God burning our tongues with a Love that moves us to breathe fire, a God that reduces us to ash with Grace, a God that pours out the Spirit so liberally some think it must be the wine making us pray and worship so desperately.
If you continue down this path, then you will know that the trick is on them, it is wine, it is the Kingdom of God in new wine skins, it is the cup of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood, poured out for us.
Wind, Wine, Blood, Fire
Here is where we meet a God that is doing a new thing. And all we can do is gather up copious amounts of toilet paper to soak up tears of wonder and gratitude. All we can do is pass around cookies and lemonade in airports. All we can do is try to understand. All we can do is speak the language of kindness, hospitality, and listen for what transcends language.
Are you ready for this God?
Be warned. If you follow this God leading the way by a torch in the night, know you will never be the same, for this is a God that tastes like Fire.
“Commentary on Acts 2:1-21 by Amy G. Oden.” Accessed June 3, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4077. “Commentary on Acts 2:1-21 by Brian Peterson.” Accessed June 5, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1630. “Commentary on Acts 2:1-21 by Matt Skinner.” Accessed June 3, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2837. Flesher, LeAnn Snow. “Caution: Uncontainable Tongues of Fire! (Acts 2:1-21).” Review & Expositor 109, no. 3 (2012): 473–79. McDevitt, Jenny. “Between Text and Sermon: Acts 2:1-21.” Interpretation 66, no. 1 (January 2012): 70–73. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020964311426366. Morton, Russell. “Between Text and Sermon: Acts 11:1-18.” Interpretation 66, no. 3 (July 2012): 309–11. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020964312443196. Schott, Faye E. “Acts 2:1-21.” Interpretation 50, no. 4 (October 1996): 406–8.
 “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal” Naomi Shihab Nye
 Between Text and Sermon, Acts 2:1-21, Jenny McDevitt, First Presbyterian Church NEED TEXT CITATION HERE
 Basically all of my information in these two paragraphs about Pentecost are from: Between Text and Sermon, Acts 2:1-21, Jenny McDevitt, First Presbyterian Church
 Genesis 11;1-9
 Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
 Caution: Uncontainable Tongues of Fire! (Acts 2:1-21), LeAnn Snow Flesher
 Acts 2:1-21
Faye E. Schott, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
 Pneuma, Ruach
 Exodus 3
 Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, Melissa Forer-Bixler
 I found this quote from Kathleen Norris from page 11 of Anne Lamott’s book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.