When I was little-little, I was given the gift of tongues. (Even the writing of that sentence, the saying of it out loud, sounds a little bizarre, a little other worldly and, let’s be honest, weird, doesn’t it?) My family was new to this world of church, this brother-ing and sister-ing, these tambourines and simple choruses. On Friday nights, our little church of misfits would meet at the Regina Leisure Centre to play floor hockey after Bible study. A middle-aged lady taught our class and she spoke easily of a special prayer language, a gift from heaven, for us. I don’t really remember much of what she said now but I remember the weight of her warm hand on my small head, her quiet voice praying so only I could hear, asking Jesus for “a special language that is just between her own heart and you, Jesus.” I trusted her, I loved my Jesus and at that moment, my childish voice began in a whisper and it sounded odd but somehow homey to my heart, this murmuring language rolling against the back of my front teeth, and I felt joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.
Since that day, I’ve wrestled with the gift of tongues both as the outsider and as the insider.
Later, I was shocked to find out that it was seen as a fringe aspect of Christianity. In fact, most people were convinced it was not to be messed around with, a slippery slope to emotionalism and freaky Jesus stuff. Not only did hardly anyone speak in tongues but many Christians thought it was fake, manipulative. It was wrong to pursue it, to want it. People made fun of it, babbling “Shundai-shundai-shoulda-bought-a-Hynundai” and I would laugh nervously along. And most were certain that it didn’t even exist anymore, scaring me a bit with the thump of a closed door-Bible. No more tongues, they told me, it simply isn’t for today. So then I wondered if they were right – was I emotionally manipulated that day? Am I just faking it? Is it really necessary to me and what does it mean? How does this work in public or in private? I felt ostracized, like I had to keep this gift quiet and hidden. No one must know because they’ll think I’m a crazy person, of course. And so I kept it quiet, hidden.
Sure, I’m a Christian but a nice, safe, non-crazy one. Quietly, I was always praying in tongues behind their backs even as I wondered about what the heck I was doing.
Then, as an insider to this gift, I cringed at loud prayer meetings with people hollering consonants and vowels wildly, never a thought of order or interpretations. The hours of sweaty church services with “speaking in tongues” as part of the circus that included falling out, wild laughter and my own deep sense of discomfort. When people preached about it or talked about it, they acted like we had it figured out and every one else was somehow less spiritual than us. We separated the work of the Spirit, acting like sure, maybe you were saved but then there was this “second baptism” and that was how you knew who was in and who was out. We attached the label “spirit-filled” to ourselves, implying that we owned the Holy Spirit and the rest of you, well, you weren’t living in the fullness like us. It confused me because I knew that the work of the Spirit is never one of division and pride. And I saw the hurt of friends who believed and yet were never given the gift of tongues themselves, made to feel like they lacked faith. I also knew that the work and fruit of the Spirit was growing and thriving oftentimes more obviously in the lives of those we deemed “not-spirit-filled.” Some of the best, most joyful, most faithful Christians I knew did not speak in tongues. So clearly, we were wrong a lot of the time. And we hurt a lot of people with our exclusivity, too.
Nice Christians don’t deal in the mystics too much anymore and even the hint of an ecstasy is enough to make most of us nervous. It’s weird or its wrong or its the worst version of a spiritual abuse or maybe it scares us because we just don’t understand.
Part of my own journey has been to admit this: I am a bit of a mystic and I speak easily in tongues. In fact, it has been my first language when words fail which, in this life, happens often. While I laboured in our home to give birth to another tiny-barely-there-baby that we would not hold in this life, my burning tears were tasted by a mouth that only spoke tongues for those long hours, my heart somehow in a groaning along with my body, for the joining of grief and worship and trust. And then when I laboured to bring the tinies we do hold earthside, again, in the ecstasy, it was my gift, the baptism of motherhood and pain somehow coming alongside in a hallelujah and I knew that every word I whispered was an “oh, thank you” in every language of the world. And somehow it wends its way into my most joyful moments, my quiet and contemplative ones, my questions and my wonderings, my anger and my sadness. Tongues is where I turn when my heart is wrung out by injustice and evil and suffering. Sometimes I have an active interpretation, sometimes it leads me to Scripture and other times, it’s just a gift, syllables of peace for the saving of my own soul. Rarely a day goes by that I am not drawn to the practice of this gift.
So, friends, can you hear my heart? I am sorry for the hurting, I am sorry for the abuses, I am sorry for the implied exclusivity and for the bad theology and the even-worse subculture of tongues. That is not the work of the Spirit. I don’t know much – I’m no theologian, just a wife and a mama wildly in love with Jesus, wrestling out what that means and missing it sometimes by a mile.
And I know one thing for sure – the work of the believer is to speak first the life of the Spirit, apples of gold and wisdom, dripping silver and emeralds of life, that fill us with peace, love, joy, goodness, self-control, kindness, faithfulness and gentleness. Because, “if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing….But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Against such things, even the most stout cessationist or wild charismatic knows, there is no law so let Love be my first language, my mother tongue whether its communicated in English or a thousand tongues for only angels to hear.