. . . posts on faith and life
A minister once told me a story knowing that I had worked on a whitewater river for ten years as a raft guide. He told about his efforts on a rafting trip to connect with one or more of the guides. He tried everything he knew to do, asked many questions, sparked a variety of conversation topics, but there always remained some unspoken separation between the two. He was very perplexed by this, and in his telling the story to me finally concluded with this: “It was as if we speak two completely different languages.”
Paul once said, “I suppose there are a great variety of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If I then do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks it a barbarian, and the one who speaks it will be a barbarian to me” (I Corinthians 14:10-11). A language is simply a systematic form of communicating. We tend to think the lines between “languages” are very clear and rigid, but this is simply not true, as my minister friend has already testified. The truth is that languages reflect more than literal “translations” of meaning. Otherwise we would never need to learn Czech while living in Prague, we could simply carry around an English/Czech dictionary. But as Emily can testify from staying four days in a Czech hospital, it’s not always as simple as “translating” the word! C. S. Lewis once echoed a similar sentiment, “A language has its own personality; implies an outlook, reveals a mental activity, and has a resonance, not quite the same as those of any other” (see ‘The Discared Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Indeed, a language reflects more than a different set of sounds, syllables and words, it represents a whole different culture, a looking at the world in a completely different way.
I believe that “conversion” is essentially a process of learning a new language. It is coming to see everything–God, man, sin, etc.–in a whole new way by discovering the intended meanings of new expressions. Is this not what happened in Acts when they heard all of the Galileans on whom God had poured his Spirit? “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (Acts 2:8). God uses stammering lips to utter His clearest expressions. Indeed, we do not know how to express God, we do not even know how to pray, but rely on the Spirit’s groanings that are too deep for words (see Romans 8:26). Thus, the language is not he end, but rather the threshold through which one enters into an infinite realm that goes beyond finite human words.
This leaves us with some rather large implications for the church. I have several valuable resources at my disposal for learning Czech–dictionaries, personal tutor, traditional academic courses, self-study courses, audio resources, and more. All of these are extremely helpful, but ultimately I will only truly learn the language by being immersed in the culture of native speakers. We can setup our churches to have written materials, special events, discipleship courses, even personal spiritual tutors, but conversion normally only truly happens when a person is immersed into a community of persons who have come to know the “language.” But it also leaves us with some rather large implications for individual believers. For it is not only my responsibility to know the “language” of this body to which I belong, it is also my responsibility to know as many of the world’s “languages” as I can. Otherwise, even with the very best of my character on display, I will still appear to those who don’t know this language that I speak a mere barbarian. So, how many languages does your church know? What about you?