What Language Shall We Speak?

When the state of Louisiana was first settled by Europeans in the late seventeenth century, the French language settled there, too. Louisiana or Cajun French, as it has come to be known, is a curious blend of many influences, what might be termed a “linguistic gumbo.” In this gumbo, you will find different varieties of the French language itself, Canary Island Spanish, German, and even some English.[1]

Until the twentieth century, spoken Louisiana French was widespread in the state. But with the forced teaching of English in public schools in 1921, mandated by the state, a slow attrition of Cajun culture occurred. The evolution of the mass media into somewhat isolated communities, as well as a general bias against French culture in Louisiana, contributed to the decline of Louisiana French. Those speaking this seemingly anachronistic dialect were considered uneducated, and speaking French was often discouraged. Despite a resurgence of Cajun pride in the mid-twentieth century, to this day, some still worry about losing essential aspects of French heritage in Louisiana.

If you can’t tell by my last name, I’m practically one-hundred percent French—Cajun French, that is. I remember a conversation some years ago with my grandfather, who grew up speaking Louisiana French in the south central portion of the state. He told me about a conversation he’d had with a native French speaker. When I asked him whether the two of them were able to communicate, he said yes. . . but only up to a point, and then there was a breakdown in communication. At some moment, they ceased to be intelligible to one another.

Over time, the French spoken in Louisiana had acquired the barnacles of other dialects and languages and had accommodated itself to the needs of a culture in a different part of the world from the mother country. It had linguistically wandered ever so gradually from its native roots, hence the inevitable breakdown of communication between so-called pure French and Louisiana French.

It might not be too far of a stretch to suggest that the human race has, in many ways, experienced a breakdown in communication. I don’t mean, of course, an inability to understand or speak non-native languages or ones we have never studied. I’m not talking about linguistics per se. I’m talking about comprehension of an implicit, native language of compassion, of brotherly and sisterly affection, of philadelphia, that at its most basic level honors our common humanity. We could add that even we Christians are not doing such a good job of talking to each other. But unlike an innocuous conversation between two French speakers, in this communication failure people get hurt, people suffer, and the name of Christ is sullied.

It seems that we can no longer agree or speak on the same wavelength about many things, or sometimes anything at all. Nations would rather lob missiles at one another rather than enter into dialogue in order to find common ground. We no longer know what is true or what is not because words have lost their meaning in the public sphere. Hatred and vitriol often seem to be the essence of speech and of wordless action. And is it too much to think that two women or two men can ride the Tube in London together and not be subject to homophobic assault? We might also ask why we seem incapable of engaging in constructive discussions about caring for this good earth that God has entrusted to our care. And I could go on…

People who supposedly share a common humanity, who should have some respect for a proto-language of compassion, mercy, and love breathed into existence by God have ceased to be intelligible to one another. And I wonder how this has happened. When did the breakdown happen?

Is it that humanity’s original sinfulness—its fallen state—has ever so gradually whittled away at any understanding of decency? Like an original language that morphs over time, has the language of godly love been adulterated by more sinister languages of apathy, heartlessness, and selfishness? Have our own closed communities—whether nations, races, or clans—gained such narrow understandings of the human vernacular of fellowship that we have lost even non-verbal communication skills?

Or like the official state discouragement of Louisiana French in the 1920s, is it that certain forces among us are discouraging the maintenance of a language of love, a God-language that seeks to build up rather than to destroy, to proclaim hope and not despair? And perhaps, when we try to uphold that language we seem delusional or out of our minds.

When we feel compelled to speak God’s dialect into the world, do others ridicule us, just like some sneered on that first day of Pentecost? Does it seem like madness to imagine that Christ might have something marvelous to proclaim to people in all manner of languages and tongues? Is it a fantastical dream that despite cultural and linguistic differences we might all be able to share some hope together, to proclaim that the sordid affairs of the human condition might be different?

Oh, how I wish, in spite of our various viewpoints, opinions, places of origin, races, and denominations we might be able to speak, and speak boldly, of God’s deeds of power! For in order to believe that we have not completely lost our grasp on the original language of goodness that God consummated with the sending of his beloved Son into the world, we need someone, just like Peter on that first Pentecost, to set the record straight. We need people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to confidently stand up, raise their voices, and interpret the times. “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!”

On that day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit roared into the place where the disciples were gathered together, it must have been utter pandemonium. Who could blame some in the crowd of devout Jews for being amazed and perplexed and for wondering what it all meant? You might even forgive the more cynical among them for sneering and thinking the babbling disciples were drunk. But the incontrovertible truth of that Pentecostal event was that by a miracle of God, the distinct tongues of many different races and cultures all gave witness to one thing alone: the incredible deeds of God’s power.

And it was up to Peter, that so-frequently stumbling, inconsistent, and impetuous disciple to interpret the times in accordance with God’s divine plan. This was God’s promise coming true in his Son, the long-awaited Messiah! This was the initial in-breaking of God’s kingdom into this fallen world, a time in which God was pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh, sons and daughters, the young and the old, all sorts and conditions of humanity. And in spite of the diversity of languages, the proclamation of the mighty acts of God as shown in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ was taking place.

I long for some strong voices today, like Peter, to stand up in the midst of the babbling crowds around us to bear witness to God’s awesome deeds that are indeed happening, to interpret the times in light of God’s action in Jesus Christ. Yes, we could easily be fooled into thinking that God’s wondrous acts were manifested only in the first days of the early Church, but that simply isn’t the case.

Just as easily as we might recount all the ways in which we seem to have lost our first language of love, we could yet even more readily enumerate ways in which that language still exists, where God’s children speak in varied languages of compassion, mercy, and justice and are still intelligible to one another. We wouldn’t have to look too hard to discover young men and women with dreams that the dismal news we so often hear of is not the end of the story. We wouldn’t have to look hard to see visions of how things could be if we just put a bit more trust in the saving power of God, if we just called on the name of the Lord a bit more.

And here we are, gathered in this one place, like those disciples, on our own Pentecost. We might not hear a violent wind or see flames of fire, but shortly, we will accompany Eliot Hicks Gray to the font and we will recall the mighty action of God breathing his Spirit over the waters in the beginning of creation, ordering chaos into a splendid creation. And, Eliot Hicks, when you grow older and a little wiser and perhaps a little more cynical, and when you think the world has lost all sense of the original language of love, remember your baptism. Remember that the tongue of God’s Holy Spirit rested on you this day and called you, like Peter, to stand up above the crowd and address those around you with a bold proclamation of God’s mighty power and of the salvation available to all who call upon the name of Christ.

I imagine if I were to ask my grandfather today again about that breakdown in communication between him and the native French speaker, he would probably tell me that even when their words failed them, he and his fellow Frenchman would have been able to wend their way back to some mutual understanding. Just because their words temporarily hit an impasse didn’t mean that the conversation was lost.

So, too, with our broken human conversations. What is at the present time unintelligible can be made intelligible, for in the power of the Spirit, anything is possible. Visions will be seen, and dreams will be dreamed, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. And you and I have been called. So stand up, raise your voice above the babble, set the record straight, and call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, for God is still working his mighty deeds among us!

[1] https://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/americanvarieties/cajun/

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
9 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 9, 2019 .