Together in Openness
How fluent are you in the language of faith? In today’s lesson, Joshua finds himself at the head of a people who have been through a great deal. In the course of forty years, they have gone from their enslavement in Egypt to victorious warriors about to inhabit land and begin the job of building a stable society. On the one hand, Joshua is leading a people who are marked by PTSD more than anything else. On the other hand, very few of the people Joshua leads are the ones who started the journey with Moses two generations before.
So as he gathers the people at Schechem, the northern city that will become the capital of Samaria, he relates the story of God’s amazing presence in their lives, reminding them that their whole inherited history is one of journey and wandering. He begins with Abraham, living in Ur of the Chaldeans, whom God brought through Canaan. Within a couple of generations, famine drove them into Egypt, and there they found themselves shackled. From there, Moses led them across the Red Sea and into the Transjordan desert. Joshua then reminds them of battles where God made them triumphant, until they have now crossed the Jordan River and stand in the valley between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim.
The truth is that forty years is a long time. Since few of them have lived the events Joshua describes, it’s likely that few of them have heard these stories, let alone know them. And so, Joshua lays it all out for them: in short, God has guided us along this amazing journey. We have picked up bits and pieces of other practices, rituals, gods along the way. It’s time to put them aside and focus on the God who has made all of this possible. In short, Joshua recognizes they have little fluency in the language of faith. It’s time they started to learn how to talk about God.
How fluent are we? How well do we know the language and stories of Scripture? How well are we able to describe our own personal experiences of God at work in our lives, guiding us through incredible journeys, giving us freedom and victory in the places we least expect it? Do we have the vocabulary? Or are we even open to learning in the first place?
My wife Elizabeth has family in Finland. One of their favorite jokes goes like this: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.
Whether or not that’s literally true, what is true is that most of us, regardless of nationality, learn languages because of necessity. If we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where English was not the international tongue, I’m pretty sure sales of Rosetta Stone would skyrocket.
I remember traveling through France in my twenties knowing no French whatsoever. I knew it would be a challenge to find my way around, and that I wasn’t going to be there long enough to learn functional French. I quickly learned that there were others ways to communicate.
At a train station, I approached the ticket window looking for timetables. I asked the man if he spoke English. Nope. Spanish? No. German? No. He then looked at me with a grin and said, “A little French.” We then found our way around the language barrier, thanks to pen, paper, and miming.
At the next station, I planned to do the same thing, and received the same answers: no English, no Spanish, no German, no grin. When I pulled out my notebook and started writing, the man was clearly frustrated because he thought he would get rid of me. Flustered, he then shouted in perfect English, “The next train to Paris is at 10:00!”
The reality is that it is a risk to cross those boundaries of language, culture, nationality, you name it. It takes an openness to try and, possibly, fail. It takes the willingness to be creative, to try again and again.
What language do we speak? And what language do we need to learn?
The truth is that while language is, in some ways, the most obvious barrier to communication, speaking the same tongue is not a guarantee that we will understand each other. One friend says to another “Got the keys”, to which the other replies, “OK”. It’s not until they’re locked out with no way to get back in that they realize she was asking about the keys, not telling.
Context is everything, and that’s something churches need to understand. We have a massive language barrier in our culture that has nothing to do with Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic or English or Hindi or Swahili. It has to do with the role that faith, that the church, plays in people’s lives. When we speak of God, when we talk about what church and community means, when we lift up the name of Christ, are we even speaking the same language as our neighbors?
Let’s put it this way: if you’re an English speaker living in a place where everyone speaks Portuguese, are you going to continue to speak English because it’s in their best interest, or are you going to learn Portuguese so you can communicate with them? Or to put it into an example from Christian history, are we going to be like the church of the 1300s, speaking Latin when no one else does?
You see, Presbyterians are inheritors of those folks who decided that praying, singing, reading Scripture in languages that people spoke was an important decision to make. It tore the church apart during the Reformation, but it also meant that the life of faith and the stories of Scripture immediately became accessible to whole communities of people who had been shut out before.
And here’s the amazing thing about that moment: it illuminated what was already so unique and important about Christianity in the first place! You see, Christianity has never been about the right language. The written Greek of the New Testament was, itself, already a linguistic mongrel of Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. It was almost immediately translated into other languages to make it understandable, which is how it ended up in Latin in the first place. And at the heart of it all was the fact that ours is an incarnational faith, one that knows God most intimately in Jesus, the very one who bridges what is inaccessible with what is accessible! If the church is going to remain faithful to that same Jesus, we need to question ourselves constantly as to whether we are putting up barriers, barriers that keep us in, barrier that keep others out.
A few weeks ago, I invited us to try an exercise. Some of you who have followed through have told me what an experience it was. I want to make that same invitation today, as a kind of exercise in openness and fluency. Some time before the end of October, I want you to invite one person to lunch or coffee or a walk, something that will give you a chance to get better acquainted, someone you know but have thought regularly, “I would love to get to know this person better.” The only caveat I would put is that it should not be someone within your church family.
What I want to encourage you to do is to get to know them better. Find out what makes them tick. Find out what matters to them, what is important to them. In short, learn the language of their values. If you’re willing, I would love to hear what you find out – about them, about yourself.
The goal, as I see it, is cultural fluency: learning the language of those who are just outside our door. Because when we do, we’ll stop speaking Latin. Instead, we’ll know, like Joshua, what it is that we need to be reminded of and what it is we have forgotten. As we stand in this place, it is a time to look back on where it is that God has brought us. It is also a time to look around us to remember where it is that we see the Spirit here and now.
And even more than all of this, it is a time to look forward. What we don’t know is what the future will bring. What we need are the tools, the language, to talk about God. And what we do know is that what is to come is known to Christ and Christ alone. And that should be the greatest news of all. After all, Christ is the one who will lead us and carry us forward into Christ’s future.
Are you ready?