Conjugatin’ Verbs for Jesus

It’s easy to guess what the most obvious barrier is for most missionaries: language, language, and once again, language!

Of course, it’s wonderful to marvel at those “gifted” people who pick up languages like it just falls out of heaven like manna (“Last year I just picked up Greek on my 2 week trip to Athens!” “Really?! In two weeks?” Ugh. Let me resist the urge to stick out my tongue at you.) Or those real, bonafide miracles of God granting language ability to people, like the Russian I met last year who told me she went to sleep one night and woke up speaking English. (It’s true, her English was perfect, and she never studied a day in her life! Let me resist the urge to shout “It’s not fair!”)

But then there is the rest of us, the like 98.9% of us, who must endure the pain, frustration, and helplessness of feeling like we are 18 month old children again, trying to point and grunt and gesture and put together two or three words together that make some kind of sense. For us, language has become the overwhelming hurdle of our everyday lives. You can’t do much without communicating in words, and when that freedom to communicate is taken away, it becomes a true test of the lengths you will go to in order to gain it back again.

And this, my friends, you simply cannot experience on a short-term trip, or hanging out with your Hispanic or Chinese friends learning how to say “hello”, or in a carefully controlled language classroom. No offense, but this lovely test is reserved for the long termers, those that have chosen to stay and battle the barrier over the long haul.  The ones who can’t go home, where everything makes sense, because the land with the crazy language is home.

And no matter how great Google Translate has made our lives, nothing is going to replace the power of the language of the people coming from our own lips. I want to be able to look someone in the eyes and say in Russian exactly what I want to say, without hesitation. I want to pray for them without a translator, because translation in prayer feels stilted and disjointed to me. I want to bless people with my words, like I could in America. And in order to do that, it takes one thing: work. A whole, whole lot of freakin’ work (excuse my French).

Yes, dedication to work, with tenacity and a big dose of patience. When people ask me how much Russian I know, I often quip, “Just enough to get me in trouble.” And it’s so true, I constantly begin conversations that I can barely finish because I just get to a place where I’m going, “Oh Lord, I have no idea what I’m saying or that other person is saying! Help!” Of course, I make it through with my two year old vocabulary, but still, the need to work much harder at communication is obvious. And it means I am going to have to lay down my time, effort and energy on the altar so God can give me what I say I want. (Um, that’s kinda deep. Goes beyond learning language…chew on that awhile with me…)

Can conjugating verbs really serve Jesus? Is memorizing the 6 cases for nouns and adjectives in Russian on par with prayer and fasting? Can I really convince myself that the most spiritual thing I can do today is to study synonyms? I don’t know exactly how He views it, but what I do know is Jesus gave up everything he had to communicate with me in my vernacular, and to do so for others can only be considered an act of love. “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you…”