Listening in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues

Most of us know about the Pentecostal spiritual practice of “speaking in tongues” which is mentioned in the Bible as being one of the Gifts of the Spirit. In 1st Corinthians 14, it is described as a way of “speaking mysteries” with God.

Listening in Tongues

Two people, one with pale skin and the other with brown skin and a fancy shaved haircut, talking.Listening in tongues is a Quaker flip on the original idea. Rather than each person speaking in words or sounds that others can’t understand, we each speak in the words, concepts, and metaphors that hold the most truth for us and it is on the listener to do the work of hearing the spirit that is behind the words.


There are fewer birthright Friends today than ever before. Many of us come to the Religious Society of Friends from other faith traditions and some of us arrive as refugees carrying a lot of baggage. When folks have been wounded by words or concepts in other churches, they bring a sensitivity to hearing those things. Because we’re a loving, kind people, we don’t want folks to feel pain or discomfort so sometimes we avoid the language or ideas that cause it. In some communities, this means that individuals don’t feel they can talk about their experiences of the Divine using the language and concepts that are meaningful and familiar to them. They don’t feel they can show up as their authentic selves. This hurts individuals and it also hurts communities. When we let avoidance of discomfort dictate how we are together, we close ourselves off from Spirit manifesting in new and unexpected ways.


An example of my baggage was the word “Lord”. I was raised in an Evangelical Christian church in which God was decidedly masculine and gender roles and hierarchy were strictly enforced. The word Lord represented ways that I and so many women, Queer folks, and men have been harmed. Whenever I would hear “Lord” my impulse was to stop listening to the speaker.

Healthy Culture

Thankfully, Listening in Tongues is woven through the culture of my home Friends meeting. Modeled for me was compassion about discomfort but also courage and integrity to face and accept it. Rather than letting discomfort dictate what others were and were not allowed to say, it was modeled that I could hear the word Lord and go beyond my discomfort. The speaker obviously understood something different about the word than I did. Our emotional vocabularies were different. I was taught to listen for the speaker’s meaning, which did not have the hurtful association of my meaning. Over time, the word has become less uncomfortable for me. It’ll probably never be a word I use for God but no longer do I close myself off when someone uses it.


What baggage do you carry into Quaker spaces? Has your baggage ever prevented you from being open to another person?
When have you witnessed or practiced listening in tongues?

[Scroll to the bottom of the page to see a QuakerSpeak  video on Listening in Tongues.]


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