Language Heaven, Language Hell…

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you…

Hogwash!

It’s been clear since God created the world simply by speaking, that words have unlimited power. God Himself saw that His best recourse against the rebellion and pride of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 was to pull the verbal rug out from underneath the construction crew. Voilà, rebellion stopped dead in its tracks… In the Gospel of John, Jesus, the King of Kings is called The Word.

Even in non-ecclesiastical circles, one finds that the pen is mightier than the sword (attributed both to Ben Franklin and Edward Bulwer-Lytton…go figure), the world is full of influential writings, and of course there is the Internet…dare I mention Blogging!?

For our family, language acquisition has been an abiding and profound reality in the last 5 or so years. Even before that, Angela and I had an above average amount of language training in our school years.

Why? Well the motivations run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. I think behind all of it is a deposit from God in our deepest parts to draw us toward other people; to live the reality that our God is a relational God and has made us in His image.

For us all, learning French has been a very rewarding adventure. There are unending layers of discovery and depth of relationship that have been opened up to us because of the work to learn another language. There is a bit of satisfaction when one aces a test on some obscure conjugation of irregular verbs, but there is immense satisfaction in the joy of relating at a heart level with someone whose heart otherwise would have remained but a closed book on a shelf gathering dust to you…had you not studied for that conjugation test! ;c) There are many other moments of serendipity related to knowing another language…at any level.

Last week when Rachel and I went to Berlin, there were some very special moments like that as we obviously heard a lot of German, in addition to English and French. German is the foreign language that I first studied before French. I had a fair amount of it academically in Jr. High, High School and College, and of course, we did our YWAM DTS in Germany. Since then, it’s been so much French that I have a real difficulty in getting German out of my mouth, even if I can really understand what I need to say…more or less. Rachel studied German for the 1st time last year and really enjoyed it and now Noah is starting to study it and seems to be enjoying it too.

So, speaking a foreign language is all heavenly bliss…right?

Again, the appropriate response is: Hogwash!

When we were standing in the security check line at the airport to leave Berlin, Rachel was asked by the security official if her pockets were empty. It was asked in German. Rachel understood the question to be whether she had anything in her pockets. She said “nein” to the question she understood and assumed the posture of a person with nothing in her pockets. Of course the security guard, heard “no” to his question but saw the posture of a person who should have answered “ja”.

They understood quickly what needed to be understood, but what they did next stabbed my heart…all the security officials laughed heartily and mocked. Not a big deal in the cosmic scheme of things, but each time something like that happens when we try our best to communicate in another language, the accumulated vignettes of misunderstanding can wash over you afresh. You remember the blank looks you get from people you desperately want to communicate with; want to build a friendship with. It’s not always mocking from a stranger but it can really drain you! Of course, the enemy of our souls can have a heyday with this as well! This is a bit of what Language Hell can be like.

Thankfully, these are wonderful occasions to have our heart worked on by the Lord. We have the privilege to take up our cross and better learn the immeasurable humility of a God who would become man because of His passion for you and me. His willingness to be misunderstood, in order to ultimately be able to express infinite love is the very mandate of every person who has ever learned another language and used it as a tool to expand the Kingdom of God.

I saw a wonderful quote by Helen Keller recently in a newsletter by another American missionary family in France.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Our adventure may seem to be insignificant at the language level, but in reality, we’re risking “hell”, to bring Heaven here on earth each time we open our mouths and stumble through some French (or German) to connect at a heart-level and stand in the image of our heart-level God.

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Posted in Culture, Ministry, Personal, Reflection.