The accented word

Immigrants to Canada, my parents were always conscious of their accents. They spoke publically always conscious and often exceedingly self-critical of how they sounded to others. 

My parents were aware that those who did not share their mother tongue would have to work harder at understanding what they had to say. I suspect my parents noticed in me and my brother—born and schooled in Canada—who did not speak with a Polish accent a great advantage and privilege.

Recently the church celebrated the festival of Pentecost. The central narrative about Pentecost is the multiplicity of languages expressing the good news of God’s Spirit given to the disciples of Jesus. In the Ottawa Ministry Area recorded worship service for Pentecost Sunday the scripture from the book of Acts in the bible was read in half a dozen different languages to illustrate this point.

Our prayers for Pentecost are about the grains of wheat scattered upon the hills, that they be gathered together to become one bread. This is not a prayer for uniformity. Rather, we affirm that we are united in the Spirit, in celebration of our different accents, our uniqueness and our differences.

Because we miss something fundamental in the experience of a faith community when everyone speaks the same accent let alone language. We are missing something in the church today when those who belong must ‘sound’ the same as those who are privileged and born into this culture.

The energy of Pentecost seeks in every generation and in every place to answer the question: Whose accent are we missing in the plethora of voices, in the orchestra of God’s creation? Whose voice is not easily heard by us?

The truth is, we need to work, and sometimes work hard, at understanding each other. The truth is that the practice of faith is ultimately an expression of love for those whose accents we don’t easily understand.

The truth is, none of us speaks God’s mother tongue—which was neither English nor German! The church, from the beginning has never spoken God’s word un-accented. From the beginning, people of faith have always had to interpret, translate and speak God’s foreign tongue to us. Our words about God have always been accented by our createdness, our humaness. We offer only our humanly-interpreted words about God. Each of us speaks with our own accents.

And often words can be misinterpreted, misunderstood. In the Gospel reading from Mark today, those who witness the events around Jesus’ home and family conclude that Jesus “is out of his mind”[1]. Out of his mind, for expanding the circle of familial love to include Gentiles, Jews, the working poor, the disabled, the sick, women, tax collectors and sexual outcasts.[2] The accusation leveled against Jesus comes from a place of denial and rejection of something that the second century people of Capernaum needed to hear.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus concludes.[3]

Perhaps we, too, at this point in history in this nation—Canada—Christians need to hear, just listen and not speak. Now, at this time, just listen to the voices that are missing — the voices of grieving Indigenous families crying out in pain. And if we are to say anything at all, only to mourn alongside those whose children’s and grandchildren’s remains were discovered beside a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, recently. 215 children. Only mourn, and listen. As if it were the remains of our own children and grandchildren discovered in the playground beside their own school.

Our task as followers of Christ in the Spirit of God is to constantly learn new langauges. By that I don’t mean we rush out and take courses in how to speak French or Spanish or Cantonese. What I mean by learning new languages is to nurture a respect in our hearts and minds for the various accents that we hear in our communities, accents which have always been there, and accents with which we might not be too familiar, that are foreign to us.

And by listening to one another in this accented and diverse community we bring a sense of curiosity, wonder and interest. By doing so, “our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” as Saint Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthian church.[4]

The multiplicity of books and forms of speech in the bible itself testifies that divine speech must come through human tongues, must come through our unique voices and accents, to be heard. In this way, the accented word can be experienced as a word of welcome, and a word of grace, for all.


[1] Mark 3:21

[2] Wendy Farley, “Mark 3:20-35” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 3 (Kenutcky: WJK Press, 2009), p.118

[3] Mark 3:35

[4] 2 Corinthians 4:16

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