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Polyglot



Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. ~ Acts 2:5-6


On my first field test of my budding skill of identifying birds by hearing their song, I excitedly searched for the Tufted Titmouse that I heard singing. The point was not only to confirm the audio identification visually, but also to help cement the knowledge by involving multiple senses, something that helps with retention of information (I’ve often said that if you could smell and taste the bird as well that would help). It is a good thing that I pursued this songster because as I raised to my binoculars to view the bird perched on the peak of a barn, I discovered that it was a Northern Mockingbird! My first at bat and I was thrown a curve ball: a swing and a miss. Needless to say, birding by ear is just one more way to learn humility.


We may not know for sure why Mockingbirds mimic other birds’ sounds, but it is definitely not a sign of humility. If anything, it is just the opposite. The ultimate goal is to establish a large territory. In a choice between singing males, a female will chose the one with the larger repertoire. Scientists believe that the purpose of the imitation is to make the territory sound more populated and thus fooling other species into moving elsewhere. The flaw in the bird’s strategy is that they are not clever enough to discriminate. They simply repeat sounds that they hear in their environment. So when they first return from their southern wintering ground, they might be singing songs of tropical birds that will never compete for their northern breeding territory. On top of that, they will mimic other animals like squirrels, and even human-made sounds like smoke alarms and cell phone ringtones. Their impressive ability to imitate and repeat natural and artificial language has earned them their scientific name, mimus polyglottos. But a true polyglot understands the language they learn, clearly, Mockingbirds don’t understand what they repeat, they simply repeat it over and over and over.


When the Spirit drove the disciples out of hiding and into the streets, filled not with new wine, but new songs, I wonder if they understood what they were proclaiming or if they were like Mockingbirds simply repeating what they had heard. A mighty wind, foreign tongues, and tongues of fire certainly made for an unforgettable event, but despite Pentecostal fervor in our time, it remains a one-off. While the Spirit can empower humans like that again, blowing where she will also implies that we cannot summon her for a repeat performance. What we can, and should, do is seek to be empowered by God’s indwelling spirit. That power compels us to proclaim the good news, perhaps not in foreign tongues or visible tongues of fire, but perhaps in a burning passion to live in ways that demonstrate the grace we have experienced. Maybe we are meant to do as St. Francis allegedly directed: preach at all times, using words when necessary.


Prayer: Holy Breath, fill our lives so that our song is heard by others in ways they can hear, even if we never open our mouths. Amen.

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