On language and faith

Despite the title, I don’t have anything groundbreaking to say this morning, except that fellowship breaks into the most unlikely of places, and that yesterday was a reminder of all the possibility that exists not just in thinking but in listening.

Downtown Nanning. Crowds watch the dancers in the square. All photos by Evan Schneider.

I had my first meeting with my new language partner.  It had been difficult for me to commit to finding someone to chat with in this language that means so much to me–it felt like replacing all the amazing people I’d met in one place, and the choice needed to be just right.

But I didn’t have the time for that or the money, and so I chocked this one up to the universe, letting the university arrange the placement for me.  And yesterday a woman who’s about five years ahead of me in life greeted me by the coffee bar with the abrupt, halting speech patterns only reminiscent of a Chinese speaker of English, and as she began to unload copious amounts of unsolicited advice despite what little she knew of me, something in my spirit leapt and my heart warmed.  

See, I may have mentioned that there’s a love language in China to do with giving advice–giving advice shows you care, and so people take and give as much as is humanly possible!  And as my new language partner and I settled so effortlessly into a pattern of her speaking English and me speaking Mandarin, each pausing to correct unfamiliar words, I think not only my ears, but my heart recognized something as familiar and began to open.

A couple dancing in the square.

Last night I read this piece from Amy Lepine Peterson, “Speaking Faith as a Second Language,” and it resonated so deeply with not only my cross-cultural experiences but the goals and hopes I have for the courses I am teaching next semester on culture and family ministry.  Peterson writes eloquently about the process of learning that neither her native language nor her faith truly belonged to her:

“I was also learning that English–though my native language and one of the great loves of my life–didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to me, or to America, or to England, or to native speakers. As a language, it is a tool to be used, not wielded in domination or colonialism, but used for negotiating meaning. Together. Yet the transformation of my English has forced me to realize something even more important: that the language of faith needs to undergo the same kind of reconstruction for me to love it and use it rightly.”

As my language partner so openly told me about her struggles with depression in this country, her indecision about having a second child, and the pressures of work and family, I had to marvel as the intimacy that simply being present for one another, speaking the same language, introduces.  I suppose because language-learning is essentially about vulnerability, being willing to stumble as you’re trying to express some of the deepest parts of you, it’s also about faith, as you surrender your dignity, and putter along like a child.

Children playing outside a school in Yunnan, Kunming.

When it comes to this course I’m teaching next semester and my partnership with my language tutor, the goals seem akin to Peterson’s:

“Letting go of your ownership of the language of faith can be frightening, unmooring. Instead of being the person with the answers, you become a person with questions. Instead of colonizing, you work to cooperate. But in seeking to agree on the most basic of things, like the meaning of the word ‘prayer,’ you find a simplicity of language which lends itself to coordinated action. Your words take on gestures, form and meaning in the real world, incarnating the love you once only spoke of. Surrendering ownership of the language of faith means recognizing that I can only speak it as a second, and learned, language.”

So letting go, relearning, and listening.  That’s what God’s got on my heart this morning…what about you?

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4 thoughts on “On language and faith

  1. I love this post and yesterday’s as well. Could you please try to write every morning for me? It’s like a lovely devotional handbook I completely relate to. I also felt like Amy’s piece was perfect for my life. I think you and I must have found the same truth–though I spend a lot of time using my words carefully, learning to write in academic jargon and well-wrought phrases, it’s in the simple language of ESL learners and the vulnerability of learning myself that I find the most truth.

    1. Amy, so good to hear from you, and I was so happy to find your blog and this post. I’m enjoying getting to know you through your blog and am equally touched that you stopped by mine. Looking forward to learning more from you. Thanks so much for your advent series, too!

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