Saturday, April 4, 2009

Paddling across the divide

I recently read a post on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog site by a young Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. She lives in Denver and is developing a new “emerging church” (and you can read her blog at One of the things she said that really struck me was “… people in my scene would have to culturally commute {italics mine} from who they are to who the traditional church is.” I think that’s often very true of the kids in my affirmation group as well. In their “real” lives in school and online they walk and talk and joke and sing and IM a certain way that is often so far removed from the language and culture of the church to be laughable. And our church wouldn't even be considered a "traditional church." It's progressive in orientation and its worship services are a melange of old and new rituals and world influence and creativity and imagination. But I think if you asked the kids in my group—all of whom have been going to this church since they were very young—to explain phrases like “washed in the blood of the Lamb” or “justification by faith” or “let angels prostrate fall” (which a number of the older folks in the church are very familiar with) they would be not only at a loss, they would be annoyed. And these are kids who “get it”—kids who basically want to be in church (more or less, depending on the day and their mood, of course). My daughter Hannah is always quick to point out songs that we sing during worship which she finds obscure and confusing or music that seems too dull or dry or boring (“that music sucks,” in other words...)and given the fact that her dad is in charge of the music, there’s not a lot of that kind of stuff in our worship services, but enough to bother her now and then.

I’ve been thinking about language and cultural divides a lot this week since my family and I have been enjoying our spring break down in Mexico in a place where there is sunshine and warmth and ocean and a breeze so fresh and gentle you can imagine it is the actual breath of God. Part of the reason we come to Mexico, other than the whole sunshine and breath of God thing, is because our kids have been learning Spanish ever since they were three years old when we put them into a language immersion preschool. Even though the full immersion school only lasted until they went into first grade, they were in partial immersion through elementary school and have continued in the top-level Spanish classes offered by their middle school and high school. So visiting here is a way for them to be in a culture where Spanish is the primary language and they can hear it being spoken everywhere they go and are given “opportunities” (read “forced”) to speak the language themselves quite frequently. Gary and I don’t speak Spanish nearly as well as they do—we’ve been trying to learn it some over the last several years (we both took French in college, but can’t speak that either…), but we’re old and way too busy to make it a huge priority, so as a result we have what amounts to passable restaurant and taxi Spanish.

Visiting another country in which you don’t speak their language very much or very well and only some people speak yours can be exhausting, I must admit. Gary and the girls and I went out on a river rafting excursion yesterday and at the beginning our guide spoke to us only in Spanish. He explained all the life-saving instructions we would need to follow in his native language and Zoe translated for us, just to make sure we got it. But I was trying to understand on my own, as he spoke, listening in a very focused way, trying to pick out words and phrases I was familiar with, watching his body language for clues to the meaning. I got a lot of it but I missed some important things as well. And I have to admit, I was really grateful for the instruction time to end so we could get in the boat and start paddling—the physical exertion seemed preferable to me to the mental exertion of translating.

It was funny, but once we got going down the river, Gabrielle, our guide, started speaking to us in English quite a lot. His English was very good. We wondered later why he’s given us all the instructions up front in Spanish… Of course he did make a joke at one point: Do you know what a person who speaks three languages is called? Trilingual. And a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And a person who only speaks one language? American. So maybe underneath his smiles and jokes and very charming guide-like patter there was a little anger and resentment about the lack of effort most Americans put forth to learn other languages, to step outside a culture and language that is familiar and comfortable for them, that feels “right” to them.

So all this brings me back to where I started. Walking into the church for most teenagers is like walking into a different country. But frankly, it’s like that for many adults as well. I think about the people I work with, mostly young hip urban web designer types, and the world of the church is like, not just Mexico—more like outer Mongolia for them. There’s a part of me, though, that thinks the church should feel like a different culture and should loudly and clearly speak a different language. We should be about speaking the language of hope versus despair, of love versus hate, of caring versus apathy; we should be a culture where people are willing to go the extra mile versus throw you under the bus.

But we also need to be able to be gracious enough to meet those from another culture halfway. Like Gabrielle was with us. We need to encourage bilingual communication it seems. Where we learn and try to speak each other’s languages. As exhausting as it might be, I have to believe, we would all be better off for the effort.

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