God Speaks Your Language

God Speaks Your Language

God speaks your language.

When I heard those words, I stopped doodling in my conference journal and looked up. On a screen in front of me, women from all backgrounds were seated around a long table, discussing the relevance of God in their culture. I had been restless for the past few hours, hearing powerful testimonies and sensing the ladies around me tear up and breathe, “Yes, Amen!”, but finding that I could not personally relate with any of them. These words caught my full attention.

I am a cross-cultural worker who has lived in one country all of her life. Now, Canada is a large country, and I’ve resided East and West, northern and southern, and places in between. I suppose you could say that I started off multicultural, balancing both Chinese and Western cultures fluidly within the graces of childhood, but after I left home, I found myself led into situations where I became increasingly aware of my minority status and found myself conforming. In the room – and the town – I was in for that locally hosted online conference, I did not find one other person who shared my mother tongue.

As you could guess, I’m one of those girls who has wrestled all her life with the question: “But where are you really from?”

I’ve done the snarky answers, the refusal to go into further detail, the long version that comes with a mini geography lesson. After spending three years in that place where I could count everyone I knew of Asian ethnicity with my fingers, I’ve come to peace with my current answer. I’m from western Canada and my parents are from Hong Kong. I know the last little tidbit of information is the part most people really want to know but are too polite to ask upfront.

My hometown in Canada is wonderfully diverse and has welcomed many waves of immigration, so when my family arrived in the 90s, we did not have too much trouble finding a community of same-cultured friends. This meant that I had the opportunity to spend my early years immersed in Cantonese language, cuisine, and values, before most of my relatives moved back to Hong Kong. I followed my grandparents everywhere, participated in lantern festivals, celebrated the Lunar New Year, and was taught to respectfully eat all foods placed in front of me. I kept up my mother tongue and the family expectations for reverence toward authority figures. I was taught that “we, being from Hong Kong, do things this way”, usually referring to either cooking or conflict prevention.

When I left home, my experiences from school and social life told me it was best if I left those parts of me behind. Unless I was communicating with family members, I spoke only in English or French. The people I met in church seemed to hold values that were placed in a hierarchy different than my own, and I made changes thinking they were the only correct ones and that I was behind in my faith journey. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that God used this time and these conflicts for spiritual growth, but it wasn’t as one-sided as I thought.

When those words were spoken from the screen, I immediately tried to think of a prayer in Cantonese. I couldn’t do it. My mind drew a complete blank on words, and even when they returned, I couldn’t string a cohesive sentence together. God – Jesus – forgive me – listen to my requests – is it – um?

How could I not communicate with God in my mother tongue?

But then, He spoke. He only had to say two syllables to let me know I am fully seen and understood:

He said my Chinese name.

My name, that only my family knows and speaks. The name given to me at birth, with deep symbolism and tradition behind it. He used these two words to lead my mind back to the culture where I had learned to listen first and to be reverent. He showed me the parts of my thinking I had tried to discard, thinking they were faulty or outdated, and gently handed them back to me. He assured me that it is not wrong to be both reverently fearful and close, or to stand in awe of both His justice and unconditional love, even if they are prescribed different emphases in different cultures. He reminded me that His attributes span across cultural divides and that all of them are Good, because He is.

God speaks my language. He speaks yours, too. He is a God of all cultures, and He does not hide Himself within only a few of them. When Psalm 117:1 declares, “Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples”, I now imagine a great exaltation in so many languages that we won’t be able to comprehend, and not just one monolingual chant. How glorious that will be!

Have you ever tried communicating with God, whether through prayer or worship, in a different language? What have your experiences been?

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Photo by Jeremy Vessey on Unsplash

14 Comments

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      Thanks Ruth!

  1. Kristin October 16, 2019

    Thank you so much for sharing your heart in this piece… What beautiful and vulnerable words!

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      Thanks Kristin!

  2. Anna Smit October 16, 2019

    Dear Adora, thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I was an MK, who struggled with the very things you describe – both as an MK (in Germany) and a returning MK in her “home” country (New Zealand). I became a pro at reading body language and adapting to my surroundings to “belong”. The past 5 years God has slowly been showing me that He didn’t make me to “fit in” and give up what He put inside me to shine, but to be set apart for His purposes. So, what you shared is so encouraging.

    Now, I have dual citizenship, having taken on my husband’s country as my “home” and just yesterday I was so upset, when the cultural norms here boxed up against my kiwi upbringing. I have lived here 15 years, and yet I still struggle so much. Your piece is an encouragement to me to acknowledge the struggle and bring it to God, rather than brushing it aside and soldiering on or trying to fight it in my own strength.

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      Thanks for sharing your experience! You’re right, it is a life long process and there are always little things that can really add up, but that God will hold for us. I often thought I could relate to MK or TCKs in terms of cultural learning and adaptation, so I’m glad it’s mutual! 🙂

  3. Amber Thiessen October 16, 2019

    In the early years of our ministry in Africa, we attended worship services in our new language. It was such a struggle! The services were LONG and I couldn’t understand anything, the wind couldn’t diminish my dripping sweat from the heat and my head would be throbbing. I became more grateful, as I learned language, that songs became familiar, the books of the Bible became known- and I could look up scripture in my english bible, but I would wonder if I could ever really worship God in another language. I began to realize my heart attitude determined my worship, and as I submitted my heart to Him, even in the challenges, I could worship together in beautiful adoration together with my brothers and sisters in Christ!

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      That’s a beautiful image. And I can also imagine how difficult it would be and how much perseverance it would take to attend week after week.

  4. Sarah Hilkemann October 16, 2019

    I love this, Adora, and love having your words in this space! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      Thanks Sarah! 🙂

  5. Amy Young October 16, 2019

    Adora, I love when I have a new thought as I read something :). That question, “Where are you from” is so loaded, isn’t it. It reminds me of “Where are you?” (God asking Adam and Eve as he wandered the garden “looking” for them.) Where are you AND Where are you from touch on something deeper than location, they touch on identity and belonging. I’d never thought of how “Where are you from” points back to that question in the Garden from a Loving Father. THanks for your post and for the thoughts it sparked in me 🙂 Amy

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      Those are great thoughts, Amy! Now I’m pondering over the “Where are you?” question as well 😉

  6. Darcie October 16, 2019

    I can relate to this, but in a bit of an opposite way. We are Canadian (Albertan) and lived in mainland China for nearly 7 years. We are just recently back in Canada and here for the foreseeable future. I would love to go back to China, but the timing is not right yet. Our first services at a 3-self church were interesting. Thankfully we had a hymn book with pinyin so could follow along with worship (& learned some new characters!). Our youngest attended local school in China so were fluent in Mandarin so they weren’t lost in Sunday School! You are definitely more multi-cultural than us, but we call ourselves CanAsian. Sometimes we are definitely more Asian than Canadian. Our twins especially (they spent over 1/2 their life in China). Anyways, thanks for sharing.

    1. Adora October 16, 2019

      CanAsian, I love it! Welcome back! Thanks for sharing your family’s experience. Chinese is so hard to learn – I wish I could have done pinyin, but because Canto uses traditional and different words for spoken/written,, I learnt what I have through rote memory (I can’t read or write well at all!)

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