It is often pointed out that the Day of Pentecost is the reverse of the Tower of Babel event in the Old Testament. My first pastorate was a church just south of Bangor, Maine. Bangor, like many American communities, has been struggling to make a name for itself. In the 1960s they lost a major military base and airport hub. Truth is, planes stopped needing to fuel there as they flew to Europe. Few people remember that Bangor was the destination for the King of the Road hit song by Roger Miller. Fewer people still, associate Bangor with Paul Bunyan. Like the ancient people on the Plane of Shinar, and John Katich (who?), the Bangorites had a name recognition problem. The city council decided that the solution was to build, not a tower, but a 30foot high fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan.
It is good to note where the people of Bangor and the citizens of Babel went wrong. With the United Methodist General Conference meeting soon, these stories have relevance. I think the average church leader can see similarities in the crack-pot schemes of their congregation.
Poor Substitutes: Bricks for stones, tar for mortar, and a fiberglass cartoon character instead of real public art. It is always easier to do something big and showy than it is to do real works of service for a community. Babel is positioned in the Genesis narrative to highlight humanity’s choice to find other substitutes for God
Stairways to Heaven: Instead of building our own tower to get into God’s presence, we must step back and discern how God desires to be worshipped. There is a flow of revelation, prayer, and praise, that is distinctive for each congregation. Churches need to stop thinking that by building a building and filling a set of pews they have succeeded in doing worship. They need to stop thinking that the pastor, like some magical Paul Bunyan, will bring worship to them.
False Community: The people of Babel, like the people of Bangor, all spoke the same language. They also looked the same and had similar cultural values. Diversity wasn’t a priority. James Surowiecki, in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” demonstrates the superior intelligence and compassion that large groups have, especially when they are united in a democratic process (yes, this is an election year). Crowds are only smart, however, when they are diverse and free from manipulation. A congregation, or a city, becomes a mad mob when they fail to receive into full membership people who are different from them.
With this in mind, let us briefly list the things that went right on the first Pentecost:
The process of fifty days of prayer, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, yielded a genuine foundation for the church to be built on. We must respect the time that transitional processes require in the church, so that our community is built utilizing the best materials/spiritual gifts.
The religious practice of the people was returned to real worship, complete with revelation, prayer, and praise.
The gift of a common language wasn’t used to merge everyone into conformity. Instead, diversity was appreciated in the early church and the outward-facing missionary spirit cultivated. Alternately, one can read the book of Acts as an extended account of the Holy Spirit forcing people to be more accepting of each other than they first wanted to be.