I’m presently reading the original Spanish version of Gabriel García Márquez’ great book, Noticia de un secuestro or “News of a Kidnapping.” I’m a proficient Spanish reader; but Spanish is my second language and always seems stranger than my first language, English. What jumps out at me as I read the book is how meaning arises from these strange Spanish words. The language is different from English, but the meaning is the same.
This phenomenon has an application to vocal ministry. When a Friend testifies in Meeting for Worship, their language may seem strange to us but we may be able to parse a meaning from the words, a meaning that speaks to our condition.
Consider, for example, the case of a Quaker speaker who is a traditional Christian and a non-theist listener. Suppose the Friend testifying refers to the following Bible verse in their message. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’” (Matthew 16: 24-26, ESV)
The non-theist puts no stock in Jesus as Messiah, nor does he believe in Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for all humankind. The words are strange to him. BUT, our non-theist can “translate” the verse from its Christian framework into his own humanist philosophy. He can reflect that Jesus represents Truth and the Good. As a humanist, he wants to pursue truth and moral goodness; but he realizes that such a pursuit will inevitably entail suffering as other people do not necessarily share his ideas. BUT, if the humanist abandons goodness and truth for, say, money and prestige, he will lose the essential meaning of his life. He doesn’t believe in the literal existence of souls that can be saved, but—metaphorically—he can lose his soul—his true life—as he gives in to moral ambiguity and outright evil.
This process of translating from one spiritual language to another is called “listening in tongues,” a reference to early Christians who “spoke in tongues.” As Friends, I believe we are called upon to listen in tongues as someone speaks in meeting. Even if the words are strange to us, we should search for their underlying meaning.
~ Richard Russell
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