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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