Mother tongue

A table is a remarkably simple thing. A flat surface with legs for support. It wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the world’s most wonderful inventions, but it should. In the evolution of humankind, I imagine we first gathered around the fire to share food and stories, to sing and debate. And then somebody at some point figured out that we could have the food and the stories, the singing and debating without the heat and smoke, and we started gathering around tables.

There’s a scene in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, where Jesus is finishing a table, a most unusual piece of furniture in Galilee, where most people had their meals sitting on the ground. His mother takes a good look at it and says, “This is certainly a tall table. Who is it for?”

“A rich man,” he answers.

“Does he like to eat standing up?”

He laughs, “No, he prefers to eat like … so” and he squats a little to show her what sitting on a chair might look like. “Tall table, tall chairs.”

She mimicks his sitting on a chair, puts her jug on the table, pretends to be reaching for things, and finally she says, “This will never catch on.”

We know it did, and today we celebrate the table that is at the center of our lives as Christians, a table that represents God’s welcome to all of humanity, a table where we share the bread of life and the cup of salvation, where we tell the story of our hope, sing songs of praise and redemption, and have our best debates.

Friday evening I got a message from a dinner table. It came from the mother of a boy already known for asking excellent questions. Thomas, we are at dinner and [he] wants to know what language Adam and Eve spoke ... Can you help? Tables, dinner tables in particular, are perfect for questions that have no simple answer but have the power to make us wise. Had I been there at the table with them, I would have asked the little guy right back, “What do you think?” But since I was at home, I sent his mom a message, “GREAT question! It’s been one the greatest minds have tried to answer, but nobody knows.” We don’t know the origins of language, which means we have all kinds of wonderful, creative, and beautiful ideas about it, and in the process we realize, every last one of us who’s willing to go on the adventure, just what a marvelous thing language is, any language.

The best questions don’t demand answers, but demand to be asked again and again. They direct our attention not to riddles to be solved, but to mysteries to be pondered.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

The best questions arise in the evening, when the hustle and bustle of the day begins to fade. What are human beings? Is there a language that is the mother tongue of all? What’s our place in this vast universe?

A wise woman from New Orleans once told Robert Coles something her momma had told her, “Remember that you’re put here only for a few seconds of God’s time, and He’s testing you. He doesn’t want answers, though. He wants you to know how to ask the right questions. If you learn how to do that, then you’ll do all right when you meet Him, and He’s there looking you over. You have to tell Him that you’ve learned how to question yourself, and when you show Him what you know, He’ll smile on you.”[1]

God doesn’t want answers but wants you to know how to ask the right questions. Who came up with the first word? Why is there something rather than nothing? Who am I? What are human beings?

Scholars and scientists give us answers, and every answer raises seven new questions. They tell us that human beings are tool-making, weapon-bearing mammals with large brains whose technical skills are far more evolved than their capacity for moral reasoning. They tell us that human beings are the only living beings conscious of their mortality and that human consciousness is like an iceberg – only one seventh is above the surface and the most powerful forces reside in the unconscious depths. They tell us that human beings are to a signifant degree the products of particular historical circumstances, determined by economic and political factors. We get answers from anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, psychologists, neurologists, economists, historians, philosophers, theologians, poets and musicians. What are human beings? As far as we know, sparrows, trees and whales don’t wonder what their place in the universe might be; they simply occupy it. Human beings ask questions and turn them into poetry and song.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The song of praise erupts with a shout, and it ends with the same exuberant phrase. Between these two pillars, the poet meditates on what it means to be human before God. The meditation is not a solitary quest for answers, but a song that includes all of creation. First babies raise their voices in praise of the Creator who has prevailed against the powers of chaos and established a world in which life can thrive, even small, vulnerable infants. Then the song turns quiet and becomes an evening hymn.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

You have seen the images taken by the Hubble telescope, you have heard of physicists exploring subatomic space; and when you allow the vastness of the universe to enter your consciousness but for a moment, you feel very small and insignificant – yet you also realize that you are this tiny speck of dust with the capacity to contemplate the sheer enormity of it all.

“We exist in a universe that does not notice or care about us,” says Jim Mays, and he adds, “To be human is to be afflicted with the capacity for this subliminal glimpse of the significance of our insignificance, to live constantly on the edge of consternation before the cosmos.”[2] The universe does not notice or care about us, but the poet sings of moon and stars, of planets and galaxies, protons and neutrons as “the work of Your fingers.” We are indeed specks of ancient stardust, but the One who brings forth life in all its wondrous forms is mindful of us. The final horizon of our existence is not the unimaginable immensity of the universe, but the loving gaze of the One whose majestic name is revealed in it – written onto the night sky and into the story of Israel and Jesus.

After this quiet moment of awe under the stars, the psalm changes from evening hymn to morning song.

Yet you have made them but little lower than Divine, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

In the light of the morning sun, the poet looks at the world, the work of God’s hands, and marvels at our royal vocation: crowned with glory and honor, we have been given dominion over all things. Specks of ancient stardust, meant to be kings and queens in the realm of life. The sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are given power and responsibility within the sovereign rule of the mindful, caring Creator. What kind of dominion? To be kings and queens in the realm of life we exercise care for other creatures in the same way that God is mindful and caring. Anything less would be a  failure to be who we are.

The poet of the psalm doesn’t give us answers, and of course we all want to know how to be mindful and caring, given that our experience with the human species hasn’t been very encouraging. The poet of the psalm doesn’t give us answers, but the song itself is an invitation to sing along, and to sing our questions before God and to God. Throughout the psalm, the focus is not primarily on the human beings, but remains on God; we find our place in this relationship: How majestic is your name! You have founded, you have established, you are mindful, you care, you have made, you have crowned, you have given.

What are human beings? Throughout the generations, human beings have answered the question by comparing themselves to animals, to gods, and to other nations, cultures or ethnic groups. The psalm locates us between God and animals, responsible to God and responsible for the creatures placed under our care. But no mention is made of others – other nations, cultures, peoples, tribes, or ethnic groups. There is no us and them, only one humanity in our shared location between God and the creatures entrusted to our care.

Which brings us back to the table.

“This will never catch on,” she said, but sometimes, thank God, even mothers are wrong. The risen Christ invites us all to his table, regardless of our ethnic background, our religious views, our political philosophy, our income, age or gender. He invites us to eat and drink with him, and to learn from him how to be mindful and caring. In his company we discover that our mother tongue, the language spoken by Adam and Eve, the language spoken in thousands of dialects around the globe, the language spoken in the city of God, is the language God has been teaching us in every moment of wonder since life began: our mother tongue is praise.


[1] Robert Coles, Children of Crisis

[2] James L. Mays, “What is a Human Being? Reflections on Psalm 8,” Theology Today, Vol. 50, No. 4, p. 514