What is mankind that you are mindful of us, human beings that you would care for us? (Psalm 8:4, adapted from NIV)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this language stuff recently, and the other day I had one of those moments that made me wonder why I even bother.
We were sitting in a parents’ meeting at the girls’ school, which was of course conducted entirely in Slovak. Tanya and I played one of those games where you try to see if you can figure out – from the words you know, facial expressions, body language – what’s going on. (“One of those games” I call it, as if it’s not something we do several times every day.) I had to leave the meeting early, so I wrote out my guess for Tanya before I left.
Turns out I was completely wrong about the meeting. I lost the “game.” I usually do.
It happens all the time, but for some reason this time made me think – why do I bother? Why do we have to climb over the language barrier, when there are easier ways to get around it? There are plenty of people here in Kosice – I’ve met them – who get by in English and never bother themselves to learn the language. After all, many Slovaks want to practice their English, which is rapidly becoming a lingua franca, a common language.
Or instead of paying for language lessons, we could pay someone to be on hand 24-7 to translate for us. This would be easier, and would give someone a job.
If we took one of these approaches, who knows what we could be accomplishing right now?? Instead, we’re slogging through language lessons, learning at a snail’s pace and being “children” all day. As several missionary friends and colleagues have told us, “Sometimes we want to hang a sign on our neck that says, ‘We may look stupid to you, but we have Masters’ Degrees!’”
So why do we do it? Because we believe that learning language and culture are “incarnational.” Maybe you already know what it means, but I’ll explain it anyway.
By sending Jesus to become a human being, God did a pretty amazing thing. Sometimes I tend to forget just how amazing it was that God shoved all his god-ness into a tiny human body, bounded by time and space, subject to silly human limitations like hunger, thirst, tiredness, and emotions. That’s what “incarnation” means – from the Latin verb incaro, meaning “to put into flesh.” Jesus was God, squeezed into human flesh.
He didn’t just pop into existence as an adult – he came as a baby. The Sustainer God would not have survived if a “mere” human woman had not given him sustenance and love. God the Author of Creation had to struggle in lessons to learn his “Aleph, Bet, Gimel…” (ABC’s). God the Three-in-One had to struggle with friendships and relationships as he grew into adolescence and adulthood. I could go on, but you get the point.
Now, imagine God decided to do accomplish salvation some other way. What if he did not come in human form – what if God simply “zapped” us with salvation instead?
In essence, in the act of the incarnation God said, “human beings are important enough to me that I want to become one of them in order to save them.” Jesus’ coming brought immense dignity to what it means to be a human being. And that was part of the salvation – affirming that we humans are worth saving. So he did not simply zap us with salvation, nor did he just appear on earth as a fully-grown human man. Jesus came to experience everything that it means to be a human being: birth, childhood, being a teenager, experiencing pain and exhilaration, sadness and joy, tiredness and laughter.
Isn’t this really what we’re all called to do, to step outside of our own little world and to enter someone else’s? Not to save them – that’s not our job – but to be the presence of Christ to them in some small way? Isn’t this part of what it means to “act and think like Jesus” (Phil. 2:5)? And in the process, we find our own world is made a bit larger and better because of it. The way we see it, this is what it means to learn someone else’s language and culture.
So yes, we could survive here in English… there are many people who do. But learning about the languages and the cultures are a form of incarnational ministry – becoming like children, so that we can more fully understand what it means to be a part of these cultures.
We’ve already seen evidence this can make a difference.
I saw it in the bright smile of a Gypsy woman when I finally made her understand that I wanted to know the name of the food she was preparing… in the ROMA language, not just the Slovak language.
We saw it in the face of a young waitress who asked us why we wanted to stay in her “small unimportant country.” She stood for several seconds in stunned silence after we told her that we thought her country was beautiful, her people charming, her language fun and challenging.
I saw it in the grin of a dear Roma friend when I asked him to show me how to play guitar in the Gypsy style, even though I already know a different way.
I saw it in the smile of the locksmith down the street, who lit up when I told him I was (slowly) learning his language and wanted to watch him make a copy of my key.
Maybe learning languages and cultures aren’t just stepping-stones to ministry. Maybe, in some mysterious way, they are a ministry in themselves.