Speaking in tongues

Today is one of my favorite Christian holidays -- Pentecost. My youngest was baptized last year on this feast day and we just got home from a beautiful service at our church. I find it fascinating how little most Christian holidays are mentioned in the press. If it's not Christmas or Easter, it's not likely to be covered. There are many reasons for this, one being that it's really hard to find a fresh angle on a holiday that's not been commercialized as much as Christmas or Easter. There aren't any Pentecost Fire Sales going on this time of year.

Anyway, that made me all the more delighted to read Tim Townsend's story earlier this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The story is about the Rev. Scott Schmieding, a Lutheran pastor in Missouri. The story begins by explaining that Schmieding had a cancerous tumor on his tongue. He's told that most or all of it will need to be removed:

In that moment, Schmieding was not afraid of death or the physical ordeal that he faced. He knew heaven awaited him if he were to die. But he wondered about his calling if he survived. How could he spread the word of God if he couldn't speak?

"I was most fearful that I would never again be able to verbally communicate with my family," Schmieding recalled.

Sitting in the examination room about 13 years ago, he asked God to either make him whole or take him to heaven. Ultimately, God would do neither.

He loses the tongue and has to retrain himself to speak using a special retainer. So why am I mentioning this on Pentecost? Because Townsend is a knowledgeable enough religion reporter to understand that this story lent itself to being told on this special festival. Why?

On Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the official end of the Easter season commemorating a dramatic scene in Scripture when the Holy Spirit empowers Jesus' disciples to begin spreading the Gospel: "Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."

The story isn't about Pentecost. The bulk of it deals with Schmieding coming to terms with his new condition and how his previous and current congregations came to terms with it as well. But I love that Townsend told this story using a Pentecost hook. It works particularly well for a liturgical church body like the one Schmieding -- and I -- are a part of. He speaks with a nice variety of sources and ends with this kicker:

He consistently relies on one of his favorite verses, from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, which has a particular relevance to his own life. In the verse, Paul recounts God's words to him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

Schmieding believes strongly that he's been able to reach more people without a tongue than he would have had he not had cancer.

"The history of the Bible is the story of God using imperfect people for his perfect purposes," he said. "I'm just one in a very long line of imperfect people being used by God."

You can always tell the difference between a reporter who feels comfortable with permitting his sources to speak natural religious language and one for whom such language is, well, foreign. Another Pentecost lesson, perhaps.

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