Pastor Tom Johnson, May 19, 2013
50 years ago, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky rocked the academic world with his theory of Universal Grammar. He argued that all human beings are born with an innate ability and fluency in the structure and rules language. Language is hardwired into the human brain from birth. This means that children do not learn language as they grow up. They acquire a particular language (or languages) in their environment. In other words, they modify their already existing language ability to reflect the languages they learn.
And today, on the day of Pentecost, the day that we celebrate human language from all over the world as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in his Church, Paul brings us to the very core of this universal language: baby talk. “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Paul writes, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” There is a universal truth in the particular Hebrew babble word “Abba!” that will encourage and lift our hearts up!
In my family, we called my Grandmother Johnson, “Dodo.” I didn’t think this was strange at all as a young child. It was surprisingly late in life that I noticed that not all grandchildren called their father’s mother “Dodo.” I even learned that a dodo is an extinct species of a flightless bird. As a teenager, I finally had enough courage to ask Dodo how she got her name. She told me her nephews and nieces could never pronounce her real name, Dorothy. Try as they might to speak that rich string of consonants and vowels, these little ones could not say, “Aunt Dorothy.” In their feeble attempt to articulate her name, it came out as “Dodo.” And rather than despise their grotesque inarticulateness or take offense at such a perversion of her name, she embraced it. And, it stuck. “Dodo.” It warmed her heart to hear these little ones mispronounce her name for more than half of a century until her homecoming with God.
As a Hebrew child, Paul remembers his own cradle talk—how he would address his own father. The Hebrew word for father is “Av.” Ending a word in consonant is difficult for children. The bottom lip to the upper teeth is even more challenging. And so Paul, along with countless other Hebrew babes, changed the labiodental consonant “v” for the far easier bilabial bottom lip to upper lip “b” and added the vowel following for easier more flowing articulation: “Abba.” And rather than despise this widespread Hebrew dialect among toddlers, their fathers’ hearts melted as their children put their names on their lips. Parents love it when their children call for them—even in their babbling tongues.
But how sad it is when we live our lives denying God this pleasure. God wants hear us babble his holy Name! Maybe we make the mistake thinking God will hear us by our many words as Jesus warns in his Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps we are like Moses who thought he was of no use to God because of his speech impediment and even owed God an apology. “Oh, my Lord,” he stutters, “I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exod 4:10). The Apostle Paul himself played down his oratory skills. “…when I came to you” Paul writes, “[I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech [in eloquence] or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1,2). Instead, Paul embraced the simplicity and beauty of the good news of Jesus. And rather than embark on a never-ending journey for perfection that never comes, he simply sputtered out the love of God that he has for all creatures and creation that is so clear, even a child can understand.
God made the world. We made a mess. God still loves. He sent his son, Jesus. He died for us. He didn’t stay dead. He got up and sent his Spirit into our hearts. We are all learning to talk about God and speak with God who is our loving Parent. He wants us to pray. He doesn’t care if it sounds pretty or not. Just talk to him. If your prayers are more like babble, he won’t laugh at you, make fun of you, or be disappointed. He may smile. But it’s only because he is happy you called.