Genesis 11 tells the story of a tall, heaven-bound tower built on the plains of Shinar. At that time in world history, all of civilization shared a common language and speech. When the Lord saw the tower, He said that if everyone’s language remained the same, then nothing would be impossible for humankind (and, thus, such humanism would severely limit a need to place faith in God). So, in twenty-first century jargon, he scrambled the networks, confused the languages and spread everyone over the face of the planet.
At the conclusion of the story, the writer notes in verse 9, “That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.”
Babel may have moved to the Mount Paran Church of God choir room.
In our choir, we count people from all over the U.S. and the world as members. Our accents differ, but, more often than not, the strong cadences and drawls of those of us of Southern descent shine through at the most inopportune time, particularly in a more traditional or choral arrangement.
Now imagine for a moment taking this same group of people that works hard to master the English language… and ask them to sing in Russian.
Welcome to a rehearsal for our impending trip to Ukraine! The confusion of Babel.
When you visit another country, common courtesy compels you to learn a few basic phrases in their mother tongue — “good morning,” “please,” “thank you,” “where is a bathroom?” — the essentials. But we travel to Ukraine not as tourists on a long holiday; we travel to minister.
Certainly God can take whatever we say or sing in English and, through the Holy Spirit, use it to bless those with whom we come in contact. But as missionaries, one of our critical tasks is to meet someone wherever he or she is on his or her journey. And we can bridge that divide by reaching out to them in their language.
They doesn’t mean it is easy. These crash lessons in Russian could be downright comical… if they were not fraught with frustration. For some reason, we all think that if we say a phrase loudly enough and independently of the director and out of rhythm with everyone else, we master it. So if you were to walk by our rehearsal room, you would hear forty or fifty voices chanting the same foreign words over and over, just never together. You may even call the pastor out of an abundance of caution.
Let me walk you through this process using a song we recently sung at Mount Paran, Hosanna.
–The Russian alphabet is Cyrillic; thus it looks nothing much like any Roman-based alphabet. The title of the song in Russian is Осанна, which I am sure all of you could recognize immediately.
-Of course, seeing those words help us little. Take the simple word, “love.” In printed Russian, that word is, “любовь.” Go ahead. Pronounce it.
-Each one of the phrases must be translated first into Russian, which looks like those words above, and THEN into English phonetics so that we can sing something we hope resembles Russian or at least a close relative. Therefore, the opening line of the first verse, “I see the king of glory,” becomes “Ya vee-zhoo, kahk Tsar slav-ee.” Got it?
And this is all without note one from any instrument. Eventually we must put it to music. Rod Jeffords, the talented man who arranges our music, will play a song at a snail’s pace so we can sing a line multiple times. Why? The number of syllables and placement of words may differ in the English and Russian versions, so the number of notes may also change. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a tricky dance; now it is trickier because your mind is thinking in English, the way you learned it.
Trust me, you become discouraged, aggravated, and even confounded. Wouldn’t it just be easier to sing in English? Then you remember why you are journeying across the world… and you recall that, for some of the people who hear our message in music, this might very well be the first light of Christ that they ever encounter… and you persevere through the strange consonant sounds and unfamiliar letter clusters because of the goal set before us. You meditate on Galatians 6:9 — “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Will we be perfect? No, we won’t. And we will sing some songs in English, our comfort zone. But our prayer is that despite our imperfections, the sincerity of our hearts and, of course, the power of the message, no matter the language, will be what resonates with and ministers to our brothers and sisters in Ukraine.