Friday, February 28, 2014

Missionary Musings :: thoughts from the road.

My closest friend is fluent in any number of languages.  It seems the grand total changes from week to week, "Oh, my Korean is worse than my Estonian - which is really pretty awful" he prattles away during a break from his language lessons.  His goal is to know a double-digit number of languages - more than a dozen, at least.  He's Ukrainian, so this view isn't really seen as bizarre or special - probably half of my friends speak a set of four standard languages and one additional obscure language.

I'm terrible at languages.  I failed out of Spanish class in middle school, muddled my way through German in High school, held to the bare minimum assignments in French throughout college, and learned conversational Russian and Ukrainian along the way.  By American standards, I am a linguist and a polyglot.  By Ukrainian standards, I'm adorable for trying.

When I returned to Lviv to serve full time, it became clear that I was going to have to buckle down and force myself to learn Ukrianian.  My closest friend and I spent an entire month having lessons whenever I felt like it.  If I was awake and ready to learn at 1 AM, a lesson commenced at 1 AM.  I'm a miserable learner and I spent the entire month angry and bitter at the Ukrainian language.  I'm not proud of my behavior during language lessons.  I throw tantrums.  It's really embarrassing.  Over time, we have learned that I need extremely difficult lessons for 15 minutes at a time and then a cool off period.  This is real.  I wish I was joking, and that - like a normal person - I could just sit down, study, and then speak a foreign language.

Nazar getting swallowed by the giant chair before speaking to a large membership church. 

It was during one of the darkest days of that January, when I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from language acquisition that my closest friend explained to me why he loved learning languages so much.  He told me, "I believe that God fully revealed himself through the world's languages.  Every time we learn a new language, we learn a little bit more about God's character."  And I think he's right.

Every language has a little bit of God to add to the world.    

Until you speak the language and grasp at least that much of the culture, you have very little to add to the conversation.  You can listen, you can be present, you can pray - and these are HUGE aspects of mission.  But, if you intend to join the conversation and challenge injustice and offer Christ through proclamation - language is a necessity.

I was being rushed to the hospital when I said my first sentence in Russian.  My friend's father was driving, and trying to buckle my seat belt while swerving through the streets of our small Russian city.  I looked at him and I said, "Ya saam." I can do it myself.  We had learned it just a few days before, but this was honestly the first time I had ever said two words together in Russian - and a complete sentence none the less!  As my foot swelled two sizes too big, my smile swelled, too.  I was so proud of that sentence.  The next day, as I hobbled on my crutches, a teacher's husband stopped me on the streets and asked, "Kak naga?" How is your leg?  I answered "harasho"- good.  It was my first full conversation.

But what I remember most strongly about these two conversations was the incredible sense that I had spoken to Russian people for the first time.  Now - my host-brother had valiantly translated everything for me for two weeks by this point, but at this moment there was something deeper and more beautiful.  It was like the connection was truly mine.

It was the first time I saw the beauty and brilliance of languages.

Two nights ago, I was coming home at about 10 at night.  A neighbor stopped me on the street and invited me to her house for tea.  Lyuba is probably older than my mother, but not by much.  She started the conversation in broken English, and exhaled an audible sigh of relief when I responded in Ukrainian.  We drank tea and talked for more than an hour.  We told jokes, we talked about politics, and we talked about family:

"My boys were on the Maidan during the days of violence.  They both went, just to give their mother more to worry about.  The older one has a five year old son, and I said to him - 'You can't go, you have a child to take care of.' and he told me, 'Mom, that's why I'm going.' I cried so hard I thought I would die.  I just sat at the TV and cried while I watched everything.  I cried even harder when they came home to me."  

I told her about how much I've made my mom cry during this revolution - and apparently sons acting this way is a universal.

When I left, I told her that I thought most of the neighbors were afraid of me because they rarely speak to me.  She told me, "Well, once they find out from me that you speak Ukrainian, they're all going to want to talk to you - so get ready."

Language is connection.  Language is life.  Language is mission.

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