Polychronicity is defined as “the ability to cope with stimulus-intense, information-overloaded environments.” Also known as multitasking, polychronicity is the attempt to perform multiple tasks at the same time and with equal success. There is, of course, a number of research articles written on the psychology behind this. Some say the quality of work performed by a multi-tasking employee or student is quite low compared to those who choose to break down their workload into chunks. Others argue that some level of distraction can in fact help to focus the mind (think fidget spinners, or having the buzz of a coffee shop in the background).
Did you know, there’s actually an entire art form behind the expression, “I've got too many plates spinning at once”? In China, the “dance of the seven plates” goes back as far as 2000 years to the Western Han Dynasty, where the dancer would not only keep seven plates spinning, but would do so while performing cartwheels and backflips. The Netherlands holds the record for the greatest number of people spinning plates at once: 1026. There is a Guiness World Record for the most number of plates spinning at one time by one person. It’s held by a man from Thailand.
You may be shocked to learn that your priest has long considered herself something of an aficionado when it comes to plate spinning–err, I mean, multi-tasking. It’s kind of fun to have lots on the go! I love the energy that comes with brainstorming, I love trying out lots of different ideas at once to see which ones land and which ones don’t.
When sitting down to write this sermon, for example, I can tell you that my partner commented on the cup of tea balanced beside me while my left hand typed on my laptop, and the right responded to texts on my phone. And, we may as well have the TV going in the background because there’s a new episode of Ted Lasso and Apple+ is about to expire.
I will be the first and maybe the last to defend the art of multitasking. And, I’m learning these days that there might just be something to be said for slowing down and doing one thing well. I’m aware that the Pentecost story could very well have been a story of polychronicity, of the Spirit coming down upon just one of the disciples and that one disciple charged to go and do everything concerning the will of God everywhere all at once.
But, that’s not the story that we get. Instead, the Spirit comes to a house, where about a dozen people are gathered, and God’s power descends upon each of them in divided tongues of flame. No one person is blessed or tasked with all of the work. In fact, each person is given a particular gift: the gift of speaking a unique language not spoken by anyone else in the room, but by crowds of people pouring in from the neighbouring towns, each one bewildered to learn that their native tongue is now being spoken by a follower of this rebel-God called Jesus.
Can you imagine?
The Holy Spirit coming in tongues of flame, and the disciples speaking all of these different languages, this story actually has a pretty cool back-story. We find it in the Book of Genesis in what we sometimes call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew or Jewish Scriptures. In the book of Genesis, there’s a story called the Tower of Babel. It’s about how all the people of the earth came to speak different languages. It’s the kind of story an elder might tell to the next generation who are wondering how the world is supposed to achieve any kind of peace or unity when we’re all so different.
In the story of the Tower of Babel, everyone on earth speaks the same language. All of the humans get together and they say, “How wonderful is this? Now that we’ve got this critical mass, we all speak the same language, we’re all on the same page, now we can finally achieve…not world peace, as such, but world domination!”
And, they set out to build this tower that will reach even into heaven.
Seeing this, God looks down and says, “This isn’t good,” which, is kind of confusing, because we might have expected God to say, “Finally! They’re all getting along!”
Instead, what God says is, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing will be impossible for them now.”
God, in this story, is worried. As a result, God makes it so that the people of the earth speak many different languages and struggle to understand each other. Hearing this, we are left wondering, “Was this a punishment, or, was this an act of mercy?”
I think we can see how not being able to understand one another, not being fluent in every language and culture certainly has been the root cause of many wars, and maybe on a smaller scale, the root cause of disputes even in our own neighbourhoods. I hear the Pentecost story, and I do wonder why God didn’t make it so that all of those crowds of people, who had for years been in competition with each other for resources, and land, and power, why God didn’t make it so that they could suddenly all speak the same language, or at the very least, all speak each other’s language?
Instead, God makes it so that a small group of people, gathered together, that each of them is given the gift of speaking one of the languages represented in the communities around them, so that they might not only speak to the people of that nation, but so that they might also listen to, understand what is being said in and amongst that particular community.
Imagine if each one of us were to learn the language of one community of people in North Vancouver who are not represented here at St Clement’s, or who are represented in a minority? I wonder what would happen to our church? I wonder if we might better be able to speak the message of Jesus in and amongst our neighbourhood and, perhaps even more importantly, better be able to hear and understand the message of Jesus already being spoken outside these walls?
I imagine that taking on a task like this would first require disrupting a way of being that is really quite rooted in our busy, busy lives: the idea that in order to be faithful —parents, children, students, employees, Christians—you fill in the blank, that in order to be faithful that we must have the ability to do all things and be all things to and for all people.
What if, instead, we were to slow down, set our multi-tasking talents aside for a moment, and consider that we can do one thing well and still be just as faithful had we the energy or the skill or the tower building power to do everything, everywhere, all at once?
I wonder what the Holy Spirit might do with each one of us if we were to embrace the gospel message of Pentecost? Amen.