Lost in Translation

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages… — Acts 2:1-21

A friend once told me this story: When she was a teenager, her family took a vacation to Germany. They travelled from city to city, staying in little hotels along the way, but on one particular night they found themselves lost, driving around in the pouring rain looking for lodgings, while her father – the driver – became more and more frustrated. Frustrated with the rain, frustrated with the traffic, frustrated with his inability to understand the German street signs. Finally they somehow found their way to a little pension with a vacancy sign in the window, and so they went inside and her father stormed up to the desk and banged on the bell. When the night clerk appeared, her father said, slowly and loudly, “WE… ARE… AMERICANS.”

To which the night clerk replied, “Congratulations, sir.”

We live in a multilingual world, and in a multilingual world, if you want to travel beyond your borders, you have two choices: you can demand that the rest of the world speak your language; or you can learn theirs.

Anglo-Americans tend to choose the former. English, after all, is a dominant world language; pretty much anywhere you go in the world, you can count on finding someone who speaks some English. Which is lucky, because most of us speak only our own language. In Luxemburg, nearly every citizen speaks four languages. The same is true of Aruba. But here in the US, seventy-five percent of us are monolingual English speakers. Because why learn another language, when the whole world speaks yours?

Today is Pentecost Sunday. Each year on this Sunday we celebrate the birth of the church – the moment when the Holy Spirit first swept through Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit swept through like a great wind, like tongues of flame, bringing with it the gift of tongues. Not mystical tongues, not supernatural languages; but ordinary human languages. Peter and the other disciples – native Galileans, all of them – were somehow empowered to share the gospel with travelers from around the world, in their own languages. The Spirit’s first gift, was the gift of translation.

Let’s think about that.

I travelled to Ghana a couple of years ago, and while I was there I had the opportunity to stay with a local pastor, who brought me with him to his church on Sunday. This church met in a school classroom, the only room in the village large enough to hold the congregation. The service was conducted mostly in the native Ewe language. English is taught in school there, and many of the people I met spoke at least some English, but in these small village churches many of the older folks had not been formally educated. So I was sitting next to my host, enjoying the people, and the music, but understanding nothing of what was said. And then, about halfway through, the pastor leaned across to me and said,

“We have a bit of extra time today, why don’t you preach a sermon too?”

The next thing I knew I was standing in front of a group of friendly, welcoming, expectant people, none of whom could understand a word I was saying. The pastor stood next to me, and translated as I went. At least, I assume he did; I of course could not understand a word he was saying.

It was a slightly surreal experience. I had to let go of my sermon in way that I don’t normally have to, because I didn’t know, really, what my words would mean to the congregation — what they would sound like, in their language. And so I had to trust. Trust in my host, trust in my listeners, and trust in the Spirit’s gift of translation — the power of the Spirit to transcend boundaries that I could not cross on my own. So I stumbled along through my improvised sermon, and as I did, I watched the expression on Rev. Dzanku’s face, and on the faces of the people in the congregation.

And I had the distinct impression that his translated version of my sermon was way better than the one I was preaching.

When European Christian missionaries first travelled to Ghana, they too were confronted with the task of translating their faith into the local languages. And immediately they were faced with a theological dilemma: what was the Ghanaian word for God? There were, of course, many words for God in the Ewe language, but the missionaries were convinced that all of these native gods were at best idols and at worst demons. How could they use the existing native words, without validating the existing native gods? How could their one true faith be expressed in the language of a heathen race?

Or, as the psalmist once put it: How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land?

If you want to be a missionary, you have two choices: you can demand that everyone else speak your language, or you can learn theirs.

In the 1800’s, the British colonies of Australia and Canada had policies of removing aboriginal children from their families, to be raised in government boarding schools where they would learn both English and Christian religion. Here in the USA, tens of thousands of native children were removed from their homes for the same purpose, and sent to the government’s Indian boarding schools. While there, they were forbidden to speak their native languages, even to their own siblings. By the time they returned home, some of them had forgotten how.

In a multilingual, multicultural, multigenerational world, we still have two choices: we can demand that everyone else speak our language, or we can learn theirs.

The former may be the American Way; but as the book of Acts reminds us, it is not the Christian Way. Christianity has been a translating faith, from the very beginning. The story of Pentecost reflects a historical reality of the early church. Jesus himself most likely spoke Aramaic; the writers of the gospels translated his teachings into Greek; these Greek texts were quickly translated in Coptic, Syriac, and Latin. True, they got stuck there, for a while, but were eventually translated, again, and again, into every language of the world.

In Islam, the only true Koran, the only true scripture, is the one written in Arabic, the language of Mohammed. But Christianity has no such claim to linguistic purity. Jesus’ actual, original words were already lost by the time the gospels were recorded. For us, the Word of God is not the biblical text, but rather the One whose story it tells. And that One is still speaking.

I understand the concern for authenticity. There have been mistranslations that have sometimes resulted in misunderstandings of scripture. We’ve all played the game of telephone, where messages get garbled as they are repeated from person to person; and those of us raised in the pre-digital era of dittos and Xerox machines remember when a copy of a copy was never as clear as the original. Our sacred texts and traditions are so important to us, it is no wonder that we worry that something might get lost in translation. But what if there is something to be gained in translation?

So what did I tell that welcoming congregation in Ghana?

I told them what the missionaries eventually figured out; that anywhere we might travel in the world, God has been there already. That when we cross the border, we do not bring God with us, but we find God there.

Preaching a way better sermon, perhaps, than the one we had in mind.

(from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on May 24, 2015)

Jesus Eating a Fish

After his crucifixion, Jesus pays a visit to his disciples. They are terrified, thinking he is a ghost. He tells them, I am no ghost. And to prove it, he asks, do you have anything to eat?

And they give him a broiled fish.

catacomb fish, source unknown

Most of us have seen paintings of Jesus in the manger, or in the cross. But what about Jesus eating a fish? Some of the earliest known Christian art comes from the Roman catacombs, the vaults below the city where tens of thousands of early Christians were buried. Crosses and mangers are rarely seen there, but fish are commonplace. And not just the stylized, abstract-looking fish you see on modern car bumpers; these are actual fish, realistic-looking fish with scales. Sometimes the fish is depicted by itself; sometimes it is part of a dinner scene. There are multiple images of people gathered around a table, sharing a Eucharistic meal — not of wine and bread alone, but of loaves and fishes. To the early followers of Jesus, fish was apparently as integral to communion as bread and wine.

Imagine our deacons passing around plates of smoked salmon at communion, and you begin to see just how much our tradition has changed.

A meal of bread and wine is a tidy affair. You can serve them up as bite-sized wafers and individual, sanitary shotglasses. But eating a fish – that’s a messy, visceral sort of experience. There’s bones, and scales, and gills to contend with. There are eyes, looking up at you. You know you are part of the food chain, when you are eating a fish. And maybe we feel a little uncomfortable, imagining Jesus pulling flesh from bone with his fingers.

But here he is, in Luke’s gospel — Jesus, raised from the dead, eating a fish.

The Greek word for ghost is pneuma – it means literally, breath, and metaphorically, ghost. As in, Holy Ghost. It’s the same word. Nowadays we usually translate it as Spirit. The disciples are terrified, for they think Jesus is a ghost, a spirit. But although Jesus promises the disciples that God will send a Spirit to guide them, he makes it clear that he is no Spirit. Jesus is no Holy Ghost; he is a living human being, eating a fish. Flesh and bone, made from flesh and bone.

Still, there is a sort of dream-like quality to these post-resurrection encounters with Jesus. The disciples start off talking with a stranger, and then somehow that stranger is Jesus. No one ever seems to see him coming, or going; he is just somehow there; and then, he is just somehow gone. These are the sort of things that happen when we dream. But then, on the other hand, here he is, eating a fish. So is Jesus a vision, or is he really there, in the flesh? Does it matter? Saint Paul saw a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, and it was enough to change his life. Thomas – also a saint – needed to touch Jesus’ living body with his own living hands. Can we be satisfied with a vision of the resurrected Christ? Or do we need something more, well, earthy?

It’s an old debate in Christianity: is Christ flesh and blood, or merely spirit? From the beginning, there were those that argued that Jesus was not truly a human being, but rather a spirit in disguise — human in appearance only. But it wasn’t just the idea of resurrection that bothered them; it was the whole idea of incarnation. The word made flesh, in the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t believe he had come back to life; they couldn’t believe he had been alive in the first place — at least, not in the biological, organic sense of the word. They just could not believe that divinity would sully itself with the blood and guts of biological existence. They wanted a God who would rescue them from the world, not become mired in it with them.

But for others, that was precisely the good news. The union of Word and Flesh – of the Mystery and the Mud.

A couple of years ago, my daughter had a good friend that lived next door to us, so the two kids used to run back and forth between the houses and play in our combined back yards. One day, the kids were outside and both my neighbor and I were inside, doing the dishes or something, and the kids discovered a mud puddle in the backyard. And they began to expand it, and it grew into a sort of a mud wallow. And the hole got bigger and bigger, and they got muddier and muddier, and somewhere along the way they come up with the idea to build a mud slide. On our porch. So they got a couple of buckets, and began hauling mud, and at some point my neighbor and I went out to check on them – whatever you are picturing in your minds right now, it was worse. But the thing is, neither my neighbor or I could bring ourselves to be angry with them. We made them clean it up, to be sure; but there was such delight and exuberance in their bodies and on their faces, that neither of us could bear to change that moment for them. They had found the mystery in the mud.

Now I know there are some of you out there who are probably shaking your heads over my parenting skills. But I do think we sometimes make a mistake, when we equate cleanliness with godliness. Because life is messy. Our bodies are messy, our food is messy, our planet is messy. And yet God created it. And God loves it. So much so, that God became flesh in Jesus, in order to love it better.

What about us? Can we bring ourselves to love the world? Can we say YES to this creation, to our creation? Because I’m not just talking about sunsets and mountains here. Because life is messy, and nature can be harsh, and God knows, people can be cruel. It’s understandable that some of us might want to distance ourselves from our mortal flesh; that we might seek a savior who would rescue us from such a world as this.

But just as the incarnation did not begin with a baby in a manger, so it did not end with a body on a cross. Because even after his death, there is Jesus, eating a fish. When Jesus escapes from tomb, he jumps right back into life, in all its messy biological incarnational splendor. Vision or not, he is, emphatically, not a ghost – not a disembodied spirit, but an embodied one. Like you. Like me.

Agape_feast_07 (Wikimedia)

We are tempted, sometimes, to act as if we were disembodied spirits, or rather, as if our bodies are nothing more than machines, our food nothing more than fuel. If our performance gets sluggish, we add some high-octane caffeine to the tank, and keep driving. One of my seminary professors once observed that now in the digital age we treat our biological bodies as if they were merely our avatars, rather than our selves. We are like Pinocchio in reverse – flesh and blood children, pretending to be puppets. We do not fully inhabit our bodies, or love them, or care for them; just as we do not fully inhabit, or love, or care for the planet that sustains them.

But if we deny our own incarnation, how shall we acknowledge our incarnate God? If we cannot not love creation, how shall we love our Creator?

So maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to serve up some broiled fish for communion now and then. Bread and wine, after all, are a few steps removed from their organic origins; but a fish, that’s another story. Eat a fish, and you know the stuff of which you are made. You are flesh and spirit, mystery and mud; and God loves all of you.

(scripture: Luke 24: 36-49)

(photo credits: Ghanaian fish market: Rahsaan Hall, used by permission; Catacomb Fish: source unknown; Catacomb Agape Feast: Wikimedia)