Preaching in a Foreign Tongue

mantenlacalmaIn my position at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, I preach in Spanish once or sometimes twice a month. It’s a language I love but do not speak fluently yet. Since I am not completely fluent yet, I can’t preach the way I do in English. In my native, mother tongue, I prepare carefully, and then I typically preach without notes. The words are there. The metaphors are there. The stories are there. And more importantly, I know exactly what I am saying, and I am fairly confident that people are receiving the words as I intended them. I know when it’s funny, and I know when it’s serious, no matter the community I am addressing or how well I know them.

I have no such confidence preaching in Spanish, a language I have heard much of my life but spoken infrequently, usually in very brief interchanges. I have to write my sermons down and read them. Since my vocabulary and syntax isn’t that sophisticated, I have to keep my expressions simple so that I can translate them easily. And I cannot rely nearly as much on metaphorical language as I do in English because metaphors do not translate well. Even when I ask my coworkers who are fluent in Spanish for an equivalent metaphor, they will say, “That doesn’t really translate.” This also makes me aware that there are whole words of metaphors and symbols in Spanish of which I am completely unaware, given the number of diverse nations and cultures that speak Spanish.

Most of the time, I know what I am saying in Spanish, but there are times when I am tossing out a sentence or expression, and I have no idea whether I am actually saying what I intended to say. I use  far less humor because humor doesn’t always translate well. I am unsure whether my words convey the tone I meant to use. It is like walking in the dark at times.

I can tell when my very rare attempts at humor work because people laugh. And after the sermon, when people discuss it with me, I discover that at least some did indeed receive the message I intended. I know the name and sometimes the story of nearly everyone in the congregation that attends our Spanish service, so I know their backgrounds and concerns and hopes.

But that really is no help beforehand, when I am composing or delivering the sermon, wondering, “Am I communicating what I’m trying to say?”

I finally asked a few members of the congregation whether I was understandable when I preached. One member told me that he had brought his brother from Venezuela to the most recent service, and he asked his brother whether my message was clear. The brother said he had understood everything.

So, good news, right? No need to worry.

But it has made me reflect on what it means to preach in a foreign tongue. First, it means surrendering the ease and privilege and confidence of preaching in a language whose structure, grammar, and literature have enchanted me since my youth. No Shakespeare quotations in these Spanish sermons! No unwitting but lovely improvisational inclusions of a stray Keats or Dickinson line in a sermon. Instead, it means mispronouncing words, abandoning most improvisations, and fearing that I am culturally and linguistically inappropriate. I have to “dumb down” my words because I can’t figure out how to say it in a more sophisticated way. I routinely curse the number of syllables in Spanish words and the way the syllabic stress moves around. I know the rules, but imagine having to remind myself, while preaching, how to say “regoCIjense” versus “regociJAmos.” In English: “ReJOICE!” It’s always “reJOICE”!

It has made me sympathize with the early disciples, who must have felt unequal to the task of conveying the story of Jesus Christ. Even Paul, generally considered one of the better writers of that lot, felt that his words fell far short of the task. There is a sense in which all followers are preaching and teaching in the dark, fumbling for the words, and not exactly sure whether we are connecting. There are times when I am guessing what Jesus meant. There are times when I wonder whether I am saying what the Spirit wants me to say.

My experiences with Spanish have also led me to wonder about Jesus. He must have felt that he was preaching in a foreign tongue. I sometimes laugh when I read Gospel passages in which he asks, “Do you still not understand?” And yet, here I am on the other side of that conversation with Jesus, thinking, I am not sure that I completely understand you, Jesus. How frustrating that must have been for him. How frustrating that the man we call the Word and Logos was not able to communicate clearly with us because of the chasm between divinity and human understanding. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways, says the Lord.” Isaiah 55:8-9.

Porque mis ideas no son como las de ustedes,
y mi manera de actuar no es como la suya.

How I wish that I could randomly quote the Bible in Spanish to my fellow church members. Those words roll off my tongue in English like a spring whose waters never fail (also Isaiah!). I have to look it up on to get it in Spanish.

And yet, the experience of preaching in a foreign tongue illustrates the communication chasm between God and us–and between one human being and another.

Preaching in a foreign tongue is, in fact, a beautiful symbol of this communication gap.

The question is, does the symbol translate well into Spanish?

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