Have you ever traveled to a country where you didn’t know the language?
It can be tough. When Cassie and I got married a little after 9/11, it wasn’t considered safe to travel internationally so we couldn’t go on the trip we originally planned. When our fifth anniversary rolled around, we decided to celebrate by taking that trip we had hoped to go on after our wedding. So we headed to Europe. It was amazing! Cassie indulged my dream of going to Disneyland Paris. We went to the Cathedral of Joan of Ark and traveled through some of the French countryside. Then we headed to Switzerland and visited the Girl Scouts World Centre, Our Chalet. We also went to Venice, Rome, and Florence which were all spectacular. France and Switzerland were fairly comfortable for both of us. We both had taken French in high school and felt pretty good about it. But Italy was a different story. I figured it would be easy enough since I knew rudimentary French, but I was wrong. I thought I at least knew Italian food – spaghetti, lasagna, linguini. But I didn’t know squat. I remember ordering this fried fish plate at this one restaurant near the Colosseum. It was one of those cute little places that come alive only in the evening with the smell of seafood and pasta and the clinking of plates and glasses. We settled in but for the life of me I couldn’t make heads or tails of the menu. The waiter, God bless his soul, tried his best and pointed at something and said “fried fish.” Good enough for me. I at least knew what THAT was. Or so I thought. I was thinking fish and chips but instead this WHOLE FISH came out, head and all! Cassie looks over at me and says, “Oh, yeah. That’s how they serve it here.” And I said, “You couldn’t tell me that BEFORE I ordered it?” Thankfully, most of the people there put up with this ignorant American tourist and helped me out. But it can feel lonely, scary, and unsettling when you can’t communicate with one another. We take it for granted sometimes the language we speak, but have to remember not everyone is as comfortable as we are in our own skin.
But “language” isn’t restricted to just French, Italian, or Japanese.
Language can make up a wide variety of different ways we communicate. Every circle we belong to has its own language. The places we work at, our close circle of friends, even the church has a language all of its own and if you don’t know it, you can be as lost as if you were in Italy. When Cassie and I first started coming to church together, I didn’t know much about church culture or church life. I knew what prayer looked like. I knew kids went to Sunday School. And I knew there was a sermon. But everything else was foreign and strange. The songs we sang weren’t anything like what I listened to on the radio. They would kneel and stand at strange times in the worship service and everyone seemed to know exactly when those times were except for me. I felt really uncomfortable because it was obvious how out of place I was. In worship they used words like “witness” and “passing the peace” and “doxology” and I had no idea what those things were or why we were doing them. But I realized exactly HOW lost I was the first time I tried to find Eve’s Sunday School class. I had volunteered to go get her while Cassie was talking to some friends of ours, but quickly realized I didn’t know where to go so I asked for directions. This really nice man told me, “You just go down the hall to the Sanctuary, when you get to the Narthex turn left, go up the stairs, through Fellowship Hall and it’s right by the Chapel.” I thanked him and went on my way, but in my head, I’m thinking, “Where’s the ‘narthex?’ And isn’t the chapel and the sanctuary the same thing?” I felt embarrassed asking what all these words meant because it seemed like any doofus should have known, and I didn’t want to seem stupid. I FELT stupid because I… didn’t… know… the language. So even without meaning to, even with a good heart, we can sometimes alienate people, make them feel dumb, and label them as an outcast when we don’t speak in a language they can understand.
Communication is the key to good relationships.
But good communication requires truly listening to the needs of the other. It requires us to speak one another in a way the other person can relate to. And not in a condescending or patriarchal way, but with love and grace. To do otherwise is to say we care more about ourselves than them. We would rather do things our way than take the time to listen and learn. We have to learn to speak in the love languages of other people. In the following passage, the Bible tells us about the day of Pentecost, and if you’re unsure of what Pentecost is, it’s the day the Holy Spirit came into the world. When Christ promised we would have a counselor to be with us after he had gone, this is what he meant. It’s not long after Jesus went back to Heaven and the disciples were all gathered together in Jerusalem when our passage begins. Hear now the Word of God.
1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” – Acts 2:1-11
I’ve always wanted a universal translator.
If you are a Star Trek fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. By the 23rd century, humanity has the technology to instantly translate nearly any foreign language into a language the user can understand. But God invented it first and it happened right here in Jerusalem. It was important for people to hear the Good News of Christ in their own language, to make sure they fully understood about who Christ was. God wanted to make sure nothing got lost in translation. So often the nuances, slang, parts of speech we take for granted can become misinterpreted by people who don’t speak our language that God made sure everyone would hear this news in a way they understood. Plus, there’s the side benefit of it being a miracle to help convince them it was the truth. If we want to understand and to be understood, we need to speak in a way that people can hear us.
Sometimes “speaking” takes more than words.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages in the Bible from John’s first letter to the church where he writes, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18)” Sometimes words are exactly what is needed, but there are other times when what we do speaks louder than any words could hope to convey. For each person, it’s different. Each of us has ways that reach us more effectively and if we want to communicate in the best, most effective way to show God’s love, we need to learn not our own love language, but that of others. Dr. Gary Chapman identified five key love languages that we all respond to in varying degrees. When someone tells you they love you or they like what you’re wearing or they’re proud of you, does that give you the warm fuzzies? Maybe “words of affirmation” is your primary love language. If you feel most loved when someone takes the time to simply be with you, to spend time doing things together, you might be responding to “quality time.” If you get all tingly inside when someone holds your hand or touches you on the shoulder or gives you a kiss “physical touch” might be your love language. When someone takes the time to surprise with that perfect present they obviously spent time thinking about you might be someone who appreciates “receiving gifts.” And if you’re a person who sees someone’s love for you by what they do – in even the simple things like cooking a meal or taking out the trash – you respond to “acts of service.” Those are the five love languages Dr. Chapman identified – Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Receiving Gifts, and Acts of Service. We respond to each in various ways and to be sure you might have more than one love language, but these five capture the essence of what we respond to. For me, I’m bilingual. I feel most loved by physical touch and words of affirmation. I found out the hard way that Cassie’s love language was acts of service. I just wished her love language didn’t always involve physical labor.
And that’s the hard part.
Not the physical labor but learning to speak someone else’s love language. Most of the time, we respond to different things and we have to learn their love language if we want to really make them feel understood and appreciated. And learning how to speak someone else’s love language is almost as difficult (and for some of us more so) than learning to speak French or Spanish or Japanese. But it is worth it! Even the effort will make them feel better about themselves, about you, and about the world. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t get it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why it’s important for her to have quality time together. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why he likes words of affirmation. What matters is that you are willing to give of yourself sacrificially for the other person. Because that is what Jesus taught us, that we need to love one another sacrificially. That we need to put the love of others at least on par or greater than the love we have for ourselves. Because when we do that, when we love each other enough to put the needs of others before our own, when we exhibit sacrificial love, we create a better world. Christ’s final commandment was so simple and yet so hard to do – “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” After all, all you need is love.