I decided to try to learn Spanish recently. In high school and college I learned German and became a German Major at Calvin, attaining a pretty decent degree of fluency some years ago, especially after I lived in Germany on a work exchange program. Thankfully (since I also have had to study Latin, Greek, and Hebrew over the years), languages have generally come pretty easily for me. I have long wanted to learn French and even took a semester of it many years ago sometime after I graduated from seminary.
But I realize that Spanish will serve me better in North America just now and most especially at Calvin Seminary where, thanks to the pioneering efforts of my colleague Mariano Avila, we have a robust Latino/a program granting certificates and other Masters level degrees.
It’s been a long time, though, since I started learning a language pretty much from scratch. I am using the Babbel app on my phone and Google Translate comes in handy. I am realizing, though, I probably need a book of some kind to back up Babbel. In any event, having been able to say most anything I have wanted in German for decades now, it’s frustrating to realize how little I can say so far in Spanish after a few weeks of getting started.
Mariano knows I am trying to learn Spanish so if he asks me “Como estas?” (“How are you?”) I may reply “Estoy un poco cansado” (“I am a little tired.”) Truth is I am likely not tired when I say that but . . . well, you know, it’s one of the few phrases I know! (It’s between cansado and enfermo as of now so I will choose saying I am tired over being sick. Muy bien works, too, of course, but everybody knows that. I want to show I am spreading my linguistic wings!)
Being impatient to learn more will only lead me to frustration so I need to take it one step at a time. Yet I do sense my internal frustration. A week or so ago I accompanied my wife to a seminar she attended in Milwaukee. My hotel restaurant server at breakfast each day was Maria from Mexico, so I tried out what little Spanish I knew with her. You know you are early on in learning a language when it takes five minutes to figure out how to say (as I did the day we left) “Adios! Vamos a la casa hoy” (“Goodbye! We are going home today.”).
In a recent post here on The Twelve Katy Sundararajan pondered the subtleties of language too and how in times of transition into new settings it requires time to overcome disorientation in finding the right words. My new foray into Español reminds me of something I have long pondered as also a preacher in that I think one of the things pastors need to do is provide the vocabulary and language people in the church need to articulate their faith well. This has long struck me as being of particular importance now that we have to talk about our faith in a pluralistic context of multiple faith systems. That is more challenging than the more intramural conversations that were perhaps more common some generations ago when people lived in close-knit, homogenous faith communities.
Curiously, it seems as though people a couple or so generations ago sometimes seemed more interested in adding to their faith vocabulary than I sense from Christians today. My Grandpa and Grandma Hoezee never had much money as they eked out a living in Zeeland, Michigan, while raising a family with seven children, all of whom attended Christians schools. Yet when someone gave them some money for their 25th wedding anniversary in 1962, they used it to purchase a two-volume Matthew Henry Bible Commentary. (I know this because when I saw the books years ago I noticed they had so inscribed the source of these volumes on the inside cover.) I also know that these two people—whose formal schooling probably did not go much beyond what today we’d call Middle School—read those volumes because they had underlined passages and made margin notes throughout.
The irony is that in the early to middle part of the 20th century in Western Michigan—and almost certainly in Dutch Zeeland—my grandparents probably never had much opportunity to articulate their faith to anyone who was not already likeminded to begin with. I doubt they bumped into Muslims, Hindus, Nones, or even fellow Christians from different traditions like Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox folks. Yet they wanted to expand their knowledge, learn more words, understand their faith as best they could.
Most of us now live and work in far more diverse contexts with, potentially, far more opportunities to speak of our faith to people who might regard what we have to say as almost a foreign language unto itself. But how hard do most of us try to learn the language of the faith, or even the peculiar accent of the Christian language of our own theological neck of the woods like the Reformed tradition? When I try to speak Spanish right now, I am frustrated with how little I have to draw on. My vocabulary is not very large yet and I can only speak in the present tense—past and future verb forms are a ways down the road I suspect.
But how often do we find ourselves frustrated that we cannot quite communicate the essence, if not some of the beautiful specifics, of our Christian faith? If we never feel frustrated, is it because we know this language really well already or because we seldom try to speak it in the first place? And if we do try to speak it but find ourselves bumping up against “linguistic” barriers, are we motivated to try to learn some more, get greater fluency?
To close, I will riff a bit on my Babbel app when it prompts me to do my daily study: Vamos! Aprendamos un poco el lenguaje de la fe. Come on! Let’s learn a little language of the faith!