‘This little piggy went to market; this little piggy stayed home. This little piggy had roast beef:’ how does it finish? Or ‘Round and round the houses, like a teddy bear. One step, two step’… What is all this nonsense all about? Not nonsense at all: these are the games we play with children, even before they are able to speak. Picture the glee on their faces though, as your tickling fingers approach. Listen to the giggles of delight, feel the squirms of pleasure. They curl their toes in anticipation, and hug their armpits closed as they brace themselves to be tickled. They are: enchanted; caught up in the game with every fibre of their little beings. You may think this is only a game; you could call this nonsense. Yet as we play with a child this way, a profound communication is taking place.
Because, for instance, you can’t imagine elephants playing ‘this little piggy’, or any other game, can you? Elephants have live in sophisticated family groups, and nurture their young for years. Elephants are probably the most highly intelligent of beasts, with amazing memories and superb problem-solving skills. But you can’t see them communicating at the level we humans achieve, even by the age of three. You can’t imagine an elephant using the telephone, for instance; unless it’s to make a trunk call, I suppose. Sorry. Whereas communication is what we do. All of the time.
With words by the billion: broadcast, written, whispered, declaimed, promised, lied with, printed, texted, emailed, twittered. To say nothing of all the other ways we communicate: through art, and music, sports and games. Through film and television, dance and drama. Our body-language communicates. Babies communicate from the moment of their first cry. Mother and child communicate for months before the baby is even born. The way we dress, the way we speak, the cars we drive, the jobs we choose, the gifts we give; almost everything we do communicates.
And yet, so much of the time, our communication goes wrong. A few years ago there was an advert for buying your TV licence online. The scene is an ordinary kitchen. But the mother in the sketch is so busy communicating on her mobile with her friend that she gives baby-food to the dog and dog-food to the baby. Dog and baby look at each other, equally aghast. She has communicated to both of them that she’s not engaged: in her mind she’s with her friend on her mobile, not present in the kitchen with them. They’ll both forgive her: this is only an amusing fiction. But we all know that communication can break down in all sorts of much more serious ways. You don’t need to be a police officer, or a diplomat, or a divorce lawyer to know this.
With all this noise, with all this babble of words and cacophony of talk, how on earth is God going to communicate?
For God also communicates: it’s what he does. The Bible writers perceive this: the first thing God does, according to Genesis, is to speak. And when God speaks, the universe is created. ‘Let there be light’, and there is light. The prophets of the Old Testament believe that what they communicate is not of their own imagining: ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ they proclaim, whether or not anyone listens.
For their words are often drowned out, or misinterpreted and twisted round. ‘Love your neighbour’, says Old Testament. Ah, but who is my neighbour, then; and who is not? Whom can I therefore exclude from my duty to love? Even the young lawyer who comes to question Jesus one day tries to wriggle out of this obligation.
So God finds other ways to communicate. Some of these are bizarre: read about God meeting Moses in a burning bush, or writing on the wall to tell Nebuchadnezzer his doom. Or of Ezekiel cutting off his hair and lying on his side for a year, and how Hosea choses a bride: these strange actions are enacted prophecies, to get God’s communication across. Yet, again and again, his people are too busy communicating with each other to listen attentively to him.
So God communicates in ways yet more profound. Do you remember the slogan that Interflora used years ago, ‘Say it with flowers?’ They reasoned that the gift of something beautiful can make even the spottiest, most lank-haired, most tongue-tied of teenagers appear to have romance in his soul. Gifts do this.
God gives gifts, in order to communicate his love for us. ‘In many and various ways, God spoke to us by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son,’ declares the writer to the Hebrews.‘This is how much I love you: I’ll even die for you’, proclaims the God who communicates, in a way that words could never convey. Yet though he gives us the gift of his own Son, still we find it hard to pay attention.
God does not give up, though. And having interrupted history to give us this gift of his Son, he promises us another comforter, the Holy Spirit, to be with us always. At Pentecost, God communicates again.
We are suspicious, though, of such a gift. How do we know that the gift we perceive is truly of God? If it is, might there be strings attached? And even if I trust God, can I trust what other Christians seem to be saying about his gift of the Holy Spirit? Christians disagree over how they understand the Spirit at least as much as over any other area of contention. Is what they do in other churches the humble recognition of God’s sovereignty, or irrational emotionalism? Are other ways of worship and prayer obedience to the Spirit, or manipulation by the hierarchy? Eggshells offer a secure footing compared with talking to Christians about the Holy Spirit!
But fundamentally, Pentecost is about God involving himself with us. Pouring out his Spirit in order to engage with us. Communicating, so that we can know he delights in us. All of the rest, the New Testament discussions about the fruit of the Spirit and the various lists of the Spirit’s gifts; all of the puzzlement about what actually happened on the Day of Pentecost, and what it all means, it all springs from this. God wants, offers, longs to be as close to us as we are to little children. What do little children do? They trust, wholly and completely, without fear. They accept the gift, they enter into the game. When we show them that we love them, they delight, with every fibre of their being.
© Jon Russell 2019