I begin with a story. “Once several members of a Hasidic congregation had become hopelessly lost in a dense forest. They were delighted when unexpectedly they came upon their rabbi who was also wandering through the woods. They implored, “Master, we are lost! Please show us the way out of the forest.” The rabbi replied, “I do not know the way out either, but I do know which paths lead nowhere. I will show you the ways that won’t work, and then perhaps together we can discover the ones that do.”
This story comes from a book by Sheldon Kopp called, Blues Ain’t Nothin’ But a Good Soul Feeling Bad. I like the title, and I like the story. There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing that the only way we’re going to get out of the forest we’re in is to pool our knowledge of what doesn’t work and combine our efforts to discover what does.
It’s certainly no secret that our country, and our world, has become increasingly polarized in the last couple of decades. We’ve managed to successfully divide ourselves into armed camps over such issues as religion, politics, science, the environment, world affairs, health care, the rights of individuals … you name it. The idea behind all this division seems to be that those in power have a right to impose their beliefs on those who aren’t, regardless of how they might happen to feel about it. As a result, we have found ourselves at loggerheads, barely able to make meaningful progress on the world’s most pressing issues. In the image of the story, we’ve spent a lot of time exploring paths that have not led us out of the woods. One of my most hopeful outcomes of our current Covid-19 crisis is that we will begin to overcome some of these divisions, although that remains to be seen.
I remember a very powerful experience I had one time when I was a kid. I was in the seventh grade on a retreat with my church youth group, staying in the basement of a big old inner-city church in Los Angeles. Saturday morning, our leaders gathered us all together and said we were going to play, “The Game of the Cities.” They divided us up into four teams that represented some of the typical groups found in a city: politicians, minorities, businesspeople, police, something like that. Each of the teams began with a set of resources, money and voting rights, that were supposed to be consistent with what these groups might actually have in real life. The goal of the game was for all the teams to cooperate together on several votes that would ultimately bring us all together into, “The City of the Future.”
We weren’t at it for long though, before it became obvious that the game was rigged. A couple of the teams had a lot more power and money than the others, and their votes carried more weight as well. They could easily vote against the less powerful teams to their own advantage, and they did a number of times. But even the least powerful team, we discovered, could sabotage the whole process. They had what we would call “the power of the veto.” Apart from the voting, there were very few rules. We were left to negotiate with each other, to try to form or block alliances with other teams. We had to strategize how best to use the power we had. This went on for several rounds during which we didn’t make a lot of progress. But then, things really got going when one team decided to steal another team’s money, and the police refused to get involved because they had been paid off.
Let me tell you, the atmosphere in that basement became pretty tense all of a sudden. We were all friends of course, but also highly competitive. Whatever progress we had been making to begin with, ground to a halt as we all took our turns lying and cheating for our own profit. And right about then, our group leaders paused the game and informed us that we would continue to play the game for as long as it took for us to get to the City of the Future. They said they would keep us there all day if need be. A groan went up all over the room. Over and over we negotiated, plotted, argued and cast our votes, only to discover that one or more of the teams had voted the process down. What started out as a fun and interesting game turned into a very real struggle, with frustration and impatience, and even some tears growing on all sides. Of course, we were just a bunch of kids. What the heck did we know about cooperation or community? When the game ended, it wasn’t hard at all to draw connections to the real world. Our current spate of rioting in the streets is a perfect illustration of the imbalances of power we normally take for granted.
Well, today is Pentecost, and as we say every year at this time, Pentecost marks the birthday of the church. It was the day on which the Holy Spirit came rushing through the crowd at the Temple, touching each one of them with “tongues of fire,” in the vivid images of the New Testament. Maybe though, it would be easier for us to relate to Pentecost if we thought about it less as the birthday of the church, and more as the birth of Christian community. We could say Christian community began when Jesus gathered his first disciples, but Jesus, we should remember, was not a Christian. He was a Jewish reformer, who apparently had no desire to start a new religion. He told his disciples to wait for the gift of the Spirit to arrive, and when it did, in a blaze of glory some 50 days later, the community of Christ burst into life and found itself immediately at odds with any previous understanding of Judaism. I sometimes wonder what Jesus would have thought about that.
We don’t have to look very hard in the New Testament though, to realize that the new Christian community was frequently at odds with itself as well. The letters of Peter and Paul describe the birth pangs of Christianity through a series of arguments and conflicts: about who was a real Christian and who wasn’t; about whether women would be permitted to be leaders in the new church, or even to speak up; about whether new believers had to be circumcised and eat kosher food; about how communion was supposed to be served.
The conflict that especially comes into focus on Pentecost is this business of speaking in tongues. The Pentecost story – everyone being moved by the Spirit to speak in foreign languages – is actually a counterbalance for the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. In this earlier story, all the peoples of the earth were united in trying to build a tower to the heavens. For some reason, God decided that was a bad thing and proceeded to scatter the people over the face of the earth and confuse their languages. This story is, for one thing, an ancient way of explaining why people around the world don’t all talk the same way. Years later though, in the Pentecost story, there is a nice sense of “coming back together” of all the peoples of the earth. In the Spirit of Christ, all the divergent peoples and languages of the world come together for praise. Pentecost is meant to be a beautiful image of the human unity that is possible in the Spirit.
Somewhere along the line though, the notion of speaking in tongues became something altogether different. Where it had been a force of unity, it became a force of division. The ability to speak in tongues was seen as “the mark of a true Christian.” Those who couldn’t do it were viewed, by some, as sort of second-class Christians. All these years later there are still people who believe that, which surprises me, actually, because Paul was so clear on the subject. In his letter to the Corinthians, he does call speaking in tongues one of the spiritual gifts, but then goes to great lengths to say it isn’t really all that great or useful a gift. People do speak in tongues, he said. As a matter of fact, I speak in tongues more than all the rest of you put together. It is an ecstatic expression of the mysteries of the Spirit and I’m grateful for it. But as long as nobody understands what is spoken, as long as there is no useful interpretation, it doesn’t serve to build up the community. For Paul, that was always the bottom line. For the good of the community, he said, I would rather speak five words with my mind, five words in my right mind, then ten thousand words in ecstasy.
For the good of the community, Paul said. That’s the bottom line. In our church, speaking in tongues doesn’t come up very often. It isn’t an issue we worry about very much. But Paul’s message of community is just as important for us as it is for anyone. Our own church community is always in need of loving care and attention. But beyond this, bringing together all the various voices, languages and peoples of the world has never been more critically important. We’re not playing the game of the cities anymore. We’re playing the game of the planet, all of us together, whether we want to or not. We can’t continue to live as though our economic and environmental interests are separate from people in other countries. We can’t continue to live as though wealthy people have a right to endlessly pile up more and more money at the expense of the everyone else. We can’t continue to live as though the justice and respect a person is due changes depending on the color of their skin, or who they might happen to love. If we’re going to move forward, if we’re going to discover a path out of the forest, we have to realize that we can only do it together, in community.
There’s a story I like by Sue Monk Kidd that makes the same point. She writes, “I took part in a retreat once in which the leader gathered the group into a circle and handed out three balls of colored yarn. She asked us to toss the balls back and forth to one another across the circle, each holding onto a piece of it. The result was a beautiful, multicolored web stretched across the center of the circle. “Each of you take turns and wiggle your thread,” the leader instructed. What we found was that every movement vibrated the entire web. And it dawned on me – this immeasurable truth we were portraying. We are each a thread woven into the vast web of the universe, linked and connected so that our lives are irrevocably bound up with one another. I looked at those faces around the circle in a new way. The old adage, “I am my brother’s keeper” – or in this case, my sister’s keeper – melted into something new: I am my sister. And suddenly I wanted to gather them to me and do what I could to heal them. And bless them, and affirm to them how beautiful they were.”
We are all connected. We’re not always happy about it. Sometimes we would much rather be disconnected, from other people, other problems, other parts of the world. But what should be becoming increasingly clear to more and more of us, is that disconnection is not a choice that will ultimately lead us out of the woods, or to the “Future City,” for that matter. When Paul said he would rather speak five words with his mind than 10,000 words in the spirit, I don’t imagine he had any particular words in mind. He was simply making a point about the importance of community. But in the spirit of community, there are five words that beautifully fit the spirit of what he was saying, and I think Paul would have approved. Those five words are, “We’re All In This Together.”