What My Daughter Said

This is the speech my daughter gave at the Maine Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial last month!

“Good morning,

My name is Anne Griffith. I am the youngest of four children of Maine Warden Chaplain Kate Braestrup and fallen Maine State Trooper Drew Griffith.

It is a privilege to stand with you, and honor my father today. On behalf of the families of the fallen, I thank you all for being here.

As the youngest of Drew’s children, I was three years old when my dad died, too young to form clear memories.

I did not have much of a chance to experience him as a father, and my memories of him are vague and uncertain.

What I had, growing up, were stories — stories of his intelligence, his kindness, and his humor— told to me by those who had known him well: my mother, and my siblings of course, my family…and my blue family, too. Law enforcement officers who worked with Dad supported us, shared our sadness and kept us close over the years, caring for him by caring for us. They, too, gave me my father in stories.

And so, two decades later I am still a part of that blue family.

In 2014 I worked as a Reserve Patrol Officer. During this time, I thought often of my dad. I got a glimpse of him—his sorrows and satisfactions— through performing the tasks that he performed; I placed handcuffs on offenders while they fought me.

I performed CPR on two victims… and could not save them.

I helped in preventing the suicide of a mentally ill woman.

For the past year, I have worked as an Investigative Analyst for the Computer Crimes Unit. During this time I have assisted in a variety of cases from child pornography possession to child molestation offenses.

Because of the nature of my work for the Unit, I can definitively point to particular cases and know for certain that I made a difference in the outcome of the investigation. There is a satisfaction in this that my father felt…and I have felt it, too.

I know there is no greater sense of honor and purpose than participating in the protection of innocent human lives. This is what my father died doing.

Besides working with an incredible team, I am fortunate to work closely with those who knew and loved my father- Lt. Glenn Lang who helped to carry his casket, Sgt. Laurie Northrup who once told me her last conversation with my dad was of how much he loved his wife and children; Computer Analyst Andrea Donovan, who worked as a State Police Dispatcher and heard my Dad sign on 10-8, and sign off 10-7.

I am able to know my father through them, just as they are able to know him through me.

April 15, 2016 marked the 20th Anniversary of my father’s line of duty death.

To mark the day, I went for a run.
A sergeant of the Maine State Police K9 Unit, and a recently graduated State Trooper ran with me, in the area where I grew up—and Dad’s patrol area.

We ended up at Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde, where a bench dedicated in my father’s name is placed. The sky was clear blue and the air was crisp with salt from the nearby ocean.
Neither the sergeant nor the brand-new trooper had ever shaken my father’s hand, or laughed at his jokes. Still, they are his family, they are his brothers. They ran with him by running with me.

The law enforcement family is large; it crosses state lines and international borders. Though my siblings and I lost our father, we did not lose our connection to his legacy, nor the family he became a part of when he joined the Maine State Police in 1986. I know who my father was because I know you—his brothers and sisters in uniform, intelligent, good-humored and kind—who continue to serve and protect the people of Maine and of the United States. In honoring my father today, I honor you.

Thank you. “

Twenty Years

Tomorrow, it will have been twenty years since my first husband, Trooper James A. (“Drew”) Griffith of the Maine State Police was killed in the line of duty. This is the last picture ever taken of him.

DrewpictureIt appeared in the local newspaper to illustrate a story about the Maine State Police’s pilot project in community policing: Drew was going to be the first Trooper to try it out.

A friend cut the picture out of the paper and brought it to me at church in case I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t—and throughout the sermon I kept taking it out of my pocket, unfolding it and looking at it, then putting it away again. He was, I thought, so handsome and looked so happy.

That evening, I pasted the clipping into our photo album and then—uncharacteristically—I wrote a prayer around it. “Dear God, take care of him.”

The next morning, he was killed instantly when his cruiser was struck broadside by a fully-loaded box truck.

I suppose I could have said that God did not answer my prayer. Or that there is no God. But I believe in God-is-Love, and God-is-Love is who I prayed to, that night and ever afterward.

God-is-Love came flying down the roads, blue lights flashing, to bring Drew’s comrades to the scene of his accident; God was present in the tender hands of the paramedic (a neighbor and friend) who felt my husband’s last heartbeats; God was there in the prayers of the truck driver who could have been defensive but instead took on more than his share of responsibility for the tragedy and let it break his sweet, good heart.

God was baked into every casserole brought by my neighbors and steeped into every cup of Tension Tamer tea my friends and I shared. God was in the funeral home, where Mr. Moss, three troopers and Mom helped me get Drew dressed and ready for his funeral. God was the strength in the arms of Drew’s pallbearers, the crispness of their last salutes, the grace with which they folded his flag into a tidy triangle of stars, God was the governor slipping off his suit jacket, draping my youngest in it because she looked chilly, before handing that flag to me.

God-is-love took good care of Drew, and has taken good care of Drew’s children. God has brought me safe thus far, and God will lead me home.

Kate’s Dates and Appearances…Summer 2016

Sunday, June 12th Unitarian Churches of West Paris and Norway, Maine Sermon
Sunday, June 26th United Christian Church of Lincolnville, Maine Sermon
Sunday, July 17th First Universalist Church of Rockland, Maine Sermon
Sunday, July 24th Unitarian Church, Great Barrington, MA. Sermon
Sunday, July 31 North Chapel, Woodstock, Vt. Sermon
Sunday, August 14th Hancock Point Chapel, Hancock, Maine Sermon
Sunday, September 25th United Christian Church of Lincolnville, Maine Sermon

Check out Kate’s new Moth Radio Hour story at http://themoth.org too!

My Tribe

This is going to be a little schmaltzy. Can’t help it.

Together with about 400 police officers, I’m attending a seminar put on by the Concerns of Police Survivors, an organization begun and operated by the widows, parents and adult children of fallen officers. (Bless them, they’ve been keeping me glued together ever since my first husband died in 1996!) They provide many services to survivors, and excellent training for law enforcement officers in law enforcement wellness and trauma.

As the flags are borne in by the color guard , times being what they are, I can’t help but notice that, unlike so many of my usual liberal haunts (my denomination, to name just one), the hands placed devoutly over all those hearts are of as many possible human skin tones as the most enthusiastic multiculturalist SJW could possibly desire. Speaking in every American accent you can imagine (and a few I couldn’t place) we are saying the the pledge in unison…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Officer Jason Collins of the St. Louis police department, the first three-time winner of their Medal of Valor (and a sweetheart!) is here.


So is Orange County (Florida) Deputy Curtis Barnes, who was shot in the right arm by a trio of car thieves in 2007, returned fire with his left hand and apprehended two of the three before back-up arrived. Barnes is the guy on the right in this picture—splendid man.

curtis barnes
curtis barnes
Also present; a lot of terrific, humane and funny veteran officers giving presentations on PTSR/PTSD, line of duty death, fatal force encounters and (times being what they are) how to cope with a negative social and political environment and intense scrutiny. (If you haven’t seen this video, of an anti-police activist going through shoot/don’t shoot scenarios it’s pretty good.)

On the plane home to Maine, I’ll read the scribbled notes in my notebook: “Try to make a positive difference in someone’s life on every call for service…” “Compassion is the DNA of our profession…” “Chaplains—you don’t push, you don’t pull, you don’t proselytize…””An estimated 15-18% of police officers have PTSD…” “suicide is the #1 killer of police officers…” “a Harvard Medical School study found that most police officers average only four hours of sleep per night…” police officers should be trained to minimize failures of kindness…”

This is my tribe: tall, short, straight, gay, teetotalers, drinkers, all religions including none, Democrats, Republicans and fierce Independents, sheriffs’ deputies, troopers, game wardens, chaplains, small town officers, big city officers

All of us watching the slides click past, image after image of the faces of the law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty thus far in 2015.

Liquori Tate.Police-Officer-Liquori-Tate-webPolice-Officer-Liquori-Tate-web

Miguel Perez-Rios. Policia-de-Puerto-Rico-agente-caido-Miguel-Perez-Rios-Foto-via-Policia-de-Puerto-Rico-2


Rosemary Vela.


Steven Martin Sandberg. Investigator-Steven-Sandberg-web

Aren’t they beautiful? There are 109 altogether… so far.

We’ll be seeing their wives, husbands, children, parents in Washington, DC in May, to welcome them into the club no one wants to belong to. For now, the faces click past and Topeka Kansas Officer Jayme Green gets up with a guitar slung across the breast of his dress uniform. He strums and sings the song he wrote for his own fallen comrades. It’s called Sacrifice and it’s a killer.

They’re the finest. That’s all. Just the finest.

Appearances and Apparitions

Sunday, October 18th, 2015— Sermon Lincolvnille United Christian Church, Lincolnville, Maine 9:30 am
Saturday, October 24th, 2015—Sermon, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY 220 S. Winton Road 4:30 pm
Sunday, October 25th, 2015—Sermon, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY 9:00 and 11:00 am
Sunday, October 25th, 2015—reading and signing, 3:00 pm
Sunday, November 22nd, 2015— Sermon, Lincolnville United Christian Church, Lincolnville, Maine 9:30 am
Sunday, December 13th, 2015—Sermon, First Church of Boston, 66 Marlborough St. 11:00 am

Note: it is possible to hear the sermons Kate has preached at First Church in Boston by going to their website and scrolling down through the archives of what are, we admit, a whole lot of other pretty spiffy sermons offered by some fine preachers. If you are in the Boston area and want to listen in on the day-of, Emerson Radio WERS 88.9 FM carries the service live on Sundays.


Doubting Faith

Doubting Faith

This year, as a spiritual discipline, I decided to make a deliberate effort to think about things and engage the world from a radically different perspective. In my case, as a liberal, I am trying to see the world through the eyes of conservatives. This project leads me to read books I never would have read, seek out information I didn’t know existed, and participate in conversations with people I previously assumed weren’t worth talking to on subjects I assumed were no longer open to discussion.
This has been a fascinating and humbling experience. Among other things, I have begun to doubt former certainties, and find new ways and new reasons to have faith.

Not long ago, my youngest daughter Woolie and I were crossing a street together. I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk, and leaned out so I could see beyond the line of parked cars. As I did so, I reached back, to keep my darling daughter from walking before I could be sure it was safe.
My daughter was 21 years old. She was a police officer. She was wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.

In the Gospels, there are three kinds of people—-well, four, if you count Jesus himself. There are the ones who believe without evidence. There are those who see the evidence and then believe. There are those who see evidence—-irrefutable evidence!—- and still don’t believe; who instead despair.
And then there is the one who actually knows. Remember eloi, eloi, lamas sabachthani?—- there were moments before his death where Jesus himself had a little trouble believing without seeing. By the time of the story of Doubting Thomas, however, he knew what he needed to know in order to have no doubts at all.

Thomas, I think, need not be our symbol merely of doubt. Doubt is human, and it’s important and necessary, lest we all get suckered into wasting our time and energy attempting to save the world by the wrong methods.
Doubt is a needed prophylaxis against credulity, since credulity—-mindless belief—-is not what Jesus asks of us. Credulity is not faith.
But there is a temptation that Thomas was in danger of falling prey to—- the temptation to despair.

Not long ago, I heard a very well-educated, highly- intellectual guy named Andrew Harvey, give a talk entitled Transformative Action in Dangerous Times.
The professor had an English accent, which made him sound even more intellectual—-wish I could imitate it, but I can’t—-and he was very passionate.
“We are now,” he said. “Living in Dangerous Times. A self-conscious conspiracy between corporations, politicians and the media are deliberately producing an unprecedented global cataclysm,” with wars, famine and the extinction of the snow leopard.
“We must stop denying the truth of this catastrophe, stop clinging to our comforts, utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart!” and then we’ll help the poor and presumably the snow leopard too.
The professor sounded intelligent, as I say, and passionate but not especially optimistic. Makes sense: the chances are extremely good that we won’t utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart, and so the poor and the snow leopard, and all of us really, are doomed.
It is actually a lot more fun to give a fire-and-brimstone sort of sermon than a “things aren’t all that bad” sermon.
“We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God!” really wakes up the folk in the back pews. “ God is gazing down upon the seething cauldron of sin that is Lincolnville, Maine and surely He will send the fire this time?”
Maybe it’s just the human attraction to melodrama that makes despair so tempting?
Or maybe it’s that, if the world is about to end, we might as well fly to Jerusalem or Davos or Aspen and party with the other pessimists?

You may be more familiar with religious predictions of apocalypse, but secular apocalyptics, are at least as common.
The secular apocalyptic will see a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree, or a traffic jam on I-95 and grimly declare that there are too many people using too little birth control and too many fossil fuels ….the end is near.
The secular apocalyptic will, however, be offended if you point out the similarities between her point of view, and that of the preacher who thinks same-sex marriage is what will provoke God to send the fire this time.
The secular apocalyptic after all, is rational and well-educated. She is drawing her conclusions from history, from science, from facts. And so she, of course, is right.

In 1968, a very smart, rational, educated guy named Paul Erlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University, wrote the following about the state of the world:
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He made this prediction in a book called The Population Bomb.
Another book, written around the same time by William and Paul Paddock agreed—- “By 1975, a disaster of unprecedented magnitude will face the world. Famines, greater than any in history, will ravage the undeveloped nations. The swelling population is blotting up the earth’s food and, they confidently added, “Our technology will be unable to increase food production in time to avert the deaths of tens of millions of people by starvation.”
I was about six years old when these books were published. My parents read them, along with a whole lot of other Americans—-they were big hits, best-sellers.
For the young people here—-Caleb, I’m talking to you—- perhaps I should explain that no, the world didn’t experience mass starvation in the decades between my birth and yours. Our technology was, it turned out, more than able to increase food production in time to avert disaster.
In fact, the percentage of people living on the edge of starvation has fallen by 80 percent since 1970. When I was a kid, more than one in four people around the world lived on a dollar a day or less—-the standard, adjusted-for-inflation measure of starvation-level poverty. Today, only about one in twenty live on that little.
As the economist Arthur C. Brooks declares, “This is the greatest anti-poverty achievement in world history.”

Yet 86% of Americans surveyed think global poverty is getting worse, not better. Until very recently, I was one of those Americans, even though the evidence, like Woolie’s uniform, was available for me to see, Google or go visit. More than two-thirds of us—-again, I include myself—— do not believe it is possible to substantially reduce extreme poverty in the world in the next few decades—-even though, in the past thirty years, we’ve been doing just that. Oddly enough, the well-educated are no exception.

I would like for us—-everyone here—- to be the exception. I want to inoculate myself, you, our children and our grandchildren against the temptation to despair.
Self-centeredness and self-indulgence are tempting enough without adding in the notion that any effort made on behalf of others is doomed to failure, and any gifts of service are meaningless.
Maybe there would be some excuse for giving up hope if the world really was coming to an end, but it isn’t. The world is not getting worse, it’s getting better, and it is getting better through the hard working lives of all those “excess” human beings the secular apocalyptics will tell us the world would be better off without.

Good news! We need not—-indeed, should not—-gaze upon those teeming masses in Africa or India or New Jersey or wherever masses teem these days and despair. Human beings are not the end of the world. In all our billions, we are the ones Jesus gave his life to save, and despite his doubts he was not foolish or wrong to do so.

Resurrected, Jesus, no longer doubtful and definitely not despairing, gazed upon the evidence of us, and smiled and blessed us.

Who are we to do otherwise?

September—All Maine!

Thursday, September 10 7 p.m.—Camden Library, reading and book signing
Friday, September 11, 10 a.m.—Skidompha Library (Damariscotta, Maine) talk and book signing
Sunday, September 13, 9:30 a.m.—Lincolnville Community Church service
Thursday, September 17, 6:30 p.m.—Gray Library, reading and book signing
Sunday, September 20, 10:00 a.m.—First Universalist Church of Rockland service
Tuesday, September 22, 6:00 p.m.—Yarn Sellar, York, reading and book signing

Grace in a Brighter Season

A new book—ANCHOR & FLARES! Was launched on Tuesday, with an excellent party thrown at Belfast’s Left Bank Books.

Friends, family and, most touchingly, a couple of folk whom I first encountered in the midst of tragedy, as the chaplain called when someone they could not bear to lose was lost to them.

A sudden loss isolates a moment from the flow of time. Though time resumes (unwelcome resumption!) the memory of that moment and all that it contained remains inscribed within ones mind, the hard bright line that separates “before” and “after.”

Present at the scene of an accident, a suicide, or homicide I represent God’s love and the human love that waits just beyond the horizon of a tragic hour, familiar arms outstretched. it is my privilege to serve as a proxy for the ones who love and don’t yet know, to be with the bereaved on behalf of those too far away to hold and console.

And I am there as an embodied promise: love not just was but is. “Soon, soon, your friends and family will arrive, bringing food to share with shared grief and then you will hear your lost beloved’s name, sounding as it sounds only when spoken by a mouth familiar with its shape. You will be with the ones who can remember him—literally, re-member, with their stories bringing the lost one back into membership among those who knew and loved him. All the strangers— game wardens, paramedics, volunteers, and the chaplain—will clear the scene, once you are with the two or three or more who, when gathered, really can provide the sense of Presence that you need.

At the scene of a tragedy, I am not enough and I know it. I depend very heavily upon grace.

And here was grace! WinterChaplain

On Tuesday evening, there were the mourners, the first moment of their grieving having flowed into a year, two years, three years. Somehow my presence at the scene of their loss was not just recalled, but had been translated into a wider sense of shared community; ah yes! Kate Braestrup! I know her. She was with me on that day.

How good it was to see these lovely souls again; upright, smiling and willing to seek out the chaplain who had been there as the hard bright line was drawn, and by their presence invite me to step across it with them so we could be together here and now.

My Boy’s Band on Tour!

Peter is drumming all over the east coast this summer with his band Five of the Eyes. Those of you who are younger and hipper than I am can check it out!

The following is what Peter sent me:

“Hi mother dear. I love you.
Here’s the link to our website:
here are all the concerts we have in the coming months.
6/14 Old Port Fest , DISPATCH stage 2PM.
6/19 Boston [ PA’s Lounge (GEPH, Titans of Industry, Robot Knights)
9PM $5 – 21+ ]
6/20 NYC Newburgh Festival [ STAGE 3 – 4:15 setup – 4:30-5:15 show – must be in town by 3:15 LATEST ]
7/15 Boston – Middle East Upstairs – (The Shills, 2 TBA)
7/16 NYC – Map Room (The Vigilance Committee, ITPOW)
7/17 Philly – Bullshooter’s (In The Presence Of Wolves, TBA)
7/18 Baltimore – RatScape – Deaf Scene practice space (Deaf Scene looking around for us)
7/20 Greensboro NC – New York Pizza (BlackSquares/WhiteIslands, Bare the Traveler (maybe), JaggerMouth (maybe))
7/21 – DAY OFF – laundry day
7/22 Asheville NC – The One Stop
6PM : (The Dr. Van, The Lowdown). Need poster.
Second show at 9PM: (JaggerMouth, 5OTE, Squidlord)
7/23 Charlotte NC – Waiting for JaggerMouth to secure a venue.
7/24 Savannah GA – The Wormhole (Star Period Star, Broken Glow)
7/25 Atlanta GA – Masquerade – HELL STAGE (Blazers, The Organ Machines, Surrogates)
7/26 Murfreesboro, TN – House show in the works, looks good.
7/27 Covington,KY -not confirmed (Expeditions, TBA)
7/28 Buffalo – INFRINGEMENT FESTIVAL – Mohawk Place (Dollar Diplomacy)
7/29 Toronto – Johnny Jackson’s (The Quiet Things, Fat As Fuck) – People Put Out Productions
8/14 Boston – Cantab (GEPH, DENT, TBA) $8
8/21 Burlington VT – Monkey House (TBA)
8/22 Montreal
8/28 Empire (Deaf Scene)

Tongue of Fire

Kate Braestrup
This is the Sermon I offered for Pentecost, Sunday, May 24th, 2015 at the Lincolnville Church. The readings were the story of the Tower of Babel, and ACTS 2:1-11

If you knew you’d be cast away on a desert island and could only take four books with you, what four books would you take?

I think it was Mark Twain who said he would bring four blank books—-which was my answer, too, for a long while. Now, I think I’d take three blank books—-as thick as I could find—-and a Bible. Not because I’m pious, (though I guess I am) but because then I’d have a whole lot of people (long-dead prophets) to argue with…

But I’m cheating, really, because the Bible isn’t a book, it’s an anthology; a library, even. It it, we find poetry, hagiography, myths and history, instructions for building an ark, rules and laws and folktales.

There is a particular genre of folktale known as the Just-So story, after Rudyard Kipling’s famous series—- “How did the elephant get its trunk?” and “why is the rhinoceros’ skin so wrinkly?”

The Just-So story is an answer to an implicit question. Usually it’s a question about a very ordinary phenomenon, something you don’t really think all that much about until a little kid pipes up: “Mama, why is the sky blue?”

If you hear a just-so story, you’ll be able to come up with the question that inspired it. Here, for example, is a Danish Folk Tale:

There was once a little boy by the name of Hans. As his parents died while he was very young, his grandmother, his Farmor, took care of him. Farmor was good to Hans, and they always had plenty to eat.
One day, his Farmor said, “Hans, I am old. I may not live long. You have always been a good boy, and therefore you shall have my only treasure.” She brought forth an old, and rather battered coffee mill which was always kept at the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. “This coffee mill will grind coffee, but it will also grind anything you wish for. If you say to it, ‘Grind a house, little mill,’ it will work away, and there the house will stand! Then you must say, ‘Tak, Tak, thank you little mill,’ and it will cease to grind.”
“Tak, tak!” Thank you Farmor!” Hans said. His Farmor died soon afterword. After the funeral, Hans packed the coffee mill into his knapsack and went off to see the world.
When he had walked a long distance, and needed something to eat, he placed the coffee mill on the grass by the side of the road and said, “Grind some bread and butter, little mill.” Very soon Hans had all that he needed. “Tak, tak, little mill!” Hans said, and the mill stopped.
The next day Hans came to a large seaport, and when he saw the many ships, he thought: I shall sail away to foreign lands! He boarded one of the ships and offered his service to the sailors. As it just happened that the captain needed a cabin boy. As soon as the ship was out of port, however, the sailors began to be really mean to Hans. They made him work very hard, and didn’t give him anything to eat. He bore the harsh treatment as well as he could, and of course, the coffee mill ground all the food he could eat. The sailors wondered how their cabin boy was managing to stay so fat and happy. One day one of them peeped through a hole in his cabin door and saw Hans with his coffee mill. “Grind me a sandwich!” Hans said, and the coffee mill ground him a sandwich.
‘Wow!” said the sailor, and rushed off to tell the others.
Now the sailors offered a large sum of money to Hans if he would sell his treasure. Hans refused, however, because the mill had been a gift from his Farmor. So the sailors seized the coffee mill, and they set Hans adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean! You will be happy to hear that Hans eventually drifted ashore on the island of St. Croix, and lived happily ever after, even without his coffee mill.

But back on the boat, the sailors needed some salt. “Grind me some salt!” they said, and the mill began its work. Soon they had enough.
“Stop!” they said… but the mill didn’t stop. The sailor who had peeped through the hole into the boy’s cabin hadn’t waited long enough to hear Hans say “Tak, tak, little mill,” so they didn’t know the formula. They kept shouting more and more desperately at the mill, but it kept making more and more salt until at last the ship was full of salt and sank under its weight. The mill went down to the bottom of the sea, where it kept grinding salt. It is down there still, grinding away…

What’s the question this story is meant to answer?
Right: Why is the sea salty?

Once you get the formula, you can recognize stories in the Bible that may well have begun as Just-So stories.

Which story might have begun as the answer to: “Mummy, why is their a rainbow in the sky after it rains?”
How about: “Papa, why are there two sexes?”

The story of the Tower of Babel may have begun as a Just So story too. Ancient Israel, like modern Israel, was both blessed and cursed by its geography. Trade routes between Eqypt to the South, and Assyria and Babylonia to the North wound through Israel, avoiding the desert to the West and, to the East, the depths of the Mediterranean, so Israel’s essentially agrarian and pastoralist economy was supplemented by the ancient equivalent of a hospitality industry, providing meals and lodging to merchants, traders and the occasional military expedition. Foreigners, in other words, were a common feature of life in Israel—-Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, Mesopotamians and Egyptians, Cappadocians, Phrygians and Pamphylians, all of whom spoke in their own native tongues.

So we can imagine a little Israelite child, perhaps the daughter of an innkeeper listening to the hubbub in the coffee shop one morning and asking “Mummy, why are there so many different languages?”

“Well, once upon a time the whole earth was of one language, and all the people spoke it. One day, they said to each other, let’s build a city and a tower, whose top reaches all the way to heaven…”

Folk stories have a way of evolving according to the interests and priorities of the storyteller and her listeners. In the original version of the Danish folktale about little Hans, the cruel sailors throw Hans overboard where, presumably, he drowns. Since the charm of any story is diminished, for me, when a child gets murdered, I changed it.

The story of the tower of Babel may have been changed when its tellers thought to incorporate a Babylonian tower temple sited north of the Marduk temple, which in Babylonian was called Bab-ilu (“Gate of God”), Hebrew form Babel, or Bavel. The similarity in pronunciation of Babel and balal (“to confuse”) led to the play on words in Genesis 11:9: “Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.”

If you are an atheist, you may be grimly gratified to hear that the story of the Tower of Babel is “just” a folk tale. If you are a fundamentalist, you will hotly insist that no, there was an actual building project undertaken by the descendants of Noah for the purposes and with the materials described, and on a specific day at a specific time God halted construction. With all due respect, I think either runs the risk of missing the point —-I believe the story is in scripture because language is a problem. And it is especially a problem for a religion that has been complex and paradoxical in its theology, and intentionally evangelistic in its ambitions right from the start—-language a problem, that is, for Christianity.

The story of the Pentecost is the story of the un-doing of Babel: a devout Jews from any nation under heaven was able to hear of the mighty acts of God in his or her own language. Like the descendants of Noah, they were “confused” by the power of God. It was a miracle but, like so many of the Bible’s miracles, a sadly temporary one. The early Christians like later Christians and like Christians today must struggle with the problem of language—-and not just whether we are speaking English to one another, but whether the words that mean one thing when they leave our mouths are subtly or outrageously distorted by the time they reach the ears of our listeners. Distorted, that is, by history, or culture, or the mood of the crowd.

Danes back in the day could tell each other a story about a coffee mill that created riches, and they were okay with the part where child is thrown overboard. Danes in the old days weren’t as squeamish as we are—-thank God—-today, but it is generally considered okay to alter a folktale on the fly. While you can’t really edit the Bible, still in deference to the same modern squeamishness, a Christian eagerly describing the birth of the Son of a loving God to a potential convert nowadays might delicately skip over the part in Matthew where Herod murdered all the little boy babies in Palestine so that the prophecy in Jeremiah 31 might be fulfilled.

—-“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”[a]

And that’s before we even get to the problem of how a Priest accompanying the Spanish Conquistadors could explain the concept of the Good Shepherd to native Americans who not only did not speak Spanish, but had never seen a sheep?

Swords were involved.

But the earliest Christians, lacking the power to convert at the point of a sword, and who spoke various actual and spiritual languages, nonetheless made converts—-a lot of them. How did they do it?

The earliest Christians in the Roman Empire were known not by their spiritual consistency—-there were a lot of versions of Christ’s meaning and message floating around back then—- and not for their swordsmanship, but for their charity, the kindness they showed to one another and to strangers as well. This was the language that impressed people.

A second century Roman was so surprised by the behavior of the Christians in his vicinity that he described it in a letter to a friend: Christians, he said, make meals and share them with everyone, but especially the poor. Christians marry just like everyone else, and they beget children, but they don’t throw out their unwanted babies with the garbage—-a common practice at the time. In fact, Christians will sometimes be seen at the dump picking up unwanted children and taking them home!

This, ultimately, is the universal spiritual language isn’t it? Charity, compassion, kindness?

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was imprisoned and you visited me.

Here is the powerful language—-the tongue of fire—-Jesus spoke so beautifully and worked so hard to teach to his disciples. In our polyglot world as in theirs, deeds of charity, kindness and practical compassion are the universal logos, the Word, the language that speaks powerfully and eloquently of the truth and power of God.