Thursday, October 9, 2014

Native and Foreign Languages

At our new Sunday evening service and mission start, I am learning Spanish.  I stand next to a woman from Ecuador, and she helps me pronounce the words to songs I am learning.  I don't know the meaning of most of the words yet, but at least I am learning good pronunciation.

In the meantime, I am teaching her a little about intervals.  "We are singing that line wrong," I mention. "It is supposed to be a third.  Like this."  I sing the line.  I am pretty sure I have the musical line down right.  The pronunciation is a work in progress.

It is basic church:  we sing, we pray, we talk to each other.  Our liturgy is simple.  We eat together:  bread and wine, but dinner too.  And we are learning English and Spanish.  And music.

It's a start.

A long time ago, I lived and worshipped and taught in Japan.  I learned some Japanese, a little in school, some more from living and having experiences.  I discovered then that learning a language is more than learning words and pronunciations; that the language you speak affects your perception of reality.  In Japanese, for example, there is no "future" tense.  The way you indicate the future is by speaking of uncertainty.  In English we have no problem speaking confidently about things that haven't happened yet.

When I served in rural South Dakota, I was pretty sure that we were speaking the same language.  But in truth, there were nuances of language that I didn't understand, that I had to learn:  the language of "yields", the rhythms of the seasons, how to take the wind seriously.

These days, the church I am serving has started a Sunday evening service, in Spanish and in English.  But there are more languages we are learning, or not learning, on Sunday evening, or morning, or at other times.  We have been playing around with our worship services over the past couple of years, going from two different services, to one blended service, and we have been having conversations about worship and faith formation and what it means to be a disciple.  We have realized that it is so easy to speak about "church" and "worship" in terms of "what I like", or "what I prefer."  People choose a church because it has the music they like, or because it has a youth program they like, or because the worship time works for their family.

When I have met with people who are joining our congregation, these are the things that they specify most often:  worship times; times of Sunday school; youth program; worship style.  I think it is unavoidable because this is the language we speak in the rest of our life.

It is the language of choice.  It is the language that consumers speak.  And we are all consumers.  It is the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

But somewhere along the line, if we are going to be faithful disciples of Jesus, we will need to become bilingual, learning foreign words like "community" and "purpose", "mission" and "neighbor."   Perhaps at first, it will be enough to learn to sing the line, or perhaps to pronounce the words, without knowing what they mean, or to taste bread with a different flavor than we are used to.  Later we will sit down with one another, rise up to go to the world, and realize that we are here for reasons so different than we had originally planned.  We are being transformed when we just came to get a piece of bread; we are changing the world when all we planned to do was sing a song.

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