In an interview with the Christian broadcasting station ‘Premier Radio’ Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, revealed that he speaks in tongues when he prays first thing in the morning. This is a spiritual practice associated with the charismatic traditions of the church. It is a language unknown, a kind of ecstatic utterance in a state of praising, an emotional outburst in response to deep love for God. Not everyone does this by any means and those who do are no better or more holy than those who don’t. And that was a very clear message from our first reading (1 Corinthians 12). There has been research into what is going on in the brain while someone speaks in tongues and it seems that areas associated with rational thought and speech are less active, the emotional centres more prominent. It would seem to be a letting go into God in a deep way.
There is some evidence that speaking in tongues can be learned and indeed copied. Given that it springs up in certain traditions and cultural ways of being Christian would rather imply that there is something about those traditions that promote and encourage it. This doesn’t mean it is bogus or suspect, just that it might be a manifestation of something shared across traditions but expressed differently. There are different languages where the emotional and the creative can be let loose and allowed to set us free. For some it is music and the free flow of ideas expressing a deep hope and thanksgiving. For some the lines and colour pallet of painting and drawing give expression to something very deep. The creative process is a pouring out of our inner being and essence. I find this with writing prayers and finding words to hint at something much deeper but not try to define it, because it is beyond definition. But there is a mystical element connecting with the heart of everything. In all of these as well as tongues we push beyond the boundaries and limitations of language and form.
St Paul in his letter is clear that spiritual gifts are just that, gifts, and not signs of importance or superiority. And that passage with so many different gifts highlighted goes on to hint at a better way, the most important gift of all and it is not one that has been listed so far. That most excellent way, as he goes on to call it, is outlined and celebrated in the next Chapter (13) and that is his famous song of love, which begins “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” – an empty noise. This is the love which is patient, kind, hopes and looks for the best. Love which is the greatest gift of all, even beyond hope and faith.
And that love in action was celebrated in the passage from the prophet Isaiah, read by Jesus in the Nazareth Synagogue (Luke 4:14-21). Here, when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him, it shows itself in good news being let loose for the poor. Captives are released, the blind find their sight, the oppressed are set free. This is a gospel of liberation proclaiming God’s blessing, his Jubilee – the year of the Lord.
The implication of this is that moments of praise and emotional outpouring, whatever form they take, are special and build us up, but what matters more is where they lead. Do they stay within or shower the world and those around us with generous gift and love? How do they transform the lives of those most in need and become a source of blessing? This blessing proclaims life, hope and love. So when we bless, when praise is expressed in blessing, then life, hope and love are proclaimed and advanced; the rejoicing is spread.
In our particularly rational, western culture, we have rather over emphasized the importance of logic and played down the emotional. Being emotional is seen as weakness and it is looked down on when issues are serious. This misses so much of the importance of how we experience life. A bit more emotion at times would not go amiss. It shows the importance, it shows how we really connect with issues and plans. It has been said that the last part of person to accept a change is the emotional side because it is the bit that connects much more deeply with us. So we can know the arguments, we can hear the stories, but deep down there is the language of being human which needs to be convinced and won over too. The heart needs to sing for joy along with the words.
The emotions is where our honesty lies. And with so many struggling with mental distress this is more important than we might think. The East Coast mainline seems to be regularly disrupted by someone being hit by a train. This week LNER tweeted that if passengers who were delayed by a fatality on the line wanted to they could donate their compensation to a listening charity. It’s not easy to admit you can’t cope and are struggling. Connecting with our emotions and feelings and knowing them means that we know how something matters to us and just how much it is part of our heart and soul. And then these become the drives for us to act and make a difference in the world.
So today we are reminded that there are many gifts of the Holy Spirit and connecting with our emotions is one of them. There are different means through which this can come. Whatever form they take the most excellent way is when they affect how we live, the impact we have on others and how our praising leads us to become blessing.
Sermon for Epiphany 4 at St Luke’s Church, Peterborough, Sunday 27th January 2019