Thursday, April 20, 2017

Language & Loving Beyond Barriers

Standing outside the seventeenth-century Salzburg Cathedral in Austria (where Mozart was baptized as an infant), a woman came up to me and grabbed the labels of my coat. She spoke frantically in German. Her eyes were filled with fear and despair. This was pure desperation and she was pouring herself out to me, a complete stranger. After a few minutes, that felt even longer, she finally stopped speaking and waited for a response from me. I was heartbroken to tell her, "I'm sorry. I don't speak German." I hated not being able to understand her. Her face became crestfallen. I had not understood her and, therefore, could not help her. She dashed off, leaving me feeling crushed and broken, unable to bridge the gap between us. To this day, I have never known what she said or what she asked of me. I cannot count how many times this brief incident has haunted me over the years.

How powerless I felt to see another human being in despair and my being completely and totally unable to help her simply because of a language barrier. Words. Words kept us from communicating fully with each other. I understood that she was desperate by the way her eyes and body language communicated, but was unable to know why she was or what I could do to alleviate any of her suffering.

There is nothing more disconcerting to be in a place and have others talking around you in a foreign language that you alone don't understand. I discovered this when I toured through Germany and Austria, as well as when we adopted our son from Ukraine. It was even harder in Ukraine where the letters don't resemble ours but are a Cyrillic script so I couldn't even begin to attempt to make out what signs said. When our son first arrived here, we learned of how difficult it is to parent a child who doesn't understand anything you are telling him. It makes him scared and angry and alone.

It immediately brings to mind Genesis 11, where, we're told that the whole world had one language and a common speech. Most of us are familiar with this tale of man longing to build a tower to the heavens so that they might make a name for themselves. It's the oft repeated sin of man's pride and wanting to be like God. They also were fearful that they would be scattered throughout the earth. Fear and pride. Walter Brueggemann writes:

The fear of scattering is resistance to God’s purpose for creation. The people do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity. They try to surround themselves with walls made of strong bricks and a tower for protection against the world around them. This unity attempts to establish a cultural, human oneness without God. This is a self-made unity in which humanity has a ‘fortress mentality.’ It seeks to survive by its own resources. It is a unity grounded in fear and characterized by coercion. A human unity without God’s will is likely to be ordered in oppressive conformity.

How many of us today, still fear this scattering? Fear the other?

Certainly we are seeing it played out in many countries as they hold elections and the results bear witness to a deep-rooted fear of diversity. 

Returning to Genesis 11, we see the Lord viewing all of this building and he says, "If as one people speaking the language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." The next verse informs us that because of they could not longer understand each other, the people, in their confusion, spread to all the parts of the earth.

Much like a fable, it's early man's attempt to explain why people are spread out across the earth and why they each speak a different language. 

Btu what we see now is how this difference can often cause us to still retreat into fear and avoidance of those who are different from ourselves in language, customs, religion, culture. We want homogeneous environments and whenever there's diversity, we can feel anxiety and discomfort. It reveals to us that the world is bigger and that we are not in control. Like those at the tower of Babel, we find ourselves fleeing from the fear of the other. As followers of Christ, however, we are called to embrace everyone as our neighbor and love them. Part of embracing and loving them is to celebrate the diversity that God has created in all of us. We are each unique and have our own individual stories.

We cannot embrace, we cannot love what we do not come into contact with. If we avoid anyone who is different from ourselves then we only hurt ourselves. We are missing out, as Christ welcomed all to the table and shared the table with all. There is no connection without communion. Part of my own breaking out of my comfort zone was going from writing about refugees to signing up with a local organization that works with them in terms of helping them move in, driving them places (like citizenship classes) or in learning in English. Certainly I was confronted by the fact that I too often write about what I don't practice in my own life. 

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged." There are many who would be offended by that statement. What I take from the poet's words are that I can never love what I judge and Christ has called me to love others, not  judge them.

What I am continuing to learn is that we cannot love abstractions. I could not truly say I loved an orphan until I called one my "son." I cannot claim to love the refugee or the foreigner if I don't actually know any, if I avoid them, if I don't actually know their names and are not in any way a part of their lives. Jesus was always involved in the lives of those he loved: from the Samaritan woman at the well to Zaccheus the tax collector to his very disciples. Christ shared meals with strangers and strangers became friends. We must open our doors and our hearts. We cannot hide behind the buffering walls of our homes and churches. Instead, we are called to move beyond the barriers of our comfort zones into a world we are called to love unconditionally. 

1 comment:

  1. "We cannot love abstractions" and "I cannot love what I judge" -- those are really sobering, convicting statements. The world right now is so focused on barriers and walls, largely because of fear and ignorance of "the other." It's really hard to overcome that -- hard to even WANT to. It's so much easier to remain in our comfort zones. Fujimura's Silence & Beauty had some challenging words about this - I'm still pondering them: "Christ may indeed lead us to mystery and humility that gives away power; thus this exclusivity comes with quite a price. Christ holds the center still, and yet guides us into the storms of life." If only we could all trust that He's leading and guiding us there, and have courage in Him.