xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: August 2011

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Look What I Can Do! (And You Can, Too!)

August 4, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? (Acts 2:8)

Among my many epiphanies during our recent trip to the Philippines was the discovery of my latent ability to speak fluent Tagalog, the primary language of the Filipino people. The setting was mundane enough: a trip to the palengke, or marketplace, in Calapan City, where my mother and her family would sell fresh fish and other goods every day. Walking past numerous piles of exotic seafood, a handful of large, bright pink, doe-eyed fish sold by a little Filipino woman caught my attention.

Without pause, my curiosity seized my tongue, and I blurted out to her, in near pitch-perfect Tagalog: “Anong isda ito?” (“What is this fish?”)

I was so shocked that she understood what I was asking that I didn’t really hear her answer to my question. I was more surprised to realize the synaptic speed with which my brain translated my thoughts into the language of my ancestors.

I’m sure that ability has always been there since childhood. For years, my parents would speak Tagalog to me, but I would always respond to them in English, the language of my formal American schooling. It became a seamless, albeit complicated, conversational stream: my ears would receive their Tagalog words, my brain would process the meaning and formulate its English equivalents, and my mouth would respond.

My parents never really expected or required me to speak back to them in Tagalog, which made my recent discovery that much more surprising. My wife, who has known me for nearly twenty years, has never heard me speak conversational Tagalog. My girls, who have only known me for my English vocabulary, wondered who it was who had seized ventriloquist control of their dad’s mouth and started speaking in his stead.

But there was something deeper happening here, far beyond my ability to speak to a woman in a fish market. As I heard the collective hum of the Filipino people speaking in their native tongue, I could hear the voices of my ancestors, and could even sense the reverberant echoes of a deeply hidden part of myself. It became a pretty profound awakening, and I invented a phrase to capture what I was feeling:

My DNA was tingling.

Psychologists might suggest that what I’ve really been experiencing is part of a whole journey toward individuation: the process whereby one discovers one’s hidden, essential self in order to become a more integrated whole. It’s a recurring element throughout pop culture: Luke Skywalker finds out he’s a Jedi, Harry Potter realizes he can speak parsel tongue, Clark Kent discovers he can fly.

Author and screenwriter Michael Chabon, after writing the critically acclaimed Wonder Boys, once opened a sealed, dusty box of comic books he had been carrying around for fifteen years. “I found one remaining box of comics which I had saved,” Chabon said to an interviewer. “When I opened it up and that smell came pouring out, that old paper smell, I was struck by a rush of memories, a sense of my childhood self that seemed to be contained in there.” [1] Finding out I can speak Tagalog is no superpower, of course, but it certainly felt like Chabon’s comic books. The “rush of memories,” the rediscovery of childhood, and the re-acquaintance with my authentic self, all felt like how Sarah Ban Breathnach described it: “The authentic self is the soul made visible.”

Naturally, the preacher in me wants to recast my discovery in theological terms, viewing my experience as a kind of salvation metaphor for the redemptive process that ultimately reconnects us to God. Genesis reminds us that we’ve all been created with the same “essential self,” the image of God within us. We have been given that imago Dei with the potential to reflect the character and activity of a God who desires to be in full relationship with us. And that image enables us to speak a powerful language, whether we know it or not. It is the language of love: full, divine, healing love.

But you know the story goes. Rather than fully reflecting that love, the pervasive forces of a sinful world have corrupted our ability to speak that language, rendering us vulnerable prey to the kind of idolatrous, self-serving propensities that prompt the worst of our potential. Instead of living out the image of God, we live, as Augustine said, with the “heart turned inward upon itself.”

This diagnosis of the human condition became the basis for John Wesley’s understanding of the movement of God’s grace. From the moment we enter the world, God’s grace steadily and subtly makes us aware of the imago Dei within us, calling us to a new kind of life, and a revelation of who we were originally created to be. And just like the people of Pentecost, who were empowered by the Spirit suddenly to speak in their own native language, God’s grace enables us to articulate and embody a vocabulary that we have always had but never fully expressed: the language of God’s love, “shed abroad in human hearts.” Here’s the way Wesley described that transformation, in his famous sermon, “The New Birth:”

It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is "created anew in Christ Jesus;" when it is "renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;" when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the "mind which was in Christ Jesus." This is the nature of the new birth: "So is every one that is born of the Spirit."

Of course, my experience in speaking Tagalog in the palengke isn’t a perfect metaphor for grace. In no way do I consider the suppression of my Filipino heritage to be like the sinful corruption of our divine image. Being born in the United States and mastering the English language has been among the richest blessings of my life. But I do think there is no way I could have gotten in touch with my essential ethnic identity if I hadn’t left this country for ten days and been fully immersed among the Filipino people. Without seeing their faces, being surrounded by their voices, and hearing their language, I would not have discovered this part of me.

And that’s why, like John Wesley, I believe that the process of salvation is fundamentally communal in nature. There is no effective way for a person to be a growing, maturing Christian outside the context of Christian community, without the regular encouragement and reinforcement of people all practicing the rituals of Christian culture, and rehearsing the language of love together. If you try to make Christianity a solo enterprise, you’ll find it very difficult to stay true to your roots.

Whether you know it or not, you have an amazing hidden ability. It’s part of your essential self as one created in God’s image. You too can speak the language of God’s love, “shed abroad in your heart.” You can speak it on your own, but it’s best practiced in the context of fellow sojourning Christians. And that’s what makes our work together as a St. Paul’s family so important, and so beautiful.

I can’t wait to resume my pastoral work with you in September, and to see how we can better reflect God’s best intentions for each other and for the community we serve. Maybe I can’t say it any better to you than in Tagalog.

“Mabuhay!” (“Blessed Life!”)


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA 51012
Ph: 712-225-3955

[1] http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1000/chabon/interview.html

Jessica is working this summer to complete her first book, due to be released in February of next year. It is a reference book of world religions and other popular belief systems, titled, All You Wanted to Know but Didn’t Think You Could Ask: Religions, Cults, and Popular Beliefs. It will be published by Thomas Nelson, and co-authored with her good friend Christine Ortega Gaurkee, a former teaching colleague in Tampa, Florida. You’ll want to check out more information about it and even consider pre-ordering a copy for yourself or a friend: http://www.amazon.com/Want-Know-Didnt-Think-Could/dp/1418549177/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1312399236&sr=8-1.