May 22, 2010
I had a great week in Arizona. I’m flying back feeling fortunate to have such gracious friends and fortunate for my calling. It’s interesting for me to travel to places with such a diverse population. Many of the residents and visitors I encountered bounced between English and their native tongue with fluency. There were times when I felt I was the only one who wasn’t bilingual.
Thursday, there were two Japanese women sitting near me during lunch. When ordering and engaging the waitstaff they spoke with polite and calculated skill, choosing their words like sifting jewels from a box of pebbles. Likewise, the ladies at the hotel’s front desk could welcome guests in English and field questions on the phone in Spanish. Smiling all the while.
The diversity made me think of my first non-USAmerican friends. Their names were Risto and Maria, emphasis on the first syllable RI’-sto and MA’-ri-a. They were from Finland, sent by the Helsinki Evangelical Association to work with the large Finnish population found in Palm Beach County Florida. (who knew?) They had two children, were warm hospitable people, and used our church as a base for their ministry.
It was a long time ago and our paths only ran parallel for 7 months, but I remembered something about them as I waded through the various languages and dialects this week. It was their family policy when it came to language. I remembered Risto telling me, “We speak Finnish in our home and English in public.” They considered themselves as courteous guests in our country and felt responsible to speak our language.
Yesterday I read something from So Beautiful, by Leonard Sweet, that braided together several random strands of thought which had been flapping in the breeze of my mind. He said, “Christians need to be bilingual, proficient in both the language of faith and the native language of the culture, but our public voice is the language of the culture.”
The pages of the Old Testament are filled with references of God’s people as strangers and aliens. In the New Testament both Jesus and Paul talk about the tension we live in being residents of one place while being citizens of another kingdom. Unlike Risto’s family, many in our tribe feel no responsibility to learn the language of our culture. We become the spiritual equivalent of the ugly American, expecting people to adapt to our language, customs and traditions. In my opinion, our lingo and jargon are foreign here and should not be not be used in public.
To learn the language is to pour the first footing in building a bridge to the culture around us.