Filed under: Bible, Christianity, God, Grace, Inspiration, Jesus, Pentecost, Praise, Religion, Spirituality, Wholeness
Clifford was a real Cajun. Every time that he entered the church he would stick his head into my secretary’s desk and say something in French. Then he would round the corner to pour himself a cup of coffee with chicory that was eternally brewing in our kitchen. Last, he would stick his head into my office and say in a thick accent, “How ya been, boo?”
Clifford lived on a house on the snaking Bayou Teche. The reason that he had chosen this land was so that he would have a place to dock his shrimp boat. Inside two stand-up freezers Clifford had a years worth of food. Wild ducks, shrimp, and redfish were the standard ingredients for any meal in his household and they filled both of these two large freezers. This is the way he had lived for over 70 years and he couldn’t see living any other way. You could tell that Clifford had earned the fear that accompanied him in our leadership meetings. He was a powerful looking man whom didn’t suffer fools.
Janice was very concerned with her status in the New Iberia society. As a retired schoolteacher she corrected everyone’s pronunciations. Her talk was of the proper social circles and how things should be done. She had moved to New Iberia from Ohio and had used her education to become an English teacher in the public school. Janice was the person you went to when you wanted to know what color the shades should be and what silverware was acceptable for dinner. She also let us know if she thought our church was doing something that they shouldn’t. In her mid-70’s she was still a formidable gatekeeper on what should and should not be happening in our church.
Both of these people were on the church’s decision-making body. I had noticed on occasion that they argued back and forth about certain issues. In all of their arguments it was obvious that there was something deeper, some old history of hatred that ran between them. I attributed it to a personality difference. That was of course a much oversimplification of their relationship as I found out in the battle over the olive tree in the courtyard. It began simply in one of our leadership meetings. I was running through the evening’s agenda when we moved to the most thorny part of any church meeting, new business. I asked if anyone had any new business that they needed to bring up and Janice raised her hand.
“I think that we need to cut down the tree in the courtyard. It is a nuisance. The roots from it are effecting the foundation of the church. It has to go.” She said and every word seemed like a lecture.
In the moment it took to blink Clifford slammed his fist down on the table with such force that everyone’s head jerked in his direction, and he proclaimed, “You will cut down that tree over my dead body!” Then he related the most fantastic stories about that tree. How it had been brought from Israel, that it gave off the most wonderful smell in the world and that his children used to hang from its branches.
Looking at the tree in the courtyard I knew that both stories were subject to some embellishment, and that this was an issue that didn’t just originate that night. So, I did what any good Presbyterian minister would do, I set up an ad hoc committee to make the decision. Their decision was to keep the tree, that it was not effecting the foundation and that we didn’t want to lose Clifford as a member.
Janice was furious. In private she told me that maybe she would leave the church, but I knew that she wouldn’t. She was mad, but over the next few weeks I quit hearing about this controversy. Silly little me thought that it was over.
Then one Saturday workers came to fix the roof. I let them and Janice’s husband into the courtyard to work. When I arrived the next day for worship I gazed into the courtyard with horror. The small olive tree was mutilated. Large branches had been hacked out of its center and what was left was a pathetic shell of a tree. In a matter of fact tone Janice explained that the roofers said that it must be cut back to protect the roof. I looked at the tree, imagining how it could have posed a dire threat to our roof, and I braced myself for Clifford.
Mysteriously Clifford was not as angry as I thought, just deeply wounded and sad. The loss that he displayed was something that drooped his shoulders and softened his speech. Taking me aside he promised me that it would take more than a cut down tree for Janice to get rid of him, and cryptically he said, “this will not be the end.” Sadly, I knew that he was right.
In my treating the Olive tree as a young minister I naively thought that this drama was only about a tree. I thought that if we used the democratic process we could solve the issue at hand, but the issue ran far deeper than trees. It interwove culture, history and language. You see Clifford was an old Cajun. He had lived through the attempt by outsiders to eradicate his French Acadian culture and force the population to abandon its 17th century French language. After hundreds of years of peaceful living in South Louisiana the Cajuns found themselves forced to learn English and abandon their rich traditions by new members to their communities in the name of assimilation. Who were the main enforcers of this radical change? It was the public school system. Teachers like Janice were charged with Americanizing this proud and hard headed bunch. Even though most of the Cajuns eventually learned English, they still hold fiercely to their traditions. At the roots of this fight over a tree was a deeper fight over culture, tradition and language, one that would not be resolved by the cutting down of a tree.
Language is deeply enmeshed in the way that we view our world. It would be hard to understand how to process our surroundings without idioms and the particularities. Language makes up the shades of our comprehension. It is a particularly local experience, as well as, a universal experience. We all have particular languages to help explain our common experiences.
In this act of Pentecost we find our hope in turning back the confusion and chaos that accompanies the diversity of cultures, classes and languages. In that brief moment many languages were spoken, but it was in the same Spirit. What was heard that day was the Spirit working about a miraculous linguistic feat. Words were said and understood in the language of a diversity of humans.
Our Pentecost hope is that our language barriers will be crossed with the Spirit’s help. It is a Pentecost desire that years of fighting amongst those in our own faith communities might be replaced with the language of love. That a message of hope might be translated to the immigrant crossing dangerous borders, the refugee might hear salvation while fleeing persecution, that the Jewish settler might hear the cry of the Palestinian, the terrorist might hear the innocents cry, that there might be peace spoken amongst Sunni and Shias, that the disenfranchised living in our midst might be heard in a language that is clear to us. The Pentecost message is of unity, hope and eventually salvation. It is a salvation that that will propel us to stop war, famine and abuse and force us to love the unlovable, because that love is a Spirit’s language.
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