Help! Confusion has entered the Underwood household!
Mariia has arrived and our whole world has been turned upside down. A refugee from war-torn Ukraine, she has washed up on the shores of the U.K. and into our home. She’s not to blame, of course. In fact, she is an absolute delight, enriching our lives immeasurably. So why the confusion? In short, the language barrier. She speaks English as well as we speak Ukrainian. So you can imagine, can’t you? Our Ukrainian isn’t rusty . . . it’s practically non-existent!
Gone is the witty riposte or the animated conversation over the meal table. Now, all communication has been reduced to short monosyllabic sentences delivered and received with a great deal of uncertainty via Google Translate*. The potential for misunderstandings is huge, as evidenced by a hilarious conversation about trifle recently!
How did we get into this hopeless situation? Well, I blame our forefathers, the Babel-onians. Their story started after the Flood. Life was progressing apace in their time, and they had reached the point where they had both the technology and the will to work together. “Let's build a tower!” they said. The motive for this grand project? To reach to the heavens. How interesting! The name Babylon means the gate of heaven . . . the gate of god. The aim of these ancient Babel-onians was to build a city that would reach to heaven and establish their reputation forever.
But there was another motivation lurking behind this project – fear. On the far side of Eden and out of fellowship with their Maker, the Babel-onians were suffering from a deep sense of insecurity. They believed that unless they took the initiative, their strength would be dissipated, and they would be scattered across the face of the earth.
The irony, of course, is that they were half right. Like all good lies, it was half true. These ancient people were created by God to be like God – appointed to spread his good rule across the whole world. But that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted to rule the world for themselves – as we still do today. The outcome? It’s Genesis 3 all over again – more division and frustration.
What was God’s response?
Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.
Loss of language meant they could no longer communicate . . . they no longer thought in the same way . . . so they couldn’t work together. And unable to work together, they were unable to build together.
So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
But it was more profound than that. Language is not just about expressing our thoughts; it’s about shaping our thoughts . . . moulding our values. It’s from our values that we create our cultures. Speak differently, and it won’t be long before we begin to see the world differently. And once we see the world differently, we begin to want different kinds of world. From that moment at Babel, then, national rivalries began to emerge. And that, ultimately, is the reason Mariia, along with millions of others, have been forced to flee their homes. And, indirectly, why Google Translate has become my best friend.
What am I supposed to be learning from this? How is God speaking to me? Well, for a start, I’m learning to think before I speak. And when I speak, to do so with a smiling face and a warm heart. I’m also discovering that I need to be much clearer and more concise in what I say. I’m trying to put sloppy communication behind me. Finally, I’m learning to re-discover curiosity. How can I enter this young woman’s world? What can I learn from it? And how is God going to use Mariia to bring discomfort into my comfort zone, so that I grow?
As we provide hospitality for Mariia, perhaps God is teaching us something new about our approach to evangelism. When the Lord Jesus issued his Great Commission, he instructed his followers to make disciples of all nations. When the Lord Jesus speaks about “the nations”, he doesn’t just mean people who are different from us ethnically, but people who are different from us in other, more subtle, ways too. As I think about the neighbours along my road, they largely share my ethnic background, but what “language” do they speak? How do they “see” the world we share? What are their hopes and dreams? What keeps them awake at night? To communicate with Mariia, I’ve been turning to Google Translate, but is there a spiritual equivalent that could come to my rescue?
The good news is, yes there is! Right now, the Underwood household would be in meltdown without Google Translate. We would be gesticulating like cavepeople without the aid it provides. Yet its limitations are severe. For a start, its accuracy is dodgy at the best of times. I have no idea if it’s actually communicating what I want to say. But perhaps more importantly, it teaches me nothing. My Ukrainian remains at pre-beginner level, because the app offers no grammar or context. Furthermore, I wasn’t the only person to discover that Kiev is now Kyiv, and has little to do with small chicken bites filled with a tasty garlic sauce. Joking aside, Google Translate will never take me into Mariia’s world. And that’s because language is about more than words. It carries culture and values and experience. A computer app has no access to such things.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this whole experience is the window that my wife, Pippa, and I have gained into another world. Mariia has arrived suddenly on the shores of the U.K. and now has breakfast with us every day - a living, breathing person from another culture, whose faltering attempts to talk bring us joy along with many laughs, tears, and frustrations. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us (I pray), as we communicate the truth about the Lord Jesus by caring for her. That is His work, for sure. But the Lord is doing more. He is slowly dismantling barriers in our hearts, and inviting us into an unfamiliar world . . . a world that is not our home.
What did those Babel-onians ever do for me? Well, in a roundabout way, they brought us Mariia from another world. Because of their rebellion, we are not only learning to use Google Translate, we’re taking steps into a colourful, new world. We’ve only just crossed the border, clutching our passports, but we’re excited to travel somewhere challenging, different, and exciting.
And as we arrive in this new world, we are absolutely certain that God is already at work there.
*Other translation apps are available.