Of Men and of Angels

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love,
I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
 (1 Corinthians 13:1 NIV)
Some months of study of the Tonga language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the late 1960s were followed by working with a tutor on arrival at Chikankata in Zambia. Added to this, I prayed for 'the gift of tongues', hoping this would help my communication skills. It did, and some degree of fluency emerged, especially with what I called 'medical Tonga'. I quickly realised that body language and tone of voice were communicating as much as my words. Did I convey the diagnosis of leprosy with a relaxed face and perhaps a gentle smile that conveyed a sense of empathy and hope, or was it rather with a somewhat rejecting frown of despair?
I needed to rely on a series of translators. They became the bridge of understanding. Their attitudes, and mine, were crucial to an effective relationship with the patient.  Respect had to reign. The apostle Paul might have called it love.

In recent years, as we've lived in the world of dementia, there have been fresh communication challenges. Speech became affected. Not only did that cause problems with expression but also in understanding. New rules had to be understood and put into practice. No questions, no disagreement; always regard the other as right. That’s easier said than done. Once again the tone of voice and body language became even more important. The emotion behind the words counted as much as their meaning.

With advance of the illness speech seemed to disappear altogether, but even then the occasional pearl might emerge. Is this the language of angels?
But for some coherent speech disintegrates into a meaningless series of sounds. The gibberish that results could well sound like a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal: in Shakespeare's words, 'full of sound of fury, signifying nothing'. But is this too the language of angels, so how should we respond to that? 

The holding of a hand or the stroking of a forearm may be the best means of expression. But sometimes it helps to respond with the echo of a word picked up in careful listening. But that must always and only be on the foundation of respect. And if accompanied by a smile there may be acceptance of that attitude which the apostle extols as a virtue ­-- love.
October 2015

1 Corinthians 13 (Zambian Tonga)