Not translating anymore


Sermon for March 21st, 2021


I was in France for almost a month back in 2019. One day after I had been there for about two weeks, I decided to take a train out to visit the famous Chartres Cathedral. Well as I was navigating the Montparnasse train station, trying to find the right car on the right train, I noticed something funny. 

I was walking down this long train platform looking at the car numbers printed on the side of the train, looking for the number that was on my ticket, when I caught myself saying out loud each car number, only I wasn’t saying it in English, I was saying it in French, and not intentionally.

Now you may be thinking: “this is the most boring story he has ever told! Who cares if you were counting train cars in French? Get to the part that is inspiring and profound!” 

This isn’t an exciting story I agree, but for me it was significant, because it was a moment when I realized that I wasn’t struggling quite so much as I was before. Look, I’m not good with numbers even in English, and the French way of counting can be very confusing. Counting in French involves translating and doing math problems at the same time. And there was just this moment when I realized that my brain was starting to do it automatically, I wasn’t translating anymore, and it was a little moment of joy for me.

I had studied French off and on since college, but I had never had an extended amount of time when I had to use it. My knowledge was mostly book knowledge: rules of grammar and how to decline verbs and vocabulary. But I never had to speak it everyday. I was never trained to understand actual French speakers in everyday conversation. On the few occasions when I did encounter someone speaking French to me, there would usually be a 30-60 second delay between them speaking to me and my brain translating that into English, and then of course I had to figure out how to translate what I wanted to say back into French. 

For a split second on that train platform I realized that my brain wasn’t translating anymore. That is when you know you are beginning to really understand and speak a language, when you no longer have to translate it in your head. When you understand the language on its own terms and not in relation to some other language; that is when you really understand it. That is when the language is no longer some external, foreign thing that you have to grapple with; it just becomes another way of relating to and communicating with the world around you. It really is a moment of joy, when you don’t have to stop and think “oh, let me decline this verb” but the verb is just there for you, ready to use. I studied French off and on for 20 years and I could never get to that point; but I lived in Paris for two weeks and there it was. I was beginning to get it.

Language is not something that you can just study out of a book. That is not how we learn to speak as children. As children, we learn to speak by listening to and mimicking the speech of those around us. We are steeped in it; it is a part of our everyday life. Hopefully as we grow older we can study to improve our vocabulary or our grammar; the books can help; but with few exceptions, most children learn how to talk before they learn how to read. They learn to use a language before they become masters of all the rules. I guess you have to crawl before you can walk. 

I love and adore books, but there are some things in life that you really have to learn by doing. There are some things where book learning can only take you so far, where if you really want to understand it you have to do it, touch it, taste it, say it, or live it. Language is that way, and I think faith is that way too.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

When the prophet Jeremiah is talking about this new covenant that God is going to make with his people, he is talking about something that is more than just words on paper. This isn’t something that is just taught formally like a history lesson or the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Latin nouns. This new covenant will be within them, on their hearts, a part of their lives. It won’t be just a bunch or rules or words on paper that are memorized but never used. It won’t be something that people study for extra or elective credit. No, this new covenant will be a new way to understand and communicate with the world. This new covenant will be, almost like a new language, a language that is really a part of our daily life. This new covenant will open doors to new experiences and new understandings. Our lives will be blessed because we will finally understand how to speak God’s language. Only, as with other languages, the only way to really learn how to speak it, is to speak it. 

You can study the rules all you want, but until you live them and use them every day, they will still be external rules that you have to translate or interpret or wrestle with in order for them to be of value to you. But Jeremiah says God wants his law or his language to within us; to be on our hearts. God wants us to see the world the way that he sees it and in order to do that we need to be fluent in God’s language. And no, I’m not talking about French or English or Latin or Greek or Hebrew. I am talking about something that goes far deeper and that transcends all human languages. I am talking about the language of love that is God’s own language. This is the language God speaks when he creates the universe and declares that it is good. This is the language God uses when making a covenant or bond with his people. It is the language that is behind all of the commandments. It is the language that Jesus speaks with all of his actions. God speaks to us in this language everyday. The question for us is: are we fluent enough in it to hear it and understand it? 

Is love a foreign language to you? Are God’s commandments a bunch of words in a book that you memorize and repeat, or are they a part of how you understand and relate to the world around you? I am convinced that faith is like a language: it is something that we must live with, and practice and use, on a daily basis, it we want it to really be a part of our lives. It is like a muscle that only gets stronger when you use it. You can study it forever and never really understand it. You have to use it.

Now, there are two great pitfalls to learning a new language that most people encounter at some point, and perhaps it will be no surprise to you that they are stumbling blocks to faith as well: one is fear and the other is disuse.

In the first case: fear. We are afraid of making a mistake or embarrassing ourselves, or getting something wrong. So our brain panics, we become paralyzed; we can’t think of what to say, so we don’t try. This has been my huge struggle in trying to learn French. I would get scared of making a mistake or saying the wrong word, so I wouldn’t try, and of course I never improved. I think people do that with faith too. People are so afraid of doing the wrong thing when they come to church, that they never bother to come at all. Sometimes people are so afraid of offending God that they end up not having a relationship with him at all. 

When I was in France, the couple that owned the place where I was staying would have me over for drinks and conversation, and I’m sure that it must have been a little painful for them, because they had to speak a little slowly for me and of course I was making tons of mistakes when I was speaking to them, but not once did they ridicule me, or make fun of me, or speak down to me. If I said something the wrong way, they would gently say it to correct way, and we would move on. If I needed a fuller explanation they would give it, but it was clear that we weren’t gathered together for lessons in French grammar; we were gathered together for drinks and for pastry and for watching the sunset; we were gathered together for a few moments to enjoy life on a summer afternoon; it’s just that the language we were using, wasn’t one that I spoke perfectly, so I needed a little help along the way. 

When it comes to faith, none of us speak God’s language perfectly. Some speak it better than others, but we all need a little correction now and then. We must be very mindful of doing it gently though. What made it so easy to speak to and learn from my hosts in France is that there was no shame or judgement attached to making mistakes. There was trial and improvement and practice. It didn’t matter to them if I mispronounced something or used the wrong word; what mattered was that I was trying. That was my experience all across France actually: if you are at least trying to speak the language, your mistakes will be forgiven. The same should be true when it comes to people practicing their faith. When someone is trying to learn how to walk, you can’t shame them when they stumble. Help them up and keep going. People will learn more from the practice than they would from a lecture. Forgiveness is a fundamental part of God’s language, so if we wish to become fluent in that language we must learn not only to forgive the mistakes of others, but also to overcome our own fears of failure. 

The other great pitfall to language is disuse. Use it or lose it. If you don’t regularly listen to, or speak, or read a language, it does fade away. It can’t be something that you learned once. It has to be something that you use. My French was better after two weeks of using it everyday than it was after twenty years of studying it now and then. Yes, they study helps, but nothing can replace use. I haven’t been using it much for the past few months, and yes, my fluency is slipping. I need to keep practicing. Likewise with faith. The world is filled with people that went to Sunday School, or were confirmed, or were baptized or converted; there are plenty of people that have read the Bible once or twice, or even studied it; there are people out there who have managed to memorize all ten commandments, but how strong is their faith? Faith isn’t something that you can study once and be done. You have to use it. 

You need to practice your faith if you want to be able to understand God when he speaks to you. It may not happen quickly, but someday in some little way you will get a message that goes directly to your heart and you will realize, in that moment, that you aren’t translating anymore.